Not a Hemlock!

Well, that was awkward.

I was so excited to think that we were fortunate enough to have an Eastern Hemlock on our property, but it turns out I was wrong.

Did you know that there is a Department of Urban Forestry, run by Fairfax County? Well, our friendly forester came to Holy Comforter (free) to do some tree identification.

I announced, proudly, that we had a Hemlock. And he assured me that we didn’t. What we have is a Yew tree. He could tell by looking at the length of the leaves.

Oh, well, I suppose the Pileated Woodpeckers could tell the difference. I have not seen any of them around the Yew tree.

Eastern Hemlock

We have a hemlock tree on our property! It is the Eastern Hemlock, or Tsuga canadensis.

Earlier this week it was struggling to survive:

You can just barely make out the evergreen leaves at the top left hand side. The rest of the tree is covered with invasive vines, mostly japanese honeysuckle creeper, and also some mile-a-minute and bramble.

After quite a lot of clipping, ta da! the tree is free!

You can see, though, that the creepers have almost been successful. There are a lot of bare branches, and I don’t know whether they will survive or not. Personally, I think the tree will make it – it has survived such a lot already.

So, now that the plant is exposed to the light, we’ll have to watch and see if it puts out new shoots.

This is what the living branches look like:

And, if you want to know more about hemlock forests, here’s a link:

You’ll see that among other wildlife, the pileated woodpecker makes its home in hemlock forests. Let us know in the comments section if you see any.

Sensitive Ferns

We have some more hard working plants at Holy Comforter.

There was a bare patch of ground between the upper and lower parking lots:

And so we planted some ferns:

Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis)

You might just be able to make out a few sad-looking twigs. The plants are called Sensitive, because they go into dormancy with the first frost. So they have finished with their green leaves for the year.

And just what are these hard working plants going to do?

They are going to try their best to prevent any more soil erosion. The level of the ground is much lower than the level of the parking lot. I’m guessing that’s because some ground has already washed away. The ferns are going to spread out their roots and hold the soil in place.

And they’re going to multiply. Ferns are primitive life-forms, so they reproduce by spores, not seeds. Those are the reproductive structures that look like a cluster of beads. (Hence the common name of Bead Fern.) And just in case that doesn’t work out for them, they’ll send out shoots, and multiply that way.

They should form an attractive ground cover, meaning that we won’t have to worry that the grass can’t grow in such dense shade. And that means there’ll be slightly less mowing work to be done.

They support the development of a kind of owlet moth. So perhaps the birds will get some caterpillars to eat.

And, they’ll add to the biodiversity on Holy Comforter property. I can’t remember seeing any other ferns here. Can you?

And, get this, like most ferns they tend to be deer resistant.

Will they survive in their new location? I don’t know – we’ll have to wait for spring to find out if they send up those lovely curled fiddleheads.

Woolly Bear Caterpillars

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you will know that I am intrigued by the common names of plants and animals. And what could be more appealing than a caterpillar called a Woolly Bear?

It turns out that there are several varieties of these Woolly Bears. Here is a picture of a yellow one:

Virginian Tiger Moth (Spilosoma virginica)

The intriguing thing about this caterpillar is that it lives through winter in that form. As the temperature drops, it makes a substance that prevents its body from freezing. Then it hunkers down under the leaves, and therefore under the snow when it falls, and hibernates.

That means that in order to survive, this caterpillar depends upon us not to rake up all of the leaves on our properties. Of course, to maintain the grass, we have to clear those leaves away. But if you look around your yard, is there any patch where you could leave the leaves?

If you are willing to perform this kindness, then the caterpillar can sleep undisturbed. And in the spring it will emerge, looking like this:

Virginia Tiger Moth


If you look to your left as you drive along the top parking lot at the church, you will see the mulched beginnings of a Pilgrim Path. Low to the ground, right next to the curb, notice some new hardworking plants.

And how, you ask, might plants be so busy?

First, they delight us with their common name: Pussytoes. Is it just such fun?! You’ll have to wait to see the flowers to find out the reason for that name. If you’d like to address them by their botanical name, they are called Antennana plantaginifolia. (And that’s a pretty fantastic name, too!)

Right now these pussytoes are using their superpower to turn fresh and sunshine into energy. They will use that energy to grow roots, which will hold the ground in place, and prevent it from being washed away into the Chesapeake.

We are watering them every day this week, to support them while their roots grow, now that they have found their forever home.

Once the plants are able to get food from the earth, they will start working on their above-ground parts. The leaves and stems will grow and spread. This will prevent the mulch from getting washed away.

Sometime next year, they’ll grow baby plants, and so we will have more than we do now. All free!

As if all that is not enough work, pussytoes are the larval food required for the caterpillar of the Painted Lady butterfly.

Some caterpillars complete their life-cycle and turn into butterflies. Some become food for baby birds.

The birds, in turn, eat all kinds of pesky insects, as well as the berries of the holly trees that are growing along the path.

Flowers for Fall

This year, when you buy chrysanthemums for fall decoration, why not add some Asters?

Asters in the Meditation Garden

This is what Plant NoVa Natives has to say about them:

They are perennials, (meaning the come back every year),

that grow to about 3 to 6 feet. For a more compact plant, cut back by half to 2/3 in early June.

They flower in the fall.

deer icon
Deer : Usually resistant to deer browsewildlife icon
Wildlife : Birds. Bees. Adult and larval butterflies or moths.moisture icon
Moisture: Moistsun icon
Sun Needs: Full or Part SunWildlife Comments:Symphyotricum species benefit Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Tree Sparrow, Cottontail, Cardinals, Goldfinches, Chickadees, Titmouse, Towhees, Indigo Buntin, and 109 species of Lepidoptera including the Pearl Crescent and Silvery Checkerspot butterflies.Design Function:Pollinator Garden.Gardening Tips:Bloom Time: September – October. 3 – 6 ft. Superior asters for gardens. Pollinators prefer the straight species over cultivars. Salt tolerant. For a more compact plant, cut back by half to 2/3 in early June. Doing this to the outer branches can disguise the bare legs.

Photo Credit: Margaret Fisher

Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)

Flickers are part of the woodpecker family, but they have a few unique traits.

Northern flicker, Roslyn, New York

Behavior: Like most woodpeckers, northern flickers drum on objects as a form of communication and territory defense. In such cases, the object is to make as loud a noise as possible, so woodpeckers sometimes drum on metal objects.

Diet: According to the Audubon field guide, “flickers are the only woodpeckers that frequently feed on the ground”, probing with their beak, also sometimes catching insects in flight. Although they eat fruits, berries, seeds, and nuts, their primary food is insects. Ants alone can make up 45% of their diet. The flicker is a natural predator of the European corn borer, a moth that costs the US agriculture industry more than $1 billion annually in crop losses and population control. As well as eating ants, flickers exhibit a behavior known as anting, in which they use the formic acid from the ants to assist in preening, as it is useful in keeping them free of parasites.

Habitat: Flickers may be observed in open habitats near trees, including woodlands, edges, yards, and parks. Northern flickers generally nest in holes in trees like other woodpeckers. Occasionally, they have been found nesting in old, earthen burrows vacated by belted kingfishers or bank swallows. Both sexes help with nest excavation. The cavity widens at bottom to make room for eggs and the incubating adult.

Reproduction: Their breeding habitat consists of forested areas across North America and as far south as Central America. They are cavity nesters which typically nest in trees, but they also use posts and birdhouses if sized and situated appropriately. They prefer to excavate their own home, although they reuse and repair damaged or abandoned nests. Abandoned flicker nests create habitat for other cavity nesters. Flickers are sometimes driven from nesting sites by another cavity nester, the European starling.

A typical clutch consists of six to eight eggs whose shells are pure white with a smooth surface and high gloss. The eggs are the second-largest of the North American woodpecker species, exceeded only by the pileated woodpecker’s. Incubation is by both sexes for about 11 to 12 days. The young are fed by regurgitation and fledge about 25 to 28 days after hatching.

Migration: Northern birds migrate to the southern parts of the range; southern birds are often permanent residents.

The information for this blog came directly from the Wikipedia entry on the Northern Flicker. Look there for more information, pictures, and a recording of the birds’ call.


An organization called has this to say about invasive plants:

Non-Native Invasive Plants in Northern Virginia and Regional Native Alternatives 

Invasive, non-native plants do not provide the same ecosystem services as natives and have a harmful effect on our environment, not only in the suburban community but also in our forests, parks, and other natural areas.

Please do not plant these non-native, invasive species and consider removing them from the landscape. Volunteers and natural resource management staff spend many hours and resources to mitigate the spread and the consequences of these and other invasive species. Although there are many non-native plant species that invade our natural areas, the plants listed below are particularly problematic because they are still available in the trade and are sold and planted throughout the region. Consider planting one of the natives listed here as an alternative to these plants.

One plant on this list is Liriope, which is flowering at this time. Here is a picture:

Invasive: Liriope muscari, Liriope

NoVA Native Alternatives:
Carex pensylvanica and flaccosperma, Pennsylvania and Blue Wood Sedge
Elymus virginicus, Virginia Wildrye
Elymus hystrix, Bottlebrush Grass

Learn More

Department of Conservation and Recreation, Division of Natural Heritage:

USDA National Invasive Species Information Center:

Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health:

Mistaken Identity–Invasive Plants and Their Native Look-Alikes (pub):

Plant Invaders of Mid-Atlantic Natural Areas (pub):

Deer eating your plants?

Yes, ours, too.

We have a group of brown-eyed susans (Rudbeckia triloba) in the Meditation Garden. We were very disappointed recently when we saw this:

Oh, no! The dreaded deer damage!

So we started using this deer repellent:

It comes in capsules, which you scatter around your plants, and then water.

Clearly, it works!

What a difference!

I understand that deer get used to anything, and that after a while this may not work any more. We’ll try something else, then. But in the meantime we, and the pollinators, are enjoying these flowers. Check them out next time you’re attending our outdoor Pop-up church service.

Monarch Migration

Have you seen any monarch butterflies around recently? They’re all around our neighborhoods at this time of year.

Monarch Butterfly feeding on Joe Pye Weed

It’s hard to believe, but these butterflies are preparing themselves to fly to Mexico. Just take a look at those flimsy little wings!

The butterflies find their way to a particular forest in Mexico. These individual butterflies have never been there before, but somehow they know the way.

They arrive around the end of October and the beginning of November. When they get there, they remind the local people of their deceased friends and relatives, and so they are welcomed.

They spend the winter suspended in trees, like this:

They are huddled together to keep warm. The humidity in the forest prevents them from drying out. One of the problems that the monarchs face is that people are cutting down the trees, so they have less place to land.

And, when the weather starts to get warmer, they will make the long flight back. Incredible!

Most caterpillars can only eat the leaves of a certain small number of plants. The Monarch caterpillars are even more specific. They are only able to digest the leaves of the milkweed plant.

This is what common milkweed looks like in June:

Monarch, feeding on a milkweed flower

So, next time you see a monarch, you will realize you are witnessing a miracle. And wish her bon voyage.