This article, written and photographed by Charlotte Geary, originally appeared in Modern Reston magazine.
Stop what you’re doing and go outside — spring flowers are blooming! In the DC area, our beautiful Japanese cherry blossoms get most of the attention this time of year. Less well known, though, are the native, blueish-pink wildflowers known as Virginia bluebells. Unless you’re a gardener or hiker, it’s possible that you haven’t even noticed these lovely April blossoms.
The Virginia bluebell is the common name for the Mertensia virginica, a wildflower that blossoms in early spring throughout much of the Washington area and other woodland locations in the eastern USA. It is an ephemeral plant with flowers that start as pink buds and open into bell-shaped purplish flowers. The blossoms last only 10-14 days each spring. Next week, April 12-18, 2015, is expected to be their peak week!
One of the prettiest locations to see bluebells near Reston is Riverbend Park in nearby Great Falls, Virginia. This Fairfax County Park sits on the banks of the Potomac River, about a mile and a half north of Great Falls National Park. A riverside trail connects the two parks and is a beautiful place to take a springtime stroll.
Over the next two weeks, the trail is expected to be lined with bluebells. These wildflowers grow most profusely in river floodplains, making this trail a particularly ideal location for them to flourish. Walking along a waterfront trail lined with flowers is an experience you won’t want to miss.
This coming Saturday, April 11, 2015 the park will host its annual Bluebells at the Bend Festival to celebrate these wildflowers. The festival will include live music, animals, wagon rides, activities for children, and food. Among the highlights of the festival are the wildflower walks led by naturalists. Festival admission is $5 per person, and includes the family activities and guided tours. Admission to Riverbend Park on non-festival days is free of charge.
I spoke with Riverbend Park manager John Callow for bluebell viewing tips. He recommended that visitors take the riverside trail north from the park, rather than south. The southward trail toward Great Falls is a more popular and crowded path, so if you head northward you are likely to encounter fewer people. He said visitors are likely to see lots of bluebells in either direction, but the northbound trail has a larger variety of other wildflowers, such as trillium and trout lilies.
Riverbend Park is also a lovely place for wildlife viewing and bird watching. The park offers a checklist of 191 species of birds that have been observed in the park, including bald eagles, hummingbirds, great horned owls, and great blue herons.
Riverbend Park is also ideal for trail running, canoeing, kayaking, and picnicking. They have a visitor’s center with exhibits, children’s activities, live animals, a snack bar, and a gift shop. In summer months, they offer rentals of rowboats, canoes, kayaks, and fishing gear. This park is a favorite of mine all year round, but this time of year is its most beautiful. Go take a stroll and surround yourself with spring.
Other places to find Virginia Bluebells:
Turkey Run Park, McLean
Scott’s Run Nature Preserve, McLean
C&O Canal National Historic Park, DC and MD
Meadowlark Gardens (Among the Potomac Valley Native Wildflowers), Vienna
Bluebell Festival at Merrimac Farm, April 12, 2015, Nokesville
Bull Run Regional Park, Manassas
Manassas National Battlefield Park, Manassas