Important Plant Communities at Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge
Guest post by Charles Smith, Prince William Wildflower Society
Prince William County is a highly developed county. This is obvious to most of us. What is less obvious is that the majority of the areas of the county that have not been developed have had the vegetation removed and the soils disturbed in the recent past. The result is that many of our plant communities are of poor quality.
Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge has some of the best and most unique plant communities left in the county. The refuge contains one of the last tidal freshwater wetlands in Northern Virginia. In addition, much of the upland area at Featherstone, although not pristine, has not been disturbed by land clearing activities in a long time, leaving good soils and mature forest.
Featherstone is a rare gem. During the open house for the refuge in June 2010, amateur botanists discovered the only known occurrence of Prince William County of the state rare plant river bulrush (Schoenoplectus fluviatilis). The bulrush itself was an exciting discovery, but what it represents is the presence of a healthy wetland community type called high-marsh which is very rare in our region.
Other unique plants at the refuge include Virginia day flower (Commelina virginica) and pitch pine (Pinus rigida). Virginia dayflower has a pale to medium blue flower with only three petals that is found in moist soils in forests that have not been highly disturbed. Pitch pine is a very unusual plant because it occurs in the mountains to the west, but was mostly found in forested wetlands called bogs in our region. The presence of pitch pine at Featherstone provides evidence of bogs that were once common in forests near the tidal Potomac River, but were largely wiped out from the 18th through the 20th centuries.
As we work to open Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge to the public, volunteers will conduct surveys of the plants and plant communities found there. This will help refuge staff and others better understand the resources on site, make decisions on how to manage them, and guide human activities to avoid impacting sensitive plants and ecosystems.
The plant surveys will also supply much needed information on the presence and location of non-native invasive plant species which can harm native plants and greatly reduce the value of the habitat for animal species. Management of the plant communities will also require greatly reducing the number of white-tailed deer on the refuge. With no remaining natural predators, the number of deer in our region is higher than it was before colonists arrived in Virginia, and the deer are eating all of our forest plants and their seeds.
These challenges can be managed over time. The most important thing is that unique plants and plant communities have survived at Featherstone until now. The land is preserved as a national wildlife refuge. Now it is up to us to help refuge staff take care of these unique natural resources so that we can continue to enjoy them, and we can pass them down in better condition to the people who come after us.