As you walk this half-mile loop through the woods, stop at each number signpost, read the text that goes with the number.
You have entered the eastern deciduous or hardwood forest that once covered all of what is now Washington, DC. This is called an upland forest because it is on a hill. The trees that grow here like drier, well-drained soil. The dominant, or most common, species in these woods is chestnut oak, like the one just to the right.
Look down. The forest floor is covered in leaf litter – a mix of dead leaves, sticks, and logs. Every fall, when the days grow short and cool, leaves change color and fall to the ground. But they don’t go to waste. Look below the top layer, and you’ll see rich, dark soil below made from the fallen leaves of years past. Worms, bugs, and fungi feed on leaf litter, breaking it down and making its nutrients accessible to the trees, so they can grow new leaves in the spring.
After the chestnut oak, the second most common tree in the woods is the white oak. Look at the one directly across the trail from the sign. Oak nuts, called acorns, are an important food source for birds and squirrels. White oaks get their name from their light-colored bark, which grows shaggy and rough with age. The large one just downhill from here is a beautiful example of this.
Some trees in this forest are more than 100 years old. But like all living things, trees eventually die and give rise to new life. Check out the shelf mushrooms growing on the dead white oak across the trail from this sign. Dead trees like this one can remain standing for many years, providing food and shelter to countless creatures, including fungi, insects, and birds. We dead trunks finally do fall to the forest floor, they slowly break down into soil from which new trees sprout and take their place.
The tree with huge, heart-shaped leaves to the left of the sign is called a Princess or empress tree. It is native to China and was introduced to the United States in the 1800s by accident – its seeds were popular as padding for porcelain shipments. This species tends to sprout and grow quickly where soil has been disturbed. It is considered an invasive species – one that comes from another part of the world and outcompetes native plants, disrupting the local ecosystem.
Notice that the woods here are very open, without much groundcover or shrubbery. This is due in part to the large number of deer in these woods. Deer are vegetarians who eat all the leaves they can reach. The bushes in this area are mountain laurel, a relative of the Asian tea tree. As its name suggests, mountain laurel grows in hilly upland areas. From the bare lower branches, you can see they are a favorite of deer.
Near this sign are several chestnut oaks. Look at the one across the trail from the sign, with two trunks. Near its base you’ll see moss, an ancient plant that grows only in wet places. During heavy rains, the moss captures water as it rolls down the tree trunk. Speaking of water, look between the two trunks. Do you see a puddle! Imagine what creatures might find a home there.
To the left of the sign is a red maple, the most common tree throughout eastern North America. It can grow almost anywhere, wet or dry, hot or cold. Its reddish flowers, twigs, and seeds account for the name. This is region, red maples are more common in young, recently disturbed woodlands than in mature forests like this.
In front of you is a large patch of wineberry, a close relative of raspberries and native to Asia. It produces a tasty fruit, but only if growing where it gets enough sun. In this area you’ll also find two native vines. Greenbriar has bright green stems and large thorns. It often grows in dense thickets that are habitat for birds. The large vines hanging from the trees with the dark brown, peely bark are winter grape. Its fruits are a favorite food of mammals like squirrels, opossums, raccoons, skunks, but most people find them too bitter.
African American artists and poets have often used nature as an inspiration for their painting and poems. Notice the view of the environment offered here and take a moment to reflect on your walk on the Dr. George Washington Carver Nature Trail. Can you create a drawing, painting or poem that helps you remember and appreciate the nature that you found?