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Summer 2011

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

June 21, 2011

Securing the lizard’s tails of Huntley Meadows

Lizard's Tail in bloom, Saururus cernuus.

When summer officially begins at 1:16 p.m. today, a sun-loving wetland plant will be at peak fragrance.

Lizard's tail stands a yard tall, has heart-shaped leaves and floppy white flower stalks that begin to release a sweet perfume in
early summer.

The plant probably gets its name not from
its bottle-brush flowers, but from its fruits, which will mature in the fall. By then, the flower stalk will be covered with tight brown seed capsules resembling the scales of a reptiles tail.

One of the best places to experience lizard's tail is at Fairfax County's Huntley Meadows Park, a 1,500-acre tract of lowland timber and freshwater wetlands north of Mount Vernon. The plant grows

profusely along the boardwalk that snakes through the marshes, which were created more than 30 years ago by beaver dams.

But the marsh is changing, becoming less suitable for lizard's tail. As silt accumulates and beavers begin to exhaust their available tree supplies, the marsh gradually transforms into a drier habitat known as a wet meadow, which would eventually grow trees again.

Because the park holds the county's only large non-tidal marsh, park managers want to restore and maintain the wetland's native biodiversity, which reached its highest level in the 1980s. That can happen only with a balance between open water and vegetative marsh.

By the end of 2013, a textured, mud-colored

concrete dam with pipes will be added to the network of beaver dams, allowing managers to adjust water levels so that wetland animals and plants such as lizard's tail can continue to thrive in the future.

Huntley Meadows Park in Fairfax County, Virginia.

SOURCES: Kevin Munroe, manager, Huntley Meadows Park; Fairfax County Park Authority; Friends of Huntley Meadows Park