Notes from the Island
August is a wonderful time to see Sycamore Island from a
canoe. Not only do you avoid the undergrowth and spider webs, but
you see a wide variety of flowering plants.
Put your canoe in at the dock and paddle upstream. On your
left there is a nice clump of jimsonweed with trumpet-shaped white or
violet flowers and green spiny fruit. The plant is a member of the
nightshade family and is considered poisonous. Its name is a
corruption of Jamestown weed, because it grew near the homes of the
Overhead you'll see rough-winged swallows perched on the
ferry line or flitting about chasing after flying insects. They only
stay for a couple of months before heading back to the Gulf of
Just upstream of the ferry there is one red cardinal flower
that must have washed down in the flood. It is a member of the
lobelia family and is relatively scarce due to overpicking. Please
leave it where it is.
If you're lucky you may see a green heron, a small dark bird
with yellow legs that stands by the shore. And if you're very lucky
you may see a night heron, which sits up in the branches of the
trees. Both are wading birds which feed on fish, frogs and other
The first small island you reach has a young black walnut
tree heavy with green fruit. Underneath its branches there is a
stand of swamp milkweed with clusters of deep pink flowers. Morning
glory vines cover the ground and, if you look closely, you can find
ground cherries which look as if they are enclosed in tiny Chinese
The next island is usually covered with debris, but the last
flood washed away more trees, branches and trash than it deposited.
There is a wild persimmon tree here, which will have wonderful tart
orange fruit later in the fall, and you can see the bright red flowers
of the trumpet creeper as it climbs a large tree.
Between these islands and Sycamore there is a shallow
channel filled with an aquatic plant called water willow, which has a
beautiful delicate orchid-like purple and white flower.
At the upper tip of Sycamore you'll see another cardinal
flower, a flowering member of the mint family that I can't identify, and
a large stand of Joe-Pye weed. The tall Joe-Pye weed has clusters
of fuzzy purple-violet flowers, which often attract butterflies.
When the river level drops, the next channel dead ends and
the next island becomes a peninsula. You won't want to walk on it
because of the poison ivy, but there is a huge pokeweed plant with
reddish stems, white flowers and purple berries. At the tip of the
peninsula there is a buttonbush with a small white ball-like flower.
It grows near the water's edge and is known for its ability to
On the Virginia side of the peninsula close to where it juts
out from Sycamore, you can see a beaver lodge hidden in the
underbrush. The beavers like to burrow into the sides of the small
narrow cigar-shaped islands and sometimes the entrances are exposed
in low water.
As you paddle down the Virginia side of Sycamore you'll see
more cardinal flowers, Joe-Pye weed and trumpet vine on the left. On
the small island to your right there is a tall stand of ironweed with
beautiful deep purple flowers. A little farther on you can see a
piling and the remains of an old dock.
Down by the swim float there is some bone set, which looks
like Joe-Pye weed but with white flowers. And there is a nice clump
of fringed loosestrife with yellow flowers. A large horse nettle
grows by the water. This plant with its star-like white flower with a
yellow center is not a nettle at all but a member of the nightshade
family. It does have thorns, so handle it with care.
At the lower end of Sycamore you will see more jimsonweed
and morning glories. A killdeer, a member of the plover family, is
usually running around the mud flat pecking for food.
Off the lower end of Sycamore is Box Elder Island, which
looks a bit like a frigate from the ferry. There is a beautiful stand
of swamp mallows on its lower tip. At its upper end a gaping hole
shows where the spring floods washed out a beaver's lodge.
You can see most of the Island's flowers by circumnavigating
Sycamore by canoe. Ironically, the one plant you won't see, jewelweed,
has almost taken over large parts of the Island and is growing to
great heights. Jewelweed has a pale yellow flower and the juice from
its stem helps relieve the sting from nettles. It is also known as
touch-me-not because if you touch the seed pod late in the season it
will appear to explode, ejecting the seed.
For those of you who are still in town in August, be sure to
come by to swim, canoe and enjoy the natural beauty of Sycamore
-- Peter Jones, Sycamore Island Caretaker