Notes from the Island
August 1993


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 early colonists.

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 Mexico.

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 aquatic life.

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 paper lanterns.

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 withstand flooding.

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 Island.

-- Peter Jones, Sycamore Island Caretaker