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Rock Creek Park

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The beautiful Basic Mesic Hardwood Forest has a lush look, especially in the shrub layer and field layer. Here one can see plants (especially some ferns and wildflowers) found nowhere else at Rock Creek Park, growing alongside more commonly encountered plants. Thanks to relatively fertile, well-drained soils—somewhat rare at the park—the Basic Mesic Hardwood Forest boasts a greater diversity of native plants than any other upland community at Rock Creek Park.

Canopy Trees

The trees whose crowns intercept most of the sunlight in a forest stand. The uppermost layer of a forest.

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Majestic tuliptrees, extraordinarily straight and tall, tower above most other trees in the Basic Mesic Hardwood Forest. Together with large, smooth-barked American beech trees, they form a closed, shady canopy. Bitternut hickory, which can also grow to towering heights, is usually present, though rarely abundant. Northern red oak and/or white oak may be present in noticeable quantities. White ash is less common, but where it occurs in the canopy in combination with bitternut hickory or American basswood, it is often an indicator of soils enriched with calcium and potassium.

Understory Trees

Small trees and young specimens of large trees growing beneath the canopy trees. Also called the subcanopy.

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Among understory trees, you may see slippery elm (another good clue to nutrient-rich soils), and American hornbeam trees, distinctive for their smooth gray bark that appears to be stretched taut over rippled trunks. In fall, sugar maple’s foliage contributes orange hues to the understory of this mesic natural community in parts of Melvin Hazen Park, Battery Kemble Park, and elsewhere.

Shrubs, Saplings, and Vines

Shrubs, juvenile trees and vines at the right height to give birds and others a perch up off the ground but below the trees.

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The abundance and diversity of shrubs helps to distinguish this community from other upland communities at the park. The most common shrubs here are northern spicebush (smell its spicy citrus-scented crushed leaves) and pawpaw (whose long leaves emit the smell of kerosene when crushed); both are found in dense patches. Northern spicebush can be showy in the early spring with many tiny yellow flowers clustered along the stems before the leaves are out. Large patches or colonies of pawpaw (some quite tall) can be seen in Battery Kemble Park, Whitehaven Park, and Melvin Hazen Park.

The Basic Mesic Hardwood Forest may also host American strawberry-bush, blackhaw, and southern arrow-wood (a dark-berried native viburnum whose leaves are easily confused with a fuzzier-leaved, red-berried, non-native viburnum—linden arrow-wood—that invades this community).

Low Plants (Field Layer)

Plants growing low to the ground. This includes small shrubs and tree seedlings.

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Many different ferns abound here, such as the evergreen Christmas fern, the bright green broad beechfern, and tapered New York fern.

A variety of woodland flowers and grasses also flourish. In spring, look for yellow trout-lily, cutleaf toothwort, Virginia springbeauty, broadleaf enchanter’s-nightshade, Solomon’s plume, liverleaf, bloodroot, violets, hairy sweet-cicely and other wildflowers. A common wildflower is mayapple, resembling little pale-green umbrellas scattered across the forest floor. Mature plants with twin umbrella-leaves bloom white in April or May. In summer, a green lime-like fruit may hang from the plant. Jack-in-the-pulpit is another easily identified plant, with its three leaflets and unique three-inch green-and-white (and sometimes purple or brown) striped hooded flower that blooms in late spring. Bright scarlet berries persist atop the Jack-in-the-pulpit stems through the fall.

Non-Native Invasive Plant Species

Location, location, location! Expect non-native invasives to constantly move in to this desirable natural community where the soils and water supply are great. Read more about them under Stewardship and Ecological Threats.

One tidbit: It is unclear whether sugar maple is actually native to Rock Creek Park, but it may be. Ecobit: Maple Tree Mystery The Basic Mesic Hardwood Forest in Rock Creek Park sometimes includes Norway maple*, which looks similar to sugar maple but is a non-native, aggressively invasive species (* indicates non-native). Norway maple leaves are wider than long, and have milky sap. In fall, its leaf undersides reveal dark brown veins against the yellow leaf color.

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Northern red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus).
Photographer: Flickr user Ben Lowe
Many animals visit the Basic Mesic Hardwood Forest because of its location near streams, and because this community has such diverse plant life. Many moths, butterflies and other insects visit the wildflowers that grow only here. This natural community also has a diverse structure in terms of well-defined layers—tree canopy, tree understory, shrub layer, and field layer—that provide needed habitat for many animals. Ecobit: Categories

Drillmarks of yellow-bellied sapsucker (a species of woodpecker) in the bark of a tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera).
Photographer: Matt Jones
Standing dead trees provide dens and nests. Salamanders find shelter in the damp soils under rocks and downed trees. Fallen trees decompose rapidly on the forest floor with the help of native insects and bacteria, and replenish the soil. Worms help aerate the moist soil and keep it loose, facilitating root growth for plants.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers drill for sap in the abundant tuliptree and other trees. They and others return to the holes for insects trapped in the sap. Squirrels, chipmunks and birds feast on the beechnuts, American hornbeam nutlets, and occasional acorns in this community.

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