Cacti, Lobelias, Swallowtails, and Horsemint

It's been hot.
My solution?...go west...and up.... aahhh ... the Blue Ridge.

We really needed to get out of the house, and so I took the girls on a field trip to visit some fun habitats...and cool air.

We started with what we thought would remind us of a desert...inspired by the heat: Eastern prickly pear cacti (Opuntia humifusa) habitat. This community of native plants thrives in cracks of an exposed sheet of granite in the Ragged Mountains of Albemarle County. (To date, I am aware of only four other sites in the county.) My five year old (Norah) could not resist "petting" the prickly pear pads. Well the nearly invisible teeny tiny needles (glochids) made her pay dearly...and yes, I gave her a firm warning in advance, reminding her of what happened the last time she caressed a prickly pear (in Tucson).

With needles and a renewed sense of respect in tow, we planned our next destination to a softer and cooler place.
We are budding butterfly watchers. The swallowtails currently have my attention, and the dark ones continue to mystify me. So, off we went again, this time to the land of butterflies...a Blue Ridge meadow. We soon arrived at Humpback Rocks, up along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The specific destination in mind was a meadow of milkweeds and campions. Immediately upon arrival, we were pleasantly surprised. Lobelia cardinalis was in full bloom in a nearby woodland understory, and the tiger swallowtails were taking full advantage of the nectar:

In our "target" field, the common milkweed was nearing the end of its bloom, but the butterflies were still sipping from campion flowers. Dominating the activity were spicebush swallowtail, monarch, and eastern tiger swallowtail. ...and a few milkweed tussuck moth caterpillars were trying to cross the road (see photo to right)!

As the milkweeds and dogbanes move into seed production, butterflies shift attention. This was made evident by the clouds of fluttering wings in a meadow we had previously dominated by Joe Pye weed, ironweed, Helianthus sp. and emerging goldenrod and thistle. This was the jackpot, but we had to watch from afar, as the patch of activity had a dense thicket of blackberry between us and it.After spending a couple of hours on the mountain, and with the evening approaching, we descended. The final destination was Ivy Creek Natural Area, for a look at the unfoldings in a lower elevation meadow. We opted for a single go-around on the field loop trail, and did it rather quickly...lightning was quickly approaching. In our rapid trot we hurdled a black rat snake, exchanged glances with an osprey , and spooked several deer....which spooked us. We also happened upon one of the more interesting wildflowers of late summer...Spotted horsemint, also known as spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata):