Huntley Meadows Palustrine Forest Nontidal Wetland


Huntley Meadows. A Palustrine Forest and Marsh Community Along Northern Virginia’s Eastern Fairfax County Coastal Plain.

On this field trip took place we explore an area along the coastal plain of Northern Virginia.  This area is known as Huntley Meadows, a wet lowland area remnant of geologic time when the Potomac River’s banks stretched further inland than where it is today.  The wetland area that is known as Huntley meadows has gone through several transformations naturally as well as anthropogenic. Nonetheless Huntley has rebounded into a freshwater wetland with some of the rarest habitats left in Fairfax County. 

At Huntley, we explored two wetland communities, a palustriane forest and a nontidal freshwater Marsh. Palustrine forests are defined as all nontidal wetlands dominated by trees, shrubs, persistent emergent plants, or emergent mosses or lichens, as well as small, shallow open water ponds. Ponds were not obvious within the forest. There was, however, evidence of drainage and damp depresions where water had collected during the springtime rains. It is my understanding much of the water that flows through Huntley’s palustrine forest comes from episodic rainfall.

The most obvious features of the palustrine forest in comparison the to the marsh is the variety of  broadleaf, deciduous hardwoods. These included red maple, several types of oaks and hickories, and birch trees. Several of these species exhibit multi-trunking a feature typical of trees that live in hydric soils. A few species such as red maple and sycamore thrived within the ecotone of the two comunities.  Absent from the forest were dense shrubs or an understory layer.  The lack of  smaller trees or saplings and other lowlying shrubs may have been due to overgrazing by local deer populations.  On ther otherhand what was most numerous in density was Japense stiltweed, an extremely opportunistic and invasive herbaceous plant that carpeted the forest floor.

The transition between Forest and marsh is abrubt and the two communities are different physically and biologically.  The most obvious difference is there are very few trees or woody plants in the marsh and there is a more permanent body of stadning water. A Marsh is a wetland dominated by herbaceous or nonwoody plants that often develop in shallow ponds or depressions. The first clue we were entering the marsh was the lack of woody plants and tree canopy. Instead there was an open area rich in herbaceous flora, muddy sediments and shallow water.  Diversity in flora was greater in this community than the forested region.      

My Mom standing next to root ball of fallen tree

The area that is home to the two communities we focused on has been altered over the centuries by human occupation, but has always managed to rebound. Huntley Meadows is not just a static repository of the flora of flora and fauna, but an ecosystem rich in diversity that will continue to evolve though the ages.

Zone: Palustrine Forest Flora

Scientific Name Common Name  Plant Type Remarks
Toxicodendron radicans Poison Ivy Vine Abundant
Liquidambar styraciflua Sweet Gum Tree  
Microstegium  vimineum Japanese Stilt Grass Grass Abundant/invasive
Quercus phellos Willow Oak Tree Infrequent
Boehmeria  cylindrical False Nettle Herb Simple toothed leaves, flowers off stem node
Betula nigra River Birch Tree Multi trunk papery bark
Acer Rubrum Red Maple Tree Multi Trunking


Zone:  Palustrine Forest and Marsh Ecotone

Scientific Name Common Name  Plant Type Remarks
Onoclea sensibilis Sensitive Fern Herb Obligate. Moisture sensitive
Platanus occidentalis Sycamore Woody/Tree  
Acer Rubrum Red Maple Woody/Tree Multi Trunking
Veronia novemboracensis NY Ironweed shrub Aster family purple flowers


Zone: Marsh

Scientific Name Common Name  Plant Type Remarks
Cuscuta gronovii *Dodder Vine Parasitic *
Vibernum dentatum Arrow-wood Vibernum Shrub See elderberry. Relative and similar charact.
Cyperus strigosus Flatsedge? Sedge Abundant
Impatiens capensis Jewel Weed Herbaceous Fleshy stem, orange yellow flowers. Remeedy to Poison Ivy
Sambucus cnanadensis Elderberry shrub Umble fruits. Red color compound leaves
Salix nigra Black Willow Tree  
Juncus effusus Common rush? Emergent  
Scirpus cyperinus Woolgrass Sedge? Sedge  
Eleocharis Spikerush Emergent “conelike” flowers at tip. Dense can form hammocks in etland
Leersia oryzoides Cutgrass Grass Recurved epidermal cells-Cuts!
Asclepias incarnata Swamp Milkweek Emergent  
Rosa palustris Swamp Rose Shrub Got one in my eye last March!
Typha latifolia Broad leaf Cat-tail Emergent Male and female flower on same sructure
Cephalanthus occidentalis Buttonbush Shrub Flowers round colonial buttons, butterfly pollinated
Hibiscus moscheutos Swamp Mallow/Marsh Mallow Shrub Large showy white flowers. Pin type flower
Polygonum arifolium Halbard-leaved tearthumb Herbaceous Recurved spines on stem
Polygonum sagittatum Arrow-leaved Tearthumb Herbaceous  
Saururus cemuus Lizard Tail Emergent Elongated flowers, obligate wetland
Hydrocotyle ranunculoides Pennywort Emergent Aquatic very dense
Llex verticillata Deciduous Holly Herbaceous Winterberry


Zone: Palustrine Forest and Marsh (observed in both communities)

Scientific Name Common Name  Plant Type Remarks
Acer Rubrum Red Maple Woody/Tree Multi Trunking
Platanus occidentalis Sycamore Woody/Tree Large leaves



Mom standing next to root ball of fallen tree


Me holding a pair of spotted turtles I caught in a drain leading from forest into open wet area.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *