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The trees sweep up in mourning, stark and bare, spiking the lush slopes of the ravine. At their roots, leaves mush together, layering brown over yellow over rust-red. A slight rain renders everything a glossy goo. As botanist Elaine Haug and two tagalongs from the Prince William Wildflower Society wade through the mud of an April Sunday afternoon, you can barely hear them in the padded forest. Haug is quiet, determined just to hunt for her rare flowers.
Like fishing, botany is a silent sport. Using the point from a big blue-and-white umbrella to poke the land, Haug digs away, certain that there are decent flowers heresome blooming, some budding, all apparently hiding. A small woman with thick arms and hair the color of steel wool, Haug scans constantly, prodding the earth with her umbrella. That’s when she’s not picking at petals with the inchlong hot-pink acrylic nails she calls her “little shovels.” Reclusive flora don’t have a chance.
Down along a creek bed, Haug spots a fresh treasure. She stabs her umbrella into some moss. Realizing the umbrella isn’t working, she moves in for a closer inspection. She splashes through the creek, bends over the water, and presses her palms to the soil. Haug makes her first real catchthe floral equivalent of a fat trout.
She turns around, with rain freckling her cheeks, to beam back her reward: trailing arbutus, a small, semi-evergreen plant with pale-pink blossoms that people view as a sign of spring.
One of the garden-club refugees is overcome. “Yeah!” Carol Thompson shrieks, her suburban-belle voice chilling the woods for a moment. “I’ve never seen it in the wild!”
“Wild” is something of an odd way to put it. In fact, the flower-filled land beneath Thompson’s feet is supposed to prevent certain folks from running wild. A few hundred yards away, past the birch and oak trees, past chain-link and barbed-wire fences, sits Lorton Reformatory. The prison’s grounds happen to be one of the best sites in the Washington area to find dozens of eye-popping flower species.
The reason a botanist like Hauglet alone a nice garden-club lady like Thompsonis crawling around prison grounds is that four decades of urban sprawl have made controlled environments like prisons and Army bases some of the few places to look for wildflowers, butterflies, and birds.
Virginia military bases such as Fort A.P. Hill and Fort Belvoir are treasure troves for botanists hoping to spot wildflowers long gone in the ‘burbs. The Harry Diamond Laboratory, a military research facility just south of Lorton, closed last year to be reborn as a wildlife refuge. According to plant ecologist Rod Simmons, 69 percent of Fairfax County’s natural forest has disappeared in the last 15 years. No wonder, then, that the grounds of D.C.’s prison, untouched by developers since its central facility opened in 1914, have turned into nature’s proving groundsand made Haug, 55, a pioneer.
This isn’t the way your usual flower safari begins. I’ve barely pulled into the lot when a corrections officer approaches my car and asks why I’m here. Why did he choose me and not the various garden clubbers sitting nervously in their cars? When I tell him that I’m here to look for flowers, I half expect a whack from his nightstick. But instead, he knows the drill: Come inside, he says, and talk to my supervisor. A few minutes later, Haug shows up to work the supervisors with a mixture of Southern charm and clinical patience. They may not understand her, but they know her.
This interaction of flower and correctional power is on the endangered list already. Lorton is slated to close in a couple of years, and if developers have their way, much of this 3,200-acre plot will be covered with condos and possibly a golf courseleaving both jailers and nature lovers in the lurch.
The impending D-Day is one reason why Haug and partner Kathleen Kust trek out to Lorton from their suburban homes just about every weekend to survey the landscape. The two have been working on their survey for the last couple of years, documenting wildflowers in the hope that if they spot a few important species, the land will be saved. Their count is up to more than 200 different flora, including a rare orchid, the large whorled pogonia. If they find the small version of that orchid, the rarest on the East Coast, public officials will surely take notice. Or so they hope.
Donna Ware, a College of William and Mary botanist who introduced Haug to orchid sleuthing, found the rare species a few years agoas well as a state-listed endangered species, the New Jersey rushat Fort A.P. Hill. “No one remembered exactly where the orchid was,” Ware says. “I just started to search along the general watershed.” Ware is working to parlay her find into federal funds and a conservation plan for the base.
But Haug and Kust aren’t jealous of Ware’s find. There is too much of Lorton that is still undiscovered, species still hidden deep in those grounds. The two mainly worry that even if developers keep some of the land untamed, the ecology could be permanently altered anyway by the nearby traffic, sewage, and subdivisions. No matter how hard they comb through the leaves, rock, and dirt, Haug and Kust will never get a chance to identify every species. But while the prison walls are still there, the two botanists remain free to exploreso long as they wear their prison-issued hats to mark them as scientists, not escape artists.
It’s clear they know Lorton well. After a short hike through what Haug calls “Fern Valley” and “Geranium City,” we get to an intersection of rolling hills covered with budding Christmas ferns, rattlesnake ferns, and a half-dozen other varieties. We noodle farther along. Haug walks at a deliberate pace, her gaze consistently directed at the ground. “It’s very rare that I look up,” Haug says. “I walked into a hornets’ nest about 10 years ago. I got stung five times.”
Haug spots cat briar. “Ah,” she bellows, motioning the garden clubbers and a couple of flower junkies to her side. We all squeeze together tight over the little plantsthe briar, the rue anemone, the pennywart, bluets, and violets. Luckily, everyone is thoughtful enough to have worn scented soap.
If Haug micromanages her turf, than Kust likes to see the forest for the trees. She stops to look at the rolling hills and, you know, feel the silence. “To me, this is beautiful,” she says. “I love this kind of place. This is Virginia to me.”
But there are still some orchids to catch, so we plod on with careful steps. Finding the small whorled pogonia would be huge. Maybe it’s here; maybe not. Maybe it will come out in a few weeks, Haug teases. She adds that she herself has to come out every weekyou never know what’s going to be blooming at the prison.
After two hours, most of the budding botanistsand Kusthave left. And the two garden-club stragglers are starting to whine. They want to go to a nearby nursery. Haug looks a little annoyed. This isn’t an easy trip for hershe has schlepped her fickle 1985 sky-blue Buick Regal (155,000 miles on the odometer; license plate: “Pogonia”) all the way from Dale City. The novices give her another look: Hey, it’s drizzling, they seem to say.
Before giving in, Haug looks down at the ground for a few more minutes, still searching. She knows that she’ll see only another year of weekend visitsmaybe. And there are still hills to inspect.
As Haug leaves her damp flowers behind, it’s clear thatlike the endangered flowers they surveyshe and Kust are increasingly incompatible with their landscape. A few hundred yards down the road, a newly minted strip mall sits just off
I-95. A sign touts a new car wash, Laserwash 4000. Across the street, new condos beam varying degrees of J. Crew white. The neighborhood boasts street names such as Royal Robin and Cardinal Forest. In Fairfax, they name roads after the stuff they pave over.
Finally, after a few seconds of thought, Haug demurs and cuts the survey short. We haven’t found the orchids, but she makes me promise to come back. “Hopefully, I can find you some orchids,” Haug says. “Remember, it’s a survey, not a walk….You’re my extra eyes.”CP