730DC’s Not a Swamp

A Seasonal Guide to Nature in D.C.

Sam Nelson
Oct 28 · 9 min read

This newsletter is to help DC residents connect with their surrounding natural environment. Every season there are fascinating changes occurring in our urban forests, parks, and gardens. Paying attention is the first step toward changing our relationships with the shared natural world.

Which Trees to Hug When (Leaf-Peepers’ Edition): The maples are already turning colors. Dogwoods, too. Look for the popular pocket park trees like Zelkova and Honey Locust to respectively turn orange or yellow soon (or now). The rest will follow along shortly. What comes last? Beech and oak. Oak trees, more reluctant to get on with it, turn late and then stubbornly grip their leaves into winter long after the color has left them. Fall foliage isn’t an instant change but a march of natural technicolor worth your time to watch. Here are some of my favorite leaf-peeping spots in D.C.:

  1. Maples at Columbia Island near the marina: If fall foliage is a show, sugar maples are the early stars. And they’re everywhere. They burn especially bright by the boats on Columbia Island. In general, Columbia Island is one of the most underrated urban forests in the city (yes, it’s part of the district), and in fall it’s worth a visit even without access to a watercraft.
  2. The Katsura trees in Dumbarton Oaks Gardens: Their leaves are reminiscent of the Rocky Mountain yellows seen in aspen groves, but these Japanese trees have hydra-like limbs that spread out dramatically across the garden’s lawn. In late fall they shine.
  3. Dawn Redwoods at National Arboretum: It’s one of only a few needled-conifer species that’s also deciduous (drops its leaves); it radiates a rusty gold color in November. It’s also a popular citywide street tree.
  4. Ginkgo trees lining the streets: This dinosaur-era street tree turns several blocks into gorgeous arcades of golden yellow. Check out 700 Harvard Street NW, 1500 Swann Street NW, 600 Morris Place NE, and several other ginkgo-lined blocks.
  5. Willow Oaks at Teddy Roosevelt Island — Teddy’s larger-than-life monument is surrounded by a homogeneous ring of sizable willow oaks. While their autumn colors aren’t as brilliant as scarlet or red oaks, the soft shades of yellow and orange limn one of America’s great conservationists with an earthen, late autumn glow.
Ginkgoes on 700 Harvard Str NW (top); Katsura Tree at Dumbarton Oaks Garden (left); Sugar Maple on Columbia Island (right) (photos — Sam Nelson)

For more leaf-peeping resources, check out this this fall color map by Casey Trees and their seasonal identification guide. Share your favorites, too.

Tree Spotlight: D.C.’s state tree is the scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), but if I had my way, I’d change it to the ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba). As noted above, it’s gorgeous in fall and frames several D.C. streets. It’s also the only surviving species in its order and dates back to the Jurassic Period. Sure, it’s got stinky fruit that the city sprays in spring to prevent from smushing on the sidewalks, but arborists these days can select for non-fruiting male species. But I consider the fruit to be natural collateral for its beauty in fall, when the fan-shaped leaves turn gold and then fall together overnight in what Oliver Sacks dubbed “the Night of the Ginkgo.” The next day reveals a gilded carpet of leaves across sidewalks. If only we could talk to the trees and nail down a date, we could organize a watch party.

Wildlife Spotlight: Pass by Petworth’s Raymond Education Campus on Spring Road at dusk, and you might blanch in terror at what appears to be hundreds of bats flying in synchronized waves. But don’t be alarmed — they’re not bats, they’re chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica). “During migration, large numbers of chimney swifts may roost together in a choice chimney, where hundreds drop in at dusk and fly out at dawn,” writes Howard Youth in Field Guide to the Natural World of Washington, D.C. Youth notes they are commonly seen in the city between April and October. Look out for them now before they migrate south or rain-check your wildlife viewing for their return in spring.

What to Grow in the Dirt: Yes, it’s getting colder and we’re all preparing for a dormant lifeless winter of discontent, but we’re not there yet. Try radishes. They’re like the cockroaches of outdoor gardens — they thrive in all seasons except the dead of winter. But it’s getting cold in a hurry now, so even autumnal greens like spinach and kale are likely too late to seed. Maybe it’s best to give in and hibernate early. But why not be a Stark and prepare for the tide of winter now? Plant strawberries, garlic, onions, or rhubarb and then harvest them in spring. Or bury flower bulbs before the first frost and watch their colors surface next year. Sure, everyone loves a tulip, but I’m a sucker for a fragrant narcissus. Don’t have a lot of space? Plant Siberian squill bulbs and watch ’em work cool colors in close quarters. And check out this DC School Garden grow calendar for more veggie info.

Fall radishes at Wangari Gardens

Seven Questions with a Local Green-thumbing Expert:

Melanie Choukas-Bradley is the award-winning author of A Year in Rock Creek Park, City of Trees, The Joy of Forest Bathing and two books about Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland. Her forthcoming book, Finding Solace at Theodore Roosevelt Island, is due out in August 2020. Melanie leads tree tours, nature hikes, paddling trips, and forest bathing walks for Smithsonian Associates, the US Botanic Garden, the Audubon Naturalist Society and many other local organizations. Events are posted on her website: www.melaniechoukas-bradley.com.

  1. What’s cool about your job?

MCB: I have essentially made a career out of my favorite pastime as a child growing up in Vermont — wandering the woods. We are all stressed by current events and our overly electronic lives. Getting out in a local park or garden, unplugging and tuning in to the beauty and wonder of nature is one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves. My books, tree tours, nature hikes, paddling trips and forest bathing walks are focused on the wonders of Washington’s wild backyard. I love spending time in nature. The fact that time in nature is woven into every aspect of my work is a blessing I’m grateful for every day.

2. You have written a book about Rock Creek Park and have another coming out next year about Teddy Roosevelt Island. What don’t we know about these places that we should know?

MCB: Rock Creek Park is more than twice the size of Central Park in New York City and as old as Yosemite. It’s the nation’s oldest urban national park. Theodore Roosevelt Island is dedicated to our foremost conservation president, who conserved 230 million acres of public lands during his administration. Many know that Roosevelt was a conservationist and naturalist. You may also have heard that he led ambitious “point to point” walks and rock scrambles in Rock Creek Park and, upon occasion, swam in local waters naked. But did you know that the president who so enjoyed our local woodlands and is memorialized by an island in the Potomac was also a nature writer on a par with Henry David Thoreau and John Muir? One of my favorite TR quotes: “…it is an incalculable added pleasure to anyone’s sum of happiness if he or she grows to know, even slightly and imperfectly, how to read and enjoy the wonder-book of nature.”

3. What makes D.C.’s urban forest and garden scene special?

MCB: We are the “City of Trees,” a verdant capital with world-renowned tree-lined streets, parks and gardens. I think it is our historic love of trees that distinguishes us and makes the urban forest so special. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were serious tree lovers. Two of Washington’s tulip-trees (aka tulip poplars) still survive at Mount Vernon, and Jefferson designed and supervised the first street tree planting on record in the District. He once said, “The unnecessary felling of a tree, perhaps the growth of centuries, strikes me as a crime little short of murder. It pains me to an unspeakable degree.” For over a century people from around the world have flocked to the Tidal Basin to see the flowering cherry trees each spring. And our native flora is exceptionally diverse, given our location between north and south, piedmont and coastal plain. Today many residents are actively involved in the planting and care of the city’s trees, volunteering with Casey Trees, the Rock Creek Conservancy, Restore Mass Ave, and many other non-profit organizations to contribute to the health and well-being of our urban forest.

4. What’s been a favorite book or resource that’s helped you and might help others interested in plants, trees, or green spaces?

MCB: I love Richard Preston’s The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring. The book focuses on the lives of the intrepid young botanists and naturalists who explore the tops of the world’s tallest trees, sleeping in hammocks hundreds of feet above the earth and discovering an unexplored ecosystem. Other recommended resources: Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo with amazing close-up photos by Robert Llewellyn; and the Suzanne Simard TED talk: How Trees Talk to Each Othe

5. If you could be a plant anywhere in D.C., what would you be? Where would you be it?

MCB: I would be a tulip-tree, growing deep inside Rock Creek Park, where many of the trees have been left alone since the national park was founded in 1890.

6. How can the city or its residents do better locally to deal with climate change?

MCB: I think Washington residents are painfully aware of climate change and are taking action to mitigate where and when they feel they can, but we all need to step up and do more. Planting and caring for trees is hugely important, as trees absorb carbon dioxide and cool and clean the air. Walking, biking and taking public transportation, and conserving energy in our homes are all significant contributions. Eating a predominantly plant-based diet of largely local foods also has a positive climate impact. We ought to vote for leaders and support institutions willing to take bold action to increase renewable energy. I also think it’s important that we enjoy nature in our city. In my 42 years living in Washington, I’ve seen us grow into a city of walkers, cyclists, naturalists, and all-around outdoor enthusiasts. It is our birthright to enjoy natural beauty, and when we connect with our wild backyard, the desire for local and global stewardship follows.

7. Blow our minds with one plant fact.

MCB: The lowly skunk cabbage is one of the true wonders of the world. Blooming in the dead of winter, its unique, gold-streaked reddish flowers generate their own heat, melting ice and snow. Equally extraordinary is that skunk cabbage flowers mimic meat in both look and smell, attracting pollinators that are ordinarily attracted to carcasses. Skunk cabbage blooms in seepage areas along Rock Creek and other local waterways. It is related to the famous corpse flower or titan arum, which is occasionally on display in the US Botanic Garden Conservatory.

Nature Events: Forest bathing walks with Melanie, free admission to Dumbarton Oaks gardens, (beginning November 1st), Japanese Autumn Leaf Viewing at Brookside Gardens (Sunday, November 3), Trees Matter Presents: Green Cities Summit (December 4)

Follow Sam Nelson on Medium or Twitter @samwriteteach or instagram for more tree stuff @treegazing. Comment below to share your favorite leaf-peeping spots! Thanks for reading. And check back in January for the winter edition.

Sugar Maple at Rock Creek Cemetery


Connecting Washingtonians to their city, to their communities, and to one another.

Sam Nelson

Written by

Sam Nelson is a teacher and a writer in Washington DC: short stories, essays, kids’ books, tree stuff, and more.



Connecting Washingtonians to their city, to their communities, and to one another.

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