The Tidal Basin in Washington may have its famous cherry blossoms, but Great Falls residents need only walk down to the river for a display of shimmering, luminescent blue that some botanists say is the better show: the annual explosion of a riverine wildflower called the Virginia Bluebell.
Every year in mid-April, the forest floor along the Potomac erupts in an understory of lush blues and occasional pinks, but this year, following an unseasonably warm winter, the show is likely to begin much earlier, which is just fine with Great Falls painter Hwa Crawford. Crawford, a student of the bluebell, is offering her interpretation of the annual botanic wonder with a display of landscapes that opens March 31 in a fine art gallery in Middleburg. Many of her oil paintings feature the flower--and just in time for the natural display along the river.
The bluebell, also known less romantically as the Virginia Cowslip or Lungwort Oysterleaf, is a denizen of the Potomac river bottomlands and islands in the Potomac. It has a tubular flower that starts as a pinkish-blue blossom, graduates to an intense blue and fades to a softer, more pastel color as Spring progresses. In Riverbend Park and along the river further north, masses of the plants dazzle the eye, particularly in the early light of morning.
The subtle transformation of the bluebell’s color relates to the flower’s annual dance with pollinators. These include various bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds. The change from a pinkish pigmentation to intense blue is precipitated by a change in the plant’s alkalinity. When the bluebell is ready for the pollinators’ visits, it takes on a hue more likely to attract them.
FOR GREAT FALLS RESIDENTS, one of the best places to see the flowers is Riverbend Park. From the visitor center, walk either north or south on the hiking path along the river. Good viewing is also available from the recreation area at the end of Seneca Road, although this is more difficult to traverse and requires good hiking skills.
In normal years with cold winters, the peak viewing time is around April 18. For those who want to see the colorful wild display this year, determining the best time to go is tricky. The flowers could peak as early as March 25, depending on the weather. For the best advice on timing, call Riverbend Park (703-759-9018), which will revise its blooming forecast daily, based on temperatures in late March and observations of the plants in the park.
In the meantime, you can get a different perspective on the wildflowers by checking out Crawford’s paintings. They will be on display at the Barrel Oak Fine Art Gallery and Tasting Room, 8 East Washington Street in Middleburg. A reception will be held on Saturday, March 31, from 4 to 7 p.m., with wine and light refreshments. The exhibit, which also includes other Crawford landscapes and riverscapes from the Great Falls area and nearby, will hang throughout the bluebell blooming season. You can also see some of Crawford’s work on her website: www.hwacrawford.com.
CRAWFORD’S CONNECTION with the flowers is personal. "Our family is very musical and whenever I think about bluebells, I think of trumpet players. The shape of the flower is the main reason--like a trumpet. I get excited and feel I’m moving with the rhythm. I’m not just painting. I’m observing all the changes in the flowers. I talk to them like little babies."
Crawford is a member of Great Falls Studios, a group of about 100 artists who live or work in Great Falls (www.GreatFallsStudios.com). The organization conducts an annual trek along the river so that artists and photographers can find inspiration in the bluebell display, which it bills as one of the "Seven Wonders of Great Falls."
If you walk along the Potomac, you may find Crawford painting on location (she is a "plein air" artist, referring to painting outdoors). Talk to her, and you’ll discover a cheerleader for the colorful little plant and its promise of coming Spring. "I’m just waiting for the bluebells to come out," she said recently. "That’s a sign the days are getting longer and sunnier, and it makes me happy to think about it."