Northend Greenway

Good for you, Good for the 'Burg!

Outdoor Classroom: Northend Greenway includes three distinct ecosystems

Posted by Northend Greenway on February 4, 2013

While the engineers, architects and designers work hard behind the scenes to develop landscape concepts for the future path, we thought, ‘What’s there now?’ So we talked with local Landscape Designer Nate Miller and took a tour together. Here’s what Nate found…

A scene from a Virginia Wet Prairie; a beautiful restored Riparian Forest; Powell River Spring’s Karst terrain

When the 2.5 miles of the future Northend Greenway are complete, the path will wind through three distinct ecosystems:

  • Southern Appalachian riparian forest
  • Karst regions
  • and the rare Wet Prairie

All three will provide opportunities to explore and learn about a tremendous diversity of plants, birds and other creatures as well as nature’s natural systems.

Southern Appalachian Riparian Forests are found along streams, rivers like Blacks Run and wet bottomlands lakes throughout our region.

Riparian forests can be found in the areas along Blacks Run primarily from Mt. Clinton Pike to the Salvation Army with patches popping up from Madison Street to the Little Grill.

The tree canopy is dominated by Sycamore, Cottonwood, Box Elder, White Basswood, River Birch, Ironwood, White Ash, Green Ash, Red Maple, Paw Paw, Redbud, Boxelder, Common Dogwood, Black Willow, Hemlock and Silver Maple.

Pileated Woodpecker, Great Blue Heron, Otter


Many birds such as Great Blue Herons, Great Horned Owls, Screech Owls, Green Herons, Wood Ducks, Pileated Woodpeckers, Songbirds and Warblers make their homes here. Common mammals include Otters, Beavers, Weasels, Tree Bats, Raccoons and Muskrats. Many species of dragonflies, amphibians and turtles also call the Southern Appalachian Riparian Forest home. Woody shrubs and perennials that enjoy this wet moist soil include Cranberry Bush Viburnum, Joe Pye-weed, Spicebush, Winterberry Holly, American Beautyberry, Witch Hazel, Possumhaw, Pussy Willow, Black haw, Cardinal flower, Elderberry, Shining Coneflower, Virginia Bluebells, Wild Blue Phlox, Great Blue Lobelia, Brown eyed Susan, Jewelweed, Wingstem, New York Ironweed, Red Osier Dogwood, Silky Dogwood, Monkeyflower, and Forget-Me-Nots.

Karst regions are characterized by fissures, caves, sink­holes and springs in limestone and other rock.

Virginia counties containing karst terrain (in red). Modified from Virginia Natural Heritage Karst Program.

Karst habitat along the Greenway can be found north from Mt. Clinton Pike to N. Liberty Street.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, over 25% of the world’s population either lives on or nearby karst landscapes or obtains their water supply from karst aquifers. Karst habitat is also very sensitive to development and invasive species. Western Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley in particular are well known for a high concentration of Karst habitat in conjunction with caves and caverns.

Karsts form when rainwater reacts with carbon dioxide in the air. This produces acidic rainwater which filters through the ground and slowly dissolves the limestone or other soluble rock below, leaving bedrock interrupted by a series of voids, cavities and cave systems. While Karst terrain includes some surface characteristics such as sinkholes, disappearing streams, cave entrances and springs, these only hint at the vast landscapes that may exist underground. When managed properly, Karst topography provide a number of green infrastructure benefits like filtering drinking water, groundwater recharge, storing storm water, open space, wildlife habitat and beautiful places for recreation.

Red Cedar typically is the dominant tree species. Many wildlife species use the various Karst features for habitat. Birds including Warblers and small mammals such as Allegheny Woodrats often nest in caves and other cavities. Several species of Salamanders hide among the rocks as well as crayfish and insects such as Cave Crickets. Plants found in the dry to semi-moist Karst habitat include Blazingstar, Roundleaf Catchfly, Goldenrod, Virginia Sweetspire, Broom Sedge, Eastern Red Columbine, Honey Locust, Smooth Purple Coneflower, Tickseed Coreopsis, Bluets, Maximillians Sunflower, Pin Cherry, Black Cherry, Chokeberries, Black Locust, Oaks and Asters.

Wet Prairies once dominated the Shenandoah Valley especially along near rivers and spring- fed low spots before European settlers arrived.  Today, wet prairies are one of the rarest ecosystems in Virginia.

There are some good places for sizeable prairie restoration between Liberty Street and Madison Street with possibilities for restoring smaller areas as well.

The area appears to be little changed from the days when elk and bison grazed its short grasses and were hunted by American Indians at the mineral spring or low water table that feeds the meadow. While this habitat has essentially disappeared and is dominated today by non-native plants and development, the Northend Greenway has an excellent opportunity to revive this endangered habitat.

Fire and grazing were the main methods of maintaining wet prairies, and though controlled burns may not be an option in the city, mowing in the late fall/early spring and/or occasional grazing by goats and sheep can have similar effects.

Wild Bergomott, Milkweed, Evening Primrose

Plants of the Wet Prairies include Indian Paintbrush, Evening Primrose, Bee Balm, Beardtongue, Purple Coneflower, Milkweed, Butterflyweed, Queen of the Prairie, Blazingstars, Goldenrods, Closed Bottle Gentian, Cup Plant, Perennial Sunflowers, Black-eyed Susan, Wild Bergamot, Wild Sweet William, Switch Grass, Canada Lilly, Rosinweed, Big and Little Bluestem Grass, Indian Grass, Asters, Cardinal Flower and Rushes. Many insects including butterflies, as well as birds and small mammals benefit from the food and shelter the wet prairies provide.

Nate Miller is a Landscape Designer and Artist from Bridgewater, VA. He holds a Masters in Landscape Architecture from Clemson University and a Bachelors in Art and Environmental Science from Bridgewater College. Miller owns his own landscape design business Simply Sustainable Landscape Designs, teaches at JMU’s Life Long Learning Institute, and is the official landscape designer for the Duck Run Cemetery, Virginia’s first green cemetery. Keep an eye out for his upcoming book about edible and environmentally sensitive landscaping in the Southeastern US. Reach Miller at

Leave a Reply

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