The Prairie of Belmont Plaza: More than Just a Natural Planting

By Devin Floyd, Center for Urban Habitats
October 17, 2019

This little patch of prairie in Charlottesville tells a story that is far deeper than the narrative of conservation landscaping and pollinators. It traces and honors an ancient path, and is a tribute to the lost culture, animals, and ecosystems of the Piedmont. Indeed, any landscaping that involves an approach that reintroduces natural plant communities can be viewed through a similar lens. It is a memory box of sorts. It is an action to repair something that was stolen. Not only can native landscaping serve an immediate conservation function, it can be a window into the past and the future.

Desmodium glabellum (Dellinius’ tick-trefoil), Rosa carolina (pasture rose), and Eupatorium hyssopifolium (hyssop-leaved thoroughwort)

One may not realize it at first glance, but with some research one will find that the little strip of grassland, at the corner of Hinton Avenue and Monticello Road, borders an ancient path known during the Colonial Period as Three Notch’d Road. It was first worn bare by eons of wildlife movement. Eventually bison and other regional migratory animals utilized this trail. It crossed a complex landscape dominated by a multitude of grassland ecosystem types on any terrain that was remotely close to being flat (mostly bright and colorful prairies, savannas and woodlands) and cathedral-like forests on large floodplains, in deep ravines, and on steep north facing slopes. The trail connected the expansive grasslands of the Coastal Plain and Piedmont with those of the Shenandoah Valley during the Archaic and Woodland Periods.

Solidago speciosa (showy goldenrod), Symphyotrichum pilosum (frost aster), Eupatorium hyssopifolium (hyssop-leaved thoroughwort), Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem), and Pycnanthemum muticum (short-toothed mountain-mint)

Native Americans used the trail for trade, travel, hunting, and war, for thousands of years. This path was a primary travel route connecting the tribes of the coastal plain with those of the Blue Ridge and beyond. Eventually colonists would name it Three Notch’d Road and use it to further their advance west, leaving in their wake the decimation of Native American culture and the removal of the natural upland ecosystems of the region. Colonialism, and slavery arrived to the area along this path. Three Notch’d Road was a conduit through which Colonists and their relatives forced enslaved Africans to destroy natural systems and replace them with agricultural fields, pasture, towns, and eventually cities. It carried and fostered beauty and life, but also tragedy and death.

View southeast in the direction of the old path. Featuring Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem), Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed), Panicum virgatum (switchgrass), Eupatorium torreyanum (Torrey’s thoroughwort), and Solidago altissima (tall goldenrod).

The foot path eventually gave way to west-bound primates riding horses, and the trail was widened to accommodate the wagons and automobiles that followed. Eventually it was widened further to become Richmond Road, and further still to become Route 250 and Interstate 64. Railways and canals subsume it in some places.

Solidago speciosa (showy goldenrod) and Symphyotrichum pilosum (frost aster) cast against a hardscape background and two giant containers holding crepe “crap” myrtle trees (non native to North America).

Bits and pieces remain in lesser degrees of development, in quieter settings. There may be a tiny stretch here there that remains as an animal-worn trail in a verdant woodland, or perhaps along a property line in some grassy abandoned back field. But the trail’s intuitive ecological origins sealed its fate. Efficiency and popularity made it a vector for everything on the move, and for development. And so in most places it is now erased or buried beneath pavement.

Passiflora incarnata var. incarnata (passion vine) climbs the asters and goldenrods of the Piedmont prairie.

When you get a chance, go stand before this little strip of Prairie outside of the new cafe, Belle, in Charlottesville. Below your feet, below the concrete and brick, is that old path. Peer through the little bluestem growing there as it blows in the wind, and imagine. When I am there I hear tragic whispers of the past, its lost people, and I see bits of the forgotten grasslands of the east. But I also see hope and a future of renewal. I find reasons to take action in every glimmer of morning light that bounces around the bluestem schizocarp plumes, and off the wings of every bumblebee that sips at the bold late-season flowers.

A westward view at the bend in the old path, now filled with a rich assemblage of native grassland species. We are pleased to see pasture rose and others taking root in the sidewalk cracks.

The super bold late season bloomer, Symphyotrichum pilosum (frost aster), offers its sweet nectar late far into November. This common aster fills a critical sustenance cap in the life cycles of local insects, as food becomes scarce beginning in October.

Light bounces around the schizocarps of Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem).

At top: View through a modern intersection, and along an old path. Three Notch’d Road. All photographs by Devin Floyd.