“But within this small geographic area, an impressive diversity of plant life exists,” state botanist William A. McAvoy once wrote. “More than 1,500 species and varieties of native plants have been documented.”
This diversity stems from varied habitats, a temperate climate and a location in a transition zone between America’s north and south.
“Delaware is home to thousands of animal species, ranging from microscopic marine plankton to great white sharks, and from minuscule land insects to large, familiar mammals and birds such as white-tailed deer and wild turkey,” starts the 2015 Delaware Wildlife Action Plan.
Don’t be daunted by those numbers. Learning the fascinating features of First State flora and fauna is as simple as ABC. Here’s an alphabet of fun facts about tall trees, pithy points about charismatic creatures, neat nuggets about particular plants and interesting information about places and policies.
A is for the American holly and an industry
Holly wreaths were once very, very good for Delaware. At their peak, Delaware farmers made 2 million holiday wreaths, earning as much income as they earned the rest of the year. That’s why the American holly (Ilex opaca), with its striking leaves and scarlet berries, in 1939 was named the state tree. Multiple factors, such as imitation holly, led to a decline in the industry, but the legacy lives on in Milton, which calls itself the holly capital of the nation and hosts an annual holly festival. Other flora that have been dubbed state symbols: the peach blossom as the state flower (with peach pie the state dessert), strawberry as the state fruit and sweet goldenrod as the state herb.
B is for belemnites and other fossils
Delaware’s state fossil is the belemnite (Belemnitella americana), a squid-like creature from 80 million years ago. The fossil is usually its guard, bullet-shaped and 2 to 3 inches long, functioning like a skeleton, protecting soft parts and providing a structure for muscles. Fossils are commonly found near Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, usually in dredging spoils. That’s the state’s best source of dinosaur fossils as well. “Only fragmentary remains of dinosaurs have been found in Delaware,” according to the Delaware Geological Survey. “None have been complete enough for genus and species identification.” That said, experts have identified parts of hadrosaurids (duck-bills), ornithomimosaurs (theropod predators that resembled “plucked ostriches with long tails and arms”) and flying pterosaurs.
C is for the Coastal Zone Act
This 1971 Coastal Zone Act, which limits industrial development, was the first of its kind in the country, according to Kate Hackett, executive director of Delaware Wild Lands. A 2017 update – its first major change – was intended to provide more flexibility for 14 former and current heavy industrial sites, all but one in New Castle County. Other key laws include Delaware’s first hunting restrictions, in 1859, followed by seasons for all game animals in 1893. The state created commissions to regulate natural resources in the 1950s. The state’s Department of Natural Resources was proposed in 1959; it added “environmental control” duties a decade later.
D is for the Delmarva fox squirrel
The Delmarva fox squirrel, a subspecies (Sciurus niger cinereus) that lives only on the peninsula, in 1967 was among the first species listed as federally endangered. It’s twice the size of a common gray squirrel, with silvery fur, a fluffy tail, a white belly and short ears (hence another name, stump-eared squirrel). It was first identified in 1865 but by the early 1900s declared absent from the state. (The technical term for that is extirpation). So it was reintroduced – 16 times – from Maryland. In 2015, with a population around 20,000, it was removed from the federal endangered list.
E is for eggs, in a massive collection
The Delaware Museum of Natural History, with 36,000 clutches of eggs, has North America’s second-largest egg collection. Its bird collection also includes 67,000 study skins and 11,000 skeletons, covering about 4,000 species. The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in California houses the largest egg collection in the world: 250,000 sets, also representing about 4,000 species.
F is for fireflies
Delaware is home to 11 species of fireflies. Photuris bethaniensis is found only in the Bethany Beach area and only in freshwater wetlands “formed in the depressions between dunes called interdunal swales,” Delmarvanow.com reported. They’re half the size of the familiar Eastern fly and flash green lights twice in a row. It was discovered in the 1940s by Frank A. McDermott, but it was lost until work by Christopher Heckscher, an expert now at Delaware State University, in 1998. A few years later, he found a second, tinier species (Photuris mysticalampas) in a boggy forest in the Nanticoke Wildlife Area near Seaford. Finding a new species is rare, especially in a developed place like Delaware.
G is for the Great Cypress Swamp
At 10,600 acres – not quite the size of Wilmington – this Delaware Wild Lands property is the largest block of forestland and freshwater wetlands on the Delmarva peninsula. Delaware Geological Survey confirmed dinosaurs once roamed there. The area, once a desert of windswept sand dunes, is marked by “hundreds of years of ditching and draining for agriculture, extensive timbering [Atlantic white cedar was a favorite for shipbuilding] and two major historical fires,” the nonprofit says.
H is for horseshoe crabs
The horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus) has blue blood used in biomedical research, and “much of what we know about the human eye is the result of studying the eyes of horseshoe crabs,” Hackett said. The 2002 designation as the state’s official marine animal said Delaware has the most horseshoe crabs anywhere. The state also houses the Ecological Research & Development Group, focused on the world’s four horseshoe crab species. Delaware’s horseshoe crabs – also known for being beached upside down on their large and funky-looking shells – are threatened by over-harvest, development, human disturbance and toxic accidents. Other official state fauna are the blue hen (bird), lady bug (bug, but it’s really a beetle), weakfish (fish), stone fly (macroinvertebrate), tiger swallowtail (butterfly), grey fox (wildlife animal) and channeled whelk (shell). For a year, the golden retriever was the official dog.
I is for Indian River chickens
George Ellis of Ocean View developed the Indian River chicken breed around 1940, by mating a male named Superman to a bunch of New Hampshire hens. The mostly white-feathered cross, renamed Delaware, dominated the state’s important broiler industry for 20 years, according to the Livestock Conservancy. They have “well-developed egg and meat qualities, and a calm and friendly disposition,” and the white feathers didn’t discolor the skin when they were plucked.
J is for jellyfish
The state’s most common jellyfish is the sea nettle, “the bane of late summer swimmers at Delaware resorts,” said Jim White, senior fellow for land and biodiversity management for the Delaware Nature Society, referring to their annoying sting. There are different remedies for the short-term pain, including shaving cream (and scraping off any pieces of tentacle), meat tenderizer, vinegar and hot water. University of Delaware professor Patrick Gaffney and Smithsonian research associate Keith Bayha in 2017 determined that the local nettle is actually two species: Chrysaora chesapeakei, with 24 tentacles, in the bay and the larger Chrysaora quinquecirrha, with 40 tentacles, in the ocean.
K is for (American) kestrels
America’s smallest falcon (Falco sparverius, also called the sparrow hawk) is widespread around the country, but its numbers have declined nearly 90 percent regionally over the past 50 years. The Delaware Kestrel Partnership unites research on the kestrel, one of about 700 animal species of greatest conservation need in the state’s 2015 Delaware Wildlife Action Plan.
L is for laughing gulls
“The strident laughing calls of this well-named gull” are among the characteristic sounds of Eastern beaches, writes the National Audubon Society, which also posts its sounds. They have a varied diet and are “often seen looking for dropped French fries on Rehoboth boardwalk,” White noted. Laughing gulls (Leucophaeus atricilla) are one of 17 gulls on the Delaware Ornithological Society’s Delaware State List of Bird Species.
M is for muskrat
Muskrat offers “a taste of Delaware history,” The News Journal’s Patricia Talorico once wrote. She’s not a fan, but plenty are of what she called “dark, earthy meat” with “a brackish, fishy flavor.” Meat from the three-month trapping season shows up in a few restaurants, butchers and fundraisers statewide. The harvest also yields fur for clothing and musk oil for perfume. Muskrat is sometimes euphemistically called marsh rabbit, which can cause confusion with the real marsh rabbit.
N is for Nemours and other public gardens
Multiple public gardens showcase native and nonnative plants. Nemours is formal. Winterthur creates “a unified work of art that embodies a romantic vision of nature’s beauty” on a thousand acres. Mt. Cuba features manicured gardens amid a thousand acres “of natural lands featuring impressive examples of Appalachian Piedmont geography, flora and fauna.” Marian Coffin in 1916 designed the gardens at Gibraltar, “Italianate in design but English in planting style,” the Cultural Landscape Foundation says. The Jasper Crane Rose Garden, in Wilmington State Parks, began in 1933 with 670 plants. The Delaware Center for Horticulture has been beautifying public landscapes since 1977.
O is for orchids, especially the one from Bear
Although orchids have a reputation of being tropical, they grow throughout most of the world, including 2 percent of Delaware’s flora. Fragrant ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes cernua odorata), an orchid popular across the U.S., was first found by Bear resident Dick Ryan in the 1960s, in a nearby construction site, wet ditch or ditch about to be destroyed (accounts vary). The vigorous, easy-to-grow cultivar flowers all fall, with a strong jasmine or vanilla scent. It was named a few years later by grower Merlin Brubacker, who called it after his hometown — Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
P is for piping plovers
Delawareans know piping plovers, protected as a federally threatened species since 1986, for fences and beach closures that protect their nests. “You can literally harass a bird to death,” wildlife biologist Annie Larsen told The News Journal in 2018, noting the 40-gram birds don’t have much energy to spare. After years of decline from beachfront development, piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) are rebounding. In Delaware, as few as two nesting pairs have been spotted each year, at first only in Cape Henlopen State Park, and lately also in Fowler Beach, in Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge.
Q is for quahogs
Quahogs (Mercenaria mercenaria, also called hard clams) and other clams support 50 commercial clammers and lots of recreational clammers in Rehoboth and Indian River bays, according to the Center for the Inland Bays. Delaware Surf Fishing suggests that only “some good waders and a clam rake” are needed for success in harvesting clams of legal size (1.5 inches or larger). In 2013, Delaware became the last state in the East to legalize commercial shellfish farming, with aquaculture bringing clams to Assawoman Bay as well.
R is for red knots and other migrating shorebirds
The second-largest springtime gathering of shorebirds in the U.S. is in Delaware Bay, where migrating birds gorge on horseshoe crab eggs. Red knots are among many species – neotropical songbirds, waterfowl and shorebirds – migrating through Delaware, usually feasting along the bay. Red knots fly 18,000 miles a year, “making this bird one of the longest-distance migrants in the animal kingdom,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. No. 1 is the Copper River delta in Alaska, according to William H. Williams’ “Man and Nature in Delaware.”
S is for squirrel heads and other bounties
Delaware at various times has encouraged culling animals that damage crops and farm animals. In 1712, according to “Man and Nature in Delaware,” the state asked freeholders at each sitting of county courts to present heads of squirrels. Bounties were also offered on foxes, bears and wolves. From 1933 to 1937, the state legislature similarly paid a nickel for crow heads and 50 cents for hawk heads (excluding sparrow hawks and mouse hawks), according to a DNREC history.
T is for terrapins, like the northern diamondback
“The sex of the northern diamondback terrapin, like all turtles, is determined after the egg is laid and by the temperature of the environment,” White said. “At cooler temperatures, more males turtles hatch, and in warmer temperatures more female eggs hatch.” The northern diamondback (Malaclemys terrapin terrapin ) is North America’s only turtle that spends its life in brackish water. Excess salt is excreted through glands at the eye.
U is for Utricularia, those weird and hungry plants
“Bladderworts (Utricularia) are the strangest and probably the most highly developed plants in the world,” an advocacy group called California Carnivores writes. “Nothing about them is familiar or makes them akin to other flowering plants except their flowers and ability to photosynthesize.” Bladderworts – a dozen species float in Delaware waters – eat insects, larvae and zooplankton. When stimulated by motion, tiny hairlike projections cause the flattened bladder to inflate, “sucking in water and the passing animal and closing a trap door after it,” the Biological Society of America writes. Its flowers perform a similar maneuver: a structure called a stigma closes after a bee visits, trapping in some pollen the bee acquired while visiting other flowers, ensuring genetic mixing.
V is for vultures
Two species of vultures live in Delaware: the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) and the black vulture (Coragyps atratus). Turkey vultures are one of the few birds that can smell and find food by detecting the aroma of decaying flesh, according to White. Black vultures cannot smell and so find food by following turkey vultures to carrion. Climate change is bringing black vultures north, with the Christmas bird count in New Jersey’s Cape May showing only five from 1927 through 1993 but 137 in just 2014, The Press of Atlantic City reported. Flocks in the sky are called kettles, and flocks perched together are called wakes.
W is for white-tailed deer
“Delaware’s the only state with ‘deer” in its very name,” the state Division of Fish and Wildlife says, underscoring the four letters. White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) were prominent in Colonial days but extirpated. “There were no authenticated deer sightings in Delaware from the 1840s to the 1920s,” Williams writes in “Man and Nature in Delaware.” They’ve rebounded too well, resulting in crop damage, munched suburban plantings, collisions and the spread of diseases. That’s why the division runs three programs to help farmers reduce conflicts. All told, 14,000 are harvested annually.
X is for X marks the spot for geocaches and spots to explore
Delaware offers many places to encounter nature, from the 26,000 acres in Bombay Hook and Prime Hook national wildlife refuges to tiny certified wildlife habitats. Important places include 16 state parks (the state suggests geocaching for family fun) and hundreds of local parks. Nonprofits preserve and interpret areas, including the Delaware Nature Society’s Ashland Nature Center. The University of Delaware Botanic Gardens fits 11 gardens in 15 acres, and the Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek is being created on 37 acres. Delaware State University’s Claude E. Phillips Herbarium holds 15,000 specimens of flowering plants, gymnosperms, ferns, mosses, algae and lichens.
Y is for the yellow poplar, aka the tulip tree
Delaware’s tallest tree, at 173 feet tall, is a yellow poplar at Winterthur, the Delaware Forest Service figures. Yellow poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera) are not poplars but magnolias, and they’re often called tulip trees for the shape of their leaves. They’re self-pruning, featuring “a remarkably straight trunk often devoid of lower branches,” says “Big Trees of Delaware.” A zelkova (Zelkova serrata) in Greenville is Delaware’s largest tree. That non-native, sometimes called Japanese zelkova, has often been chosen to replace American elms felled by disease, and its leaves resemble elms as well.
Z is for zebra swallowtail butterflies
Zebra swallowtails (Protographium marcellus) sport zebra-like stripes and are the only kite swallowtail in temperate North America. Their larvae feed on pawpaw trees, and the leaves and bark provide them with two chemical weapons, according to the Blue Ridge Discovery Center. Acetogenins make them taste bad to predators, and terpenes are synthesized into foul odors issued from the larvae’s osmeterium. The defenses don’t work on other larvae: They’ll eat each other. The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is the largest edible fruit native to North America. “Few have tasted the tropical-like fruits that combine the best of mango, banana and pineapple,” former News Journal gardening columnist Moira Sheridan wrote. “Fewer still recognize the exotic-looking tree with its enormous, drooping leaves.” Alapocas Run State Park has celebrated the fruit, along with folk arts, at an August festival.
This article originally appeared in The News Journal on February 13, 2019. You can read it here.