A West End oasis

A West End oasis

By Olivia Anderson | oanderson@alextimes.com

An unassuming gravel pathway at the end of a street lined with townhomes leads to the Winkler Botanical Preserve, a 44-acre park tucked away in Alexandria’s West End that also happens to be located right off of I-395.

Replete with paved hiking trails, a collection of diverse plant species and an undulating waterfall pouring into a large pond, the park is the city’s second largest, yet arguably most underutilized, green space.

For the first time since 2019 and the second time in its 40-year history, the secluded preserve partnered with Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority last weekend to provide a walking tour during which experts talked about the privately owned site’s extensive history and the details behind its native flora and fauna.

The tour was part of an effort to expand awareness and accessibility to a hidden gem many Alexandrians might not know exists.

Tour attendees wait outside the main lodge for the hike to start. (Photo/Olivia Anderson)

Local news outlet ALXNOW recently conducted a poll asking community members whether they had ever visited the Winkler Botanical Preserve, to which 57.6% of respondents, 223 voters, answered, “I’ve never heard of it before now.”

“That’s really strange to me,” Winkler tour guide and 37-year staff member Tom Sundin said, citing that for 20 years the preserve offered school programs students would attend three times a year, as well as summer camps that garnered up to 50 children per week for 10 weeks. “You would think that, having all those students, word would get out. So, when people come up to me and say, ‘I’ve never heard of this’ I say ‘Why?’”

The reason could be due in part to the fact that the preserve doesn’t have much parking space, hence the reason NOVA Parks shuttled groups of people from the meeting spot to the preserve for the July 24 tour. This lack of awareness could also be because Winkler’s former Executive Director Jodie Smolik, who was in charge of stewarding many popular programs, retired three years ago.

In addition to the school programs and summer camps, Smolik formerly oversaw the preserve’s many walking tour options, some of which included collaborations with the home health care organization Sunshine House, elderly homes, birding groups and nursery schools.

When Smolik left, so did the camps, but Paul Gilbert, executive director of NOVA Parks, said the most recent collaboration with the preserve is one step toward establishing a long-lasting relationship.

Two years ago, NOVA Parks approached Winkler staff about joining forces to connect more citizens to the natural world. Winkler agreed, and the result was a sold-out walking tour that took place in July 2019. There was no hike the following year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Gilbert said that now is the “right time” to continue the tours.

Summer campers honed their carpentry skills by building log cabins. (Photo/Olivia Anderson)

“Twice makes a tradition,” Gilbert said. “It’s a great partnership; this is a remarkable spot to explore. I think it works to partner with NOVA Parks – we’re in the business of bringing people into nature, and this is that.”

Gilbert also said that the collaboration was possible because of the Winkler Foundation, without which the preserve would not exist.

Back in the 70s, as a way to fulfill developer and environmentalist Mark Winkler’s dream of creating a nature preserve open to the public, his wife Catherine Winkler Herman and daughter Tori Thomas ensured their land was sanctioned, forming a foundation in 1981 and bringing on staff three years later.

“It was [Winkler’s] vision to do this preserve and his family then created the foundation [that] made this all happen,” Gilbert said. “There’s a lot of justified pride in what they created, … so that’s part of what we’re trying to do in partnering with Winkler, is help more people see it, experience it.”

During the tour, Sundin, who has been on staff since the very beginning, told attendees that when he first started working at Winkler, the preserve “looked nothing” like it does now.

There was no pond or waterfall, only acres upon acres of grapevines, trash piles and dense, wild forest. The team spent five years cleaning up the woods, a feat that involved a lot of labor-intensive work, from carting out dumpsters full of old washing machines and refrigerators, to placing many stones and constructing a waterfall by hand.

According to Sundin, the waterfall, which is fed using a pump, serves several purposes. Not only was it created for aesthetic reasons, but it also helps to aerate the water and mitigate pollution, as well as countervail the traffic sounds resonating from I-395 that might disturb the peaceful atmosphere.

Even with all the measures staff took to curate a serene oasis, Sundin said that because of the preserve’s proximity to the highway – it’s the lowest point on the 250-acre track – trash piles continue to be one of his “biggest bugaboos.”

“Every time it rains here, this just becomes a trash dump because people are just throwing their things out the window, not thinking about it, and everything gets washed around here. Every day I could be out here cleaning something because it just washes in,” Sundin said.

The hike proved elucidating to many attendees, whose phones were out and eyes were peeled for every interesting factoid Sundin and NOVA Parks’ roving naturalist, Matt Felperin, pointed out.

Felperin described many unusual and indigenous species in the area, including various birds, trees and plants. He identified a common flower in the preserve, a type of hibiscus plant called the swamp rose mallow. Often nicknamed “marsh mallow,” the plant produces a sap that originated the eponymous dessert.

Marshmallows originated from the sap of the rose mallow hibiscus plant, although modern marshmallows just retain the name. (Photo/Olivia Anderson)

Felperin also called attention to a clump of dead leaves at the top of a tall oak tree. He informed attendees that this was caused by a female cicada, who cut off circulation to the edge of a branch in order to deposit her eggs. Trees carry nutrients through their bark, he explained, so the cicada stops the flow by making a ring around its bark. Eventually the tip dies, falls to the ground and the cycle starts again when young cicadas bury themselves in the ground.

“This is done purposefully. It’s not enough to kill or really harm the tree; it’s not great, but it only happens every 17 years,” Felperin said. “It’s nature’s pruning.”

At one point the group stumbled upon an old log cabin that Sundin said was once used for summer camp projects. According to Sundin, the log cabins were built and deconstructed every single week so that campers had a chance to exercise their carpentry muscles.

Campers would build as much as they could on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and staff would then tear it down on Saturday, Sunday and Monday for the next set of children to build.

As the tour neared its end, Sundin shared a story about how the preserve almost lost 15 to 20 acres many years ago. The Winkler family, who still owns the building located adjacent to the preserve, sought to build it a parking facility that would have encroached on the preserve.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the request drew ire from residents of the area. Sissy Walker, a tour participant and longtime city resident, said she recalled the community pushback well.

“It was an outrage. It was just an outrage, and [there was] huge support just from everywhere in the community. People were just fit to be tied about the potential that it would not [make it],” Walker, who wrote a letter in opposition to the development, said. “This really got people [going]. It was just a treasure; I mean there’s nothing else like it.”

In Alexandria, the Winkler Botanical Preserve is the largest privately owned green space. The only larger green space is the 50-acre Dora Kelley Nature Park, nestled in the Holmes Run Stream Valley Gorge and managed by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

Although he acknowledged the power of grassroots campaigns, Sundin also stressed that land development has a place.

Female cicadas are responsible for the dead clumps of leaves in this tree. (Photo/Olivia Anderson)

“This place wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for [the nearby Winkler-owned] buildings. The money generated from those buildings went to fund all the school programs, all the camps, my salary and everything you see here. So, land development is tough but necessary,” Sundin said.

The next iteration of the preserve is currently unclear, though Sundin emphasized that he “knows it’s going to be good” and looks forward to leading upcoming hiking tours in addition to introducing as many people as possible to the preserve that he openly refers to as his home.

“It’s my baby,” Sundin said.

As far as the fate of environmental education opportunities, the Winkler board is still in the process of determining next steps, but at the end of the tour, one hiker, Claudia Silvia, said she would write a letter encouraging continuation of the programs.

Silvia, who worked as a science educator for 43 years, stressed the importance of learning about nature in order to equip children with a “frame of reference” when it comes to caring for the environment.

“It’s important for the survival of the planet and for young peoples’ awareness,” Silvia said. “You don’t protect something you don’t know anything about.”

For more information about the preserve, call 703-578-7888.