Monday, December 22, 2008

Mountain Lakes Dams To Be Restored

Long-existing plans to restore the historic dams at Mountain Lakes are now moving ahead. Last week, engineers and historians did a walk through to discuss various details of the plans. The dams were built around 1900 in order to harvest ice, which was stored in three-story barns just below the lower dam.

The photo shows the old spillway, now reinforced with loose rock to prevent it from collapsing. There was some uncertainty about whether the lakes could be dredged as part of the restoration, but the township is now more optimistic about funding, including the possibility of tapping into the upcoming federal economic stimulus package. A great deal of silt has accumulated in the lakes over the past 100 years. Two small dams upstream that used to trap the silt are completely filled, and now the upper lake has six feet of silt, with only one foot of water on top.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Distinguished Backyard Thief

A typical backyard scene on an atypically warm December day. But wait what is that speck of gray near one of the mini-ponds?

I happened to look out the back window today just as a great blue heron swooped in to take a close look at my water features. After scrutinizing one for awhile, and finding it lacking in edible objects, the big bird strolled over to the other minipond and almost immediately plunged its long neck into the water. Its bill flashed orange as it emerged with lunch, in the form of the one goldfish it hadn't managed to get on its last observed visit two years prior.

Looks like it's time for a restocking program.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Where Do The Children Play?

For anyone interested in the role of nature and play in child development, and the effect thereon of suburban development and school policies, I highly recommend checking out (literally, from the Princeton Public Library or elsewhere) the movie Where Do The Children Play. The Waldorf School sponsored a showing of the movie at the Princeton Public Library last night, with some of those involved in its making on hand to answer questions afterward.

The premise is that children whose schedules are overbooked, who spend large amounts of time in front of computer and TV screens and who are kept indoors by overly protective parents, are at risk. The lack of opportunities to be in nature or to explore their creativity in free play can cause children to lose touch with their creative impulses and capacity for free thinking. Connected to this is the reduced sense of place many suburban kids feel, growing up in neighborhoods where neighbors don't know one another, and where the ability for them to walk or bike to destinations is limited by sprawl. Some excellent interviews with Richard Louv and others are featured.

The movie was developed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I lived for many years. Though Ann Arbor is one of the safest towns around, an effort to get kids to walk to school failed miserably, apparently due to pervasive fears of "stranger danger".

More info on the movie can be found at:

The library has copies of the movie and companion books.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Movie Thursday at Public Library

"Where Do The Children Play", a movie about how "sprawl, congestion, and endless suburban development" have changed the landscape for childhood and may be affecting children's mental and physical health, will be presented at the Princeton Public Library this Thursday, Dec. 4 at 7pm.

It's interesting to note that Princeton used to have high school kids playing the role of "camp counselors" at various parks throughout town during the summer, where kids in the neighborhood could go at any point during the day and play various games. Whereas now the system is centralized, with a rec dept. summer camp at Community Park South, it used to be a free-flowing, neighborhood-based system. Harrison Street Park and Little Brook Elementary are two home bases I've heard about, and there were no doubt others. I've heard, too, that neighborhoods would play each other in sports contests, though this hasn't been corroborated. That would certainly have created a sense of neighborhood identity.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Forgotten Pleasure and Utility of Autumn Leaves

(First appeared in the Princeton Packet)

Of all the contrasts in perspective between children and adults, none is more striking this time of year than in how we view autumn leaves. For children, leaves are a crisp sound underfoot, a source of beauty in color and flight, a gift from above to revel and play in. For many adults, that joy and gratitude mutates into resentment and complaint. Glorious leaves become an unwieldy burden called “yardwaste”.

There is plenty of adult logic to suggest that the child’s view is less naïve. Each time leaves get piled on the curb for pickup, the urban soil becomes less fertile, less absorbent, less hospitable to birds and other wildlife. The yard’s loss then becomes a public hazard, obstructing traffic and polluting local streams with nutrients. The CO2 spewing from battalions of leaf blowers, and the municipal convoys that scoop up the leaves and haul them out of town, hastens spaceship earth towards the tipping point of ecological havoc.

But I can understand why people grow resentful. Trees, in their own quiet but relentless way, are ongoing critics of our way of life. They are constantly dumping some sort of detritus on our patios, our houses, our idle lawns. Whether it's spent flowers in spring, seeds and sticks through the summer or dead leaves in the fall, the message is clear. Trees are predisposed to bury our coiffured human habitats and bring back a cool, moist forest floor into which they can spread their roots.

It’s best not to take this personally. And though our adult bodies may not be ready to leap into a pile of leaves for the sheer pleasure of it, there are ways to smuggle into adulthood a child’s gratitude for leaves. To get along with nature, and to sustain hospitable conditions on our one and only spaceship, it helps to work as nature works, by finding opportunity in discarded things. Nature has no landfills. All “stuff” travels in an endless circle, from life to death and back again. Think, therefore, of your yard not in terms of leaf exports and fertilizer imports, but as an economy unto itself, where plants extract nutrients from the soil, then send them dancing back down again as spent leaves to replenish the soil and all the life it holds.

To accommodate autumn's harvest in our tidy urban landscapes, become a connoisseur of leaves. For each type there is a strategy. Pine needles make an attractive mulch under shrubs and trees. Locust leaves are so small they require no raking at all. Silver maple leaves curl up and quickly decompose, so can be raked into flower beds or ground up by the lawn mower and left on the grass. Oak leaves, being thicker and longer lasting, will need to be corralled in a corner of the lot to settle back into the earth over time.

Children may push their vegetables away, but they know a thing or two about appreciating leaves. For the leaf-spurning adult world, it’s worth taking a fresh look at autumn’s harvest. Surely there is some measure of happiness to be regained when a foe becomes a friend, when the eye sees not burden but opportunity falling all around.

More information can be found in the Fall Leaf Management brochure, published by the Princeton Environmental Commission, available at town halls and downloadable from

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Native Shrub Border

A fine example of using native shrubs in a foundation planting was in its fall glory at the Princeton Junior School earlier this month. The yellow is sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia). Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) is burgundy, with a bit of blueberry (orange) in the lower right.

Dwarf witchalder (Fothergilla gardenii) is the dazzling orange in the second photo, with Clethra to the left, then the evergreen inkberry holly (Ilex glabra). Another holly in the planting, not shown, is winterberry (Itea verticillata). Most of these shrubs are rarely found in the wild (Fothergilla does not even include NJ in its natural range) but grow easily in gardens.

The colors are particularly brilliant because these shrubs get a good dose of sun, but they'll do well even when planted in mostly shade.

The rainbarrel, by the way, is connected to soaker hoses that run through the planting, and actually provided some decent water pressure for the attached hose and spigot. There's a screen on top to filter the water and keep out mosquitoes.

Most rainbarrels, this one included, are way undersized when compared to how much water pours down a typical downspout.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Fall's Last Flowers

From the outside looking in, the Princeton High School wetland ecolab looks pretty spent, as it should by the end of October. But a few flowers are hanging on.

This post's second photo is of native black-eyed susan blooming on top of black plastic laid down to contain weeds in some areas.

Third photo is of Helianthus tuberosa, a.k.a. Jerusalem Artichoke--a strangely named native sunflower whose tubers were eaten by American Indians. It's now grown as an edible ornamental.

The pale blue flower in the fourth photo is mistflower--a native perennial that looks like an exotic annual that's sold at nurseries.
Though most flowers are lingering from the summer, the fourth photo shows marsh marigold, a spring bloomer that the weather apparently fooled into blooming in the fall.

In the fifth photo, red clover, a good example of an exotic species that doesn't take over.

The last photo shows not a flower but the color of silky dogwood, a native shrub often found in the wild.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Happy Halloween Update

Some art is not destined for immortality. I was dismayed to find this grizzly scene in my front yard the other day. The Ivy Tailed Deer featured in a Halloween post must have had its dinner of native wildflowers rudely interrupted, as its table, dishware and wine were repossessed by budding art critics, unbeknownst to me. This appears to have been an inside job.

Uptick in Squirrel Graffiti

There's been a noticeable uptick in squirrel graffiti this fall, as pumpkins all over town have been literally defaced, or perhaps refaced. My daughter carved a fine ghost at a halloween party, only to have the ghost consumed the next day by a resident rodent.

One interpretation is that squirrels have turned their substantial intelligence and expressive range to the art of pumpkin carving. Since they aren't afraid of ghosts, they choose to refashion pumpkins with what they consider to be far scarier images--car wheels and cats, for instance. Thus, the circular nature of their carvings, with something ear-like sticking out on top.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Richard Louv in Princeton Thursday, Nov. 6

Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder, struck a chord among many of us who wonder about where the next generation of environmentalists will come from in an age more and more dominated by urban and electronic experiences. Current educational movements like No Child Left Inside owe much to Louv's research and writing.

Come hear him speak at the Princeton High School Trego-Biancosino Auditorium at 7:30 this Thursday, Nov. 6. The talk is free and open to the public, and is sponsored by Common Ground and the Princeton Junior School. For more information on Common Ground, go to

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

The Ivy-Tailed Deer, an English species known for its taste in French wine, was caught here dining on native wildflowers. Deer traditionally dress as invasive pest plants on Halloween, just to scare the dogwoods (background).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Strange Fox at Greenway Meadows

A couple days ago, Christy and Brian Nann sent me these photos of an animal they had seen at Greenway Meadows. In the first photo, it almost looks like a young deer, but the second photo suggested to us a strange version of a coyote.

I sent the photos to the Mercer County Wildlife Center for identification. Diane Nickerson emailed back that "it appears to be a red fox with a severe case of sarcoptic mange", and that the Center could treat it if it were trapped. Unfortunately, if the photos were taken back in August, there's little chance the fox has survived this long.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Odd Invasives Showing Up

During frequent visits to local nature preserves, I am periodically surprised to see a new plant on the scene. This has been happening more frequently lately, for some reason, and the new plants tend to be exotic species that may or may not prove to be invasive.

The first photo, taken in August at Greenway Meadows in a wooded area, is cutleaf blackberry (Rubus laciniatus).

The second, which I found growing both at the D&R canal and at Mountain Lakes, is water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes).

One day, I was in the Rogers Refuge parking lot and happened to look down at the plants growing along its edge, and was surprised to find a vine with five leaflets (third photo) It is most likely chocolate vine (Akebia quinata).

Thanks to Rachel Mackow for help with identifying these species. Rachel works for Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space, and is very involved with organizing the Central Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team.

As with all problems, it's far easier to reduce the negative ecological impact of invasive species by intervening when they first show up, rather than waiting until they have spread so much as to be uncontrollable. The Strike Team's mission is to detect invasions early, and respond as quickly as possible. Up to now, New Jersey has not had that capability.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Name That Tree

Warning. This is a trick question. That lovely shade of gold in the distance looks like a tree. But a closer look reveals leaves of three. And why does it look like the trunk continues up past the gold, to a part of the tree that's lost all its leaves?

Turns out this bright contribution to fall's glory is a poison ivy "tree"--a vine that has climbed halfway up a tree, then sent out branches to flower and set seed on. One thing to take note of in the forest is that vines never bloom when they're crawling on the ground. Only upon making an ascent, up a tree trunk or up and over a shrub, do they send out flower shoots.

There's something else telling about Princeton woods in this photo. The tree canopy at the top of the photo has lost nearly all of its leaves, while the understory is still green. One distinguishing feature of many exotics is that they hold their leaves later in the fall and green up earlier in the spring. As evidenced here, the trees are mostly native, while the understory is predominantly exotic. This difference in timing may have to do with the different climate in which the exotics evolved.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Planting Session, Upcoming Talks, Wildlife Sightings

This Saturday, October 18, I'll be leading a planting session at Mountain Lakes. Come help if you can. We'll be planting some native shrubs grown from "live stakes" this past spring, some wildflowers, and a few tree seedlings lovingly cared for over the summer by FOPOS volunteer Kim Frances. Bring shovels and/or trowels, and gloves. Should be brisk but sunny. We'll meet at Mountain Lakes House, up the long paved driveway at 57 Mountain Ave.

Upcoming talks I'm aware of are by Peter Raven, Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, speaking this Monday at 4:30pm at Princeton University on Sustainability and the Future, and a talk by Richard Louv at the Princeton High School on Nov. 6 at 7:30. Louv is best known for his very influencial and timely book, Last Child in the Woods: Combatting Nature Deficit Disorder.

Recent wildlife sightings: a flying squirrel gliding between trees in my backyard and a hatching of thousands of craneflies that have been incongrously hanging out on the JW middle school athletic field. And of course it's a good time of year to fill your memory banks with vivid fall colors, the better to hold you over through the muted visual fare of winter.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Rogers Refuge in the Fall

It was a good year for wild rice at Rogers Refuge, down next to the Stony Brook in Princeton. This broad marsh, seen from the observation deck, looks monochromatic this time of year, but actually harbors a great diversity of native wetland species.

The second photo shows the seeds maturing a few at a time, soon to fall off or be grabbed by birds.

Like corn, wild rice is an annual grass that in just a few months can grow twelve feet high from a small seed that sprouts in the mud in shallow water.

The third photo shows towering wild rice stalks, already stripped of seed. Some years are better than others for the wild rice, though 2008 was a banner year, aided by the removal of an acre or two of Phragmitis by the Partners for Fish and Wildlife in 2006.

Providing some bright color at the refuge is Virginia Creeper. Like many other vines, it only blooms and bears seeds when it climbs up a tree.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Water Watch Cleans Up Along the Canal

On September 20, twenty Princeton University students gathered at Turning Basin Park to clean up litter and remove invasive species. Megan Prier of Princeton's Water Watch organized the event. Half the crew took to the canal in canoes, in search of floating debris, while the rest of us took on a grove of Ailanthus (Tree of Heaven) growing on a slope overlooking the D&R canal.

The Ailanthus, like porcelain berry, purple loosestrife, lesser celandine and other exotics, uses the canal as an avenue for spread. Water lettuce, shown in the photo, may be another one to add to that list.

The Ailanthus was competing with some ornamental cherry trees growing next to the towpath, and was also blocking the view of the bench. For many of the students, it was a first encounter with the art of canoe paddling, the citrony fragrance of native spicebush leaves, and the satisfaction of completely clearing an embankment of an invasive weed. Thanks to Water Watch and the university students for helping tend to this popular trail corridor and entryway into town.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Free Invasive Plant Identification Workshop

Below is some info on a free invasive plant identification workshop.

Central Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team Plant ID Workshop
D&R Greenway - Johnson Education Center, Princeton, NJ
Tuesday, October 14
9:30 am - 12:00 pm

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

D&R Greenway Plant Sale Thursday

The D&R Greenway is having an exhibit opening tomorrow that will include the first selling of native plants from the nursery they're developing. The plants have been propagated from local genotypes, meaning that these plants carry genetic material from plants that have grown in the Princeton area for millenia. Some characteristics of a native species can vary across its range. Selling local genotypes preserves these special characteristics.
Below is information on the event, and also a list of plants being sold. Most are trees, but there are a couple wildflowers, most notably boneset (see recent posts).


"The Land That Feeds You, Celebrating Farms and Farmers"
- a mixed media art exhibition celebrating agriculture in the Garden State

Join us for the Opening Reception on Thursday, September 25th, 5:30 - 7:30 p.m.
featuring art, local foods and wines.

Featured Speakers: Charles Kuperus, Secretary, NJ Dept. of Agriculture, "Import of Agriculture to the Garden State" and Michelle Mulder, Counsel to Congressman Rush Holt, on the Congressman's New Community Supported Agriculture Bill.

Purchase the first specimens from D&R Greenway's Native Plant Nursery! This event is free, but reservations are requested. Music by Bill Flemer Riverside Bluegrass Band. Art is available for purchase, 35% of the purchase price is a tax-deductible contribution to D&R Greenway's land preservation mission.
RSVP requested: 609-924-4646

Plant List for the plant sale:

Serviceberry (A. Laevis)
Shagbark Hickory, White Oak, Chestnut Oak, N. Red Oak (all one-year old as they are deep tap-rooters)
Black Birch
Golden Ragwort

Friday, September 19, 2008

FOPOS Intern Par Excellence

This summer, the Friends of Princeton Open Space had an intern for the first time. Sarah Chambliss, a Princeton University junior, came to us through the Princeton Internships for Civic Service program. Over a period of ten weeks, she contributed tremendously to various projects, cutting down invasive shrubs at Mountain Lakes Preserve, planting native species, creating a structure and attractive banners for a new website, mapping management units, and serving as faithful scribe during the weekly plant inventory walks in various preserves around town. Here she is shown with the many native plants she cared for in the greenhouse.

The second photo is of me, Sarah, and FOPOS president Wendy Mager, in front of Mountain Lakes House, home base for FOPOS.

A great big THANK YOU! goes to Sarah, and the PICS program that made her internship possible.

Below is Sarah's writeup about her summer's work and insights.

My FOPOS Internship

(or: How I Learned to Start Worrying and Hate the Rose)

In many ways, my internship with Friends of Princeton Open Spaces was unique. There are not many summer jobs that allow you the freedom to choose your daily schedule to such a degree, but on any given day I could opt to spend my time nursing the plants in the greenhouse, working actively out in the park, or, for the rainy days and hot afternoons, working in the air-conditioned office. There are not many summer jobs that give you so much freedom to choose which project you want to work on, whether it be redesigning a website or taking inventory of all the plants in the local preserves, and run with it, but the work I did for FOPOS will certainly add some variety to my résumé. And there are not many summer jobs that leave you with a deep, seething hatred of a few certain plants. But oh, I will remember barberry. I will remember all of the invasive shrubs, vines, and grasses that I fought with my loppers, clippers, and sweat: the common privet; honeysuckle, in the form of both vines and shrubs; Japanese stiltgrass and bindweed. And I will remember multiflora rose, in it's full malevolent ferocity.

There are few ways I can think of to better understand the goal of conservation and park management, and the scale of work needed, than to see a grove of forest that have long been protected and largely undisturbed, then to be brought to another, less lucky patch of forest and be told "We need to make this one look like that other one." Seeing the great variety of plants and hearing the animal activity in a preserved forest is both peaceful and stimulating, and becomes a fitting inspiration when facing a massive, sprawling bramble of multiflora rose that is doing its best to shut out the rest of the ecosystem.

I was already interested in environmentalism before I started the internship, but I always thought of it with a more exotic connotation: save the rainforest in Brazil, protect the endangered pandas in China, help African nations develop sustainably and preserve their natural riches. Here in New Jersey, I thought, the only environmentalism left was to recycle and ride a bike instead of a car. New Jersey is hardly known for its natural riches. What is there to save? But being in the Mountain Lakes Preserve every day, seeing both the bad and the good, the incursion of invasives and the resurgence of natives (with a bit of help from park management), I was surprised to find a whole lot to save, protect and fight for, just 15 minutes from my dorm.

So, thank you, FOPOS, for what you do, helping to set aside land to be restored and protected. And thank you for letting me help out for the summer. I learned a lot on many levels, and I really enjoyed my time working here. In closing, I would just like to say that I claim no responsibility for the future stealth-cutting of exotic invasives decorating the lawns and yards around Princeton Township, or the greater Mercer County Area.

--Sarah Chambliss, PICS Intern for FOPOS, Summer '08

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

PDS 9th Graders Restore Habitat

For the third straight year, 9th graders from Princeton Day School helped the Friends of Princeton Open Space restore habitat as part of the school's Sept. 5 Community Day activities. This time, the 100+ students and 9 faculty took to the weed-infested woods of the township's Community Park North, and proceeded to cut and pile unprecedented amounts of invasive shrubs.

The students took to the intimidating task with impressive spirit, perseverance and teamwork. Along the way, they learned to identify some of the native and exotic plants in the forest, and gained some expertise in the safe use of loppers and garden rakes. Each of the PDS staff members led a work group, while FOPOS volunteer Kim Frances and I helped with plant ID.

With so many exotic shrubs cut down, visitors can now see farther into the forest, and native species have a better chance to grow. One unexpected bonus was that many of the participants discovered the existence of Pettoranello Gardens, home to landscaped walkways and summer concerts--a spot many longtime Princeton residents are unaware of.

Thanks to PDS and the class of 2012! And thanks to Kim Frances and Clark Lennon for helping out on short notice.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Getting Close to the Madding Crowd

The party's over. The artesian well of nectar that for weeks on end fed all who made the journey to a batch of backyard boneset is now finally running dry. As can be seen from the crowd in this photo, and the nearly 50 different species shown in the seven previous posts, the plants generated phenomenal buzz in the insect community. It was an extraordinarily diverse gathering, and peaceful. True, a few insects became meals for spiders, but the vegetarian bees, wasps, moths, flies, butterflies and bugs grazed in harmony like herds of megafauna on the great plains of Africa.

You have to admire the ambition of a flower that tries to be, and succeeds in being, all things to all bees. The plant is like a miniature town, its stems and leaves providing cover, and avenues for ladybugs to patrol like Pacmen in an old video game. Bumble bees slept under its blossoms at night, like drunks who can't quite make it home from the local saloon.

Now the deed is done, the nectar drained, the pollen carted off and stowed. Flowers fade and seeds ripen. This Fly-By-Day operation, after mesmerizing the insect world for many weeks, finally closes down, making room for other, later flowering species to step forward and garner attention. As it happens, Late-Flowering Boneset--a different species of Eupatorium scattered here and there across the Princeton landscape--is just opening for business.

Boneset Ants

This seventh post cataloging creatures attracted to flowering boneset shows a couple kinds of ants. The second one was probably part of a nearby hatching.

One insect I didn't get a photo of--the "weird one that got away"--was seen only once, and looked like a cross between an oversized mosquito and an undersized, white and black crane fly.

Add these three and we're up to 48 distinct species on seven boneset plants in one Princeton backyard.

My apologies, by the way, to any and all who actually know anything about insects and spiders, for the questionable way I bunched these bugs in rough categories. Names will be attached to photos as this botany-type blogger becomes enlightened about the bewildering variety of insects and spiders out there.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Boneset Butterflies and Moths

The sixth in a series of posts cataloging all the varied life attracted to a backyard boneset plant. The last two are probably the same, but one was bluer than the other, so both are included.

The kind of butterfly in the fourth photo was by far the most common--essentially present all day long.

These five beauties, plus one I haven't tracked down a photo of, bring the count to 45.

Boneset Spiders

Not all the life drawn to boneset is looking for nectar. Nature being what it is, it's only natural that a few predators would show up, lurking just under the blossoms, or building miniature webs. Some are better disguised than others. (It may take awhile for you to find the spider in the first photo.)

Most seem content to sit still, even if a potential prey comes nearby. Maybe they already had a meal before I happened along. Collectively, they extend the food chain at this backyard oasis to three (plant nectar -- pollinator -- spider).

Seven kinds of spiders or spider-like creatures raises the total count to 39.

The creature in this last photo is who knows what, but doesn't appear to be an insect.