Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Showy Natives that Show Up Late

This time of year, with leaves mostly fallen, the landscape is looking pretty bare. A surprise awaited during a recent walk to Herrontown Woods, though, where a lone native Euonymus (Euonymus americanus) was showing off some improbable fruits. It has apt common names--strawberry bush and hearts 'a bustin'.

This may be the only fruiting specimen in all of Princeton, given how hearts 'a bustin' sets a deer's teeth 'a grindin'. It's at the top of the list on a deer's menu. The only reason this shrub managed to make some fruits is that, at eight feet tall, it had somehow managed to reach safely above the browse line. The fruits bust open to reveal the orange seeds, of which only a couple are left in this photo.

By contrast, Princeton woodlands are chocked full of the exotic "winged euonymus" (Euonymus alatus), which has a competitive advantage because deer and other wildlife haven't developed a liking for it. Though the survival of the native Euonymus and other native plant species at Herrontown Woods has been helped by ten years of deer control by the township, this year marks the first time the township has shifted from professional deer management to volunteer bow hunters.

Another showy native that's an eye catcher in late fall is purple muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), whose seed structures form clouds of purple. The only place I've ever seen it growing wild was along a stretch of road in Durham, NC, where diabase soil and annual clearance of brush underneath powerlines offered this sun-loving prairie grass a place to survive.

In the background in the photo are pots of big bluestem, a native prairie grass that grows wild in Princeton along the petroleum pipeline right of way. Nice to see these native grasses finding their way into a local garden.

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