Friday, September 30, 2011

Fall Foliage Walk by Henry and Betty Horn

An upcoming walk of note:

Kingston Greenways Association Fall Foliage Walk
Saturday, October 15, 2011 -  2:00 pm at Mapleton Preserve/D&R Canal State Park headquarters – 145 Mapleton Road, Kingston

Naturalists Henry and Betty Horn will lead the walk.  Both Betty and Henry are enthusiastic teachers and will share their expertise on a walk that focuses on trees (Henry), flowers (Betty) and whatever other discoveries are made during this leisurely hike.

Betty is an avid botanist with an intimate knowledge of our local wildflowers.  She has served as Curator of the Biological Collections at the Princeton University Museum of Natural History since 1978.  Henry, now Professor Emeritus, has taught in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton since 1966, and is well known for his professional enthusiasm and dedication.  He has wide-ranging interests in natural history, a passion to understand our local environment and its context, and a deep fascination with tree ecology.

With any luck, the fall foliage will be in full display.  If desired, bring binoculars or tree or wildflower identification books.  Don’t forget to wear sensible shoes, and dress for the weather.  

The meeting is free and open to the public.  

Electronics and Hazardous Waste Collection Event Tomorrow, Oct. 1

It's time to fill up the old pickup truck with collected electronics and drive over to the Mercer County event to have them recycled. If you can't make it out there and want to drop something off for me to take along, give me a call in Princeton at 609 252 0724 or find my email address on the View My Complete Profile link. Here is a link to detailed information about what can be recycled at the event.

Of particular note, they recycle televisions, which people often put out on the curb, unwittingly violating a state law that is on the books but very hush hush.
For directions to the event, which is 9-2 this Saturday, use this address: 240 Bakers Basin Road, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648-3308 (Lawrence Twp Public Works). There can be a line of cars there, but it moves along at a good rate.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Signs of Fall

Every year, it's good to remind people that goldenrod is NOT allergenic. Goldenrod is golden as a means of attracting bees that then do the work of spreading the pollen, rather than the wind. The true allergen is ragweed, which blooms at the same time of the year as goldenrod and has inconspicuous green flowers--green because ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) is wind-pollenated and therefore doesn't need to attract insects with bright colors.

Walk along most any nature trail in Princeton this time of year and you're likely to see a shrub that is turning yellow a few leaves at a time. This is spicebush (Lindera benzoin), an important shrub for bird nesting and also for its lipid-rich red berries. Lipids are fats, and fat is a more concentrated form of energy than sugars and carbohydrates. Birds like to travel light, so high lipid foods are the best fuel for their migrations. Professional deer management in the township over the past decade has allowed spicebush to make a dramatic comeback in Princeton's forests.

Now is the the last chance to pull out Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) that may be invading your flower beds, before its seeds mature and fall to the ground. Stiltgrass is an annual introduced to the U.S. back when it was used as packing material for porcelain from Japan. At Mountain Lakes Preserve, it forms monoculture meadows on the forest floor. It uses a "warm season" growth strategy similar to crabgrass, sprouting from roughly a gazillion seeds late in spring, maturing in late summer. You'll find it growing in miniature in your lawn, or crawling 4 or 5 feet high, up and over other plants. This plant's a big, big problem if one's interested in promoting biodiversity, and the best way to keep it from becoming an ongoing nuisance in one's yard is to catch it early and pull it out before it drops its seed. If deer would eat it, some sense of balance could return to the local woods, but don't expect their taste buds to change any time soon, despite the presence of this hugely abundant food source. Read more here.

Persimmon is a native tree that typically bears fruit out of reach. This photo was taken thirty feet up, looking down from the new university bridge over Washington Road, between the chemistry building and the athletic fields. A couple more years growth and we'll be able to pluck the fruit from the bridge.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

One Man's Mess Is Another Bird's Habitat

Sometimes, most of the time, it's easier to conceive of possibilities than realize them. Take this pile of wood, for example. Great stuff, and delivered at no cost! It can be chopped up to make carbon-neutral fuel in a modern, clean-burning stove,

or it can be stacked to make sculptures in the backyard.

Or, it can sit in the driveway, unsplit for most of the summer.

Free time and determination finally converged in the Princeton doldrums of late August, and I was feeling celebratory about the diminishing size of the pile when a Carolina wren came over and perched on the remaining wood, just three feet from me. Puffing up its feathers in an endearing show of chutzpa, it seemed to be pleading with me to leave the pile be. From the human perspective, I was cleaning up a blighted part of the driveway. In the bird's world, I was messing with what?, a nest?, a wonderfully chambered kindergarten for fledglings?, a playground?, a safe harbor from neighborhood cats? A birder friend told me they would not be nesting that late in the summer.

Later, four wrens were seen having some sort of discussion on another woodpile, with a similar indifference to my approach. By the time I had returned with a camera, they had left, apparently resigned to the inscrutable need of humans to dismantle perfectly good jumbles of wood.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Princeton Day School Community Day at Mountain Lakes

On September 16 at 9am, 100 PDS 9th graders arrived at Community Park North ready to help remove invasive plants, as part of the school's annual Community Day. First step was to buddy up with 4th graders who had also made the hike over from their school.
After a brief intro by yours truly about plant identification, the why and the wherefore of invasive plant control, and some tips on how to use loppers, saws and garden rakes safely, they set about the day's task.

Neither the thorns of multiflora rose nor the sheer numbers of invasive shrubs crowding the woods could deter them from their newfound mission. Those with loppers cut honeysuckle, privet and multiflora rose, while others hauled the cuttings into brushpiles, to serve as habitat.

What I particularly enjoy is showing the kids how to work together, use the tools most effectively, and how to get into a steady working rhythm so that a lot can be accomplished. After a morning's work session, they could see the difference they had made.

Native shrubs intermixed with the exotic invasives had been tagged beforehand, and left uncut to take advantage of the additional sun and water available now that the exotic competition had been removed. In the photo is spicebush (Lindera benzoin), which the kids discovered gives off an appealing fragrance when the leaves are scratched. That natives will fill the void left by the removed invasives helps make clear the positive impact of the work.

An innovative method of transporting litter was developed when some of the kids went back out to pick up stray tools.

During the lunch break, volunteer Andrew Thornton engaged the kids in some juggling.

After lunch, I led the 9th graders on a tour through the 400 acres of preserved land in and around Mountain Lakes. Like so many Princetonians, the majority of the kids had never seen Pettoranello Gardens, the evergreen forest, or the historic fields of John Witherspoon's Tusculum. (the area we worked on is in the lower right; PDS school is in the upper left)

They walked past trees stripped of their limbs by Hurricane Irene,

clambored across a bridge washed askew by the recent flooding,

and past construction to restore the lower dam at Mountain Lakes.

At one stop along the way, a student asked why it's called Mountain Lakes if there are no mountains nearby. I explained that Princeton bestows its ennobling magic on all within its borders, making ponds into lakes and hills into mountains. These words having been spoken, I am sure that all within earshot gazed out upon the landscape with new eyes.

When they reached the turn leading to their school, they disappeared up the trail, their good deeds done and another school year begun.

The Friends of Princeton Open Space thank the students and teachers of Princeton Day School for their contribution to restoring habitat in town.

Thanks also to community volunteers Andrew Thornton and Tony Beesley for helping out with supervision.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Landscaping No No

Landscaping rule #1: Do not plant spreading, spineful rose bushes next to a middle school sidewalk. (My daughter came home bleeding one day some years back, thanks to these schoolyard bullies.)

Note to self last week: Take pruners along on next dog walk.

Followup Observations: An unidentified pedestrian, accompanied by a baffled dog, was seen cutting intrusive nastoids back from sidewalk, in time for Back to School Night. Human intervention may not be necessary in future years. The shrubs appear to be succumbing to the same rose rosette disease that is (fortunately) knocking out the invasive multiflora rose in Princeton's woodlands.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Chestnuts Boiling On A Stovetop Fire

This week's roadside menu features chestnuts. The American chestnut, once a prominent tree in our forests and an important source of food for wildlife and people, was laid low by a lowly imported fungus more than a century ago. The native species is making a slow comeback thanks to decades of breeding to develop immunity to the disease, but in the meantime, there are chestnuts of Asian origin scattered here and there in Princeton that scatter their tasty treats on the streets this time of year.

The treats come encased in a spiny covering that looks and feels like a baby brown porcupine.

Squirrels, as always, get first dibs, combing their whiskers at the same time.
But a few yield up a shiny treasure for lowly humans.

Though Mel Torme makes chestnuts roasting on an open fire sound appealing, the first batch tasted great after 15-20 minutes of boiling, with a flavor reminiscent of sweet potatoes. Recently, though, a friend roasted some on a gas grill for a similar amount of time, and it has to be said that the aroma generated by a plate full of freshly roasted chestnuts is enough to endear one for life to this rarely encountered food.

As any squirrel can tell you, the chestnut is not to be confused with the Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), which lacks the dense spines and is inedible. Palmate (leaflets radiate out like fingers from the palm of the hand) leaf and nut in photo. I used to collect horse chestnuts as a kid, in part because of their lustrous beauty but also with big plans to use them as ammunition in defense of strategic positions. Can't remember if any battles were actually waged.

Below is some advice from Bill Sachs, our resident expert on nut-bearing trees, about eating chestnuts (Castanea sp.). Harvesting chestnuts from the roadside, it's hard to tell if they've already cured for a week, and the chestnuts we've cooked thus far have been free of any bugs, but it's good to keep these things in mind. Also, be sure to score the shell before cooking. Otherwise they can explode like popcorn. I had one spit in my eye.

From Bill:

"Most nuts need to “cure” for a week or more after harvest to reduce their moisture content before they acquire proper flavor and texture.

One note of caution… before you roast your chestnuts, cut a couple of them in half to see if they contain curculio larvae.  The chestnut curculio or weevil is a fairly widespread pest that lays its eggs in developing chestnuts.  When the chestnuts fall to the ground, the change in temperature signals the eggs somehow and they hatch.  The result can be an unpleasant surprise.  In their natural life cycle, the larvae emerge from the chestnuts by eating a small hole in the shell and burrowing into the ground to emerge a year or two later as the next generation of weevils."

Stuart School and FOPOS Collaborate

The forests of Princeton and Central America both got a boost on a recent Saturday, when volunteers met behind Stuart School to clear trails and remove invasive plants. The afternoon's work was preceded by a presentation by leaders of a Fair Trade coffee collective, who explained how the purchase of Fair Trade Certified coffee works to improve the lives of coffee growers. Camila T., a Stuart School student who has been very active in promoting Fair Trade products in Princeton and beyond, served as translator for farmer Angelina Espinosa.

Afterwards, more or less bravely oblivious to the arrival of onagainoffagain rain, we headed into the woods to improve boardwalks and cut invasive shrubs like privet and Asian Photinia. A collaboration has been long in the works between Friends of Princeton Open Space and Stuart School, which is directly upstream of Mountain Lakes. Impetus to finally set things rolling came from Sophie Glovier and Stuart School science teacher Eric Anderson.

Coffee with the Fair Trade emblem on the package, competitive in taste and price, can be found at McCaffery's and no doubt many other locations in town.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Tall Yellows

One way a study of plants benefits overall thinking is the way they offer exercise in making distinctions. For minds that like to lazily leap to generalizations, plants offer a case for taking a closer look.

In a field of lanky yellow flowers, it's easy to say "they all look the same" until one looks.

Helenium autumnale has a yellow head and short petals.

Greenheaded (cutleaf) coneflower has green heads and long petals that flare back like a cone.

Cup plant has yet another assortment of distinguishing characters,

and characteristically distinct flower buds. The "cup" can be seen where the pairs of leaves surround the stem and form a container that holds rainwater. Though I've never seen cupplant in the wild, it's a native that has been planted most notably in NY's Central Park along the lakefronts as part of their habitat restoration.

Those shown here in the photos were a discrete propagation from a fine stand found growing next to the dumpster in the parking lot of Mark Twain's house in Hartford, CN.

Cattails Growing in Asphalt

Late summer was so wet that cattails grew in cracks in the pavement,
along with nut sedge.

Actually, species that thrive in wet soils can also survive well on roadsides, where soil compaction creates the same low-oxygen conditions that wetland species have adapted to in waterlogged soils. Street trees like pin oak, willow oak, sycamore and elm are all floodplain species.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Backlit Grasses

On the backside of the high school grow some backlit grasses--this year's placeholders for schoolyard garden dreams. The raised beds lovingly and optimistically installed in recent years at the town's middle school and elementary schools are living their dreams, prospering with their intended vegetables planted by students and cared for over the summer by volunteers.

Some glitch this past spring, however, left the high school gardens unplanted and untended, allowing the weeds to throw a party in the rich soil. Better to say that the garden is now a weed study lab, providing insights into the succession from intention to unintention. Old buildings and civilizations tend to follow a similar path. In the first photo, one of the many species of foxtail.

In the second photo, barnyard grass arches across in the foreground. There's a smartweed in there, too, just behind the barnyard grass, leaning to the right.

Weeds seem like free spirits, self-sufficient. But weeds need our neglect. They need the fresh ground laid bare and enriched by good intentions. "Knowing" us better than we know ourselves, they patiently wait for us to move on to other things, having set the stage for their glory.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Plant Sale This Weekend at D&R Greenway

D&R Greenway will have a native plant sale in Princeton this coming Friday and Saturday from 3-6pm. More information can be found here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Inadvertent Black Walnut Husking

Every year around this time, a homeowner on Linden Lane dumps black walnuts at the curb, apparently for pickup by the Boro Yardwaste Patrol's giant claw. As cars drive by, many of the walnuts get processed, that is, run over and stripped of their yellow-green husks. My father used to do this--put walnuts in the driveway and drive over them until the husks were off. What was left were the walnuts, with meats safe within an iron-hard shell. We may have tried breaking some open with a hammer, then toiled to pick out what small portions of nut were inside. Most of them remained for years in a big tin can in the basement. I think of that toil and trouble every time I buy a bag of nuts, all perfectly cleaned.

Breaking apart some of the nuts collected on Linden with a hammer proved very easy, though the meats were only black papery remains--nothing edible. Clearly, more gathering and testing is needed.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Dragonflies Dazzle in Local Parks

If you're out in a park tomorrow, take a look up in the air.

First, a memory: A couple years ago (will have to check what time of year), I chanced to walk into Potts Park--the little pocket park just off North Harrison Street--to find the sky filled with hundreds of large dragonflies. A closer look revealed that they were feasting on small winged, antlike insects streaming up out of the ground. The dragonflies zigged and zagged, snatching flies from just above the lawn up to sixty feet or so. Above them, in turn, was a flock of swallows trying to catch the dragonflies. A plain park of grass and play equipment had been transformed into a dazzling airborne foodchain of hunters and hunted, all precipitated by the hatching of a colony of insects that had probably been quietly living under our feet the whole summer. The plain lawn proved not so plain after all.

This memory came quickly to mind when today, returning home around 5:30pm, I found a phone message from Peter Wolanin, former collegue on the Princeton Environmental Commission. He had called to tell me dragonflies were swarming in Quarry Park. There had been lots yesterday, but still quite a few today. I got there in time to find about twenty large dragonflies, bluish in tint, flying above the lawn. What, don't you see them in the photo? I had about as much luck photographing their zippings around as the swallows had two years ago catching them for dinner.

There were no swallows this time, but I was able to track down the source of the small insects the dragonflies were catching. They were emerging out of a plain patch of mowed grass and mugwort near a stormdrain.
These, too, were hard to photograph, but you can see their antlike shape and wings. They crawled around on the grass blades until ready to fly. Some appeared much smaller than the others.
They're tiny, but apparently worth the while for the dragonflies. It's a scene not unlike the hatching of sea turtle eggs on a beach, where the baby turtles then have to run the gauntlet from nest to surf before getting snagged by a seagull.

Though the dragonflies' approach could seem helter skelter, they will sometimes assume a very systematic search pattern. Staying head height off the ground, one will fly thirty feet in a straight line, then make two perfect 90 degree turns to return in the opposite direction, exactly parallel to its previous path, offset about five feet. The pattern seldom lasts long before they break it to snag another insect.

A few dragonflies were also found patrolling above Potts Park today, a quarter of a mile away, where a similar hatch must have occurred.

More distant memories of dragonfly swarms were more likely associated with migration, such as when I saw thousands of them flying what must have been north, above the freeway that parallels the shoreline in Chicago.

There are many, many videos of dragonflies swarming on youtube. Here's one from "thedragonflylady."

Searching for Pettoranello Gardens

One of Princeton's secret, verdant enclaves is Pettoranello Gardens. If you not only know where it is but can also spell the name correctly, you are truly among a select few. It's a bit like the word "Wednesday", which refuses to spell itself the way people say it.

The Gardens can be found just down the paved trail from the Community Park North parking lot, off Mountain Avenue at 206.

Though the setting looks natural, it was reportedly once a dump. After a great deal of cleaning up, ground was pushed around to form a berm to buffer the Gardens from 206, and a pond was created, fed by a stream diverted from its original course.

The grounds are tended by volunteers with the Pettoranello Foundation--Pettoranello being Princeton's sister town in Italy, from whence many Princetonians originally came. They traditionally have workdays early on Sunday mornings, assisted by township staff.

The centerpiece of the Gardens is Pettoranello Pond, a manmade impoundment with a maximum depth around 8 feet.

An amphitheater looks out over Pettoranello Pond. This performance space used to host Shakespeare plays in the summer, but now is mostly used for periodic musical performances, and just today by the local Stone Soup Circus. I believe the Princeton Township recreation department oversees programming.

A dense planting of alders along banks breaks up the view of the water, but no doubt helps support the banks next to the paved trail.

Though the pond was dredged not long ago, it's upstream end is already filling with sediment from the feeder stream. I wish there were a way to periodically dig the sediment out, so as to postpone the next dredging, but in the meantime the shallows are great habitat for turtles. The pond is fed by two branches of Mountain Brook, one that comes tumbling down from the Princeton Ridge next to 206, the other beginning at the north end of the high school grounds, along Guillo Street.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Homage to a Swimming Pool

It was a summer like many others at the Community Park pool, with blue umbrellas and well-tended purple coneflowers gazing skyward at the entryway,

and blazing stars playing off the banners stretched across the main pool.

Sun and shadow played upon the walls of the dressing rooms,

whose patterned weatherings spoke so richly of the years.

Clock hands counted hours slowly,

and whistles 'round the watchful lifeguards' fingers twirled, as timeless summer days sped by.

By Labor Day, the last day for summer and for this pool, the flowers had faded,

to merge with deeper greens.

The sun cast no shadows, and it was time to take some last shots of what will soon be gone.

Forty years of passing days, arcing suns and summer squalls, etched in a wall.
Wondrous space where in is out and out comes in,  welcoming breeze and tips of trees,
sheltered but not enclosed,
seamlessly shifting from in to out.

Up the spiraling stairs, perched on stilts,
gentle authority spoke from humble highrise,
voice reaching round the rounded shrubs,
whose soft ramparts sheltered birds,

and others who might wish to fly.

There were town folk tan with splash gargantuan,
and a past Olympian

who cut

the water


It seemed, as final lengths were swum, the rippled light could dance forever 'cross the bottom of the pool,

but in the end, time ran out on the timeless. The well-aged words of closing came, to ask the scattered to be gathered, the gathered to disperse, reminding us that all goodbyes come by and by.

A place so welcoming of people and the elements will now to the elements return. For sun and shadow, birds and bathers, a new year will bring new habitat.

May this place play long upon our memories.