Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bottlebrush Buckeye

Buckeye species come in varied sizes. This one, bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora), has a growth pattern similar to sumac, forming a low clone over time. Having overgrown its narrow space between a path and the low carport roof, this specimen should have been moved in early spring, but to catch this year's flowers, I moved a portion early and left the rest until after it finishes blooming.

Native to the deep south (Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina), the USDA range map (click here and scroll down) unexpectedly shows disjunct wild populations in Pennsylvania and Somerset County, just to our north. I wouldn't be surprised if these northern populations are escapes from cultivation.

The tubular flowers attract some enthusiastic pollinators, including this moth that imitates the flight of a hummingbird.

Type "buckeye" in the search box at the upper left of this website for previous posts about bottlebrush and red buckeyes.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Fertile Oasis on John Street

Can you find the stealth township service in this photograph? In the distance are the basketball and tennis courts of Community Park, but I had heard rumors of community gardens somewhere along John Street, for heavily shaded residents to grow vegetables. This desolate corner with parking lots and weedy lawns didn't look promising,
but a peek over the fence reveals another world.
Looks like a good year for local food production.

A parallel scene at the Smoyer Park garden plots can be found in a post at

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Phantoms at Mountain Lakes

A close look reveals a Phantom Crane Fly (Bittacomorpha clavipes), clinging to a tiny bit of dead grass above a rivulet of water. In preparation for my nature walk tomorrow, I was exploring the backside of the lower dam at Mountain Lakes today, hoping that the renovation of the dam hadn't blocked a seepage that in years past had fed a wetland just below the dam.

Sure enough, the spring still flows, and above its steady trickle of water hovered magical-looking creatures the size of a silver dollar. When they fly, their legs remain extended, on a plane perpendicular to the ground. The effect is not unlike a sideways version of the woodsprites in Avatar, the "Atokirinas".

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Towpath in June

A few shots during a recent visit to the towpath along the canal, just upstream of Harrison Street:

Here's a section of the towpath trail whose crushed stone surface is still in good shape.
In many areas, though, the trail has yet to recover from the floodwaters last August that deposited a layer of mud over the crushed stone. The mud forces bicyclists and joggers to the edges of the trail.
Lush mounds of native switchgrass grow near Harrison Street, where a nature trail branches off from the towpath.
Deertongue grass is also at an attractive stage in its growth along the nature trail.
Common milkweed isn't typically thought of as an ornamental, but this extensive patch of it is eye-catching, and well attended by pollinators.
These flowers are able to bloom because the DandR Canal State Park agreed to reduce mowing in the field next to the towpath to once a year, allowing already present wildflowers to grow to full size. The great response of the wildflowers in turn led to the cutting of a loop trail through the field. This time of year, you'll see a progression of tall flowers like these milkweeds, tall meadow rue, cutleaf coneflower, rose mallow hibiscus, joe pye weed, ironweed, Helenium and so on--some thirty species with more being discovered occasionally, all because the mowing crews were convinced to do less work.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Nature Walk June 24

I will be leading a nature walk at Mountain Lakes Preserve on Sunday, June 24 from 10 to noon. The walk is sponsored by the Princeton Borough Shade Tree Commission. Meet at Mountain Lakes House, which can be accessed by going up the long driveway at 57 Mountain Ave in Princeton. Parking is in the gravel lot just before you reach the house.
The walk will include discussion of trees, invasive shrubs, and is also a great chance to admire the newly restored historic dams and lakes. We'll stick to main trails around the lakes, but sturdy shoes are recommended.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Weedful, Needful Sidewalk

After I posted an expose on an overgrown sidewalk in my neighborhood, a friend emailed to report another sidewalk in town whose copious foliage she does daily battle with on her way to work.

Upon arriving at the scene a mere two weeks later, my first impression was that there was no problem, because there was no sidewalk.

But closer inspection revealed evidence of a strip of asphalt originally intended for pedestrians. Could it be a remnant of the Indian trading route upon which Bayard Lane (206) is said to be built? Presence of a well-aged realty sign suggested no owner present to keep the trail clear. It being a state road, jurisdiction for maintenance could be even more muddled.

Given that I had come equipped with a camera rather than loppers, I decided my role was to document rather than resolve the problem, and provide tips on how to make the best of the situation until the party responsible for maintenance could be found. Here is my virtual guided tour of a nearly unnavigable sidewalk:

As you head south along the trail from Mountain Ave, acknowledge the hearty greetings of the foliage.

Shake hands with an overly friendly American elm.
As cars and trucks speed by just a few feet away, take time to smell the privet.

While sidestepping the poison ivy,
take note of the rich variety of leaf shapes--

Norway maple
and mugwort.
Be glad this bindweed isn't growing over the shrubs in your backyard.

Daydream of evening primrose flowers to come in late summer.

Sigh at the intimate intertwining of Japanese honeysuckle and Rose of Sharon.
Show proper respect for the thorns of barberry

and black locust.

Thrashing your way towards daylight, you may occasionally catch glimpses of a Shell station across the road. If you begin running low on provisions, it's good to know that help is nearby.
Some liquid sustenance may be obtained from these Japanese honeysuckle blossoms.

If slow progress forces you to camp for the night, nettle soup could be an option for dinner,

along with garlic mustard pesto.

Your campsite comes complete with television. Traffic should keep the bears away, though this is not guaranteed.

Beating the odds with a mixture of effort and luck, you'll make it through the toughest section with plenty of daylight hours left to reach your intended destination, and can look back with some pride at having conquered one of the most challenging stretches of sidewalk New Jersey has to offer.

Level of Difficulty: Class 4 (large standing waves of foliage, some precise maneuvering may be needed)

Korean Dogwoods Were No-Shows This Year

There was a dramatic difference in the blooms on Korean dogwoods this year compared to 2011. Last year, the Korean dogwoods in town were completely covered with white flowers, exemplified by this tree on Snowden Lane.
This year, whole sections of the tree were bare, a condition replicated elsewhere in town.
(Photo taken May 30)

I have yet to find any information on why there'd be such a dramatic difference. Oaks vary year to year in how many acorns they produce. The die-off of white pines and other conifers last year was said to be due to a severe drought the year before. Trauma can be delayed in its expression. It could be that the heavy investment in flowering last year left this and other Korean dogwoods with fewer resources this spring.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Garden Event This Saturday at Riverside School

It's family fun day this Saturday at Riverside Elementary, with garden tours, music performances, a plant sale, exhibits, environmental film showings and a silent auction, all part of Healthy Children, Healthy Planet 2012. I've been asked to again man a table to help gardeners with weed identification, so bring your favorite, or least favorite, mystery weed along as fodder for discussion. The address is 58 Riverside Drive in Princeton. More info at

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Tall Indigo Bush

One of the more unusually colored flowers in town is produced by the tall indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa), which can be found growing wild next to Mountain Lakes and Lake Carnegie.
The flowers combine deep purple with orange anthers.

With this spring seeming more silent than usual when it came to pollinators, I was greatly relieved to find a large specimen of tall indigo bush, in full bloom and warmed by the afternoon sun, hosting a vibrant metropolis of insect life.
Bumble bees spiraled round and round the blooms in pollen-collecting gyres, like frenzied wind-up toys.

This may be a so-called metallic green bee.
Tall indigo bush flowers and leaves mixed with the verticals of soft rush.

Honey bees mingled with the native bees.
While a solitary ladybug,
and others among the great unknowns of the insect world

called the shrub home for an aft
This native shrub may be hard to find for sale. Along the shores of Mountain Lakes, it appears to spread underground, like sumac, but when transplanted into new locations I've also seen it remain for many years a single stemmed bush with attractive form and foliage, and a late spring feast for pollinators.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

White Mulberry

It's hard to notice this blob of a tree on Hamilton Ave. just up from Linden Lane.
When the sidewalk beneath it gets littered this time of year, it looks like any other detritus a tree might shed now and then.
I've been riding a bike this way for years, but only now noticed that the tree is a white mulberry (Morus alba, native to China), which means edible berries in profusion.
If it were the native red mulberry, the berries would be black when ripe. But the white mulberry ripens without much change of color, going from light green to a slight pinkish hue.
While we're busy buying strawberries from California or grapes from Chile, the local mulberry crop rots on the ground.
Why don't mulberries get any respect? Even though they taste good, their presentation quickly triggers feelings of surfeit. The tree dares our appetite to compete against its bounty, and we know we'll lose every time.

Too, the maps in our minds associate food with the local store, not trees in the landscape. With fruits available year-round in stores, there seems no urgency to exploit the sudden and passing gift of a neighborhood tree.

The same dilemma faces anyone who considers using public transportation. Why go through the planning and uncertainty of catching a bus when the car is ever at the ready?

For now, a mulberry is a bit of serendipity on the way into town, a roadside stand, quietly spilling bounty in our path.

Note: A friend noted that birds take advantage of at least a portion of the mulberry's bounty. Researching the red mulberry (not the white mulberry in this post) I found that the Wisconsin-based Wild Ones website counts 44 bird species that eat the red mulberry's fruit. The red mulberry's role as a food source for insects, which are a vital part of birds' diet, is less impressive. The site has downloadable data on how many lepidoptera species were found on various plant species. For example, oaks feed 534 different butterfly/moth species, blueberry supports 288, while red mulberries support 10.