Saturday, November 30, 2013

Osage-Orange and the Missing Megafauna

Looks like somebody didn't finish their Thanksgiving dinner. In fact, I don't think they even showed up at the table.

This Osage-Orange, a native tree named after an Indian tribe, grows next to Princeton Pike. Indians reportedly prized their wood for bows, and colonists used them as living fences. As a species, they don't get around much anymore, mostly because the megafauna with the teeth and digestive system to eat their formidable fruit, and transport their seeds, went extinct in America more than 10,000 years ago. The megafaunas' extinction conspicuously follows the arrival of Homo sapiens to this continent.

The giants that once roamed our piece of the earth--among them mastodons, woolly mammoths, giant sloths, horses--not only transported the seeds but served other ecological services, transporting nutrients from floodplains up to higher ground and maintaining clearings with their massive appetites.

To the osage-orange, add the honey locust, Kentucky coffeetree, and pawpaw as rarely occurring species that might have once been more common if their seed dispersers hadn't disappeared.

Next Thanksgiving, for something different, consider inviting some genetically reconstituted megafauna to dinner, and don't forget the Osage-Orange.

Among many sources for more reading:

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Nature Walk at Herrontown Woods This Saturday

(Cross-posted at Come join a nature walk this Saturday, Nov. 30, at 1 pm along the newly renovated trails at Herrontown Woods. Beginning this past July, volunteers Kurt Tazelaar and Sally Curtis took it upon themselves to clear the trails, which had become largely impassible over the years due to storm damage and invasive shrubs. All of the original trails are now open.

Along the way, we'll visit the Veblen House and Cottage, where volunteers have recently uncovered the circle of stones called a "horse run",

hike the boulder fields of the Princeton Ridge, visit a quarry site, 

and look out across the valley from a newly rediscovered bluff. Dress warmly, and enjoy the light-filled forest. Kids welcome, and dogs on leashes.

Meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot, down a deadend street across Snowden Lane from Smoyer Park (near where Snowden ends at Herrontown Road) (This map may help if you zoom out, using the +/_ in the lower right hand corner)

Homage to the Next Generation of Trees

One fairly rare sighting, both in Princeton's woodlands and parks and along streets, is a young tree. The great Mercer Oak that was finally blown down after 300 years of life was replaced in 2000 with an offspring, but how about all the other trees that have been lost in recent years, and will be lost if the predictions of Princeton's recently completed tree inventory prove correct? Perhaps we've gotten out of the habit of planting trees, having long been spoiled by their abundance.

This blog takes all sides on trees, praising one tree, ruing another, finding tranquility in a deep forest or opportunity in the sun-filled opening a fallen tree leaves behind, and ever thankful for how they give both in life and death.

This post offers examples of young trees growing in auspicious locations, and all the wonderful work they are already doing.

First, I'd like to thank a neighbor for letting a volunteer red oak grow in a perfect spot to shade my driveway and pickup truck. They probably haven't even noticed it, but I do. Seems like just the other day it was a little sprig peeking over the fence.

And thanks to the folks, too, who paid for a tree to be planted in Potts Park to celebrate the birth of their son. We chose the spot carefully, wanting it to eventually shade the play equipment through the summer, but not be out in the field where it might intersect with a kid running after a ball. Many swings and play structures around the world are not being allowed to live up to their full potential, abandoned by kids when they overheat in summer for lack of a tree.

Another red maple, though perhaps better to have been planted on the house side of the sidewalk, is beginning to fill one of the many gaps along our streets. We need many more trees like this one to keep Princeton's pavement from baking in the summer. The more this tree shades and transpires, the less pedestrians will perspire.

Hard to believe that not long ago this pin oak and American elm were little two foot volunteer seedlings my neighbors transplanted to their front yard. Their faith in the growth force in modest saplings, and the remarkable way time has of passing, is quickly yielding a visual buffer and afternoon shade for their house.

This backyard tulip poplar was another volunteer transplanted to a spot well away from the house.

This young backyard white oak is doing a good imitation of Mercer Oak Jr. over at Princeton Battlefield. Just beyond the fence, in Potts Park, a grove of white oaks planted by the town has matured into a favorite spot for picnics and birthday parties.

Another friend has started a pawpaw patch in their "back 40",

and a fig tree bearing delicious figs in a protected spot next to the driveway.

Though ginkgoes don't support wildlife the way native trees do (a recent article in the NY Times reports that only a few insects feed on ginkgo, while an oak serves up food for more than 500 insect species), these stilty varieties are shading the way along an improbably narrow space over at the Princeton Healthcare Center.

I like to think that the proximity of young trees, with their dynamic growth happening at our level, puts us better in touch with an aspirational energy that can feed our own. When I hear Copland's Appalachian Spring, I think of young landscapes--prairies and early successional stages. In addition to the mature beauty of a forest, we need among us these renewing landscapes, these fresh beginnings, to feed our spirit.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Purple Muhly Grass and Piedmont Prairies

One of my favorite native prairie grasses is purple muhly. It's common name comes from its latin name, Muhlenbergia capillaris. The species name, capillaris, comes in turn from the latin word for hair, referring to its fine texture. Each fall, these two specimens in my neighborhood turn into purple clouds. Though I've never seen purple muhly growing wild hereabouts, there are other native prairie grasses to be found along the gasline right of way and the towpath: switchgrass, Indian grass, little bluestem, broom sedge, and big bluestem.

The one place I've seen purple muhly growing in the wild is in Durham, North Carolina, in a little piedmont prairie remnant that I'm proud to say we just saved from development. A flurry of emails and some timely intervention by city council members spared the roadside prairie from being obliterated by a "sidewalk to nowhere". Convention requires that a sidewalk be built, whether pedestrians would have any occasion to use it or not, and the typical landscaping imposed is turfgrass. The result, in this case, would have been to destroy an ark that had carried more than 100 species of native wildflowers, grasses and shrubs safely from colonial or pre-colonial times to the present. The complex interaction of plants, soil and hydrology is distinct to that site, so moving the prairie was not an option.

The prairie remnants in Durham have some kinship with our Princeton Ridge, in that both are characterized by underlying diabase rocks from which their soil is derived. The soil has a distinct chemistry that in turn supports a distinct flora. Princeton is at the northernmost extent of the piedmont, which extends down through North Carolina and beyond.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Why Does Black Locust Grow Next to Historic Houses?

One of my favorite trees, black locust, generally gets a bad rap. Though native to the Appalachian Mountains, it is considered invasive elsewhere and portrayed by many as a bad actor in the garden.

And yet, large and noble specimens can be found growing next to more than one historic house in the Princeton area. Walk behind the Clark House at Princeton Battlefield and you'll find two big specimens towering over the house (on the right in the photo).

Brearley House in Pennington similarly has five big specimens (a couple can be seen on the left). The Veblen House in Herrontown Woods has remnants of a mature grove of black locust close by.

The black locust shows up not only in the yards of historic houses but also in the histories of great men. There's the story of how Lincoln spent much of his time as a young man splitting rails and fence posts from black locust logs. John Muir is said to have had his first, fateful botany lesson under a black locust tree on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

One potential downside of black locust is its capacity to sprout abundantly from roots after being cut down. This can be annoying in a garden, and in areas of the country with prairie remnants, it reportedly can become a woody bully, shading out these highly sun-dependent habitats and re-sprouting aggressively if cut down or burned. In groves where it was grown for making decay-resistant fenceposts, however, its resprouting from the existing root structure conveniently reduced the time between harvests.

The criticism that black locusts take on the web--thorns, brittle branches that fall in windstorms, aggressive sprouting--conflicts with observations in my neighborhood, where there are several beautiful specimens in people's front yards that the owners are very pleased with.

Black locust is a fast-growing tree that offers first rate fence posts, firewood that burns unusually hot and clean, abundant flowers for the honeybees, and an appealing contrast between dark, craggy limbs and dissected, light-green leaves. These are the features that may explain its presence in historical landscapes.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Birthday Ducks

Our two backyard ducks turned one today.

What does one do for a duck on its birthday? A nice little pool full of fresh water is a good start. It wouldn't be right for a duck to be a duck out of water on its birthday.

Hard to believe they were once a living version of rubber duckies, little more than a day old, freshly delivered from California in a cardboard box to the Princeton post office out on Route 1.

If any month can be called normal for receiving ducks in the mail in New Jersey, it's definitely not November. Still, things worked out. They and their baby mallard companions lived their first days and weeks in a spare bathtub with furniture provided by our younger daughter. The accommodations came with all you can eat oatmeal and starter food from a farm supply store just up the road.

From day one, they were ready to follow us anywhere, including an extensive hike in the local nature preserve.

That is they, down by her feet.

Daisy, upper left, is a Pekin duck with a mass to wing ratio that makes flight beyond a few feet problematic, but I like to think that her impressive size and personality is helping give hawks second thoughts about swooping in.

The other ducks, particularly the mallards, could have flown off long ago, but have apparently found our wildflower and shrub-strewn backyard sufficiently entertaining and bountiful to hold their interest. They get along fine with our two chickens and live together in the homemade coop. (The mallards have since moved to the country, which is a separate post.)

The mini-ponds were a plus during the rainy spring and summer, though lack of heavy rains in recent months has left them dry.

Molly, on the right, is a runner duck who expresses a lot of her duck thoughts and feelings by bending her neck in various directions as she walks. The tub gets filled with runoff from the roof, and can be tipped over and emptied if mosquito larvae show up, or if the ducks make the water muddy.

The ducks are quiet most of the time, but can get into conversations. Neighbors tell us they like hearing them, and the sounds must come as a surprise to users of the public park behind our house.

Beyond an occasional coop cleaning, there isn't much more to having them than opening the coop up in the morning, giving them food and water, and making sure to close the door of the coop at dusk after they've gone back in. It's nice to have pets that really enjoy the yard.

When it comes to ducks and giving, we get far more than we give, with each of the ducks bearing an egg a day.

Happy birthday, Daisy and Molly!

Gone Fishing

This is not what I was doing during a recent pause in PrincetonNatureNotes posting, but hard not to like this scene, taken a month ago at Sourland Mountain Preserve. There's a pond next to the parking lot.

What I have been doing is a different kind of fishing expedition, writing theater pieces having to do with climate change, working with the Rotary Club of Princeton to gain access to the Veblen House and cottage to begin restoration work, and working with the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association to save a rare piedmont prairie remnant in my former hometown, Durham, NC from being destroyed by a "sidewalk to nowhere".

In fishing, one can only control where and how, not the final result. One has no power to command. Writing a theatrical piece starts with an idea, but whether the words will emerge from the well is hard to predict. Trying to save a publicly owned historic house or a historic prairie also involves a lack of ultimate control, with only an alluring proposal and persistence to influence the result. On the surface, climate change may not seem a promising subject for theater. The house and prairie don't look like much from the outside. But any fisherman knows that you don't judge a body of water by its surface, but by the riches underneath.

Mysterious Insect

Most insects are mysterious to a botanist, but this one, encountered about a month ago at Princeton's Rogers Refuge, down from the Institute Woods, was particularly so. Something had used a purple loosestrife leaf to hold what looked like a miniature bundle of cotton candy.

The remains of a caterpillar were still there. My crack research team is on the case, with a breakthrough expected any day.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Migration Update--Monarchs and Red Knots

This year's count of monarchs overwintering in the mountains of Mexico is ongoing, as the monarchs continue to arrive. There's an update page, apparently updated weekly. Here's an update from Nov. 10:
As of November 10th, there were 10 trees filled with monarchs at El Rosario Sanctuary. This compares to 60 trees on November 1, 2011.
You can see how the numbers have fallen, with the change in U.S. farming practices, particularly widespread adoption of Roundup-Ready GMO corn and soybeans, being a big factor in the decline.

Another extraordinary migration threatened--The Red Knot

Below is info from Delaware Riverkeeper on a proposal to list the Red Knot--the robin-sized bird that flies nearly 19,000 miles each year, from southern Patagonia up to the arctic and back--as threatened. There's a quick link provided where you can put your vote in for increasing the designation to "endangered". Long-distance migrating species are the most affected by changes in climate, because their arrival at different locations along the way need to be well-timed with available food sources that will fuel the next leg of their journey. This link takes you to a previous post with more info on the red knot, the heroic efforts to save it, and its annual stopover in New Jersey to feast on freshly laid horseshoe crab eggs.
Speak Out to Save the Red Knot, a Delaware Bay Shorebird, from Extinction
Support the Proposal to List the Red Knot Under the Endangered Species Act – But Urge a Listing of Endangered Rather than Just Threatened.
Red knots that migrate through Delaware Bay have declined by 75 percent or more since the 1980s.  The current number of these beautiful birds hovers around just 25,000 in our Delaware Bay population.
While the Delaware Riverkeeper Network filed in 2005 to have the species listed for protection as early as 2005, only now, as the result of litigation, has the US Fish & Wildlife Service finally gotten around to proposing an increased level of protection the birds so desperately need.
Today the US Fish & Wildlife Service is proposing to list the Red Knot as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.  This step is vital if we are to protect the species from extinction, but it is equally important that the level of protection be that of Endangered, not just Threatened.
Please take a moment and send your letter today.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Fantastical Sculptures of Firewood and Living Plants

This wood, holding carbon and sunlight harvested locally, will come in handy when it's fully seasoned, four seasons from now. In the meantime, it must be dreaming fantastical, cellulosic dreams of all the marvelous shapes it could take if only its owner were a more ambitious sculptor.

Such marvels on the internet make this past year's garden house of firewood, already stripped down as its curved walls are fed to the stove, look even more modest.

More fantastical and totally awesome than the firewood sculptures in the first link are these horticultural "live art" sculptures. Thanks to Marge for the link. Below is a description:

"Once every three years, there is an international competition in horticultural sculpture, called "mosaiculture," in a major city in the world. This year it is Montreal . This is not topiary but rather creating sculptures out of living plants. The greatest horticulturalists in the world, from 20 different countries, submitted plans a year in advance. Steel armatures were then created to support the works (some 40 feet high); they were then wrapped in steel mesh and filled with dirt and moss and watering hoses. Then they ordered 3 million plants of different shades of green and brown and tan, and these were grown in greenhouses all over Quebec . In late May, these horticulturalists came to Montreal and planted all of their plants in the forms at the Montreal Botanic Gardens, and they have been standing for three months now. There were 50 major sculptures along a path two miles long. They were incredible. If you would like to visit a few and walk along the path with me, click on or paste"

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The Color-Coded Forest--Nature's Halloween

This time of year, the forest does its own inverted version of Halloween. Rather than obscuring their identity behind costumes, the trees and shrubs reveal their inner identity. As the chlorophyll fades away, the leaves show each species' true colors, which had been there all along, hiding behind the green facade. These bold declarations make it suddenly easy to identify every bush and tree in the forest, near or far. In this photo, a small sweetgum tree shows its yellow, with Photinia behind it tending more towards brown, and the still green bush honeysuckle rising farther back. Flowering dogwood pokes in some burgundy at the top center of the photo.

Some species are tricky, varying their color depending on location. In front of the Princeton Shopping Center (no photo here), the winged euonymus shrubs lining the old gas station site turn brilliant red in full sun. Given less sunlight, as here, growing at the edge of the woods, they turn a modest pink.

In deep shade, their leaves turn white in the fall.

The native euonymus--Hearts-a-Bustin, which is currently extremely rare locally--also can turn this uncanny, ghostly white.

Very dramatic has been the Japanese maples growing next to the Veblen cottage out at Herrontown Woods, whose condition makes it seem to some a haunted house out in the forest.

The color coding can be useful for surveying the extent of species that are proving to be invasive, like this wisteria that's gone rogue around the Veblen House,

as well as for finding rarely occurring natives like this hazelnut, standing out from the surrounding honeysuckles.

Hazelnuts are real loners. There are three scattered specimens at Mountain Lakes, and only two found thus far in Herrontown Woods and vicinity.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Sourwood and Other Trees of Christ Congregation

Each year about this time, I make the pilgrimage to the Christ Congregation church to see their two beautiful sourwoods--a native tree I first encountered in the understory of North Carolina's piedmont woodlands. It's rarely planted in Princeton, and for some reason the USDA site shows it as indigenous to most eastern states but not NJ.

On Walnut Street, across from Princeton High School, the church has an interesting history with trees--a controversial one that came down some years back (see below), a new one coming up, and some nice mature specimens.

My visit happened to coincide with some bulb planting by Dwight Wilkinson, who declared he was a proud member of the PHS class of '62. The bulbs went in around a magnolia tree planted in memory of the church's five founders, one of whom was Dwight's father.

The magnolia turns out, like the sourwood, to be a species more typical further south--a southern magnolia (M. grandiflora). This particular cultivar, according to Dwight, is more cold-tolerant, with bright coppery undersides to the leaves.
The sourwood's distinctive golden seeds--its genus name Oxydendron refers to the finger-like rows of seeds--contrast with the brilliant red foliage. Dwight was glad to finally learn the tree's identity.

The two sourwoods are on the left, with an impressive specimen of American holly on the right.

The other side of the church is a good place to compare the mottled bark of the Korean dogwood (Cornus kousa)

with the cobblestone-patterned bark of the native dogwood (Cornus florida).

The controversial tree that came down years back was a big beautiful pin oak that was sacrificed so that the church could install solar panels in back, on the flat part of the roof. The relevant shade tree commission (borough?) defended the tree, but the church group brought data to the Princeton Environmental Commission, which I was on at the time, showing that the solar panels would reduce CO2 emissions by many times more than what the tree could absorb over its lifetime. Plus, the panels shade the roof from the sun much like a tree, and may provide some insulation in the winter. Only after considerable persistence did the church finally get permission to take the tree down. Even though the tree had looked to be in excellent condition, the town arborist later told us the cut portions showed signs of bacterial leaf scorch.