Saturday, August 30, 2014

Capturing a Backyard in a Bouquet

A wildflower bouquet offers a summary of a backyard. On the left are the white of boneset with some bright yellow of cup plant peeking out. On the right are mistflower with the deeper purple of ironweed above. Some black-eyed susans (a bred variety) appear orange.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

An Inchworm That Wears Camouflage

After a visit to the Community Park Elementary's native garden with some YMCA summer camp kids a couple weeks ago, I sat down to lunch and noticed what looked like a flake of sawdust on my arm. I was about to brush it off when it seemed to move.

Even after a closer look, it still appeared to be a small woodchip that just happened to be able to move on its own volition. A little research showed it to be a camouflaged looper--a kind of inchworm that glues bits of camouflage on its back.

Below is a video that shows it in action.

The camouflaged looper is one of the few invertebrates that creates its own disguise, and can reportedly change the disguise to match whatever vegetation it's on at any given time.

Here's one of the many other posts that can be found about the insect on the internet. The inchworm turns into a Wavy Lined Emerald moth.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Princeton's Underground Brook--Exposed!

There she flow! Ain't she a beaut? Harry's Brook, in all her glory. Where has she been all these years? Why, just beneath the ground, buried alive, embraced by concrete, seven feet wide, seven feet high--spacious compared to most pipes, I suppose, with all the room in the (under)world.

No squeaky wheel, this brook, silent and forgotten while it flows from its beginnings in Palmer Square down past Spring Street and the rest of eastern Princeton towards Carnegie Lake.

Even when it "daylights", which is to say emerges from its underground concrete bondage, at the intersection of Harrison Street and Hamilton Avenue, most people don't notice.

This wasn't always the case. Back when kids had free-range, be-back-for-dinner childhoods, some used to spend part of their summers spelunking, which is to say exploring this manmade underworld, from Harrison Street almost up to Madison Street before the pipe got too small. Must have been nicely air conditioned on a hot summer's day.

On this map, from p. 55 of Princeton's  Environmental Resource Inventory, the Harry's Brook watershed is in off-white. Carnegie Lake is on the right, with a blue line extending towards that black box that used to be the borough's boundaries. The blue line ends abruptly at the "t" in Princeton, which is Harrison Street. From there leftwards on the map to the purple point at Palmer Square, Harry's Brook is underground. When heavy rains fill its concrete corridor to the brim, the brook spills out onto the streets, which can be thought of as ephemeral tributaries of the brook. The streets we drive on are connected by pipes directly to the brook, and are therefore part of it. If the streets are dirty, the brook is dirty.

This photo is at the same location as the first photo, prior to excavation, with two parallel orange lines marking where the brook flows through a clearcut lot on Linden Lane just up from Hamilton Avenue.

A friend sent these photos of the excavation for the basement, looking from the opposite side, with the concrete chamber for the brook exposed there on the left.

In this view of streets from above, the colored line is the creek, which flows underground through the backyards of houses on the south side of Hamilton Avenue.

Before it was put underground, Harry's Brook upstream of Madison Street was made to conform to the grid of downtown Princeton, as seen in this map from 1906.

Untrimmed Tree Brimming With Persimmons

Mmmmm. The forest is rising up around Princeton University's bridge over Washington Road, and in that forest is a persimmon tree or two.

Not quite sure how to reach them. Maybe one of those golf ball retriever thingies would work. They should turn a Princetonian orange when ripe.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Richness of Richweed

When it comes to flower biology, the more you look, the more you see. Sometimes a single observation can open up a whole new world. What, for instance, is going on here? Some sort of tiny bee is ignoring the main flower and instead doing a high wire act to nibble on the tip of a stamen jutting out from the petals.

I had been content to largely ignore this fairly rare native plant growing in my backyard. It's sometimes called horsebalm (for no clear reason), or stoneroot (for its hard, medicinal root), but I prefer to call it richweed, because it has a preference for rich woodland soil, and the idea that something called a "weed" is also rich is appealing. I had rescued a couple from the path of a stream restoration, had read that it rates 9 on a scale of 10 on the plant stewardship index, and was content just to know it had escaped the bucket of a backhoe. In a mixture of sun and shade, it's fairly attractive when massed, with leaves reminiscent of hydrangea, but the flower doesn't grab one's attention.

This summer, though, with cool weather bringing outdoor comfort and extended flowering lengths, I finally paused long enough to check out what sorts of pollinators the richweed was attracting. Mainly bumblebees, which look perfectly matched for this flower, bobbing from one to another, giving each one a bear hug as they sip the nectar. The flower is so shaped, with the stamens jutting out on either side of the flower, to appear as if the embrace is mutual.

But then there was another kind of bee, smaller, that was, as mentioned, feeding not on the nectar but solely on the pollen at the end of each long stamen.

Stepping inside to browse the internet, word comes that richweed's flowers are lemon scented--fitting for a plant in the mint family. The root has medicinal qualities, and the stamens are described as "exserted", meaning protruding. (Those are the two finger-like protrusions that frame the flower.) One of the perks of learning some botany is that you're likely to encounter words otherwise lost from the english language. The companion for "insert" lives on in descriptions of flowers in dusty botany manuals.

While digging up lost words, why not give the internet a companion as well, i.e. the externet, or outernet--that being the web of life in the real world, the great outdoors, nature. One prompts exploration of the other.

A deeper look at the externet, in the form of a long ignored flower, prompted a deeper look at the internet and what it has to say about richweed. One link led to a discussion of autogamy in The Natural History of Plants. Richweed (Collinsonia canadensis) fertilizes itself when the stigma at the end of the long style (purple with a tiny fork at the end, in the photo) bends over and touches the anther at the end of one of the stamens. Here's how it reads in the book:
"The accomplishment of autogamy through the inclination of a style otherwise straight is of even less usual occurrence. The most striking example of this process is afforded by the bilabiate flowers of the North American Collinsonia canadensis. In the newly-opened blossom the long style stands midway between two exserted stamens which are almost as long as the style. Towards the end of the flower's period of blossom, the style begins to slope towards one of the stamens, moving like the hand of a clock through an angle of from. 20" to 40" until its stigma comes against the pollen-covered anther borne by the stamen in question."

In this photo, you can see the (female) style of the flower on the left reaching over towards the (male) anther of the other, which in "The Botanic Garden, A Poem in Two Parts" becomes invested with great meaning:

"But I was this morning surprised to observe ... the manifest adultery of several females of the plant Collinsonia, who had bent themselves into contact with the males of other flowers of the same plant in their vicinity, neglectful of their own."

It's good to know that, if we ever run out of human indiscretions to feed the rumor mill, plants stand ready to fill the void.

The journey into the internet also brought up a marvelous text by William Bartram, early botanical explorer who made a late 18th century trip through Cherokee country.
"AFTER leaving the low grounds and ascending the hills, discovered the plant I went in search of, which I had before frequently observed in my descent from the Creek nation down towards Taensa. This plant appears to be a species of Collinsonia; it is diuretic and carminative, and esteemed a powerful febrifuge, an infusion of its tops is ordinarily drank at breakfast, and is of an exceeding pleasant taste and flavor; when in flower; which is the time the inhabitants gather it for preservation and use; it possesses a lively aromatic scent, partaking of lemon and aniseed."
Rich it was and rich it remains, this richweed, a valued remnant of the abundant wealth in that wild garden known as America.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Kayaking Up the Mighty Millstone Marsh

If you ever tire of land, Princeton offers a complex of waterways that can be easily navigated by kayak or canoe. There's Carnegie Lake, of course, but also the canal, Stony Brook, and the Millstone River, which flows through a beautiful marsh just a few paddle strokes upstream of Carnegie Lake. A friend, who in the acting world goes by the name of Basha, had been singing the praises of the marsh this year, and we finally headed over there this past Saturday in late afternoon. The put-in is over towards Plainsboro, off Mapleton Road, next to the aquaduct parking lot.

If you've lived in Princeton for ten years without knowing where the aquaduct is, it's where the Millstone River ducks under the DR Canal, downstream of the Harrison Street crossing. Near this "aquaduck" is a pair of mute swans (a species of Eurasian origin, easily distinguised from indigenous trumpeter and tundra swans by its orange bill) that have become the DR Canal's version of rock stars since they had three babies, properly called cygnets. They quickly realized we had no food to offer. Body language here is suggesting which adult is the mother.

The wilder world of native plants and wildlife is accessed by paddling to the left, through a channel bordered by masses of spadderdock,

then under the newish Route 1 bridge.

The channel begins to narrow. The slim profiles of egrets, standing still in the water, become masses of pure white as they spread their wings to fly off. The native rose mallow hibiscus lines the banks in full bloom.

Along the banks and extending deep into the shadows are cardinal flowers, thriving in this year's rains.

Always on the lookout for something new, I found a marsh St. Johnswort (Triadenum virginicum), blooming on the bank.

This, too, was a welcome sight: partridge pea, apparently planted in a restoration site on the east bank. It used to have an easier latin name until someone changed it to Chamaecrista fasciculata. It's closely related to the sensitive pea (smaller) and wild senna (larger), both of which can also be found growing wild in Princeton, particularly along the canal.

One battle I fought for awhile was to get departments of transportation and other governmental entities to stop using the highly invasive Sericea lespedeza for erosion control and start using less obnoxious plants like partridge pea. Sericea lespedeza, also called Chinese bushclover or Lespedeza cuneata, is now taking over the gas pipeline right of way in Princeton, and is a big problem in tallgrass prairies in Kansas and elsewhere.

More successful was the battle fought by Basha and others against the Millstone Bypass, a road that would have been routed close to the Millstone marsh. She's keeping her files, knowing that bad ideas never die.

Another wildflower common in the marsh and along the canal is climbing hempvine. No relation to hemp.

One remarkable sight was wild string beans, produced by the native groundnut. In my garden, it has begun to take over since a tree was taken down and the extra sun fueled this vine's ambitions. Groundnut tends to produce lots of flowers but no beans, as if the flowers were a front organization distracting attention from the underground spread of its tubers. In the wild, it needs that aggressiveness to compete with the other aggressive species along the shores. The tubers, by the way, are said to be edible, and some efforts have been made to breed this plant for commercial food production.

It's a good year for arrowwood Viburnum berries. Note the toothed leaves, thus Viburnum dentatum.

Nearly all the buttonbushes had finished with their golfball sized blooms. Some had improbably oversized leaves. Buttonbush grows well in standing water along the shore, but can also prosper in wet ground in the backyard. In fact, many of the native plants flourishing in the marsh also do well in constructed raingardens in town.

Once you're up in the narrower portion of the marsh, it's best to keep right. Basha showed where heading to the left leads to a deadend. There's a low fallen tree you'll need to duck under at one point.

Mysterious but cleanish looking fluids spill from a pipe with Sarnoff's name and phone number printed above. Just out from this outfall, the surface of the stream is broken by periodic upwellings of water from down below. A faint smell of treated sewage can be detected.

Paddling further up would lead eventually to the overpass for the NJ Transit train, but even a brief visit to the lower end of the marsh has a wild feel to it. Among other sightings were great blue herons, a weasel, turtles, ironweed, and some less charismatic native plants like tearthumb. Beavers like the area, and have been known to slap their tails on the water to warn anyone getting too close.

Even a pile of branches rewards, or warrants, closer inspection.

On the way out, we again passed the resident egrets. A bald eagle flew overhead on its way down Carnegie Lake. Though we could have lingered longer and continued upstream, the whole trip took less than two hours. What a treat to have such habitat so easily accessed just outside of town, and thanks to Basha for the tour.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Housing Authority Apologizes for Raingarden Bulldozing

A quick note to readers that on August 19, after a week of tense exchanges with the Housing Authority, I received an email from the Housing Authority's executive director stating the following:
"First and foremost, I, along with my staff and Board of Commissioners want to offer our sincere apology to you and the community at large for destroying an ecologically friendly community gift. The Princeton Housing Authority and the board certainly appreciate your hard work and dedication in donating your time and effort in the landscaping project. " 
The email goes on to express a desire to move forward in correcting the situation. The email was an important step towards healing, and I look forward to working with Housing staff and board members towards making something positive out of this unfortunate event. I will be posting more on this as time goes on.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"Open Raingarden" Event Tomorrow

It's like an open house, except outside the house. The raingardens here at our urban oasis (by "urban" I mean a busy street in Princeton) are in full bloom, and I'd like people to have a chance to see them. Come by this Sunday, Aug. 17, 3-5pm. I know it's short notice, so email me if you'd like to stop by some other time. The address is 139 N. Harrison St in Princeton. Best to park on Ewing Street or Franklin Ave. if driving. Much of our backyard is fed by runoff from uphill neighbors, which feeds gardens full of native wildflowers, sedges and rushes.

Of the two raingardens in the front yard, one catches water from the neighbor's driveway. The other receives water from one of the front downspouts. The backyard is a reconstructed streambed--what once was a small tributary of Harry's Brook, visible on old maps--with a series of miniponds enveloped in all the native plant growth evidenced in the photo. The ponds vary from full to empty, depending on the rains.

You may also encounter a few charismatic chickens and ducks, and a "fillable/spillable" rainwater duck pond (patent pending). Included is a small "yard" sale, consisting of native wildflowers from the yard that have been potted up. Nearly all are local genotypes. 

And please bring any empty plastic flower pots you don't need. There are native volunteer plants sprouting out all over, and I've run out of pots.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Searching for Monarchs in Princeton

The monarch butterfly, as most people know, is in trouble, due in part to a radical decimation of milkweed on more than one hundred million acres of farmland in the U.S. in recent years. Thus far this summer, I had seen a grand total of two monarchs, one having visited the raingarden in my front yard on Harrison Street. Another raingarden on Harrison Street, at the Spruce Circle senior housing, had just been bulldozed while in full flower.

With that traumatic step backwards in mind, I set out yesterday on my bike to check out a few spots elsewhere in Princeton. If a monarch were to travel around town at about the speed of a bike, wings warmed by the sun after a recent rain, would it find any prospective mates?

First stop was the meadow at the corner of Mountain Ave and the Great Road. The Joe-Pye-Weed was blooming as it does every year, but no monarchs to be seen.

Then a ride up the Great Road to Farmview Fields, where I had hooked the town up with Partners for Fish and Wildlife--a federal agency--to plant a meadow of warm-season native grasses in a stormwater detention basin that had previously been mowed as turf. More habitat, less mowing. Everyone was happy. I had added some native wildflowers, and others had seeded in. When I checked last year it was doing great. Yesterday, however, I was surprised to find the grasses stunted and the wildflowers gone. It hadn't been bulldozed, but something's wrong with the mowing regime, which should be just once a year during the dormant season.

Again, there's a sign that should signal that this is a special area, requiring a different management.

The heavy equipment had left some patches of ground scarred and bare. Mowing crews are so used to mowing these detention basins elsewhere that they may have started regularly mowing this one, out of habit. I had a job mowing a golf course one summer. It's not the kind of work that encourages thinking outside the box.

An unmowed area nearby showed what the basin should have looked like, with the "turkey feet" of big bluestem rising to the sky.

There was a swallowtail butterfly sampling the basin's meagre offerings, but still no monarchs.

Back down the Great Road to the opening in the fence, near Pretty Brook Rd, to take the boardwalk across the bottom of Coventry Farm over to Mountain Lakes. Lots of common milkweed in the field, but no signs of their being munched on by monarch caterpillars.

Finally, along the boardwalk near a big wet meadow of ironweed (the hydrologic conditions a raingarden imitates), I saw a lone monarch, flying about but not landing. As the monarch numbers have dwindled since the 1990's, the question arises, how do they find each other? They start each year in a small enclave in the mountains of Mexico, then spread out across vast areas of the U.S. and Canada. This migration, with one generation succeeding another as they move northward, is predicated on having sufficient numbers for individuals to find each other and mate. The lone monarch and the uneaten milkweeds offered little reason for optimism.

At Mountain Lakes House, a popular place for weddings and other gatherings, and also home base for Friends of Princeton Open Space, the raingarden I designed was prospering.

Lots of color there,

and in another rain garden in the driveway, but no monarchs to be seen.

There was still one spot to look, though, in the fields of Tusculum, preserved by Friends of Princeton Open Space and others, and packed with milkweed. To get there meant maneuvering through the now tattered evergreen forest of Community Park North. High winds in recent years have knocked down most of the pines and spruce, which really aren't natural to this area but had provided a deep forest feel that was enjoyable to walk through. Now, fallen trees have opened up the canopy, energizing an understory of invasive stiltgrass and honeysuckle.

Some trails are lined by young ash trees that will likely be attacked by the emerald ash borer when it reaches Princeton. This strangest of woods was not feeding optimism either.

The fields of Tusculum also looked different than in past years, perhaps again due to a mowing regime that might not be the best for wildlife habitat. Mountain mint, once a common wildflower there, was nowhere to be seen. And no monarchs.

But then, near Cherry Hill Road, next to a purple patch of tick trefoil and Indian grass,

monarchs, a pair, mating!

They flew over into the meadow to continue. Part naturalist, part voyeur, I lingered, wishing to document how long such pivotal acts take. It became clear that this was no brief rendezvous, so I moved on,

to the next field over, where common milkweed sprawled over more than an acre.  And there, another monarch, showing off its brilliant, speedy flight, ducking in and out among the milkweeds, as if in a hurry yet undecided as to where to land. It did land a few times, briefly, perhaps to lay an egg? I checked the undersides of leaves, but it was hard to tell from a distance where it had landed.

I biked home more hopeful than two hours prior. Those monarchs were starting the last generation of the year, the one that will fly all the way back to Mexico. On the way back, I passed the Princeton High School's detention basin just north of the performing arts center on Walnut Street. Now wouldn't that be a fine gesture, an act of generosity and belief in the future, if the school were to turn that empty, unused basin into a monarch meadow.