Monday, July 27, 2015

Lose a Tiger(lily), Gain a Paw(paw)

"Come see our tiger lilies!", I was told at a party recently. Naturalists get this sort of invitation now and then. I was a bit skeptical that they were tiger lilies, though, because there was mention of spreading,

and the only tiger lilies I've come across in Princeton are the ones in this photo, behind Conte's. Nevertheless, I took them up on the invitation--my interest piqued by the owner's enthusiasm about these lilies.

Sure enough, they proved to be daylilies, a step above the humble, unimproved orange found in abundance in my yard and many others, but daylilies nonetheless.

Now, I didn't really want to be a bearer of bad news, or even not-so-bad news, since a day lily is still a lily, whose blooming is no less worthy of the owner's enthusiasm for lacking a tiger in the name. People's relationships with plants should not be taken lightly. The plant names that inhabit my brain in abundance tend to take up only the briefest of residencies in the minds of most others, falling away like leaves in a late October breeze.

So when a plant name lodges firmly and resonantly in someone's mind and heart, it's hard to point out that this plant that has come to be known so emphatically as a tiger lily is in fact a daylily. The flower itself is far from plain as day, but "day" can't compete with "tiger" for affection. Which day is the daylily named for? It could be a good day or a bad day, sunny or gloomy, we really don't know. There's no hint of wildness in a day. A day is a mere vessel to be filled with meaning, not a gloriously fearsome beast stalking your yard, fortunately in the benign form of a flower. As I weighed my options, a homeowner's connection to a plant, facilitated by a colorful name, hung in the balance. What to do?

Long a slave to truth, I sought at least to soften the news, by saying that all lilies that grow in Princeton with that classic orange color really should be deserving of the tiger lily name.

After all, with tigers all aprowl on campus, guarding various entryways, the Princeton University Tigers on one side of Nassau Street, Little Tigers on the other, and tiger stripes dominating the color schemes in parades and giftshops, doesn't tigerdom eventually seep into all things and people who reside here long enough? A certain fierceness, perhaps, lurking beneath the civilized demeanor. If nothing else, it manifests in a Princetonian's capacity to leap into the breach and spout copious, tenacious opinions at town hall meetings.

The owners seemed to take the news well enough. If daylilies they are, then daylilies it is, from here on out, though I could tell a bit of magic had fallen away from their front yard. We continued to the backyard, which had that minimally managed grow-what-will look. I was tempted, because of the ground made wet by a very active sump pump--the house having been built on what was likely once a tributary of Harry's Brook--to recommend various of the floodplain flowers that would prosper there, but resisted. There was something soulful and relaxing in this yard that wasn't trying to be anything other than what it is, shaded by Norway Maples and backed by a thick stand of bamboo that obscured the condos just beyond the fence.

I looked around and saw the usual, a pokeweed here, a rose of sharon there, Japanese honeysuckle growing on the fence, and was going to go back to conversation when I happened to look up and saw, what's this? Pawpaws? The northern growing tropical fruit that many of us covet, many have planted, and many must now wait years for any chance of a crop. And here it was, a mature tree loaded with fruit, prospering unbeknownst to anyone in a grow-what-will garden.

I pointed it out, proud of my find, hoping it might make amends for the loss of a tiger lily. Surely, the taste on the tongue of the word "tiger" cannot compare to the lush, yellow, mango-like pulp of a pawpaw. Only later did I realize that I had taken away a tiger, but left them at least with a paw or two. Who knows, maybe it's the distant descendant of the lost pawpaw patch of Harry's Brook, where sabertooth tigers stalked the megafauna of yester ice age.

Addendum: If you dare to walk right up to a tiger lily, you will see the spots on its petals and small black bulblets in the upper axils. The bulblets, if memory serves, can be plucked and planted, to make little tigers. 

Other lilies hereabouts are the towering native Turk's Cap lilies at Morven Gardens, 

with their whorled leaves,

and another, the most truly wild but also the shortest, flying below the deers' radar out at the Mercer Meadows prairie restoration on Cold Soil Road. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

"Reading Getaways" in Local Parks

The Princeton Public Library, ever on the lookout for new programming, will be hosting "reading getaways" at two local parks this summer. Join "friends and neighbors for an hour of silent reading", this Wednesday, July 22nd at 6:30pm at Marquand Park on Lover's Lane, and Sunday, August 16 from 4-5pm at the pond at Pettoranello Gardens. 

The idea comes from the popular "reading invasions" in Buffalo, NY.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Native Trees of Princeton

An attentive reader commented that the page for "Native Trees of Princeton", which I thought I had added along the top of the homepage, does not exist. Funny, I clicked on the "publish" button but the list of trees refused to publish, nor did it magically publish itself during the ensuing weeks when my mind was on other things. Maybe Googles ever more sophisticated software detected that it still needed work, which is to say it was a bit "drafty".

Here it is, nonetheless, published as a post rather than one of those enduring "pages" at the top of the blog. It was created as a step towards fleshing out, or foliating, a rather bare tree list we have on the Princeton Shade Tree Commission website.

My apologies to any native tree species not included here. Please speak up. Catalpas, we'll talk.


This is an extensive but informal list of native trees you may encounter in the wild or in your yard, with some description, based on ten years of observation. 

Acer negundo (box elder)--Grows wild. Not commonly planted. It's soft wood can provide good habitat for birds. Considered messy and not very well formed.

Acer rubrum (red maple)--A durable, very commonly planted street tree. Also common in the wild.

Acer saccharinum (silver maple)--Common in yards and in the wild. Not often intentionally planted. Has a reputation for dropping limbs, but performs well in many yards, providing an attractive, open shade.

Acer saccharum (sugar maple)--Less common, but a sturdy, attractive native.

Amelanchier canadensis (shadblow, shadbush, serviceberry, Juneberry)--A very small tree or large bush. White flowers early in spring, supposedly when the shad are surging up the Delaware. Berries edible, but frequently attacked by cedar apple rust, so don't get your hopes up. Even our resident catbirds were disappointed.

Asimina triloba (pawpaw)--Small tree, up to thirty feet. I heard there's a wild stand behind someone's house down across Carnegie Lake, and a substantial patch in a park over in Cranbury. Plant more than one to increase prospects for the often elusive fruit. They clone, so best planted where there's a little room to expand.

Betula lenta (cherry birch)--Grows wild along the Princeton ridge. Not commonly planted in yards.

Betula nigra (river birch)--Beautiful bark and form, frequently sold with three trunks.

Betula (paper and grey birches)--These species are more characteristic further north.

Carpinus caroliniana (blue beech, hornbeam, musclewood)--Common along the Princeton ridge. Not often intentionally planted.

Carya alba (mockernut hickory)

Carya cordiformis (bitternut, swamp hickory)

Carya ovata (shagbark hickory)--Hickories are common in the wild, but not frequently planted.

Castanea dentata (American chestnut)--Devastated by the imported chestnut blight in the early 20th century. Only a few small specimens persist in the wild. The disease does not kill the root, which then resprouts. Backcrossing has developed resistant native varieties with a small percentage of asian genes, e.g. 1/16th Chinese. Some of these 15/16th native trees have been planted in parks and preserves in Princeton in an effort to reestablish the species. A few chestnuts grow along streets in Princeton, but are either Chinese or Japanese. The nut husks are very large and prickly.

Celtis occidentalis (hackberry, sugarberry)--Sturdy native, infrequently seen in the wild, underutilized in planted landscapes. They line Walnut Street across from JW Middleschool.

Chionanthus virginicus (fringe tree)--Very attractive flowers. Small tree/large shrub. Some evidence in Ohio that it can be attacked by emerald ash borer, but more evidence is needed before deciding not to plant.

Cornus florida (flowering dogwood)--Attractive small tree, commonly planted, with berries that provide important nourishment for birds migrating south in the fall. Fairly common in the wild, but an imported fungus has cut back on its numbers. It can be harder to establish that the Korean dogwood, whose fruit are eaten by monkeys in its native Asia.

Crataegus crus-galli (cockspur hawthorn)--Attractive small tree. Rarely found in the wild. Underutilized in planted landscapes, perhaps because of thorns.

Diospyros virginiana (persimmon)--Attractive mid-sized tree. Females bear fruit, which may be appreciated or viewed as messy.

Fagus grandifolia var. caroliniana (beech)

Fagus grandifolia var. grandifolia (beech)--Beech trees are common in the wild along the Princeton ridge, but are seldom if ever planted.

Fraxinus americana (white ash)--Princeton's most common tree, soon to be decimated by the arrival of Emerald ash borer. Though typically encountered in second growth forest, it can grow to a towering height, with a few extraordinary specimens to be found on campus and in older neighborhoods. Planting ash is discouraged, since all ash species will soon be dependent on chemical injections for survival. Anyone owning an ash they wish to keep should get it treated, with emamectin being the most frequently recommended insecticide to inject into the trunk.

Fraxinus pennsylvanica (green ash)--Usually found in wetter conditions, and less attractively shaped, than the white ash. Same susceptibility to emerald ash borer.

Gleditsia triacanthos (honey locust)--The wild variety has thorns and is rarely encountered, perhaps because it was spread by now extinct megafauna. The unripe seed pods have a sweet, edible inner lining. One large specimen can be found near the old gas station at Princeton Shopping Center. Planted varieties, such as those at the new Dinky station and Hinds Plaza, have no thorns, and provide a pleasant, open shade. The tiny leaflets conveniently disappear back into the lawn in the fall.

Gymnocladus dioicus (Kentucky coffee tree)--A remarkable tree, rarely found in the wild, for reasons similar to honey locust. Its very large compound leaves emerge late in spring, and drop early in fall, making the tree ideal for planting on the south side of passive solar houses. They were used in the landscaping for the Dinky parking lot.

Hamamelis virginiana (witch hazel)--Attractive small tree/large shrub. The native species flowers in late autumn, while asian species flower in the spring.

Juglans cinerea (butternut)--Rarely seen. Some are hybrids. The native species has suffered from the introduction of a fungal disease. Efforts are underway to bring back the butternut in Princeton, in parks and nature preserves.

Juglans nigra (black walnut)--Common in some wild areas, and in some backyards. Rarely planted, due to large nuts and the juglone compound emitted by the roots, which can suppress growth of tomatoes and other plants.

Liquidambar styraciflua (sweet gum)--Sturdy, large tree, common in the wild and sometimes planted intentionally. The "gum balls" it drops can be a drawback for some.

Liriodendron tulipifera (tulip tree)--Fast growing, long-lived tree that can reach great size. Flowers tulip-like and attractive, but usually too high up to appreciate. Common in the wild, but not typically planted intentionally.

Magnolia virginiana (sweetbay, swampbay)--Small tree. Can have attractive flowers. Not typically planted along streets.

Morus rubra (red mulberry)--The white mulberry (M. alba, nonnative) is also found in Princeton. A small tree. Bears abundant, edible berries similar in appearance to blackberries. The berries can be messy, and the tree lacks an attractive form. Very tasty berries, though, if you can reach them.

Nyssa sylvatica (black gum, tupelo)--Beautiful fall color. Sporadically encountered in the wild. Long-lived, sturdy. Is becoming more frequently planted along streets.

Ostrya virginiana (ironwood, hophornbeam)--Small tree. Not common in the wild, nor in the landscape trade.

Oxydendrum arboreum (sourwood)--Small tree with bright red fall foliage. Craggy form. Underutilized; may not be well adapted for the nursery trade. More common in the wild further south. Several specimens in Princeton, including one next to the church across from the high school.

Platanus occidentalis (sycamore, plane-tree)--Can be confused with the London planetree, which is a hybrid between two species, one of which is P. occidentalis. Attractive, large tree, with highly ornamental bark. Its more susceptible to anthracnose than the hybrid.

Prunus pensylvanica (fire or pin cherry)

Prunus serotina (black cherry)--The native cherries are attractive mid-sized trees typically found in earlier successional forests. They nearly rival oaks in the diversity of insects they provide food for, and so are very important for food chains.

Quercus alba (white oak)--One of the most majestic trees. The white oak "family" (those with rounded lobes, such as white oak, swamp white oak, and willow oak) are less susceptible to bacterial leaf scorch than the red and pin oaks (pointed lobes).

Quercus bicolor (swamp white oak)--Sometimes planted along streets.

Quercus coccinea (scarlet oak)--Attractive, but less commonly planted.

Quercus palustris (pin oak)--Very common street tree in Princeton. Its lower branches characteristically angle downward and often die back. Many are being lost to bacterial leaf scorch, which causes gradual dieback.

Quercus phellos (willow oak)--More frequently planted than in the past. More common in states further south. Its narrow leaves can form an attractive mulch, somewhat like pine needles.

Quercus rubra (red oak)--Common tree in the wild and along streets. Susceptible to bacterial leaf scorch.

Quercus velutina (black oak)--Encountered in the wild. Less commonly planted than red oak.

Robinia pseudoacacia (black locust)--Native to the Appalachians. Widely planted and naturalized elsewhere. Its wood is resistant to decay, it has attractive flowers, and can achieve a very attractive form with dark, craggy limbs contrasting with the foliage. Can be invasive in some habitats, and can clone, sending up young shoots armed with thorns. But some specimens in Princeton front yards are beautifully formed and well behaved.

Salix nigra (black willow)--Fast growing. Sometimes planted in low areas in the belief that it will dry the soil out.

Sassafras albidum (sassafras)--Attractive tree, common in the wild. Can clone, which may be why it's not commonly planted.

Tilia americana (American linden, basswood)--Attractive. Underutilized. Sporadically encountered in the wild. Linden trees along streets are generally not the native species.

Ulmus americana (American elm)--Though the elm was hit hard across America by Dutch elm disease, Princeton varieties have shown considerable resistance, allowing specimens to perform well and provide shade for many years, even though they may eventually succumb.

Ulmus rubra (red elm, slippery elm)

Native Evergreen Trees:

Ilex opaca (American holly, Christmas holly)--Attractive native, sometimes used in yards. Can grow eventually to 30 feet or so.

Juniperus virginiana (eastern red cedar)--Small tree. Useful in some situations.

Pinus strobus (eastern white pine)--Not encountered in the wild unless in planted stands. Its native range is to the north of Princeton. Can get big, and tends to drop large branches during ice storms.

Friday, July 17, 2015

George Washington Battles the Bindweed

Some may think the battle is long over, carved into stone at Battle Monument, but while George is looking the other way, the bindweed is growing, growing, extending its reach every which way. First it mobs the iris. What could be next?

OMG, it's headed straight towards Monument Hall! Won't someone do something? George, we know you and all those other founding fathers were into plants. You had "a vision for the capital city of the United States that included a botanic garden that would demonstrate and promote the importance of plants to the young nation." It says right there on the website. Congress put the U.S. Botanic Garden a stone's throw away from the capitol building, for heaven's sake. But somehow we all got on a high horse and decided plants didn't matter.

No, that white flower is not bindweed's flag of surrender.

Where George is looking, everything's fine. The left flank is holding. Wild indigo and inkberry continue to grow unmolested.

But wait, what's this? Oriental bittersweet, overwhelming the right flank? What audacity.

Clearly, the wild indigo is calling for reinforcements, albeit very quietly. Don't be so stonefaced, George. Loosen up, take a look around you. Mobilize the troops. That was a great battle you won there, but the battle continues. We need you now more than ever.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Fireworks That Feed the Fauna

Flowers are like slow-motion fireworks, rising up, up, then bursting forth in radiant colors. Hardly noticing the slow build, I was surprised at the sudden unleashing of color soon after the official onset of summer. Behind the purple coneflowers in the photo are the red of beebalm and the white spires of bottlebrush buckeye, whose tubular flowers have been attracting sphinx moths and hummingbirds.

The 4th of July fireworks were impressive, particularly when reflected in Lake Carnegie,

but the slow bloom of a garden has more lasting appeal. It's also more edible, at least for the pollinators. Buttonbush, a favorite of bumblebees, is doing a pretty good imitation of fireworks. Tall meadowrue and Queen-of-the-Prairie (Filipendula rubra) have been adding clouds of white and pink.

Used Pot Thank You

Thanks to all who dropped off plastic plant pots at my house in recent weeks! They're quickly getting put to use for planting up natives, like this soft rush, woodland phlox and rose mallow.

I'm always glad for more, at 139 N. Harrison St. Put them next to the driveway, in from the sidewalk.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Raingarden in June--Whole Earth Center

Mr. Frog gave me a report on how the little raingarden along Nassau Street in front of the Whole Earth Center is doing. The report got lost under some papers on my desk, so don't blame the frog if the report is surfacing a month late. He said the oak-leafed hydrangea is having a splendid blooming season. The button bush is bouncing back big time from a trimming it got from whatever maintenance crew the landlord employs to breeze through in the spring, leaving dark, ornamental mulch in their wake. Mr. Frog's predicting a big show of cutleaf coneflowers in July, and that solitary tall meadowrue is hanging in there amidst all the enthusiastic growing going on.

Mr. Frog is pretty proud of all the non-standard plantings that are doing so well at the other end. That corralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus)
is thriving beyond all expectation, and that mound of fringed sedge (Carex crinita) is doing a good imitation of the big hair of a country western singer.

Tucked close to the ground amidst the opulence is the diminutive blue-eyed grass (Sisyrhinchium sp.), which is really an iris doing a grass imitation.

The mulch, combined with some proactive weeding, makes maintenance a breeze. But Mr. Frog pointed out a few small matters to attend to. There's that pesky nut sedge (one tiny one at top of photo) that can gain momentum and spread throughout a garden if it's not pulled out as soon as it appears. Some weedy, sprawling grass (lower right) needed to be pulled out, too. That left a few little deertongue grass seedlings (lower left, with broader leaves) and a mistflower in the upper right to let grow.

The deertongue grass seedlings will make good transplants later on, because they'd otherwise grow out onto the sidewalk if allowed to mature in place.

Deertongue grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum) along the edge of a building? Its native habitat is in the floodplain down along the canal, but it actually provides an attractive mound of green and the texture of its tongue-sized leaves.

Whenever it rains, roof runoff comes through this narrow garden via a buried perforated pipe that's connected to a nearby downspout. I like to think that the plants have tapped into that supply, and are thriving as a result.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Complex Nature in a Parking Lot

Tended urban landscapes can be categorized as simple or complex. Simple landscapes are composed of lawn, trees, hedges and mulch. Care of this sort of landscape requires mowing grass and trimming the hedge--both of which keep plants in a stunted, infantile state. The plants play the role of something nonliving: the lawn a living rug, the hedge a living wall. This outdoor space is managed more like it were indoors, with the accompanying cleaning requirements, cheating nature of its well-honed modus operandi of recycle-in-place. Whatever the trees drop is alien to this landscape and must be hauled away. Application of broadleaf herbicide simplifies the lawn further, foiling nature's inclination to diversify with a host of weeds. The enforcers of simplified landscapes cruise around town in rigs that can approach the size of semis, to hold all the cleaning and grooming machinery required to keep nature from being natural.

Now and then there's an exception to this rule. A homeowner may plant a perennial border, or a memorial garden is planted in a park, or the idea of a raingarden appeals.

At Westminster Choir College, these vegetated swales, essentially raingardens, were planted because the concept of native swales filtering polluted parking lot runoff penetrated into the regulatory framework controlling new development. Regs dictate a vegetated swale, the landscape architect chooses what plants are to be put in, and a complex urban landscape is born.

And who will take care of this landscape? Typically, it will be crews that, if they had ever encountered switchgrass or cardinal flower or milkweed before, would have thought them a weed to pull out. If you mow lawns and trim hedges all day, the idea that a plant could mature, flower and go to seed is entirely alien.

There is, then, a disconnect between installation and maintenance. To maintain such a landscape requires not a trailer full of machinery but knowledge, not only of the twenty intended species but also the twenty or thirty species of weeds that will happily spring up and compete for space.

The maintenance crew finds itself in a game of botanical To Tell the Truth, where the mystery guest speaks a foreign language of opposite or alternate branching, dentated or entire leaves, stigmas and styles, lemmas and paleas. Each plant must be known not only by its flowers, but also by other characteristics so one doesn't pull it out by mistake after the flowers fade. So, will the real intended plant please stand up?

Is this plant (velvet leaf) intended? It looks distinctive.

How about this (pigweed)?

This vine (bindweed) has a nice flower, but it's climbing over something else (curly dock). Is any of this intended or not? It's almost certain the person told to visit this site with a weed whipper now and then hasn't a clue.

How about these (smartweed on the left, lambs quarters on the right)?

Finally, a flower (crown vetch)! It looks intended, but if one wants to maintain a balanced, diverse planting, it would be the first one to be pulled out.

Finally, an intended plant, swamp milkweed, but chances are 50/50 it will be pulled out by mistake. It's got "weed" in its name, after all.

The appearance of these particular vegetated swales is being saved by switchgrass, which is filling in nicely with its luxuriant mass that shrugs off the weedy wannabes, and the blackgum and redbud trees are flourishing in this inverted, naturally watered space. But until the knowledge that went into its planting also informs the maintenance, these complex landscapes will not be nearly as attractive as they could be.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Trees as Local Characters

Some can't see the forest for the trees, but for me, it's harder to see the trees, to really look at one or another rather than merely be aware of some vague mass overhead as I pass by. There's so much to take in, so many branches to follow to their logical or illogical conclusions. Easier to glance at the bark, summon a name, and assume the rest.

But that won't do for the chair of the Shade Tree Commission, who you'd think could offer sage advice on what sort of tree to plant. Shall I recommend a silver maple, which has a reputation for dropping limbs, which is to say it grows lots of branches, then loses interest in some of them for no clear reason. They're a bit like people in that respect, who take up a fitness regime or a musical instrument, then end up dropping one or another for lack of time or sustained interest. Dropping a limb sounds scarier than dropping guitar lessons, but I've lived with silver maples in front yards in multiple towns with no consequence other than some very agreeable open shade, so I'm starting to scrutinize the local tree population to see if the reputations some trees have is really deserved.

Princeton has a lot of characters, and the same goes for its trees. Maples can become richly drawn with age, all gnarled and quirky, like this silver maple on Madison. Somehow I think of the ruddy face of a pipe-smoking english professor from college days.

Here's one on Spruce that looks like it's an Olympian discus thrower releasing a mighty throw.

I could say some unflattering things about black walnuts--the messy husks they drop or the juglone they exude through their roots--but what tree doesn't have something about it one could wish were different. Here's a black walnut I'd never seen, flourishing along a hidden alley I'd never noticed, off of Park Place.

Its dark, meandering limbs and long pendant leaves lend a tropical feel to this otherwise plain alley, evoking memories of jacarandas in Buenos Aires.

Even a tree presiding over one of the most traveled spots in town, next to McCaffery's, is felt rather than seen unless one makes a conscious effort to look up. How strange to be a honey locust in the modern world, its thorns gratuitous in an America stripped of megafauna, the fleeting, sweet inner lining of its pods forced to compete with year-round Ben and Jerry's, and no advertising budget to grab the attention of all who pass below.

One day I'll find a pod that's just right--these look too immature--and give the inner lining a taste, while someone else is complaining about the mess the tree is making, scattering pods all over the ground, if they even notice.

In the search for a perfect tree to recommend, I'm starting to think that trees are characters first and types second, each responding in an individual way to inner promptings and outer circumstance, tending to serve well despite their imperfections.

Note: There's a new page on this blog, a list of native trees of Princeton, with brief descriptions (not exactly recommendations) based on ten years of observation. Pages should be found along the top of the homepage.