Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Native Chestnut Update

While the discovery of Emerald Ash Borer in Princeton several weeks ago cast a big shadow on Princeton's most numerous tree, there's another shadow, growing larger every year, that's reason for hope. That would be the shadow behind this native chestnut tree growing at the Textile Research Institute (TRI) in Princeton. Planted just five years ago, it's now fifteen feet tall, well on its way to taking its place among the oaks towering behind it.

The protective collar around its trunk is beginning to unzip as the tree gets too big for its britches.

This marks the first year it has bloomed, though there may not be any nuts for lack of pollen from other trees. In future years, a less precocious companion planted nearby may catch up and provide that pollen.

These chestnuts, which are really 15/16th native, with some asian genes mixed in to aid in resisting the chestnut blight that laid this species low a century ago, were planted by Bill Sachs, a local nut tree expert who has planted chestnuts and butternuts in a number of locations in town. Butternut is another native tree much reduced in numbers due to an introduced disease.

Below is Bill's status report, from an email. It shows how much persistence and resourcefulness is needed to bring back a species, with a touch of serendipity now and then:
"Yes, I know the one chestnut at TRI flowered this year but there may be no nuts for lack of a pollinator. That tree was two year-old bare rooted stock when planted in 2010. Pretty precocious. Same generation as the ones we planted at Mountain Lakes (there are no healthy survivors left there) and on the Princeton Battlefield (two survivors, one of which has blight). This fall and spring, we may try to inoculate the trees that have blight with the virus that causes hypovirulence. 
There are three planted butternuts at TRI, all pretty close to one another. Two of them have been surrounded by blackberries and other brambles that need to be cleared. Will do that this fall… may need to rent a brush cutter.
Also, discovered a ‘new’ native butternut at ML with a few nuts on it. Been walking past it for years and this is the first time I noticed it because I happened to be looking up into the surrounding crowns to assess the health of the ash trees along the trail."


Friday, August 21, 2015

Where Trees and Summer Wildflowers Cohabit

Since I gave such short notice about the canal walk tomorrow, I'll offer this virtual tour. Along the DR Canal towpath, just west of Harrison Street in Princeton, there's a nature trail loop. Most people head to the canal with a bike or running shoes to clock some miles, but for those who want to take in their surroundings, the winding, mowed trail offers a lot of wildflower interest this time of year.

While most habitats hereabouts are either dense forest or open field, the trail loop is more of a glade or savanna, with scattered trees offering many gradations of shade and sun to please the eye and meet the varied needs of diverse wildflowers.

Most of the trees along the winding trail are oaks--some planted long ago by the university when this strip of land was tended as an attractive entryway into campus. Oaks tend to have thick, fire resistant bark that can survive the sorts of periodic fires that once would have sustained open woodlands such as this. One of the oaks is a bur oak, uncommon in NJ but famed in the midwest for the bur oak savannas it lords over with its dark spreading limbs contrasting with the deep green obovate leaves that remind me of bison. Many of these savannas have been restored using prescribed burns.

Here's the wildflower that led to the creation of this mini-preserve and nature trail. The cutleaf coneflower has a rosette of leaves at its base. At some point around 2006 I was walking along the towpath and noticed these basal rosettes, which were surviving what were almost weekly mowings at the time. There were many of these clumps scattered throughout the broad area between Carnegie Lake and the towpath, all of which were getting mowed down before they could bloom. It seemed a waste of natural "talent", so I contacted the DR Canal State Park staff, and they agreed to reduce mowing to once a year in that area. There was a bit of a complication because the land is owned by the university, but they were amenable as well. The show of cutleaf coneflower that first year was spectacular.

Seeing the attractive result, the park staff later added a trail and a sign. My role is to send a reminder in late winter to make sure they mow before spring growth begins. Less mowing, more wildflowers--all in a day's rest.

To the right of the sign is a patch of native switchgrass--a tallgrass prairie species that propers in the east as well and is sometimes planted for ornamental purposes.

There's also a patch of knapweed, a nonnative which appears to be Tyrol's rather than the highly invasive spotted knapweed that's moving east from the midwest.

There's a plausible cause and effect here, given that the larvae of ladybugs are voracious consumers of aphids, numerous on the underside of this common milkweed leaf.

Deertongue grass, another native grass that is sometimes used as an ornamental, for instance in the raingarden in front of the Whole Earth Center, prospers along the trail.

The various species of goldenrods are just coming on. Goldenrods get wrongly blamed for being allergenic, because they bloom at the same time as the inconspicuous ragweed.

Some benches were donated to provide restful views of the rowers laboring away on Carnegie Lake.

If you take a closer look at the shore, you'll see yellow pond lilies, lizard's tail and rose mallow hibiscus.

It's really gratifying to see that wildflowers are growing more numerous under the state park's annual mowing regime, with lots of ironweed elevating above the other vegetation,

and expanding patches of Joe-Pye-Weed. This species has hollow stems that provide homes for the local insects.

At one point on a bright morning walk last weekend, I had to stop for a moment, take in the majestic oaks, the bountiful wildflowers extending down the long corridor of the winding trail, a downy woodpecker busy on a limb overhead, insects feasting on the nectar--and realize that we actually did accomplish something here that is lasting, and without spending a nickel. A change in management released the native growth force that had been there all along. Managing with nature rather than against it brought better results with less work.

One fun aspect noticed this year is that the mowing crews appear to be getting creative with the trail mowing, adding attractive lookouts,

and a new circular clearing. Not sure what the purpose of this one is, but it could well serve as habitat for low-growing species that can't compete where there's only one mowing per year.

A favorite sedge, fringed sedge, grows along the trail edge here and there.

Another favorite: wild senna, which in this photo looks a bit like a beehive hairdoo wig that's been in the attic too long. The seedpods are forming below the last few blooms at the top.

Showy tick trefoil is another legume that forms pods quickly beneath blooms higher up. Anyone heading off trail may find these on pantlegs after the walk.

Sticking with the theme, pokeweed berries form lower on the stalk, with flowers higher up.

Pokeweed is usually considered too rambunctious for a garden, but is very attractive and at home in this floodplain.

The long pods of Indian hemp, which is related to milkweed, not that miracle plant hemp, which still remains tragically illegal to grow in the U.S.

This native Clematis virginiana has toothed leaves, while the non-native Clematis autumnalis sometimes found in gardens has smooth-edged leaves. Both can be highly invasive in a garden, popping up in new, undesired spots in the yard.

A really bad actor is this non-native porcelainberry, with leaves and viney growth habit reminiscent of wild grape. Its berries turn white, blue or pink--very attractive but avoid the temptation of picking them and transporting them elsewhere. You can see this kudzu wannabe's over-the-top aggressive growth behind the Clark House at the Princeton Battlefield, and it's been colonizing new areas of Princeton. In past years, it looked like it was going to overwhelm all the wildflowers along this trail, but this year the balance is better for some reason.

The elderberry bushes were getting mowed down each year, which kept them from blooming and making berries, so I've started tagging them to alert the mowing crew in late winter to mow around them. Little interventions like that can make a big difference, simply by making it a little easier for the native growth force to do its thing.

The trail got windier, and actually more interesting, after the stiff winds of Hurricane Sandy, when many trees fell and the trail was mowed to circumvent them.  

Jewelweed is a common annual whose tubular flowers attract hummingbirds. Try touching the swollen seedpods to see what happens.

The trail loops back to the towpath. Walking back towards Harrison Street, you'll see the elephant-ear sized leaves of a Princess tree (Paulownia) that gets cut down each year or two by a different crew that's responsible for keeping vegetation controlled along the canal itself.

Climbing hempweed--that's not related to hemp either--is a native vine common along the edge of the canal.

Sometimes it has parasitic dodder mixed in.

That's the hike. Oh, I forgot the figwort--a tall wildflower that only a botanist could love. It's not blooming in the photo, but the flowers are so small that you're not missing anything. I've only seen maybe five plants of this species in all of Princeton, so it's special to see it has survived another year on this island where land and lake, tree and wildflower, native growth force and human tending, all cohabit so pleasingly.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Canal Wildflower Walk This Saturday

I'll be leading a walk along the canal this Saturday, August 22, starting at 8:30am. Morning light adds to the freshness of this landscape. We'll meet along the towpath just west of Harrison Street, where there's a nature trail sign. All are welcome.

Wildflowers have been at their peak this past week--a perk for all of us who haven't fled Princeton in August--and there should still be a good show this weekend. We'll focus on the nature trail loop that I "catalyzed" back in 2006, when I alerted DR Canal State Park staff that there were some wonderful native wildflowers that were getting mowed down between the towpath and Carnegie Lake. The park staff reduced mowing to once a year (less work!), added a broad, well-mowed trail that connects in multiple places to the towpath, and the native flora has responded by growing in greater abundance each year.

The nature trail threads through Princeton's closest approximation of an oak savanna, where there are enough openings between trees to allow summer wildflowers to prosper underneath. All of these Hollow-stemmed Joe-Pye-Weeds are facing north, towards a gap in the tree canopy.

We'll see how natural and cultural influences--from canal building to hurricanes--have combined to shape this diverse, dynamic floodplain habitat.

Parking: There are two small parking lots at either end of the Harrison Street bridge. More distant parking is in the Lake Lane area, just off Harrison St. north of the lake, and at a lot on Washington Road just south of the towpath. If you get there late, it should be easy to find us along the trail loop. This link should take you to a map.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

High Season for Floodplain Wildflowers

This is high season for floodplain wildflowers in Princeton, the sorts of native plants that also thrive in raingardens. The first rose mallow Hibiscus (H. moscheutos) appeared one morning about three weeks ago like a big eye looking out from the backyard garden. They're still going strong, and must be impressive along the banks of the Millstone River, easily accessible by boat, upstream of Carnegie Lake.

I planted one in a client's backyard swale, and it delighted them with its first bloom a few days ago, only to be later bombed by a branch from an ash tree towering overhead. The large branch, which landed squarely on the newly planted garden, appeared to be perfectly healthy, and there was no recent weather to point to as cause. It was a freak event, the garden rebounded, but still there was something uncanny about the timing.

Other floodplain wildflowers in bloom are wild senna (pictured), Joe Pye Weed, cutleaf coneflower, and cardinal flower. Boneset, whose bloom marks the climax of pollinator activity, is just opening up.

A couple other native species that haven't been seen growing wild in Princeton but add to the blooming power of our backyard is Culver's Root (past bloom by now) and cup-plant--a robust plant in the Silphium genus that towers over all others, except of course, the trees.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Roosters in Princeton

To all the voices that hold forth in Princeton, add some cockadoodledoos. I had heard that there were some roosters among us--a painter who grew up in South Africa told me a few years ago the sound made him feel at home--but had not heard any until this past month. One was east of Harrison Street a few blocks, which I took the liberty of photgraphing. The other is within crowing distance of town hall.

The legality of having poultry in Princeton comes up now and then. There are some ordinances left over from the borough/township days that were contradictory. The straightest answer I got when I looked into it was from the town's former animal control officer, who said they are legal, or at least tolerated, as long as the neighbors are happy. It was my impression that roosters were not permitted, but it may be that the happy neighbor rule determines whether any ordinance, written or improvised, is enforced.

Though a rooster would never tell you this, they aren't needed for egg production. We'd have to ask the owners if they intentionally bought roosters. Chickens are sold when just a couple weeks old, when sex identification can be tricky. Famed Princeton resident Joyce Carol Oats said, in response to a question I asked after she read from her memoir at the Princeton Public Library, that chickens in general and roosters in particular were an important part of her childhood.

We currently have one Pekin duck and four Aracana chickens. The chickens are quiet sorts, but the duck can speak out at various points during the day, calling for more food, or announcing to the world that it is now waddling across the lawn. Neighbors tell me they like the sounds, as a rural salve for the traffic noise on Harrison Street. The droppings disappear into the grass, and any scratching the chickens do leaves our flower gardens undisturbed.

As pets, they are low maintenance. Clean the coop now and then, make sure there's food and water in the backyard, open the coop in the morning, close it at night. We free-range them, meaning they have the run of the fenced-in backyard. We have lost a few to hawks over the years, usually in late fall and winter when wild prey are less available and the birds have less cover. It can be traumatic, but it brings us up against important issues of life and death, pet vs. livestock, quality of life vs. longevity, risks and rewards, and our relationship to the wild animal community that also calls Princeton home. Interestingly, it's the white birds that the hawks have left alone, as if hawks, too, associate whiteness with some otherworldly nature.

The chickens have shown no desire to fly away, and the duck is so heavy that she has even less chance of clearing a fence than the contraption the claymation chickens built in the movie Chicken Run. The chickens lay eggs most days, and the duck produces one egg per day like clockwork. An Italian neighbor, who barely speaks english, knocks on our door periodically, seeking a dozen duck eggs for her Chinese daughter in law. Perhaps the greatest pleasure, in a town where yards go unused and can tend towards sterile display, is seeing how much the birds appreciate and take full advantage of what the yard has to give.

Though a rooster might help protect the hens, our "guard duck" performs a similar role while producing copious amounts of eggs. In addition to her big, boisterous voice during the day, at dusk she assumes her post just inside the coop door, her beak a formidable weapon ready to unleash against any would-be intruders.

A previous post gives more details, and local sources of chicks. Rosedale Mills told me they were selling chickens beyond the optimal April/May season, though it helps if they are fully grown by the time winter comes. 

Monday, August 03, 2015

Trees and Thunderbolts

There's a puzzle in this picture, which shows one tree where two trees once stood. The second tree is evidenced now only by a patch of brown mulch on the left. The story told by Pam Ruch of Morven Museum and Gardens is that a lightning bolt hit the first tree, stripping bark from one side. They thought for sure that the wounded tree would die, but instead, a couple years later, the tree next to it gave up the ghost.

What happened? Apparently, the lightning penetrated into the ground, then traveled over to the root system of the neighboring tree, where the full electrical force was delivered. The effect was a deadly version of an old slapstick routine, in which the target of the punch ducks, causing the punch to land on the next one over. The first tree was conduit, the second tree victim. The first tree bore the visual symptom, the second tree bore the invisible brunt.

There's been a theme of thunderbolts lately. I've been memorizing a monologue of King Lear--part reveling in, part railing against the elements as he stands out in the heath engulfed in a storm, amidst "oak-cleaving thunderbolts" and "all shaking thunder".

And then my friend Perry sent me a photo of what we call the Lone Pine. Its bark, too, has finally been cleaved by a thunderbolt after many years standing alone on high ground at a nature preserve we created about 15 years ago in Durham, NC. There's such a thing as "witness trees", for instance trees at Civil War sites that were alive at the time of the battle. The Lone Pine is a witness tree of sorts, having witnessed the logging of all the trees around it some years before the land was donated to our nonprofit.

The outcome was more sanguine than King Lear's, because these 80 acres had a native seedbank waiting to mend the wound. With trees gone, dormant native forbs sprang to life in the newly abundant sunlight, coating the ground with a tapestry of sedges, grasses and wildflowers. Quail and woodcock flourished in the early successional habitat.

That rich chapter in the preserve's history, dominated by the height-deprived, came to a quick close, with the emphatic rebound of trees. If King Lear had been into land management, he might have railed against the sun-grabbing dominance of trees and the city's rigid ban on prescribed burns, and called on the thunderbolts to start some grass fires to maintain at least a few patches of open habitat, lest he lose the heath from which to call out his bottomless grief to the heavens.

The Lone Pine now has lots of company as young shortleaf and loblolly pines rise thick around it. But something in me misses that younger, more open habitat, when one pine stood lonely and defiant against the sky.

Note: When lightning touches sandy ground, it makes a material akin to glass, which happened some years back along the canal. My theory, untestable but which perhaps would find company in a google search, is that lightning gave early peoples the idea for making glass.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Plant, Run, and Rescue

We did a plant and run at the Princeton High School this past June. The planting was intentional; the running was not. A plant and run is when everyone shows up to plant a garden, but no one comes back to take care of it. I'm the type that's more likely than most to follow through, but the lesson sometimes needs to be relearned.

When my younger daughter expressed interest in doing something along environmental lines at the school, I suggested, not too surprisingly, that she and her friend plant some native wildflowers in one of a number of raised beds that had for some years been growing only weeds. We did, and at least I came away with a high sense of good deedery, owing not only to having involved the next generation in transforming a weed-filled bed into a demo for natives, but also having catalyzed the repair of the gardens' water supply with a well-placed email or two, thereby improving the prospects for all the raised beds going forward.

We had intended to return soon thereafter with mulch, but life intervened, and by the time we remembered, a rainless week later, the plants were looking pretty sad. In the meantime, some students supervised by the school horticulturist had fixed up all the other beds, which is reason to celebrate though suddenly our bed looked neglected by comparison. Still, after a deep watering, careful weeding and a fresh layer of mulch, prospects for recovery were good.

One rainy month later, as if perched on the cog of an internal Mayan calendar, the memory of the garden again surfaced in the mind, leading to our walking the dog over there to see how things were going. Our good deeds had disappeared in a mountain of weeds (there on the right in the photo), while the other beds were growing well-tended swiss chard and beets.

This is where a keen eye comes in handy. There's the cutleaf coneflower in a sea of foxtail grass.

And there's the late-flowering boneset amongst the ragweed.

The thin mulch had done little to discourage the weeds, though it did keep the soil soft enough to allow extraction of a nutsedge with it rhizome system intact--a rare sighting, like seeing baby pigeons.

We carefully liberated the intended plants, which thankfully had hung in there despite the competition.

At some point, the weedy seed bank will exhaust itself, and the native wildflowers will dominate, but after years of growing weeds, this raised bed is a bit like a wild horse that resists taming. It's a good lesson for one generation and a reminder for the other, about the power of weeds and the importance of followup on good intentions.

Let's see, those most recent photos were taken about two weeks ago. Hmmm. I think I know where the evening walk with the dog is headed.