Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Misty Walk Through Herrontown Woods

Last Saturday, towards the end of a rainy patch of weather, Herrontown Woods offered a special mix of solitude, surprise, promise and peace. An early surprise along the trail was a native azalea. What might this one solitary azalea, with a grand total of three clusters of flowers, tell of what these woods once held, and could there be others surviving in pockets yet unfound?

Near the parking lot, a vernal pool--one of many generous legacies a fallen tree leaves behind--was alive with the tadpoles of woodfrogs.

While the rainy week was not getting good reviews in town, Herrontown Woods was patiently taking it all in, filling its ground full of water, to be slowly exhaled through a rock-jumbled stream, no rock the same in the patterns of life upon it.

Witch hazels and christmas ferns grow just up-slope of the stream, with vistas lengthened by the habitat restoration work our Friends of Herrontown Woods volunteers have done.

Spicebush is growing more common, with leaves that give off a citrusy fragrance.

Now's a good time to see wild geraniums,

and the last of the rue anemone flowers.

Maybe if carrion flower (Smilax herbacea) had a more flattering name, I'd remember it more reliably.

Here are the wings and flowers on winged euonymus, a very numerous nonnative shrub we've been cutting down. In this regard, we play a role complementary to the deer, exerting browsing pressure on the nonnative species the deer won't eat.

In the case of winged euonymus and multiflora rose, the deer then follow up by nibbling the tender sprouts from the stumps we leave behind. With these two shrub species, at least, we can actually partner with the deer to bring the habitat back to greater balance and diversity.

The greatest delight came while crossing a large boulder field near the top of the trail. It's a miniature version of what can be found in the Sourlands, where a stream flows largely hidden, through and under the boulders, making music the way we make music by exhaling into an instrument.

In some places, there was an uncanny stereo effect, with the sound of water coming from multiple directions. Returning three days later, the music was gone, as if the woods' breath were spent until it can be recharged by another week of rain.

Moonseed's a cool little vine that seems only to grow among large boulders along the ridge, at Herrontown Woods and Witherspoon Woods.

A cherry millipede, giving off a maraschino scent when you pick it up, finds a home in the leaf litter.

One of the quiet, distinctive beauties of Herrontown Woods is the showy orchis, growing in only one spot and not found anywhere else along Princeton's ridge. Botanists Henry and Betty Horn tell the story of photographers making a pilgrimage each spring in years back. One thing our Friends of Herrontown Woods group is doing to hopefully allow this small population to grow stronger is removing the nonnative shrubs whose biological clocks, evolved elsewhere, cause them to green up too early in the spring, casting shade before the orchids have had a chance to absorb enough solar energy for the next year.

Far more numerous is Smilacina racemosa, what we used to call "False Solomon's Seal", because it's easily mistaken for Solomon's Seal. Note the terminal flower cluster, which makes Solomon's Plume a useful way to name it for something other than what it is not.

Solomon's Seal is called Polygonatum biflorum because it has a couple flowers at each leaf axil, rather than at the end. Even latin can make sense sometimes.

Other wildflowers peeping up through the leaves are wood anemone and trout lily, their flowers past,


pink wood sorrel,

and jack-in-the-pulpit. Three of these grew near my childhood home, their hoods an object of early fascination.

Maple-leaf Viburnum seedlings and bloodroot rise above the natural mulch of leaves protecting the soil.

There's a heartening diversity of native shrubs in the understory. To the blackhaw Viburnums and spicebush common elsewhere are added the maple-leaf Viburnum,

and occasional blueberries (the Kramer inventory from the 1960s lists four species of Vaccinium).

Among the thousands of nonnative winged euonymus are a grand total of two native Euonymus americana, sometimes called strawberry bush or hearts-a-burstin, that somehow grew tall enough to elude the deer, who seem to prefer munching on this shrub above all others. They keep the rest of this shrub's population in a state of arrested development, several inches high. With some protection, those too could grow to maturity.

Either a new discovery or an old forgotten discovery was a dogwood that doesn't have the cobbled bark. Digging back into the memory banks, I checked the branching--alternate rather than the flowering dogwood's opposite branching. Alternate-leaved dogwood! And not one but two found during the walk. For someone wanting to see Princeton's preserves regain a past diversity, these warmed the heart.

And then a mystery shrub, a Viburnum with reddish tint and red petioles. Also two found, but its name not to be found in any past inventories.

Note: This has been identified as Tea Viburnum.

Other sites seen: a musclewood secure in its height, feeding the deer with its stump sprouts.

We've done enough researching of his papers at the Library of Congress to know that Oswald Veblen, who with his wife Elizabeth donated land for Herrontown Woods in 1957, was not happy about the gas pipeline being built. As you can see, it's become a monocrop of mugwort.

One curious, bristly nonnative is the Japanese angelica, which looks very similar to the native Devil's Walking Stick. We've been "browsing" this one, too, since the deer do not.

Last stop was the Veblen House grounds, where the Friends of Herrontown Woods has planted native hazelnuts, pawpaws, and a few of these butternuts--a tree with edible nuts that we're helping local expert Bill Sachs to reestablish in Princeton's preserves.

More info about Herrontown Woods and the generous legacy left behind by the Veblens can be found at, including a map. Join us on facebook at


  1. Thank you so much for the wonderful pictures and descriptions. Reminds me of my childhood with a mother who would point out all of these treasures. Now, I rely on Carolyn Edelmann to fill me in on what's what and who is who.

  2. Sounds like a childhood spent out and about, finding out and learning about. Carolyn's poetry and nature writing can be found at her njwildbeauty blog.