Sunday, February 26, 2017

Winter Aconite and Fig Buttercup--Related Flowers, Contrasting Behaviors

Both of these non-native wildflowers are in the family Ranunculaceae. Both bloom early and have pretty yellow flowers. While one appears to be modest and highly local in its spread, the other spreads so quickly across yards and into neighbors' yards and floodplains as to pose a threat to gardens and natural areas alike.


Here's winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) opening up a week ago in my garden, a legacy from the previous owner. Its modest spread is easily contained. I've never seen it spreading into nature preserves. Note the leaf shape, which distinguishes it from the related wildflower below.

Here, also a week ago, is lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), emerging where it now coats the streambanks along a bikepath near Guyot Avenue. It's more commonly called fig buttercup these days. People think it's pretty, transplant it to their gardens, then begin having regrets as it spreads uncontrollably to dominate their gardens and yards. If you are one of the distraught gardeners wishing you didn't have this flower, and not wanting to impose its spread on the rest of the neighborhood, late winter is the time to deal with it. Though I'm no fan of herbicide, that tends to be the only workable option in the majority of cases. For details, consult this link, or others with similar protocols.

Other posts on this subject can be found on this website by typing "celandine" into the search box. A post called "Will the real lesser celandine please stand up--a confusion of yellows" helps with identification.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Roads and Parking Lots as Ephemeral Streams

Roads and parking lots don't look like streams, but they are. Princeton Shopping Center is one of the "headwaters" of Harry's Brook, and its snowmelt offers a good demonstration of how water flows from pavement to stormwater pipe to the brook itself. The subtle sheddings of brakepads, tires, and leaky engines, along with the not so subtle salt residue and litter, are hastened by the rain to join whatever aquatic life resides downstream. Washing all of this "away", a rain seems cleansing to us, as it sullies an unseen nature that's expected to quietly absorb the recurrent insult and carry on.


There's a similar deception at work in the chimneys of our homes. If the environment gains hardly a mention in the political world, it's because pollution is now largely unintentional, hidden, diffuse, subtle in its source and distant in its impact.


Saturday, February 18, 2017

Did U Put the Ant in Cantaloupe?

It just doesn't seem right. Ants in February, feasting on tiny bits of cantaloupe on the kitchen counter when it's below freezing outside. And what sort of February is this, with cantaloupe for sale and a stretch of 60 degree days starting tomorrow? Has nature finally surrendered to the economy and abolished seasons altogether? Even the spelling of the word "cantaloupe" comes as a surprise, after a lifetime of not really noticing. Maybe one of our political parties will once again decide it dislikes all things french, and defiantly serve "cantalope" with American fries in the cafeteria of the U.S. Congress. Their presidential candidate will boldly declare that "This campaign is all about U", and promise that, to strengthen the nation's moral character, his first action as president will be to proclaim that the english language can't elope with French words. The other political party, tired of relentless negativity, will base its campaign on the slogan "Yes we canaloupe". By this time, a previous president will have indefinitely suspended all future elections, consigning the nation to a campaign season without substance and without end. Meanwhile, the meekest and tiniest among the ants, thriving in a climate made weird by too many tiny molecules in the atmosphere, and seeing the big-brained species devolving into nonsense, will seize the day and inherit the earth.


Thursday, February 09, 2017

Graupel--A Special Form of Snow

All snow is special. Like children, except more numerous and lower maintenance, no two snowflakes are the same. As we know, snow that falls in Princeton's coveted 08540 zip code is extra special, and on the last day of January, there fell a particularly special kind of Principitation. Instead of flakes, the snow looked more like small beads of styrofoam.


When it fell one day two years ago, thinking it needed a name, I coined what seemed like a new term: snubbins. A recent google search, however, revealed that the word "snubbins" is sometimes used to refer to medium sized breasts. Who knew?

A less conflicted name came out of the blue during a trip to the Whole Earth Center, when longtime employee Bill excitedly showed me a printout from Wikipedia, describing this special snow as "graupel". To quote: "Graupel, also called soft hail or snow pellets, is precipitation that forms when supercooled droplets of water are collected and freeze on falling snowflakes, forming 2–5 mm balls of rime." These supercooled droplets, suspended high in the air and still liquid down to -40 F, collect and freeze around the snowflakes as they fall towards earth. The behavior of supercooled water came up in another recent post admiring the patterns the minipond water makes when it freezes.


In this photo of the graupel collected on our backyard fillable/spillable minipond, or mini-rink this time of year, you can see their shape. In the middle of the photo there's a snowflake still visible, only partly covered in rime.

In this photo, some of the graupel takes the shape of corn kernels.

Favorites from the archive:

Principitation: Coins and defines useful terms for various kinds of snow and snowy objects, e.g. snirt, snoodle, kerfluffle, and we-cicles (plural of i-cycles).

Snowbound Language: A Victor Borgesque story about what happens when snow blankets the english language.




Tuesday, February 07, 2017

DR Canal Nature Loop in Winter

The DR Canal State Park crew hasn't yet done its annual mowing of our little nature trail, next to the towpath just upstream of the Harrison Street bridge. That means we can do a little virtual February nature walk. (Summer tour at this link.) Some background info: The land here, bounded by the Washington Rd and Harrison Street bridges, the canal and Carnegie Lake, is owned by Princeton University but maintained by the DR Canal State Park. Back around 2006, having seen native wildflowers getting mowed down, I convinced them to shift from weekly to annual mowings of the areas away from the towpath. The annual mowings keep the meadows from growing up with trees. They then created this nature loop through the open woodland with sunny patches of wildflowers and views of Carnegie Lake.


It starts with a nice sign and box for pamphlets that I need to refill.

On your right is a stand of switch grass--one of the grasses of midwestern and plain state prairies that also grows in the east. Switch grass is one of the native grasses that grows erect enough to fit in as an ornamental in people's gardens. It got its two seconds of fame in a president's 2006 State of the Union address, as a potential source of ethanol.

Left of the path are the remains of an evening primrose's seedheads, held high.

A short way down the trail is a cluster of red oak leaves. Follow the branch back to the trunk of the tree,

and you can see that the beavers have been busy.

A little farther is a bench looking north across Lake Carnegie.

A closer look at what's growing there along the shore shows the remains of last summers native hibiscus blooms (Hibiscus moscheutos). Kayakers heading upstream on the Millstone River from Carnegie Lake in midsummer will encounter this showy wildflower lining the banks in some sections, its feet in the water.

The bench, by the way, was donated in memory of Anuita Margolis Blanc. An internet source says she founded the Nassau Cooperative Nursery School, was president of the Princeton Assn. for Human Rights, president of the Princeton Study Center, and founder and partner of Princeton Crossroads Realty.

Here and there you'll see the seedheads of ironweed, a tall reddish native floodplain wildflower that blooms in later summer.

Also on the left are some clones of Indian hemp, related to milkweed.

Pin oak has narrower, more deeply lobed leaves than red oak. There are lots of different oaks along the pathway, including a bur oak, which is more of a midwestern species--evidence that at one point the university planted this area to ornament the entry into campus from Route 1.

Broomsedge, actually a bluestem grass, grows along the right edge of the trail. A field of broomsedge can be a beautiful sight in winter, except to farmers who view its presence as evidence of poor soil.

You'll see lots of this--Japanese honeysuckle. Though it's one of the first invasive species I learned about, it cannot compete with the smothering power of porcelainberry, which is now dominating farther down the trail in sunnier areas.

Where the trail turns left and heads towards the towpath before bending back around, there are expanding groupings of Joe-Pye-Weed--one of the native summer wildflowers that has responded well to the annual mowing management.

Look on the ground around there and you're likely to see a "gum ball"--the many-capsuled fruit of the sweetgum tree.

Look up and you'll see many of the gum balls still on the tree.


Goldenrods are thriving. The floodplain species of goldenrod tend to spread underground via rhizomes and tend to dominate over time.

Some trees are "self pruning", but pin oaks tend to hold their lower branches, which bend down in a characteristic way.

Beech trees are related to oaks, and show the similar habit of holding onto their leaves far into winter.

Beyond this bench is a tree that's lost some of its lower bark.

More evidence of beavers.

Here's one of the shrubs left over from the 1960s era plantings by the university--a row of fragrant honeysuckle that sometimes gets on lists of invasive species, though I've never seen it spread. It has small but very fragrant white flowers in late winter. Lonicera fragrantissima is the latin name.

The remains of a pokeweed bloom.

That gets you about halfway down the path. It circles back over to the towpath. The Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park has programming during the year.



Thursday, February 02, 2017

Chickens and the Origins of Flight


Observing all the different uses our free-range chickens put their wings and feathers to has led this week to some speculation about how flight evolved. Chickens are particularly instructive in that they are not capable of full-fledged flight. They are, however, capable of wing-assisted hops--to reach the top of a fence, or to flutter upwards from branch to branch as they climb to their favorite roosting spot. And in the morning, when they descend, they use their wings to break their fall to the ground. Back when we were picking the chickens up and holding them, it was a delight, and convenient, to just toss them into the air and let them flutter softly down.

Their wings provide adjustable warmth, fluffed to varying degrees to match the cold of a particular night. That capacity to manipulate their feathers for warmth translates well to any micro-adjustments feathers make to optimize flight. As mentioned in a post describing a hawk attack, the strong quills of a chicken's wings also provide an incredibly light-weight, multi-layered armor, any portion of which can be shed so that a predator, thinking it has a firm grasp on the chicken, finds itself instead holding only a feather or two while the chicken escapes. That multilayered defense serves as well to shed the rain. Feathers also are mobilized for a powerful display, spreadable to make the chicken look bigger to potential predators, or more attractive to a potential mate.

After observing a chicken, flight can seem like an afterthought--a bit of serendipity that came to pass after wings and feathers gradually developed for a host of other purposes, each adaptive use enabling another in a positive feedback loop that ultimately led to the purity of flight.