Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Spring Walk Through Herrontown Woods

(This post from 2017)
Update: We had a wonderful spring nature walk at Herrontown Woods on Sunday, April 23. It was Earthday weekend, which is part of Earth Month, Year, Century, and miscellaneous millennia extending out beyond, towards infinite. Earth takes care of people day in and day out, so it's only fair that we return the favor.

Below is a virtual version of the walk along the red and yellow trails past vernal pools and boulder fields, all graced with wildflowers and the babble of brooks this time of year, then past the daffodil-strewn Veblen farmstead and over to the Veblen House grounds for refreshments.

Head down the parking lot to the Red Trail, and the first thing you encounter in spring is the vernal pools that form in the holes left by trees uprooted by storms. It's fun to search the banks of these pools for the well-disguised wood frogs.

It was a weird early spring, with summer-like heat followed by snow-come-lately, but some frogs managed to leave globs of eggs behind. Mosquito wigglers promise a good food source whenever the eggs get around to hatching.

It's proving to be an unusually good year for trout lilies--the yellow flowers with trout-like mottling on their leaves. Most years, one sees abundant leaves on the forest floor, but few actual flowers.

Spring beauty is a more dependable bloomer.

The Yellow Trail branches off from the Red Trail just past the stream crossing, then follows the stream up to a convergence. The opulent leaves of skunk cabbage make these streams a ribbon of green in spring. Take the stone stream crossing to stay on the Yellow Trail.

Here's an impressive lean-to someone built, using the crook of a tree to support the central beam.

Along the stream is some scouring rush (Equisetum), which we discovered on a walk with kids from the nearby Princeton Learning Cooperative. You can pull apart its segments, and use their abrasive silicon texture to sand a clarinet reed, or scour whatever needs scouring. It's a very primitive plant, and small compared to its tree-sized ancestors from the Carboniferous era.

Jack in the Pulpits are getting ready to preach.

Rue anemone lines some sections of trail, giving the impression that the edges of trails offer a particularly conducive habitat, where wildflowers are less impeded by the forest leaf cover.

We may also see wood anemones and Virginia pennyworts. I'm told that the pennyworts have an S2 designation in NJ, meaning S2, which means "imperiled because of rarity (6 to 20 occurrences)". This speaks to how important it is for us to carefully manage Herrontown Woods to protect its diversity.

As the Yellow Trail climbs the slope of the Princeton Ridge, you can see the surrounding understory turning green with, alas, winged Euonymus. That early green flush of species that evolved on other continents can shade out the native spring wildflowers, which depend on that sunlight streaming down unimpeded, to recharge their roots with enough energy to bloom the next year. Native trees and shrubs are slower to leaf out, and so give the native wildflowers the "window of opportunity" they need.

Along the trail, you'll see many of the winged Euonymus were cut. We're experimenting to see if the deer will follow up and eat the resprouts. 

It takes awhile to notice the subtle beauty of flowering sedges.

Mayapples are numerous, though relatively few can be found with flower buds.

Near the top of the yellow trail, before it swings over towards the quarry area and farmstead, is a favorite spot: the boulder field.

A stream flows through the boulders, with enough current this time of year to create a wonderful stereo effect with gurglings of various pitches. These sounds mix with birdsongs, the occasional small plane coming or going from Princeton Airport, and various rustlings of wind and wildlife to create that special seductive serenity of Herrontown Woods. I'd suggest that it was that serenity that drew Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen out to this part of town, and led ultimately to the land being preserved when the Veblens donated it all for public enjoyment.

Here's one of the native shrubs--spicebush--which make subtle, fleeting clouds of yellow in the understory. If the shrubs benefit from an opening in the tree canopy, they get enough energy to make bright red, lipid-right berries for the birds.

Here's the mystery Viburnum. Only a few specimens at Herrontown Woods. There are various natives--V. prunifolium, V. dentatum, and V. acerifolium--and the nonnative Linden Viburnum. But this is not any of those.

Update: Thanks to Henry Horn for putting me in touch with Michael Donoghue of Yale for an ID of this shrub: Tea Viburnum (V. setigerum), a Chinese species "that is escaping and becoming established in several areas in North America."

Part of the charm of Herrontown Woods is its farmstead (photo below), which includes a small red barn and corncrib, and the shingled 1875 farmhouse known as Veblen Cottage. Many people confuse the cottage with the Veblen House, which is a couple hundred feet away, through the high fence. These daffodils were either planted by Elizabeth Veblen or by one of the local garden clubs that showed their love for the Veblens and Herrontown Woods by caring for the gardens well after Elizabeth passed away in 1974. The daffodils went unnoticed until Friends of Herrontown Woods board member Sally Tazelaar removed all the multiflora rose that had grown over them.

The current owner of these buildings, Mercer County, has taken initial steps that, if not countered, would lead to their demolition. They are in fine shape and remind park visitors of Princeton's farming heritage. Our nonprofit, the Friends of Herrontown Woods, has submitted a proposal to acquire and maintain these buildings with the same love and commitment we have shown by taking care of Herrontown Woods for four years.

Update, April, 2021: The Friends of Herrontown Woods and its supporters convinced the town to take ownership of Herrontown Woods from the county, and lease the buildings to our nonprofit to begin repairs.

Learn more during the walk, and consider getting involved via our website.

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