Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Hi Time For Hibiscus

Well, hello there, beautiful. The Hibiscus that's native around here, Hibiscus moscheutos, or rose mallow, is as tough as it is beautiful, thriving along the edges of Carnegie Lake and lining the wetlands of the upper Millstone River, up West Windsor way. Gather seeds from the convenient packaging of its capsules in the fall, and you might end up with some in a wet, sunny spot in the backyard, which is how I know that kayaking up the Millstone River from Carnegie Lake might be particularly lovely right about now.

As part of the Detention Basin Enhancement Program, which did not officially exist until the words were typed a few seconds ago, I took some of its copious seedlings from my backyard and pressed them into the ground at Smoyer Park yesterday evening, as the thunderstorm approached. Combining the planting with weeding, I pulled up a horseweed or pilewort, pressed the Hibiscus root into the resulting hole, then lay the pulled weed gently over top of the Hibiscus, to shade it while its roots take hold. Improvised, but potentially effective.

Other members of the Hibiscus genus get into the act this time of year. Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) can stand alone as a large shrub, or grow vertically enough to be a hedge. Not native, it tends to spread by seed in the yard, but hasn't made the leap to wilder areas that I know of.

There were big-flowered Hibiscus in my sister's garden in Cleveland that looked like this. It's a cultivar, and I resist calling it the same species as the local Rose Mallow, but am finding no other scientific name on the web.

Other dramatic native Hibiscus, not seen growing naturally around here, are H. coccineus (Texas Star Hibiscus) and H. laevis.

Update: A week or so later, Flower of an Hour (Hibiscus trionum), an Old World weed, showed up along our curb. Went back maybe an hour later, and the flower had already closed.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Bamboo at Princeton Battlefield Gets its Summer Cut

This past Saturday, four of us gathered for a well-timed intervention at the Princeton Battlefield. The Friends of Princeton Battlefield had cut down a patch of bamboo in the spring, but the roots had quickly sent up a new crop of shoots--essentially foliar solar panels that would quickly begin resupplying the bamboo's powerful root system. By following up and cutting the new shoots, we deprived the roots of any return on their investment in new infrastructure. This is the third year we've done this, and each year the job gets easier. A massive stand of bamboo has been reduced to modest sprouts easily managed.

Thanks to volunteers Jill Warrington, Andrew Thornton, and the leader of the Friends of Princeton Battlefield, Kip Cherry. My participation was a bit of outreach from the Friends of Herrontown Woods, on the other side of town.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Incredible Whiteness of Early Summer Flowers

Count the ways a flower can be white in early summer:

A white version of obedient plant in a frontyard raingarden fed by water from the roof,

The first summer bloom of rose mallow hibiscus in a backyard swale fed by water from the uphill neighbors,

boneset getting ready to pop,

Culver's root,

some elderberry flowers late to the party, growing next to the chicken coop,


tall meadowrue,

lizard's tail,

bottlebrush buckeye,

black cohosh up among the boulders on the Princeton ridge,

buttonbush and

oakleaved hydrangia, both growing in front of the Whole Earth Center,

Yucca filamentosa in a neighbor's front yard,

and, at Westminster's parking lot raingardens, some unintended white clover,


and Queen Anne's lace.

These last three on nonnative; the rest are native to the eastern U.S.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Nature Walk Today at Herrontown Woods, 1pm

(Had posted this at the FOHW.org site, but forgot to post it here.)

Join the Friends of Herrontown Woods on Sunday July 16 at 1pm for a celebratory and interpretive walk along the "new blue trail", which winds through mature forest and early 20th century quarry sites in a seldom seen area of the boulder-strewn preserve. Board member Kurt Tazelaar worked hundreds of hours this spring to find a drier and more interesting route for the Blue Trail through the soggy headwaters of Harry's Brook on the far side of the gasline right of way. The Blue Trail had long been impassible in late winter and spring. The walk will end at Veblen House, the historic house and grounds of the renowned mathematician, visionary and close colleague of Einstein, Oswald Veblen. FOHW is restoring the grounds and negotiating to save the finely crafted house. Town Topics just published an update on our initiative to save the house and other historic structures donated long ago for public use.

Meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot, off Snowden Lane, across from the entrance to Smoyer Park. Maps can be found at this link.

Photos are of black cohosh, blooming now along the ridge of the preserve, and green-fringed orchid, discovered by the Friends and protected from mowing on the Veblen grounds.

The latest research on the remarkable lives of former occupants of the Veblen House can be found in a post entitled, Happy 111th, Sylvia Jean Whiton-Stuart Hatch Turnure Olcott.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Nature Caught Spying on Nature Writer

All NatureNotes posts should be so easy.

A typical-seeming photo of my desk

that turns out not to be so typical after all.

Good morning, praying mantis, and welcome. Care for some coffee, or are you here to keep an eye on me?

Update: What a praying mantis was doing indoors, and how it might survive, was not immediately obvious. Later in the day, however, during a recording session, a musical "B", slightly out of tune with my guitar, was heard emanating from somewhere on the desk. It was finally tracked down, and turned out to be a fly making the tone of a "B" while having its head eaten by the praying mantis.

Interesting Talk July 19 on John James Audubon

Because Labyrinth Bookstore's website is being updated and doesn't show events, I'm taking the liberty of posting info about this event in its entirety.

Gregory Nobles
John James Audubon: The Nature of the American Woodsman 

Wednesday, July 19th at 6:00 PM
Labyrinth Books Princeton 

John James Audubon's The Birds of America stands as an unparalleled achievement in American art, a huge book that puts nature dramatically on the page. With that work, Audubon became one of the most adulated artists of his time, and America's first celebrity scientist. In his fresh approach to Audubon's art and science, Gregory Nobles shows us that Audubon's greatest creation was himself. Please join us for presentation and discussion with the author.

A self-made man incessantly striving to secure his place in American society, Audubon made himself into a skilled painter, a successful entrepreneur, and a prolific writer, whose words went well beyond birds and scientific description. He sought status with the "gentlemen of science" on both sides of the Atlantic, but he also embraced the ornithology of ordinary people. In pursuit of popular acclaim in art and science, Audubon crafted an expressive, audacious, and decidedly masculine identity as the "American Woodsman," a larger-than-life symbol of the new nation, a role he perfected in his quest for transatlantic fame. Audubon didn't just live his life; he performed it.

In exploring that performance, Nobles pays special attention to Audubon's stories, some of which - the murky circumstances of his birth, a Kentucky hunting trip with Daniel Boone, an armed encounter with a runaway slave - Audubon embellished with evasions and outright lies. Nobles argues that we cannot take all of Audubon's stories literally, but we must take them seriously. By doing so, we come to terms with the central irony of Audubon's true nature: the man who took so much time and trouble to depict birds so accurately left us a bold but deceptive picture of himself.

Gregory Nobles is Professor of History Emeritus at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Among his previous books are American Frontiers: Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest and, with Alfred F. Young, Whose American Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

How To Rescue a Raingarden

It's doing better now. The blue vervain has rebounded impressively. After being mowed down for most of a year, the native grasses--big bluestem, wild rye, and switchgrass--had looked like gonners, but they too have reappeared in numbers and are reaching for the sky.

Most raingardens, like many Americans, lack medical insurance. There's no money to restore their health when the weeds take over. There's money to design them, and install them, and sometimes even regulations that require they be planted. But to keep them thriving and looking good? Well, they're pretty much on their own.

If you think about it, most urban landscapes are cared for by people who know next to nothing about plants. If the medical profession were run like the landscaping business, hospitals would be manned by custodians equipped with leaf blowers and weed whippers, and anyone who came in with a medical issue would be left to fester, then eventually mowed down when they became unsightly. Under such conditions, trees can survive, and some foundation shrubs, but if you're a plant that's neither tree nor shrub nor turfgrass, life could be short.

The landscape architect who designed this raingarden, in a parking lot a few blocks from my house, likely had considerable training, and hopefully makes a decent living, but the designer is long gone and the garden will only survive if it is maintained. Whoever maintains it must know and be able to recognize, at every stage of their growth, not only the intended plants the designer was familiar with, but also the many kinds of weeds that threaten to overwhelm the intended plants. There's no time to pull every last weed, so efficient maintenance requires knowing which weeds pose a serious threat to a balanced planting, and which are benign. And by the way, all the money was spent on design and installation. Nothing's left to pay the people who determine the plantings fate and need the greatest knowledge.

I should have intervened sooner. Instead, a few years ago, having urged those responsible, to no avail, to hire either me or someone else who could give the raingarden the skilled care it needed, I watched as the intended plants got overwhelmed by a bumper crop of 7 foot high pigweed and lambsquarters. The next year, the landscape crew noticed how weedy the raingarden had become, so they mowed it all down and started treating it like a lawn. That's the classic progression: garden to weeds to lawn. The lack of plant knowledge makes most landscape care like a light switch. There are two positions: on and off. You either let it grow "natural" or mow it down. No selective intervention. Our inner gardens, which is to say our bodies, are cared for by knowledgeable people, who provide skilled medical intervention if need be. Why not a raingarden? The answer is that people matter, while saving a raingarden, like saving a livable planet, is considered optional.

Strangely, I feel lucky. Yes, I'm putting in a half hour here and there of volunteer work because of a culture's disconnect with plants, but one thing I learned from my astronomer father was to make a project more interesting by thinking of it as an experiment. How dramatically will a neglected raingarden respond to a little TLC? How little time can be invested and still get a good result?

There's such pleasure--why don't others feel this?--in rescuing a garden like this. Multiple levels of restoration happen at the same time: beauty, diversity, ecological function. And then there's the strategy, like playing bridge--using finesse to gain the best results with the cards you're dealt, dealing with multiple variables as the drama plays out. A different strategy is applied to each kind of weed. This is wild gardening, not total control. Leave the daisy fleabane with its weedy form but attractive flower. It's not doing any harm and won't take over. Take advantage of last night's rain to pull otherwise stubborn weeds out of the softened earth. Find satisfaction in the ease of undercutting a dandelion with a shovel blade. Catch mugwort or Canada thistle early, before they have a chance to spread. Feel the deeply American frontier mix of wit and muscle, mind and body. Live the wisdom of a hand-me-down phrase like "a stitch in time saves nine."

Otherwise, you end up with large swaths smothered with bindweed,

or carpeted with crown vetch. These will take something more than a clean undercutting with a shovel.

The solitary lambsquarter poses no threat at this point, and could end up in a salad.

The amaranth is already some insect's salad.

The smartweed (Polygonum) could prove aggressive, but the Japanese beetles are doing a good job of weakening its spreading tendencies. May as well leave it for now.

Velvet leaf isn't doing any harm, and will likely be eclipsed as the intended plants gain dominance.

Pilewort and

horseweeds are native weeds that grow tall and gangly, contributing to a weedy look if left in.

The catnip is staying for the meantime, though as a mint it could prove aggressive.

The Queen Anne's Lace (the same species that makes the carrots we eat) is pretty, but I've seen it take over fields in the midwest. Maybe remove it after the flowers fade.

There's no perfection here, and no certainty that each decision is the right one, but the results have been heartening, with the original plantings showing more resiliency than expected.

Next time I'm walking the dog over that way, maybe I'll remember to take pruners to trim back the redbud. Perhaps it should be called "casual insistence", this integration of garden rescue into the fabric of one's life, pulling weeds every week or two while the dog waits patiently. There are a few of us in town hard-wired to care in this way, with inner clocks that say "time to go take a look", who find this sort of casually serious and seriously casual persistence with a garden to be satisfying. Perhaps someday more people, maybe even some professional landscape crews, will discover the pleasure, and fewer raingardens will be lost to the weeds.

In the meantime, breathe in the cool air of an early summer evening, and feel like a conductor molding nature's growth force into a symphony, orchestrating the comeback of a raingarden nearly lost to the world.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Mile a Minute--A Wave Growing Across NJ's Countryside

You can spot it a mile away. Early summer, and already this annual, thorn-covered vine called Mile-a-Minute is rising like a wave along fencelines in New Jersey's countryside. Thus far, in my ramblings around Princeton, I have found only two tiny patches--at the Battlefield and along the driveway into Rogers Refuge--both of which have been knocked out the past two years. Is this sort of early intervention and annual followup worth it? The answer becomes abundantly clear just outside of town, halfway to Hopewell, where Mile-a-Minute vine is demonstrating just how much of a prickly menace it can be if not caught early.

It's a plant that seeks to be seen everywhere, and with all the other players on the plant scene. Here it is growing up a tree,

and sprawling over another invasive, garlic mustard.

Even those thistles with their prickly personalities aren't off-putting for a Mile-a-Minute vine.

It's said to have been an accidental introduction from eastern Asia via the nursery trade, originally gaining a foothold in York County, PA, in the 1930s and spreading from there.

Rampancy rules in this photo, as mile-a-minute swarms an autumn olive--a highly invasive shrub. When mile-a-minute's around, the curtain doesn't fall on other plants, but rises, in a wave of triangular leaves.

Here's Mile-a-Minute chasing the growth tip of a blackberry. Check back in a month to see who won the race.

Here, a privet's growing a prickly skirt.

Those pink flowers are Canada thistle, invader of many a garden bed, which is about to meet its match.

Long-time ubiquitous invasives, multiflora rose and Japanese honeysuckle, are joined by Mile-a-Minute.

You'd think perennial vines like wild grape would have a big advantage over an annual vine that has to spring anew from the soil every year, but Mile-a-Minute is looking up to the challenge.

Note the holes in the Mile-a-Minute leaves. Those are most likely from a weevil that was introduced as a biological control. The hope is that the weevil will become numerous enough, and consume enough triangular leaves to slow the wave of Mile-a-Minute engulfing the countryside.

Thus far, the Mile-a-Minute looks undeterred, growing over the slowly maturing fruits of wineberry,

and the pale stems of native black raspberry.

Beyond any ecological impact of such rampancy, it's interesting to reflect on the aesthetic and emotional impact of seeing a landscape being overrun by Mile-a-Minute. A healthy native prairie, for example, teaming with many species of grasses and wildflowers, all reaching for the sun with no inclination to crawl over one another, gives a feeling of striving, freedom, diversity, peaceful cohabitation, tolerance of one species for another. In contrast, a vine like Mile-a-Minute creates a smothering effect, a sense of clutter and thorny entanglement, a suppression of difference, an oppressive dependency that plays out as a punishment for any plant that dare reach a sturdy stem for the sky.