Friday, November 06, 2020

In a Hidden Valley, Sudden Abundance, and a White Squirrel

Some of my favorite memories in nature are of sudden abundance. Day to day, walking through a woods or stepping into the backyard, we tend to see one or two of this or that bird or flower. The dispersed, low-key nature we typically see contrasts with accounts from long ago, when endless flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the sky, and herds of bison stretched to the horizon. As a kid, I read of distant streams or lakes teaming with fish. "Where lunkers lurk just below your boat" was one memorable headline. On a few occasions I convinced my father to drive me to them, trips that repeatedly ended in disappointment. 

Serendipity, however, has served up sudden abundance a few times in my life. One fall day early on in my small Wisconsin hometown I was walking home from school when I happened to look up and saw the whole sky filled with monarch butterflies heading south for the winter. There was the small inlet we canoed into in the Quetico, where we happened to look down and saw the shallow water was thick with a school of walleye, from which we quickly caught a delicious dinner. During our time in North Carolina, there was the time when hundreds of cedar waxwings enlivened our neighborhood for a couple days with their antics. And each year in the fall, I'd hope to be around when a large flock of migratory robins, with a few scarlet tanagers mixed in, would descend upon our yard, strip the flowering dogwoods of their ripened berries in an orgy of consumption, then be gone. Even the small park behind our house here in Princeton served one evening a few years ago as a stage for sudden abundance, when winged ants began emerging from the ground, attracting hundreds of dragonflies which in turn attracted a flock of swallows, spectacular fliers all.

This summer, serendipity served up sudden abundance in the most unlikely of places: a hidden valley in Princeton Junction. One afternoon I was standing outside a strip mall with a few minutes to kill, and decided to check out the woods behind the row of businesses. In retrospect, I was just following the flow of the pavement like any self-respecting raindrop would have done, but this going with the flow was taking me away from the human mainstream into another world.

There, beyond the edge of the asphalt, the land dropped down into a woodland like no other I have ever encountered. Perhaps only a botanist would have recognized the extraordinary nature of the nature that stretched before me. Clethra as far as the eye could see. Okay, let me explain. Clethra alnifolia, summersweet, sweet pepperbush, call it what you will, is a native shrub with a fragrant flower sometimes used in landscaping. 

Now, if you're into native plants, you may start to wonder where they typically grow in the wild. Many of the more popular ones--like Clethra, or Virginia sweetspire, bottlebrush buckeye, oak-leaved hydrangia, purple coneflower--have proven rare or non-existent in the wilds I've explored over the years. This could be due to the myriad ways in which we have transformed the landscape, from development to draining to fire exclusion. Or it could be that their home habitat is remote from places I've lived. In the case of Clethra, I had never seen it in the wild save for one sorry specimen holding on next to the towpath along the banks of Lake Carnegie. 

It was a surprise, then, to step behind a pizza joint just up from the Princeton Junction train station, and find myself gazing out on a sea of Clethra, growing like a weed. 

Ostrich fern is another plant I've rarely seen in the wild, and here it too was growing in abundance, giving the woodland a tropical look. 

Returning later with a pair of rubber boots, I waded out into the mud to explore this hidden valley, several times almost losing my boots in the thick muck. 

Here are a few other sudden abundances and rarities--plant, animal, and human--that I encountered:

On the hammocks of high ground surrounded by the mucky soils, Hydrangeas were in full bloom, reaching up to 17 feet tall.

Under a canopy of black gum, red maples and oaks, there were lots of Magnolias

and highbush blueberries.

Netted chain ferns, which bear a resemblance to the much more common sensitive fern, were tucked in among the massings of ostrich ferns.

A small, bent over tree with a curious compound leaf caught my attention. It wasn't a walnut or ash or anything else I could think of. I was excited at the thought that I had discovered a very rare tree, and stumped several botanists before sending a photo to Bob Wells of Morris Arboretum. He promptly identified it as poison sumac--something I hadn't encountered since field botany days in Michigan. The ID explained the skin rash I had been dealing with since handling it.

As with the poison sumac, there was just one Styrax, which showed the remains of its pendulant flowers, and one native azalea. All of these are rarely seen in the wild.
Only towards the other side of the valley did it become clear why this habitat was so different from what can be encountered in Princeton. Most of the stormwater runoff from the strip mall is somehow channeled to the far side of the valley, where it has eroded the stream and exposed the underlying gravel and sand. Simply by crossing Route 1, I had left the piedmont clay of Princeton and entered NJ's sandy inner coastal plain. Though erosion has changed one side of the valley, the other side is fortunately bypassed by the runoff, allowing the mucky soils and hammocks to persist in something close to their pre-development state.  

I had just counted my 30th wild hydrangea blooming in the valley when I saw a man with a white beard walking down into the woods. Scampering about 30 feet ahead of him was a white squirrel. I had already encountered so many unusual plants in this valley, and now I was seeing a white squirrel for the first time in my life. 
It's distinct appearance lent magnificence to its every move, as if a spotlight were upon it. This photo is the best I could manage with my cell phone as the man continued down the slope. The white squirrel can be seen in the lower right corner. 
He didn't seem to notice me, so I called out to ask him something about the squirrel. He turned and began telling me about a white squirrel he had befriended some years back. It had been a true albino, with pink eyes, and he had trained it to come to him for food. It had gotten to the point where it would come inside. He said that he'd start opening the door for the squirrel to go in his house, and the squirrel would push it further open and come in. He said the true albinos supposedly can't see as well, and that's one reason why it might have allowed itself to be tamed. One day it disappeared, and a friend told him it had been hit by a car. 

The white squirrel I had just seen was one of the albino's offspring. Actually, he explained, they are called silver squirrels, because they have a little gray on their backs, but are otherwise white. Squirrels are really smart, I interjected, expecting him to marvel at how remarkable squirrels are, but my thoughts on their intelligence made him think instead of how you can't keep them out of a house, and how squirrels had gotten into an old neighbor's attic and nearly destroyed her house. He was clearly not one to romanticize animals.

I asked him if this hidden valley is protected, and he said they have had to fight to keep the developers out of it. They lost about 60 feet of it when the strip mall developers wanted to build off the back. Lots of trees lost. He later said there's no organization, just the neighbors who border the property. He had a t-shirt on that said "REAL MEN DON'T NEED INSTRUCTIONS". I asked to take a photo of the shirt, as an excuse to photograph him. He said yes, and pointed out the hammer on the shirt, accidentally cut in two by a table saw. His name was John.

We walked down to the stream, where he said there had been a bridge that got washed out. The bridge turned out to be a long timber, 8x8, which he lifted back into place with some effort, but still impressive for his age. He said the neighborhood is called Berrien City

I told him how amazing this valley was for a botanist like me. He said when he'd first heard about the house they bought, and heard it was in Princeton Junction, he pictured something urban. But finding this valley behind it changed his mind. He asked if I'd seen the pond, and when I said no he offered to show me. 

As we maneuvered through the woods thick with sweet pepperbush, he began telling me about his early days, living on the outskirts of Langhorne, PA. He had wanted to be off the grid back then, bought a house that hadn't been lived in for 30 years, had a hole in the roof, one bedroom, a living room and a kitchen. They had a 2 year old son. Their water came from a spring up the hill. A number of them living there dug underground pipes to direct the water to their homes. He said he was at the bottom of the line, and had 600 feet of regular garden hose that the water flowed through to get to his cisterns--one of concrete and two of stainless steel. The cisterns were always full and overflowing, and to keep the water flowing through the hose in winter he had to keep the faucet open in the kitchen. If the hoses froze, he had to gather up all 600 feet and bring them in next to his woodstove to thaw out. He heated completely with wood until their son was seven. The house had 30 amp service, and there was some sort of radiant heater he could turn on to warm the outhouse seat before he headed out there in the winter. They heated water on a stove, and bathed in a tin tub in the kitchen. They ate squirrel and raccoon. The raccoon, he said, actually tasted good. A possum they tried, though, tasted like a McDonald dumpster. He still chops wood. His son, a policeman, still heats his house with wood, even though they have a regular furnace. His son uses a woodsplitter, though. 

The subject of raccoons got him talking about how he used to pay his mortgage with roadkill. Raccoon pelts fetched $50 back in 1980, and fox $75. He'd keep them in his freezer, skinned or sometimes not, until he had enough to make a delivery. It didn't take many to come up with 300 bucks. 

John told me more stories as we stood next to the stormwater pond, in this otherworldly valley hidden behind the loading docks and clustered storefronts of a strip mall that looked like any other in America. I wished I had turned on my phone's recorder to capture his voice and more fully document his story. Much of it involved his life in the fur trade in the 1980s, driving fur traders along a circuit from NY City out to North Carolina, north to Ohio and Pennsylvania, then back to New York, sometimes with $100,000 worth of furs in the back of the truck. It sounded like an updated version of trade in the 18th century. As a line of work, it probably met its demise in the 1990s, when animal cruelty concerns came to the fore. And I doubt a mortgage could be paid off in the 21st century with roadkill. 

Heading back to my pickup afterwards, as if to bend my mind once more before emerging from the woodland, I saw another white squirrel, or perhaps the same one, racing up a tree.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Work Behind a Natural-looking Meadow--Smoyer Park in Princeton

Sometimes, maybe most of the time, natural takes work. This goes for both nature and human nature. Most people will look at this wet meadow, with its stand of ironweed set off by goldenrod in the distance, and think it burst spontaneously from the ground, fully formed. But that's not the case. 

There are places where native diversity happens without intervention. I've known a few, where the original hydrology is intact, and introduced species have yet to invade, and fire is allowed to sweep through periodically and beneficially, as in ancient times, and the soil still holds within it the seeds to feed all the stages of succession, from field to shrubland to forest. 

But not here in the middle of Smoyer Park, which had been a farm before it became ball fields. Plowed, regraded, planted with exotic turf grasses, this land had long since lost its native seed bank. Soil has a memory, as do we, composed of all the seeds that have fallen there and have yet to sprout. That memory is erased when plowed or bulldozed, as so much of America has been. Into the void will fall the seeds of mostly nonnative, weedy species that will lead to discouraging results for anyone who tries a romantic "just let it all grow" approach. 

Bringing back natural, then, takes work. For an analogy, think of all the parenting needed to raise a child, all the emotions that need to be understood, the impulses that need to be steered in a healthy direction, all the parts of self that can get buried and forgotten along the way. There's plenty that can go wrong during that perilous journey to adulthood, and if it does, even more intervention is needed to regain that sense of comfort within one's own skin. 

Nature has been profoundly traumatized, and yet many people somehow expect it to spring back without ongoing assistance. As with parenting, it's hard to have success in the absence of love. Most of the world's love and attention is directed somewhere other than towards nature, which explains why our suburban landscapes seldom receive more than custodial care--weekly visits of mow, blow, and go by crews indifferent to the land and its promise. 

This photo shows what the wet meadow looked like just after it was planted with native grasses and wildflowers four years ago. Many would assume that nothing more was needed to create a healthy meadow, and would have walked away thinking "mission accomplished." But as with a baby, birth is really just the beginning. I looked upon the detention basin's bare expanse, seeds planted but yet to sprout, with an eye for all that could go right and all that could go wrong. Over time, it has taken only a couple hours of attention now and then to steer the planting in the right direction, but those few strategic hours, catching problems early, has made a big difference. In a sense, the planting resides within me. It is part of my internal calendar, rising into my thoughts often enough to prompt action. 

Here is an account of the many kinds of plants that can make things go right or wrong when a detention basin is converted from exotic turfgrass to native meadow. (Click on the "read more" to continue.)

Monday, October 19, 2020

Fall is Burstin' Out All Over

After the heavy hitters of late summer are past--the Hibiscus, coneflowers, bonesets, et al--it's easy to think the season of native wildflowers is over, but this fall has been a surprise in the beauty and variety that nature held in reserve for these sweet autumn days. 

One that's been a big hit at Herrontown Woods is Hearts-a-bustin', though I prefer to call it Hearts-a-burstin', because when I see it my heart does more burstin' than bustin'. 

This native euonymus (E. americanus) would be a common shrub in the forest if not for the deer, who love to eat it, stem and all. They keep it browsed down to a couple inches high, so we had to take some of those and grow them out in cages so that visitors could see the ornamental seed capsules on the shrubs, one of which has risen to eight feet thus far. It helps, too, for the ornamental seed production, if it's growing in a clearing where the trees aren't hogging all the direct sunlight, like our Princeton Botanical Art Garden.

A little earlier in the fall when the capsules were just starting to open, you could see why it is also called strawberry bush. 

A solitary white snakeroot is growing near a Hearts-a-burstin' planted behind Veblen House. It can easily be confused with boneset and late-flowering thoroughwort. When I first moved to Princeton almost 20 years ago, white snakeroot was common in some areas, even weedy, being one of the few native wildflowers that deer didn't eat, but it seems much less common now. 

A few fall flowers in Herrontown Woods manage to bloom despite deep shade. Wood asters adorn some of the trails, 

occasionally accompanied by a wreath goldenrod.

More subtle is beechdrops, which parasitizes beech tree roots rather than producing its own nourishment through photosynthesis.

Along a busy street in a frontyard raingarden fed by runoff from the roof, blue mistflower blooms profusely for an extended period while staying low. 
New England aster also brings color to the garden late in the season.

The white of late-flowering thoroughwort makes a good foil for New England aster's rich color.

Another cloud of white late in the season comes from what I call frost aster. Because it can become too numerous, I would in the past make plans to enjoy the bloom, then cut it down and remove it before the seeds were released. But once it's bloomed, it quickly fades into the background of landscape and thought, foiling the best of intentions to control. 

Turtlehead grows quietly and unobtrusively during the summer, bending around other plants to attain its tall, skinny, awkward state of maturity. The blooms make for a top-heavy look, but this year were solidly ornamental.

Indian grass is particularly pretty when growing in a distinctive clump, rather than crowded in a field. Like many prairie grasses, it responds beautifully to the wind.
Bottlebrush grass is more of an understory grass, and unlike most native grasses it gets an early start in the spring. 

This one's called woolgrass, for its wooly appearance, but is actually a sedge, with edgy triangular stems. Unlike most native sedges that get an early start in the spring and move quickly to flower, woolgrass takes its time, gaining more height and slowly developing its inflorescence, which is ornamental at all stages, particularly when backlit. Though typically found growing on wet ground, it has been thriving through our wetter summers when planted upland as well, as here in the botanical garden at Herrontown Woods.

There are many species of native sunflower. They can make a big and very welcome show in the fall after other tall yellow wildflowers like cutleaf coneflower and cupplant have faded. A powerline right of way in the Sourlands preserve is one of the few places where they really show their stuff around here.

In North Carolina, they had names like "giant," "showy," "woodland," and a rare one called "Schweinitzii." I knew giant sunflower (Helianthus giganteus) from only one derelict patch growing along a roadside outside of town, and decided to do it and myself a favor by taking a tiny bit of the patch and planting it in my garden and in a sunny opening in a nature preserve I managed in town. As often happens, what seemed like a species on the brink in the wild turned out to be prolific and expansive in the garden. 

The sunflower in the photo, though, is sunchoke, a sunflower that has long carried the name Jerusalem artichoke. Each year, I think I'll eat its tubers, which I don't, even though they have an appealing nutty flavor when eaten raw, and can work well in a stirfry. And each spring, I attempt to pull out every last sprout, tired of its aggressive underground spread. Then in the fall, longing for summer blooms to continue, I am thankful to find that my eradication efforts have once again failed to completely stem the tide. 

These are some of the flowers that ease the transition from summer's glory to a palette of browns and grays. Let their colors, and the rich spectrum of autumn leaves, penetrate deep into your soul, to carry you through the winter to come.

Friday, October 09, 2020

Autumn in a Vase

As autumn has evolved, so have the bouquets that appear on counters and tables in our house. 

I'm content that the flowers in the front and back gardens feed the pollinators and produce some seed and beauty, but my wife invites them inside in various congregations. Plants have always been easier to photograph than people, and especially now, given that they don't need to social distance. 

The yellow is autumn Helenium, and the long strands in the back are white vervain, which looks scraggly in the garden, with tiny white flowers barely noticeable, but in a vase takes on an artistic effect.

The frost asters in this bouquet (white) are weedy native that can get too numerous but has shown its glorious side this fall. The burgundy colored disks are a common stonecrop that's not native but has a very long ornamental trajectory, going from green to pink to burgundy to chocolate, and keeping its form through the winter.
This one adds blue mistflower, goldenrod, and one of the many kinds of sunflowers. The sunflowers don't last very long in a vase.
A week or two later, turtlehead got added in (white tubular flower).
The pink/purple is New England Aster. 

We have so many flowers in the garden that no matter how many end up in vases, there will still be enough to produce seed for new plantings elsewhere.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Algae Impersonators at Smoyer Park Pond

For most, perhaps all of the summer, open water was only a memory at Smoyer Park's pond. In its place was a layer of green, molded into static swirls that blotted out what in previous years had been a play of light and wind on water. It's like closing the curtain on a stage.

Though I'd seen a pond in North Carolina similarly coated shore to shore, the disappearance of open water in Smoyer Park came as a surprise. What was it, and had it happened before? One regular walker in the park said it had never been as bad as this year. 

An older photo from early September, 2014 shows just a little algae or algae-like growth accumulated along the shore, offering more evidence that this year is different. 

I mention "algae-like" because not all accumulations of green growth on ponds are algae, as became more evident as we took a closer look at this year's green growth in Smoyer Park's pond.

The closer look was prompted by a link in a Sustainable Princeton email to an NJ Spotlight article about the increasing number of lakes in NJ beset by harmful algal growth, and the likely link to nutrient pollution flowing into waterways from fertilized lawns, farm fields, and pavement. We tend to think of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus as beneficial, but excess nutrients in nature tend to cause harmful chain reactions. In a waterway, they can lead to blooms of algae, which then die and decompose, sucking up the dissolved oxygen needed by fish. Some species of algae produce toxins, such as those alleged to have recently killed hundreds of elephants in Africa.

I contacted Jenny Ludmer, who lives near the park and takes a great interest in local nature, and suggested the possibility that a new algae might be causing the excessive coverage in Smoyer Park. As an example of recent changes, a strange algae has shown up in early spring in one of my backyard miniponds the past couple years. I also looked up the once pristine lake of my childhood, Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, and found that algal growth stimulated by rising temperatures and nutrient pollution, plus an invasive plant named starry stonewort, are now interfering with boating and swimming.

Jenny and I discussed whether the green was duckweed or algae. She took another look and sent this photo that made it look like the duckweed had been coated in a layer of green goo. Concerned about the potential for toxins, she also sent some photos to the state DEP, which promptly dispatched someone to take a sample. It sure looked like algae, and yet the state report showed "HAB not present," meaning no harmful algal bloom. They found a little Cylindrospermopsis--a cylinder-shaped blue-green algae--and not much more.

Finally, I returned to the coated waters of Smoyer Park for a closer look. Was it algae that was cheating us of any reflection of the sweetgums now turning glorious colors on the far shore?
A closeup of the surface showed scattered duckweed, but something else as well, much smaller and much more numerous. 
The small green particles were gritty to the touch. The internet, as usual, offered an instant answer: watermeal, in the genus Wolffia, which includes what wikipedia calls "the smallest flowers on earth."

It's a native species, but can be expansionist in its behavior. Warming waters and runoff from chemical fertilizer used on lawns in the small watershed that feeds the pond are some potential causes of this year's "over the top" growth. 

Smoyer Park's is not the only pond having this problem. Brooklyn Botanic Garden included a small pond in a stream corridor they carved into their grounds a few years ago. Their pond's first two years of existence were marred by rampant algal growth, but this year, its watermeal that has moved in. They are hoping that over time, nature's checks and balances will take hold. But the example of an older pond like Smoyer Park's suggests that time is no longer the mender it once was.

For anyone wanting to report potentially toxic algae outbreaks, there's a form at this link.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Autumn Clematis and the Really Big Show

Even now, as the flowers begin to fade, 

autumn clematis makes this lamppost look like it's wearing a voluminous fur coat. 
It's been a good year for autumn clematis, whose big floristic show revved up in these parts nearly a month ago, caught in a photo where a cascade of flowers-to-be was piggybacking on a neighbor's fenceline. 

There is great appeal in the blooms, and yet this vine should come with a warning sign.

In my mind, though not in the garden, I pair the nonnative Autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) with the native virgin's bower (Clematis virginiana), which also has white flowers and a sprawling habit. An easy way to tell the two apart is the leaves, which are toothed in the native, rounded in the nonnative. The native's flowering comes earlier in the summer and lasts a week rather than a month.

Together they tell a familiar story, in which the native has become comparatively rare. Years back, I took this rarity to mean that the native was less aggressive, but in fact the native when planted in the garden has proven just as hard to control as the introduced species. While sending up vines that grow over other plants, as you'd expect of a vine, both also spread underground, popping up in all sorts of places where you had other plans. 

Why is it the nonnative that can be seen covering a whole side of an abandoned parking lot in Montgomery north of Princeton? 
or lining the road to Cape May Point State Park? 

There are books that claim that nonnative invasive species are somehow superior to the natives, and that we should embrace these "winners" rather than counter them. Hopefully that dubious premise has faded into obscurity, unlike so many other dubious premises that now strut their stuff on the national stage.

More likely, the autumn clematis's capacity to grow unhindered is due to its unpalatability to deer and other wildlife. That would explain why the native virgin's bower is rare in local nature preserves while it runs rampant in my garden in town, where deer seldom venture. 

Periodically, I head down the great eastern piedmont from Princeton to North Carolina, where I've been involved with saving some rare habitat known as piedmont prairie. This small remnant on the outskirts of Durham, NC contains a clematis that will seem odd to anyone accustomed to clematis being a vine. This one, called curly top, Clematis ochroleuca, grows a foot or two tall in full sun and special soils formed from the underlying diabase rock. Princeton has lots of diabase rock along its ridge, which also hosts rare species, though not the same ones as in NC. 

The name "curly top" might come from the way the flowers curl downward, or from the curly seedheads that are also characteristic of the more common kinds of clematis. 
Another clematis in the piedmont prairies of NC is leatherflower, Clematis viorna, a small vine whose flower also points downward. 

Witness a high quality piedmont prairie, and you'll see how rich and diverse an intact native habitat can be. Though cheated of the periodic fires that used to sustain them, prairie remnants have persisted here and there, mostly under roadside powerlines where trees were not allowed to shade them out. I've rescued plants from a few that were being lost to development, and marveled at how each shovelful would contain four or five species. Nature was demonstrating how co-evolution moves towards a rich coexistence. Presumably, each species is limited in some way, most likely by herbivory, from running roughshod over the others. 

Witness that, and a monoculture of autumn clematis will look both showy and disturbing.