Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Grass That Ate The King's Highway



There's a curious sight as you approach Montgomery from Princeton on Route 206. Something is eating the Kings Highway. 

That something is Phragmitis, most frequently encountered in its highly aggressive, non-indigenous form. In wetlands, it displaces even the tough native cattails. On the other side of town, in Rogers Refuge just below the Institute Woods, we've been working for years to keep it from taking over the marsh.

Spreading its tall tassels along freeway ditches, it dominates the New Jersey meadowlands and can be considered a worldwide weed. Its scientific name is as sprawling as its growth habit: Phragmites australis subsp. australis. The native version, less aggressive and now hard to find, is termed subspecies americanus.

One source describes the introduced variety as "a hardy species that can survive and proliferate in a wide range of environmental conditions." Sometimes it's planted intentionally, to treat wastewater or reduce soil erosion. Mostly, it plants itself, then expands relentlessly, oblivious even to normally intimidating barriers, like asphalt.


The common reed is a grass, like bamboo is a grass. Unlike bamboo, which lives for decades without flowering, Phragmitis blooms each year, combining abundant seed production with bamboo's powerful capacity to spread underground. That combination makes it a transformative force not only in nature but in human habitats as well. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Redbud Leaffolders and Orchids--Herrontown Woods in July

While the woods seems to slumber, July brings another wave of flowers at the Herrontown Woods botanical garden and the Veblen House grounds. Whether the number of flowers constitutes a wave or a ripple, the photography that is standing in lieu of an actual nature walk during COVID times captures something of the feel of walking the pathways.


I have seldom seen Culvers Root growing in the wild, but it is a native with a beautiful form to its flowers. You can see the flowers beginning to open at the bottom of a spike, commencing a slow progression upward that serves the pollinators well.

The mountain mint donated to us is thriving, its strong minty flavor protecting it from the deer.

Shrubby St. Johns Wort blooms for a long stretch in the summer, living up to its latin name, Hypericum prolificum. The deer leave it alone as well.

We human deer are letting a few pokeweeds grow to maturity. It has an annual stem growing from a perennial root, and can become too numerous if left unchecked. A previous post mentions the intentional or unintentional use of its berries as a dye, and an interesting tree-like relative it has down in Argentina, called the ombu.

Not sure what this soporific bumble bee was doing on a velvety leaf of wooly mullein, a dramatic nonnative weed I associate with rail lines in the midwest, but which shows up here and there in Princeton.

The drought prompted the installation of a gutter and cistern next to the roof of the kiosk at the Herrontown Woods parking lot. One rain keeps us in water for weeks, as we walk around the gardens, giving new plantings a much needed drink.

Insects have been taking advantage of the many kinds of native plants we're growing--more than 100 species thus far. Meadow rue, for instance, is a seldom encountered wildflower in Princeton, discouraged by shade and the appetites of deer. But in the botanical garden, we can grow it in a protected, sunny setting. On May 10th this year, one of the tall meadow rues was found "donating" its foliage to caterpillars of the Meadow Rue Owlet moth, Calyptra canadensis. Thus a protected setting for seldom seen plants provides habitat for specialized insect species that otherwise have slim pickings in Princeton.




Another giving was discovered a couple days ago, on a redbud tree, some of whose leaves were folded up and turning brown.

Strands of silk tether the leaves, making protective chambers within the wrappings.

Opening one up, like a clamshell, reveals some energetic caterpillars busy chowing down and leaving dark trails of frass in their wake.

The speedy caterpillars are larvae of the leaf folder moth, with the provocative latin name Fascista cercerisella. Readers will be relieved to know that the insect is not a fascist. Originally, the word meant "bundle", as in a bundle of sticks, which can be extended to bundles of people who are part of a political movement. A fascicle means a bundle of leaves or flowers, while the Fascista caterpillar bundles itself up in a folded over leaf. The "cerce" in cercerisella likely comes from the insect's preference for laying its eggs on redbud trees, Cercis canadensis.


Up the trail at Veblen House, a patch of wineberries is going uneaten. As we've been clearing the invasive growth on the Veblen House grounds, a neighbor lamented that we had removed her favorite patch of wineberries, whose fruit are one of the small rewards for those who persevere through the muggy heat of a Princeton summer. Responding to neighborhood input, we've kept a few patches of wineberries.

Few will notice that the green fringed orchids at Veblen House are in full bloom. We've caged some to protect them from the deer. Below is an enchanting closeup of the flowers, giving the impression of wood sprites.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Princeton's Fuel Tank Raingarden Wannabe


Why would a plant lover be drawn to this desolate scene of concrete and asphalt? Because there's a raingarden behind that fence, or at least a raingarden wannabe, and that means I'm seeing not what is, which is pretty drab, but what could be, which is a dynamic, jubilant planting of native wildflowers, grasses and shrubs filling that skinny raingarden squeezed between the sidewalk and the town's fuel tank. The fuel tank was for awhile serving double duty, fueling town vehicles while its appearance fueled controversy in the neighborhood. A fine rain garden planting could go a long way towards healing the discontent, in my humble, totally plant-biased opinion.

The first good news is that the fresh layer of asphalt there appears to be appropriately tilted to shed its runoff towards the raingarden. What is a raingarden, after all, if the rain that falls on the surrounding topography doesn't flow towards it?


For some reason the raingarden hasn't been planted yet, so the plants have gone ahead and started planting themselves. It's looking a little sparse thus far, or you could say that the plants are social distancing.

Whenever I see plants trying to colonize bare dirt, I think of people who live in an emotionally impoverished situation. Back when I was in that predicament, I was drawn to places like this. Weeds trying to grow in parched ground were my friends and fellow travelers. Maybe that's why I can remember plant names when most people struggle, because the plants aren't just variations on green. They touch something deeper in me.


This late-flowering thoroughwort is a keeper--a native wildflower whose name is unlikely to flow smoothly from many tongues. It grows like a weed, and often in weedy places, like abandoned fields or roadsides, but can sometimes achieve great elegance of form when it becomes covered with plates of white flowers in late summer. It shows up early, but blooms late. Thus the name.

Here are the leaves of mugwort, which adds no color and spreads aggressively underground, taking over neglected raingardens over time. It's a force for monoculture and monotony that must be countered early and often.

Smaller scale weeds are clustered here, close to the ground, with dandelion on the lower right, a mock strawberry in the middle, and one 3-seeded mercury on the left. When I see one or two mock strawberries like this, I'm also seeing five years hence when it will have spread to coat the ground in an unattractive and inedible way. That increases the motivation to be proactive and pull it out now, before the task becomes overwhelming. This ability to imagine the future, learned in a garden, is directly translatable to global issues like climate change, where the job only becomes harder the longer one waits. 


Lots of homeowners puzzle over what to do with hundreds of oak seedlings in their yards, when everyone is telling them we need to plant more trees. Most tree species don't need help. They plant themselves, often in inconvenient places, like this raingarden.

Playing the editor, I'd say this nonnative red clover is a keeper as well, but pull the tall sweet clover at the other end of the raingarden. Sweet clover can be kind of pretty in a gangly way, but it is one of those midwestern and western weeds that appear to be expanding eastward, like teasel, Queen Anne's Lace, knapweed, and wooly mullein. Having lived in the midwest, I've seen how they can start to take over.

Leaping into the void in plants and action a couple months ago, I pushed some "live stakes" of buttonbush into the bottom of the raingarden. Despite the poor, hardened soil, they have sprouted. Here again, I'm seeing not so much the less than impressive seedling but instead the 8 foot high shrub it could become if it's allowed to get well established.

Just up Witherspoon Street, at the Princeton Recreation Dept. headquarters next to the community pool, is a demonstration of how gardens can look if there's someone knowledgeable taking care of them year after year. There's some serious tending going on here. Even the scarily aggressive variegated goutweed (whitish leaves on the left), which tends to take over gardens, is neatly contained in a discreet clump. These gardens owe their existence and beauty

to Vikki, whose job description in the Recreation Department probably has nothing to do with plants. From what I've seen over the years, it's clear that Vikki is one of the few people in town who is hard-wired to have a soft spot for public gardening, like Polly Burlingham with her hanging baskets downtown, and the various school gardeners, and like Dorothy Mullen was until she left our world earlier this year. I'd say that all it takes is love, and from that all things follow--vision, knowledge, persistence, strategic timing.

Maybe the sad, forsaken raingarden wannabe just a block away will somehow become loved ground. It's got "good bones"--sun, inputs of moisture. Good things could happen.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Proliferating Paradise

If you asked me what a utopian landscape might look like, it would be something like this. People talk more of dystopia than utopia these days, but this enclave stirred memories of utopian dreamers who were more common a half century ago. This is not a utopia filled with fantastical gizmology, but a more basic collecting of solar energy by plants and people to fill our needs for comfort, food and beauty. Though a deep forest would be somewhere nearby, houses would be producers, not just consumers, their roofs shaded by solar panels sending renewable electrons out into the neighborhood grid. And their front yards would be producers as well, of a joyous mix of wildflowers and vegetables.



Wild plants would mingle with domestic, and people would be a gentle mix of wild and domesticated natures as well. On this particular day, a neighbor was harvesting cucumbers and tomatoes while we plant lovers were inspecting the leaves of a curious plant grown from seeds we had collected from a wild remnant on the outskirts of town. We continue to be stumped. It's some sort of Silphium, not quite cup plant, not quite rosinweed. Genius nature has taken our breath and turned its carbon into yet another surprise.

The garden is largely the work of my friend Perry in Durham, NC, who began gardening in his own yard, then extended his work into his grateful neighbor's. Other neighbors on the block have picked up on the theme, getting acquainted with plants one at a time, until their lawns too have been displaced by something much more interesting and productive. It's a miniature experiment in proliferating paradise.

Perhaps paradise is too strong a word, being associated more with leisure than production, more with a tropical beach and soft sea breezes than an urban front yard. This is a plant-based, pandemic-borne, home-centered paradise.

I'm in Durham partly to see a close friend, but also to work on my house there, a 1919 house surrounded by towering oaks, but with a big lawn drenched with sunlight and potential to grow all kinds of interesting things. Being a long-distance gardener is even more challenging than being a long-distance landlord, particularly during a pandemic, but last fall, we started by planting seeds of local wildflowers and grasses around stakes in a part of the lawn where the soil had been freed of Bermuda grass. Perry didn't get my hopes up, sending periodic reports this spring of copious amounts of chickweed and weedy cranesbill filling the void in the lawn. It was a great surprise then to finally show up and find an enthusiastic crowd of intended plants around each stake, enough to populate a much larger portion of the lawn.

This is an unorthodox way of proliferating prairie. I used a similar technique at the botanical garden at Herrontown Woods in Princeton, where toddlers and their moms planted wildflowers in staked pods like this--mini-nurseries of clustered plants that were transplanted the next year to begin filling the whole forest opening. As the transplants produce seeds, they expand the overall planting still further.


Perry's been using incrementalism in a Durham nature preserve as well. At 17 Acre Wood, the first urban preserve I helped create in Durham 20 years ago, Perry and I checked out the hazelnut crop in a floodplain he has been working to shift towards native species.

One of the toughest spots was clogged with climbing euonymus, english ivy and periwinkle. Trees tend to be native, the understory not, but Perry is shifting the balance. It's hard to grow much in deep shade where water stands for much of the winter, but where the invasives have been removed, elderberry and jewelweed have bounced back, and a patch of lizard's tail has appeared.

The work is partly ecological, partly aesthetic, partly public safety, since removing invasive shrubs and vines improves vistas and sightlines along a public trail. This West Ellerbe Creek Trail, which follows the creek through the preserve, is also a story of incrementalism. It was a big hit with neighbors when it was built by the city in 2001, but would not have been built at all if not for the small steps that preceded it. A county government grant had helped our nonprofit create a nature preserve along the creek. Then the city, seeing we had created a destination, built the creekside bikepath to reach it. The result was a way for neighbors to take a nature walk in their own urban neighborhood.

To shift the world towards paradise, we really don't need new ideas, only people and organizations and governments doing what they each do best, combining incremental action with caring about the world and what we'll pass to future generations.