Saturday, May 08, 2021

Bennett Place: Hidden Beauty Amidst the Barrens

Herein, Princeton Nature Notes travels down the long sweep of the piedmont to Durham, North Carolina, to visit past discoveries and persistent miracles. 

The evolution of a plant lover can lead in unexpected directions. In my case, my fascination with plants first evolved from vegetables (loved for their utility and productivity) to roadside weeds (loved for their beauty amidst neglect, blooming unnoticed as the world speeds by). When we bought a little house with a beautiful backyard garden, my love shifted to perennial borders, with their showy poppies, irises, and delphiniums. But beauty for beauty's sake lost its meaning after awhile. My love shifted to native plants that had evolved within a community of plants, all deeply connected and intertwined back through time. Some of these could be showy, like a forest glade full of trillium and dogwoods. But this love extended to other congregations of native plants whose beauty was not in overt display but in their diversity and uniqueness. Some of these remarkable congregations--I discovered a few while living in Durham--were so subtle as to appear barren from a distance. 

This field, long ago preserved in the Ellerbe Creek headwaters to commemorate the largest surrender of the Civil War that took place here, looks empty and a bit threadbare. The stump, though, is of a shortleaf pine whose rings numbered 150--a surprising age for a smallish looking tree. But what possibly could have made this a favorite place for great Duke University botanists like Blomquist to botanize, nearly a century ago? 

Walk out into the field, look down, and you may see what appears to be a rash of red spots on the ground. 
A closer look reveals a tiny plant about to open a tiny flower. It's a carnivorous sundew, with sticky leaves that catch and consume insects. 
And these blotches of green may look like pesky dandelions in a weedy lawn, 
but in fact are a special native plant called Arnica. How many other places had I seen these plants growing, in Durham or anywhere else in all of my travels? None. This place, called Bennett Place for the farmer who owned it back when the Confederate and Union generals met, can appear barren and yet is botanically rich. 

Surprisingly, the field's uniqueness and rich diversity has survived through the centuries because its soil is so poor. Not poor in the sense of having been exhausted through extractive farming. This soil is unfarmable by nature, a sort of soil classified as "Helena" or "Appling", like concrete when dry, yet also somehow sustaining of sphagnum mosses and plants like the sundew that would normally be found in bogs. Perhaps a few farm animals once grazed there, but frustrated farmers looked elsewhere for better land to tear up with their plows, and so this field and its special flora remained undisturbed. 
The poor soil has also discouraged the more aggressive plant species, allowing more fragile-looking plants to survive. These are what I call the "plants of peace", the modest flowers that likely bloomed at the feet of the generals and their soldiers 156 years ago, during those momentous days of negotiation in April, 1865. 
This one, dwarfed by my fingers, looks like a miniature bluet.
And next to this field of miniature flowers
is a forest that too is deceptive. It may look like what once was an old farm field that grew up in loblolly pines, 

but many of the trees have the thick platy bark of a shortleaf pine--more associated with places where fire once swept through. 

Holding their own, for now, among younger trees are the "old guard" of craggy shortleaf pines and post oaks that once comprised a more savanna-like open forest, their thick bark adapted to survive the ground-level fires that would sweep through, sparked by passing trains. 
Large expanses of low-bush blueberries, another species stimulated by periodic fire, are more evidence of this past, more open landscape. The fires no longer sweep through, and the decay-resistant needles and oak leaves lay thick on the forest floor, smothering what likely had been a diverse growth of wildflowers. Who knows what long-slumbering seeds might sprout if a prescribed burn was done here.

Twenty years ago, the site manager at the time, a man named Waters, made me laugh when he admitted to being baffled by us plant lovers. How, he wondered, could a group of people stand for an hour out in the middle of a barren-looking field, talking animatedly about what we were seeing at our feet?

Well, it's a long evolution. 

Thanks to Johnny Randall of the NC Botanical Gardens for his patient count of tree rings. Johnny was also the discoverer of the sundews, which he found by ... looking down.

Saturday, May 01, 2021

(Mostly) Native Flowers of Late April

This post documents some of the many native flowers to be found in late April, from deep woods to front yards. 

A medium sized shrub called Fothergilla, or witch alder, is having a good year in our front yard, though it's not found growing naturally in our local forests. 

Clouds of white in the woodland understory this time of year could be flowering dogwood, 

but blackhaw viburnums, central Jersey's most common native Viburnum, have also just opened up, dotting the understory with their large congregations of small pompom-like clusters of white flowers. 

Sometimes a closer look at an assemblage of white flowers reveals a flowering crabapple tree, as in this photo. Not completely sure as yet that these flowering crabs are native. 

Providing some contrast with the predominating white is the redbud, here seen at the "barden" at Herrontown Woods, where a forest opening allows it enough light to thrive.

On the forest floor, the most common wildflower is spring beauty, 

Rue anemone is an improbably delicate and fairly numerous presence along nature trails.

Trout lily should feel welcome to bloom more than it does, but seems content to mostly form carpets of sterile single leaves, few of which mature into the two-leaved plants that bloom.

By now, the bloodroots have passed from blooming to fruiting stage. 

Nice to see some young bloodroots popping up through the leaf litter.

Some native spring ephemerals occur only in the less historically disturbed lands along the Princeton ridge, like Herrontown Woods. Wood anemone grows distinctive leaves with five leaflets. 

Showy orchid is another joy of these lands where boulders discouraged disturbance during the agricultural era a hundred years back. It doesn't look showy here because its flower buds haven't opened yet, but even when they are open, they are more subtle than the name suggests. These grow only on a narrow strip of land at the edge of the ridge, 
often in the company of Virginia pennywort. 

One discovery while doing some trail work was a fringed polygala, not as yet blooming. Some protection from the deer may help it to actually bloom this year. 

Meanwhile, in the botanical art garden (Barden) next to the parking lot in Herrontown Woods, Rachelle planted some Virginia bluebells, which are very rarely seen growing naturally.
Wood phlox is another flower in this category, native but rarely seen in the wild. 

There are a couple nonnative wildflowers that are particularly noticeable blooming now in wild areas. This mustard, which I remember from travels in the english countryside, where whole fields were colored yellow by its blooms, was found growing along the gas pipeline right of way at Herrontown Woods. As plant lovers and dreamers, we sometimes envision a pipeline right of way becoming a corridor of native flowers and grasses. Reality tends to defeat this sort of dream, as the linear right of ways instead play host to the most tenacious of invasive plants--Phragmitis and mugwort.
Garlic mustard, a less tenacious invasive plant but worth pulling, has tasty leaves in early spring. A biennial, it blooms the second year, becoming less tasty as it matures. In this flowering stage, I pluck the flower heads, then pull the whole plant out of the ground, roots and all, the idea being to prevent it from producing seed and thus reducing future sproutings. 

Saturday, April 24, 2021

My Writing in the NY Times on Earthday

My writing was included in an opinion piece in the NY Times on Earthday, entitled "When Climate Breakdown Hits Home: Readers share how environmental issues are changing their lives."

The term the editors used in the title, "climate breakdown," is a useful variation on climate change and climate crisis, given the damage extreme weather is doing to the systems that sustain our lifestyles. Here's my contribution to the piece:

For years, people in my community have ignored education campaigns and scolding letters to the editor and continued putting plastic bags in their curbside recyclables. Only when crews stopped taking recyclables contaminated with plastic bags did people stop. It took about a month to change everyone’s behavior.

Then Covid hit and people were forced again to change their ways, this time on a much larger scale. We proved ourselves adaptable, resourceful and even capable of finding silver linings, one of which was rediscovery of the great outdoors.

Local environmentalists still cling to the notion that education will cause people to change their ways voluntarily. Necessity in the form of policy change is the only form of education most people learn from, but we’ve been taught to resent those who dare impose necessity upon us. It’s sad that such an adaptable species is saving all of its adaptability for the endgame. — Steve HiltnerPrinceton, N.J.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

A Bee Tree in Herrontown Woods

 On April 12, I received an email from Jenny Ludmer saying she'd found a bee tree in Herrontown Woods. Jenny does a lot of good work locally at Sustainable Princeton, and she and her daughter have also helped out at our Princeton Botanical Art Garden, creating an educational display of wildlife bones on the rootball of an upturned tree. A bee tree, she explained, is a tree in which honeybees have a nest. This one is in 

an old tree just a few paces from the Green trail (about halfway from the Red and Yellow trails). The entrance to the honey bee nest is about 40 feet up in the tree and facing away from the trail.

She felt it safe to disclose the location, since it's so high up. My ambivalence about disclosing the location came from a post I had written last year around this time about having witnessed a swarm of honeybees in that same area of the preserve. I was told that the day after I posted, someone wearing a bee suit had come to Herrontown Woods and made off with the swarm! That was not exactly my intention.

With Jenny's email came some great photos showing bees already active in the nest. I'll quote extensively from her email, and then add a few things I've learned since.

I first discovered that honey bees live in trees about a year ago when I spotted a swarm in that very spot. Knowing that swarms never travel too far from the hive, I wondered how it got to the middle of Herrontown Woods. After reading several of Thomas Seeley's books and taking a class from Michael Thiele of Apis Arborea, I learned that not only do honey bees live in forest trees, they thrive in them. 

Yes, across the country, honey bees are suffering. Mites and numerous other calamities plague honey bees and make beekeeping a costly and depressing endeavor. Wild honey bees, on the other hand, are doing things just as nature intended. Instead of living low to the ground in thin-walled hive boxes, wild honey bees are nestled high in big trees, surrounded by thick trunk walls which protect them from temperature extremes. Unlike in traditional smooth hive boxes, honey bees cover the rough interior of the tree cavity with propolis, a sticky anti-fungal and antibacterial substance which helps create a healthier microenvironment for the bees. Furthermore, while traditional beekeepers maximize the size of their hives in an effort to harvest extreme amounts of honey, wild honey bees actively limit the size of their nest to about 40 liters and swarm frequently to spawn new generations and help prevent any large infestations of mites. Perhaps more importantly, no beekeeper decides the genetic line of these wild bees and there's no moving them around the country as farmers see fit. Nature and evolution ensure that the healthiest bees thrive precisely in the location where they were born.

So while traditional beekeepers claim the only way to keep honey bees alive is to medicate and artificially feed them, nature has a different story to tell. I hope all beekeepers get to learn from Thomas Seeley and Michael Thiele. 

Jenny's email led me to learn more about what honeybees experience in the early spring. In her photo here of the nest opening, you can see a bee exiting. The red flowers in the photo are red maple, whose flowers--early and abundant--are an important source of sustenance for bees.

Through a beautiful description of early spring activity in a bee hive, I quickly gained an appreciation for how risky early spring is for honeybees, and how important early sources of nectar are as the bees use their last winter stores to up the temperature of the hive, raise new young, and take "cleansing flights" as the weather warms. Even when flowers like maple are available, stormy spring weather may keep the bees from foraging.

That got me taking a closer look at early flowers, like this pussy willow in the Herrontown Woods botanical garden. Didn't see any honeybees, but this fly looked different from your usual fly. 
There's a progression of native spring ephemerals in the forest, beginning around the first week of April. This bloodroot is being visited by a bee, likely a native bee. (Honeybees were introduced from Europe in colonial times.)
In some areas we still have patches of wood anemone, 
and the spicebush are numerous, though their flowers last only a few days.
Hepaticas are very rarely seen. 

The far more numerous spring beauties would be worth taking a close look at for visits from honeybees.

One of Jenny's photos is of a honeybee taking a drink amidst the leaf litter on the forest floor. 

Here is a description of one of Thomas Seeley's books. Thanks to Jenny for letting us know about one of Herrontown Woods' hidden denizens.

Honeybee Democracy--a book

Honeybees make decisions collectively — and democratically. Every year, faced with the life-or-death problem of choosing and traveling to a new home, honeybees stake everything on a process that includes collective fact-finding, vigorous debate, and consensus building. In fact, as world-renowned animal behaviorist Thomas Seeley reveals, these incredible insects have much to teach us when it comes to collective wisdom and effective decision making. 

Friday, April 09, 2021

The Pandemic, Recycling, and How People Change

          "Environmental education is just words on paper waiting for necessity to make them required reading." 
           -- SKH

People have always embodied a contradiction. As a species we are extraordinarily adaptable, and yet we often resist voluntary change and complain about any change imposed upon us. This contradiction is embodied in the nation's lack of action on the climate crisis. We are resisting even small changes in our behavior now, as if saving our adaptability for the massive changes to come. 

The pandemic's imperatives sent much of that irrational tentativeness and procrastination packing. We changed our lives radically to save lives. Necessity mobilized our long dormant resourcefulness and capacity to adapt. 

As an environmentalist, I believed for many years that people could be convinced to change their ways if given a convincing reason to do so. I believed in the power of logic and knowledge to change the world. Personal experience led ultimately to my letting go of such idealistic notions, and recent years have dramatically demonstrated nationally how hard it is for people to let go of emotionally satisfying fictions. 

Yet I worry that many younger environmentalists, propelled by enthusiasm and a sense of rightness, will nevertheless mistakenly invest their time and youthful energy in trying to get people to voluntarily change their ways. 


Even before the pandemic, in the fall of 2019, there was a local example of how real change happens--the Mercer County recycling program used in Princeton. For years, Mercer County and Princeton have been telling residents NOT to put plastic bags in curbside recycling bins. Flyers were distributed, scolding letters to the editor were written, yet the plastic bags remained as numerous as before. 

Why did all these attempts at education fail? Because the county's lack of enforcement was in itself a far more powerful form of education. Residents learned not from words but from what they can get away with. The only education that mattered was a lax policy's powerful message that plastic bags were really okay, after all. 

Finally, collection crews were told to leave bins that were contaminated with plastic bags uncollected on the curb. Only then, when residents were denied service, did they change their behavior. Within a month, all residents had learned a lesson that countless flyers and reminders had failed to teach.

It was at that moment, when residents found their bins unemptied, that they finally sought out the information necessary to conform to the county's requirements. Being highly adaptable and resourceful humans, they quickly changed their ways and began following a rule they had been ignoring for years. 

The same holds true for any other environmental aim, be it more nature-friendly landscaping or reducing one's carbon footprint. As the examples of the pandemic and curbside recycling show, necessity is what changes behavior. It mobilizes an innate resourcefulness, adaptability, and inventiveness that otherwise remain dormant. In this sense, education is just words on paper waiting for necessity to make them required reading. 

Sunday, March 28, 2021

A Mink and Other Spring Sightings

While out doing trail work, Friends of Herrontown Woods volunteer Adrian Colarusso spotted what looks to be a mink living in the boulder field that extends down from the ridge along the stream. He was able to take a video. This sent me searching for info on how to distinguish a mink from a weasel from a marten. While on the subject, it's interesting to note that fishers, a larger member of the weasel family, have returned to NJ, first verified in 2006 in northern NJ. 

Earlier in March, a red fox showed up one morning in our backyard garden, which offers some decent habitat despite the house fronting on busy Harrison Street. It had beautiful markings, with black ears and legs and a white-spotted tail.
The fox had just caught a rodent, thank you very much, and seemed to be playing with it a bit, regarding it as part curiosity, part meal.

Spring ephemerals are emerging in the forest, and Princeton's most common native wildflower, the spring beauty, is opening its blooms. This one is ahead of others due to a southern exposure, nestled at the base of a tree. 

I noticed it while building 200 feet of rudimentary boardwalk on the back side of the red trail at Herrontown Woods--a section of trail that has been muddy ever since being first opened back around 1958. I believe this rapid response could serve as a model for solving the world's other problems.
The trail is built of repurposed boards from a construction site, with crosspieces salvaged from the fence that used to run in front of the Princeton Shopping Center. Those sentimental about the shopping center's split rail fence can now enjoy its remnants while hiking through swamp forest--that extensive preserved tract of spongy soil that feeds a tributary of Harry's Brook.

Sweeps of snowdrops, a spring bulb that's not native but not invasive, have again been ornamenting the Veblen House grounds at Herrontown Woods. The blooms are a remnant of a pre-1970s era when Elizabeth Veblen served as host to the Dogwood Garden Club 

This lovely photo was taken by Joan Marr, who recently retired from longtime service in Princeton as a dental hygienist. 

Joan also collaborated with nature on this artistic photo of clusters of woodfrog eggs in a small but persistent vernal pool along the red trail at Herrontown Woods. 

Princeton's deer continue to provide pro bono landscaping services, working tirelessly through the winter to achieve their patented effects on evergreen trees. Now we know why landscapers sometimes put fencing around the base of evergreens in the winter.

Photos of native wildflowers to come, curated by Friends of Herrontown Woods board member Inge Regan, lie on the floor of the Herrontown Woods gazebo in preparation for mounting.  
Those relaxing in the gazebo at the Princeton Botanical ARt garDEN ("BARDEN" for short)  can now look out on a Veblen Circle of photos of nearly 30 native wildflowers that will soon emerge around the gazebo. 

The Barden, next to the parking lot off Snowden, is a place for adults to relax and kids to explore. Or is it the other way around?