Monday, December 26, 2022

Names I Remember, Names I Forget

One ongoing self-observation that I've had through a life of nature observation is that there are some plant names that resiliently spring to mind, and others that remain persistently unretrievable no matter how many times I learn and relearn them. For example, the latin names Gleditsia triacanthos and Robinia pseudoacacia look esoteric and intimidating, and yet for some reason I can summon them instantly. They refer to honey locust and black locust, respectfully, though I don't knowingly have any deeper interest in or respect or affection for these two trees than any others. Well, that's not completely true. I love black locust because it resists rot and burns clean. It can lie on the ground for years and still make great firewood. And a thornless version of honey locust makes a wonderful shade tree in public squares, its tiny leaflets melting back into the landscape in the fall. But I love other trees for their traits just as much. Gleditsia and Robinia, then, are two trees among many in my mind, and yet their names remain buoyantly floating above the others, at the top of the heap and the tip of the tongue. 

At the other extreme lies fennel, a delicious, fragrant vegetable that grows gloriously. A friend made a casserole with fennel and leeks wrapped with prosciutto, the cheese on top baked to a golden brown. It was to die for, and yet the word "fennel" still dropped down into the cerebral abyss, dredged back up just now only by once again googling "plant that tastes like licorice." Similarly, there's a kind of lightbulb whose name I can never remember. The others come dependably and quickly to mind: florescent, incandescent, LED, mercury vapor. But the other one ... I think it starts with an "a" but I could be wrong. That's right. I was wrong, again. Had to google. It starts with an "h," as in "halogen." 

What's the difference here? Gleditsia and Robinia make a merry, musical pair, both with impactful accents on the second syllable: gle-DIT-see-a and ro-BIN-ee-a. Fennel and halogen are less musical, with the accent landing heavily on the first syllable, like tunnel, or funnel, or allergen, or estrogen, or pathogen. But "merry" and "musical" also have the accent at the beginning, so maybe it's that the words "fennel" and "halogen" get less merry and musical after the first syllable, with consonants that are soft and easily swallowed up. I often think about this when comparing the names "Veblen" and "Einstein." Einstein has a memorably sonorous name that can be drawn out deliciously when spoken, like a double exclamation point, fitting for his matchless legacy. Veblen, on the other hand, whose quietly extraordinary career flew under most people's radar, then was long left for forgotten, has a name with soft consonants and indistinct vowels that are all too easy to mumble.

There's a belief that forgetting someone's name reflects a negative view of that person, but I find I can just as easily forget the name of someone I have just met and like. Next time that happens I'll pay attention to the sound of the name itself. It's fun to explore these things, and maybe the act of writing this will create an inner web of meaning to catch "fennel" and "halogen" before they once again drop into the abyss. 

Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Invasive Species of the Month Club

Surely it's not an original concept, but it's a great idea nonetheless: an Invasive Species of the Month Club. Nature can be baffling in its complexity, intimidating, and for some, downright off-putting. If you love plants, then you welcome the diversity of species out there to be learned. Monocultures are boring. But if you have little curiosity about nature, then complexity becomes onerous, and simplified landscapes like a front lawn are experienced as reassuring. And then there are those who really like nature and want to help it, but for whom plant names go in one ear and out the other.

The Invasive Species of the Month Club, conceived for Herrontown Woods by FOHW board member Inge Regan, helps people get acquainted with invasive species one at a time. The nonnative plants spreading through local preserves are often the same ones popping up along fence rows in the backyard, so volunteers gain knowledge they can put to use at home. Every Sunday morning we gather to go after one invasive in particular. Some can be pulled out by hand; others require loppers.

In application, the concept becomes more flexible. We may not focus on one invasive for a full month, but at least each week there is a plant to be focused on. 

Burning bush, aka winged euonymus, is easy to identify any time of year by the "wings" on its stems, but even easier in the fall when it turns various shades of red or pink. It's pretty, but because deer don't like it, its proliferation is making the forest less edible for wildlife.

We spent one morning early in December pulling out jetbead, named after its clusters of black berries. In December, it can be the only shrub that still has leaves, so becomes super easy to identify then.

Privet will keep its leaves all winter, so will be a good candidate for focused effort through the winter. The leaves can vary in shade of green, confusing someone new to the shrub, but that's the idea of focusing on one species at a time. Multiple encounters with privet eventually lead to a confidence in identifying it in all its shades of green. 

Privet was the main focus of this past Sunday's Invasive Species of the Month Club. The weather was cold and damp, with rain threatening, but surprisingly it was one of our most satisfying sessions. The little boy in the lime green dinosaur coat was totally into it, and we managed to clear a whole section of the valley of a dense tangle of invasives. There's enough space in the tree canopy to power native wildflowers and shrubs there, once the invasive shrubs and vines have been subdued. That's the goal, but the process of group effort and gaining increasing confidence and familiarity out in nature have their own satisfactions.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Blob That Swallowed Our Nature Walk

I'd been watching the weather for Sunday all week. It was almost comic how a big pile of predicted rain sat centered over the exact timeframe for the scheduled nature walk at Herrontown Woods--a mountain of rain rising conspicuously, incongruously, out of a prairie of sunny weather stretching into the distance on either side.

The consistency of the weather prediction, which showed the blob sitting in exactly the same Sunday time slot for five days straight, and which ultimately proved accurate, surely represents a triumph for meteorology.  

Astute readers will note a distinct resemblance between the blob of rain that swallowed our nature walk and the drawing of a boa constrictor that had swallowed an elephant in The Little Prince. 

Finally, we bailed, and rescheduled the walk for a week later.  

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Nature Walk at Herrontown Woods, Sunday, Nov. 27, 1-3pm

A nature walk is planned for this Thanksgiving weekend, on Sunday, Nov. 27, from 1-3pm. If the weather looks iffy, check the events page of the website for an update. 

We'll meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot at 600 Snowden Lane, across Snowden from the Smoyer Park entrance. Sturdy shoes are a good idea. Maps at this link.

The photo is of a pokeweed that came late to the fall color party.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Solarizing a Princeton High School Detention Basin

Earlier this fall, I was passing by Princeton High School on Walnut Street when I saw something I'd never seen before: 

a whole field covered with plastic. The field, next to the tennis courts and a parking lot, is actually a stormwater detention basin that the school wants to replant as native meadow. But before planting, they need to kill the existing turfgrass. 

I had contacted the schoolboard members on the Operations committee a number of times over the past year, promoting the meadow idea and encouraged them to contact a federal agency called Partners for Fish and Wildlife. Over the years, I had worked with Partners to convert, at no cost, a number of detention basins in town to native meadow--at Farmview Fields, Smoyer Park, Greenway Meadows, and even at the Princeton High School ecolab just down Walnut Street. 

Instead, the school hired at some expense an outside contractor to do the conversion. The plastic is probably a very plasticky attempt to avoid the use of herbicide. If you place clear plastic over grass, the heat from the sun gets trapped under the plastic. Like a greenhouse, or the earth's atmosphere, or the windows of a car parked in the summer sun, the clear plastic is transparent for light but opaque for heat. The sunlight travels through the plastic, hits the ground, turns into heat, and the plastic keeps the heat from escaping. Trapping solar heat to kill the grass is called solarization. I had accidentally done something similar when I laid a vinyl floormat on the grass next to the curb in the hopes someone else would find it useful. No one took it, and the grass under the mat was killed, leaving a brown spot for the rest of the summer.

This PHS environmental science teacher is one of several using this detention basin as well as the ecolab to teach about stormwater issues and habitats. 

Unfortunately, the plastic was installed late in the summer, as the sun's power was waning. When the plastic was removed this week, the results were less than impressive. A deep-rooted weed called plantain remains particularly abundant. 

It would be interesting to find out why herbicides were not used. The school may well have banned the use of herbicides when school is in session, but that doesn't preclude the use after hours or on weekends. Herbicides get a bad reputation for being heavily used to impose sterile lawns in suburbia, or on farms to eliminate every last weed, including milkweed. But they can also be used, in a targeted, minimalist, medicinal way, to kill invasive weeds that would otherwise be too difficult to control physically. We manage toxicity in our own bodies, taking only enough medicine to achieve a beneficial effect. Banning herbicides brings the comfort of absolutism, and makes people feel they're being green, all the while handicapping those who are actually doing the work to restore native diversity to the landscape. 

We'll see how the project goes. Not sure what happened to all of that plastic.

Friday, November 11, 2022

What's Eating Local Viburnums?

Each time I see a native arrowwood Viburnum growing in the woods, I take a closer look. There's a viburnum leaf beetle--a nonnative species introduced from Europe--that showed up in Princeton about a decade ago. On a visit to Pittsburgh years back, I saw native Viburnums totally skeletonized by the insect, and worried about the fate of our own Viburnums in NJ. 

I've posted about this insect pest in the past. Suffice it here to say that among the various species of Viburnum in NJ, the arrowwood Viburnum (V. dentatum) is the most vulnerable. The nightmare scenario would be for the leaf beetle to defoliate all arrowwood Viburnums, then move on to decimate the next most vulnerable species.

Preferring wet ground, blooming profusely even in the shade, the Viburnum dentatum is not as common in the woods as the blackhaw Viburnum, or the highly invasive Linden Viburnum. The last couple years, I didn't notice much insect damage. This year, observations are mixed. Some shrubs in Herrontown Woods were badly eaten, 

while an arrowwood across town in Rogers Refuge showed no damage at all. 

Hopefully, the total stripping of leaves that I witnessed in Pittsburgh will prove to have been an exception, and natural predators and diseases will keep the Viburnum leaf beetle in check. Worth keeping an eye on in coming years.

Nature at the Princeton Battlefield

(Thanks to those who commented. Scroll down for an update.)
As a lover of both nature and history, I experience the Princeton Battlefield differently than most. There's gratitude for its preservation, along with some grieving for the way the land is managed. Nature here is pushed to the fringes, as if to replicate a giant ballfield. But the battle took place on a working farm, not an athletic field. 

The Clark House has been restored, its 18th century charms highly valued. So why would the landscape not be similarly treated? In the winter of 1777, the soldiers would have been treading through corn stubble, or pasture, or an orchard. 

One answer would be that visitors and re-enactors benefit from a clean surface. The question then would be how much to mow and where, so that people could enjoy a lawn, but also have areas that evoke more a feeling of the 18th century. 

As I walk across the field, I feel a sense of space more than place. Perhaps if I tried I could feel grandeur, or solemnity. Graveyards are mowed, after all. A big sky and a big field help us to understand that something big happened here, when a nation was being born, its future stretching far off towards the horizon. Maybe the landscape works in some spiritual way to evoke freedom and possibility. But as I walk these hallowed grounds, I'm also feeling a sense of a long ways to go before reaching anything interesting. Okay. Perhaps that long trudge could generate some appreciation for the long overnight march of Washington's amateur army from Trenton to Princeton. 

One tree stands in the middle of the giant lawn, an offspring of the great Mercer Oak that had witnessed the battle and lived through two more centuries before falling to a windstorm in 2000. Trees growing at the time of a great battle are called witness trees. The soldiers who fought that pivotal battle are long gone, but centuries later a tree, especially the long-lived white oak, could still claim "I was there!"

The offspring was donated by Louise Morse, spouse of Marston Morse, a mathematician who Oswald Veblen helped bring to the nearby Institute for Advanced Study in the 1930s. It was Veblen's initiative to acquire the 600+ acres behind the Battlefield that later became the Institute Woods.

The sign tells the story of the white oak and General Mercer. What I've come to look at, though, is not the highly symbolic tree but a thin sliver of golden brown in the distance. 
Beyond the lawn, towards the back of the Battlefield, is a meadow that is mowed once a year. For some reason they mowed the edge of it this fall but have left the rest, perhaps as winter cover for wildlife.
Taking a closer look, I'm surprised to see that, among the blackberries and prairie grasses, goldenrods and asters, are myriad sassafras sprouts, most of them bright orange this time of year. The meadow is a giant clone of sassafras--one root system with ten thousand heads. Can't say I've ever seen that before. 

To the left of the field is a bedraggled woods, dominated by the skeletons of ash trees killed by the introduced Emerald ash borer. A heroic American tree species silently meets its demise.

Behind the Clark House, and also across Mercer Street to the left of the pillars, more signs of introduced invasive species abound. Rampant invasive porcelainberry is stifling the 1976 bicentennial plantings--flowering dogwoods and daffodils around the edge of the field. As is typical of the landscapes we daily tread, the Princeton Battlefield invests in mowing the grass, while leaving the unmowed areas untended and overrun. Each year the Sierra Club organizes a spirited volunteer day to battle against bamboo near the Clark House. In the past, I would lead a group to cut the aggressive porcelainberry vines off of the bicentennial flowering dogwoods, but it's hard to make lasting progress when unsupported by the state agency that views grounds maintenance of this state park as "mow and go." Now all I do is make annual visits to snuff out a small infestation of mile-a-minute I spotted some years back on the Battlefield grounds.

Surely the soldiers who fought here knew their plants better than most people do today, and would feel disoriented by today's massive lawn surrounded by alien weeds. If I were to envision a battlefield landscape that sought to provide a more historically authentic botanical and horticultural context, I'd imagine some portion of the massive lawn being given over to the sort of landscape the battle was actually fought upon--pasture, orchard, corn field, whatever research shows to have been likely at the time. Along the edges would be native forest rather than tangles of kudzu-like nonnative vines. 

According to its mission statement, the Princeton Battlefield Society seeks to "restore the lands and cultural landscape." Maybe once other admirable goals are achieved, someone in the group will get interested in showing people an authentic 1777 landscape, and get the state parks department to help in the effort.  

To acquire, protect, preserve, and restore
the lands and cultural landscape related
to the Battle of Princeton of 1777;

To enlarge and improve the
Princeton Battlefield State Park;

To educate the public about the Battle
of Princeton, the Ten Crucial Days,
and the American Revolution.

Update, Dec. 23, 2022 : It's not hard to find accounts of the chronic underfunding of maintenance for NJ's state park system. This cuts both ways for Princeton Battlefield State Park. It explains why invasive species run rampant along the fringes of the park, but doesn't explain the large investment in mowing. One could have a mowed area around the house and for the areas of the land used for re-enactments and other events, and for visitors to explore the park (we used to fly kites there). Surely that still leaves large areas that could be managed for meadow. 

Nearby the Institute for Advanced Study grounds provide an example of large areas requiring only an annual mowing. 

Ribbons of mowed grass through meadow at the Battlefield would not only reduce mowing but also invite visitors to explore the full extent of the park. Walking across a vast lawn gives little sense of progress, departure, or arrival, and thus doesn't encourage exploration the way a mowed path does. 

The current management, in which nature is either suppressed by mowing or neglected along the fringes, does not reflect the view of nature held by the battle's greatest hero. George Washington was, among many things, a farmer. He believed plants were so important to a nation's future that he "had a dream of a national botanic garden and was instrumental in establishing one on the National Mall in 1820." 

In our era, when most people suffer from plant blindness, it must seem incongruous that the United States Botanic Garden is located immediately adjacent to the U.S. Capitol building. Plant blindness, according to the botanists who coined the term, "results in a chronic inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs."

With this in mind, some rethinking of how vegetation is managed at the Princeton Battlefield could add to the visitor's experience, and shift some funds from mindless mowing to a mindful restoration of a more historically authentic landscape.

Spring Blooms in November

After a batch of 70 degree November days, look closely and you'll see the almond trees blooming along Walnut Street near the middle school. Some of these warm fall days are pleasurable. On others, the heat feels somehow suffocating, ovenlike. Our bodies are comfortable, our minds less so, knowing that the radical changes afoot on planet earth are increasingly turning the skies and seas into eternal enemies. As is typical at our current stage in the overheating of the planet, the abnormal weather will pass. We need only wait a few days for the weather to snap back into something more normal, chilly but reassuring.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Nature Walk Sunday, Oct. 30, 1-3pm, Herrontown Woods

Fall colors beckon at Herrontown Woods. This Sunday, Oct. 30 at 1pm, I will lead a nature walk entitled "The Color-Coded Forest." This is the time of year when trees slip out of their green anonymity and reveal their identity through color and texture. Meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot at 600 Snowden Lane, across Snowden from the Smoyer Park entrance. Sturdy shoes are a good idea. Maps at this link.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

The Many Fall Colors of Herrontown Woods

Late season color along the Princeton ridge:

Orange and Red

Shall we have a shrub of the month for October? Hearts a' Bustin' wins hands down. Rarely seen due to it being a favorite food of the deer, we discovered a few remnant populations ten years ago in Herrontown Woods, and have since brought it to our Botanical Art Garden, where it can grow unbrowsed upon to its full glory. 

Flowering dogwoods call attention in the fall. This young one along a path at the Barden was particularly colorful.
This young tupelo (black gum, Nyssa sylvatica) in the Barden is shaped like an umbrella draped across the path. 
Tupelo turns bright red or orange one leaf at a time. Here, one part of a leaf has turned color before the rest.
Sumacs growing along edges of a woodland can turn brilliant red or orange. I've experienced this most vividly in Michigan, where clones of sumac along roadsides would show brilliant red, with the equally brilliant orange of sugar maples as a backdrop. We have three kinds at the Barden--staghorn, smooth, and winged--two of which popped up on their own. As they get established, they may put on quite a show in future years. 
Anyone know what sort of tree this is, with its bright orangey color?
Poison ivy can grow up a dead trunk and pretend it's a tree. The "harry-is-scary" stems meander up the trunks while branchlike lateral shoots extend outward to form flower and seed. Few people have seen poison ivy flowers because, like many vines, it only flowers when it's climbing something. 
Don't take my word for it, but this looks like a fine feast of Chicken of the Woods found while cutting invasive shrubs near the red barn. 
Orange on top, yellow on the bottom--surely this has meaning beyond being a convenient transition in this post from orange to yellow.

Hickories, along with tulip trees, provide the high yellows.
Closer to the ground is wild senna, a native floodplain wildflower that has been proliferating in the Barden, making for a beautiful mottled effect en masse. The deer don't seem to eat it.
Another distinct mottling effect can be found on spicebush. 
There's a stretch of the red trail near the Veblen farmstead that we call Spicebush Alley, particularly pretty this time of year.
Blue tags you may occasionally see at Herrontown Woods mean either native shrubs that volunteers should not cut down, or a potential reroute for a trail.
White pines also look mottled this time of year. A white pine weevil caused the dieback of the tip on the left, but the yellow needles mixed with green are last year's needles being let go.
Other conifers like arborvitae are also shedding last year's growth.
Late-Season Flowers

Always a treat to find a new population of turtlehead along a stream.
Obedient plant popped up in the Barden this year.
A new find is this aster. I'm calling it crooked-stemmed aster for now, blooming in full view along the red trail, somehow unnoticed in previous years. With scientific names under constant revision, it's sometimes fun to go retro and look in an old Peterson field guide, where the plants I have yet to find are as interesting as the plants I do.

Meanwhile, a katydid is having nothing to do with all this changing of color. 

Friday, October 21, 2022

The Emerald Ash Borer Quietly Changes Princeton's Skyline

Scan any skyline in Princeton and you're likely to see dieback in the trees. This happens to be the view from the front step of Veblen House in Herrontown Woods, but the same can be seen in the woods surrounding Princeton Battlefield, and most everywhere else in town. 

We're losing thousands of trees in Princeton, some quickly, some slowly. As described in past writings on this blog, dating back to 2010, the Emerald Ash Borer is proving every bit as destructive as predicted, killing all species of ash tree. And many red and pin oaks are succumbing to an introduced disease called bacterial leaf scorch. 

Many of the trees lost to introduced insects and pathogens in the past century or so--first the American chestnut, then the American elm, and now the ashes--had been dominant trees in our forests. Until the Emerald Ash Borer arrived, sweeping east from its point of introduction (hitchhiking in packing crates from Asia) in southeastern Michigan, the ash had been Princeton's most common tree. The physical gaps, if not the ecological ones, get filled by one thing or another. At Herrontown Woods, tulip trees, red maples, hickories, and sweetgums grow into the voids. 

These radical changes in the forest canopy present challenges for those of us who manage Princeton's woodlands. Dead ash trees become brittle over time. Branches and sometimes whole trees fall across trails, requiring removal. Though the town arborist and his crew have been helping, oftentimes it's volunteers who carry chainsaws deep into the preserves to reopen a trail. 

At Rogers Refuge, Princeton's birding mecca just downhill from the Institute Woods, it is avid birders who work on the trails. Lee and Melinda Varian have been particularly active. Melinda recently sent an email to the Friends of Rogers Refuge group, of which I'm a part, to report that "Lee and I just went out with our chainsaws for the third time this week to
clear fallen Ash trees from the Red Trail. It’s really heartbreaking."

She sent us these photos of a 50 year old ash tree that had fallen across a trail. Another volunteer at Rogers Refuge, Winifred Spar, wrote about how the history of the refuge is embedded in each tree's growth rings.  

In this section of trunk, where the bark has fallen away, you can see how the Emerald Ash Borer larvae consume the tree's cambium. Like the earth's total dependence on a thin surrounding layer of atmosphere (which of course our machines' invisible emissions are radically altering), a tree's vascular system depends on a thin layer of tissue surrounding the trunk, just below the bark. Lacking any evolved defense against the introduced ash borers, the native ash trees quickly become girdled and die. 

Though other tree species like oak and elm may be considered more statuesque, I have been surprised on occasion by just how gloriously big an ash can become. Two examples stood along the oval drive leading to George Washington's home at Mount Vernon. Another stood at the top of the bank of the Delaware in Lambertville. I was in awe at the thickness of their trunks. Surely the one in Lambertville has been lost, but might those at Mt. Vernon have been saved through chemical injections?

As tens of thousands of ash trees die in Princeton, requiring a vast expenditure to remove, has anyone actually seen an Emerald Ash Borer? I have seen a grand total of one, and that was a decade ago in Ann Arbor, MI, close to where they first were discovered in the U.S. By contrast, everyone has seen, and squashed, a Spotted Lanternfly, yet compare the harm done by the these two introduced insects and it's clear the largely unseen ash borer has been far more devastating in its impact. Our senses largely fail us for discerning the greatest threats to our world, be they an elusive insect or, far more devastating still, too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. To coin a phrase, call it "quiet radicalism."

By allowing light to reach the understory, the gaps in the canopy created by so many dying trees present a mix of problems and opportunity for managing our preserves. What shrubs will take advantage of the extra solar power, previously harvested by the trees but now reaching the forest understory? Native understory species like blackhaw Viburnum, highbush blueberry, and spicebush can now flourish and produce more fruit. If the deer didn't eat them, rarer native species like shadbush, pinxter azalea, and hearts 'a bustin' could make a comeback. But oftentimes, it is nonnative invasive shrubs that have colonized our woodlands--Photinia, honeysuckle, linden viburnum, winged euonymus, multiflora rose, and privet. Left uneaten by wildlife, the nonnative shrubs have a competitive advantage that could render our woodlands clogged with foliage inedible for local herbivores. 

Changes in the understory can affect whether wildlife thrive. Winifred, a keen observer of bird life in Princeton, wonders "if the gaps in the canopy and increased invasive understory may already be having an effect on birds in the Institute Woods. It might explain why there were noticeably fewer Ovenbirds this past summer; they are ground nesters." 

The ash tree won't disappear altogether. One old post, from 2014, entitled After Emerald Ash Borer, What Will Princeton Look Like, describes a visit to Ann Arbor, where the ash borer had already swept through. We still found young ash trees. My best guess back then remains my best guess now:
I would speculate that, once the native and introduced parasitic wasps become widespread, they in combination with woodpeckers could allow ash trees to persist in Princeton, though perhaps few would grow to maturity unless regularly treated with systemic pesticide.
Carolyn Edelman, a poet and nature enthusiast, recently posted a quote of Adlai Stevenson, II, dating back to a speech he gave in 1952. Its sentiment is part of a vein of American thought that views love of the American landscape as deeply connected to the love of freedom. For me, it is not coincidence that we live in a time when both nature and democracy are being undermined.  Read the quote through today's filter of gender equality and inclusion to find its relevance.
It was always accounted a virtue in a man to love his country. With us it is now something more than a virtue. It is a necessity. When an American says that he loves his country, he means not only that he loves the New England hills, the prairies glistening in the sun, the wide and rising plains, the great mountains, and the sea. He means that he loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw the breath of self-respect. Men who have offered their lives for their country know that patriotism is not the fear of something; it is the love of something.
A great tree species passes from the landscape, but the love remains, and in that love reside both grief and possibilities.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The Wet Meadows Project Turns 25

It was in southern Michigan that I first fell in love with prairie and savanna habitats, and so a favorite place to visit, when in Ann Arbor for a gig, is the Children's Wet Meadow Project in Buhr Park. There was a time when tall grass prairies extended into southern Michigan, with stately bur oaks sometimes rising above to create savannas. The persistent grass stems and oak leaves would invite what I call "mildfires" to sweep through, recycling nutrients and creating a clean slate for the next year's growth. And so some of these wet meadows are burned annually by professionals, while neighborhood families gather some distance back to enjoy this controlled, elegant horticultural show that speaks to a wild past. Kids then scatter wildflower seeds in the ashes.

The story of the wet meadows, now in their 25th year, grows out of the transformative relationship between one woman, Jeannine Palms, and the park that serendipitously stretched beyond her backyard.

I've written about it in other posts, about how her love of people, plants, and the local Mallett's Creek spurred a community initiative to turn turfgrass into native grassland. Since Jeannine ran a daycare for many years, this has very much been a kid-powered project, as can be seen during workdays and in the signs that explain how the meadows filter runoff headed for the creek.

A favorite prairie grass is little bluestem. It's always seemed like fall colors of prairie grasses are more vivid in the midwest. Perhaps a colder climate plays a role? The most brilliant example is Indian grass, whose bright orange and yellow mimic the flames that sometimes consume it.
Milkweed, anyone? Common milkweed spreads underground. A mildfire clears away the dead stems without harming the roots.
Dead stems can be as beautiful as the flowers. New England aster, wild bergamot, and the red leaves of blackberry mix with Indian grass.
After planting many wet meadows, the Wet Meadow Project began creating a food forest, to the right in this photo, with trees bearing apples, cherries and pawpaws, a grape arbor, raspberries, and many other edibles. 

Though a native meadow can be low-maintenance, it still requires ongoing vigilance to pull invasive species before they get established. A food forest, too, is only as good as the care it receives.

And sometimes that care involves using targeted treatment of weeds with herbicide. The food forest may well be organic, but a habitat is different from an organic farm. You can't till or mulch a prairie to control invasive plants. It's more like a body that may sometimes require medicine. In this case, low toxicity herbicide was applied to woody plants that, in a prairie, are considered weeds.

It looks like they made an exception for one very special tree--a native chestnut, which was planted in one of the meadows.

The local wildlife has a casual presence. What appeared to be a large green ant was crossing the asphalt path that winds through the park. It turns out to be variously named an oil beetle or blister beetle, Meloe campanicollis, though I must not have disturbed it enough to prompt it to secrete the oil that could blister my skin.

A hawk (red-tailed?) seemed unperturbed as we walked by.

Congratulations to Jeannine and all the other volunteers who have brought prairies back to life in Buhr Park.