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.

Friday, October 07, 2022

Nature Events on Indigenous Peoples Day Weekend


Events at Herrontown Woods include:

May's Barden Cafe -- At Herrontown Woods, 10-12. A gathering with coffee, etc. and baked goods to eat. 600 Snowden Ave, across from Smoyer Park. Barden is short for Botanical ARt garDEN, where native plants and art mix.

Nature Walk at Herrontown Woods -- 12-1pm on Sunday, Oct. 9, directly after the cafe. Meet at the Barden next to the main parking lot of Herrontown Woods. Invasive species will be the theme, but other things will come up as well.


Daniel Simberloff to speak at Princeton University -- 12:15, Monday, Oct. 10, Livestream on Media Central-- A leading expert on invasive species around the world, he is editor of the journal Biological Invasions, which some years back published a book review I wrote about invasive species denial. Talks in this series can be geared more for scientists than a lay audience, but can often be interesting even if you lack training.

ALSO, Princeton University's Media Central Live
Looks like lots of events to listen in on at the University's Media Central Live. For instance, this weekend, Princeton Symphony Orchestra -- 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 7-8

Monday, October 03, 2022

The Jazz Naturalist Travels to England

Botanical and musical interests merged recently, while touring England with a latin/jazz ensemble I've been musical director of for almost 40 years, called the Lunar Octet. It was a whirlwind tour, with seven gigs in five days. Along the way, I was able to catch glimpses of nature in the British Isles. 

One of our hosts, in Tunbridge Wells, has a delightful garden. The city is located in Kent, which is a county south of London. England as a country has no states, but rather lots of counties, like Hampshire, Yorkshire, and Devon, which seems to have lost its shire. Homes have addresses in England, but they are also sometimes given names. Our host lives in the Sandstone House. Are all english gardens like this? I'd be fine with it if so. Sheep graze peacefully in the front yard. Had never seen baby sheep grazing before. They're doing a great job.
Pink flamingoes are an indicator species for quirky habitat. Real flamingoes can be found in Africa and America. I once saw flocks of them at watering holes at the base of the Andes in the Patagonian desert in Argentina. Plastic pink flamingoes (Phoenicopterus plasticus) are a northern species, reportedly native to Massachusetts. 
The nylon strings draped over the front yard water feature looked at first like a sculpture, but may also be an elegant deterrent of whatever local water bird might be tempted to fly in and gobble up the fish.
There was a very scary guard dog, fortunately leashed.
And a guard bird kept an eye on us. People underestimate guard birds at their peril. 

There was a sheep patrolling the deck, looking like a character out of Wallace and Gromit. Very high security.

The garden deals with the death of trees in an interesting way. People tend to eliminate all signs of death from their gardens, but our hosts see demise as an opportunity. What's this?, you might ask.

I did ask, and was told that it's a thumb. That's a very positive thing to do with a dead tree trunk. 
And that split trunk in the distance, instead of cutting it down, 
they added a rope and called it a sling-shot.
If you've been steeped in the American ethic that trees should be allowed to grow naturally, the European treatment of trees can seem at first brutal. This eucalyptus, native to Australia, is lucky to have any limbs. Radical pruning is a means of controlling size, and is reminiscent of how grape vines are pruned back each year to not much more than a post sticking out of the ground. New growth sprouts from the tips. Pollarding is a fascinating technique with a long history, and some examples, intentional or not, can be found in Princeton.

Even more extreme pruning leaves just the trunk, as can be seen in this photo taken on the fly. It would be interesting to see how the trees respond to such extreme treatment.

There was a forest nearby that I didn't have time to explore, but the description sounds appealing.

"... a diverse mosaic of habitats: native broadleaf woodland of oak, birch, rowan, and hazel; areas of mature and younger conifer; fern-clad hollows; and patches of heathland where the heather, gorse, and purple moor-grass harbour a host of wildlife." 

"Fernclad hollows? Heather, gorse, purple moor-grass? If I had read the sign then and there, I would have launched myself up the trail for a closer look. Instead I took a photo of the sign, to ostensibly read later, and returned to the Sandstone House, still carrying the misconception that heather only grows further north, up towards Scotland. Rowan turns out to be the European equivalent of our mountain ash. Gorse looks a bit like a shrub called Scotch broom, with similarly bright yellow leguminous flowers. Both were introduced to the western U.S. and became invasive. It would have been good to see how gorse grows in its native habitat of Britain. The sign also says that Hargate Forest has its own invasive species, rhododendron, which is being removed. 

One big surprise was the presence of palm trees in southern Great Britain. The photo below was taken in Torquay (pronounced tor-KEY, home of Faulty Towers) where our band did a workshop at a boy's grammar school. A grammar school, I learned, doesn't refer to teaching grammar but to the need to test to get in. Palm trees, yuccas, Bird of Paradise--the flora along the south coast was more reminiscent of Pasadena, CA than my preconception of a uniformly cold, damp England.

A little ways north, the climate still looked to be on the mild side, with fuchsia shrubs blooming in a garden designed for butterflies. It was at the Bristol Grammar School, reminiscent of Hogwarts, with uniformed students and a grand paneled dining hall. 
In a big blackbox theater, we performed our original music, then brought the students down to learn how to play a street samba rhythm. It is tremendously satisfying to perform for a sea of bright young faces, who listened well and gave back as much energy as we gave them. 

Most jazz musicians, leaving the gig, would not have noticed the teasel growing in the little butterfly garden that was trying mightily to do its part to counter 50 years of decline in butterflies and moths in Great Britain. Apparently native to England, teasel is a plant with a striking form that unfortunately has become highly invasive in the midwestern U.S., forming thick stands along highways. It probably will become problematic in NJ over time. Typically there's a lack of indigenous herbivores and diseases to keep an introduced plant in check when it becomes invasive on other continents. Teasel is, as mentioned, a striking plant, sometimes used in dry flower arrangements. Invasive is another way of saying "too much of a good thing." It would be interesting to see how teasel behaves in the English landscape, beyond the confines of a 10 X 20 butterfly garden.
Towards the end of the tour, our hosts in Nottingham, owners of a wonderful jazz club called Peggy's Skylight, put us up at their homes. The foliage in front of one of the houses along the street was decidedly American, with pampas grass and Virginia creeper.

The wannabe urban planner in me would like to take a moment to heap praise upon shallow setbacks, which I will pretend is a botanical term for locating homes close to the street. The small front yard thus created is a manageable space for having a small garden. Princeton has some neighborhoods with these smaller setbacks, but where homes are placed far from the street, not only is it less likely one will get to know one's neighbor, but the vast front yard thus created is also too big for most people to garden. The solution most homeowners gravitate towards is a boring, sterile expanse of mowed lawn. In England, I was glad for the feeling of embrace the narrow streets and their close-in buildings create.

There's a wonderful post about Virginia creeper by a woman in London who describes herself this way: "Bug Woman is a slightly scruffy middle-aged woman who enjoys nothing more than finding a large spider in the bathroom."

The blogger's description of self begs the question: Are Brits more comfortable than Americans with self-deprecation? In downtown Nottingham, we saw the Ugly Bread Bakery, 
which was just up the street from the Fatface department store. Do words get upcycled in England, to turn a negative into a positive? Though people were not above occasional complaint, we picked up on considerable positive energy, with the word "brilliant" being sprinkled liberally upon various things and actions, the way we might use "awesome."

One plant doing very well in England is English ivy, which looks to be a bonafide native. Vines typically bloom only when they climb something, which is why you never see English ivy, Virginia creeper, or poison ivy blooming when they are only spreading across the ground.

Along with the loss of wildlife, there's also the mourning of the attrition of hedgerows in the countryside. Apparently a lot were removed after WWII, when farming shifted towards maximum production and the hedgerows were standing in the way of expanding fields. Our pianist for the week, Adam Biggs, lives in Bath and described to me how hedgerows are not so much planted as "laid". There's a whole technique to creating and maintaining hedgerows, which are promoted as important habitat for wildlife.

We were fortunate in Nottingham to have an instantly likable host named Lex, a geographer with a liking for pirates and educational t-shirts.

A closer look reveals important anatomical differences between various strains of humanity.

Their dog is a small version of a pure bred fox hound, the runt of the litter. The sort that hunts foxes, Lex explained, are much larger and specially bred. He described the tradition of fox hunting historically as more a form of warfare than sport--a means by which the upper class could demonstrate dominion over the lands populated by the tenant farmers. Fox hunting became logistically difficult as the landscape became more broken up into smallholder parcels whose owners were less willing to go along with the periodic invasion. 

While we found Robin Hood hanging out next to Nottingham Castle, built over ancient sandstone caves, he'd now have to drive an hour north to reach what remains of Sherwood Forest. There was no time for that, even though it looks like there's an amazingly old oak up there called the Major Oak.

We didn't see any fairs in Scarborough, but we did go, and did play for a thousand people at the jazz festival there. They called our music "joy jazz"--a new genre. Half the joy was in the music. The other half was in getting to see England and meet some of its people.