Showing posts with label Native Plants. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Native Plants. Show all posts

Thursday, September 07, 2023

Pilewort--A Native Weed With Hidden Flowers and Showy Seeds

Some plants have it all backward. Flowers are supposed to provide the show; the seeds, not so much. 

But with pilewort, its the seeds that catch the eye, clustered in raggedy bunches that look like cotton. 

The plant sets up great expectations as it grows and grows, fleshy like a large thistle, but soft and approachable, 

with a pleasant scent when you crush the leaves. What fabulous flowers will crown all this vertical ambition? 

Something looking like a flower bud appears, but it never generates anything resembling a flower with petals. Pollinators visit nonetheless, even though the flowers look like duds. 

During our monthly nature walk at Herrontown Woods this past Sunday, I was grateful that one of the participants pointed out some other activity around the pilewort flowers. A common local ant species was busy tending to a flock of aphids sucking juice from the stems. The ants harvest the aphids' honeydew. 

Pilewort (good luck with the latin name, Erechtites hieraciifolius) is what I call a native weed. They pop up in large numbers in areas that have been disturbed, rising 8 feet high in what looks like a fleshy forest dusted with snow. 

Maybe the name comes from the piles of seeds it deposits all around. Another common name for it is fireweed, because it sprouts abundantly after a fire has swept through.

You might think this plant a menace that will take over. The nonnative lambsquarters, also an annual, can give this impression too, growing densely and tall the first year after a disturbance. But I've learned not to be concerned over their dominant presence. The first year's show of abundance fades in subsequent years until you can hardly find a one. Other plants move in, and pilewort awaits the next disturbance. 

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

Obedient Plant: Big Pink in a Season of Yellows

Among sun-loving native flowers of summer, the so-called obedient plant shows up all fresh and fulgent just as the party is starting to wind down. Each year it catches me by surprise with its pink when so many other flowers--sunflowers, cutleaf coneflowers, Silphiums, Heleniums--go with yellow. 

Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) is also off my radar because it is risky to plant. Its tubular flowers may obediently remain sideways if you push them, but the plant itself spreads aggressively underground. Not surprisingly, it's in the mint family, known for roots that spread hither and yon.

That's why this gardener on Grover Ave was so smart to plant it between a sidewalk and the road, where its capacity to spread is limited.

A similar strategy to curb its spread was used in front of Jay's Bike Shop. 

Obedient plant also pops up in several spots in Herrontown Woods each summer. Hard to say if it was planted or part of the indigenous flora. Interestingly, it doesn't seem to spread much when in an open woodland rather than a garden. Many other species that seem modest, even rare in the wild--various native sunflowers, groundnut, virgin's bower, fringed loosestrife--also turn rampant when planted in the comparatively tame environs of a garden. 

Thursday, August 03, 2023

The Pleasures of American and European Elderberries

One of my favorite shrubs, the elderberry, took on new facets and dimensions this year. 

When I was a kid, we'd drive out to the countryside and harvest its berries, clustered on broad disks. What they lacked in size they made up for in numbers. Brought home in big brown paper grocery bags, they were soon on their way to becoming delicious jelly and pies. We made jelly out of wild grapes, too, but elderberries had a flavor all their own. It took a little time to strip all those small berries off the stalks, but the reward lasted all year.

How we managed to beat the birds to the berries back then is a mystery. Though we grow the shrub in our backyard in Princeton, the catbirds often make quick work of the berries.

Elder Flower Syrup

Fortunately, there's something amazing to be made of the flowers, and this year, we finally made it. One summer many years ago, a friend had served me an elder flower drink that was revelatory, but somehow I got the idea that only the flowers of the European species (Sambucus nigra) could be used. Searching today's internet, that distinction appears to have dissolved. The elderberry native to the eastern U.S., Sambucus canadensis, makes perfectly fine elder flower syrup. 

Our friend Joanna served as mentor and activator, directing us to pick the clusters when all the flowers were open but still fresh. For best flavor, one website suggests picking the flowers in mid to late morning. 

Some Caution

Some recipes are less concerned than others about including any fragments of the green stems, which are toxic. Only the flowers and the cooked ripe berries are edible. We stripped the petals off the stems by hand, which is time consuming but delivers good results. 

Making the Syrup

Recipes vary online, but all use lots of sugar and sliced lemons, which are added to the flowers along with some citric acid. Pour in boiling water and let it sit, covered, for most of a day, then pour through a cloth to get the syrup. We had to call around to supermarkets and hardware stores to track down some citric acid. 

Pour a little of the syrup in chilled water, white wine, or prosecco. It was a big hit at our Veblen Birthday Bash at Herrontown Woods. 

Elderberries Join a New Family

One bit of news from the turbulent, restless world of scientific nomenclature: the elderberry has been uprooted from its long-running membership in the Caprifoliaceae family and now rubs phylogenetic branches with Viburnums and a couple other genera in the Moschatel family, also known as the Adoxaceae

A Curious Variety of European Elderberry

On a recent roadtrip, I encountered a strange, purple shrub in a couple gardens. I was surprised that the botanist I now carry in my pocket, better known as an app called Seek, was calling it an elderberry. "Black tower" elderberry, perhaps--one of many bred varieties of the European elderberry. It's pretty, and different, but it's not something I personally would plant. Each gardener evolves differently, but for me, the sequence of interest across fifty years went from vegetables, to roadside weeds, to pretty ornamentals that were native or not (a black tower elderberry would be in this category), then to the community of native species that coevolved together over ions. It's a fidelity deeply rooted in a sense of place. 

Johnny Elderflower Strikes Again

If some combination of the abundant flowers and berries breeds in you a love of native elderberries, you can easily go forth and propagate them using 2' long cuttings from the dormant stems. The bushes are typically found in wet, edge habitat where there's some sun. Hopefully you'll emerge from your winter dormancy before the elderberry bushes, because they leaf out earlier than other native shrubs. Press the bottom end of the "live stake" as deeply as possible into soil to make roots, leaving a few buds above ground to make leaves. I've used this highly economical approach to propagation in many places over the years, most recently in a wet, open woodland area at Herrontown Woods. The act of planting is deliciously lazy, but followup is needed in the form of watering during droughts the first summer, and protecting them from deer browsing with wire cages. If things go well, in a few years the special flavors of elderberry will be all the easier to be had in Princeton.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Harrison Street Park: Contrasting Tales of Trees and Wildflowers

Most people drive by Harrison Street Park unawares. It's an old neighborhood park that lacks parking, and so mostly serves those who live close enough to walk there. Whenever I think to stop by this surprisingly spacious park close to Nassau Street, it's to check in on dreams living and remembered. 

One dream is bringing back the American chestnut. We've planted a number of chestnuts around town that are 15/16th native. They were originally crossed with a resistant asian chestnut, then backcrossed with the aim of ending up with a predominantly native chestnut tree that still carries the Asian species' resistance to chestnut blight. Some of these trees have proven susceptible to the blight, but two in particular have resisted the blight thus far. One of these is in Harrison Street Park, nearly 20 feet tall now. 

We also planted two native butternuts there, another native tree that has been marginalized by an introduced disease. It's good to see them thriving and starting to bear nuts. 

There's also an attempt by the town, successful thus far, to keep a grove of ash trees protected from the introduced Emerald Ash Borer, via systemic applications of insecticide. Another small grove of trees was planted through a citizen donation and collaboration with the Shade Tree Commission.

Other dreams for Harrison Street Park, involving wildflower plantings, have not done so well. Princeton Borough had great dreams for this park at one time. In 2006, they hired me to conduct an ecological assessment and write a stewardship plan. Then they hired a landscape architecture firm from Philadelphia to design improvements to the park. Neighbors offered many ideas and expressed many opinions. The old wading pool--a relic from a distant, more sustainable era when kids gathered in their neighborhood parks in the summer--was removed, the play equipment was updated, and a few new features were installed. 

Some $30,000 was spent on new native plantings that looked good for a year or two before going into steady decline. The idea was that neighbors would care for all these new plants. Of course, a drought promptly ensued. Some of the neighbors rose to the occasion to keep the plants going, but the extensive flower beds required more than an initial season of zeal. Neither the borough maintenance crews nor any of the neighbors had the training or interest to keep the flower beds weeded over the longterm. 

This flower bed is now a massive stand of Canada thistle and mugwort. 

The plant with the big leaves is a common weed in the midwest that is showing up more and more in Princeton. It looks like rhubarb, but is in fact burdock. 

There's a swale in the park that receives runoff from a private parking lot next door. These wet, sunny spots can tip the balance towards native species. A friend and I planted various floodplain species--joe pye weed, tall meadowrue, etc--but also planted Jerusalem artichoke, which is a native sunflower species with edible tubers. 

When planting an aggressive plant like a native sunflower, it's easy to believe one will follow up and keep its expansionist growth in check. That's almost never the case. The sunflowers has spread aggressively underground over the years, and have long since swallowed the other wildflowers in their dense growth. Each year the sunflower clone expands, as park crews mow around its fringe. 

We also planted a couple pawpaw trees there, but they were overwhelmed by the sunflowers. A couple black walnut trees sprouted on their own and had much better luck, somehow managing to rise above the sunflowers. Trees that plant themselves tend to be more successful than trees planted by people. On the upside, the sunflowers are so aggressive that they require no weeding, and there's a dazzling display of yellow in the fall. But, like some of the other plantings at Harrison St Park over the years, it's not what was originally envisioned. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Sedges Have Edges, and the Blessing of Wet Ground

Sedges are an acquired taste that, once acquired, deepens the pleasure of botanizing. They are grasslike plants that show their beauty not through color but through architecture. Many of them flourish in wet ground. Perhaps the most famous sedge is papyrus, which we were all taught was used by the Egyptians to make paper.

In New Jersey, we have lots of native sedges. One of my favorites is the fringed sedge (Carex crinita). I planted one in the mini-raingarden in front of the Whole Earth Center, along Nassau Street. I guess it looks like a grassy blob, but if you look more closely, 

you'll see it has these pendulant clusters of seeds that look like fingers. The fringed sedge's graceful aspects disguise the toughness at its root, so to speak, as it holds fiercely to the ground. That and its capacity to thrive in wet ground makes it very useful for stream restoration projects.

To distinguish a sedge from a grass, take a close look at the stems, which aren't round like a grass but instead are triangular in cross section. "Sedges have edges" is a fun way of describing the stems. Roll the stem between your thumb and forefinger and feel the edges. Some sedges have more rounded edges than others.

In a much larger raingarden that I manage, over in Smoyer Park, there's a massing of sedges that look like a sea of grass with little pompoms on top. I had been repeatedly forgetting the name of this one, so I was happy to see my "Seek" app (a version of iNaturalist) identify it as squarrose sedge (Carex squarrosa). 
Sedges, like all plants, encourage you to look closely and make fine distinctions, which can help your thinking in other aspects of life. This one probably looks a lot like the squarrose sedge, but the seedheads are a bit heftier. My Seek app is calling it hop sedge (Carex lupulina), which I'll go with. We botany types are often in our own orbits. It really is transformative to have a fellow botanist in the form of a cellphone to carry around in your pocket.

This one has elongated seedheads in clusters. I'll call it sallow sedge (Carex lurida). 
Another sedge I've been dividing and moving to new locations--in my front yard and at the Barden in Herrontown Woods--has distinctive seedheads that look like stars. Having enjoyed calling this morning star sedge, I was surprised to find Seek calling it Gray's sedge, but these are just two common names for the same plant, Carex grayi.

There are other sedges that you're likely to encounter if you gravitate like I do to wet, sunny places. Green bulrush and woolgrass are sedges that were obviously named by people who couldn't tell a sedge from a rush from a grass. Feel the edges, people. 

So-called woolgrass is one of my favorites. This photo was taken at the Barden, later in the season, after it has developed its wooly inflorescence. Unlike most sedges, which mature early in the season, woolgrass grows taller and over a longer arc of time, with attractive features at each stage of development. 

One sedge you're less likely to encounter is tussock sedge, which I've only seen in a springfed marshy area of Mountain Lakes that is unfortunately inaccessible via existing trails. 

Often contrasting beautifully with the light-green leaves of sedges is the deeper green of soft rush (Juncus effusus), which here in the Smoyer Park detention basin has achieved a lovely vase-shaped form decorated with pendulant clusters of seeds reminiscent of earrings. I've seen soft rush used as a striking specimen in gardens--not bad for a native plant that mostly hangs out in ditches and other low ground. 

Sedges have edges; rushes are round, meaning that rushes have rounded stems.
Another reason I like sedges so much--along with other plants they associate with in wet, sunny places, like this Hibiscus (moscheutos)--is that so many native plant species thrive in wet ground and full sun. That, and the soft ground that facilitates weeding, makes for less work and more time to gaze across the expanse and appreciate the beauty. 

Friday, May 19, 2023

Some Flowering Trees and Shrubs in Mid-May

A whole lot of white, and a little red right now. Here's fringe tree
and pagoda dogwood

Red buckeye is a small tree that makes a big show here and there on residential streets. I've only seen it growing wild along a back road in the North Carolina coastal plain.
pawpaw hanging promisingly

This fragrant snowbell (Styrax obassia), was planted by Bob Wells behind Veblen House in Herrontown Woods.

And across the street from me, a horse chestnut puts on a dazzling display, with flowering, towering black locusts adding lofty blooms behind.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Evolution of the Front Lawn in Ann Arbor, MI

Back when I was writing and performing climate theater, it was a very useful exercise to view things like the earth or the economy as characters. Upon reflecting on what sort of character a front lawn might be, I realized that the expanse of mowed grass is much like a trophy wife for the House. Expected to be well manicured, passive and forever young, the front lawn serves no other purpose than to present a flattering view of the House to the public. In return for its submissiveness, the front lawn is allowed, and in fact expected, to remain perpetually idle. Any shift away from bland formality, such as a wildflower meadow or, heaven forbid, a vegetable garden, would be unbecoming and steal attention away from the House. It seemed to me the front lawn could benefit from a good turf therapist who could help her sort through how she ended up in such a one-way relationship, and from that developed a monologue called Turf Therapy

It's easy to knock suburban culture's striving for a sterile deep green conformity, and the chemical dependency and noxious lawn equipment that keeps it propped up. But most homeowners find themselves completely unprepared to own land, and the myriad kinds of plants that grow upon it. No surprise, then, that people try to turn the outdoors into as simple a landscape as possible, essentially an extension of the indoors. A lawn is the equivalent of a wall-to-wall carpet. 

In our era, the expansion of the suburban lawn has coincided with a shrinkage in knowledge of plants. Each generation sprouts more distant from ancestors who farmed or foraged. And how many schools teach children to identify even the most common trees? 

It's a brave homeowner, then, who dares take a shovel to the front lawn, bucking conformity to plant something more colorful, beneficial, and interesting. Usually, the change is wrought incrementally, expanding flowerbeds a little at a time. 

While most plantings tend to hug the edges and stick close to the house, in this yard a Salvia is boldly asserting itself right out in the middle of the yard.

Just down this street, which happens to be called Easy Street, someone dug a raingarden that catches water piped to it from the roof. They used the dirt dug out of the hole to build a berm on the downhill side, expanding the hole's capacity. The wildflowers feed the pollinators while the signs feed passersby with ideas, like Public Power, in which a town takes ownership of its electricity and moves rapidly towards 100% renewable energy.

A neighbor further down has converted even more of the yard to raingarden, and added a sign from the local watershed association: "Rain Garden: Improving wildlife habitat and water quality in the Huron River one garden at a time." This is a nice sentiment that all too often remains on the fringe, but in this neighborhood it has caught on.

Next door is a vegetable garden in the front yard. It's starting to look like the trophy wife has decided to pursue a life of her own. Any House with an ego is going to be really upset.

This homeowner, a friend of mine named Jeannine, has nurtured a burr oak savanna habitat in her front yard, with an understory of trilliums, plus black cohosh in its full mid-summer bloom. The House? Well, it's back there somewhere, having to accept that yards like to express themselves and have meaningful lives, too. 

Interestingly, some of her bur oaks are getting tall enough to start interfering with the solar panels on their garage. She has started managing her front yard forest, removing larger trees while keeping smaller ones not tall enough to shade the panels. It's a way of having your trees and panels, too. Each tree removed leaves a legacy of roots--a network of carbon consumed from the air and injected into the ground.

Even in more upscale neighborhoods, where homeowners can afford to hire landscapers, many yards are cared for by crews that carefully weed the wildflower meadows, displacing the noisy custodial crews that "mow, blow, and go." What a pleasure to bicycle through a lovely neighborhood with colorful, botanically interesting yards and a delicious quiet. Machines to suppress vegetation are replaced by skilled intervention to steer vegetation. All week in Ann Arbor, the neighborhoods were remarkably quiet. I looked online for information about bans on leaf blowers, and could only find a ban on 2-cycle lawn equipment in the city's downtown, passed in 2019.

The shift from lawn to meadow in many yards was surely inspired in part by the work of Jeannine Palms, who with her preschool kids, neighbors and town staff have carved native wet meadows into what had been a vast expanse of turfgrass in nearby Buhr Park. 

Their meadows have many of the same wildflowers we have in Princeton, with some differences. The photo shows gray-headed coneflower, which is close in appearance to our cutleaf coneflower. And they have additional kinds of Silphium (rosinweed, prairie dock, compass plant), and a grass called smooth cordgrass. 

More recently, Jeannine has led a volunteer effort to shift even more of the park away from turfgrass, in this case to create a food forest packed with grapes, apples, pears, elderberry, pawpaw, currants, raspberries, strawberries, fennel, and a "three sisters" planting of corn, beans and squash. 

Here's an effort to grow sweet potatoes, not only for the tubers but also for the leaves, which are delicious. Fabric is spread on the ground to suppress weeds, and fencing suspended above to deter the deer. 

The story of this heroic transformation is told in a sign posted next to the first wet meadows. In the process, they have brought diverse, edible life back to the land and the neighborhood. 

Saturday, June 11, 2022

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being in June

Note: The memorable title "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" may not be as fresh in people's minds as it was in the 1980s when the novel and subsequent movie came out. There's nothing unbearable about white flowers, but there sure are a lot of them this time of year.

It was on a recent walk along the green trail at Autumn Hill Reservation that I suddenly noticed I was surrounded by white. 

Mostly, it was invasive species: the white of multiflora rose
and Linden Viburnum. The prompt for the walk was to check the trails. The Friends of Herrontown Woods takes care of the trails at the adjacent Autumn Hill, and this spring's intervention was a boardwalk spanning a section that for years had been chronically muddy. The town's open space manager, Cindy Taylor, got the town crew to help out by removing some fallen trees, and I was checking to see if anything else was needed.

Though the nonnative shrubs were the dominant flowers, a few natives could be found, also with white flowers. A cluster of partridgeberry hugged the ground. The "repens" in its latin name, Mitchella ripens, refers to its crawling habit.
The mapleleaved Viburnums usually don't grow beyond a few feet. Their latin name is Viburnum acerifolium. The latin name for maples is Acer, so acerifolium is the latin way of saying maple foliage, or mapleleaved. 
Almost missed among all the whiteness was a beautiful specimen of Styrax, probably American snowbell, S. americanus. It's on the left as one pulls into the Autumn Hill parking lot. My guess is that it was planted. I've walked by it dozens of times, but only when it flowered did I take note. That makes a grand total of two of this species seen thus far in Princeton.

Back home, there was the mock orange-a once commonly planted landscape shrub that survives in my neighbor's yard, peeking over the fenceline.

More whiteness comes from the native elderberry, whose berries make delicious pies if you can beat the catbirds,
and the abundant spires of Virginia sweetspire.
The mountain laurel

and the Deutzia in our yard are refusing to grow beyond one foot high for some reason.

White clover can be benign in a lawn but mischievous if it invades a flowerbed.

Update: Ten days after initially posting about white flowers, and feeling like the title of the post, though playful, sounds more judgemental than it would have ten years ago, I've noticed a few more. The Korean dogwood, for instance.
and catalpas, whose flowers reward a closer look.
Japanese honeysuckle, which yield a drop of sweet liquid if pulled apart in the right way.

Some sort of hydrangia vine on our patio.
The flowers of a native swamp azalea. They look to be keeping their flowers downcast, as if to avoid eye contact. Too many zoom meetings.
A small patch of daisies in a preserved pasture near Veblen House.
A white cloud of daisy fleabanes in the foreground, with an oak-leaved hydrangia in the background. 
This oak-leaved hydrangia, native though I've never seen it growing in the wild, started as one plant, but over time it produced stems that could be dug without disturbing the original plant. We now have a whole grove of them.

The oak-leaved hydrangia is one of three classic native shrubs that sustain white in the garden through June, as Virginia sweetspire (above) segues into oak-leaved hydrangia,
which segues into the bottlebrush-shaped spires of bottlebrush buckeye. 

Why so much white? My curiosity did not sustain me very far into an internet search. Perhaps white takes less energy for plants to produce than other colors. White reflects the most light, which could help insects find it. And then there's the research that shows that pollinators don't actually see the flowers as white, and are picking up on aspects of the flower beyond human perception. 

Below is beardtongue having a good year in the Veblen Circle of wildflowers at the Barden in Herrontown Woods.