Showing posts with label Princeton trees. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Princeton trees. Show all posts

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Hicans and Other Useful Trees at Princeton Battlefield

When people think of trees at the Battlefield, the first and perhaps only tree that comes to mind is the Mercer Oak, which these days is Mercer Oak II, an offspring of the original, donated by Louise Morse, a remarkable woman who spent much of her long life advocating for good causes. She was wife of Marston Morse, one of the first generation of mathematics faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study.

The Mercer Oak plays an ambassadorial role for the Battlefield, a star, positioned near the road while other less heralded trees serve more prosaic functions further back.

The young oak, a teenager or perhaps a young adult at this point, is flourishing after donating much of its foliage to the insect world two years ago.

It's appropriate that the oak came from Mrs. Morse, because she herself was extraordinarily long lived, reaching 105, and, like an oak that gives of its foliage to 100s of species of insects, gave generously of her time to such causes as Stuart School and civil rights.

Closer to the house are less known but more edible trees. Beneath this one is a bumper crop of pecans, but the tree is not fully a pecan tree.

It is, instead, a hican. Like a mythical beast whose body doesn't match the head, it has the base of a hickory and the top of a pecan. You can see the change in bark from rough to smooth about six feet up on the trunk.

Chinese chestnuts, too, are having a banner year.

In front of the house, a native chestnut we planted (15/16th American), is hanging in there, though its trunk is nearly girdled by the blight.

It, too, is laden with chestnuts.

Another native chestnut on the other side of Mercer Street had looked to be flourishing, but succumbed suddenly this year. The disease does not kill the root, however, so multiple sprouts rise from the base, to be browsed on by deer.

Undeterred, Bill Sachs and I added protection to some more recently planted native chestnuts that were getting beat up by the mowers. Such a perilous world these trees enter into.

Along the field edge, the bicentennial dogwoods planted in 1976 are benefitting from the work volunteers did this spring to keep the porcelainberry vines off of them.

This shot from underneath the trees shows the wave of porcelainberry that wasn't quite able to reach the lower branches of the dogwoods.

The less shading from the vines, the more berries the dogwoods can produce to fuel the fall bird migration.

This would be the fate of the dogwoods if we didn't help them out--completely enveloped by the porcelainberry.

Two of the classic inedible trees to be found around historic homes are horsechestnuts and black locust. Clark House lacks the horsechestnut but has several grand black locusts. Black locusts provided extraordinarily rot-resistant wood for fenceposts, abundant flowers for honey, and some say they help steer lightning strikes away from the house.

Friday, September 22, 2017

With Trees, Looks Can Be Deceiving

Here's a tree that looks dead, but is probably okay. It's a horse chestnut--a species long associated with historic houses, and like many horse chestnuts lost its leaves early, perhaps due to a leaf blotch fungus. Though planted in front of a newer home, its history is connected to the 18th century house around the corner, once lived in by Joseph Stockton and, reportedly, an occasional sleeping pad for Thomas Jefferson.

And here's a recently planted ash tree a few blocks away at the Westminster parking lot, looking good but not long for the world, due to Princeton's ongoing Emerald Ash Borer invasion. When I saw that ash trees were planted as part of the parking lot expansion, I urged Westminster to get the designers to pay for replacements that would actually live long enough to shade the cars parked beneath them. Hoping I'm wrong about it all, but any followup photo a few years from now will likely show a gap where this tree now stands.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Starlings, Passenger Pigeons, and the Uneaten Acorns

Acorns, anyone? It's called "flooding the zone"--a technical term commonly used by botanists who grew up playing sports. Some people see it as a mess, and curse the trees. An alternative target for cursing, just to put it out there, would be the tree-phobic landscape of concrete and lawn that we impose beneath the trees. A forest floor is far more accommodating of arboreal excess. There, a tree can let it all hang out, let it all fall down--seeds of all sorts, leaves, branches--and the forest floor will shrug, take it all in, and turn it into wildflowers.

In town, the blanketing of acorns turns into a blanketing of oak seedlings, few if any of which have any prospects of reaching maturity. The seedlings seem to be saying, "Move me to an opening along the street where I could shade some asphalt", but it doesn't look like people are listening.

For some people, a love of trees is layered with deep resentment of this fecundity. For me, looking for logic in nature's ways, the question is not "What to do with it all?", but "What's missing?" Past posts about osage orange and honey locust ask the same question, and suggest a missing herbivore that would have consumed the abundance in the past. Botanical abundance has lost a once complementary zoological abundance.

A partial answer came this past Nov. 10, when masses of starlings swept through, congregating in the pin oaks behind our house. A closer look revealed they were gobbling down acorns. Minutes later, they were gone, having left our pin oaks a little lighter.

The starling is not native, though, so doesn't speak to what would have consumed the oaks' abundance historically. And starlings appear too small to deal with the larger acorns of other species such as red oak. Still, it's behavior suggests that the spectacular fecundity of oaks might once have fed a complementary fecundity in the avian world--some highly mobile species, large enough to deal with a broader range of acorn size, that could make quick wing across eastern North America, swooping in to feast and move on.

Enter Ectopistes migratorius, a.k.a. the passenger pigeon, a bird of spectacular mobility and historical numbers. The photos are from a wonderful NJ State Museum exhibit two years ago.

A fine writeup on the Smithsonian website says "the mainstays of the passenger pigeon's diet were beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts, seeds, and berries found in the forests." They may also have swept in to feast on the seeds of our native bamboo, Arundinaria, which at one time covered large areas in the southeast and, like other bamboos, typically bloomed only once every several decades.

It can be tempting to say that the starling is providing a service by partially filling the void left by the extinction of the passenger pigeon. A few books have come out in recent years that claim invasive species like starlings aren't a big problem after all. The books in turn embolden news editors to publish articles and opeds with a similarly seductive revisionism, showing the same willingness to cherry pick evidence and rush to conclusions. I've written detailed critiques of various of these, including one recent article that mentioned starlings.

It would be interesting to explore to what extent the massive numbers of starlings have filled the niche left empty by the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Though feeding habits may overlap somewhat, one big difference is likely to be nesting behavior. Starlings compete with native birds for nesting sites, while the passenger pigeons appear to have built nests on branches, where they would not have displaced birds seeking tree cavities.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Woody Plants With a Farmer's Tan

A couple photos to post before fall slips entirely away:

The leaves of winged burning bush (Euonymus alatus) turn bright red in full sun, or white in full shade. This photo shows the gradation on a single bush.

Please, by the way, don't plant this species, and if you have it, consider replacing it with some less invasive colorful shrub. It can be pretty, but winged burning bush has proven highly invasive in local woodlands, outcompeting native shrubs and shading out spring wildflowers.

This maple on Aiken may have gotten a farmer's tan on the top because the lower half is shaded by the tree across the street, and thus is slower to change color.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

A Modern Times Moment With Persimmons

There's a scene in Modern Times where Charlie Chaplin's fantasy of domestic bliss includes reaching out the window to pluck some grapes. A cow comes to the back door to supply milk. Nature is cleverly tended to put its bounty within arm's reach.

I think of that scene every time I bicycle over Princeton University's graceful Streicker Bridge above Washington Road, ever since I noticed some native persimmon trees rising up alongside the bridge. They were planted intentionally, like Chaplin's grapes, and each year they've gotten higher, pressing their leaves and fruits closer to the fencing .

Posts from 2014 documenting the persimmon trees' rise can be found here and here, and a 2015 post is entitled "Close but no persimmon".

There's a catalpa growing within reach as well, but that's not as appetizing, somehow.

This year, the long awaited casual Chaplinesque reach was finally possible. Heading to a university soccer game, I'd check their progress.

The fencing is a real deterrent, though, as if Chaplin's dream of domestic bliss were set in a high-crime neighborhood where all the windows were barred.

At last, time and fruit seemed ripe. But wait, one problem. It's a persimmon. Can't they be astringent in the extreme? So much expectation, only to have a very pucker-mouthed ride home.

The soccer season passed less than gloriously into history, the leaves fell. A few persimmons remained on the tree, but out of reach.

Giving it one last try, I gave up on the fruits coming to me and went down below the bridge to see what lay on the ground. There, preserved on top of a leaf, was one ready to taste. It was sweet, without a hint of astringency, delicious beyond all expectation.

Sometimes dreams don't play out the way you imagined, but they can still come true.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Ode To Willow Oak Leaves

Recently, walking through a pleasant blizzard of falling willow oak leaves on Franklin Avenue, I remembered an ode to willow oak leaves I had written in the fateful fall of 2000 while living in Durham, part of North Carolina's Research Triangle. It was this time of year, in a city whose streets were and still are lined with willow oaks, and the enormous specimen in our yard was laying down a fresh layer of soft, attractive mulch.

We had long since given up trying to grow lawn in deeply shaded piedmont clay, in favor of letting pine needles and willow oak leaves fall where they may. The pines down there are loblolly and shortleaf. Unlike the more northern white pine planted in Princeton, they are "self-pruning", meaning they drop their lower limbs to eventually become a vaulted canopy, creating an expansive, protected, cathedral-like space beneath, through which leaves and needles make their long, idiosyncratic descents to earth in the filtered light.

The piece below was published on the editorial page of the Raleigh News and Observer as one of their periodic pastoral pieces, almost certainly completely overlooked in the tumult following the Bush-Gore election that had taken place the day before.

The Work of an Autumn Breeze

The narrow leaves of willow oak spin earthwards, catching flashes of morning light. In walks along the treelined canyons of city streets, we are all victors in a ticker tape parade. The sun's rays, having lost their summer harshness, now angle into the sheltered air beneath trees, illuminating the languid descent of leaves from vaulted canopy.

Not all leaves are so elegant. Pine needles plunge earthward like clouds of arrows. The broader leaves of maples fall in rocking zig-zags. But willow oak leaves are so designed to celebrate their momentary freedom in one long graceful pirouette. They spend summer clustered overhead, anonymous in dense masses of green. Then, made expendible by autumn's chill, refined of all colors but gold, they become a million individualists in their first and last dance back to earth. In loose embrace with gravity they fall, each spinning in its own manner, at its own tempo, each captured by the sun's beaming light for all time and but for a moment.

The young girl next door tries to catch one, and quickly discovers how illusive they are--so tangible in their approach, yet like phantoms unwilling to have their only dance cut short. Having reached the ground, again anonymously massed, they mingle and merge and return by degrees to the soil from which they came.

At such times, it is hard to think of leaves as anything but a gift. In the competition between lawn and leaf for my heart, lawn has had to yield. I used to pick up the sticks, and rake the leaves, and mow threadworn grass. But now I channel my yard's sylvan tendencies rather than struggle against them. The leaves fall where they do for a reason: to soften the soil, to catch the rain, to help dogwoods through the droughts and give kids one more reason for delight. What pleasure to trace a leaf's whimsical flight, and find at bottom a sense of rightness and rest, rather than impending chore. The Triangle is a forest masquerading as metropolis, and we are the beneficiaries of its golden rain.

Durham, NC, Fall, 2000