Showing posts with label Travels. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Travels. Show all posts

Thursday, August 19, 2021

My First Public Planting--a Prairie Circle in Ann Arbor, MI

Each time I travel to Ann Arbor, where I lived off and on for 20 years, I make a pilgrimage to several special spots. 

One of them is a small demonstration prairie I planted just a few years before leaving. It was my first public planting and, incredibly, it continues to flourish. I say incredibly because I've seen many idealistic native meadow plantings degrade over time, overrun by any number of aggressive plants, be they trees, shrubs, and native blackberry, or a host of nonnative weeds like mugwort and Canada thistle. 

One reason it has survived is the native plants themselves, growing densely together, leaving no room for incursion. A tallgrass prairie is a robust plant community. In sunny conditions, flowers like rosinweed and purple coneflower can hold their own.
The gray-headed coneflowers--a species much like the cutleaf coneflowers we have in Princeton--have hung in there with the big bluestem and Indian grasses. There are also some wonderful goldenrods--"showy" and "stiff-leaved"--that stay in one place and don't encroach like many other kinds of goldenrod do. Even the nonnative queen Anne's lace, which you'll see taking over along midwestern roadsides, is somehow remaining limited in its aggressiveness. It's possible that a well established planting like this could need little more tending than a late winter mowing to keep the woodies at bay, but there may be some low-key TLC going on to keep things in balance.

I planted it in the early 1990s. The county naturalist at the time, Matt Heumann, helped with seed and design. His successor, Shawn Severance, sent me a very nice note about the prairie:

"That prairie planting has gone on in time to spread seed into the surrounding 4 acres and has enriched the diversity of the park far beyond the original footprint. It’s a continual reminder of the power of small actions. Since you did that planting, we have restored several acres of prairie habitat nearby and so what you set in motion has expanded."

Heartening to think that focusing attention on one small planting could ultimately have a ripple effect on its surroundings. The prairie even made it onto the preserve's map, as the "Prairie Circle." There's another advantage this prairie has. Ann Arbor is a progressive town that has invested in the management of its open space. In addition to the county staff, the city has a Natural Areas Preservation Manager who oversees restoration of diverse habitats, controlling uber-invasives like buckthorn and conducting prescribed burns to bring back bur oak savannas and other historically prevalent habitats.

Having absorbed that culture and brand of wild horticulture, I was able to take what I learned in Ann Arbor and apply it in subsequent migrations to Durham, NC and then here in Princeton. It wasn't a matter of taking favorite plants along on the trip, but rather getting to know the species indigenous to any locale, and finding public places where they could be encountered by people otherwise surrounded by generic, nonnative landscaping. 

There's a bench nearby that faces the Prairie Circle. I don't know who Omry Ronen was, but his loved ones must have thought he'd like an enduring view of tall grasses and wildflowers flowing with the breeze.

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Bennett Place: Hidden Beauty Amidst the Barrens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, it's a long evolution. 

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