Showing posts with label Wildflowers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wildflowers. Show all posts

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Nature's "Depressions" Bring Beauty and Resilience

Another in my writings about the ecological, logistical, and psychological aspects of tending to a detention basin at Smoyer Park that we converted into a native meadow. Most of the photos and writing are from mid-July, 2021.

There's a garden that many people pass by but few notice. I saw my second monarch butterfly of the season there in mid-July, attracted to the subtle flowering going on there. It's at the far end of the parking lot in Smoyer Park, out Snowden Lane. Drive or bike down to the lower end of the lot, and by heading downhill, you're essentially following the water, doing what rain does after it hits the ground. And there you will find what most people, if they have any name for it at all, will call a detention basin, so-called because it detains runoff, slowing it down, capturing it in a depression so that it can seep into the ground and feed the aquifer rather than feed a flood.

Bureaucracies require it, engineers designed it, but probably none of them were thinking about what a great place this wet, sunny spot would be to grow native plants. That came later, when another arm of the government, Partners for Fish and Wildlife, worked with me and the town to turn this previously mowed space into what could more aptly be called a wild garden, or a wetland garden, or a wet meadow. 

"Depression" is a word that in psychology may have a negative connotation, and extended depression is surely something one would want to cure. But if you're an artist of some sort, a depression may mean the mind is doing important work at a very deep level, putting things together in a new way that may lead to a burst of creativity, insight, or both. To experience highs, one must be able to experience lows. 

Nature, too, needs its lows, even though depressions in the ground, too, tend to get a bad rap. "Drain the swamp" is a politician's stirring call to clean up the mess inside the beltway, and lots of swamps were drained when they got in the way of expanding our towns, cities, and farms. But as with people, a depression is where nature does some of its deepest thinking and finest work, feeding the aquifer and laying the foundation for foodchains with a rich variety of native plants. Gardeners like to lift plants up in raised beds, but many native wildflowers prefer the opposite, somewhere low down. Those are the seedheads of big bluestem in the photo, a dominant prairie grass in tallgrass prairies of the midwest, historically munched on by bison. 

You can see a fence bordering one of the ballfields at Smoyer Park in the distance, and most of the surprisingly many detention basins scattered across the Princeton landscape, in developments or at parks, are managed like a ballfield, with grass mowed to the ground, though no one would think to play a game there. One thing I've managed to do in town is get some of these converted to wet meadows--first at Farmview Fields, then at Princeton High School, then at Greenway Meadows and Smoyer Park. 

I walked through the Smoyer Park wet meadow in mid-July, to see how it's doing and to do some weeding of this half-acre wild garden. As any gardener knows, there's a lot that can go wrong, even in a meadow that's supposed to grow naturally. Many of these raingarden-like plantings, if untended, fill with a host of aggressive weeds, like mugwort, Canada thistle, and Chinese bushclover (also called Sericea lespedeza). Even natives like blackberry and some kinds of goldenrods can tend to take over.

Nature is complex, which can be daunting and even off-putting, or exciting for those who take an interest and build familiarity one plant at a time. That's where love comes in, because when you love something, you want to know everything about it. Botanists talk about plants like a baseball fan might take pleasure in quoting obscure statistics or reminiscing about certain players. Love turns complexity into joy. Love is also what gets one out there to check up on a wild garden, to make sure it's doing okay.

Knowing how much can go wrong can increase the pleasure at seeing so much going right. Now, this photo shows little in the way of blooms, but a gardener conversant with the species of a wild meadow can experience joy even before plants flower, is moved as much by what will be as what already is. Each stem of a favorite wildflower implies a bud, each bud a flower, and each flower a host of insects that in turn support a foodchain of wild life. 

A botanist gardener can see in this photo the spray of monkeyflowers in the lower left, the burst of rose mallow hibiscus in the center right, and behind them a favorite sedge called woolgrass rising towards maturity. Other species, too, are gaining in number and moving towards bloom--ironweed, partridge pea, blue vervain. From evidence of browsed stems, even the deer's appetites seem in balance, leaving many plants to grow unhindered. The diverse mix of sizes and textures triggers memories of other rich meadows seen--prairies in Ann Arbor, MI, Durham, NC, Chicago. How many people get to travel back in time and across half a continent, just by weeding a detention basin in a park in Princeton? 

Occasionally, a less sanguine thought can intrude. What difference does it make that a half acre meadow is prospering, when a whole planet is so quickly being overheated? Delight in mid-July could not completely eclipse news heard earlier that day, of environmental and cultural devastation in Europe, as an overheated atmosphere unleashed a flood that shattered all records. 

September 12, 2021

Since mid-July, Princeton had its own megaflood when Hurricane Ida swept through the night of Sept. 1. Basements flooded that had never flooded before. The DR Canal towpath was badly damaged, ten years after being similarly damaged by Hurricane Irene, and only two years after being fitted with a fresh cinder surface for walking, biking, and jogging. 

But one place I didn't worry about getting flooded was the detention basin at Smoyer Park. It's built for flooding, and fitted with native plants that have evolved to thrive on periodic floods. Though, being the caretaker, I will be worrying about whether I could be doing more to limit the spread of stiltgrass, carpgrass, canada thistle, blackberry, and various other overly aggressive species, to a passerby the meadow has a late-summer look of subtle earth tone radiance and balance. The white in the distance is late-flowering thoroughwort, mixing with the emerging yellows of goldenrod, a few lingering spikes of purple from the ironweed, and the bronze of tallgrass prairie species--big bluestem and Indian grass. 

Last year's post about Smoyer Park's basin: The Work Behind a Natural-Looking Meadow

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Monarchs and a Mid-Summer Multitude of Wildflowers at the Barden

So, I was at the Barden today, that being the Botanical Art Garden in Herrontown Woods, and amidst all the positive energy of budding flowers I had a cynical thought. There are a couple spots around the Veblen Circle of wildflowers where milkweed has been spreading. Lots of leaves and none of them being eaten by monarch caterpillars--an all too common observation over the years. People say to plant milkweed to help the monarchs, but the monarchs aren't helping themselves to the milkweed. What gives? 

As if on cue, a monarch appeared an instant after I had that thought. Only the third I'd seen this summer, it was checking out the milkweed and other plants growing in the sunny openings of the Barden. There are many kinds of native flowers blooming right now, which I'll show photos of later in this post, but the monarch headed over to one in particular,

a buttonbush, whose tiny flowers form the shape of a golfball--a convenient surface upon which the pollinator can go from flower to flower, sipping nectar. For an insect it must be like an assemblage of Hold the Cone miniature ice cream cones, but no need for a freezer. 

Moments later, another monarch butterfly caught my eye, and this one was showing a more intense interest in the milkweeds. There are two types at the Barden--purple and common. Both kinds spread underground, creating clones with many stems--enough to support a whole gang of hungry caterpillars. The butterfly was landing on the edge of the purple milkweed leaves and dipping its abdomen under the leaf to lay an egg. 
After doing this a number of times, it headed elsewhere, allowing me to take a look. Not easy to see. There, in the lower left. 
Here's an egg a little closer up.

There's actually quite a bit going on underneath a milkweed leaf. Here was a whole cluster, which I'm guessing are the eggs of the milkweed tussock moth--another Lepidoptera that can stomach milkweed's cardiac glycosides. 

Of course, it's a hopeful sign to see a monarch laying those single eggs, but we saw this last year, and it didn't lead to any sightings of caterpillars later on. It's possible the eggs are getting eaten by ants and spiders. A complex food web can have its perils, and it's interesting to note that milkweed that once grew in farm fields (in the days before Roundup-Ready corn and soybeans) might have had better monarch survival due to there being less predators in that simplified landscape. 

Still, we can hope that this is the year when the Barden does its part to build monarch numbers in preparation for their perilous flight back to Mexico in the fall.

Another sweet sight today, again not captured in a photo, was the pair of hummingbirds that landed on a wire cage just five feet away. Hummingbirds, in my experience, actually spend a lot of time perching, which makes sense given how intense is their flight. Their presence was the answer to a question overheard at the checkout counter at the Whole Earth Center: "Has anyone seen any hummingbirds?" Like monarchs, they also have to negotiate a difficult migration every year.

Maybe they were attracted to the tubular flowers of wild bergamot, 

or beebalm, or jewelweed.

What follows here is a documentation of all the flowers seen blooming right now in the Barden, as the midsummer diversity kicks in. After all the work of weeding and planting, there's pleasure in simply walking the paths and appreciating all that is growing so enthusiastically. 

There's a lot to document. These signs, created by Inge Regan, offer four species to look for. When learning plants, it's good to focus on a few at a time. 

For those more familiar, we've brought together some 40 species that bloom in mid-summer, some of them shown below. Maybe you can walk the pathways and see how many you can find. We're trying to figure out how to pot up all the excess and make them available to visitors to take home.

To see some of the other species showing their stuff this time of year, click on "read more", below.

Friday, July 09, 2021

Some Early July Flower and Insect Sightings at Herrontown Woods

Though the bottlebrush buckeyes in this photo have been blooming in the Botanical Art Garden (Barden) for a couple years now, this photo could not have been taken last year. The gazebo in the background is a new arrival as of last December, and the pin oak behind it can be seen heavily flagged this year by the egg laying of periodical cicadas. 

Those features were not the reason for the photo, however, which was taken because of an insect that requires a zooming in to see.

The Bottlebrush buckeye blooms attract clearwing moths, which do an excellent imitation of a hummingbird in appearance and flight.

Another plant named for the bottlebrush shape of its flowers is bottlebrush grass, also blooming now at the Barden. The wind-pollinated flowers of grasses and sedges lack color, but can still be appreciated for their shape. Bottlebrush grass is called a cool season grass because it greens up early in spring and blooms before the depths of summer. Many other native grasses are of the warm season variety, like Indiangrass, big and little bluestem, broomsedge, and switchgrass. Dominating tallgrass prairies of the midwestern states, they get a late start in the spring and grow through the summer, reaching maturity in the fall. (Turfgrasses have the same categories, though the grasses aren't native. Most lawns around here are cool-season grasses, with bermuda grass being a warm season grass that turns brown in winter.)

Though many species at the Barden have been planted, narrowleaf mountainmint apparently found its way in on its own, growing along one of the paths.

Necessary for the prospering of these summer wildflowers is an opening in the tree canopy where sunlight can reach the ground. Though people often equate habitat health with trees, we actively remove many young trees in the Barden that would otherwise grow up to shade out all these herbaceous species that insects depend upon for summer sustenance. 

Because of this active management, you can look up from the Barden and see some open sky--rare in Princeton open space lands.

Growing on its own, in what few openings occur naturally at Herrontown Woods, is a very subtle green-fringed orchid, here protected from the deer by a small cage. 

And what's blooming in summer in the deep forest that makes up the great majority of Herrontown Woods? I found this one tiny flower in a stream. Local botanist Elizabeth Horn helped me identify it as Water-pimpernel--Samolus valerandi in the
Theophrasta Family. 

The take-home lesson here is that woodland openings are important for summer biodiversity. Given the lack of natural disturbance by wildfire or the long-gone megafauna, it's up to us to create and sustain it. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

What's Bloomin' As June Ends

As June draws to a close, and the song of the cicada fades into history for another 17 years, here are some of the flowers blooming in my yard and in sunny openings at Herrontown Woods. 

Purple milkweed is less common than the common milkweed--a rare example of common names making sense. It spreads underground a little too aggressively, like the common one, but has a richer color to the bloom and slightly narrower leaves. Its blooms go through an evolution of color as they form--a very nice feature. We (that's the first person singular form of "we") found it growing near Veblen House and transplanted some to the Veblen Circle of wildflowers at the Barden (Botanical Art Garden).

Foreground here is another native milkweed, butterflyweed, which is lower growing and doesn't spread underground. Rarely seen in the wild around here (a couple specimens in the Tusculum fields that may still be there), I've seen it mostly in midwestern prairies with black-eyed susan and other prairie wildflowers.

The red in the background is beebalm, another incredibly bright and beautiful native wildflower, seen in gardens more than in the wild. It spreads underground, but not in a dominating way. We'll see if hummingbirds come to visit after their long migration.

Most people know the purple coneflower, from gardens rather than in the wild. 

Less known is the fringed loosestrife, not to be confused with the invasive and unrelated purple loosestrife. Fringed loosestrife has a shy flower that faces downward, yet the plant itself is surprisingly aggressive, and should only be planted where it can't spread. Yet another example of a native wildflower that is relatively rare in the wild yet gets rambunctious in a garden. Other examples would be groundnut, virgin's bower, and bladdernut. 

This photo doesn't do it justice, but here is tall meadowrue growing in a sea of jewelweed. The orange tubular flower of the jewelweed is visible in the lower left. Deer love to graze on the jewelweed, which is a native annual that often is seen trying to compete with Japanese stiltgrass in the wild. Hummingbirds love the jewelweed flowers, which keep appearing throughout the summer, and kids love to explode the springloaded seedpods. The tall meadowrue flowers need to be viewed up close to appreciate their subtle beauty, with each one bursting like a miniature firework.
One of the easiest plants to grow and take care of is the common daylily. We (again, first person singular form of we) planted the extension with them, and also the autumn joy stonecrop. They take zero care, and spend the month telling passersby to have a nice day. Each flower lasts a day, so you can cut some stems, put them in a vase, and have a steady stream of flowers inside as well, as each bud opens in series. Not native but doesn't spread or escape to the wild.

Among native shrubs, bottlebrush buckeye is doing its version of glorious, 
along with oak-leaved hydrangia. I've created a grove of these hydrangias by looking under the original shrub for sprouts or rooted limbs that could be dug and replanted nearby to quickly form new shrubs.
Maybe this year we'll get around to picking the elderberries, if the birds don't beat us, and make a delicious elderberry pie. 

Saturday, May 01, 2021

(Mostly) Native Flowers of Late April

This post documents some of the many native flowers to be found in late April, from deep woods to front yards. 

A medium sized shrub called Fothergilla, or witch alder, is having a good year in our front yard, though it's not found growing naturally in our local forests. 

Clouds of white in the woodland understory this time of year could be flowering dogwood, 

but blackhaw viburnums, central Jersey's most common native Viburnum, have also just opened up, dotting the understory with their large congregations of small pompom-like clusters of white flowers. 

Sometimes a closer look at an assemblage of white flowers reveals a flowering crabapple tree, as in this photo. Not completely sure as yet that these flowering crabs are native. 

Providing some contrast with the predominating white is the redbud, here seen at the "barden" at Herrontown Woods, where a forest opening allows it enough light to thrive.

On the forest floor, the most common wildflower is spring beauty, 

Rue anemone is an improbably delicate and fairly numerous presence along nature trails.

Trout lily should feel welcome to bloom more than it does, but seems content to mostly form carpets of sterile single leaves, few of which mature into the two-leaved plants that bloom.

By now, the bloodroots have passed from blooming to fruiting stage. 

Nice to see some young bloodroots popping up through the leaf litter.

Some native spring ephemerals occur only in the less historically disturbed lands along the Princeton ridge, like Herrontown Woods. Wood anemone grows distinctive leaves with five leaflets. 

Update: Sadly, some plants have been removed from this post due to reports of plant theft in Herrrontown Woods. Uncommon plants tend to be adapted to particular soils and hydrology, so are unlikely to survive transplanting. Even if it were legal, it's a bad idea. 

Meanwhile, in the botanical art garden (Barden) next to the parking lot in Herrontown Woods, Rachelle planted some Virginia bluebells, which are very rarely seen growing naturally.
Wood phlox is another flower in this category, native but rarely seen in the wild. 

There are a couple nonnative wildflowers that are particularly noticeable blooming now in wild areas. This mustard, which I remember from travels in the english countryside, where whole fields were colored yellow by its blooms, was found growing along the gas pipeline right of way at Herrontown Woods. As plant lovers and dreamers, we sometimes envision a pipeline right of way becoming a corridor of native flowers and grasses. Reality tends to defeat this sort of dream, as the linear right of ways instead play host to the most tenacious of invasive plants--Phragmitis and mugwort.
Garlic mustard, a less tenacious invasive plant but worth pulling, has tasty leaves in early spring. A biennial, it blooms the second year, becoming less tasty as it matures. In this flowering stage, I pluck the flower heads, then pull the whole plant out of the ground, roots and all, the idea being to prevent it from producing seed and thus reducing future sproutings.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Wildflowers of August

Sound the trumpets! The main course of summer's feast of flowers is underway. Time to gather them into one big blogpost bouquet.  This collection is gathered from my backyard and from the botanical garden at Herrontown Woods.

Rose mallow hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos)

Wild senna (Senna hebecarpa)
Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium sp) in the background, boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) in the foreground.

Cutleaf coneflower (Ratibida laciniata)
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)
Ironweed (Vernonia novaboracensis)
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), with some bottlebrush grass on the left.
Woolgrass (Scirpus cyperinus) -- a sedge that grows taller and matures later than most native sedges
 Groundnut (Apios americana)