Monday, August 31, 2009

Insect Diversity Central

The boneset--those broad disks of white flowers held six feet aloft next to a backyard mini-pond--had for weeks been drawing a wildly diverse crowd of insects. The varied pollinators variously hovered and fed on the nectar, and I in turn hovered over them, documenting as best I could the local biodiversity with a well-aged Canon Powershot.

The past several days, it seemed the flowers and their magic had faded. I had started to look elsewhere for action, as the air filled with the peeping of goldfinches feasting on the seeds of cutleaf coneflower.

But then what looked like a stick fallen on one of the bonesets caught my eye, and I was back in the elevated sea of white, being stared down by a giant praying mantis. It had shown up a little late for the main course, with only a few scraps of insect life still visiting now. Still, once I started looking I was able to get photos of what might prove to be a dozen more species in a collection that could reach three figures. They were, of course, keeping their distance from the praying mantis.
A fly with wings straight back.

Another fly, larger, with a striped back and wings spread somewhat.

A tiny fly dwarfed by a tiny flower.

True bugs, who are remaining true to each other, at least for the moment. These creatures have been a fixture on the flowers for weeks.

A weevily looking little character.

A tiny yellow inchworm.
A tiny bee, which looks like all the other tiny black bees that have been the most numerous insect on the flowers over the past several weeks.

You might, like me, not at first see much more here than a lifeless tiny bee hanging just below the flowers.

Whenever some insect isn't moving, it pays to take a closer look. More predators have been showing up lately, including this white spider with a distinctive pattern on its back. Nice camouflage.

A daddy long legs.

Other new insects were as often perched on the leaves as on the flowers, including this crickety looking fellow.

Another cricket with a different color scheme.

A tiny beetle-like thing with a tail.

A fly, perhaps, with mottled wings, that hovered for long periods inbetween brief landings.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Cool Beans!

Why does that expression haunt me so? I've heard it used maybe twice in my life, in situations where "That's great!" might suffice. I resist using it, but it keeps coming to mind. It's nonsensical, but something in its sound and double exclamation fits the feeling. One entry in the Urban Dictionary, describing the phrase's origins, suggests I'm not alone in my quandary:

"The phrase then spread like a virus, infecting the vernacular of people of older and younger generations regardless of gender..."

Finally, however, a situation has come along where it fits perfectly. We found these cool, wild beans along the canal during a recent nature walk. They are (affectionately?) known as hog peanuts. Scientists endearingly refer to them as Amphicarpa bracteata. Cool beans expresses it better. They are fairly common in nature preserves, but rarely do they get enough sunlight to flower and bear fruit.

There's another cool wild bean in Princeton, called ground nut, which not only produces beans but also an edible tuber. At the FOPOS mini-greenhouse, we've started growing them from seed, in an effort to make them more common in the Princeton landscape.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hurricane Bill Pays a Visit

Hurricane Bill paid a visit to Princeton this past Saturday afternoon in the form of a dense heavy rain. When rain falls on a town where the soil has already become saturated with water from previous rains, the whole town behaves as if it were paved with asphalt. With storm sewers overwhelmed by the runoff, the streets turned into rivers.

This particular river, flowing briskly along Ewing Street, decided to take a left turn into an apartment parking lot.

It then flowed under a wooden fence

and through some surprised homeowners' properties

before heading down Harrison Street to its intersection with Hamilton, where it served as a good traffic calming device.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Parking Lot Habitat

Just because a garden is surrounded by asphalt doesn't mean it's not getting used by the local wildlife. This garden was planted with help from Henry Loevner (Princeton PEI intern for FOPOS this summer). Though it's on high ground, it's planted with floodplain species--Rose Mallow Hibiscus, Swamp Milkweed, Tall Meadowrue, Purple-Headed Sneezeweed, Cutleaf Coneflower--in part because the spot receives a lot of runoff from the pavement. It's also close to a hose, if coming years prove to be dry.

Though all the plants are just getting established, the Swamp Milkweed in the photo has already been used by three species of wildlife. The chewed off tip suggests a deer came by. The brown shell is from a cicada that used the plant as a substrate for its transformation from pupa to adult. And a monarch caterpillar can be seen chewing on a leaf.

Another unlikely island of habitat is located in the parking lot close to the Community Park Pool. There, we found the holes where "cicada killer" wasps live. They are big wasps that tackle cicadas, paralyze them with their stinger, then take them back to their holes. An egg is layed in the body of the motionless cicada, which presumeably remains fresh while the hatched wasp larva eats out its insides. The immature but well-fed wasp then remains underground, its emergence next year timed to coincide with cicadas 2010.

As far as I know, the wasps leave people alone, and are peacefully filling their niche amidst a sea of cars. They can be seen hovering over the grass, as if they've forgotten where their den is.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Boneset Days

Boneset is in bloom, and as some may remember from posts on this blog last August, boneset puts on its very own, unparalleled pollinator festival each year. Every pollinator in the Princeton area--large or minute, scary or comical, linear or round, irridescent green or conservative beige--shows up to drink what must be the insect world's version of manna.

No other wildflower draws such a diverse and numerous crowd. I thought that last year's photo gallery of 50 species visiting the flowers was fairly encyclopedic, but this year I'm finding many additional species, all of which means more posts are in the making.

For every photo posted, ten more are taken, sorted through, cropped and otherwise adjusted. Documenting the biodiversity on this singular flower could be a life's work. Pleasant enough, though, with the feint aroma of honey all around, and always something new to discover.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Wetland Wildflower Walks and Wednesday Workdays

The following activities, free and open to all, are sponsored by Friends of Princeton Open Space


Saturday, August 8, 10am : We'll meet at the Princeton High School Ecolab--a retention basin converted to a wetland that is now in full bloom--then walk to other rain or wetland gardens nearby. Meet at the ecolab wetland on Walnut Street, next to the HS performing arts center. All walking will be on pavement or lawn.

Sunday, August 16, 10 am: A walk along the canal towpath and nature trail loop to see a diverse floodplain plant community with an open canopy of oaks and rich understory that is reminiscent of fire-maintained savannas that would have been common in pre-colonial America. Meet at the towpath, just west of Harrison Street.

Some folks have expressed interest in helping out at Mountain Lakes Preserve during the week. This month, I'll be leading volunteer sessions from 10-12 on Wednesday mornings. Rain date is Thursdays, same time. We'll only work when foliage is dry.
Our focus this summer is going after an exotic shrub called Asian Photinia, which has been invading Princeton's natural areas and Mountain Lakes in particular. We're cutting as much as we can now before the seeds ripen. These sessions are also a good opportunity for teenagers to get out and about.

Loppers, clippers, pruning saws, sturdy work shoes and gloves--all are useful. An r.s.v.p. is helpful for an estimate of numbers. Meet at Mountain Lakes House, up the driveway at 57 Mountain Ave.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

White Wildflowers--2 If By Boat, One If By Land

Some native wildflowers are easiest to see by boat in mid-July.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) leans out over the water with its golfball-sized blooms.

LizardsTail, with the comically unpronounceable scientific name of Saururus cernuus, lines portions of Carnegie Lake's shoreline.

Here's a closeup.

Meanwhile, similar spires, of Black Cohosh, rise up on the boulder-strewn slopes of Princeton's ridge, in Woodfield Reservation.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Sustainable Jazz Performance July 30, 7:30pm

While growing native plants, I've also been growing some jazz compositions, which was my habit back when I was a professional jazz musician. I'll be performing them on saxophone at the Princeton Public Library this coming Thursday evening, with help from pianist Phil Orr and bassist Jerry d'Anna.

Titles include The Case of the Kidnapped Kalypso, Fresh Paint (composed while breathing latex fumes in a freshly painted room), Lejos de Aqui (Far from Here), Lunar Eclipse (composed while forgetting to check out the lunar eclipse that was going on outside), and For the Prez (inspired by last fall's election, and also the great saxophonist from the Count Basie band, Lester "Prez" Young).

I call it sustainable because the music is all locally grown, with notes that have been used before, albeit in a different, even fresh, order and rhythm. No virgin timbres were harvested in the making of this music.

The performance is free and lasts about an hour. We'll either be out on the plaza or in the library's community room.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Whole Lotta Buddin' Goin' On

There's been an air of anticipation the past couple weeks as some of the biggest and brightest wetland wildflowers have been getting ready to bloom. These are some of the buds quickly developing in the July sun.

The first photo shows the buds of Joe Pye Weed.

Buds of Hibiscus moscheutos (Princeton's one native Hibiscus species)

Cutleaf Coneflower, just starting to open.

The beginnings of Boneset flowers, with pickerelweed in the background.

Photos were taken at the Princeton High School ecolab wetland, tucked inbetween the two new wings of the school on Walnut Street. If you're out for a walk, the wetland makes for a nice visit. There's a sidewalk all the way around it. The canal towpath, between Harrison St. and Washington Rd. is another great spot to see many of these flowers.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Stream Stomp At D&R Canal State Park

We went to the river, and what did we see? We saw little mayflies, at least two or three. We saw dozens and dozens of little green caddisflies that live in the water before they can fly.

We saw crayfish, small and larger, scuds that skid about on their sides like shrimp. We saw tiny leeches-a-plenty, and even a free-wheeling freshwater eel.

And how did that make us feel?

Well, fascinated, mostly, with all the slippery sublime that can be found beneath rocks and riffles in the Millstone River, a pebble's throw from Route 27 in Kingston.

For two hours, it made kids of us all, catching the river's mysteries in a net, spilling the contents into shallow dishes of water, and then peering at all the minutiae of river life.

There was some science involved, since each kind of creature can tolerate a different degree of stream pollution. The presence of mayflies, for instance, which have a low tolerance for pollution, speaks well for the river. Since the intake for Princeton's drinking water is twenty miles downstream, I like the idea that mayflies find the water clean enough to live in.

In the last photo, D&R Canal State Park naturalist Stephanie Fox shows us a stick that was half submerged next to the river bank. Hundreds of caddis fly larvae had climbed up the stick to get out of the water, then used the stick as a platform on which to grow their wings and launch into adult life. (This strategy is similar to that of the 17 year cicadas, who crawl out of the ground, climb the nearest tree or shrub, emerge from their old skins, grow wings and fly off.)

For more info on canal state park events, go to:

Princeton Battlefield--Big History, Big Lawn, Big Trees

One of the finer ways to spend a July 4 afternoon is on the grounds of the Princeton Battlefield. Chances are, you'll see historian John Mills, who in stature, bearing and voice seems the very embodiment of 1776, offer a detailed account of the Battle of Princeton, and then don spectacles to read the Declaration of Independence.

It's also a good place for a native plant lover to feel ambivalent about the extraordinary expanse of mowed grass. It makes for a great feeling of openness and freedom of movement. On the other hand, it has nothing to do with the history of the place, and is surely a budget drain to mow.

Other historic sites around the country have started to manage for more authentic vegetation. One approach would be to keep a portion of the grounds mowed, while planting the rest to the sorts of native grasses and wildflowers that have more to do with the land's history. Some of the grounds are already managed this way.

Most everyone knows about the Mercer Oak, whose offspring now grows in the middle of the field near where the original white oak once stood.

There are some other interesting trees there as well. I'd heard that the grounds include two Hicans--a cross between a hickory and a pecan. The bark on the tree in the photo looks like a hickory for the first eight feet, then switches to pecan-like bark further up. Strange.

Closer to Clark House are a couple chestnut trees. These are Chinese chestnuts, not the great American Chestnut that once filled our forests and provided abundant food until the imported chestnut blight took its toll. The Battlefield would be a great place to reintroduce the American Chestnut, survivors of which have been bred to resist the blight.

Some other interesting trees, just behind the Clark House, are some very tall, statuesque black locust trees.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Kids Discover "Secret" Pettoranello Gardens

Hidden in full view in the middle of Princeton Township is Pettoranello Gardens, where there's a pond, walking trails and a stage for summer concerts.

Last week, Robert Olszewski, youth director for nearby Westerly Road Church, brought his summer camp kids over for a little introduction to the park and its resident plants and animals. I served as tour guide.

We started with sassafras, a fragrant native tree once used to make root beer. They then got an introduction to jewelweed, with its spring-loaded seed hurling mechanism and the metallic sheen its leaves acquire when put underwater. Though there was a very enthusiastic, cacophonous response to my offer of ten dollars to anyone who could spell "Pettoranello", the greatest attention was paid to twenty turtles clustered on what looked like a hay bale on the far side of the pond (photo).

Before they headed back, I left them with a "don't forget to smell the spicebush" moment. Hopefully, the kids will serve as tour guides to their parents, and a few more families will get acquainted with this pretty spot in the middle of town.

Photos by Henry Loevner, Princeton University PEI summer intern for the Friends of Princeton Open Space

High School Ecolab Wetland--Early Summer Edition

Planted two years ago, the Princeton High School wetland is coming along. We've been nurturing the natives, pulling out the weeds or covering them with black plastic. Each year, a few new species get added. Here's what's blooming:

Pickerelweed blooms all summer long, and likes its feet in water.

Black-eyed Susans were bought from Pinelands Nursery and planted in drier areas of the wetland several years ago. It grows naturally in the meadows at Tusculum in Princeton.

Sweet Bergamot, rather than its red-flowered relative Beebalm, is native to the Princeton area.

Daisy Fleabane, a weedy but attractive native that shows up of its own accord.

Red Clover, though not native, is not invasive.

Native Flower Arrangement

This arrangement showed up on our dining room table a few days back, and is as good a way as any to sum up what's blooming right now. Tall Meadow Rue is the white background. Beebalm in red. The daisy shaped flowers are purple coneflower (though a native, I've never seen it growing wild). And then there's some Queen of the Meadow (Filipendula rubra) washed out by the flash down at the bottom.

Of these, only the Meadow Rue would be encountered growing naturally in Princeton's nature preserves.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Manhattan's High Line a Ribbon of Native Plants

Native plant lovers have long faced a conundrum. If urban and suburban landscapes are so dominated by exotic flowers, grasses and shrubs, how will Americans ever encounter America's glorious natural heritage on a regular basis?

One spectacular way just became available in New York as of June 8. A section of the old, abandoned rail line on the west side of Manhattan has been refashioned as a pedestrian way planted with a rich variety of native flora.

The irony is pretty rich, too. You'd think that these native plants would need some sort of "natural" habitat to survive, but many of our natural areas aren't really natural anymore. Most of these plants would quickly die if planted in a typical nature preserve, where they'd wither in the dense shade or be eaten to the ground by overabundant deer. Trees and deer are natural, but we've banished the fires and predators that once held their density in check and allowed sunlight to reach the ground here and there.

The low-growing native species in these photos need sun, and they get it here, thirty feet above the streets of New York. In Princeton, the story is very similar. The native species that need sun are thriving in places highly altered by humans--along the canal and at Princeton high school's ecolab wetland.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Plants to Interact With at Community Park North

Here are some plants to seek out for good smells, food and entertainment in Community Park North. The first one, Spicebush, is Princeton's most common native shrub. It has thick, dark green leaves, and if you pick a leaf and crumple it up, you will be rewarded by a wonderful citrony smell. The shrub's berries, hidden along the stem and still green this time of year, will help with identification.

Spicebush is related to sassafras, a tree whose roots were originally used to make root beer. It also grows in the park, and has fragrant leaves that come in three shapes, one of which looks like a mitten.

Along the nature paths, you'll likely see a brambly plant with a whitish bloom to the stem and clusters of green, pink, red and black berries. This is the native black raspberry. The berries are pretty tasty after they turn black. Watch out for the thorns, and be sure of identification before eating anything, of course.

One of the funnest plants in the woods is the jewelweed. Try picking one of its swollen seed pods (just above the orange flower in the photo) and see what happens. Also, try putting one of the leaves underwater and check out what happens to its color. Jewelweed is a wildflower that grows in low wet areas, which is often where poison ivy grows. Conveniently, the juice of the jewelweed stem can be rubbed on skin to treat poison ivy.

One plant that you may want to avoid interacting with, but which definitely wants to interact with you, is the stickseed. Later in the season, it grows green seed burs that will coat your pants if you happen to brush against a plant. It's clever "schtick" is to use you to spread its seeds.