Thursday, August 26, 2010

Raingarden Plantlist

I've been asked a number of times what plants were used in establishing the raingarden on Harrison Street just south of Hamilton Ave. The garden was designed and installed by Curtis Helm, with some help from me. Plants were donated by Curtis' friends at Pinelands Nursery. This photo was taken at the end of June, just as the tall Joe-Pye-Weeds and smooth oxeyes (yellow) were starting to bloom.

The garden was densely planted several years ago with about 330 plants--ten each of two kinds of ferns, 7 shrubs, and about 25 each of various wildflowers, sedges, rushes and grasses. There are many other species that can be used, but these have worked well together. Hardest hit during this summer's drought were the monkey flowers and ferns.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), turtlehead (Chelone glabra), Joe-Pye-Weed (Eupatorium maculatum), Sweet smooth oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides), Blue flag iris (Iris versicolor), soft rush (Juncus effusus), Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Great lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica), Monkey flower (Mimulus ringens), Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), Switch grass (Panicum virgatum), Woolgrass (Scirpus cyperinus), seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens), and Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica).

Most of these can be found growing wild in the Princeton area, with the exception of oxeye, seaside goldenrod and Itea virginica.

Japanese Angelica Tree

Spreading slowly through Herrontown Woods, and also Community Park North, is an unusual plant with spines and three-foot long leaves. This time of year, its large inflorescence offers black berries to the avian world. I had been pleased to call it Devil's Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa), a native to the eastern U.S., but have learned that it's more likely Japanese angelica tree (Aralia elata). It is especially well established near the Herrontown Woods parking lot in an area where many mature pines blew down this year.

Here's some more information that arrived via a listserve:

"Timothy Block of the Morris Arboretum near Philadelphia wrote: Aralia elata (Japanese angelica tree) is very prickly and becoming common in the woods .... This plant is a rapidly spreading invasive. In most cases, it was formerly misidentified as Aralia spinosa (devil’s-walking-stick) which is native to western and central PA and widely cultivated. The only completely reliable way to tell the two species apart is by the structure of the inflorescence. Aralia spinosa (the native) has a pyramidal inflorescence with a long central axis, while the inflorescence of Aralia elata (the Asian species) has a short central axis attached to which are long branches, giving the inflorescence the appearance of a fireworks burst. In both cases, the inflorescence may be three feet or more across, bearing thousands of flowers and fruits. The seeds are bird-dispersed."

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Last Saturday's Canal Walk

About a dozen of us congregated this past Saturday morning for a nature walk along the canal towpath, using our collective wisdom to interpret the myriad sorts of plant life we encountered.

The leaves of Ailanthus and sweet gum were crumpled, and words sought to characterize their aroma. Great respect was given to poison ivy, where it had climbed trees and sent out lateral branches terminating with this year's crop of berries.

I pointed out the wings on winged sumac, the flowers on ironweed, cutleaf coneflower, hibiscus and JoePyeWeed (first photo), and the switchgrass that George W. Bush embraced in one of his State of the Onion speeches as the biofuel of the future.

Where the land between the canal and Carnegie Lake widens towards Harrison Street, we gazed out across rich undergrowth flourishing beneath scattered oaks, and talked of how low-level fire--the Indian's horticultural tool-of-choice--once fashioned landscapes much like this. The open canopy allows native shrubs like elderberry (photo) to thrive. We (which is to say my parents) used to make pies and jelly out of these. Sometimes the birds pick them clean, sometimes they don't. Looks like a good crop this year.

The abundant tiger swallowtail butterflies were out and about, drawing the attention of our youngest participant.

When asked what a certain 3 foot tall plant was, I took a closer look and found that it was a collage of four species all tangled up in their scramble for sunlight. Such is the diversity when you put water and sun together.

And, in a solemn event at the Harrison Street end of the walk, Jim Manganero photographed my ceremonial "finally getting around to putting some plant info in the brochure box that a boy scout so nicely built several years ago." I guess I wanted to make sure the box was going to withstand the test of time before putting it to use.

Thanks also to Jim for the previous "To touch a butterfly" photo.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Farmer and the Horse--movie premier

A movie about ditching the tractor in favor of a horse-drawn plow will be showing this Friday at Howell History Farm. More info at, and on the Howell History Farm website.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Peak Bloom at the High School Wetland

If peak bloom falls on a week when there's no one at the school to appreciate it, does it make a sound? They say the composer Scriabin could see colors in music, so it's not farfetched to hear a fusion of rock and jazz in this blooming frenzy, a foretelling of what will emanate from the building just beyond it come September.

In full voice, for anyone passing by on Walnut Street, are Hibiscus moscheutos (white or pink), boneset and daisy fleabane (white), cutleaf coneflower, sunflower and black-eyed susan (yellow), cardinal flower (red), and pickerel weed (blue).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Revised Trail Map for Mountain Lakes

Hikers and joggers heading to Mountain Lakes Preserve can find a map showing which trails remain open during the dam restoration by going to and scrolling down.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Canal Wildflower Walk, Saturday, July 31

As any self-respecting pollinator could tell you, this is prime time for summer wildflowers down along the towpath between the D&R Canal and Carnegie Lake.

I'll be leading a wildflower walk there on Saturday, July 31, at 9:30 am.

Background: The closeness of water and the mixture of sun and shade helps make the canal a linear refuge for more than 30 species of native wildflowers. Back in 2006, seeing the flowers getting mowed down as part of regular maintenance, I encouraged D&R Canal State Park staff to change their mowing regime between Washington Rd. and Harrison St. The result has been an abundant crop of diverse wildflowers to reward hardy Princetonians who stay in town through mid-summer.

Meet on the canal towpath at Washington Rd. (not Washington St, which is in Kingston). Parking is available just to the south of the canal. Latecomers can find us heading downstream towards Harrison St.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Ten Tree Tour Tops

Jim Consolloy (left), recently retired head of grounds at Princeton University, handed us a list of the ten trees he was about to introduce us to on a short walk along Williams and Olden Streets. Jim is gaining an encyclopedic knowledge of local street trees in the process of conducting a detailed inventory for the borough.

The walk, organized by the Princeton borough shade tree commission, began behind Thomas Sweets Ice Cream, which provided 2 for 1 coupons to participants.

My daughter liked the coupon aspect in particular, and also brought home some souvenirs. The large leaf comes from one of two cucumber magnolias known to be growing in Princeton. (A NJ native, the other specimen can be admired at Marquand Park.) The tiger swallowtail had left its wings behind, as a kind of artistic legacy after donating its body to the food chain.

In order, we saw an American elm, a London Plane Tree, Cucumber Magnolia, Tulip Tree, Willow Oak, Kashmir Cedar, Shingle Oak, Ginkgo, thornless Honey Locust, and little leaf Greenspire Linden.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Walking Tour of Trees Tonight

Just learned there will be a walking tour of trees tonight on the Princeton University campus and town. The tour will be led by Jim Consolloy, recently retired head of grounds at the university. Jim has a wealth of knowledge, and is currently conducting an inventory of street trees in Princeton borough.

Meet at 6:30 pm at the Williams Street Parking lot located just behind Thomas Sweet Ice Cream. The tour will last aprox 1 1/2 - 2 hours.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Catfish and Eels

Catfish and eels, catfish and eels. Wish they could tell us just how it feels, to have the water pulled out from over them.

There had been doubts that the upper lake at Mountain Lakes, filled with 7 feet of sediment and only 6 inches of water, was still sustaining anything beyond minnows and and miniature sunfish. But on July 11, I stopped by the drained lake and found these foot-long catfish clustered just below a homemade dam. They had tried to escape the drained lake by swimming up one of the feeder creeks.

They were joined by a two foot long eel, whose long dorsal fin was visible through the glare.
The previous week, before the lake was drained, workers from Princeton Hydro with a smelly generator and small flatbed boat had paddled around trying to shock and collect fish.
But a far more effective and cost-effective method was later demonstrated by neighborhood kids, who hauled bucket after bucket of fish out of the muddy, shrunken waters, to be carried off to private ponds or dumped in the lower lake, which has yet to be drained.

Mixed in with the multitudes of miniature sunfish were a minnow of some sort,
and a sucker.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

A Sphynx in the Backyard

One of the most elegant pollenators to visit the backyard is a moth that looks and acts like a small hummingbird.

These beebalm flowers, a bit wiped out by the heat, attract both the real hummingbirds and what looks to be the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe).

They're also called hawkmoths, in the Sphynx moth family.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Mountain Lakes Dam Restoration Begins

The official groundbreaking ceremony for the dam restoration at Mountain Lakes took place today. The photo includes township staff, elected officials, members of Friends of Princeton Open Space and the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission, consulting engineers, and the contractor who has agreed to take on all the work.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Hybridized Time and Plants Meet at the Battlefield

Under the spreading hican tree (a grafting of a hickory/pecan hybrid to the rootstock of a hickory), John Mills hybridized past and present at his annual reading of the Declaration of Independence. The reading, along with some shootings of cannons and cooking of colonial foods, took place as they always do on July 4 at Princeton Battlefield. Soldiers explained the difference between a musket and a rifle, and said the rifles' better accuracy made it possible for the colonists to pick off British officers--something the British took as a breach of their gentlemanly rules of warfare.

The battlefield grounds now have a few new hybrids--four young chestnut trees that are 15/16th American Chestnut and 1/16th Japanese. The trees have three things going for them: a sunny spot to grow, the t.l.c. of Princetonian Bill Sachs, who planted them and is now keeping them watered through the extended drought, and immunity from Chestnut Blight that the Japanese portion of their genetic makeup will hopefully confer. The trees are part of a larger effort to reintroduce native chestnuts into the American landscape.

(You can read more about American chestnut tree reintroductions in Princeton by typing "chestnut" into the search box at the upper left hand corner of this blog.

Being a promoter of habitat for wildlife, I was a bit chagrined to see that the battlefield meadow (back left in the photo), which is normally allowed to grow through the summer, has been mowed down. A long-range goal of the Friends of the battlefield is to restore a more authentic landscape, which would likely mean replacing some of the mowed grass with orchards and meadows.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Sustainable Jazz Ensemble--7/7 at 7

If you can take a break from keeping plants alive through this drought, come hear some freshly grown jazz compositions this Wednesday, 7/7 at 7pm. The Sustainable Jazz Ensemble will perform in the Princeton Public Library's community room--a great room for hearing live music.

Since our debut there last summer, we've continued to add new original compositions.
The latest crop has names like Riff in Z (composed in the rarely used key of Z minor), Cheery in Theory (which would make a good title for a book on overly aggressive ornamental plants that look great in the garden until they start taking over), and The Caged Bird Swings (with apologies to Maya Angelou, a tune I wrote in 1984 that traces a confined musical theme's escape to freedom).

The band features Phil Orr on piano, Jerry D'Anna on bass, and me on saxophone. 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.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cicada Killers Living Peacefully Among Us

For at least the past two years, an unassuming island at the township parking lot has been the home of cicada killers. It sounds like a fearsome creature, and its looks and size are not reassuring. But the male wasps that now buzz around low to the ground cannot sting, and the females are very reluctant to.

In the morning, at least, the males take time out from chasing each other to alight on vegetation or on a curbstone for a few moments, their abdomens pulsing.

They overwinter as larvae in underground burrows. After emerging as adults, they survive on nectar from flowers. The females, which are somewhat larger than the males, will spend the summer snatching cicadas from the air. They paralyze them with their sting, then drag them back to underground burrows, where the cicadas serve as food for raising the next generation of cicada killers.

NOTE: July 5th, I noticed a cluster of wasps on the ground (lower right corner of photo). Information I found on the web describes this sort of clustering to be several males who clutch a mating pair.

A few days later, I noticed that cones and warning tape had been erected on the island, apparently as a way to keep people away. Hopefully, the wasps will be allowed to continue living there, since they show no inclination to bother people walking by.

NOTE: Today, July 9, I learned that the wasps had been treated, due to complaints. It was an unfortunate combination of the two parking lot islands being in an area of high foot traffic, and the wasps' breeding success. Their numbers grew from a few last year to dozens this year.

NOTE: As of July 20, cicadas are singing and the cicada killers are back to their buzzing around at the Community Park parking lot, despite any treatment two weeks ago. They reportedly hatch progressively through the summer, so any treatment's effect would be temporary. The sparse grass and full sun on the parking lot islands is perfect for them, and they don't seem to be doing any harm.

UPDATE, end of July: Oops, all gone. Nada mas.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Construction Begins at Mountain Lakes

The long driveway at Mountain Lakes Preserve more often serves as a popular walkway for Princetonians seeking a peaceful walk with child, dog, friend or cellphone. That peacefulness will be elusive during weekdays from early morning to late afternoon as various construction projects get underway.

Last week, crews cut back the (mostly invasive) shrubs lining the driveway, and this week a new sewer line is being extended to the house. In July, still more trucks will be using the driveway as a contractor begins restoring the dams and dredging the lakes.

The public is encouraged to avoid using the driveway, and instead explore nearby trails to the left and right of the driveway entrance.

FOPOS volunteers built a new trail that heads into the woods about 100 feet to the left of the driveway, and various trails--paved and dirt--can be found leading off from the Community Park North parking lot just to the right of 57 Mountain Ave.

Construction will occur in phases, over a period of 15 months.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Nature's Upside Down Pecking Order

On June 19, the Princeton High School ecolab wetland was one of the stops on the Green Building and Garden Tour, organized by the Princeton Environmental Commission. The intention of this tour stop was to focus on how a retention basin can be converted into wetland habitat, but an airborne drama pulled our attention skywards.
A red-tailed hawk flew over from Westminster campus, chased by a pack of crows.
The scolding and intimidation continued for several minutes, as the crows took turns dive-bombing the hawk. The hawk kept an eye out, but seemed generally unconcerned. They'd all been through this before.

After the crows left, the hawk lay down and draped its wing over the edge of the roof, as if injured, or simply wishing to gather some warmth from the sun.
The crows returned, the hawk flew off, but one of the crows hung around long enough to in turn become the target of intimidation by a still smaller bird with white markings on it tail.
During summer break, it's feistiness rather than size that makes for a schoolyard bully.

Shade Tree Donated For Potts Park

Earlier this month, I received an inquiry through the website, asking if there was a park in Princeton where a couple could plant a tree in honor of their newborn son. I suggested Potts Park, which is right behind my house and is in great need of more shade for the play equipment.

On June 19, with friends and family on hand, Rebecca and Derek planted "Charlie's tree", an October Glory red maple. Borough council member Barbara Trelstad located a suitable tree at a local nursery, and coordinated with borough staff to have a hole dug prior to the ceremony. I'll be doing the watering.

Though the couple doesn't live in town, Rebecca describes herself as "a proud graduate of Princeton public schools and PHS." Her parents still live in Princeton township. Thanks to Rebecca and Derek for this wonderful gesture that will add to the pleasure of the park for decades to come!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What to Do With a Cattail Patch?

This section of the high school wetland was packed with cattails a year ago. Cattails are native, and provide good habitat for redwing blackbirds and other wildlife, but if left unchecked they would soon take over the whole wetland. Their spread, via rhizomes and seed, has added to the maintenance required to sustain a diverse plant community. A combination of repeated cutting and pulling of the cattails freed up this area for less aggressive natives like pickerelweed, arrowhead and wild rice, all of which need consistently wet soil to thrive.
The last stronghold of cattails is this one small corner of the wetland. After talking to Tim, the ecology teacher at the high school who I collaborate with to maintain the wetlands, we decided to cut down this last patch. After I did so one evening, a good friend who knows edible plants happened to be walking by and stopped to say hello. "Why don't you eat them instead of just cutting them down?", he asked, and then went on to explain how to eat them raw. I tried one, and found it to be unexpectedly tasty. An internet search later on yielded info on five ways to eat cattails at different times of the year.

Here, then, is a new approach to maintaining ecological diversity by keeping cattails in check through ongoing harvest. Two dimensions of environmentalism--Eat Local and Habitat Restoration--meet over a helping of cattails.

Tour of HS Ecolab Wetland This Saturday

This Saturday, June 19, a highly bikeable tour of "environmentally smart approaches to building, landscaping, gardening, and managing waste" in Princeton. This event, from 11-3, was organized by the Princeton Environmental Commission. Check out the map and descriptions at, and visit the stops in any order you choose.
Two garden installations that I helped start will be on the tour. I will be at the Princeton High School ecolab wetland from 1-3 to offer plant by plant commentary, and will be putting up interpretive signs there and at the Harrison St. raingarden this week in preparation for the tour. A new raingarden I installed this spring is not on the tour, but can be found in front of the Whole Earth Center on Nassau Street. The extraordinary gardens at Riverside Elementary will also be on display, as well as the fine facilities at D&R Greenway for growing native plants.

Here are some photos from the High School wetland:

The magical mystery sump pump that feeds water from the high school basement into the wetland. It comes on every twenty minutes or so, regardless of weather--a humble but highly beneficial version of Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park.

The cool, clear waters of the sump pump feed a pond--one of three in the wetland-- that teems with crayfish,

which grow to considerable size.

Silky dogwood is one of the shrubs, planted on some of the higher ground in the wetland. Other shrubs include: elderberry, indigo bush, swamp rose, buttonbush, winterberry and red chokeberry. Blackhaw Viburnum, a more upland species, also grows here on relatively high ground.

There's lots of blue flag iris planted here to show off this native that is seldom seen growing in the wild. The yellow flag iris, common in Princeton's wetlands, is an introduced species.

Unexpected Harvest

I am shocked,

shocked! find ripe blueberries in my backyard.

For some fifteen years now, in two yards in two states, I have grown blueberries without any expectation of edible results. Many years, I didn't even bother to check. It was simply assumed that the catbirds and their surrogates, exercising due diligence, would deprive us of any harvest.

So it took a few moments to digest the meaning of those congregations of blue that caught my eye while passing by.

Some hours later, it occurred to me that my visits to the backyard this spring have not been accompanied by the accustomed complaints of a catbird that in past years had frequented the bushes along the back fence. Those bushes, overgrown, had been given a radical pruning this spring. It's a tenuous cause and effect, to be further contemplated while munching on the fruits of nearly forgotten labors.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Recess Gardening at Little Brook Elementary

Recess gardening could be gardening in small recesses of one's yard, but here it has to do with kids spending their recess doing gardening in the school courtyard. The courtyard is a fine space where plants can grow unfettered by deer, rabbits or groundhogs, and where children are clearly discovering the satisfactions of working with the soil.

In the first photo, the kids are exercising their math skills to space out plantings of the "three sisters"--corn, squash and beans.

Knowing well how reluctant kids can be to eat green vegetables, I was amazed to see the feeding frenzy in the edible pod pea patch. The only sort of encouragement needed was an admonition to leave some for the next class.

My contribution to this science day event was a tree identification table, where kids could match real leaves to color copies with name attached. It was a chance to talk about opposite and alternate, rounded vs. toothed lobes, and simple vs. compound.

In the mid-ground of the photo is a rising mountainette of Jerusalem Artichokes (the native tuberous sunflower), which surround a little pond. We need to remember to harvest the tubers over the winter. Otherwise, they come up much too densely.

In the distance is an herb garden that kids were building a decorative fence around, made of woven wild grape and Virginia creeper vines.

In its third season, the schoolyard garden is thriving, thanks to the many parents and teachers involved, and the energy and interest of the kids.

Flying Squirrels at the Veblen Farmstead

My flash makes this look like a museum exhibit of stuffed mammals, but these are two in a family of flying squirrels that we found a month ago living in the small barn located next to the Veblen cottage. One of the cuter rodents around, they are more common than one might expect. In addition to sightings at the Veblen farmstead, they've been seen in an old birdhouse at Community Park North, and even gliding over the patio behind our house on busy Harrison Street.