Sunday, April 21, 2013

Fill-a-Pot Sunchokes

Yet again I forgot to harvest the sunchokes sooner, but even though they've sprouted they seem worth the harvest.

And what a harvest it is. Because this beautiful, ten foot high native sunflower with tasty tubers spreads underground so aggressively, I planted it last year in large plastic tubs. The plants were unfazed by the confinement, and produced an incredible quantity of tubers,

which when separated from the dirt and hosed off still filled the tub a third full.

Some of the harvest was immediately sliced up, coated with olive oil, and roasted on a grill, garnering lots of positive response at the dinner table.

What started as two tubers--bought at the Whole Earth Center, planted in the tub and placed in a sunny spot--turned into a harvest of 75 tubers that will keep well in the frig. They can be eaten raw, with or without the skin, or cooked in various ways. Recipes are easy to find on the web.

Limb Shadow

Even deciduous trees cast significant shade in the winter, as this red oak shadow shows.

Kentucky Coffee trees--whose pods of coffee bean-sized seeds may have once catered to the culinary needs of now extinct megafauna--have a slimmer profile, due to their strategy of manufacturing very large leaves (3 feet long and 2 feet wide) rather than the more normal approach of growing lots of fine twigs to hold smaller leaves.

This species also loses its leaves sooner in the fall, and buds out later in the spring (in the photo, the Norway Maple on the left has already started to leaf out). The combination of this coarse twig structure and extended period of nakedness (thus the Latin name, Gymnocladus) make it a good candidate for planting on the south side of houses that use passive solar heating.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Giving Names to Clouds of Color

Spring can be seen as a slow-motion version of the Santa Claus-shaped lights a neighbor had this past December, which changed color every few seconds, cycling through seven or eight colors before beginning again. Each kind of plant advertises itself through color for a week or two before stepping back into the obscurity of the green chorus. This Magnolia (presumably "x soulangeana") at Westminster Choir College is busy proclaiming MAGNOLIA!! in the full-throated fashion of an operatic voice drifting across the lawn from a nearby practice room.

Other major color-producers in the area are this trio of forsythia, flowering quince and some exotic cherry.

Forsythia gets a bad rap sometimes, but at least it doesn't invade natural areas, and it can be more or less graceful according to how it is trimmed. I like the way it gives the two bins in this "Recycling Gothic" photo a sense of place.

More of an enjoyable challenge for naming, often while driving or biking through town, are the comparatively subtle clouds of color that drift through the spring season--early stirrings in a long dormant forest. Garlands of weeping willow weep for the downed trees in the hidden valley just up from Faculty Road.

Reminding all of their ongoing success at sprouting up in backyards, Norway maples make clouds of pea-green,

as if spring rains had caused the ample color of the crossing guards' new jackets to leach  into nearby trees.

Other clouds of subtle color--spicebush's yellow, red maple's red--greet us in spring with a pleasing and missed familiarity, like the schoolkid parents first met at daily elementary school pickups, but now seen only at an occasional middle school concert.

Even a lawn offers clouds of color, in this case a highly edible cloud of violet (Viola sp.) flowers.

Ash Trees In and Around Mexico City

Ash trees deserve more respect. Around Princeton, one sees so many unimpressive ones growing in crowded, second growth woods that it's easy to forget that they can rival the size of the largest oaks and tulip poplars. Princeton has a few impressive specimens, on campus and in front of the Nassau Club.

In the vicinity of Mexico City (this being a post that lingered in the draft folder after our family trip down there last month), the Mexican ash tree (Fraxinus uhdei) doesn't appear to have much competition from other stately species. Whether towering over a plaza in front of a church in Coyoacan,

or seeming to erupt out of a sea of concrete, they seem unfazed by the tread of humanity.

If the canopy is too far up to confirm their identity, there are usually some sprouts from the base showing the characteristic compound leaves and opposite branching.

In better cared for neighborhoods, the base of the trunks get adorned with Schefleras and other plants we otherwise encounter only in living rooms and atriums.

This one's shade was particularly appreciated as a place to rest, part way up the mountain that was at one time the largest pyramid in America, in Cholula, near Mexico City.

Near Cholula is a town called Tonantzintla, where I took the kids in search of the hillside where I spent a few treasured days as a boy, riding burros with my brother during one of my father's observing runs. The telescope is still there, though not much used due to the light pollution from Puebla, and I think this must be what's left of the hillside.

The observatory grounds protect more than a vestige of my childhood world. Under these trees we were surprised by a variety of birdsongs heard nowhere else on our trip. In the photo, a resident mourning dove takes flight.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Metaphor Camp

Recent rains swelled our backyard miniponds, making a mini-heaven for the resident duck brigade. During the dry spell, they had wandered about the dessicated landscape as if transported to the moon. That's Daisy (a Pekin), Molly (a runner duck), Ronnie and Swee' Pea (male and female mallards).

Sometime I would like to conduct a Metaphor summer camp, in which the happy campers sit on the fence inbetween balancing acts and periods of toeing the line. They will learn what it really feels like to have a long row to hoe, or to herd cats, or, lacking cats in sufficient number, then how to save nine by stitching in time.

If they balk, then the resident fowl can show them how to take to a task like ducks to water, and shed life's setbacks like water off a duck's back.

And when they've thoroughly mastered their metaphors, they will leave camp at the end of the week

with their ducks all in a row.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Fragrant Honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima)

One shrub that speaks louder through its fragrance than its bloom is fragrant (or "winter") honeysuckle. Unlike other honeysuckle shrubs from Asia, which bloom later, I've never seen this one spread into natural areas.

The fragrance is such that a large shrub in full bloom can stop you in your tracks from 50 feet away. If you've never seen it, ask the local bumblebees and honeybees if one's growing in your neighborhood, or keep an eye out for small white flowers, and follow your nose.

A row of them grows along the nature trail loop next to the towpath, west of Harrison Street.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Lawn Blotch

As master golfers stride the perfectly groomed grounds of Augusta National this weekend, showing their mastery over a landscape that's kept in a perpetual state of arrested development, let us glance out the window for a moment at the less applauded realities of the suburban lawn. In the Masters tournament, only the hazards--the trees and shrubs--are allowed to reach maturity. For the golfer, any encounter with interesting plants is a sign of trouble. And in the yard, the main threat to calm conformity is the plant that seeks to lead a full life, by flowering and maturing its seed. (Full disclosure: I lettered in golf in high school, spent part of a summer mowing fairways, and probably developed a keen eye for plants while searching for lost balls in the nearby corn fields and the very rough rough of our neighborhood's rough-hewn golf course.)

The grasslike imposter dotting the lawn in the first photo is Star of Bethlehem, which will later have a pretty white flower but tends to spread. It's in the lily family, is native to eastern Europe and the Middle East, and spreads to natural areas as well as across lawns.

Here's wild garlic, showing vertical aspirations far beyond the surrounding grass.
Blooming now, along with the dandelions, is Lesser Celandine. It shows up as one or two plants in a yard, then becomes more numerous each year until much of the lawn is displaced. Here's a new infestation, with maybe five plants or so. It would be easy at this point to dig it up, put the diggings in the trash (not the compost bin, where it will then be spread elsewhere), and avoid the takeover. But most people are seduced by its flowers when it first shows up, and don't grow alarmed by its aggressiveness until it's already become established.

Here's a more advanced example. You can type lesser celandine in the search box at the top of this webpage to see examples of it forming a green pavement in lowlands, apparently of no use to wildlife.

A related plant is Winter Aconite, which has dissected leaves and blooms much earlier in the spring. It spreads underground, but I've never seen it spread across lawns or invade natural areas. Both are non-native spring ephemerals that will turn brown in early summer.
Another spreader is Bermuda grass, which may originally have come from northern Africa and thereabouts. The photo contrasts Bermuda grass, which is a "warm season" grass that is still brown this time of year, with the "cool season" grasses such as fescue and ryegrass that are green in cool weather but suffer in the heat of summer. The owner of this lawn must have seeded a patch with Bermuda grass rather than the original cool season grasses.

The rhizomes/stolons/roots of Bermuda grass are so strong that they will spread into and break up asphalt over time. It is a very aggressive grass and hard to weed out of other plantings if it invades flower beds or natural areas.

This blotch-on-blotch effect of wild garlic sprouting up in Bermuda grass actually makes a nice contrast, though I'm not sure anyone would try to do it intentionally.

A modest proposal: One way to get rid of lawn blotch is to get rid of the lawn.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Walk in Gulick Park

Thirty kids and adults, plus a dog or two, gathered on a beautiful spring afternoon this past Sunday for a walk through Gulick Park, a little known nature preserve in a part of Princeton out 27 that may once have been thought of as Kingston. The loop trail starts at the eastern deadend of Terhune Road, a road that changes name as it approaches Snowden Lane, then becomes a bike path before re-emerging as Terhune Road again over near Dodds Lane.

We found tadpoles in that there pond, which reportedly holds some water even in the drier depths of summer.

The paths through this lowland woods can be muddy after a rain, but had dried up nicely in preparation for our walk.

Some appeared skeptical as I, in my role as naturalist for the walk, demonstrated the craned-neck approach to identifying red maples, pointing towards their tiny red flowers high overhead. Other tree species spoke their names through their bark--the black "potato chip" bark of black cherry trees, the mottled, army fatigue bark of sycamores--or the downward slant of the many pin oaks' lower branches. The numerous eastern red cedars--the first trees to cast shade in the abandoned agricultural fields decades back--now hang on in the shade of the higher, deciduous trees that have since grown around them. A scattering of evergreen American hollies offered patches of green in a sea of winter's browns and grays.

Just to prove I wasn't pointing at phantoms, here's a closeup of the red maple flowers that give the high canopy of lowland woods a red tinge this time of year.

Ed Simon, who leads volunteer efforts to maintain the trails (no easy task given the tree-toppling storms of recent years), told stories of the park's past and present. Though he and others have removed most of the barbed wire from the woods, a few remnants still tell of a time when the Gulicks had a massive bull that would occasionally escape into the neighborhood.

The video camera on the right in the photo is being held by Kurt Tazelaar. He and Sally Curtis have been documenting many environmental events in town.

There was the requisite stream crossing to test our balance, beyond which we came upon the field of Christmas trees. It was interesting to hear that many of the spruce trees found in Princeton's parks, including those behind my house in Potts Park, got their start in this field. I pointed out the dried remains of purple-top grasses in the field, and the graceful broomsedge (actually a grass) that gives the field an attractive bronze hue.

Beyond this high fence is the land still owned by the Gulicks, whose family ownership extends back to Revolutionary War days. A part of their house facing Route 27 is said to extend back to the 1600s, when it served as an inn conveniently located halfway between Philadelphia and New York. Each 50 mile stretch was a days ride on horseback.

Near the fence was an impressive pile of firewood, which the Gulicks apparently sell as a means of satisfying the requirements of their farm easement.

Along the trails, where the sun gets in, are some fine stands of blackberry, with its ribbed stems, and wineberry, a non-native cane with fuzzy purplish stems that bear raspberry-like fruit. A number of hikers expressed interest in returning in summer for the harvest.

The walk was made possible through the organizational energies of Nicole Bergman. There's talk of an upcoming workday to clear some of the trails still blocked by fallen trees.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Spring Sightings

Here is lesser celandine, which people tend to like at first, but then soon regret as it starts to take over the yard. A non-native spring ephemeral, the leaves will die back in a couple months. It's often mistaken for marsh marigold--a native that is larger and so rare I've never seen it growing naturally hereabouts. Though it's pretty, I recommend digging out the highly invasive lesser celandine as soon as it shows up in your yard, and before it sets seed. There's another (unrelated) wildflower called celandine, in the poppy family, that blooms later and is not invasive.

Another exotic, but not known to be invasive, is astroturf, here used by a neighbor as some sort of lawn bandage.

In the "look down to see what's up" category are the spent flowers of red maple scattered on sidewalks all across Princeton.

Here's the flower on a red maple donated to Potts Park a few years back in honor of a new-born son. The play equipment the tree is intended to eventually shade is in the background. Anyone who has felt how hot play equipment can get in the summer sun understands the need to get some trees strategically placed on playgrounds.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Good News and Bad About Roses at JW Middle School

In the sudden heat wave, new growth is springing from the thorny branches of a row of rose bushes bordering JW Middle School. There is promise of flowers, but with these particular rose bushes, the good news is mixed with bad.
Most gardeners at some point plant a shrub too close to a walkway. These rose bushes have proven particularly unforgiving of that common mistake, sending out long, thorny branches across the sidewalk to draw blood from kids on their way to and from school.
The grounds crews have been better about keeping the shrubs trimmed, but an unlikely ally may eventually make their interventions unnecessary. Rose rosette disease, which has spread to New Jersey from the midwest, has been knocking out many a rose, including these. Some of the bushes here appear completely dead, while others appear unaffected. In the interest of pedestrians, I'm cheering for the disease, and a replacement planting of natives shrubs, like fothergilla or Virginia sweetspire, whose flowering doesn't come with spines attached.

By debilitating the once rampant growth of invasive multi-flora rose in NJ's nature preserves, the disease thus far has been of great assistance to land managers seeking to restore native diversity. Stunted growth of invasive species allows natives to better compete for sun and water. Though the disease has unfortunately affected some roses planted by homeowners, as far as I know, the native roses such as the swamp rose have not been affected--a miracle for land managers used to bad news for native species.

Some of the multi-flora rose bushes may in time prove immune to the disease, and spread to once again plague our natural areas. But in the meantime, the disease is doing what no number of land managers could possibly find the time and energy to do.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Nature Walk: How to get to Gulick Park

Thus far, my explorations of the little known patch of open space in Princeton called Gulick Park has consisted of finding out how to get there. For the nature walk today, Sunday, April 7, at 1pm, here are some ways to reach the obscure entry to the trails:

  • Go to Google Maps and type these words--Concord Lane, Princeton, NJ--into the box at the top. The walk starts at the deadend of Terhune Road, just beyond the intersection with Concord Lane.
  • Or take Route 27 east from Princeton towards Kingston. Carnegie Lake will be on your right. Before reaching Kingston, take a left on Dodds Lane, then the first right, on Corncord Lane, then turn right on Terhune Rd and you're there.
  • To bike, take Terhune Road east. It turns into Van Dyke Road briefly before running into Snowden Lane. At that intersection, cross Snowden Lane and take the bike trail through Smoyer Park woods, staying to the right. At the other end of the woods, Terhune Road magically reappears and you continue east until you reach the deadend. 

The NJ Trails website (Mercer County page) is generally helpful, if you want trail maps for Princeton nature preserves, but Gulick Park isn't mentioned there.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Pipeline Right of Way's Impact on Habitat

Many of us have been mildly aware of the transcontinental natural gas pipeline that runs through Princeton. We cross it most every day, on Route 206 just up from the Ewing intersection, as well as on Bunn Drive, the Great Road, Cherry Hill Road, and other roads that traverse the high, boulder-strewn ground of the Princeton Ridge. (More info on the issue and the April 11 public meeting on the proposed expansion at the following links: 1) meeting and background, 2) opinion piece comparing regulation of tobacco and fossil fuels). 

The pipeline also cuts through Mountain Lakes, Herrontown Woods and other natural areas. Though a matrix of woodland and field can provide more diverse habitat for plants and wildlife, a linear swath cut through forest has the unfortunate effect of providing access into the forest for catbirds, which lay their eggs in other bird species' nests and therefore reduce the survival chances of bird species that need deep forest habitat.

The usefulness of these herbaceous right of ways, which are mowed annually, for grassland birds is limited. My understanding is that many grassland bird species shy away from meadows that have trees close by, where predators like hawks can perch and survey the ground. Even the fields at Tusculum, between Mountain Lakes and Cherry Hill Road, may not be large enough for some of the grassland birds.

Pipeline right of ways also promote the spread of invasive plant species such as the Phragmitis (shown) and Korean bush clover, which tend to take over and exclude native plants that wildlife depend on. Even if these species aren't planted intentionally, their seeds can spread from one right of way to another on the wheels of maintenance vehicles. Korean bush clover, also called Sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata), is a classic case of an exotic species that was promoted as a wildlife food, but whose small, abundant seeds were later found to pass through birds, undigested. The species has been widely used for erosion control, but its invasiveness and lack of utility for wildlife means that one environmental goal (reduced sedimentation in waterways) is achieved at the expense of another (habitat and biodiversity).

Since the pressure to build and expand right of ways, for electrical transmission as well as pipelines, is going to increase over time, it would make sense to manage them for native grassland, so at least they would provide a haven for herbaceous species that get shaded out elsewhere. It's a matter of making sure the plant lists used for revegetating these right of ways is the right mix of native species, and also providing early intervention to prevent highly invasive exotic species from getting established and spreading. Getting these concerns on the list of priorities for industry, and government regulators, is a challenge.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

A Report of Dead Fish in the DR Canal

A friend emailed me this past Saturday about an accumulation of dead fish in the DR Canal near Alexander Street. I went down and took this photo, focused on the fish, not even noticing the beauty of the reflections until later opening the photo on the computer. There may have been twenty fish, total, perhaps suckers. Hard to guess at the cause.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Some Upcoming Events

Some talks, some walks. Follow links for more info.

TALK AT DR GREENWAY: DR Greenway's great series of talks continues tomorrow with Professor Ken Hiltner (we haven't figured out any shared lineage yet), Thursday, April 4, 2013, 7:00 - 8:30pm at the Johnson Education Center. The talk is entitled "From Shakespeare's London to Urban Gardening -- The Literature of Humans' Relationship with the Land" 

NATURE WALK: I will be leading a walk at Gulick Park/Preserve this Sunday, April 7, at 1pm. It's being organized by the neighbors of the park, but all are welcome to come. Gulick Farm dates back to the 1600s. Here's more info: "We will meet at the entrance to Gulick Park at 1pm on Sunday, March 10. The entrance is at the eastern dead-end of Terhune Road (east of Concord). The walk will probably take a little over an hour. It could be a bit muddy, so make sure to dress appropriately.  All ages are welcome."

COURSE ON MANAGING WATER IN THE LANDSCAPE--There are a few open spots in the course I'm teaching at the Princeton Adult School, starting with an introductory talk Thursday evening, April 11, followed by four Sunday afternoon field trips to examples of how runoff is being utilized aesthetically and ecologically in public areas and backyards.

ECO-CONFERENCE Our Future, Our Challenge: Student Eco-Conference 2013 , May 4, 9-1p, at Princeton Day School. Includes talks by David Crane, CEO of NRG: "Are the economy and sustainability compatible?", and Heidi Cullen of Climate Central, plus workshops on foraging, chickens, bees, and organic farming

CLIMATE CHANGE PROGRAM: Two speakers with "inside scoop" on legislation to address climate change. April 7, 1pm, Unitarian Church

REGISTER SUPPORT FOR CITIZENS CLIMATE LOBBY--There's a quick way to register support for this group, which has a local chapter. No obligation to donate. Registering helps them in applications for funding. Took me about a minute. Here are instructions:

                 1.  Go to The Citizens Climate Lobby home page, and in the upper right corner find the DONATE or REGISTER SUPPORT box or button. Click on that.
                  2. That takes you to a second page, where down in the main text, the third option is REGISTER AS A SUPPORTER OF OUR CAUSE. Click on that.

                   3. That takes you to the sign up page.  Please fill out and submit.