Saturday, July 14, 2018

First Monarch Sighted at Herrontown Woods

A monarch graced our "Phoenix Garden" next to the Herrontown Woods parking lot with its presence on a bright, sunny morning yesterday, July 13. It took an interest in the purple coneflowers transplanted into the garden this spring, and offered evidence of the importance of the garden for sustaining pollinators in Princeton through the summer months when forests offer few flowers.

The sighting prompted an internet search for the latest on the monarch's status, with one longtime monarch tracker, Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, predicting that weather conditions this year are thus far allowing monarchs to rebound somewhat from the historic lows of recent years.

If you google "monarch butterflies" and then click on "news", you'll find lots of articles, for instance about efforts to create better habitat for them in Iowa. There's research on the impact of higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere on monarch's health, and Chip Taylor's detailed blog posts at MonarchWatch describe how higher temperatures can impact migration.

We don't yet have milkweed growing at the garden, but there are patches of common and purple milkweed in clearings near the Veblen House that can provide food for monarch larvae. Places where sun reaches the ground, whether in people's yards or at the Phoenix Garden (so-called because it's planted in the opening made after storms blew down the white pine plantation at Herrontown Woods) are critical for sustaining the summer flowers and milkweed that monarchs need to reproduce.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Who's Been Eating Our Lilies? -- An Update on Deer in Princeton

What's been eating our lilies on busy Harrison Street?! Buds on the lilies lining our front walk had generated considerable anticipation in the household, until they disappeared overnight. We arrived in Princeton a few years after deer began being professionally culled in 2000. Back then, we'd see herds of deer wandering down Murray Ave, or even main roads like Harrison Street.

Though Mayor Marchand took a lot of heat for culling deer, she and township council stuck to their principles, and the result has been dramatically reduced carnage on the roadways, venison for food kitchens, and a rebound of the native flora in local nature preserves. The remaining deer are better fed, finding in the wild a greater abundance of their preferred foods.

Another benefit has been reduced damage to gardens. Our garden had prospered deer-free for years, until one showed up in the backyard over the winter. Evidence suggests there have been visits since then, and now our front yard's centralized setting along Harrison Street is proving no guarantee of safety from their unsolicited landscape services.

All of which prompted an inquiry into how the town's deer culling has been going lately. The temporary lack of an animal control officer and the increasingly quirky climate contributed to a relatively unsuccessful deer cull in the winter of 2016-17. This past winter, however, they were very successful with the culling. According to this update from council member Heather Howard:
"Deer hunt was much more successful this year - in part because of colder weather. This year, 196 deer were harvested, as compared to 63 last year. Also, initial analysis of traffic data shows that deer-related motor vehicle accidents were down. 
Looking ahead to next year's hunt, we are looking for new areas to expand the hunt. There have been an increase in deer complaints in the Riverside neighborhood, which is a hard neighborhood to find suitable areas for hunting, because there are no public properties and private lots tend to be smaller.  
Looking ahead to next year's hunt, we hope to have our annual contract for bow hunting on the Council's agenda by the end of the summer, so they can start with the hunting season in September."
It's important to emphasize that bow hunting is not adequate to control deer numbers. To restore the ecological balance lost when we extirpated the natural predators of deer long ago, it's necessary to have professional hunters who can operate safely in our preserves, to augment what the bow hunters are able to do. One comforting thought is that the deer have lived quality, free-range lives, unlike so many of the animals we eat.

How this relates to the lost lilies in the front yard? Heather's mention of increasing deer complaints in the Riverside neighborhood, along with the surprising appearance of deer in our yard despite deer culling, might suggest that the deer that are eluding the culling are those that spend more time in the densely populated neighborhoods. It's a theory that will be tested by time, and lilies all over town.

Shade Trees and a Cool Streets Contest

It's time to shine light on shade. If Princeton held a contest for the coolest, best shaded blocks, I'd nominate a couple blocks in my neighborhood. One is at the corner of Erdman Avenue and Tee-Ar Place, where four giant pin oaks, healthy despite the local prevalence of bacterial leaf scorch, extend their broad limbs southward and westward over the pavement.

Another is on Stanley Avenue, where some more healthy pin oaks are doing the job. On the left is a Norway Maple--not my favorite species, but in this case well placed to shade the pavement.

Having a contest would shine light, so to speak, on the importance of being strategic about where trees are planted. Some homeowners may understandably want to have sunlight reach a garden, or solar panels on the roof. Neither of these need conflict with optimizing shade where it is most important--over pavement, where the sun's light energy would otherwise be turned into heat when it hits blacktop, contributing to the urban heat-island effect.

A Turtle's Narrow Escape

If a truck passed over me while I was crossing the road, I'd probably pee in my shell, too. That's what it looks like happened here, having encountered the turtle on that small university road on the West Windsor side of Lake Carnegie, just after a truck had passed over it.

Just one more insult for a turtle to endure. It refused to tell me which side of the road it preferred to be on, so I put it on the canal side, where the habitat is, and hoped for the best.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

9/11 Memorial Plantings

Stymied from reaching our intended destination of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden by various closed subways on a Sunday afternoon, we found ourselves close by the World Trade Center site, and decided to take a look. The footprints of the twin towers have each been turned into chasms where curtains of water fall from one depth down into a still deeper abyss. The symbolism is powerful--ascension transformed into endless descent. The curtains of water, played with by the wind, can sometimes appear to be pulling apart, as if something were about to be revealed, but the moment passes and the water returns to a uniform downward motion.

There is so much to grieve there, the lives lost on the site and on that day--their names etched into the frame of metal--and all the lives lost in distant lands due to the nation's skewed response in the years that followed. There is so much that I wish I could pull back up from the darkness at the center of the sunken pools.

But this post was to be about the plantings we saw, which were hundreds of swamp white oaks planted in rows. Swamp white oaks can be found occasionally planted along Princeton's streets, and growing naturally in low-lying forests. Strange that a species found naturally in water-logged lowlands would grow well in the dry, compacted soils of city streets, but the tree is adapted to the low oxygen levels that both soils share. Some of the 9/11 trees came from a NJ nursery that specializes in memorial plantings.

Water used to sustain the trees comes from underground cisterns that capture runoff.

Nearby is St. Paul's Cathedral, which improbably survived the crash of the towers. The cemetery behind the church is filled with headstones grown faceless with time.

Along the fringe of the cemetery grows a pure stand of what looks like a native sedge (on the right in the photo)--the sort that gets only a foot or so high and can form expansive, parklike sedge meadows in local woodlands.

NY City now grows many other unexpected echoes of native habitats, the most recent discovery being Brooklyn Bridge Park, where one of the trails runs along a beautifully maintained stream habitat packed with native species.

But that joy of diversity might be out of place at the 9/11 memorial and St. Paul's Cathedral, where the monocultures of swamp white oak and sedge seem intended instead to reinforce a uniform response of grief.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Duck Takes Nature Walk at Herrontown Woods

Young ducks are great for taking on nature hikes, imprinted as they are on their human caretaker. We had one come hiking up the trail recently to the Veblen House grounds while we were working on preparation for this Sunday's Veblen birthday gathering (come if you can).

A writeup on the duck, a magpie, is at this link.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Weeding a Rain Garden in June

The curb at the Westminster Choir College parking lot looks like a serpent, dipping low to allow runoff to enter a constructed raingarden where pollutants and trash are filtered out, and the water feeds the plants. The raingarden does a lot of environmental work, so maybe someone could do some work to take care of it? Care of installed raingardens is not something most landscape companies do, and so the task falls to a local volunteer with the required knowledge, or the raingarden fills with weeds and gets mowed down and becomes yet more boring lawn.

In this scene, blue vervain grows in the spaces left by the expanding redbud and tupelo trees.

Switchgrass makes billowy mounds.

The raingarden is doing better than it was a couple years ago when I adopted it, but there are still weeds to easily undercut with a shovel, like wild lettuce and curly dock.

And bindweed to pull that would otherwise grow over everything.

The mugwort was proactively dug out last year, but a few are still popping up. The pink in the photo is red clover, a non-invasive exotic that gets left in the mix.

A bedstraw species smothered an area ten feet across before being pulled up. This may be the native stickywilly (Galium aparine), but was being way too aggressive for the setting.

Here's the bindweed growing up and over a late-flowering thoroughwort that's worth protecting from aggression for its late summer flowers.

Not shown here is the crown vetch, another aggressive grow-over-everything weed.

White clover and dandelions would require more time to weed than this volunteer has.

One nice discovery, not remembered from previous years, is a swamp milkweed, which would have little chance of growing if the aggressive weeds weren't controlled.

Some Native White Flowers of June

Arrowood Viburnum (V. dentatum)

Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)

A new one in the yard, and on this blog: foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)

Elderberry at the Princeton High School ecolab wetland

Friday, June 15, 2018

Mulberries and Other Forgotten Crops in a Buyaday World

This time of year, if you see a sidewalk that looks like this, chances are you're walking under a mulberry tree. There are native red mulberries and Chinese white mulberries, the fruits of which are both tasty and largely ignored.

The fate of a bumper crop of strawberries in our backyard garden is not that much different. I munch on them as I pass by, but it's not easy to convince others in the family to try them, or to get myself to crouch down and do a thorough harvest. When relatively cheap fruit from who knows where floods the local supermarket year-round, seasonal local harvests lose their meaning. Much like the thought of scrutinizing a bus schedule when cars stand ready 24/7, it's hard to reorient to the periodic arrival of these small, variably shaped fruits growing outside.

Of course, it's nice to have so much fruit easily available throughout the year, but ignored local bounty is just one more of the aberrations of an era awash in unethical fuels.

A carbon fee and dividend, as advocated for by the Citizens Climate Lobby, would not only help save a shared future, but also help us to rediscover the world around us, and all it has to give.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

One World--Seeing Earth Stripped of Artificial Boundaries

(Note on upcoming events: Original climate theater and jazz performance, Labyrinth Bookstore, June 13, 6pm, Sustainable Jazz at the Public Library, 2pm June 17, birthday picnic for Oswald Veblen at Herrontown Woods, June 24, 2-5pm)

Traveling recently to play a reunion concert with a jazz/latin band I used to perform with in Ann Arbor, MI, I stopped by the public library and saw this map on the wall, entitled "One World." I found it immediately calming, stripped as it was of the artificial boundaries between countries--boundaries that so often are depicted in terms of strife.

No "red state/blue state" divisions, just rivers and mountains that make the continent look like living tissue, vibrant, interconnected. 

Here is Africa, freed of its political instability and suffering, the Zaire River running free, its tributaries like the thick fur on a gorilla.

And South America, wrapped in blue, the mighty Amazon and Parana Rivers making the continent a coherent whole, relieved of the artificiality of political boundaries. If only human societies were knitted together with such natural beauty and coherence as the land beneath our feet. That's the sentiment I feel as I look at these maps, or play a tune the band has traditionally ended its performances with, also entitled "One World."

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Upcoming Events--Theater, Jazz, Video

CLIMATE CABARET -- A free performance of original climate change theater and locally sourced "Sustainable Jazz" at the Labyrinth Bookstore in Princeton, 6pm on Wednesday, June 13. This performance will feature climate-adapted versions of Shakespeare, The King's Speech, a song from the Wizard of Oz, along with theatrical sketches ranging from comic to poignant. A suburban lawn undergoes therapy for recurring feelings of emptiness and chemical addiction, and for the first time, an environmentalist house cat will share her thoughts and concerns about earth and the human race. Actors: Cheryl Jones, Basha Parmet, Kitty Getlik, Fred Dennehy, Steve Hiltner. With Phil Orr, piano, and Steve Hiltner, sax/clarinet.

SUSTAINABLE JAZZ -- Another free show, this one hosted by the Princeton Public Library, from 2-3pm on Sunday, June 17. Steve Hiltner and the extraordinary pianist Phil Orr will perform Steve's original jazz compositions from their upcoming album. Styles range from straight-ahead jazz to funk, rumba and tango. Check out Phil's many other creative collaborations, including the ongoing Jazz On Broad series in Hopewell, at

VIDEO PREMIER – Farming in the Millstone Valley: Past and Present 
--to be held at the Princeton Garden Theatre at 7:30 PM Tuesday June 12th, 2018. The viewing will be followed by a panel discussion. A preview of the video was shown at Eno Terra, but the final version has many new images. The video was made by the Millstone Valley Preservation Coalition (MVPC), in association with the Van Harlingen Historical Society. Kingston and the Princeton Nurseries Kingston Site are included in the video.

BIRTHDAY PARTY FOR OSWALD VEBLEN -- An outdoor picnic event at Herrontown Woods in celebration of Oswald Veblen's 138th birthday (still going strong) is being planned for 2pm Sunday, June 24. Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen donated Princeton's first dedicated nature preserve, Herrontown Woods, in 1957. The Friends of Herrontown Woods have been caring for this wonderful legacy, and researching the fascinating history of the Veblen House and farm cottage. Veblen was featured recently in a Princeton Alumni Weekly article, entitled "The Power of Small Numbers." Time to throw him a party. More details will be posted when available, at

Monday, May 28, 2018

Unexpected Spring Sightings

I used to take care of indoor plants, among them being Dracaenas like this corn plant, but had never seen one bloom before. This one was at the West Windsor Senior Center, where our McCarter Onstage community theater group performed recently.

Meanwhile, about a week ago, my daughter called me to her bedroom with a tone of urgency, and showed me a large wasp that had somehow found its way inside and onto a bookshelf. It was big--big enough to be a cicada killer, which is of very little threat to people and seeming early on the scene if it wants to go after cicadas. I got it to climb onto an object, took it to an open window, and blew it off into the great outdoors. Time to get those screens out of the basement and onto the windows.

Galls always come as a surprise, no matter how common. This one's looking like a hickory leaf gall, on a hickory sapling at the "Phoenix Garden"--a native garden we're planting at Herrontown Woods where a pine grove was progressively knocked down by wind and ice storms in recent years. Supposedly an insect dwells inside these galls, but none could be found.

Tulip tree (a native relative of magnolias known as Liriodendron tulipifera) bear flowers high up in the canopy. Only the occasional fallen twig reveals what complex beauty lies overhead.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A Sampling of May Flowers

No theme here, just flowers. Red buckeye, for instance, though this one doesn't look very red, a small tree planted occasionally along streets--this one under powerlines where it's small size should prevent it from tangling with the lines in years to come. It's native, though the only time I saw it growing in the wild was in the coastal plains of North Carolina.

Adding to the red end of the spectrum is a Rhododendron at Veblen House. We recently moved a carefully excised portion of the last known and deeply shaded native Rhododendron in Herrontown Woods--an azalea species--to the botanical garden next to the HW parking lot, to see if it might grow, thrive and bloom once again, if given some light and tlc. Native azaleas are said to have been a common sight in the past along the edge of Herrontown Road.

Princess trees are an introduced species often found along interstates. There are several growing at Herrontown Woods that we're leaving to grow for now. They bloom before leafing out.

The Japanese and Chinese wisterias also bloom before leafing out, making for a striking display if contained. If not contained, they become a menace, spreading into woodlands where they smother and weaken trees, and so dominate that nothing else can grow. Fortunately, they don't seem to spread by seed. Otherwise, Princeton would have long since been engulfed. There is a native species of wisteria that grows in the southeastern U.S.. It blooms when the leaves are already developing so is less spectacular. It is less aggressive, but even so must be planted with caution. Other native vines like virgins bower, groundnut, and Virginia creeper may not dominate in the wild, but can be surprisingly aggressive in the less competitive environment of a garden.

Fringe tree is a lovely native shrub, rarely seen in the wild. My one encounter was on some land we preserved in Durham, North Carolina. This fine specimen grows in a carefully tended garden at Franklin and Snowden in Princeton.

A less tended example is in Community Park near 206.

More common than fringe tree are native black locust and black cherry, both of which have white flowers around now. Black locust's flowers are usually high up, but this specimen along Herrontown Rd were low enough to photo. The tree has yellow, rot-resistant wood useful for fenceposts and burns clean and hot in the wood stove. Towering specimens grow near historic houses in the area, which doesn't seem a coincidence.

More whiteness comes from Deutsia, a well-contained shrub sometimes planted as a low hedge. Not native, but doesn't seem to spread into wild areas, or even in the yard.

Everyone knows flowering dogwood, made bright and beautiful by its bracts.

Sad to see many older flowering dogwoods in my neighborhood dying back and ending up as dead wood piled in the street. The loss, either to old age or to an introduced fungus that causes anthracnose, heightens the appreciation of those that survive.

Far more rare and less known than the flowering dogwood is the alternative-leaved dogwood, only two specimens of which I have encountered growing in the wilds of Princeton, at Herrontown Woods.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Nature Walk at Herrontown Woods, May 12, 2pm

Update: Nature walk is on, though may be shorter due to potential rain later in afternoon. Be ready for some mud here and there.

On Saturday, May 12 at 2pm, the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW) will host a nature walk at Herrontown Woods in Princeton. The walk will include a brief introduction to the native botanical garden being created at Herrontown Woods by FOHW volunteers, a walk up through the boulder fields of the Princeton Ridge, and end with refreshments.  Showy orchid and other rarely seen wildflowers of the Princeton ridge are coming into full bloom.

The walk will be co-led by botanists John Clark and Steve Hiltner. John L. Clark teaches at the Lawrenceville School, and recently gave a talk at DR Greenway about discovering new species in Equador. Steve Hiltner is a naturalist who writes about nature at, and is president of FOHW. 

Meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot, off of Snowden Lane, opposite Smoyer Park.

Friday, May 04, 2018

A World Paved With Fig Buttercup?

There are many types and degrees of invasive behavior in plants. Dandelions are weedy in lawns but cannot survive in the shade of a forest. Japanese maple and Rose of Sharon may seed prolifically in a garden, but rarely show up in the nearby nature preserve. Bamboo, kudzu and Asian wisteria become like castles in the landscape--formidable, exclusionary, and deeply entrenched but limited in extent. They form dramatic, isolated clones that fortunately leave most of the forest untouched. Stiltgrass by contrast is a frail annual easily pulled, which nonetheless can have a far greater impact, coating the ground of large swaths of forest with billions of plants. It thrives in shade but tolerates sun, spreading into garden beds and lawns.

We, with our big brains and bodies, are built to take on large, distinct foes, yet quickly grow discouraged when faced with a threat that is small but hugely numerous, whether it be an overabundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, plastic in the ocean, those tiny odorous house ants in the kitchen, or a ubiquitous weed in the garden. That pile of papers on the desk falls into this category as well. If the small, numerous thing is a disease pathogen that attacks us directly, we have strong institutions that engage to defend us. But if the small, transformative force represents an indirect threat, impacting our environment--our oceans, landscape or climate--rather than us directly, we lack both sufficient institutions and the will to resist. This can be considered society's achilles heel.

As a local example, our big-little hamlet of Princeton is being gradually paved over by a little plant that is pretty, and seemingly benign, yet is also extraordinarily aggressive, poisonous to wildlife, and overwhelming in its numbers and rate of spread. By mid-summer, it will have faded back into the ground, but in spring it looks like an expanding rash coating the land. It numbers in the billions, and cannot be easily pulled. Even its common name is hard to get a good hold on, with "fig buttercup" having displaced "lesser celandine" because the plant has the buttercup flower and fig-shaped tubers. The scientific name is Ficaria verna, with verna referring to its spring growing habit.

In the photo is an advanced invasion in Pettoranello Gardens that long ago spread downstream to Mountain Lakes Preserve. The more land it covers, the less edible the landscape is for wildlife. Our investment in open space acquisition is undermined as the acreage of functional wildlife habitat continues to shrink due to displacement of natives by introduced species that wildlife won't eat.

Now the fig buttercup is spilling into the nearby neighborhood along Mountain Avenue, spreading down-slope from one yard into the next. This patch spread through the fence, and through the neighbor's yard,

then popped out under the fence on the other side, ready to head further down the street. This species behaves like plastics pollution in that it becomes widely spread for lack of any organism able to eat it. Nature's checks and balances, developed through eons of co-evolution and adaptation, are circumvented when a new species like fig buttercup is introduced from another continent.

Here it is at Elm Court, a few blocks further on, poised to spread into and eventually coat their detention basin.

There used to be some solace in thinking that fig buttercup was limited to low, wet ground, but here it has become established along a slope next to the stage at Pettoranello Gardens. Audience members will slip on it, pick up some of the underground bulbs in the treads of their shoes, and transport the plant to new locales. What will stop it from eventually paving all of Princeton?

For contrast, here is the native marsh marigold, with which the fig buttercup is often confused. It's growing on the edge of the stream in Pettoranello Gardens because I planted it there a few years back. It's bigger and more showy, but doesn't take over like the fig buttercup. This is the classic example of how many landscapes have become dominated by invasive introduced species, while the native plants become rare.

Another attractive native yellow flower in spring is celandine poppy (unrelated to "lesser celandine"). I've never seen it growing naturally in the Princeton area, but it is used in landscaping. It has a nonnative lookalike that can be weedy but not as invasive as stiltgrass or fig buttercup.

Because fig buttercup is so aggressive and so hard to remove manually, careful use of herbicide is really the only means homeowners and preserve managers have to prevent it from getting established and ultimately taking over. Early detection and rapid response are the best recipe for minimizing herbicide use. We can't wait a million years for nature to adapt and re-establish balance, as one of the more bizarre books on invasive species has claimed.

Maybe research could eventually lead to a biological control being introduced to limit the fig buttercup's aggressive spread, but that requires that institutions be in place that can afford to do the many years of research and testing required, with no guarantee of success. In the meantime, fig buttercup continues to pave Princeton, one nature preserve and yard at a time.