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.

Goose Family Moves In

"Beware of the goose family," says an improvised sign at the entry to a local medical facility off of Harrison Street. "STOP! Authorized Personnel Only," the red stop sign declares, though it might more appropriately say "Unauthorized geese only."

Flattering, I guess, to have a goose family set up shop in this unlikely habitat, next to a busy building, like a mobile zoo that makes office calls. Maybe they feel safer on the elevated ground, or feel at home under the foundation planting of native arrowwood. Every goose knows that Viburnum dentatum is one of the more attractive shrubs growing in floodplains.

That's the female sitting on her nest in the foreground, with the male standing guard some distance back.

The warning signs probably went up after a passerby reportedly came too close and got knocked to the ground by a bop on the head, curtesy of the protective male. The geese, I hear, used to nest down along the nearby stream, but if our experience with chickens in the not so distant past is any indication, the predators have upped their game and may pose a threat even to the formidable goose.

I was impressed that the Goose Family in Residence program is being allowed to continue, and suggested they install a 24/7 Goosecam to broadcast on the internet. Not sure what the bucket is for: donations for the ducklings?

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Planting a Dream at Herrontown Woods

There's organic gardening, and then there are gardens that evolve organically. Folks have been wondering what's going on next to the parking lot of Herrontown Woods. A clearing has been created, first by storms in recent years that blew down most of the pine trees planted long ago. Then two years ago a crew hired by Princeton to knock out early infestations of invasive species came through to treat the thorn-cloaked Japanese aralias that were thriving in the absence of the pines.

Volunteers with the Friends of Herrontown Woods have since followed up by removing the thickets of honeysuckle vines, privet, and other nonnative invasives that were filling the void. After some general cleanup, what remains is the most unlikely of opportunities in Princeton's densely forested nature preserves: a clearing where the many native grasses and summer-blooming wildflowers can thrive.

Our dream for this clearing has evolved into a botanical garden where people can get acquainted with the native plants of Princeton. When I moved from Michigan down to Durham, NC back in the 90's, I learned the southern flora by visiting the NC Botanical Gardens and the Blomquist Garden at Duke, where the many native species were labeled. Ours is envisioned as a low-budget version for Princeton.

Seeking to stay ahead of the default weedy species poised to claim this clearing, we undertook on Earthday this past Sunday to pull out the ubiquitous Japanese honeysuckle. When dealing with an acre of land--about the size of a football field--it helped to notice that the trunks of fallen trees, left in place to tell the story of storm damage, have divided up the land into informal compartments that can be weeded and planted one at a time. That's Perry, participating in our divide and conquer strategy.

Some other weeds being pulled out before they can go to seed are hairy bittercress, garlic mustard, and dandelions. A little work now will make maintenance much easier later on.

Kurt does much of the restoration of trails and habitat at Herrontown Woods, and here is planting a hazelnut.

One of the compartments features native grasses and sedges, like fringed sedge and bottlebrush grass. They look bedraggled in their early spring mix of new and old growth, but once established, these will grow into a graceful mound with interestingly shaped seedheads at the top. It would be nice to have a pretty flower to show right now, but so much of gardening involves looking beyond what is to what will be.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Photos From a Spirited Cleanup Day at the Princeton Battlefield

Each year, the Princeton Battlefield Society teams up with the local Sierra Club to host a spring cleanup day at the Battlefield. My role the past couple years has been to lead some of the volunteers on work to clear vines and brush around some dogwood trees planted in 1976--the year of the nation's bicentennial. They line the edge of the lawn on the north (column) side of Mercer Street. As with any planting, some followup is necessary, and the state limits its maintenance to lawn mowing. Many of the dogwoods have had to withstand the smothering embrace of aggressive vines like porcelainberry, and bombardments of branches as towering pines lose their lower limbs in snow storms, making our yearly interventions feel like a rescue operation.

The cleanup days always begin with a group photo in front of the Clark House that adds a wonderful sense of place to all the open space around it. This year, while assembling for the shot, we momentarily lost focus when someone spotted a red-tailed hawk flying to a nearby tree, carrying a small snake. Nature and culture in close proximity--that's one of the charms of Princeton, though the snake might disagree.

It was the first nice spring day of the season, which added to our spirited work of lopping, sawing and dragging. There were a lot of good trees to rescue from the vines: cherries, oaks, and of course the bicentennial dogwoods.

A lot of learning happens at these workdays, as volunteers become familiar with some of the plants being saved or removed. Here are the flower buds of the flowering dogwoods, still dormant but poised to open. Their blooms in turn will form nutritional berries for migrating birds in the fall.

Hopefully the state crews will chip up the brushpiles we made.

This boy was very proud of having opened up a pathway that had been blocked by a young tree bent low by a burden of aggressive vines.

An invasive shrub (Honeysuckle) was smothered in invasive vines (porcelainberry). The easiest way to extract it was by cutting it at the base and "rolling" it out of the sea of vines.

Clearing the field's edge of brush uncovered some daffodils that had been planted long ago. We left the wineberries and blackberries in hopes of a crop during the summer.
We finished the afternoon encouraged, by progress that built on last year's progress, by each other's good company, and by the feeling of participation in caring for hallowed ground. Here's our merry crew.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Lesser Celandine Spreads Through the Neighborhood

It sure is pretty, but beware. It will take over your garden and your lawn. Too much of a good thing--it's the dominant story of our time, whether it be carbon dioxide in the air or a pretty wildflower spreading along the curb.

Lesser celandine (Ficaria verna), also called fig buttercup so as not to confuse it with the native celandine poppy, has essentially paved whole valleys. It's poisonous, and no wildlife have adapted to eat it, giving it a big competitive advantage. The most dramatic local examples are in Pettornello Gardens over at Community Park North, and downstream areas in Mountain Lakes. I've been watching it spread into the neighborhood one block from my house. Homeowners think it pretty at first, then feel distress at its aggressiveness.

Best to knock it out when it first arrives, with 2% glyphosate (wetland-safe formulation recommended when close to streams and wetlands). Digging it out is fraught with risks, as it spreads via small underground tubers, and probably via seeds as well.

Visiting my former home in Durham, NC, some years back, where it has only recently appeared, I found it growing in a couple adjacent yards, poised to spread via runoff into the local watershed. We asked the homeowners for permission to knock out the infestation. One neighbor agreed, while the other refused, indifferent to the impact her infestation would have when it inevitably spread beyond the boundaries of her yard. I had tracked another infestation elsewhere in Durham back to a homeowner's yard. He was grateful to find out what the plant was, and promptly eliminated it, as well as some he had given to his daughter in yet another watershed, thinking it was pretty.

These sorts of experiences put the lie to allegations that invasive plants are already so numerous that it's not worth trying to stop their spread. On the contrary, these plants' negative impact can be greatly reduced at the local level through timely action.

Non-Native Shrubs Shade Out Spring Wildflowers

This time of year, you can tell with one glance how many non-native shrubs are growing in a local woodland. Non-natives like privet, winged euonymus, and bush honeysuckle leaf out earlier than most native shrubs, reflective of their having evolved in a different climate from our own. Many of our woodlands are now thick with these non-native shrubs, and their early leafing out has ecological consequences. The spring ephemeral wildflowers have evolved to utilize the sunlight available during that window of time in spring when the woody plants above them are still dormant. Introduce woody plants that leaf out earlier, and the wildflowers can't store up enough energy to bloom the next year.

This problem will be exacerbated as we lose the many ash trees in our woodlands, since the nonnative shrubs will likely grow all the more densely as more sunlight reaches the understory in summertime. At Herrontown Woods, we're cutting down the non-native invasive shrubs, to allow more sunlight to reach spring wildflowers, and also to allow native shrubs a chance to thrive.

Why Do My Nursery-Bought Rhododendrons Languish?

My wife loves things that are beautiful and special, and Rhododendrons are one of them. So periodically we buy one at a local nursery and plant it in the yard, and each time the Rhododendron languishes and ultimately gets pulled out. What's going on? Soil not acid enough? Poor drainage?

Meanwhile, the rhododendron that came with the house thrives under a red oak near the driveway.

This past summer, a developer allowed me to dig up some plants from the foundation of a house he was going to demolish. One was a Rhododendron, which came home with the small knot of roots I managed to dig up. Having transplanted it while it was in bloom, I had no expectations that it would survive, and yet it survived the summer, and now has survived the winter far better than a nursery-bought Rhododendron we planted around the same time.

(There's a downspout in the vicinity, which could potentially make the soil too wet, but it's leaky and probably affects both Rhododendrons equally, and other store-bought Rhododendrons have languished far from any runoff from the roof.)

Might the Rhododendrons available in local nurseries be bred to look good in pots rather than prosper in a typical garden? That's the working hypothesis here, that the sorts of Rhododendrons bought and planted in the 1960s may have been better adapted for gardens, but don't look as good in pots at the nursery, and so couldn't compete with whatever fragile varieties are commonly sold now.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

My Letter About Rachel Carson in the New Yorker Magazine

The New Yorker published a letter of mine, responding to their beautiful article by Jill Lepore on Rachel Carson's writings about the sea (A Critic at Large, March 26th). Those books written earlier in Carson's career were largely forgotten after her earth-shaking Silent Spring came out in 1962, but they were some of the first books on the environment I read. My environmental awakening came during a quarter-long environmental field trip to Georgia and Florida during my second (and last) year at Antioch College. The trip included two weeks at a research station on Ossabaw Island, off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. There I read Carson's descriptions of Spartina salt marsh grasses, swatted mosquitoes while learning to improvise melodies on clarinet, and discovered in my self-directed ramblings and research the elegant adaptations pine tree species have evolved to periodic fire. The discovery began with an observation and a question: Why are the pine forests burying themselves in a deep mulch of pine needles, through which no new tree could possibly sprout? The answer, that the trees had co-evolved with fire to such an extent that they could no longer thrive without it, revealed in the woods around our cabins an unexpected depth and elegance in nature that I surely was encountering in Rachel Carson's writings at the same time.

The New Yorker had to shorten my letter considerably to fit it in. Here's the original version:
Jill Lepore's The Shorebird, about Rachel Carson, sent me into a deep inner stew for a day, ending as it did with a "what if". Had Carson lived long enough to write the book she contemplated about rising seas and changing climate, might it have landed in bookstores at the right time, with the right imagery to dig deep into people's minds and hearts?  
By the time global warming finally gained widespread attention, 25 years later during that overheated, drought-stricken summer of 1988, regulatory successes had already cleaned up the most viscerally irritating pollutants. Gone were the burning river and the sulfurous clouds of purple and pink that swept like midday sunsets over urban areas in Carson's time, and gone with them were the gut-wrenching imagery and noxious smells to sustain broad-based outrage. With her science and prescience, carbon dioxide might not have slipped through the regulatory shield that rose to spare the living while leaving the future unprotected.

In this time, when women, diverse shades of race and gender, and now youth, are finding their voices, nature remains forever mute, requiring our empathy, humility, and keen observation to discern its needs and our utter dependence upon it. Carson spoke up for this most creative, most giving, and most abused entity. She found the words to make the earth shake and sing within us.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Princeton Battlefield Clean-up -- March 31

Each year, the Princeton Battlefield Society and the local chapter of the Sierra Club team up to have a volunteer workday at the Battlefield. Though the Battlefield is a state park, the state limits its maintenance of the grounds to lawn mowing, leaving the rest of the park's greenery to grow as it may. Two very aggressive introduced species, bamboo and porcelainberry, have run rampant, impinging on trails and overwhelming some historic plantings such as the dogwoods planted in 1976 to celebrate the nation's bicentennial. As part of the Friends of Herrontown Woods' outreach, I'll be leading volunteers interested in sustaining the dogwoods planted around the perimeter of the park on the Colonnade side.

Anyone who'd like to join in, check out the flier below, and rsvp at If you can, bring workgloves, loppers, and handsaws. Here's a writeup on last year's spirited event, with our state senator Kip Bateman in attendance.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

A Pretty (scary?) Snake in the Basement

Earlier this week, I received the photo below in an email entitled "Copperhead?". The email was from Robert Socolow, a distinguished physicist at Princeton University. He usually focuses on climate science, but this past weekend his focus was drawn to an unusual snake he found in his basement up on the Princeton Ridge. This particular snake subsequently met its demise, but the thought that it could be a venomous copperhead snake made him leery of spending any more quality time in his basement.

My first guess was a corn snake, but we needed more than a guess. I sent the photo to my friend Perry in Durham, NC, where I used to see copperheads now and then in my old stomping grounds along Ellerbe Creek, their heads above water, gazing upstream.  He in turn sent it to his friend and Duke University biologist, Ron Grunwald.

The answer came quickly: Eastern milk snake, nonvenomous. They're said to be fairly common. According to the wikipedia page, they are a kind of king snake that can be found in various habitats, including rocky slopes (the Princeton Ridge), and also in barns. Their presence in barns may be the reason a myth arose that they suck milk from cows, which anyone who knows snakes and cows will agree is udderly ridiculous.

Rob was relieved, but the episode begged the question: Are there venomous snakes in New Jersey? The answer to that came very fast, when up popped the website for Conserve Wildlife Federation of NJ, and a post on the northern copperhead (affectionately known among herpetologists as Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen). For anyone thinking of copperheads as a southern species, it's a surprise to learn that the northern copperhead's range actually begins north of Princeton, extending from the Sourlands up through northern NJ.

The range of the one other venomous snake in New Jersey, the timber rattlesnake, conveniently avoids Princeton, with populations both north and south. The scientific name for this snake is Crotalus horridus horridus, which seems unscientifically judgemental. 

For the curious, there's a nice-looking pamphlet of New Jersey snakes at this link

Thanks to Rob for sending the photo, and to Ron for the identification. Though the snake may well have been doing a fine job limiting the number of mice and camel crickets in his basement, Rob was understandably prompted nonetheless to reaffix the screen that had fallen off a drain pipe leading from his basement to the great outdoors.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Monarch Butterfly Populations Down

Last year, monarch butterflies numbers were up in the Princeton area compared to previous years, but those heartening visits in our gardens and along roadsides did not translate into increased numbers at their overwintering grounds in Mexico.

The announcement of an official count was delayed this year for some reason. Numbers for the western population of monarchs, overwintering in pine and eucalyptus groves in southern California, came out a month earlier, in early February, and were down considerably. Finally, early this month, the announcement came that numbers of eastern monarchs have declined again. They've been lower the past two years, after small increases the two years prior, with 2014 having marked an all-time low. Over the past several decades, the overall trend has been down, with overwintering monarchs filling 44 acres of forest in Mexico in 1997, and only 6 acres this year.

So many factors affect the survival of monarchs. Illegal logging, windstorms, and coldsnaps can affect their overwintering success. This past fall's migration was affected by the series of tropical storms and the unusually warm weather that delayed the monarchs' flight south. Increased use of herbicides for farming genetically engineered crops has decimated the milkweed that monarchs need to reproduce. And then there's the looming hammer of climate change, as political and economic forces keep us trapped in dependency on fossil fuels. We see, in car commercials, town streets and new developments an ever expanding arsenal of exhaust pipes and chimneys aimed at the heart of nature.

There's some good news to mention. Gendarmes (armed police) have reportedly greatly reduced illegal logging in the monarchs' overwintering forests this past year. And people are showing an interest in planting and caring for milkweed. The stunning thing, which for the most part settles in the back of our minds, unthinkable but inextricable, is that the future remains optional.

While the world continues on its path of self-destruction, we can still find pleasure and joy in working with nature, and wonder why so much of humanity just "doesn't get it." This year, I'll be helping create a large native wildflower garden near the parking lot at Herrontown Woods. Except for a few spots like Tusculum, Princeton's open space is mostly forested, and so offers few flowers in summer and fall to sustain pollinating insects like the monarch. But the combination of windfall from storms and the clearing of invasive woody plants has created a clearing at Herrontown Woods that we can now plant. The aim is to replicate my backyard native garden in a publicly accessible space and on a larger scale, with signage so that people can become acquainted with Princeton's native flora. Much of my backyard garden is in turn modeled on the native flora to be found along the canal next to Princeton's Carnegie Lake. Anyone interested in helping the Friends of Herrontown Woods with this project can contact me through this website.

There's also a citizens' science initiative at this link, where you can provide data on monarch sites to a national survey.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Memories of a Naturalist--Tonantzintla, Mexico

Google''s celebration of Mexican astronomer Guillermo Haro's birthday today brings back memories of traveling to Tonantzintla, Mexico, where Haro did much of his observing. He was the first Mexican astronomer to be elected to the Royal Astronomical Society. My father, a contemporary of Haro's, took the family along on one of his observing runs, probably to use the same Schmidt telescope. There was some overlap in their work, and some correspondence between them in the late '50s, early '60s.

One perk of being the son of an astronomer is occasional trips to dry, mountainous parts of the world. Whether the destination was McDonald Observatory in Texas, Kitt Peak in Arizona, or Tololo in the desert of northern Chile, I was free to explore the mountainsides all day.

Five years ago, when my family traveled to Mexico City, we made the two hour drive over to Tonantzintla to have a look. I tried to overlay the pale fragments of boyhood memories onto the landscape as it is today, with mixed success.

This might be the yard where my brother and I had two burros to ride around on for the week. My brother's was white, and stubbornly held its ground as my brother pulled on the rope, wanting to take a ride. Mine was smaller, brown, and much more cooperative. Rising in the distance was an impressive mountain with the fun, rhythmic name Popocatepetl. Po-po-ka-TEP-e-tl may have been one of those words that my dad liked but which often got caught in his mouth, struggling to get out.

This may be the cottage where we stayed. The most vivid memory is the smell that emanated from the kitchen when my mother first cranked up the dusty stove to heat water for tea.

Come to think of it, visits to such places in childhood, small enclaves of buildings devoted to scientific study surrounded by nature's splendor, and the feeling of walking into a cottage that may have stood empty for weeks or months prior, may have been the template that gives the Veblen House and Cottage in Herrontown Woods such power. I recently met a woman walking her two dogs in Herrontown Woods who likes it there so much in part because it brings back memories of walking through the woods to her grandmother's house when she was a kid.

Other memories from that childhood trip to Mexico include extended practice sessions with a wooden ball and cup game in a city apartment while my father and brother were recovering from a case of Montezuma's revenge, and an embarrassing I-cannot-tell-a-lie moment when my brother was trying to sneak some fireworks through customs. Not knowing there was anything illegal about it, and with a journalist's instinct for thoroughness, and always having been encouraged to speak up if I had the answer to a question, when the official asked us if we had anything else to declare, I proudly declared, "Fireworks!"

Monday, March 19, 2018

Lou Jost--Finding New Orchids in the Ecuadorian Andes

Last month I found myself standing in a small circle of botanists, talking about new plant species being found in the mountains of Ecuador. Hosting the gathering was John L. Clark, who has gained a very long title since moving to Princeton a few years ago: the Aldo Leopold Distinguished Teaching Chair, Environmental Science and Ethics at Lawrenceville School. John hosted the gathering so that we could meet a friend of his, orchid expert Lou Jost, who lives in a secluded valley in Ecuador.

The latin names were flying while my mind floated back to the last time I had the pleasure of so much botanical company. It was a similar circle of botanists, standing not in a Princeton living room but in a field at Bennett Place, the site of the biggest troop surrender of the Civil War, on the outskirts of Durham, NC. At our feet, embedded in the thin layer of moss that covered much of the ground, was a tiny carnivorous plant, no more than a couple millimeters across--a sundew growing far from its normal range, improbably surviving in an otherwise urban landscape in the North Carolina piedmont. Bennett Place's site manager, who had been unaware of the unique plant life in the field next to his visitors center, was puzzled and amused at how a group of botanists could stand out in the middle of a field, gazing at the ground and talking at length about what for him seemed just a patch of grass. But that's what a love of plants does: it makes the world an endlessly fascinating place.

Lou Jost, our orchid expert visiting Princeton, lives in the mountains west of the Amazon rainforest. His remote home includes a view of an active volcano that periodically spouts lava, visible at night as brilliantly illuminated strands flowing down the mountainside. John got to know Lou back when John was doing research in another area of Ecuador, in similarly remote forests to the north and west, a remarkable experience he spoke about earlier this year at DR Greenway's Johnson center.

Listening to them talk is like a salve for me, allowing relief from the grim news stream most of us wade through each day, of political and economic tensions where nature and its future are relegated to a tiny asterisk. What a pleasure to linger for a time in a world where plants and nature's beauty and endless creativity occupy center stage.

Both Lou and John have worked in areas of burgeoning diversity, where a hike up a seldom trod mountainside can bring encounters with so many species new to science that the samples collected accumulate for lack of time to name and describe them all. These rewards of discovery do not come easily, however, since the forests they explore have survived in part because they are so hard to reach. A new species may be growing 100 feet up in a tree, requiring a dangerous ascent to document. Lou has begun using drones to search the forest canopy, but has yet to come up with a design that can also pluck a sample while hovering next to the tree.

Lou has found dozens of new species in his area of the mountains, where each valley has a distinct microclimate due to the mists rising westward, up from the Amazon towards a high desert plateau. The gradient from east to west, moist to dry, low to high, creates a vast variety of conditions that promote specialization, and the side valleys provide the isolation for speciation to occur.

The joy of discovery can be mixed with sadness, as these explorations of remote terrain have been spurred in part by the threat of farms and expanding villages that now rise like a far less beneficent mist, higher and higher into the mountains. Even steep mountainsides can be farmed, for a curious crop that looks like a yellow tomato.

To save this unique part of the planet, more diverse than the Amazon, Lou started a foundation, Fundacion EcoMinga, to acquire and preserve these forested slopes. New orchid species are often named after donors. Some of the former land owners have become guards. Because there is very little violence in this area of Ecuador, the guards carry cameras rather than guns, to photograph flowers and wildlife as they walk the property. This video of a short talk Lou gave at a World Land Trust symposium gives a flavor of his heroic work, and also gave me an idea for a tweaking of the U.S. Constitution that could lead to a more peaceful world: "the right of the people to keep and bear Cameras, shall not be infringed."

Glorious photos and artistic renderings by Lou can be found on his website at, and here's an article about his discovery of the world's smallest orchid. Interestingly, Lou has no professional degrees, but that hasn't kept him from publishing widely in professional journals. They are looking for content, not pedigree, and an academic degree doesn't bestow the passion and persistence required to explore these remote areas of the world.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Collecting Live Stakes for Propagation

Some species have already sprouted, as many people discovered when branches packed with the flowers of silver maples fell to the ground under the weight of this week's snow. Their blooms are so discreet and elevated that, if not for the jumble of branches littering people's yards, no one might have noticed.

One branch, falling 50 feet from a tulip poplar, scored a direct hit on an old kiosk at Herrontown Woods that hadn't been used for twenty years.

People may not be feeling much affection for branches right now, but here are some stems, collected before the storm, that hold great promise. Called "live stakes," they can be pushed into soft ground to make new shrubs from old.

Elderberry is one of a select few native shrubs that will sprout roots and leaves after a cut section is stuck in the ground. In the wild, they grow in sunny spots in floodplains, and have big plates of white flowers in the summer. The berries are delicious in jellies and pies, and their abundance can overwhelm even the appetite of the catbird that otherwise steals all our backyard fruit crop.

Another is silky dogwood, related to flowering dogwood but less ornamental. It, too, grows along the canal, and can be selectively pruned so as to leave the original shrub intact but yield some nice live stakes for planting elsewhere. This stub was left not by us but by a hungry beaver living in Carnegie Lake.

Buttonbush, with its golfball sized blooms that are eagerly bumbled over by bumblebees in summer, is another super-easy shrub to propagate in this manner. These we'll harvest not from wild populations but from specimens that were planted as live stakes years ago in raingardens around town.

Encountered in the process were some blooms of skunk cabbage. The small, roundish green leaves are the first emergings of lesser celandine, also called fig buttercup, which is a nonnative plant poisonous to wildlife that invades valleys and yards, seducing with its pretty yellow flower before completely taking over.

A nice find, though not for live staking, was the swamp rose (Rosa palustris)--a native rose with larger hips and less vicious thorns than the ubiquitous multiflora rose. It needs more stable hydrology than the nonnative multiflora rose. Given historical draining of swamps, eroding of streams, compacting of ground, and other factors that have reduced infiltration and lowered the water table, the swamp rose is now found in only a few places in Princeton. Its species name, "palustris", is used to name many species found growing in marshy ground.

The live stakes will be pushed into the ground at a couple places where we've converted detention basins to native wet meadows, and also at Herrontown Woods next to the parking lot, where we are creating a place where people can see and learn to identify the native plants of Princeton.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Walking a Stream in Herrontown Woods

The main stream at Herrontown Woods is probably the cleanest in Princeton, thanks to the Veblens
original gift of land, and the champions of open space who followed, ultimately preserving this stream's headwaters. More photos at the Friends of Herrontown Woods website: Soul Made of Wood, Rocks, and Water.

Many boulders bear the shells of hickory nuts, as if squirrels find the stream a good place to picnic.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

What's With the Witch Hazel?

Previous years' posts about the witch hazel growing along Shapiro Walk on Princeton campus were from mid-March. These photos are from late February, when the blooms had likely already been out for a week.

These are not the native witch hazel, which blooms in late fall, but are most likely a cross between the Japanese and the Chinese species (Hamamelis japonica × H. mollis).

It's hard to fully rejoice in their blooms while walking by in a winter hunch.

A few flies showed up for the party, but there were no bees to be seen.