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.

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.