Friday, August 26, 2022

August Nature Vignettes

Herein lie a series of mid-summer encounters with nature in Princeton. 

At the Barden in Herrontown Woods, where artistic photos of native plants ring the gazebo, a tiger swallowtail butterfly was caught imitating art imitating nature. Each of the 30 some wire cages harbors a different native wildflower. This one is clustered mountain mint, which is a magnet for pollinators.

Up near Veblen House, sawfly larvae chowing down on a young hazelnut's leaves adopted an S-shaped balletic pose when disturbed. Imagine everyone in a cafeteria standing up and adopting the same yoga position as you entered. With 9 pairs of prolegs, the sawfly larvae are not true caterpillars, which are defined as having only 6 pairs.

The sawflies' choreographed response is similar to that of a real caterpillar called a contracted Datana seen three years ago on lowbush blueberries also growing at Herrontown Woods. 

If you see the top of a lovely young eastern white pine suddenly turn brown, chances are that white pine weevils have paid a visit. The adults overwinter in the leaf litter, then emerge in spring. The females lay eggs in the central stem of the white pine, the larvae then eat the inner bark of the pine, cutting off the flow of nutrients to the terminal stem. 

In late July and early August, the adults emerge via small holes in the bark. The weevils are native, and the pine survives by using one of its lateral shoots to continue upward growth. Evidence of past attacks by weevils can be seen in a pine tree's crooked stem. 
Why is this gangly weed being left to grow in an otherwise groomed suburban lawn? It's a chicory that has worked its way into the heart of the homeowner by fielding an array of attractive flowers through most of the summer. The blooms of the homeowner's frontyard roses and Rose of Sharon shrubs come and go, but the chicory keeps delivering.

The flowers have a delightful shade of blue that lifts the spirit. There's a fun post about a chicory that grew gloriously out of what looked like pure concrete six years ago at a busy intersection, drawing photographers, including me. 

Liking the plant, I'd like to think it "plays well with others", that is, does not become invasive and exclusionary of other plants in the manner of mugwort or Chinese bushclover. But while traveling recently in southern Wisconsin, I did see it thickly established along a lengthy stretch of country road. But a road embankment is an altered soil that often becomes colonized by nonnatives that aren't necessarily invasive in a prairie.

I was impressed to see that this gardener on Valley Road had vanquished the Canada thistle that had pushed up through the mulch earlier in the spring. (See Weeds That Launch an Underground Insurgency.) A garden tells little of the past battles waged to create this gentle scene of coneflowers and black-eyed susans. 

A meadow needs to be weeded like any garden. Sometimes, the process of weeding, by getting us out there, leads to discoveries and a deeper appreciation of the area being weeded. Scott Sillars and I were weeding the meadow next to Veblen House recently, pulling every Chinese bushclover we could find before they could bloom and go to seed, when I discovered a plant not previously known to bloom there. 
Rose Pink (Sabatia angularis) is a biennial in the gentian family. I had been content to call it Meadow Beauty until I took a closer look and realized it has five petals instead of four. 

Another small treasure, found while cutting invasive wisteria vines in a thicket of privet shrubs near Veblen House, was an antler. It's said that shed antlers are rarely encountered because their minerals make for good gnawing by mice and other animals. This one, however, was in good shape long after being shed over the winter. 

When rains are plentiful, sensitive fern can form robust, expansionist stands that make the name seem a misnomer. But the plant lived up, or down, to its name when this summer's drought turned lush green leaves dry and brittle. 

Jewelweed is another example of a native plant that can be robust in wet weather, then get laid low by drought. A couple years ago, there were so scarce in the Barden at Herrontown Woods that we thought of helping them to spread. But the few specimens cast their spring-loaded seeds far and wide, leading to current abundance.

A lot of native wildflowers have "weed" in their common name, despite their positive attributes. Jewelweed is a good example, with its tubular orange flower that attracts hummingbirds, yet its capacity to become prolific can turn it into a weed in our perceptions.

Pokeweed is another native that can overgrow its welcome, looking sometimes elegant, sometimes gangly. More about pokeweed elsewhere on this blog, including its close relative in Argentina that looks like a tree but isn't. 

If you like pokeweed but find it gets way too big, you can cut it down in midsummmer, then watch it regrow in a smaller version of itself that might fit the allotted space better. This works with other tall native perennials as well.

Those who leave Princeton in August are missing out on bur season. If you find your leg covered with burs, it could be that you just walked by some stickweed. 
Here's a better photo. It's one of the plants written more about in a post called Deceptive Weeds
White avens is another weed that produces burs. 

If you get tired of watching paint dry, you can always drive down Route 206 towards Montgomery and watch Phragmitis reed slowly eat the road. 

You could also watch the condensate drain away from air conditioning units. Water can be pretty exciting to a gardener in the middle of a drought. Air conditioners pull moisture out of the inside air and release it outdoors. The trick is to take advantage of this water and direct it towards plants that desperately need it during hot, dry days when air conditioners are running the most.

One advantage of composting your food scraps in your yard is the surprise plants that sometimes appear among the moldering banana peels and crushed egg shells. This is a volunteer avocado growing in a Wishing the Earth Well composter.  

A friend of mine potted up one of his compost pile avocados and it's now almost too big to get out the door after a winter spent indoors.

There are a lot of native plants that show their beauty in midsummer when many people are out of town. One favorite of mine is woolgrass, which really should be called brown wool sedge, because it's a sedge, not a grass. You can call it Scirpus cyperinus if you want to sound impressive. Most sedges mature in the cool months of spring, but woodgrass develops more slowly, sending up a tall inflorescence that is attractive at all stages on its way to looking wooly.
It's been a great year for wild senna, a legume that folds up its leaves at night.
When many of the midsummer native wildflowers are looking spent, autumn Helenium unveils an array of attractive yellow flowers.

Friday, August 19, 2022

More Bear Sightings in Princeton

Princeton has no resident black bears, but they do occasionally wander through in the summer. There were some sightings beginning Aug. 11 near the old Butler tract, then August 13 in the Herrontown Woods area of northeastern Princeton, then other sightings through August 18 down along the Stony Brook.

The wisdom of a comic description I've posted in the past detailing how Princetonians should behave when encountering a black bear is confirmed in a recent article by the Town Topics

Black bears, particularly young males, are motivated to seek out new territory in the summer. One online source describes how young bears stay with their mothers for about 18 months, then are shooed away when the mother receives the persistent interest of an adult male, commencing another cycle of reproduction. 

Each bear must establish a home range. Female bears often share their ranges with their female offspring, but the young males must find new territory. That search sometimes includes Princeton. To get a sense of what the young male bears are looking for, Princeton is roughly 18 square miles, which is on the small side for a male bear's home range. Though we have a lot of open space, the habitat isn't enough to sustain a bear. Thus the brief visits in summer.

There is considerable solitude in the 20 plus years of a bear's life. The females have the recurring company of their offspring for 18 months at a stretch, but adult males spend their time alone except for a periodic few days' courtship with a female.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Evolution of the Front Lawn in Ann Arbor, MI

Back when I was writing and performing climate theater, it was a very useful exercise to view things like the earth or the economy as characters. Upon reflecting on what sort of character a front lawn might be, I realized that the expanse of mowed grass is much like a trophy wife for the House. Expected to be well manicured, passive and forever young, the front lawn serves no other purpose than to present a flattering view of the House to the public. In return for its submissiveness, the front lawn is allowed, and in fact expected, to remain perpetually idle. Any shift away from bland formality, such as a wildflower meadow or, heaven forbid, a vegetable garden, would be unbecoming and steal attention away from the House. It seemed to me the front lawn could benefit from a good turf therapist who could help her sort through how she ended up in such a one-way relationship, and from that developed a monologue called Turf Therapy

It's easy to knock suburban culture's striving for a sterile deep green conformity, and the chemical dependency and noxious lawn equipment that keeps it propped up. But most homeowners find themselves completely unprepared to own land, and the myriad kinds of plants that grow upon it. No surprise, then, that people try to turn the outdoors into as simple a landscape as possible, essentially an extension of the indoors. A lawn is the equivalent of a wall-to-wall carpet. 

In our era, the expansion of the suburban lawn has coincided with a shrinkage in knowledge of plants. Each generation sprouts more distant from ancestors who farmed or foraged. And how many schools teach children to identify even the most common trees? 

It's a brave homeowner, then, who dares take a shovel to the front lawn, bucking conformity to plant something more colorful, beneficial, and interesting. Usually, the change is wrought incrementally, expanding flowerbeds a little at a time. 

While most plantings tend to hug the edges and stick close to the house, in this yard a Salvia is boldly asserting itself right out in the middle of the yard.

Just down this street, which happens to be called Easy Street, someone dug a raingarden that catches water piped to it from the roof. They used the dirt dug out of the hole to build a berm on the downhill side, expanding the hole's capacity. The wildflowers feed the pollinators while the signs feed passersby with ideas, like Public Power, in which a town takes ownership of its electricity and moves rapidly towards 100% renewable energy.

A neighbor further down has converted even more of the yard to raingarden, and added a sign from the local watershed association: "Rain Garden: Improving wildlife habitat and water quality in the Huron River one garden at a time." This is a nice sentiment that all too often remains on the fringe, but in this neighborhood it has caught on.

Next door is a vegetable garden in the front yard. It's starting to look like the trophy wife has decided to pursue a life of her own. Any House with an ego is going to be really upset.

This homeowner, a friend of mine named Jeannine, has nurtured a burr oak savanna habitat in her front yard, with an understory of trilliums, plus black cohosh in its full mid-summer bloom. The House? Well, it's back there somewhere, having to accept that yards like to express themselves and have meaningful lives, too. 

Interestingly, some of her bur oaks are getting tall enough to start interfering with the solar panels on their garage. She has started managing her front yard forest, removing larger trees while keeping smaller ones not tall enough to shade the panels. It's a way of having your trees and panels, too. Each tree removed leaves a legacy of roots--a network of carbon consumed from the air and injected into the ground.

Even in more upscale neighborhoods, where homeowners can afford to hire landscapers, many yards are cared for by crews that carefully weed the wildflower meadows, displacing the noisy custodial crews that "mow, blow, and go." What a pleasure to bicycle through a lovely neighborhood with colorful, botanically interesting yards and a delicious quiet. Machines to suppress vegetation are replaced by skilled intervention to steer vegetation. All week in Ann Arbor, the neighborhoods were remarkably quiet. I looked online for information about bans on leaf blowers, and could only find a ban on 2-cycle lawn equipment in the city's downtown, passed in 2019.

The shift from lawn to meadow in many yards was surely inspired in part by the work of Jeannine Palms, who with her preschool kids, neighbors and town staff have carved native wet meadows into what had been a vast expanse of turfgrass in nearby Buhr Park. 

Their meadows have many of the same wildflowers we have in Princeton, with some differences. The photo shows gray-headed coneflower, which is close in appearance to our cutleaf coneflower. And they have additional kinds of Silphium (rosinweed, prairie dock, compass plant), and a grass called smooth cordgrass. 

More recently, Jeannine has led a volunteer effort to shift even more of the park away from turfgrass, in this case to create a food forest packed with grapes, apples, pears, elderberry, pawpaw, currants, raspberries, strawberries, fennel, and a "three sisters" planting of corn, beans and squash. 

Here's an effort to grow sweet potatoes, not only for the tubers but also for the leaves, which are delicious. Fabric is spread on the ground to suppress weeds, and fencing suspended above to deter the deer. 

The story of this heroic transformation is told in a sign posted next to the first wet meadows. In the process, they have brought diverse, edible life back to the land and the neighborhood. 

Monday, July 04, 2022

What's Bloomin' in the Barden -- Early July

An effort to document everything flowering in the Botanical Art Garden at Herrontown Woods on one day in June (the 26th):

Black-eyed Susan in the Veblen Circle surrounding the gazebo.


Fringed loosestrife is a shy native wildflower, pointed downwards, but is not shy about spreading.

This is looking like white avens, a native that's also looking pretty shy. We tend to think of it as a weed, because it isn't very ornamental and makes burrs that stick to clothing.

The tiny flowers of tall meadowrue make clouds of white in the Barden, sometimes rising to ten feet. I've found it growing wild in Princeton in only a couple places, but it grows well in a garden.
A few sundrops are hanging on, with their x-shaped stigma. This is an easy flower to grow, spreading a little but not too much.
Narrow-leaved mountain mint is a native wildflower that appeared spontaneously in the Barden. It's a fairly common wildflower of meadows in the Princeton area.
Daisy fleabane was blooming weeks ago and is still at it. There are two species.

The untoothed leaves suggest it is Erigeron strigosus

Common milkweed has spread rapidly at the Barden. I just met some Herrontown neighbors who grow milkweed, and their kids have already found two Monarch caterpillars that they adopted and grew into butterflies.

If black cohosh is blooming in the Barden, that means it will soon be blooming in the woods up on the ridge as well. 

Some nonnatives are St. Johnswort,
moth mullein,
 (moth mullein's distinctive buds)
wooly mullein, which can spread by seed quite a bit but we allow a few to grow for their dramatic shape and the velvety feel of the leaves,
and white clover.

A few native shrubs are blooming: oak-leaved hydrangia,
silky dogwood,
and elderberry.
We're being very encouraging of sedges at the Barden, planting them in swales where they get plenty of moisture. They reach a peak of lush, grassy beauty in late spring, and each species has a different shape to the clusters of seeds. There are many species of sedge. I'm going to say this is Carex lurida, the sallow sedge. 
I'd call this the morning star sedge, Carex grayi.
This is a fairly common sedge in Princeton in floodplains. I've long wanted to attach a name to it. Once I thought I'd found a name, then promptly forgot it. The mind is a terrible thing.
Rushes are not sedges, but this green bulrush is a sedge. 

That's 21 species found blooming or fruiting on June 26, 2022. For some, this diversity is off-putting, but for those who love plants, the diversity just makes it all the more interesting.