Saturday, May 01, 2021

(Mostly) Native Flowers of Late April

This post documents some of the many native flowers to be found in late April, from deep woods to front yards. 

A medium sized shrub called Fothergilla, or witch alder, is having a good year in our front yard, though it's not found growing naturally in our local forests. 

Clouds of white in the woodland understory this time of year could be flowering dogwood, 

but blackhaw viburnums, central Jersey's most common native Viburnum, have also just opened up, dotting the understory with their large congregations of small pompom-like clusters of white flowers. 

Sometimes a closer look at an assemblage of white flowers reveals a flowering crabapple tree, as in this photo. Not completely sure as yet that these flowering crabs are native. 

Providing some contrast with the predominating white is the redbud, here seen at the "barden" at Herrontown Woods, where a forest opening allows it enough light to thrive.

On the forest floor, the most common wildflower is spring beauty, 

Rue anemone is an improbably delicate and fairly numerous presence along nature trails.

Trout lily should feel welcome to bloom more than it does, but seems content to mostly form carpets of sterile single leaves, few of which mature into the two-leaved plants that bloom.

By now, the bloodroots have passed from blooming to fruiting stage. 

Nice to see some young bloodroots popping up through the leaf litter.

Some native spring ephemerals occur only in the less historically disturbed lands along the Princeton ridge, like Herrontown Woods. Wood anemone grows distinctive leaves with five leaflets. 

Update: Sadly, some plants have been removed from this post due to reports of plant theft in Herrrontown Woods. Uncommon plants tend to be adapted to particular soils and hydrology, so are unlikely to survive transplanting. Even if it were legal, it's a bad idea. 

Meanwhile, in the botanical art garden (Barden) next to the parking lot in Herrontown Woods, Rachelle planted some Virginia bluebells, which are very rarely seen growing naturally.
Wood phlox is another flower in this category, native but rarely seen in the wild. 

There are a couple nonnative wildflowers that are particularly noticeable blooming now in wild areas. This mustard, which I remember from travels in the english countryside, where whole fields were colored yellow by its blooms, was found growing along the gas pipeline right of way at Herrontown Woods. As plant lovers and dreamers, we sometimes envision a pipeline right of way becoming a corridor of native flowers and grasses. Reality tends to defeat this sort of dream, as the linear right of ways instead play host to the most tenacious of invasive plants--Phragmitis and mugwort.
Garlic mustard, a less tenacious invasive plant but worth pulling, has tasty leaves in early spring. A biennial, it blooms the second year, becoming less tasty as it matures. In this flowering stage, I pluck the flower heads, then pull the whole plant out of the ground, roots and all, the idea being to prevent it from producing seed and thus reducing future sproutings.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

My Writing in the NY Times on Earthday

My writing was included in an opinion piece in the NY Times on Earthday, entitled "When Climate Breakdown Hits Home: Readers share how environmental issues are changing their lives."

The term the editors used in the title, "climate breakdown," is a useful variation on climate change and climate crisis, given the damage extreme weather is doing to the systems that sustain our lifestyles. Here's my contribution to the piece:

For years, people in my community have ignored education campaigns and scolding letters to the editor and continued putting plastic bags in their curbside recyclables. Only when crews stopped taking recyclables contaminated with plastic bags did people stop. It took about a month to change everyone’s behavior.

Then Covid hit and people were forced again to change their ways, this time on a much larger scale. We proved ourselves adaptable, resourceful and even capable of finding silver linings, one of which was rediscovery of the great outdoors.

Local environmentalists still cling to the notion that education will cause people to change their ways voluntarily. Necessity in the form of policy change is the only form of education most people learn from, but we’ve been taught to resent those who dare impose necessity upon us. It’s sad that such an adaptable species is saving all of its adaptability for the endgame. — Steve HiltnerPrinceton, N.J.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

A Bee Tree in Herrontown Woods

 On April 12, I received an email from Jenny Ludmer saying she'd found a bee tree in Herrontown Woods. Jenny does a lot of good work locally at Sustainable Princeton, and she and her daughter have also helped out at our Princeton Botanical Art Garden, creating an educational display of wildlife bones on the rootball of an upturned tree. A bee tree, she explained, is a tree in which honeybees have a nest. This one is in 

an old tree just a few paces from the Green trail (about halfway from the Red and Yellow trails). The entrance to the honey bee nest is about 40 feet up in the tree and facing away from the trail.

She felt it safe to disclose the location, since it's so high up. My ambivalence about disclosing the location came from a post I had written last year around this time about having witnessed a swarm of honeybees in that same area of the preserve. I was told that the day after I posted, someone wearing a bee suit had come to Herrontown Woods and made off with the swarm! That was not exactly my intention.

With Jenny's email came some great photos showing bees already active in the nest. I'll quote extensively from her email, and then add a few things I've learned since.

I first discovered that honey bees live in trees about a year ago when I spotted a swarm in that very spot. Knowing that swarms never travel too far from the hive, I wondered how it got to the middle of Herrontown Woods. After reading several of Thomas Seeley's books and taking a class from Michael Thiele of Apis Arborea, I learned that not only do honey bees live in forest trees, they thrive in them. 

Yes, across the country, honey bees are suffering. Mites and numerous other calamities plague honey bees and make beekeeping a costly and depressing endeavor. Wild honey bees, on the other hand, are doing things just as nature intended. Instead of living low to the ground in thin-walled hive boxes, wild honey bees are nestled high in big trees, surrounded by thick trunk walls which protect them from temperature extremes. Unlike in traditional smooth hive boxes, honey bees cover the rough interior of the tree cavity with propolis, a sticky anti-fungal and antibacterial substance which helps create a healthier microenvironment for the bees. Furthermore, while traditional beekeepers maximize the size of their hives in an effort to harvest extreme amounts of honey, wild honey bees actively limit the size of their nest to about 40 liters and swarm frequently to spawn new generations and help prevent any large infestations of mites. Perhaps more importantly, no beekeeper decides the genetic line of these wild bees and there's no moving them around the country as farmers see fit. Nature and evolution ensure that the healthiest bees thrive precisely in the location where they were born.

So while traditional beekeepers claim the only way to keep honey bees alive is to medicate and artificially feed them, nature has a different story to tell. I hope all beekeepers get to learn from Thomas Seeley and Michael Thiele. 

Jenny's email led me to learn more about what honeybees experience in the early spring. In her photo here of the nest opening, you can see a bee exiting. The red flowers in the photo are red maple, whose flowers--early and abundant--are an important source of sustenance for bees.

Through a beautiful description of early spring activity in a bee hive, I quickly gained an appreciation for how risky early spring is for honeybees, and how important early sources of nectar are as the bees use their last winter stores to up the temperature of the hive, raise new young, and take "cleansing flights" as the weather warms. Even when flowers like maple are available, stormy spring weather may keep the bees from foraging.

That got me taking a closer look at early flowers, like this pussy willow in the Herrontown Woods botanical garden. Didn't see any honeybees, but this fly looked different from your usual fly. 
There's a progression of native spring ephemerals in the forest, beginning around the first week of April. This bloodroot is being visited by a bee, likely a native bee. (Honeybees were introduced from Europe in colonial times.)
In some areas we still have patches of wood anemone, 
and the spicebush are numerous, though their flowers last only a few days.
Hepaticas are very rarely seen. 

The far more numerous spring beauties would be worth taking a close look at for visits from honeybees.

One of Jenny's photos is of a honeybee taking a drink amidst the leaf litter on the forest floor. 

Here is a description of one of Thomas Seeley's books. Thanks to Jenny for letting us know about one of Herrontown Woods' hidden denizens.

Honeybee Democracy--a book

Honeybees make decisions collectively — and democratically. Every year, faced with the life-or-death problem of choosing and traveling to a new home, honeybees stake everything on a process that includes collective fact-finding, vigorous debate, and consensus building. In fact, as world-renowned animal behaviorist Thomas Seeley reveals, these incredible insects have much to teach us when it comes to collective wisdom and effective decision making. 

Friday, April 09, 2021

The Pandemic, Recycling, and How People Change

          "Environmental education is just words on paper waiting for necessity to make them required reading." 
           -- SKH

People have always embodied a contradiction. As a species we are extraordinarily adaptable, and yet we often resist voluntary change and complain about any change imposed upon us. This contradiction is embodied in the nation's lack of action on the climate crisis. We are resisting even small changes in our behavior now, as if saving our adaptability for the massive changes to come. 

The pandemic's imperatives sent much of that irrational tentativeness and procrastination packing. We changed our lives radically to save lives. Necessity mobilized our long dormant resourcefulness and capacity to adapt. 

As an environmentalist, I believed for many years that people could be convinced to change their ways if given a convincing reason to do so. I believed in the power of logic and knowledge to change the world. Personal experience led ultimately to my letting go of such idealistic notions, and recent years have dramatically demonstrated nationally how hard it is for people to let go of emotionally satisfying fictions. 

Yet I worry that many younger environmentalists, propelled by enthusiasm and a sense of rightness, will nevertheless mistakenly invest their time and youthful energy in trying to get people to voluntarily change their ways. 


Even before the pandemic, in the fall of 2019, there was a local example of how real change happens--the Mercer County recycling program used in Princeton. For years, Mercer County and Princeton have been telling residents NOT to put plastic bags in curbside recycling bins. Flyers were distributed, scolding letters to the editor were written, yet the plastic bags remained as numerous as before. 

Why did all these attempts at education fail? Because the county's lack of enforcement was in itself a far more powerful form of education. Residents learned not from words but from what they can get away with. The only education that mattered was a lax policy's powerful message that plastic bags were really okay, after all. 

Finally, collection crews were told to leave bins that were contaminated with plastic bags uncollected on the curb. Only then, when residents were denied service, did they change their behavior. Within a month, all residents had learned a lesson that countless flyers and reminders had failed to teach.

It was at that moment, when residents found their bins unemptied, that they finally sought out the information necessary to conform to the county's requirements. Being highly adaptable and resourceful humans, they quickly changed their ways and began following a rule they had been ignoring for years. 

The same holds true for any other environmental aim, be it more nature-friendly landscaping or reducing one's carbon footprint. As the examples of the pandemic and curbside recycling show, necessity is what changes behavior. It mobilizes an innate resourcefulness, adaptability, and inventiveness that otherwise remain dormant. In this sense, education is just words on paper waiting for necessity to make them required reading. 

Sunday, March 28, 2021

A Mink and Other Spring Sightings

While out doing trail work, Friends of Herrontown Woods volunteer Adrian Colarusso spotted what looks to be a mink living in the boulder field that extends down from the ridge along the stream. He was able to take a video. This sent me searching for info on how to distinguish a mink from a weasel from a marten. While on the subject, it's interesting to note that fishers, a larger member of the weasel family, have returned to NJ, first verified in 2006 in northern NJ. 

Earlier in March, a red fox showed up one morning in our backyard garden, which offers some decent habitat despite the house fronting on busy Harrison Street. It had beautiful markings, with black ears and legs and a white-spotted tail.
The fox had just caught a rodent, thank you very much, and seemed to be playing with it a bit, regarding it as part curiosity, part meal.

Spring ephemerals are emerging in the forest, and Princeton's most common native wildflower, the spring beauty, is opening its blooms. This one is ahead of others due to a southern exposure, nestled at the base of a tree. 

I noticed it while building 200 feet of rudimentary boardwalk on the back side of the red trail at Herrontown Woods--a section of trail that has been muddy ever since being first opened back around 1958. I believe this rapid response could serve as a model for solving the world's other problems.
The trail is built of repurposed boards from a construction site, with crosspieces salvaged from the fence that used to run in front of the Princeton Shopping Center. Those sentimental about the shopping center's split rail fence can now enjoy its remnants while hiking through swamp forest--that extensive preserved tract of spongy soil that feeds a tributary of Harry's Brook.

Sweeps of snowdrops, a spring bulb that's not native but not invasive, have again been ornamenting the Veblen House grounds at Herrontown Woods. The blooms are a remnant of a pre-1970s era when Elizabeth Veblen served as host to the Dogwood Garden Club 

This lovely photo was taken by Joan Marr, who recently retired from longtime service in Princeton as a dental hygienist. 

Joan also collaborated with nature on this artistic photo of clusters of woodfrog eggs in a small but persistent vernal pool along the red trail at Herrontown Woods. 

Princeton's deer continue to provide pro bono landscaping services, working tirelessly through the winter to achieve their patented effects on evergreen trees. Now we know why landscapers sometimes put fencing around the base of evergreens in the winter.

Photos of native wildflowers to come, curated by Friends of Herrontown Woods board member Inge Regan, lie on the floor of the Herrontown Woods gazebo in preparation for mounting.  
Those relaxing in the gazebo at the Princeton Botanical ARt garDEN ("BARDEN" for short)  can now look out on a Veblen Circle of photos of nearly 30 native wildflowers that will soon emerge around the gazebo. 

The Barden, next to the parking lot off Snowden, is a place for adults to relax and kids to explore. Or is it the other way around? 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Some Unusual Trees

 Here are some encounters with unusual trees in Princeton. 

In the Institute Woods, we saw a couple beech trees some distance from a trail and took a closer look. Not quite the California redwood that people could once drive a car through, but similar in concept. 

Another beech nearby was harder to pose with.
The view up the inside of the trunk.

Bark with this shaved appearance, seen recently in a deep forest in northeastern Princeton, is called "ash blonding," said to happen when woodpeckers go after the emerald ash borers inside the ash tree. Note the tell-tale "D"-shaped holes where the borers exit. 

More uplifting was this tall spruce, which during the holidays sports a shining star, which then gets replaced on the owner's March 17 birthday 
by an Irish clover. 

Here's an odd sighting. It looks like an ordinary stump, but the tree was clearly cut down and removed. The forest is quite old, so the logging must have been long ago. My guess is that it's the stump of a chestnut tree harvested a century ago. One of the many wonderful traits of the native chestnut, lost to an introduced disease a century ago, was its resistance to decay. Working briefly for a forester in Massachusetts in the 1970s, I saw whole logs of fallen chestnuts still intact despite the passage of many decades. I'm ready to be wrong on this ID, but that's what I'm going with for now.

A month ago, I stopped by the TRI property to check up on a couple native butternuts planted there by Bill Sachs. The two trees are flourishing except for some vines that I really need to get back there and cut. They were planted close to where Bill and I harvested about fifty nuts, perhaps the last native butternut harvest in town before the bounteous tree was blown down in a storm. Thanks to Bill, the harvest turned into many saplings that we've planted in many locations in town, including Harrison Street Park, Herrontown Woods, Mountain Lakes, Stone Hill Church, and TRI. The tree has a gangly growth form, but the nuts are said to be delicious. The tree needs our help because of an introduced disease that has laid it low. This one's look really healthy thus far.

Some other stories about unusual trees:

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Amphibians Risk Their Lives Crossing Herrontown Road

This past Thursday, March 18, I received a phone call from Fairfax Hutter with news that the amphibians would be migrating that night. A long spell of dry weather had held the frogs and salamanders back. Now, with rain and temperatures in the 40s, they would be moving in large numbers towards vernal pools to breed. Fairfax was headed out to the Howell History Farm area to protect amphibians crossing the road, but she was hoping I could grab a reflective vest and flashlight and walk along Herrontown Road. Directing traffic would have required coordination with the police, and lacking the necessary equipment, I didn't get out there until Saturday morning, to see if what sort of traffic control could be warranted in the future. 

The photos I took were reminiscent of the snapshots in Chris Jordon's documentary "Albatross," of birds killed by an accumulation of plastic in their guts. 
No driver means to kill a spotted salamander, and no one wishes plastic waste to ultimately kill an albatross. So much of the damage we do is inadvertent, free of ill intent. Climate change and plastics pollution are a giant, collective "Oops!" 

The number of roadkilled amphibians between the Autumn Hill Reservation parking lot and Stone Hill Church came to ten. The death toll would rise with additional cars passing by. One fascinating aspect of population is that, as the number of people increases, the behavior of each individual becomes more important even as the individual feels less and less responsible for the collective impact.

Predictions of future carnage need to factor in the increased traffic generated by a recovering economy. If the 90 acre Landwin tract on Herrontown Road were to be developed, the combination of lost habitat and more traffic would not bode well for the spotted salamanders, which Fairfax says are about to be listed as an NJ species of state concern. 

Meamwhile, the frog-filled vernal pools near the Herrontown Woods parking lot were drawing a lot of attention from kids passing by on the trail. Fairfax said she had documented a record night along the stretch of road where she had played the role of crossing guard, with 98 crossings

In Princeton, as far as I know, there has been no effort to protect amphibians crossing roads in the spring. Here, at least, is some evidence to spur better preparedness for migrations to come.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Be On Guard for Lesser Celandine

(This post is from 2021. Click here for more recent posts about nature.)

From backyards to front yards to curbsides to parks and nature preserves, a small invasive flower is on the march. Dominating the landscape in early spring with its yellow blooms, it turns March into LOOK AT ME, ME, ME!, because that's all you will see when lesser celandine coats the ground. Just to hoodwink homeowners, the name "lesser celandine" has sometimes been supplanted by the name "fig buttercup," but it's all the same plant, whose latin name is Ficaria verna

My posts about the plant date back to 2007, when I heard people mistakenly calling it "marsh marigold," which it most emphatically is not. Back then, lesser celandine was most entrenched at Pettoranello Gardens and rapidly spreading downstream into Mountain Lakes. Hopefully, when Princeton hires an open space manager, a more coordinated effort can be launched to reduce the plant's spread and protect areas not yet infested. Homeowners tend to like the plant at first, then become appalled as it begins taking over the yard and spreading to the neighbors'. 

Use herbicides on lesser celandine? The nature of good and evil.

Those who care enough about their yards and the local ecology to want to stop the plant's spread may also feel qualms about using herbicides, which are the only practical means of control. Removal by digging is cumbersome, time-consuming, and adds unnecessary weight and bulk to your trash can. I encourage people to think of herbicides for nature the same way we think of medicines for people. We know all medicines have some level of toxicity, but we use them in a minimal and targeted way to protect our health. Doesn't nature deserve the same sort of intelligent intervention? It's important to make a distinction between spot spraying for lesser celandine and the blanket application of pesticides and chemical fertilizers on lawns. Glyphosate and Roundup are not synonymous. There are wetland-safe forms of glyphosate available online, not made by Monsanto. If treating lesser celandine that has invaded lawns, use an herbicide that is selective for broadleaf plants so that the grass survives.

While avoiding blanket condemnations of herbicides, I also like to avoid thinking of invasive species as "bad plants." Like so many of the problems that plague us, they are "too much of a good thing." Unfortunately, though it might be tempting to keep a few lesser celandines in the yard, its super aggressive behavior makes that very risky. Best to eliminate it altogether. Winter aconite, on the other hand, is a nonnative that looks a lot like lesser celandine but has not to my knowledge spread into natural areas.

Selected past posts:

2019: Fig Buttercup--Little Flower, Big Problem - Photos of fig buttercup's (lesser celandine's) spread, along with a discussion of why this invasive species creates more problems than other common invasives.

2018: A World Paved With Fig Buttercup? - Lesser celandine's other common name is fig buttercup. This post documents in photos and text the astonishing spread of this plant in the Mountain Avenue neighborhood.

2017: Winter Aconite and Fig Buttercup--Related Flowers, Contrasting Behaviors - These two early blooming yellow flowers look very similar, but behave very differently.

2016: Letter On Lesser Celandine Strikes a Nerve - a letter in the Town Topics that got quite a response

2016: Alert, Monitoring for Lesser Celandine - This post includes links to treatment options.

2015: Marsh Marigold vs. Lesser Celandine - Lesser celandine is frequently mistaken for the native marsh marigold, which is a larger plant and very, very rarely seen.

2013: Will the Real Marsh Marigold Please Stand Up--a Confusion of Yellows - Some photos help distinguish lesser celandine from marsh marigold, dandelion, and celandine poppy.

2007: Pretty, but... - My earliest post on lesser celandine.

Monday, March 01, 2021

Nature as a Partner, Even in Winter

Working With Nature

In winter, with the plant world frozen and the ground cloaked with snow, it's easy for a gardener to feel cut off from the nature that has meant so much to us through this pandemic. It's possible, though, to work with nature even during this season of suspended animation. The elemental aspects of nature are always ready to be tapped. Welcome sunlight through windows to help brighten and warm the house. Hang washed laundry on racks to let the air effortlessly absorb the moisture. Moisten plates in the sink to soften the dirt before washing. To do these things is to participate in a partnership with nature. Snow can be seen as a natural way of recycling light. It brightens the world rather than letting the light be swallowed by the drab browns and grays of the winter landscape.

Nature as Energy Detective

In a way, nature speaks, even in winter, and can offer useful clues to those who listen and observe. The location of spider webs can sometimes indicate where warm air is escaping from the house in winter.  The patterns that snow makes on roofs as it melts tell a lot about what's going on inside. Above the garage of this building is a living space on the left, and a stairwell on the right. Because the living space is insulated, the snow is slower to melt.

The two little spots where snow is melting on the roof of my house suggest heat is escaping there. One of those spots is where the heat duct extends almost to the ceiling in the bathroom, creating a hot spot that could use more insulation above it. 

The ribs on this roof reveal where the evenly spaced wooden rafters insulate the shingles from the warmed attic air.

Massive icicles hanging from the roof of my childhood home were a delight, but looking back with an adult's eyes, their splendor was probably due to heat rising from a poorly insulated house to send melted roof snow towards the gutters. 

Winter Joys

While adults often view snow and ice as an impediment and chore, it's often the kids who serve as conduit for reminding the adult world that snow and ice are really nature's invitation to a good time. 

Skating on Carnegie Lake

It was kids, and the kid in me, that led to these past accounts of skating on Carnegie lake:

2015: "IceLax" -- playing lacrosse on Lake Carnegie

2014: "When Carnegie Ice Melts Memories" -- How Carnegie Lake provided a window into my own childhood.

2010: Patterns in Carnegie Lake Ice -- improbable beauty in the ice, in photos taken from the Harrison Street bridge

2009: Patterns in Carnegie Lake Ice -- more remarkable patterns found while skating

2007: Winter in Residence -- when people flocked to Carnegie Lake in Februrary, 2007