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Archive for August, 2005

Found and Lost

FrankliniaThe Franklin tree, Franklinia alatamaha, is an ornamental tree only found in cultivation today. The fragrant, camellia-like flowers make it a worthy addition to the garden and its history makes it a conversation piece.

John Bartram found this tree in 1770 growing along the Altamaha River in Georgia, and named it for his friend Benjamin Franklin. After 1790 it couldn’t be found in the wild, and all of our Franklinias since are thought to be descended from this original collection.

In 1999 I participated in a study of the genetic diversity of the plant by the Holden Arboretum; I sent them a fresh cutting from the tree I planted at Crow’s Nest so that they could determine how closely related are the Franklinias in cultivation. I never did find out the exact results of that study.

Our Franklinia, along with one planted at Taylor Memorial Arboretum when I worked there, was donated by Lydia Thomas and Anne and Tom Moore, from the nursery that was once on their property.

Although it was found in Georgia, Franklinia is hardy here in Pennsylvania. Bartram planted one in his botanic garden along the Schuykill River, and you can go to Bartram’s Garden today and see a large specimen. Like several other southern species, Franklinia was likely pushed south during the Ice Age, and hadn’t had the time to migrate north again even though the climate here again was suitable for it. (Today, there are often human-made barriers to such migrations in the form of agricultural and suburban land uses, instead of more natural forest habitats.)

Franklinia had likely a small wild population at the time Bartram saw it, and so was vulnerable to extinction from any number of possible causes. We are fortunate to be able to grow it in gardens today, even if this is much diminished from its potential former wild glory.

For a description of Bartram’s travels, see John’s son William Bartram’s “Travels,” originally published in 1791 as “Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee country.”

Community Supported Agriculture

MaysiesIf you’ve ever wanted to see a local organic farm up close, Maysie’s Farm in Ludwig’s Corner is having an open house and party on Saturday, September 17. Maysie’s Farm has a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA) where shareholders buy a portion of the farmer’s produce at the beginning of the season and receive the bounty each week from June to November.

“Know your farmer” is not just a slogan—it’s a good practice to know the person who is growing your food, and be aware of how he or she grows the food. Eating is also a good way to reconnect people to the land that feeds us all. Here are the event details:

The Open House/CSA Picnic is taking place on Saturday, September 17. The Open House will begin at 3:00, with farm tours, hay rides, information tables, children’s activities, and a bag raffle. The potluck dinner will start at about 6:00. This year we will be featuring a square dance band, with music starting at around 7:30 and the dance on the lawn beginning at 8:00. This CSA party is our biggest social event of the year, and we hope you will spread the word to friends and family.

“Think Globally, Eat Locally”
Maysie’s Farm Conservation Center
610-458-8129
www.maysiesfarm.org

Two Plants, One Allergy

GoldenrodIf you are allergic to ragweed you are probably aware it has started blooming now. Unlucky goldenrod (Solidago spp.), pictured here, gets blamed for fall allergies, but for most people it is really caused by two species of ragweed.

Goldenrod’s attractive flowers attract insect pollinators, and the grains of pollen are large enough to stick to insects. They don’t tend to blow in the wind the way wind-pollinated ragweed pollen does. Ragweed blooms at the same time as goldenrod, though, so showy goldenrod gets wrongly blamed.

Ragweed’s flowers are inconspicuous because they don’t need to attract insects; the light pollen is carried by the wind, as you already know. If you bump a plant in full flower, a cloud of pollen puffs out.

RagweedThere are two species of ragweed common in our area, giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida), which grows eight feet tall or more and has some three-lobed leaves; and common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) which is half as tall and has deeply-cut leaves. The botanic names refer to the leaves, with the latter having leaves like an artemisia, or wormwood plant.

I don’t know how to relate the genus name—Ambrosia—with the common definition of the word ambrosia: “something extremely pleasing to taste or smell.” This plant causes me no shortage of misery in bloom (though it is a good wildlife plant).

And our allergy suffering is likely to get worse: recent research by Lewis Ziska at the USDA Crop Systems and Global Change lab has shown that in the presence of additional carbon dioxide—a condition that the world in general and cities in particular are experiencing—ragweed plants grow taller, produce more pollen, and each grain of pollen has a larger amount ot the proteins that stimulate an allergic response in some people. He presented this and other research at the Invasive Plants conference last week at University of Pennsylvania.

So avoid ragweed if you can, shower before retiring, and keep your outdoor clothes out of your bedroom, and you might sleep a litttle better.

In My Barnyard

Oldbarn_2 I sat in my office at lunch today and stared at a one-hundred-year-old picture of the barn hanging over my desk.  Buildings, fences, and cows that no longer exist dot the scene.  The young sycamore by the barnyard wall obscured most of the barn.  NewbarnToday, the old sycamore is aided by a catalpa and another fledgling sycamore.  The stream in the foreground of the old photo is now a wet meadow filled with with native grasses and wildflowers like New York ironweed and cattails.  As I stared at the photo I thought, "How slowly things change, but how drastically.  Projects get started and projects are finished, but overall things change slowly, no matter how hard someone works to speed up the process."

Then I asked myself, "What’s the point of trying to change things if they’ll only be steam-rolled into oblivion by more changes?"  Am I King Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the mountain only to have it roll back down – doomed to repeat the interminable process?  But unlike King Sisyphus, NLT’s staff knows when to apply themselves to make far reaching changes.  For example, if the wet meadow were planted improperly – at the wrong time of year – it would have been disastrous.  Ten years later, the meadow thrives on its own.  One of my colleagues told me, ‘work with your head, not your back.’  It’s a piece of advice that every environmentalist could stand to hear.

In Praise of Joe-Pye

Joe_pyeJoe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum and E. purpureum) makes a beautiful show in summer, both in the wet meadows and in the gardens in our barnyard. Butterflies and bumblebees flit and swarm over the flowers; the bees often appear to be sleepily drunk on them in the cool mornings. According to the Audubon Field Guide to Wildflowers, folklore suggests that a Native American named Joe Pye used this plant to cure fevers.

Recovering America

I have had the wonderful opportunity to travel a bit on weekends this summer. Some people are willing to have unpleasant employment and living conditions as long as they get their two weeks of vacation each year. I’m not one of them—I want my home, and the preserve where I work, to be as beautiful as a vacation spot, even if when I look around I see all the work that needs to be done. But you can come here and enjoy the beauty and not worry about all that work.

We went to a wedding on Cape Cod a couple weekends ago, and had a delightful time in a beautiful place with wonderful friends. The tide goes out a mile or more each day, and there are wonderful opportunities to see crabs, starfish, quahogs and other clams. We explored a pine barren habitat in the interior of the Cape, which looks a bit like the barrens on Long Island and in New Jersey. The natural history museum had just completed a prescribed fire on their lands outside of Brewster, for the purpose of restoring grasslands habitat.

But a high point of the trip was going to see the Underground Art Gallery and meeting Malcolm Wells, visionary architect and promoter of underground buildings. The gallery itself is underground, with openings to the south for light and passive solar heat. Mr. Wells has been promoting “green roofs” long before they became trendy in environmental and architectural discussions. A restored habitat can be enabled on top of a lot of human infrastructure, and the buildings beneath are warm, dry, and energy efficient.

I picked up his book, “Recovering America: A More Gentle Way to Build” and it is available in the Crow’s Nest library. To better see the impact of our current way of building, he says, you need to tilt the landscape up on edge—or fly over it. The “big-box” windowless superstores and massive parking lots cover way too much of our landscape. The lanscaping we see from the street is merely insignificant window dressing for an architectural style that represents a lost opportunity for habitat.

Cape Cod itself is beautifully quaint, with a deliberate absence of the worst of commercial sprawl. Stores are built in a scale and design that fits in with our image of what Cape Cod should be. We rode bicycles on an excellent rail trail that proved to be an ideal alternative infrasctructure for getting around—they even have a rotary where trails from three towns meet.

(Never have I seen so many people, who should have been wearing sunscreen—who apparently didn’t!)

And the people there have quaint traditions (legally enforced) that are not in practice here: they yield to pedestrians and to cyclists crossing on the bike paths. Stopping your car for pedestrians in Pennsylvania could get you rear-ended; it’s just not our tradition here, though it is the law.

Critters at Crow’s Nest

Cicada
This juvenile cicada was hanging around the yard recently. Normally you see the shed skins of this insect as it grows; we used to make armies out of them when we were kids. Sometimes you see the adults—with wings—their life cycle complete, spent and dying. If you live on the east coast, you certainly hear them.

Rat_snakeThis black rat snake greeted early arrivals at camp this summer, peeking out of the barn beams. It tolerated many photographs, but eventually pulled back into the barn.

ArgiopeThis female black-and-yellow Argiope spider beautifies the wetland where she resides. According to the Audubon Field Guide to Insects and Spiders, the male builds a web in the outlying part of the female’s web, and makes the zig zag band across the middle.

Creek Study

Thursday, August 18, 2005

What a great morning!  We took the kids to Cook’s Creek this morning to look at aquatic insects Catchingsomething and other aquatic organisms.  We caught 3 different species of stonefly nymphs, and 4-5 species of mayfly nymphs.  The presence of stoneflies in a stream generally indicates good water quality.  The fact that there was a diversity of aquatic species is even better.  Additionally, we caught black-nosed dace (a fish), fishing spiders, caddis-flies, salamanders, a crayfish and more. 

Scope4 Everything was released in the stream after we studied it on the banks of the creek.  We took back 4 specimens to view under the microscope.  There were lots of “oohhhs and aahhhs”.  We were able to see the feeding filters that stonefish have on their legs, the organs inside a water penny, and the compound eyes of mayflies.  After everyone left, I returned the specimens to Cook’s Creek.

(Photos by Carole Mebus)

Woods walk with a Forester

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Day_camp_0705_047 Jamie Leary, the Service Forester, was the featured speaker at day camp today.  I wrote about Jamie a few weeks back under “Tree Cookie Quiz”.  Jamie showed kids how to use an ID Key to identify trees.  But he demonstrated it by having them make their own key that would help a stranger identify the different kids.  On a piece of paper, each child answered a list of questions like: how many siblings do you have? What is your favorite color? What town do you live in? And how many pets do you have?  The last question was their name. 

Jamie collected the papers then had everyone stand up.  Then he would ask questions, just as you do when you are using an ID key.  “Sit down if you don’t live in Williams Township.”  “Sit down if you don’t have 3 brothers and sisters.”  Sit down if your favorite color is not indigo.”  In the end, he knew the name of the child left standing.  It was a big hit with the kids.  Then Jamie gave them each a tree identification key and we took a walk in the woods.  The kids quickly figured out how to use the key, and wanted to identify every tree we walked by. 

Jamie also showed them how to measure tree heights and figure out board feet using the Biltmore Janimeasuresheight Stick.  You will rarely see a forester in the woods without his Biltmore Stick.  It would be like an accountant without a calculator, or a doctor without a stethoscope.  Again, the kids measured a tree and came up with the same answer as Jamie on their first try.   That would normally be pretty amazing, but the kids in this group are naturals when it comes to outdoor study. 

(Photos by Carole Mebus)

May the FOREST Be With You Part II

This week is Day Camp for kids Grades 4 – 6.  We are studying the forest and having a great time.

Billandkidsoutside Today, Bill Wallace did a great presentation on the forest and especially how birds use the forest.  Besides being an art teacher, Bill is a wonderful wildlife photographer, and volunteers as a Hawk Counter at Hawk Mountain.  He summed it up really well after about a half hour with the kids.  “I hope you guys become science teachers, because you would be great.”

Countingrings Counting rings on a stump to determine the age of a tree that fell over in a storm.  The kids also looked at differences in the annual growth rings.  Some were much wider than average indicating better growing years.  Some were much narrower than average, indicating years when the tree had difficulty finding enough resources, whether it be water, sunlight or nutrients. These kids are enthusiastic about learning, and it is so much fun exploring nature together.

Photos courtesy of Carole Mebus.

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