Archive for the Category ◊ Native Plants ◊

• Friday, May 27th, 2011

I’ve never been a good reader.  In school, it was painful and slow.  If I tried to push myself to go faster, I’d end up not understanding what I just read and invariably have to start again.  I didn’t read much as a result and reading out loud was worse.  I’d stutter and get hung up on words like “is” or “that”.  Maybe I’d have been diagnosed with ADD, but it wasn’t described yet.

Even today, if a book doesn’t grab me by the throat and threaten not to let go, I am very quick to put it down. So when I come across one that really catches a hold on me, I want to tell the world.

I’ve recently read two books that I can honestly say changed my life. Doug Tallamy’s “Bringing Nature Home” has given me a new perspective on what I do.  For nearly 25 years, I’ve been a naturalist in and around the mid-Atlantic region.  I’ve helped educate and mold children and adults on the decisions they make and the impact it has on the environment.

I’ve always been an advocate for using native plants in the landscape, but never fully understood the ecological principles behind those choices.  That is, until I read Mr. Tallamy’s book.

“Bringing Nature Home” describes the relationship between native plants and the insects that depend on them. How native insects haven’t evolved to feed on non-native plants and therefore, can’t survive on them. This spirals out to talk about the birds and animals that depend on the insects that are depending on native plants.  I knew everything was connected, I guess I just didn’t realize to what extent those relationships existed.

The other book that I want everyone to read is Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. It scared, enlightened, and thrilled me and set my resolve to do better by the animals I eat and prepare for my family. I read the young readers edition since I was assigning it to a class, but I’m sure the grown up version is just as good. Mr. Pollan describes where our food comes from, how it is processed, and why certain ingredients are so pervasive in the foods we eat. Why fast food burgers are so cheap and why it seems to cost more to eat healthy. With concise, easy to understand language and straight forward facts, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is a great read for the food shoppers, cooks and consumers in your family. Be prepared to be first horrified, then inspired to take a stand.

So throw out your high fructose corn syrup and your pappas grass and enjoy the summer.

• Thursday, January 21st, 2010

I love to walk through woods and meadows in winter to spot unusual features of plants that I missed when I was distracted by flowers and leaves. So many subtle treasures exist when you look carefully.

For many trees, it is easier to identify them when they have leaves or fruits, but there are a few that have such unusual bark, all you need is a quick glance to identify them.

Often found growing along stream banks,IMG_0371 the mottled bark of the American sycamore Platinus occidentalis, is easily spotted through a forest of trees or from a distance.

I have always used loose bark as a clue to disease, but the bark of the sycamore peels all year, revealing the brown, tan and green new bark underneath. In mid summer, the bark falls off in large pieces, larger enough to write on. I wonder if native people used this bark as a form of paper.

IMG_0355Though it goes by many names, the American hornbeam Carpinus caroliniana has distinctly sinuous bark which may explain why is it sometimes called muscle wood.

Hornbeam is a very dense wood, probably the densest in the mid-Atlantic forest and it is extremely hard. I once bent a pair of loppers on a limb. When I returned them to the store, the sales person asked me if I was cutting a steel cable with it. No, just ironwood.

Clues of herbaceous plants gone dormant can also be seen around the woods. There are a few species of woodland ferns that are evergreen, but my winter interest has also been to find the remains of the fertile fronds from ostrich and sensitive ferns.IMG_0362

The feathery plumes of ostrich ferns are a rich chocolate brown against newly fallen snow. And the tiny dark beads on the sensitive fern frond remind me of grape clusters.

IMG_0364Fruits as well as seed pods provide winter interest as well as important food sources for resident birds and mammals. The berries on red chokecherry Prunus virginiana burn bright against a blue sky signaling their ripeness to hungry birds.

The American hazelnut, a rare treat to find becauseIMG_0341 of they are a favorite of several mammals including fox, squirrel and raccoon as well as many larger birds like turkey and blue jays, are exquisite in their clam shell shaped sheath.

• Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

I heard this song the other day that made me smile. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Oooo, That Smell”. I never understood the meaning of that song, but it must have been written in summer.

I was walking my son home from school a few weeks ago and as we passed a neighbor’s house, he said, “Mom, what’s that smell?” We looked up to find we were standing under a black locust tree in full flower. The white hanging flowers present a strong sweet smell for anyone inclined to notice. It got me thinking. Summer really smells! Most good, a few not so good, but there are some very distinct smells you only encounter in the summer.


For me, newly mowed grass, low tide at the beach, the first rain on hot pavement, and ripe, warm strawberries are all nostalgic smells of summer. Sweet smelling Japanese honeysuckle conjures up images of my childhood, where my friends and I would pluck the flowers, pinch the back, draw out the filament and lick the tiny droplet of nectar. Fun and yummy. Not all the smells are as sweet as that though.


The flowers of the Chinese Chestnut are a real nose wrinkler. The long white blooms release a pungent semen-like smell. And Boxwood shrubs often are described as smelling like cat urine.
The reason for scent in flowers is obvious. Flowers release a smell to attract an insect, which in turn pollinates the flower, so it can make seeds. Without pollination, most plants would be unable to reproduce. Bees and moths are attracted to sweet smelling flowers while flies and beetles are often attracted to foul, putrid smells.

Next time you’re out, stop and smell the roses or honeysuckle, or even the Chinese Chestnut. Hmm, maybe not the chestnut.

Enjoy all of nature’s gifts.

• Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

I’ve been trying to put my finger on it for years now. What exactly is that smell? Last Sunday, it was a warm day, but there wasn’t that smell; the smell of spring. This morning, I went out to drive one of my sons to school and there was something in the air. It just smelled like spring. The birds must have felt it too. A Northern Cardinal was singing his song “popcorn, peanuts, chiiiiiippps” instead of calling. The House Finches were singing too. On my way to work in Princeton, I had the sun roof open and I heard the Pe-ter, pe-ter, pe-ter of the Tufted Titmouse song.

Skunk cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus is blooming along the stream. It has such a high metabolic rate, it actually melts the snow and ice around itself. No need for that today.
While on a walk with a group of preschoolers this morning, a honey bee was out looking for early bloomers. I don’t think she found any, but I sure enjoyed seeing her out.
I hope you got out to enjoy and smell the day. I know it won’t last. They’re calling for snow on Saturday, but it is a nice tease knowing nature still remembers how to be warm.