Northern Red Oak

Field Guide: Fallen Leaves

By Jenny Ryder, Environmental Art and PR Intern

Enjoy our mobile field guide as you walk, hike and play in the fall forests. Take in the beauty of crunchy fallen leaves in the city and the forest and easily identify the trees from whence they came.

See other Field Guide posts here.

Tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera)

tuliptree.gifTulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera), commonly referred to as Tulip Poplar, are abundant in the forest at the Schuylkill Center, and their mostly-yellow turning leaves roughly resemble the shape of a cat’s head or—as you might have noticed—a tulip! Another mark of a Tulip tree leaf is their glossy texture and symmetry.

Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra/Quercus borealis)

Northern Red Oak

Querecus means “beautiful tree,” rubra “red,” and borealis, “north” in Latin. As opposed to white oaks, the lobes of the Red Oak’s leaves are pointed instead of round. Red Oak leaves have 7-11 lobes and extend clearly off the center vein. You can find Red Oaks on the streets of Philadelphia, too, as they are able to resist salty sidewalks in the winter time. If the squirrels or deer haven’t eaten them up yet, you can also find bitter acorns among the crunchy Red Oak leaf piles.

Big-tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata)

Bigtooth Aspen

Big-tooth Aspen can be identified by their easy-to-spot “teeth” on the edges of their simple and relatively round leaf shape, coming to a point at the top. They are usually yellow in the forests this time of year, like many other native leaves. You know you’ve found an Aspen leaf, though, if its stem (petiole) is flattened and perpendicular to the surface of the leaf (see below). The flat stem makes the leaves quake at even the slightest breeze, hence the name of this leaf’s smooth-edged cousin, Quaking Aspen.

Flat stem of Bigtooth Aspen

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

SCEE6175 Sassafras

Sassafras is a quick one to identify—with their iconic two or three-lobed shape, sometimes they mimic the shape of a mitten, with one lopsided thumblike lobe and a larger one. Either they’re mitten-like, or they resemble something like a three-toed dinosaur footprint, with three distinctly deep lobes. Catch them in any number of their swiftly changing color palettes—from red-brown to yellow-green.

Red Maple (Acer rubrum)

Red Maple

I’m not usually one to play favorites, but… this might just be my favorite fall leaf. The colors on the leaves of the Red Maple this time of year could be likened to a paint-splattered canvas, blending gorgeous shades of yellow, rich reds, and orange. Sometimes, they’ll have three gentle lobes and other times, two more will tooth out at the bottom for a more recognizable maple shape. They range about 2 to 4 inches wide and tall, and are quite flexible and soft in texture—great for pressing in a book and saving for a dreary winter day. You might recognize the Red Maple’s silhouette from our Schuylkill Center logo at the top of the page!

American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)


Here on the trails at the Schuylkill Center, the biggest leaf you’ll find likely fell from a Sycamore tree. These look a lot like the familiar shape of a maple leaf, with 3-5 lobes, but with bigger teeth around the edges. Although they normally range from 4 to 9 inches long, staff at the Center have found ones much larger than our faces—up to fourteen inches! Their stems are noticeably enlarged at the end, too, which encase the buds when still attached to the mother tree. Sycamores, also commonly known as buttonwood trees, and are proud members of one of the oldest tree families, Platanaceae, which dates back over 100 million years.

Happy crunching!

Sorghastrum nutans4

Field Guide: Fall in Bloom

By Jenny Ryder, Environmental Art and Public Relations Intern

Enjoy our mobile field guide as you walk, hike, and play in the fall meadows. See other Field Guide posts here.

Flat-top goldenrod (Solidage graminifolia)

Solidago graminifoliaFlat-top goldenrod provides nectar for many types of pollinators such as butterflies, wasps, both long- and short-tongue bees, flies, moths and beetles. One particularly interested beetle is named after the plant itself—the Goldenrod Soldier Beetle! Many people mistakenly believe they’re allergic to goldenrod , but in fact, what little pollen it has is too sticky to be blown around by the wind! Wherever you are, it is likely you will be able to find a few different kinds of goldenrod in the fall, all of which are suitable for medicinal purposes. After the Boston Tea Party, goldenrod tea replaced black tea in the States– “liberty tea,” and was used  to boost the immune system before the  winter months.

 Yellow indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans)

Sorghastrum nutans4

More commonly known as yellow indiangrass, Sorghastrum nutans is a tall native grass that can be identified by its blue-green blades and the almost metallic yellow-gold sheen of its flowering heads. Standing at about three to five feet tall, Indiangrass is an excellent snack for deer, birds and other wildlife.

Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)


Spotted jewelweed is an annual flowering plant that can be found growing along creek banks, and lives right along the edge of the Schuylkill Center’s own Springhouse Pond. One can easily identify this plant by submerging its leaves in the surface of a nearby water body—if they shimmer with a silvery dust, it’s jewelweed! Despite their misleading nickname— touch-me-not— the innards of jewelweed’s succulent stems can be used to treat poison ivy, bug bites, or other skin irritations on the trail. Jewelweed is also known as touch-me-not because, if the seed pods are ripe when touched, the seeds will pop out of their dangling pendant pods. You’re safe to touch these pretty creekside blooms, but be wary of their common neighbors, stinging nettle and poison ivy!

Roundleaf thoroughwort (Eupatorium rotundifolium)

Eupatorium rotun.2

If you get out on the trails soon, you’ll still be able to catch the beautiful white blooms of roundleaf thoroughwort, a perennial plant with bundles of delicate white flowers. A member of the aster family, roundleaf thoroughwort has many porcelain flowers in each of the small floral heads. Eupatorium rotundifolium stands at about three to four feet tall this time of year, fully matured before it crawls back to the soil in wintertime.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

Panicum virgatum

Much like Indiangrass above, switchgrass is another important native tallgrass, reaching up to five feet tall. Generally, Switchgrass is not quite as tall as Indiangrass, but due to its rhizomatic root structure, its roots can extend up to 10 feet underground! It can be found in dry soils, in prairies, open woods, or growing by train tracks in large clumps. Switchgrass is known for its particularly sturdy vertical growth structure, and is also referred to as panic grass, thatchgrass, and wild redtop, due to the pinkish tinge of their tufted panicle blooms.

tree trunk

Reading Under the Bark

dead treeBy guest contributor Jim Frazer

I’ve been trying to remember what led me to photograph the engraved tracks of bark beetles. I believe that really it was just curiosity about looking for lines and patterns in nature which first drew my attention to the etched pathways of the beetle larvae. Once I became aware of them, they seemed to be everywhere in the woods. In an effort to understand what I was looking at, I did some research, and found out that the beetles’ increased range and activity was due to warming.

Since climate change seemed to come on us slowly at first, it was easy for many people to not notice. We may ask ourselves, what was the first thing that we personally noticed that could be attributed to climate change? Not a prediction from scientists, but something we personally saw or experienced. Not a cause, but a result. For me, the beetle tracks were like this. Of course, we all experience unusual weather, but since, like many people, I’m not living in the place where I grew up, I don’t have a feel for what is really normal for the area. Having someone tell you that last summer was the hottest ever doesn’t mean much if you don’t have memories to compare it to. Seeing something concrete right in front of you is different.

Part of what artists do is to call attention to things that have been overlooked, and do so in a way that causes people to start noticing on their own. We hear many debates in which the opinions of experts are hurled back and forth, but in order for change to happen, people need to be convinced through their personal experience. So I would like to encourage people looking at my work to notice small things they see around them and investigate how they relate to the larger world. I see the beetle tracks as calligraphic characters from an unknown language, hence the title Glyphs. Of course, they don’t have individual, specific meanings, like, say, a Chinese character might have. They are meant to suggest the idea that if we notice our surroundings – our environment – it will speak to us and tell us important things. In this case, the message is the awareness that climate change is causing a different relationship between these insects and the forest, to the detriment of the trees.

Here are both the original picture of a tree trunk and the finished artwork for one of my works in the exhibit. Like a scientist exploring ancient inscriptions, I trace the patterns, first manually, then digitally. The resulting outlines are printed on very thin tissue. Then, just as the beetle larva takes many small bites, I use a paper drill to create a repetitive lace pattern of holes surrounding the outlines. Finally, metallic mica powder is applied inside the outlines, adhered with gilding sizing.

head shotJim Frazer was, in 1981, the first photographer to have a solo exhibit at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, and his hand-colored photographs of Southern landscapes were widely collected and exhibited both regionally and nationally. In 1999, he moved with his family to Salt Lake City and branched out from photography to a diverse practice that focused on mixed media works and collaborative installations. His newest work, though not appearing photographic at first glance, is nevertheless photo based, deriving from images of details taken from the natural world.

cook forest moss (1)

Bryophilia: A Moss Love Story

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

I’ve had a moss fascination as long as I can remember. Friends find me difficult to hike with, as I’m often hanging back crouched down over a mossy growth. I have taken more photos of moss than most people would probably find reasonable. In college, I did a research project on the ‘moss line’ in a montane stream – the bright line I observed where moss stopped growing on the creekside rocks. I own more than one piece of moss jewelry.

Moss on stones of river, Puerto Rico

Why moss? I think I’m fascinated by how often overlooked these life forms are, and the unique niche they occupy. I love their scale – tiny, yet complex. I relish encountering patches of moss that feel like entire, tiny little worlds in themselves.

Moss on stone in Cook Forest, photo by Christina Catanese Forest floor moss in Cook Forest, photo by Christina Catanese Moss between rocks in the Great Smoky Mountains, photo by Christina Catanese

Emboldened with a newly acquired moss field guide, last fall I started gathering my own samples and trying to get into the identification. I’ll tell you, it isn’t easy to do as a wannabe bryologist. Pleurocarp or acrocarp – are they large or small? (They are all small). Leaves – are they hair-like, lance, ovate, sickle or tongue shaped? (You call those tiny things leaves?). Do the leaves have a midrib? (Yikes). Growing on a rock, log, or bare soil? (Shoot…where did this specimen come from again?).

Examining moss in the Great Smoky Mountains

Our summer gallery show, Bryophilia, has given me a wonderful excuse to immerse myself even more in the world of moss.   We’re thrilled to present a gallery show of artist Marion Wilson’s stunning photographs of microscopically enlarged mosses. Wilson prints intricate and lush photographs of tiny sprigs of moss on treated mylar sheets, hundreds of times the normal size. From afar, these magnificently scaled up prints appear to be alien forms; they invite a closer look to interpret their curious shapes and structures. We’ll even have some real, live moss growing in the gallery.

Moss on rock photograph by Marion Wilson

I’ve also been reading Gathering Moss, by renowned bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, professor of environmental biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and collaborator of Wilson’s. It’s a beautiful natural history read even for those not involved in a mossy love affair. Kimmerer blends botanical, scientific knowledge with her indigenous heritage, encouraging discussion of diverse ways of knowing; this is on full display in a recent podcast through On Being, a terrific listen.

Having my moss antennae up, I’ve started to see moss everywhere: cracks in the city sidewalk become an opportunity to notice nature thriving in unexpected contexts. What most would call unkempt roof shingles become a de facto green roof, with moss left to do its own, slow thing.  As I tell friends about our upcoming gallery show, closet moss lovers are coming out of the woodwork, sharing their own cherished moss facts.

When you look small, the world gets large.

Heart shaped by moss, photo by Christina Catanese

Bryophilia opens at the Schuylkill Center in the gallery with a reception on Saturday, June 11 from 4-6 pm.


Why we’re excited for spring

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

Happy spring!  On March 20, despite a sprinkling of snow, the year officially turned from winter to spring!  So, why are our staff excited for spring?

Gail, our Director of Education loves seeing the rise of skunk cabbage on the late winter forest floor.

Mike, our Executive Director, explains, “I love so many individual critters for so many different reasons, but one I especially adore is the blackpoll warbler.  If warbler migration is a parade of colors, the blackpoll is the tramp clown at the end of the circus parade, mopping up after everyone.  Around Memorial Day, I listen for their distinctive squeaky-wheel call and smile–the last migrating warbler in the long parade is here!”

Claire, who coordinates volunteers including our Toad Detour program, is most excited to see the first toads of spring migrating across Port Royal Ave (the first one was spotted March 9 in fact).

Write Barbara, one of our Monkey Tail Gang staff members, “I have been delighted to see the return of the Canada Geese.  Last year I was near Fire Pond when they came zooming down from the sky, squawking joyously.  This year I’ve seen them hanging out around Fire Pond and cautiously watching the lively antics of our after-school crowd, the Monkey Tail Gang.”

Both Christina, our Director of Environmental Art, and Donna, our Director of Administration and Finance, are excited for the longer days.  Christina is especially happy for “the gradual crescendo of all the growing things coming back to life” and Donna loves “the smell of spring, that earthy, musky refreshing scent.”

Playing in nature playscape

Do I have your attention?

By Gail Farmer, Director of Education

My son is in first grade and he is struggling. Struggling to sit still, struggling to be quiet, and struggling to give his teacher the long periods of undivided attention the schools are asking of our young children.  His teacher has employed several positive strategies to try and help him meet the school district’s needs:  he has a “wiggly seat” on his chair that helps him to stay in his seat, she has star charts for attending to the teacher, and most recently, a star chart to reward being “calm and quiet.” While I appreciate his teacher’s efforts to address her expectations of him in a positive way, I am dismayed that the school fails to understand their role in his struggles.

In a typical kindergarten or first grade classroom, the children are almost constantly attending – paying attention during morning meeting, to a book being read, to a worksheet to be completed, to the lesson being taught, to the reading and phonics activities, to the art projects.  The ability to direct our attention to a chosen focal point (called “directed attention”) is an incredibly important neurological capacity.  Directed attention is under voluntary control, which means that we can choose to focus our attention and resist our impulses when needed.  These abilities allow us to be perceptive and observant, behave in socially appropriate ways, to be reflective before taking action (i.e. not acting out on every emotion), to sit still, pay attention, and concentrate. Directed attention is hugely important to learning and school success. Continue reading

Spigelia marilandica (2)

Melissa’s native plant picks – what to plant this year

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Every garden reflects the individuality and personal taste of its gardener.  Reasons for choosing specific plants can range from aesthetic values like color, texture, and shape to practical considerations such as space limitations, attracting specific pollinators, or even what was available at the local garden center.  Some gardeners prefer well-behaved plants, and maintain exceptional order while others prefer a more natural look, or even, shall we say, slightly unruly.  And there will be no judgments here!  There is a place for all these styles to coexist, in the name of happiness, beauty, biodiversity, and ecosystem health.

This year, for Schuylkill Center members, we’re offering pre-orders for our Spring Native Plant Sale, so you can start planning your garden now and pick up your plants in the spring.  For our Plant Sale Pre-Order, we’ve put together a list of our favorite native plants, with numerous options for any style of garden.

My gardening theory is that the least amount of mulch you can see, the better.  Accordingly, we’ve included a couple groundcovers to replace that non-native vinca and pachysandra.  Tiarella cordifolia ‘Running Tapestry’, foamflower, is a vigorous runner, spreading quickly to form a mat of heart shaped, mottled leaves.  It sends up creamy white flowering spikes throughout the spring and provides ample cover for wildlife.  If you have deeper shade, partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), is one to consider.  Partridgeberry is understated and delicate with small evergreen leaves, and bright red berries that persist through winter.

In the shrub layer, sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) is a great option.  With its 2-4’ stature, sweet fern is the right height for planting along the foundation or incorporating with other perennial wildflowers.  The fern-like leaves are aromatic when crushed, and perhaps more importantly, deer resistant.

Not many of us have room for large canopy trees in our yards.  Instead, smaller understory trees can fill the void.  Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is the generalist among native understory trees, serving a broad range of ecological functions.  It grows under a wide variety of sun, moisture, and soil conditions, even adapting well to clay soils.  In late summer, the berries provide food for all types of wildlife including birds, and both large and small mammals, not to mention acting as larval host for a variety of Lepidoptera.

Take a look at this list and order form for the Plant Sale Pre-Order and feel free to inquire with any further questions.  Plant Sale Pre-Orders will be accepted through Friday, April 1.  In addition to these selections, our full offering of native plants will be available at our annual Spring Native Plant Sale during the last weekend in April.

Spigelia marilandica (2)


Naturalist’s Notebook: The meadow of 2040

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

Imagine your favorite meadow. I imagine mine in September: grasses stand waist high though the underbrush is falling back, seed pods hang in dark silhouettes, forests at the edges of the field mostly green, the promise of red and orange in their leaves.

This is our gift to the future: a meadow in seeds. In our time capsule buried in Jubilee Grove, are seven clear plastic envelopes of seeds. Inside are dogbane, bluestem, grasses, senna, and white snakeroot. These seeds, collected this past fall from the meadows around the Schuylkill Center, offer a little picture of what an autumn meadow looked like in our moment, right now, in 2015. Continue reading

Field Guide: Winter Understory Trees

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

With so many efforts dedicated to tracking the biggest or tallest members of our forest, I thought it was a worthy endeavor to dedicate some time to these smaller, perhaps lesser known, understory trees in our woods.  While they will never be the biggest or tallest or most majestic, they deserve accolades of their own.  Many produce fruit that are prized by birds and mammals, especially during these winter months.  Others provide habitat and cover.  And others are just simply beautiful trees, small in stature, but with intricate details that are much easier to observe up close due to their size.

Dogwood (Cornus florida)
Dogwood (Cornus florida)
A common tree in both the woodland and residential landscape, this tree is easily identified by its white spring blooms in April or May.  In the winter, however, the bark and form gives it away.  With its light tan, scaly, shallowly furrowed bark, dogwoods take on an alligator type texture.  It has a graceful, pyramidal form and is often low branching or multi-stemmed.  Later in winter, the buds of new flowers will form like little caps on the ends of the upward facing branches. 

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
When you find a sassafras tree, you tend to find many sassafras trees.  This is one native plant that suckers readily, sending up new shoots from its root system, forming clusters of new trees.  In the forest, they are typically found in groves, easily identified by their twisted, gnarly shaped branches.  The brown bark is deeply furrowed and forms rectangular blocks with horizontal “breaks”.

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
While the common persimmon is not as common at the Schuylkill Center as the two aforementioned understory trees, there are a handful of them spread throughout old meadows and fields here.  This is another tree with distinct bark:  it resembles the scales of a dogwood, but it is thicker, more deeply furrowed, and very blocky.  You may see bright orange, plum-sized fruits hanging from its bare branches from fall through the winter.  Often they are too high to reach, but you may get lucky to snag one for a snack before the wildlife does.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
You may have come across a pawpaw grove on a hike in our woods and not even have realized it.  The few young groves that exist here more closely resemble sticks in the ground during the winter than a distinct cluster of trees and saplings.  Like sassafras, pawpaws spread through their underground root system, forming new trees by sending up shoots.  They can also be propagated fairly easily through seed, although pawpaw often has trouble with pollination and therefore its fruit production is often unreliable.  Pawpaws have smooth grey-brown bark that gets slightly more textured with age and dark brown buds.  They often have arching trunks and don’t branch until more mature.

Dotted Hawthorn (Crataegus punctata)
Dotted Hawthorn (Crataegus punctata)
Dotted hawthorns grow along forest edges and in old meadows and fields.  At the Schuylkill Center, they were planted in the 1960s along a fence row toward the front edge of the property to discourage trespassing.  How would a tree discourage trespassing, you may wonder.  Hawthorns have sharp spiky thorns, sometimes several inches long, which could be very painful to any passerby.  These thorns on the branches are a good way to identify the plant, as well as their bright red berries that persist through the winter as food for birds.  It has greyish bark that is irregularly ridged and furrowed.

Enjoy our January mobile field guide as you walk, hike, and play in the winter forest.  See other Field Guide posts here.

Time + Art: A sculpture Changes with the Forest

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art, and Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

Since it was installed in April 2015, Jake Beckman’s installation Future Non-object #1 has been changing with the forest around it.  Created through the LandLab environmental art residency program, the sculpture was designed to address a local ecological problem.  In this case, a lack of woodland fungi.  The installation, involving over 1,000 small pieces of wood inoculated with fungi, will slowly decompose into the forest, providing habitat for the fungi.

By the way, Jake Beckman’s going to be leading a walk and lecture Saturday, November 14, titled Permanence/Impermanence: States of Flux in Art and Nature