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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

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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.

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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

Stacy Levy

Dear 2040: From an ecologically-minded artist

By Stacy Levy

To be Opened in 25 years: A letter from an ecologically-minded artist
Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education Time Capsule

What does your world look like? I am sitting at a table in the rain 25 years ago, writing in pen on a pad of paper— already an outdated method for wrangling words in my day.  The rain is falling and it feels natural and normal to hear the pattering sound of the drops on the roof.  Will rainfall be considered with such comfort and coziness for you?

These same molecules of water could be raining on you as you read this.  The drops I hear will roll in into the sea and churn in ocean currents and be transported to the clouds by evaporation and return to earth as rain.  I wonder if rain will be considered precious— will it be valued for its life-giving force rather than being perceived as an inconvenience?  Will you be living with nature more as an ally and less as an entity that cannot be fully embraced?  Will your buildings and parking lots and passages collaborate with nature or will you still be living with nature at arm’s length?   From here I worry that the human relationship with nature will continue to be strained, even more so as the climate changes and rain falls erratically and with greater force.  Continue reading

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Field Guide: October Colors

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

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

Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) and Blue Wood Aster (Symphotrichum cordifolium)

Highbush blueberry and Blue wood asterThe deep red foliage of the blueberry bush is a great contrast to the lighter, more delicate blue wood aster.  Both of these plants have their own unique characteristics.  Highbush blueberries produce edible fruit enjoyed by humans and birds and are a nice, sculptural addition to your garden.  The blue wood asters provide a mat of tiny flowers throughout the fall season.  They tend to reseed vigorously.  Look for them in our Sensory Garden and in our forest.

Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)
Poison IvyWhile you may have your own opinion on poison ivy, I’d like you to try to suspend your negative associations of rashes and calamine lotion and take in the beauty of the fall foliage.  Poison ivy is a common native vine that you may see on the forest floor or climbing up trees.  Often times, as in this photo, it’s easy to mistake the poison ivy branches for tree branches.  While you may question the  direct value of this plant to humans, the dark berries that it produces are an important winter food source for birds.  Plus, its bright yellow to orange fall color is a great pop of color in the autumn forest. Continue reading

The Pope and Climate Change

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Mike_9-4-15 (11)Before Pope Francis arrives in Philadelphia on Saturday, he will present groundbreaking speeches, one to a joint session of Congress on Thursday, the other to the United Nations on Friday.  He’s likely covering a number of hot-button topics, including immigration, poverty, homelessness…

…And climate change.  The pope, blessedly fearless, walks where angels fear to tread.  His June encyclical, Laudato Si’, or “Praise be to you,” rocked the world in its condemnation of how we treat the environment, using language no pope and too few world leaders have used before.  Humanity’s “reckless” behavior and “unfettered greed” have pushed the planet to a “breaking point.”

Quoting his namesake St. Francis of Assisi in his very first sentence, the pope writes that “the Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Doomsday predictions,” he warned, “can no longer be met with irony or disdain.” Continue reading

Field Guide: Blooming in August

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Welcome to our new mobile Field Guides!  We’ll regularly post guides about what’s blooming, what animals you can see, and other interesting things to observe in the woods, meadows, and streams.  These posts are designed to be easy to read on a phone, meaning you can take this mobile field guide out with you as you walk, hike, and play.  See other Field Guide posts here.

Common yarrow – Achillea millefolium
Common Yarrow
With small white flowers and feathery, delicate leaves, Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a pretty addition to the meadows and sunny edges at the Schuylkill Center.  While is it debated whether yarrow is native to this region or introduced from Europe, this plant has medicinal properties, attracts pollinators, and is an important permaculture plant.  In permaculture, yarrow can be found in fruit tree guilds, because they are a nutrient accumulator:  their roots draw nutrients from deep within the soil and deposit them on the surface as they die back, benefiting the surrounding plants.  Similarly, in the garden, it may be used as a nutrient-rich green compost, slashed and left to decompose after blooming.  With all of its great properties, yarrow can be somewhat of a bully in the garden, with a rhizomatous, spreading habit which can quickly take over unoccupied patches of soil.

New York ironweed – Vernonia noveboracensis
New York Ironweed
New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) adds a vibrant magenta to the landscape during late summer.  You can find it in meadows and woodland edges throughout the property, although it prefers wetter conditions ideally, where it can grow up to eight feet tall.  An attractor of butterflies and pollinators, there is always plenty of activity around this plant.  In particular, skippers are consistently seen nectaring on this species.       

Black-eyed Susan – Rudbeckia triloba
Black-eyed Susan
Named for its three-lobed lower leaves, this sweet flower is found in sunny open meadows and along roadsides.  It is distinguishable among other forms of black-eyed Susans due to its shorter, rounded petals, and branched stems.  While it loves sun, it is also highly adaptable to part shade conditions making it a good option for the garden.

 

Rose mallow – Hibiscus moscheutos
Rose Mallow
It’s hard to believe this tropical-looking plant is a PA native!  Rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) is a fast-growing, water-loving native wildflower found in wet areas like along pond, stream, and river edges.  The flower ranges from white with a crimson eye, to the light pink seen here, making it a popular choice among hummingbirds.  With a long bloom time and showy flower, rose mallow would be a great addition to rain gardens or other soggy areas of your garden.
Mountain mint – Pycnanthenum muticum
Mountain Mint
Several types of mountain mint live in our meadows and gardens at the Schuylkill Center.  This one is known as short-toothed mountain mint and has much broader leaves than other varieties.  Although the flower is rather insignificant on this plant, it is a favorite among butterflies and bees.  I see more activity around this plant, than just about any other in the nursery.  It has a nice, light minty scent and leaves that turn a silvery green in mid-summer.  In the garden, it forms dense clusters and may spread by its rhizomes – it is a mint, after all – but stops just short of becoming invasive.