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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

Witch Hazel

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.

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History and Nature Intertwine at The Wagner Free Institute of Science

Originally written by David Hewitt on the blog Growing History; adapted by Wagner’s Cara Scharf

North Philadelphia, with its closely packed houses and shops, cracked sidewalks and streets, and vacant lots and overgrown parks, is not necessarily where you’d expect to find a historic landscape.

London PlaneIt’s there, however, in the yard of the Wagner Free Institute of Science. Though there are many historic plants in the yard, some of the most noticeable are the large trees such as London planes (Platanus x acerifolia) and silver maples (Acer saccharinum) that ring the yard. Their size alone suggests they have been here for a while, but how long and where did they come from?

The first question is reasonably straightforward to answer.  To find out how old a tree is, you either cut it down and count its rings or you take a core sample and count the rings that way.  The latter leaves the tree standing, so Wagner faculty member David Hewitt, Ned Barnard, a fellow historic tree enthusiast and author of New York City Trees, and a few others used an 18” corer to take a long, narrow piece out of both a London plane and a silver maple in the Wagner’s yard in October 2011. Both trees were found to be in the range of 110 or 115 years old.

WOnce the age was narrowed down, Hewitt went to the Wagner’s archives to see if he could find record of the Wagner acquiring the trees. He found that they likely came from a nursery owned by Thomas Meehan in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, and were added around the turn of the 20th century. Meehan was a significant figure in 19th century botany and horticulture, founding two horticultural publications and working for Bartram’s Garden before he founded his own nursery business which planned many notable gardens including the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York, and the English Garden at the Cummer Museum of Art in Jacksonville, Florida. In a letter from Thomas Meehan (dated February 22, 1900) he mentioned that he had been ill. He died in 1901, so the Wagner yard may well be the last landscape he worked on.

History is everywhere, and so are plants.  The two are intertwined, and even in the middle of the city they tangle together, and the one can tell us about the other, the trees can tell us what was there before, and what was there before tells us about the trees that are there today – and even though they may be layered over and it may take some digging and coring, they all have something to say, and they all can say it, if you just look.

In addition to the Wagner, Philadelphia is rich with examples of historic plants and gardens such as Bartram’s, Wyck Historic House and Garden, the Schuylkill Center, Fairmount Park, etc. Take some time, while the weather is still conducive to outdoor activity, to check some of these sites out!

About the Growing History blog: This is the blog of “Growing History: The Philadelphia Historic Plants Consortium”. The consortium links institutions, creating a network of gardens and historic plants with materials propagated from the sites themselves.  Plants exchanged will serve as material for education in their shared history, in science, and conservation. The blog disseminates the stories behind the plants and the landscapes they occupy.

About the Wagner Free Institute of Science: The Wagner is a Victorian-era natural history museum and has been a provider of free science education since 1855. Visitors are welcome Tuesday through Friday, 9 to 4 pm, though please note the museum will be on a summer break and closed to the public the last two weeks in August (17th through the 28th). If you’re interested in spending time in our historic yard, join us for the Honey Happy Hour, part of the 6th Annual Philadelphia Honey Festival, on Friday, September 11th from 5 to 7 pm. More details on this event can be found here.

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What to do outside before summer is over

By Kiley Sotomayor, Summer Environmental Art Intern

Now that we are in the final month of summer vacation, it is the perfect time to fit in something you’ve been unable to do all summer in between graduation parties, sports games, and weddings. For me, that means doing new things and spending as much time as possible outside. The Schuylkill Center is a great place to do both! I’d like to recommend three things to check off your list before August flies by:

  1. Hit the trails. We as a country spend about 8.5 hours a day in front of the screens, usually sitting. To get out of a screen rut, take a healthy break by going for a hike, bonus points if you go with friends. It will give your eyes a rest while waking up your body and may even increase your social savvy more than social media.  Even though August signals the end of wineberry picking, there is still a lot to check out on the trails. Whether you spot a lone deer making its way across a path or catch sight of a #Stormsnake, hiking along a shaded trail is a nice change of pace from the bright city sidewalk.

Continue reading

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Natural Philadelphia: Where Do We Fit In?

By guest contributor Rhyan Grech, Audubon PA

Are humans a part of nature?  This important question spans generations, geographic locations, fields of study, vocations, religions, political parties and the city of Philadelphia. Working to protect wildlife and their habitats in the fifth most populated metropolitan area in the country may sound like a one-step-forward-two-steps-back sort of process, but it’s exactly what Audubon Pennsylvania and many other organizations are doing. And illustrating the relevance of our work to every city resident is a challenge we all share. Continue reading