robin's egg on asphalt

Introducing Nature in the City

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

When I stepped outside yesterday the morning air was chilly and damp, the sky overcast.  A bus rumbled by me and pulled up to the corner, as I walked by I heard the announcer call out the stop and route number, and listened to my shoes make soft thumping sounds on the pavement.  All around me stood buildings, some only a few stories tall, others much larger.  Everywhere I looked, I saw concrete, glass, steel, and plastic.  But there is more here, in the city, in Philadelphia.

When I look closer, I see moss growing on the side of an old building.  Elsewhere, the leafless forms of city trees draw delicate, graceful lines across a narrow street.  Last spring I found a beautiful, pale blue robin’s egg, cracked open and discarded after the chick hatched, lying on the asphalt alongside Spruce Street, a reminder that humans are not the only things living here.  Nature is here too, in the city.

Today, 80% of Americans live in cities, and as climate change continues, we can expect to see this trend continue and expand globally; we’re headed for a very urban world.  People need nature, we need it in undeveloped mountain ranges, in parks and nature centers, in the city.  This makes it even more important to see and value the natural world that we find in the places where we live.  This idea can mean a lot of different things, perhaps it’s about urban land trusts, or about community gardens, maybe it’s about nature centers and making nature accessible.

This year we’ll be exploring what nature in the city means, to the Schuylkill Center, to our community, to Philadelphia.  Stay with us and keep your eyes open for more on nature in the city throughout the year.

Tuliptree (2)

Giants of the Forest: Reading the forest

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Tuliptree (1)Every day at the Schuylkill Center I am reminded of the passing of time, the history of the land, and the immense power of plants to change our landscape.  Amazed at how the trees could grow so tall in just 50 years, I stand in awe of the towering tulip poplars (also called tuliptrees) which rise high above old fields once clear cut for agriculture.  As winter approaches and vegetation retreats, ruins and farm walls of old homesteads – signs of literally hundreds of years of human occupancy – reveal themselves as markers of the past.

Tuliptree (2)Trees can also be a source of information to us; they are simultaneously signs of resilience and indicators of land use patterns.  Some of our oldest, biggest trees are situated just at the edges of former farm fields, where they could stretch and branch in all directions due to unlimited sunlight.  In the forest, the same species would be taller and thinner, with branches reaching directly up toward the sun shining through a break in the forest canopy.  For many years, these remarkable old trees have drawn interest from visitors, staff, and volunteers at the Schuylkill Center.

In the summer of 1974, volunteer Gus Wiencke assembled an extensive report entitled “Biggest Trees at the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center,” detailing land history and size, species, location, and even sketches of growth patterns of the property’s largest trees.  The original survey presents 57 trees that measure over 6 ½ feet in circumference, although many far exceed that now.  The survey was partially updated in 1986 and again in 2012, when eight more trees were added to the list.

It has been 40 years since Gus compiled this list of biggest trees, yet I’m experiencing his observations in a similar way these days.  He concludes, “Year after year, traces of the old farm fields grow dimmer and a forest spreads in the protected haven of the Nature Center.  Our biggest trees are the aristocrats in a unique, unviolated area of self-propagated woodland.”  These trees exist with little help from us, and in many cases, perhaps, in spite of us.  They are beautiful and vital beings in our ever-changing landscape.  Join us at the Giants of the Forest walk in January to see some of these big trees, learn about why they remained during the farm years, and find out what they can tell us about the past.

Note: an excerpt from this article appeared in the winter 2014-2015 Quill, the Schuylkill Center members newsletter.


Weaving Art into Nature

By Ezra Tischler, Public Relations and Environmental Art Intern

LandLab resident artists Kaitlin Pomerantz and Zya Levy, of WE THE WEEDS, have been busy collecting invasive plants like oriental bittersweet, mile-a-minute, wisteria, Japanese stiltgrass, and bush honeysuckle at the Schuylkill Center. These gathered vines are then woven together using hand-built looms, creating beautiful tapestries of varying color and texture. Be sure to check out their guest blog post detailing the process and progress of their botanical weaving project.

Zya, taking full advantage of her resident artist title, recently spent some time exploring the Schuylkill Center’s property. Her exploration resulted in some impromptu land art capturing the transitory nature of autumn. Dried grasses and fallen vines clumped together in mounds may not catch the eye of most meadow visitors. Zya, however, saw the mounds as an opportunity to create temporary nests. Here is a gallery of some of the nests, but they won’t last long and are certainly worth seeing in person:

Zya also met with visiting groups from Nature Preschool, inviting the children to try their hand at botanical weaving:



Fall of light

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

This morning as I drove down the driveway to the Schuylkill Center,  passing the large meadow to the north then the gentle slope of forest where the Pine Grove and Founders Grove stand, I realized the leaves are nearly gone.

Here and there a plume of yellow or red glows against the pale forest.  These days I look into the woods to see colors, and instead, I see the fall of light.  The trees stand empty, their beautiful forms exposed.  A soft fall of light, visible deep in the woods, carries a hazy, dreamy quality.  Graceful twists and turns of sassafras trees are brought into view now that the foliage is gone.  Subtle yellows and browns and greys are painting meadows, the remainders of fall wildflowers.

Although the hours of sunlight are shrinking daily, this time of year the woods open up, glowing with light.

Cattail Pond

Restoring Cattail Pond

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Toad in Cattail PondCattail Pond sits in a serene, sunlit woodland opening at the edge of our forest, just a few quick steps outside our back door.  It is a special place, nestled into one of the few areas on the property that is free from undulating topography, naturally protected by a steep slope uphill from it and surrounding trees.  Taking all of this into consideration, it’s not surprising that there are also ruins of a barn near the pond, part of a former homestead and a reminder of the rich history of this land. Continue reading

5 Reasons Why We Love September

5 Reasons Why We Love September

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

fallen leaves1. Melissa, our Manager of Land Stewardship, loves how in September, the smells change.  The smells of summer start to change into the smells of fall, leaves drying, falling, last flowers blooming, a shift in the tone of the forests and fields..  There’s an earthy smell, as leaves begin to rot, the forest changes subtly, signaling the new season.

September light2. Gift Shop Manager and Volunteer Coordinator Claire enjoys how the brightness of the sun changes.  Leaves are starting to drop and more light filters through the trees, lighting both forests and homes, offering more light even as the days are growing shorter.

golendrod3. Mike, our Executive Director, explains how he loves seeing the blooming goldenrod in September.  Goldenrod, its yellow flowers glowing in meadows and alongside roads, is a kind of “bookend for the year,” a marker for the last hurrah of wildflowers as the growing season winds down.

the favorite season4. September is the beginning of Donna’s favorite season.  Donna, Director of Finance and Administration, describes the excitement of school beginning, something she’s always loved.  “It’s a time of renewal,” she says, noting how the thinner, less humid air is invigorating.

pumpkin flavored everything5. Damien, an Environmental Educator, loves the “70 and sunny almost every day” weather of September and the excellent farmers’ markets this time of year, with everything from tomatoes to apples.  He also enjoys pumpkins and the chance for “pumpkin flavored everything.”

As for me, I love September because it carries with it the first chilly nights of fall, but the days are still (comparatively) long and warm.  In September, it is as though the best of all seasons have gathered for a month.  I love the smell of leaves decomposing, and like Mike, I love watching the goldenrod bloom.  I love going to the farmers’ market in September and cooking with fresh herbs, spinach, cherry tomatoes and potatoes, collards, and winter squash.  It’s a time of year when I can barely stand to be inside.

Gazing upwards to see backwards: A look at local vines and their origins

By LandLab Resident Artists WE THE WEEDS, Kaitlin Pomerantz and Zya S. Levy

Vines in parking lotLook up on any summer day and your eyes are bound to come into contact with climbing, clambering vines.  Clinging to treetops and fences, tumbling across buildings, these robust and intrepid climbers adventure always upwards, using structures natural and manmade to achieve great heights and lengths.

On the Schuylkill Center premises alone there are dozens of vine varieties.  Natives include moonseed, wild yam, grape, green briar, and poison ivy.  Even more abundant are the invasives: oriental bittersweet, mile-a-minute, Japanese honeysuckle, porcelain berry, and wisteria.  Where did these travelers come from?  What are they doing here?  What can be done about, or better yet, with them?

Our botanical arts collaboration, WE THE WEEDS (comprised of botanist Zya S. Levy and artist Kaitlin Pomerantz), will explore the answers to these questions during our summer-fall LandLab residency.  We have begun identifying local vines, and our next step will be to research the histories of their global transmigrations– where they came from, how they got here, and why they are thriving.  Later in the summer, we will harvest numerous invasive vines for use in a woven sculpture that communicates our findings.  Our installation will be a visual interpretation of the complex and interwoven migratory trajectories of these trailing plants.

woman with vinesThe relationship between vines and humans extends far beyond Tarzan – throughout history humans have used vines as building, binding, food, and medicinal materials (and much more), and vines have used humans (or human structures, rather) to reach astounding new heights.  Really, unlike many plants that have been displaced by the growth of human industry, vines thrive on it– winding over human infrastructure to advance their main biological imperative: to spend minimal energy investing in support tissue so as to spend more energy on reaching sunlight.  More infrastructure for vines means faster-growing, more abundant vines!  Beyond this, many invasive vine species thrive in disturbed, even toxic soils– indicating that human pollution may be encouraging the propagation of invasives.  This complicated, yet fascinating, relationship, antipathy, and perhaps symbiosis, is what we wish to look into more closely through our research.  We believe that a better understanding of how and why foreign vines got here and how we may have been involved,  could lead to more fruitful interpretations for how to manage, and appreciate, these most scandalous, scandent plants.

Want to get involved?

Join WE THE WEEDS for a hands-on vine identification and harvesting workshop on Saturday, July 12 from 10 am to 12 pm, highlighting the characteristics, uses, and lore surrounding different local and invasive vines on the SCEE premises.  Please wear sturdy shoes and protective clothing.

Zya on site at the Schuylkill CenterAbout WE THE WEEDS

WE THE WEEDS is a botanical arts and outreach initiative aimed at raising awareness about urban ecology, headed by artist Kaitlin Pomerantz and botanist Zya Levy.  Past projects include ethnobotanical tours, art installations, plant identification workshops and visualizations, culinary and sensory plant experiences, participatory science experiments, school and public outreach— all aimed at highlighting the presence of the natural world within the manmade landscape, and illuminating the uses, historical and cultural significances of spontaneous wild urban flora.

Kaitlin Pomerantz is a Philadelphia artist whose practice spans a variety of media and materials to explore the relationship between art and sustainability.  She has worked in farming, aquaculture (oyster farming) and Quaker and urban education.  Her most recent projects were completed with the support of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and RAIR – Recycled Artist in Residency.

Zya S. Levy, a field botanist with the USDA, has over ten years of experience working with flora of North America.  In love with plants since her earliest recollection, she is inspired by the resiliency and beauty of nature within the city ecosystem.  Zya is the founder of the Collecting Collective and the Philadelphia Investigative Institute of the Wild which hosts plant walks, identification workshops, botanical cocktail parties, urban research projects, and herbal study groups.

Mountain mint

Summer is the season of meadows

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

Mountain mintTo me, summer has always been the season of meadows.  While in spring the light fills the forest, bringing flowers, ferns, and understory plants to life; by summer, the forest is a cool, dim respite, a darker, more peaceful place to escape the burning heat of the sun.  So it is the meadow that seems to properly represent this season of blazing hot days: steaming humid afternoons, rain storms that blast out of the late afternoon and early evening to drench the world and leave things glistening and green.  Meadows this time of year are bursting with life.

You sit down, lie down, fall back into the grass and above, see only sky, bits of grasses and shrubs just coloring the edges of your vision.  Looking up, a few clouds float past, perhaps a hawk or a vulture circles high above, the horizon expanded by the lack of trees.  In the meadow, the world is all waist-high.  Continue reading

Blue Jay, after week 2 (1)

Clinic Case Study: Raising a Baby Blue Jay

By Michele Wellard, Assistant Wildlife Rehabilitator

On May 13, this baby blue jay, likely having fallen from his nest, was brought into the Wildlife Clinic. The people who found him couldn’t locate the nest to return him, and so they brought him to the clinic. Over the last few weeks, this little blue jay has had many people involved in his care, from dedicated volunteers to our wildlife rehabilitators. Raising a songbird baby can be a real challenge, with a particular diet, a special nest to ensure his legs grow straight, and regular feedings until he’s old enough to feed himself. At the clinic we are careful to make sure the blue jay does not become tame or imprinted, so he can be released into the wild once he’s old enough.

BLue Jay, week 1 (1)These photos show the little blue jay, just two or three days old, upon admission to the clinic. Songbirds like him are born naked, blind, and helpless, and with a strong urge to “gape” (i.e. beg for food). How did we know he was a bluejay? There are several clues. His dark skin is different from other baby birds, who are often more pink. He has absolutely no fuzz on him, whereas other songbird hatchlings sometimes do. The color around his beak is pink – many songbird babies have yellow “lips” called the gape flange. The gape flange, together with the beak color inside the bird’s mouth indicate to the parents exactly where to deposit the food.

By the second week of his life, you can see many changes starting to the blue jay’s appearance, as he grows at a rapid rate. He is fed every half an hour from sun up to sundown by clinic staff and volunteers, just as his parents would. He is fed insects, a mush called “songbird diet” and some berries. You’ll see that he has become “fuzzy” in places (right), and his wing feathers are starting to develop. At this point they are still “blood feathers” (they have a blood supply to nourish the developing feather) and look like little sticks. Tiny spurts of the beginnings of feathers are beginning to emerge from his head. He has almost doubled in weight and has gotten much bigger.

After the second week, our little patient is starting to look more like a bird, particularly a blue jay. He has gotten some real feathers and is looking distinctively fluffy. He can hold his head upright when at rest, and those blood feathers are starting to sheath of the coating and open up at the tips. He’s also starting to get the beginning of that famous jaunty blue jay crest.

By the third week, our little bird is becoming unmistakably a blue jay.  His wing feathers are opening more, showing a variety of white and blue. The feathers on his face are also coming in, creating his distinctive facial markings. At this stage he is still a “nestling,” too young to leave the nest.  However, he is starting to have an urge to open his wings and flap a bit.  He can’t perch yet, but should be doing so soon. Then he will be moved to a small mesh cage, with a training perch to strengthen his feet and leg muscles and give him experience perching and hopping.

On May 29, the blue jay took his first flight, fluttering for a few seconds before landing on the ground.  He’s learning to perch in his small mesh indoor aviary. He will go into an outdoor aviary in early June, and be released in late June.

Blue Jay, June 12By June 12, the blue jay has moved to a larger indoor aviary.  He’s sharing space with several slightly younger blue jays now, enabling them to for social bonds and care for each other.  He’s also beginning to chase crickets and meal worms.

toads in a hand - Alaina Mabaso_20130603_1359727442

Just how small is a toadlet?

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

Just what size are these tiny toad babies that make their way, by the thousands, from the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve to the Schuylkill Center each June?

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