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.

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

Tradescantia virginiana_MN_6-1-15

What’s blooming at the Schuylkill Center?

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.

Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipfera)

The most common tree you will see on the Schuylkill Center’s property, this tree has distinct yellow and orange flowers and leaves that look like cat ears.  They grow quickly with very straight trunks, often the first to reclaim open spaces in our forest.  Serving an important ecological purpose as well, this tree supports 19 native Lepidoptera species.  You may see yellow petals with an orange stripe this time of year – a sure sign that there are tulip poplars overhead.

Northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

These beautiful, showy flowers are from a catalpa tree – a late spring showstopper!  With elongated heart-shaped leaves, this tree could easily be confused with the invasive, nonnative empress tree (Paulownia tomentosa) that also can be seen at the center.  Later in the year, the catalpa gets long string bean-like seed pods that hang from branches.

Virginia spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana)Tradescantia virginiana_MN_6-1-15
Named for its angular leaf arrangement, native spiderwort can be seen in several meadows here.  This plant opens its flowers in the morning and closes them later in the afternoon, with the individual blooms only lasting one day.  They self-seed well and add great color to the landscape.

Daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus)
Erigeron annuus_MN_6-1-15
These rainswept fleabane were spotted in our front garden.  Typically located in meadows, woodland edges, or disturbed roadside sites, the dried flowers of this annual plant were believed to rid a home of fleas.  These flowers bloom throughout the season, attracting predatory insects to combat insect pests.

Dogbane, Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)
Apocynum cannabinum_MN_6-2-15

In the same family at milkweed, this plant has a very high value to pollinators despite its small, inconspicuous greenish-yellow flowers.  It may be easier to spot this plant by its reddish stem, and thin, long seed pods later in the year that release seeds with fluffy white pappus attached.  While it is a food source for adult butterflies, specifically monarchs, all parts are poisonous to herbivores.  As a result, it grows well here despite our large white-tail deer population.

Seedlings

Of Soil and Seeds

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

With ice on the ground and some remnants of snow lingering in the shadows, it is hard to believe the growing season at Schuylkill Center will begin in just a handful of weeks.  For gardeners like me, these cold days are the perfect opportunity to leisurely browse the glossy, colorful seed catalogs and dream about what to add to the garden this year, the bounty of the harvest, and warm summer days spent among blooms.  I hope to add some more shade-loving native plants to my back yard, and stave off the continual encroachment of my neighbor’s English ivy.  Rarely, does the thought of soil enter into our daydreams – although, as any gardener will tell you, it is one of the most important components to any healthy, productive garden.  Besides the minerals and nutrients that soil offers plants, it is teeming with the microscopic life of the food soil web.  Bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and arthropods, along with the ubiquitous earthworm, break down organic matter, making nutrients available to plants and participating in a food chain that includes birds and even larger mammals.  Besides protecting your crops from pests and diseases, these soil creatures create pockets of air in the soil, affecting soil structure and drainage.

So, how can you ensure the health of your soil?  One step to consider, especially if you plan to grow food crops, is to get your garden soil tested.  There are many resources for soil testing, including a low-cost option from the PSU Extension program.  Analyzing the soil for nutrient levels, pH, and contaminants is a good initial step to deciding what action to take to get the best results from your garden.  Often, fixing nutrient deficiencies is as easy as mixing some more organic matter like compost or decomposed manure into your garden soil.

If you start your plants from seeds, the potting mix you use is also an important decision.  Most potting soils contain just a few ingredients: organic matter, a fertilizer, peat moss to hold moisture, and a component to help drainage and create air pockets, such as perlite.

SeedlingsAt the Schuylkill Center, we’re always seeking sustainability, and that includes our nursery practices.  Since the establishment of the Native Plant Nursery in 2006, it has been the goal of land stewardship staff to reduce and eliminate potential negative impacts on the environment due to the nursery.  So at the outset, this framework provided guidance as to the types of materials used in the nursery like fertilizer, soils, and seeds, and led to the decision to seek out a peat-free soil.  Although peat is used in almost all potting soils, it should be considered a finite natural resource because it is harvested at an unsustainable, rapid pace, yet only grows millimeters per year.  As a result, it takes the peat bogs hundreds of years to return to their original state, if they are not wiped out completely.  Just like trees, peat bogs store significant amounts of carbon.  In fact, they are one of the largest storers of carbon and greenhouse gases on the plant, which is a further reason to preserve them.

Organic MechanicsAll of this led us to Organic Mechanics, a local soil company which does not use peat in any of their mixes.  Instead, they use compost and coconut coir, both recycled materials with the added benefits of greater moisture retention and increased nutrient content.

This year, in preparation for spring planting, you can buy organic, sustainable soil through the Schuylkill Center.  Our first annual Soil Sale is underway now – you can pre-order a range of peat-free soil products at a discounted price, and pick up them at the Center on February 21st – just in time to start your vegetables.  More about that here.

IMG_1967

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

Copy of photo 5

Botanical Weaving with WE THE WEEDS

Weaving detailsBy LandLab Resident Artists Zya Levy and Kaitlin Pomerantz, WE THE WEEDS

For our Landlab Residency project, the process of its creation is of great importance. As we work towards the installation of a large-scale sculpture created from woven plant material in Spring 2015, we invite Schuylkill Center visitors to participate right now in creating the tapestry panels which will comprise it. In this way, the exploration of global plant migration, and the ecological and cultural roles of non-native plants, becomes a hands-on, engaging experience, with a cumulative, archival result. The following photos show some moments in the process– from the building and stringing of the looms, to their on-site installation, to actual weaving. The looms will be up all fall– we hope these photos encourage you to come up and try your hand at weaving with invasive vines!

Loom construction

With the help of Philadelphia Woodworks we built two large, free standing, cedar tapestry looms.

Setting up looms

For the warp, we are using colorful braided mason line. For the weft we are using invasive plants such as oriental bittersweet, mile-a-minute, Japanese honeysuckle, wisteria, Japanese stiltgrass and bush honeysuckle harvested from the Schuylkill Center.

5.1 - collecting materials

A group volunteers help remove invasives and collect materials.

5.3 - collecting materials

We process the material by cutting it into workable lengths and stripping off the leaves revealing the colors and textures of the plant material, the silvery-grey of the oriental bittersweet and the rusty brown of the mile-a-minute.

Weaving on loomsWeaving on looms 2

With the looms strung up and material collected we are ready to weave. Friends, volunteers and students pitch in!

IMG_5827 Copy of photo 5

IMG_5634We contributed some process weavings, photos, and a vine installation to a beautiful show at  the Schuylkill Center called Progress & Process, and also included an indoor loom for this show. The show is up through December 13.

9.0 - invitation to join us!

The outdoor looms will be installed at  the Schuylkill Center through the end of November. Please come join us!

 

Do you think you can weave as fast as Zya?

leaf

The Biggest Day in 50 Years

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

This piece was originally published in the Roxborough Review on Thursday, September 10 in the column Natural Selections

Saturday, September 27 might just be the biggest day in the Schuylkill Center’s storied 50-year history.  On that day, we’re offering the first bird seed sale of the year, the last native plant sale of the year, and launching the University of Nature, a full day of outdoor learning for adults.  We’re beginning the day by presenting the ninth annual Henry Meigs Award for environmental leadership to Ann Fowler Rhoads, and ending the day by unveiling a new show in our environmental art gallery.

One big day.

The University of Nature is the latest in a series of new programming thrusts the Schuylkill Center is rolling out.  We’re offering university-level expertise in a one-day outdoor setting.  Over the course of the day there are nine workshops and walks from which to choose, and you’ll leave at day’s end graduating to a higher level of environmental understanding. Continue reading

19.Hagan (51)

What’s the bbuzzz?

By LandLab Resident Artists Maggie Mills, B.H. Mills, and Marguerita Hagan

Colony Collapse Disorder
The LandLab installation by Marguerita Hagan, B.H. Mills, and Maggie Mills addresses colony collapse disorder and the devastating global loss of honeybees.  At present in the United States alone, 1/3 of the honeybee population has been lost to this disorder. These mini, mighty pollinators make every third bite of food we take possible.  Ironically, it is human behavior that is responsible for the honeybees’ catastrophic disappearance. Our installation provides a chemical free, native pollinator garden for the bee population on the grounds of the Schuylkill Center. We will be spreading the word about ways that we all can contribute to positive, sustainable, and mutually beneficial outcomes through education and community partnering in the coming months. Continue reading

Baby starling

Four sounds from early May

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

This week the forests and fields are alive with sounds, all manner of animals calling out and leafy trees rustling in the breeze.  This is also the time of year when our Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic is brimming with baby animals of all sorts. So, here are four samples of what May sounds like at the Schuylkill Center.

blossoms beside the pondToads, singing in afternoon sunlight.  A basin in this field fills with water most of the year, creating a nice habitat for toads and other amphibians.  Around the field and basin are vines, grasses, and flowering trees.

 

Baby starling

At the Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic, baby starlings call out for their meal.  This time of year, the clinic is teeming with baby animals – sparrows, catbirds, owls, squirrels.

 

Forest

In the forest around our main building, songbirds call through the trees.  There are lots of birds in this recording, can you name any of them?

 

 

Black-eyed susan seedlingsMelissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship, transplants tiny Rudbeckia, black-eyed Susan seedlings in the Native Plant Nursery.  These seedlings were grown from seeds collected here at the Schuylkill Center.