Blueberries, A Local Classic

Highbush blueberries are one of the best parts of summer, and one of the only truly native foods to our region.

If you have never had the joy of walking or kayaking through the New Jersey Pine Barrens, this fall should be your first time. A short drive but a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia, this quietly rugged wilderness is defined by fragrant conifers towering overhead and lush stands of fruiting shrubs at waist height. The crunch of sand under your feet, the soft lapping of water at creek’s edge, a fresh breeze filtering through the verdant solitude of white cedar stands – it is an experience that many find deeply rejuvenating, for some even spiritual.

This rare, fragile ecosystem is also home to something that has become a global culinary phenomenon: blueberries.

These luscious, flavorful berries – a summer favorite for many of us – are one of the few truly native foods of our region. Apples and peaches, wheat and potatoes, most foods we eat come from Eurasia, Africa, or South America, but the blueberry began right here.

Blueberries come in an incredible diversity of species, from diminutive mats of vegetation clinging to mountaintops in Maine all the way to small trees in the swamps of Florida. The kind that we eat, however, usually fall into two categories: lowbush and highbush. Lowbush blueberries form low spreading shrubs just a few inches tall, that creep and crawl across rock and sand in places that most other plants would wither. In these extreme conditions, lowbush blueberries produce small berries with an incredible concentrated flavor that make them a delicacy throughout New England where they can be bought as “wild blueberries”. The kind we usually find on store shelves is the highbush variety, producing far sweeter and larger berries that are easier to plant and manage in fields and orchards.

Both lowbush and highbush blueberries are plants that have a number of additional advantages as well. Red stems and a craggy architecture make them spectacular plants for winter interest in the garden. White bell-shaped flowers draw innumerable bumblebees and other native pollinators in the spring. Lush green foliage and ripening berries follow in the summer. The fall, however, is the best time to see a blueberry bush. Whether you are in Pennsylvania or Vermont, one of the most glorious plants for autumnal color is the blueberry bush. Here at the Schuylkill Center we look forward to mid-October every year when the wild blueberries along some of our trails begin to glow a fiery red. In the Pine Barrens, where blueberries grow abundantly, the scene is even more spectacular.

the shock of autumnal red from a colony of blueberries. Photo courtesy of Stanley Zimny.

It is a little surprise, then, that Elizabeth Coleman White noticed these lovely and productive shrubs growing around her family’s cranberry farm in southern New Jersey a little over a century ago. A Friends Central School and Drexel University graduate, White came from a local Quaker family and was a true polymath in her time. At the turn of the 20th century, blueberries were not cultivated for food; only in places where they grew wild were they harvested for local consumption. She presciently saw the potential in this colorful native fruit and invited Frederick Coville, a USDA botanist, to help her breed and domesticate highbush blueberries. White paid local woodsmen to bring her their favorite large-fruiting blueberry bushes that they found on their treks across the Pine Barrens. In this way she was able to source the very best genetic material with which to breed new domesticated varieties. By 1916, after years of diligent work, Elizabeth White and Coville harvested and sold their first blueberry crop, founding an entire agricultural industry that has subsequently grown to global proportions. Descendants of the very blueberries that White and Coville bred and cultivated on her New Jersey farm are now grown as far afield as Australia and Peru.

Here at the Schuylkill Center we are in the middle of our annual Fall Plant Sale, and are excited to offer two highbush blueberry varieties bred from the collections of Elizabeth Coleman White and Frederick Coville. ‘Jersey’ blueberry is one of the very first varieties that they released, and is still a standard on many blueberry farms. ‘Bluecrop’ was released a few decades later from crossing and selecting the superior wild blueberries that they had sourced. Both of these, planted together, will give you locally native blueberry shrubs that give abundant, delicious fruit in the summer, a haven for native biodiversity, and year-round beauty in your garden. Unlike most plants, blueberries require acidic soil. A large helping of peat moss, fertilizers suited for azaleas and other acid-loving plants, and – if old timers are to be believed – a handful of rusty nails (to give the plant iron) placed at the bottom of the hole when planting should suffice.

This fall, the blueberries will once again radiate their autumnal beauty to the world. Thanks to two enterprising botanists in southern New Jersey a century ago, we can all enjoy this display in our own yards too – as well as the summer fruits. We invite you to take a look at blueberries and the many other native plants we have at our Fall Plant Sale, available now for ordering and pickup: shop.schuylkillcenter.org/native-plants

Max Paschall is our Land Stewardship Coordinator at the Schuylkill Center.

Schuylkill Center Intern Redesigns the Entrance Garden

A masked Schuylkill Center intern Jamel Shockley weeding the front entrance garden with volunteers.

“It’s the first thing people see when they walk in the front door. It’s like the first word of a play or the first note of a song– if it catches your attention and draws you in, you’re already off to a good start.”

Hearing the Schuylkill Center’s intern, Jamel Shockley, talk about redesigning the gardens in front of our main entrance, it is easy to share his enthusiasm. A lifelong Philadelphian and recent Drexel graduate with a degree in environmental science, Jamel has brought his passion and creative verve to tackle this highly visible space. With help from Center’s staff and native plant volunteers, he is taking a fresh look at what can be done with the space.

The garden in front of the Visitor Center was once a wild and unkempt tangle of lanky goldenrod, sumac, and more behind a mouldering fence. A few years ago, our staff came together and remade this crucial front space– removing the elements that no longer worked, but doing so with a light touch to allow for more sensitive native plants to return. The result was a mixed meadow dotted with older shrubs. While ecologically valuable, it was clear that a more distinctive design could even better reflect the Center’s mission. Enter Jamel.

“There were definitely valuable things there– wonderful plants and inviting spaces in the garden– but without structure or order it restricted what you could see. If you can open it up, then you can allow for a lot more diversity and let people experience every part of it.”

Jamel has been working at the Schuylkill Center through a fellowship with the Alliance for Watershed Education. The Alliance, a consortium of 23 environmental centers including the Schuylkill Center, works throughout the Delaware River watershed. The fellowship program brings young environmentalists from a variety of backgrounds to work in centers, each completing a capstone project as part of their work. For Jamel, redesigning and planting the new front walkway garden is the culmination of his time here.

Jamel, unmasked

This isn’t his first experience with the Center. As part of Drexel’s Co-op program, Jamel spent the summer of 2018 in our Land & Facilities department learning many of the skills and perspectives that he is using now to create an inviting space.

Growing up in a family of artists whose creativity was matched by their commitment to community service, Jamel arrived with the ability to see his environmental stewardship work in a unique light. With this garden, he wants to blur the lines between beauty, ecological functionality, and physical accessibility for visitors. While normally known for his quiet and contemplative reserve, his passion quickly shines through when he discusses this project:

“I want this to be something that people can interact with. Simply having the plants in a place where you can examine them up close–  even if you don’t know what it is, or anything about them– can be so helpful in understanding them. When you can be right there next to the plants, you see their form and color and how they interrelate with the rest of the environment.”

One of the benefits of this project for Jamel has been the learning process. Although he has done gardening in the past and taken botany courses at Drexel, this has been a great opportunity for him to work directly in the field and design with new plants in a new way. Luckily, he’s received assistance from the Center’s team of garden volunteers who are among some of the most knowledgeable native plant experts in the region. Jamel has been learning from the very best, and it’s paid dividends outside of work as well.

“I’ve started to really understand plants in a new way. When I go home and see things in my neighborhood I think, ‘oh, I recognize this! That’s Virginia creeper, that’s coneflower.’ Being able to work alongside these gardeners has truly been a precious gift.”

Jamel was handed a formidable task, but with characteristic diligence, thoughtfulness, and a creative twist, he is giving the Center a “first note” for which to be proud. There is a lot of excitement among those who pass through our doors about finally having a space along the front walk that embodies the beauty, vision, and purpose of the Schuylkill Center. 

We look forward to welcoming you to see Jamel’s work, in full bloom next spring.

By Max Paschall, Land Stewardship Coordinator

 

This Independence Day, Plant A Liberty Tea Garden

New Jersey tea in full bloom

Independence Day is one of the quintessential summer celebrations, replete with good food, (hopefully) enjoyable company, and citywide displays of fireworks.

Here at the Schuylkill Center though, and indeed in many wild corners of our city, a very different kind of fireworks display has been happening for the past few weeks.

Milkweeds burst with pink globes and sprays of orange. Red and lavender beebalm florets arc across the meadow. Yellow sunchoke flowers shoot up and fade into brown seedheads. Fields progress from lush spring green to a crescendo of summer color, punctuated by a dance of bumblebees, flittering moths, and the iridescent otherworldly buzz of hummingbirds. Early July is the moment of Nature’s midsummer abundance.

It may come as a surprise, then, that many of the wildflowers that contribute to this yearly symphony of color and scent were once, themselves, a powerful political statement.

On a cold December evening in 1773, a group of angry Bostonians heaved tons of imported black tea into the harbor in protest at new taxes placed on it by Britain. Many American colonists who supported this action were suddenly faced with a moral dilemma: how can we still enjoy our tea if we’re boycotting it? Tea was culturally foundational in a way that is hard for us to imagine today. An empty teapot was out of the question, even for the most ardent supporters of independence. 

The answer? Look to the forests and fields.

For people in the Carolinas, there was yaupon (the unfortunately named Ilex vomitoria) – a native holly whose leaves brew a delicious, caffeinated beverage. But for northern colonists, who did not have access to any native caffeine-producing plants, it was the flavors and aromas of native wildflowers that appealed most.

‘Liberty Tea’ became the term given broadly to a number of native wildflowers and shrubs whose aromatic foliage and flowers made sumptuous, spiced teas. Colonial women coursed the countryside, harvesting and cultivating flowers and wild herbs for their now-politicized teapots. The use of these herbs was a clear signal to neighbors, friends, and family as to which side of the political divide they stood on. To find the best species for this purpose they followed the example of Native peoples who had enjoyed brewing with the best native plants for millennia.

Sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora) was one of these favored plants. Leaves harvested before the plant blooms can be dried and stored for long periods, and used to brew an anise-scented tisane. Unlike its weedier relatives, sweet goldenrod does not spread aggressively in the garden and still supports incredible numbers of native pollinators with its late-season spray of yellow blossoms. 

Ruby-throated hummingbird sips on scarlet beebalm

Another popular Liberty Tea was scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma), also known as wild bergamot or Oswego tea. A host for orange mint and hermit sphinx moths, its shock of red tubular flowers burst forth in late June, providing an irresistible sip of nectar to hummingbirds and butterflies. Hummingbirds, indeed, seem to have good taste: a small handful of those same flowers can be added to a teapot to make a refreshingly aromatic summer beverage.

Colonial women favored a wide range of brewable wild plants to support the boycott and create a new culinary culture of resistance. New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) got its common name during this time because of its popularity as a Liberty Tea. This nitrogen-fixing plant is a low shrub, only growing a couple feet tall, with wintergreen-flavored leaves and creamy white flower clusters that are particularly attractive to moths and butterflies. 

The plants that our forebears imbibed are not just an historical curiosity to make into a tisane or herbal iced tea – they are also crucial food sources and waystations for some of the most sensitive creatures that we share this land with. 

Whether or not you are of the patriotic bent, planting a Liberty Tea garden is a great way to ensure that you have delightful, historic wild brews available for your July 4th cookout each year, while also providing year-round habitat to native pollinators and a sumptuous sip for migrating hummingbirds and butterflies looking for a rest and a snack on their intercontinental journeys. Early colonists reframed these native plants into a political statement about an independent future. For us, planting native species is an equally powerful statement: one that speaks of our commitment to a livable future in a world that relegates these lifegiving plants to the margins. So this Independence Day weekend, after the guests leave and the food coma wears off, consider planting a Liberty Tea garden for next year. After all, what better way to honor our country’s birth than by celebrating its natural splendor, and perhaps yield a tasty brew in the process?

By Max Paschall, Native Plants Assistant

Reviving the Prairies of Philadelphia

Shop online for native plants: tinyurl.com/SCEEnativeplants

There are few better ways to learn plants than by working in a nursery. Assisting with the Schuylkill Center’s annual Native Plant Sale—now in its 17th year—is a truly unique experience for employees and volunteers alike. With over 200 species of native plants being offered to the public annually, even the most experienced botanists and gardeners encounter fascinating plants that they have never seen before. In my work with the sale this year, two plants in particular have caught my eye.

Rattlesnake master and purple coneflower are both wildflowers with wonderful names that are native to southern parts of the now rare eastern prairie ecosystem, landscapes that once existed from the Mississippi River to Pennsylvania, and Florida to New Hampshire. The eastern prairies are relegated to tiny out-of-the-way patches today, but at one time they contained an astonishing diversity of species: asters, orchids, and false indigos. Switchgrass and bluestems. Blazing stars, goldenrods, milkweeds, and mountain mints. Miles of flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees dotting a savannah humming with life. 

Of course, when we hear the word “prairie,” the first place that comes to mind is the Great Plains of the Midwest. With trees eagerly popping up every place they can in our area, we like to imagine that the native ecosystems of the past here were all woodland and forest. Early accounts of this region, however, reveal a far more nuanced picture. Descriptions abound from the 15th to 18th centuries of broad meadows, savannahs, and grasslands tended with fire by indigenous communities across the Atlantic seaboard. 

Were any prairies present here in Philadelphia? Local Lenape place names, which often encode ancient environmental information, give us a clue: while Wissahickon means “catfish creek” and Wissinoming is “a place where grapes grow,” Southwest Philadelphia’s Kingsessing is the Lenape word for “place where there is a meadow.”

The pre-urban environment of Philadelphia was a diverse, managed mosaic of old growth forests, vast fruit-laden woodlands, and networks of tall prairies—a far cry from the concrete barrens that we see around us today. This is, sadly, all too common across the continent. Eastern prairies have disappeared throughout their range in the face of farming and development. The removal of native people and their millennia-old relationships with the land—particularly, the seasonal controlled burns that held back trees and regenerated the grasslands—have further ensured the decline of these unique meadow ecologies. But despite this familiar story, all is not lost.

What if Philadelphia’s concrete-encased small yards could be transformed into the same diverse landscapes that once existed here—every container garden a pocket prairie, every yard a micro-forest? What if all it took to return biodiversity to a neighborhood is a gardener with a trowel, the right plants, and a little gusto? Just as was the case in the past, it is human care and stewardship that can create and preserve these endangered ecosystems. The dazzling beauty and biodiversity of the eastern prairie can be recreated in any backyard—even if it’s as small as a postage stamp of grass or a few pots on a balcony. With their diminutive size but exuberance of color, scent, and form, prairie and meadow plants can pack a punch in a small garden in a way few others can.

Rattlesnake Master. Photo by Frank Mayfield

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is one of the most charismatic of these plants. With light powdery blue, tropical-looking foliage and a spray of flower orbs emerging like a constellation, this is a plant that looks far more at home in the Caribbean than in the prairies of the Mid-Atlantic where it has grown for millennia. Its flowers are irresistible to many native pollinators, particularly the same wasps that can help control pests in the rest of your garden. It also grows just as easily in containers as it does in the broad expanse of its original prairie habitat. With its ethereal charm and distinctive name, rattlesnake master is a wildflower that would be at home in any Philadelphia garden, big or small.

And what better to complement it than a patch of one of its prettiest prairie companions, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)? This wildflower is a treasure to people and pollinators alike. Along with a handful of other Echinacea species, coneflower is foundational to herbal medicine, being widely available for its purported immune-boosting properties. Its color and elegant form in the garden have led to its popularity in native landscaping, and it is available in a wide range of cultivars with unique colors, from eggshell white to green and purple. Its true power, however, is in the life that it brings to the garden. From fritillaries and swallowtails to bumble bees and beetles, watching a blooming coneflower in July is truly a sight to behold. As a late bloomer, it provides rich nectar and pollen at a crucial time for pollinators, when little else is in flower. 

A patch of coneflower and rattlesnake master is a lifeline to your neighborhood’s bees and butterflies every summer. Paired with other now-rare plants that once existed in the long-gone ecosystems of our region, plantings like this can become a foothold for the return of beauty and biodiversity to any neighborhood in this city. 

Working with the amount of acreage we have at the Schuylkill Center is a blessing, but the true future of our city lies in the spirit of stewardship that we all can cultivate in whatever space we have to work with. Bringing biodiversity back to your small patch of this world is a deeply empowering act that pays dividends far beyond what one imagines at the outset. 

I invite you to see what kinds of plants can become a part of the ecosystem that you steward in your space: the Schuylkill Center’s Native Plant Sale offers a wide range of plants for any garden or taste. Rattlesnake master and purple coneflower are easy and lovely to grow, and may just yet inspire you to imagine the lost landscapes that we could enjoy yet again.

 

Max Paschall, Native Plants Assistant

 

Gardening with Native Plants: Great for You AND the Planet

Like all forests around us, the Schuylkill Center is in full bloom right now. You really have to see it to believe it. 

Virginia bluebells, pink buds opening into bright blue flowers. Shooting stars, white flowers blazing across the forest floor. Trillium, a gorgeous but an oh-so-ephemeral plant, the species over here blooming in white, but the one over there in red. Solomon’s seal, named for the Biblical king, its delicate bell-like flowers dangling from zig-zags of leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpit, poking through the forest floor, Jack dutifully staying inside his lectern. And that’s just a start.

Solomon’s seal

And the good news? You can plant these in your yard. In fact, planting these in your yard is one of the most powerful acts you can do to improve the health of our planet. (And many of them require shade, even better for many of us without good sun in our yards.) 

The better news?  They are perennial; planting them now often means they come up better next year, spreading a bit. And unlike impatiens, they require little watering.

But why is this a powerful act? The tulips, daffodils and crocuses that grace most of our gardens are without question beautiful flowers. But since they are not native to Pennsylvania or even America, few other living things live on them. Sure, deer might eat them (as deer seem to like everything), but caterpillars don’t touch most of them, and neither do many or any other insects. While that makes us and landscapers happy—the plants are not getting consumed by hungry insects—it makes a mother robin looking for caterpillars to feed her fast-growing, hungry babies very sad.  

That’s the problem: a yard filled with tulips, daffodils, and crocuses sadly has no wildlife value for birds looking to feed bugs to their babies. And surprisingly, almost all birds feed bugs to their babies—even the babies of seed-eating birds grow up being fed bugs first. So that means a world filled with daffodils is by necessity one devoid of robins, wrens, thrushes, and more.

That’s the beauty of places like the Schuylkill Center and the Wissahickon—we’re islands of native plants in an ocean of inedible lawns and plantings. Truthfully, a lawn is an ecological desert.

Spring violets

One native Pennsylvania oak, as we noted last week, supports literally thousands of species of insects, including hundreds of caterpillars of different moths and butterflies. Same with the wild black cherry tree, with leaves that caterpillars devour, flowers that offer nectar for butterflies, and fruit that birds crave. One tree holds up an entire world.

Gardening with native plants, a modest movement that we wholeheartedly support, is thus a powerful act of environmental improvement, as it supports the many species of small creatures that inhabit this part of the planet, protecting our biological diversity.

The Schuylkill Center also makes this action easy for you: right now, online, we are offering our annual Native Plant Sale, your one-stop shopping for many of  the flowers I noted above (and so many more!). We’re also selling shrubs. ferns, grasses, vines and trees as well, plus soil and other gardening supplies. If you become a Schuylkill Center member, we’ll even give you a discount on the flowers you buy, all by itself reason enough to join.

In the shrub department alone, for example, several of the shrubs offer berries that are completely irresistible to songbirds. Serviceberry (also called shadbush because it blooms about when shad run up rivers), chokeberry, elderberry, and blueberry are just a few of the shrubs in our sale that sport wonderful berries that feed a diversity of native wildlife; blueberries especially attract a  large number of insects pollinators to them. 

In the tree section, redbuds and magnolias offer beautiful springtime flowers—redbuds are the medium sized trees blushing lilac right now. Oaks, birches, pawpaws, cedars, and horse chestnuts are a sampling of some of the other high-value native trees.

Redbud tree

We’ve even got sedges and grasses that offer visual interest in your garden. 

To hold your hand in this, on this week’s Thursday Night Live, our weekly deep dive into all things natural, we’re offering the Native Plants Hotline, a chance for anyone to call in with their garden questions about gardening with natives. Register for that on our website as well; the free event starts Thursday, April 29 at 7 p.m. and features both gardening and tree experts. Do call.

Spring is busting out all over—and you can bring that action into your yard. To be sure, you don’t have to replant your entire yard. Not at all. Just buy a few plants at the sale, add them to your yard, and every year tuck a few more here and there. It’s so easy. Come see. And the plants are easily as beautiful as daffodils—some, even more so. (Check out Virginia bluebells and white trillium.)

And the best part, our birds and butterflies will thank you.  

—Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Planting Oaks On Earth Day

On Thursday, April 22, the Schuylkill Center will be joining almost one billion people worldwide commemorating the day. And we’ll be engaged in an incredibly powerful act of environmental stewardship: we’ll be planting seven oaks trees that day, five at our nature center, one at our Wildlife Clinic, and a seventh at the 21st Ward Ballfields.

Why oaks? Because of all the trees in our forest, the oak is essential, a keystone species, offering more ecosystem services than any other tree in our forests.

To start, oaks support more biological diversity than any other local tree. Its leaves are the necessary food source for an astonishing 511 species of Pennsylvania moths and butterflies alone. In other words, 511 adult moths and butterflies seek out oaks to lay their eggs on their leaves, the oaks serving as host for the insect, nearly 100 more species than number two on the list, native cherries like black cherry. It likely surprises you that there are more than 500 species of this clan locally (it did me, and I teach this stuff), but absolutely. “No other tree genus supports so much life,” writes University of Delaware entomologist and bestselling author Doug Tallamy in his newest book, The Nature of Oaks.

Those caterpillars in turn are critical food for even seed-eating birds who busily stuff caterpillars down the craws of demanding nestling babies after they hatch. So if you are a seed-eating song sparrow or goldfinch, the adult parent is pushing insects into the beaks of their babies, giving their babies the protein packets they need to mature; caterpillars are a hugely important food for nestling birds, as they don’t yet have the exoskeleton of their adults, so they are more readily digested.

It’s a simple equation: more oaks, more bugs, and more bugs, more birds.

Then there are acorns, food for dozens of species of birds, mammals, insects, and more. While the birds include nuthatches, woodpeckers, titmice, towhees, crows, and more, blue jays have a special relationship with oaks: a jay will carry an acorn up to a mile away to cache it underground, storing it for the winter ahead. An industrious jay buries 4,500 acorns every fall—and either can’t use them all, forgets where some are planted, or perishes during the winter. Leftover acorns buried underground then sprout. So jay populations are supported by oaks, but jays in turn are essential dispersers of oak trees.

Acorns also make up almost 75 percent of a deer’s late fall diet, and you’ve likely dodged gray squirrels crossing streets to bury acorns like the jays do. But flying squirrels, opossums, raccoons, white-footed mice, chipmunks, rabbits, and even that black bear that crossed the Wissahickon a few years back all eat acorns too. 

Lots of you are likely worried about climate change—or I hope you are. Of all their peers, oaks are about the best at sequestering—storing—carbon and locking it away. A long-lived tree, oaks remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it for centuries, and as trees with densely-packed cells, which makes oak the wood we love so much, pack away more than most. Its deep and extensive root system with a huge mycorrhizae network also pushes carbon underground, where it is stored for hundreds, some think thousands, of years. “Simply put,” concludes Tallamy, “every oak you plant and nurture helps to moderate our rapidly deteriorating climate better than the overwhelming majority of plant species.”

The huge leaf network of mature oaks, along with its roots, are excellent for capturing stormwater too, another one of the signature environmental threats of this day. An oak tree’s leaves, one study showed, held onto 3,000 gallons of water that evaporated before it reached the ground.

On top of all this, oaks, like all trees, filter air from smog, cool it in the summer, shade our homes, block excessive winds, and more.

An old Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Which is why the Schuylkill Center will plant seven trees on Earth Day.

And this year, all those trees were oaks, the essential tree in Pennsylvania forests. We hope you’ll join us in planting oaks across the region too, even in your front or backyard.

 

—Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

Hopping and Hoping: Toads on the road

Why did hundreds of toads cross the road on a rainy Wednesday night? 

As ever, to get to the other side; migration season is in full swing. 

Every year in late March and early April, the amphibians wake from hibernation to mate and lay eggs, and they begin the treacherous journey from Schuylkill Center forests to the Roxborough reservoirs and back. The most treacherous part? Crossing Port Royal Avenue, often during evening rush hour. The toads mostly move in dusk and darkness to avoid animal predators—but that method doesn’t work so well for cars.  

by Kevin Kissling

Sixteen years ago, a group of volunteers set out to give these toads safe passage across the road, by erecting barricades and redirecting traffic around Port Royal Avenue. The Schuylkill Center took over this program three years in and has been running it ever since, under the affectionate name “Toad Detour.” It’s the largest volunteer operation we have, and folks come back year after year to participate.

It’s a great opportunity to have fun, learn more about amphibians and save the future, so to speak,” says Paulina Le, the Volunteer Coordinator for the Schuylkill Center.Toad Detour makes people feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves.” They come for nights full of the camaraderie of shared purpose, and for quiet, excited observation of the toads’ epic undertaking. As volunteer Sandy Brubaker describes it, she “Really enjoy[s] hearing them first, usually leaves rustling on the side of the road, and then seeing that first one!” Longtime volunteer leader Ed Wickham agrees, saying “I never tire seeing and hearing the toads, frogs and toadlets every year. They are my first sign of spring like the cherry blossoms or snow geese.”

How do they know when toads may make an appearance? First the weather has to be warm enough—the ground temperature needs to be consistently around 55°F—and ideally a bit wet or rainy. But the most telling sign: the male toads will begin their mating call, a high pitched trill that sounds through the night. This is a cue for volunteers to take to the streets. 

A male and female toad in “amplexus,” or their mating position, as they cross the road. Photo by Kevin Kissling

On the evening of Wednesday, March 31, no fewer than 543 live toads crossed the road, assiduously counted by our volunteers. (A few pickerel frogs also showed up to the party.) Counting the toads helps us track the size and health of local toad populations—which in turn indicates the health of the entire habitat. The numbers also make an online tool created by a long-time volunteer, the “Toad Predictor,” more accurate. While we don’t yet submit the numbers formally to a database as you might for migrating birds or butterflies, documenting the toads supports the necessity for road barriers.

And this is only part one of the journey: The eggs laid in the reservoirs will hatch three to 12 days later, and once the tadpoles mature into toadlets (tiny toads the size of your fingernail), they cross the road once more to get back to their terrestrial home territory. “They have tough lives,” Wickham says. “Only a very small percent of toads born become adults. To have a big female toad survive against all odds then be killed by a car is tragic.” So he has one final plea for you: “Please volunteer. Please volunteer often. Volunteers that show up many times a year every year are so valuable. They rescue more toads than anyone else.”

Sometimes volunteers use buckets to more effectively and safely transport toads across the street, and sometimes they use them to protect toads hopping their way over outside of the barrier zone. Photo by Colleen DiCola

As more and more nature centers throughout the country take up similar toad and amphibian detour operations, some also engineer special wildlife bridges and tunnels. As Paulina says, “Many folks are adapting the principle of living with the environment, not against it.” The toads, after all, “have been here longer than humans have”—and they’re certainly not going to let a road get in their way. 

 

—Emily Sorensen

 

 

Further resources:

Sign up to be a Toad Detour volunteer

Check out our Facebook Group 

What does the toad say? By Clare Morgan 

Watch Doug Wechsler’s Thursday Night L!VE talk on the life of a toad

Read a review of Wechsler’s book The Hidden Life of a Toad (available in our Nature Gift Shop)

Purchase the Toad Detour DVD

The REAL Flower Show: Trout Lily and White Trillium

Any day now, two wonderful spring wildflowers will blossom on the floor of the Schuylkill Center’s forest, and if you love flowers, if you buy tickets to see the wonderful Philadelphia Flower Show, you really need to see these—and they are free!

The incandescent yellow turban-shaped blossoms of the trout lily are one of the most recognizable features of a Pennsylvania forest in early spring. Rising only 4-6 inches above the soil, the flower is named after the brown-gray mottling of its leaves that resembles something like a trout’s back. 

The bright nodding flowers do attract pollinators, and the seeds produced afterward play a clever trick. In a strategy adopted by a range of plants, the seeds sport little caps called elaiosomes, fleshy structures rich in fats (the elaio is Latin for oil) and proteins craved by ants. Worker ants dutifully carry the seeds into their nests to feed the fatty elaiosomes to their larvae. The seeds are then discarded underground—where they grow into plants, the flower essentially bribing ants into sowing its seeds.

The trout lily is also a patient species. The plant quietly produces a single mottled leaf each spring, which photosynthesizes to send starches into its growing underground tuber. Somewhere  between four and seven years, the plant has at last stored enough material to produce TWO leaves—and between the two leaves rises the bright yellow flower. Every trout lily flower you see belongs to a plant that could be a decade old—or more…

…for the flower also grows in large colonies, covering, as an example, one entire hillside at the Schuylkill Center; some colonies may be 200 years old. And while that colony could be old, there are remarkably few flowers in the group: only 0.5% of the plants seem to make flowers. 

So when you see a trout lily, stop to enjoy its patience, beauty, and age.

The second is white trillium, whose species name, grandiflorum, means “grand flowering.” It is magnificent, as its two- or three-inch bright white petals are among the largest of our spring wildflowers. Like the trout lily, it often grows in clonal colonies that form a white beacon shining on the forest floor in mid-spring. It has no smell, as it does not need one: bumblebees are one of the pollinators lured to the scentless flowers by the color. There is a stand of white trillium in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia estimated to number 10 million individuals: it is worth a trip to visit.

And check out the generic name, Trillium, which simply translates as “tri-lily.” Everything in trillium comes in threes or multiples of threes: three bright white petals, three sepals below the petals supporting them, six pollen-producing anthers topped by three pistils, three greenish-white stigmas atop a six-sided ovary.

You can also tell that it is a member of the lily family, one of the larger families in the botanical world. Examine their leaves and notice the strong parallel veins running their length—these parallel veins are one of the signatures of lilies.

While most white trilliums are just that, white, there are pink and pink-striped variants as well, so you may occasionally stumble upon a pink or pinkish one—it is still white trillium.

Pollinated flowers produce seeds that, also like trout lily, are pulled underground by ants, who add in dispersion and planting. 

White trillium—plus many of the lilies—are preferred foods for those dang white-tailed deer, of which there is no shortage in Penn’s Woods. Studies have shown that deer will seek trillium above other plants, which of course causes problems with its survival in many forests. Deer select the taller trillium first, leaving shorter ones behind, allowing keen-eyed scientists to estimate deer density by the height of the trillium. But deer foraging also reduces the plant’s ability to photosynthesize and send sugars and starches into the underground root system. So deer overbrowsing also results in shorter trillium in the forest, if any at all. 

But these two are only the tips of a floral iceberg: red trillium, spring beauties, Virginia bluebells, bloodroot, Solomon’s seal, Jack-in-the-pulpit, hepatica, blue cohosh, shooting stars, Jacob’s ladder—all of these and more are set to bloom. But they only blossom for an all-too short window of time, and then disappear for another year.

So come for a walk at the Center, and ask the receptionist for a map and directions to first our Wildflower Loop and then our Ravine Loop. You’ll get a front-row seat at nature’s Flower Show, blossoming right now at the Schuylkill Center.

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Plant an Earth Day Tree

Earth Day returns on Thursday, April 22, 2021, the 51st anniversary of the seminal event that changed the world by giving birth to the modern environmental movement. To commemorate the day, the Schuylkill Center invites you to join us in performing a powerful, even radical act that day:

We’d like you to plant a tree..

Because trees are critical weapons in the fight against the city’s three largest environmental issues: climate change, the loss of biological diversity, and the scourge of raging stormwater.

To cool the climate, we need more trees. Trees shade our homes and streets, mitigating the effect of that urban heat island you’ve likely heard so much about—the sun shines down on rooftops and asphalt, heats up, and gives off that heat at night, keeping us much warmer than we’d otherwise be. Trees also sequester carbon, pulling it out of the atmosphere and replacing it with oxygen. 

Last fall, the Schuylkill Center’s Steve Goin (right) planted a swamp white oak at the center in honor of Kris Soffa (left) in honor of her long record of service to the Roxborough community

Our planet’s biological diversity is plummeting, and trees are important here too. Yes, squirrels and robins nest in trees, but more importantly, native trees are essential food for literally thousands of species of insects, the small creatures that hold up the world. Just one oak, for example, can be home to more than 500 species of moth and butterfly caterpillars. Imagine that. And those caterpillars, in turn, are required food for most bird species hereabouts, as parent birds pluck caterpillars to stuff down the maws of their nestlings. More oak trees, more insects; more insects, more birds. But the tree must be a Pennsylvania native to have the diversity upside. 

Climate-fueled storms send stormwater pouring off our rooftops and gutters, into streets, and into our streams, where they carve massive erosion gullies. Large trees act as giant umbrellas protecting the land from erosion, and holding back rainwater, which takes hours to work its way down through the millions of leaves in a large tree. Oaks, it turns out, are better at this than most trees too.

Trees do so much more than these three things, but combating climate change while supporting biodiversity and ameliorating stormwater are three great ways to honor Earth Day.

On Thursday, April 22, the Schuylkill Center is dedicating a portion of our land as the Earth Day Forest, and will inaugurate that forest with plantings dedicated by our Nature Preschool students and families. We’ll also be planting a tree in Roxborough that afternoon, and we’ve invited 20 organizations—civic associations, schools, churches, community groups—to plant one as well. 

And we’d love to include you in the fun. Please plant a tree for Earth Day—any time on and around April 22 works—and tag us in your social media. Let’s all share the love. If you belong to a local organization, maybe convince them to sponsor a tree in the community.

There are many sources of native trees, including nurseries, conservation group’s tree sales, arboreta, the Tree Philly program, even the Schuylkill Center; our plants are on our website right now. But if shopping at, say, a big box store, be careful, as they still still stock many nonnatives with little, even no, wildlife value. Their trees are also typically shipped from large nurseries outside of Pennsylvania, making them less adjusted to local growing conditions. But if you go, you’re asking for native oaks, black cherries, willows, birches, maples, and more. If in doubt, ask your favorite naturalist at a nature center for help.

Thornless Honeylocust

By buying at the Schuylkill Center or Tree Philly, you are ensuring that the plant’s provenance is as closely matched to the Philadelphia area as possible.

And maybe you have a small yard? There are many modest trees and shrubs perfect for small spaces that support biological diversity as well—there are even modest and small-sized oaks that won’t overpower your yard and are wonderfully long-lived. Check out redbud, another modest tree with a big upside, as it blossoms a wonderful pink color in the spring. There are numerous books that can help you, a plethora of websites, too, and your nature center friends.

I hope you will join me in planting Earth Day trees, a powerful act to mark an important day.

 

Mike Weilbacher

 

ExtremeTerrain makes gift to Schuylkill Center

ExtremeTerrain’s Clean Trail Initiative program was launched in 2015.  This program seeks to reward local clubs and organizations with small, project-specific, grants to be used for trail maintenance and restoration. In the approximately 4 years since it started, the program has given out $21,650 in trail project grant funds.  The Schuylkill Center is very grateful to ExtremTerrain for their support.  Click here to learn more about their initiative. 5XWMuX-A