Mindy Maslin and Philadelphia’s Forest

The PHS’s Mindy Maslin, founder of Tree Tenders, is being honored for helping plant 20,000 trees across the region.

Philadelphia has a bold plan for reforesting the city, making sure 30% of our city is blanketed under a canopy of trees, which will go a long way to mitigating heat waves and cooling our city’s rapidly changing climate. It’s also an environmental justice plan, as– no surprise– economically challenged portions of the city have fewer trees than more advantaged neighborhoods. 

Mindy Maslin supports this ambitious goal. As the founder and director of Tree Tenders, an important program of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), Mindy has been responsible for planting some 20,000 trees across the region while training 5,600 tree care volunteers since forming the program in 1991. Can you imagine that: 20,000 trees? 

To honor this extraordinary work, we are thrilled to present our 16th annual Henry Meigs Environmental Leadership Award to Mindy, as she not only believes planting trees is “a powerful way to enhance the health, resilience, and quality of our neighborhoods,” but has inspired thousands of citizens to make a difference in their community.

The Germantown resident is being given the award, our highest honor, in a virtual ceremony set for Thursday, November 18 at 7:00 p.m. Joining Mindy for a conversation on “The Urban Forest” are Tree Tenders and community leaders Sharrieff Ali and Gabriella Paez, along with Jack Braunstein, manager of the Tree Philly program, the group charged with implementing this important goal. The event is free; one can register on our website.

Tree Tenders is one of the oldest volunteer urban tree stewardship programs in the country, and has inspired similar programs throughout Pennsylvania and across the U.S. Locally, Tree Tenders graduates come from at least 100 active volunteer groups in the city and surrounding counties. Since this work is done by volunteers, the city has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by not having to hire professional arborists to do the planting or the initial care.

Mindy sees the social benefits of trees and is committed to addressing the inequities in tree canopies. Her PHS tree team has identified an uneven distribution of tree canopy that corresponds with high-density, low-income, and even high-crime neighborhoods. This latter point is important: there is less crime and, this is extraordinary, a lower murder rate in neighborhoods shaded by trees.

Mindy agrees that “all neighborhoods deserve to benefit from trees, for heat island abatement, air quality improvement, stormwater sequestering, and the softer gifts of mood enhancement and community building.” In response, Tree Tenders has a tool for prioritizing planting in low-canopy neighborhoods. In fact, studies show that people view urban residential spaces with trees as more attractive, safer and more appealing. “If you plant trees,” Mindy says, “it encourages people to go outside, meet their neighbors and build relationships; in turn, it fosters community pride which ultimately makes neighborhoods safer.”

In her efforts to diversify the program, she has connected with local institutions to bring the training directly to underserved neighborhoods. “Working within the community with local institutions and local tree champions is a critical part of the Tree Tenders model. They provide education and tools. But the onus is on the neighborhood Tree Tenders group to activate their neighbors to plant trees—it’s neighborhood-based citizen stewardship.” 

“You need to convince people who might be reluctant to plant a tree on their property why taking this action will improve their lives,” she says. And that happens at the neighborhood level where locals become advocates in their own community. Once you plant a tree, it still needs care to grow—a critical part to a tree’s survival. That’s where the stewardship piece comes in. The Tree Tenders program provides a framework to check on the trees and neighbors to make sure that the proper care is given.  

PHS’s Chief of Healthy Neighborhoods Julianne Schrader-Ortega notes, “Mindy is an integral part of the vitality of PHS’s mission to use horticulture in advancing the health and well-being of citizens in our local region and we’re pleased that Mindy is receiving the Meigs award as public recognition of the large impact she has had on the environment and on people’s lives.” 

Mindy is honored to be receiving this from “an institution of the Schuylkill Center’s caliber. It is a huge professional accomplishment. For decades, Tree Tenders and the Center have created joint programs that have served thousands of people in the region; our collaborations continue to be a highlight in my career. This award from such a valued partner is truly extraordinary.”

In turn, I’m so happy my Center is honoring her, as few people have planted more trees in the region than she has, and tree planting is such a powerful act, for all the reasons noted above.

The award celebrates area leaders who symbolize the spirit of integrity and vision of Henry Meigs, one of our founders, who served on our board for 40 years until passing away in 2005. His family established the award shortly thereafter, and past honorees include former governor Ed Rendell for his work on Growing Greener, environmental artist Stacy Levy, whose extraordinary art graces locations across the region, and Jerome Shabazz, founder of the Overbrook Environmental Education Center in West Philadelphia. 

Hope you’ll Zoom in with us.

By: Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director 

Another Fall in Philadelphia

 The changing leaves on our trails.

I drive into work one Monday morning in October, enjoying the intense green of the trees here at the Schuylkill Center, and am greeted by a shock of yellow leaves covering the sweet birches looming over the driveway. Further down, I notice that the poison ivy winding up the cherries, too, has turned to gold since the previous Friday. A week later, the maples and sumacs turn to impossibly intense shades of scarlet and amber. Firewood reappears at the grocery store, pumpkins materialize in every shop, and I suddenly develop intense cravings for hot chocolate. Fall has finally, finally arrived.

The change of color every autumn in the deciduous forests of eastern North America is, truly, one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. Entire tourism industries are founded on the dependability of leaf peepers driving north to enjoy this finely-tuned seasonal shift. The colors of the leaves here are so bright and ephemeral that early botanists in England thought the paintings of American artists portraying the autumnal landscape in places like Pennsylvania and New England were fanciful exaggerations. American botanists had to send physical autumn leaf samples to prove to their colleagues in Europe that yes, it is all true: the forests here are quite literally unbelievably beautiful this time of year.

It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that there is not yet a scientific consensus on exactly why plants change color in the autumn. Theories abound: it is believed that trees turn more vibrant colors when they are growing in poor soil. Some think of the colors as a signal warning insect predators to stay away, or that anthocyanins (the chemicals creating red and purple in leaves) are useful as a kind of sunblock allowing the trees to break down and reabsorb leaf nutrients without getting burned by frosty winter sun. More nefarious hypotheses exist, too, about how trees change color to undermine the camouflage of herbivores whose coloration is meant to hide them from predators in the summer. Could those scarlet hillsides be a way for trees to help birds and foxes catch plant-eating prey a little more easily?

Whatever the reason for fall color, the Schuylkill Center enjoys a true showstopper every year. Our cool microclimate and unusual diversity of species provide even more beautiful shades of yellow, red, orange, and purple than other forests in the area. Lately, however, we have noticed strange things afoot. Interspersed with the glowing hues are trees still fully green in November, almost like summer never ended. Others drop everything in a rainstorm before they change and give nothing away of their autumn beauty. Some trees turn lazily from their summer to fall colors, giving less a show and more of a plodding progression toward winter dullness. This is not the sudden fireworks show of color that New England is famous for, but then again friends in Vermont and Maine have reported a less vibrant showing than usual in their neck of the woods as well. The glory of fall is undoubtedly here, but it makes its way in with a sluggish spottiness that has become increasingly normal of late. What gives?

The truth is that this process has been changing for some time now. Cold temperatures help trigger the onset of autumn foliage, and the Northeast has experienced fall temperatures above the historic average every year since 1998. Fall color has come later, and arrived with less definition, as a result.

Whereas the Philadelphia area frequently had more stunning leaf displays in the past, recent history has made our autumns a more muddled affair.

Beautiful to be sure, but when we continue having summer temperatures even into November, the trees get befuddled and turn in a slower and more varied way. Higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere can also delay autumnal colors, even without changes in temperature. This leads to forests staying green for longer, making them burn the midnight oil for weeks after they would have normally gone to bed for the winter. Strange times, indeed.

It is common to think of climate change as a series of catastrophes: apocalyptic visions of possible futures-to-come in places like Australia and California that seem to never leave the news cycle, but only appear here with the occasional hurricane. The truth, however, is far more complex. Beyond the headline-grabbing disasters, climate change also affects the natural world in a variety of more subtle ways. The lessening beauty of fall foliage in the Northeast may seem like a minor outcome, but it is an ominous portent of things to come. The reality is that we simply don’t know what will happen to our forests or wildlife when their seasonal cycles shift dramatically. Every species in our region has finely-tuned requirements to thrive, and these changes that seem so small could have enormous consequences for a variety of plants and animals that we share this special landscape with. 

While we have been lucky to avoid the wildfires that plague the West Coast for now, a multitude of more elusive changes are already underway here that could one day grow to be just as disastrous. The only way to stop this terrifying future from becoming a reality is to make the changes that are necessary now to ensure that our communities can live with this land in a spirit of true respect and reciprocity. Change of this scale is, of course, scary in its own way. But I curiously always have a greater sense of hope looking out at these trees here, watching as they celebrate the inevitable shift in season with a riot of beauty. 

May we learn to embrace change as they do.

By Max Paschall, Land Stewardship Coordinator

The Lenape and the Land

A typical Lenape village, with wigwams, the Lenape name for their homes.

Pennsylvania school kids are still mistakenly taught that our state’s history begins in 1681 with William Penn and the naming of our state, Penn’s Woods. Of course, the land already had a name, Lenapehoking, and it was hardly new: for some 10,000 years before William Penn, the Lenape inhabited Lenapehoking

On Thursday evening, November 4 at 7:00 p.m., in celebration of Native American Heritage Month, we will present “The Lenape and the Land,” a free virtual conversation among three members of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania: Chuck “GentleMoon” Demund, Chief of Ceremonies, Shelley DePaul, Chief of Education and Language, and Adam DePaul, the nation’s Storykeeper. This event concludes the our five-part Thursday Night Live series, where visitors have dropped in from as far away as Florida, Maine, and Saskatoon. 

The conversation intends to share the extraordinarily surprising story of the Lenape and their relationship to the land.

Living in small towns across the region, the Lenape territory stretched from Maryland and coastal Delaware through eastern Pennsylvania, included all of New Jersey, and swept north deep into upstate New York. It was the Lenape who famously “sold” the island of Manahatta to the Dutch in 1626 (almost 60 years before William Penn was granted Pennsylvania), and the Dutch who built a wall around New Amsterdam to protect themselves from the British and the Lenape; the island of course is Manhattan and Wall Street marks the boundary of that wall. 

And the Delaware River of course had a name then as well: Lenapewihittuck. It is appropriate that their tribal name is embedded in the river’s, as the river was the main artery that flowed through Lenapehoking; one writer called it their Main Street. “Delaware” is a name the English bestowed on the river after their Lord de la Warr. 

In addition, many sources routinely identify them as the Lenni-Lenape. Adam DePaul notes that “this term is an anglicized grammatical error that basically translates as the ‘original people people.’” Though he acknowledges that though many Lenape identify as either Lenni-Lenape or Delaware, “the best word to use when referring to us is simply ‘Lenape.’” 

Most accounts of the Lenape– and actually of most Native Americans– present them as living passively on the land, treading lightly, hunting a few animals here and there, using every part of that animal, having little or no impact on the land. Early American writers thus dubbed the New World “pristine,” “untouched,” and that most ridiculously and horribly loaded word, “virgin.” The “noble savage” myth dehumanizes the Lenape as completely as the “fierce warrior” does. All this mythology still permeates our understanding of First Nations, as we never give them their deserving three dimensions. So let’s muddy these waters completely.

Most importantly, Lenapehoking was never a pristine, untouched, virgin forest. Hardly. The big surprise of modern Lenape scholarship, arrived at from studies of both paleoecology and forest ecology, is that the Lenape practiced a highly skilled and remarkably common form of fire ecology, one actively practiced by many indigenous people across the Americas. 

In short, they routinely burned Lenapehoking. The forest was continuously sculpted by native hands to create a wide variety of desired benefits. Most importantly, fire favored the growth of oaks, chestnuts, hickories, and walnuts, trees that offered so many other benefits, especially mast, the forester’s name for nut production. Blueberry bushes, the fruit so nutritious, also respond to burning, producing more fruit in the year right after a fire. 

“Fire enhanced their production of mast and fruit,” says Penn State forest ecologist Marc David Abrams, who has been researching fire ecology for 40 years, “not only to feed themselves, but to feed the animals they were hunting; it was a win-win.” More mast meant more deer, turkeys, passenger pigeons, rabbits, and bears, animals they wanted and needed for food, bones, fur, and feathers. 

But the benefits don’t stop there. The ash resulting from fire was nutrient-rich, offering many plants the ability to grow healthy and fast, and some of the plants that came back after a burn were medicinal plants with important healing properties. Fire cleared out the underbrush, allowing hunters to cover more land more easily while giving them better sightlines to find and shoot prey. Ticks and other harmful pests overwintering in the undergrowth were even killed in a spring fire, and these fires prevented the buildup of too much brush on the ground, which would lead to major conflagrations.

Of course, these were not the wildfires making headlines in so many climate-challenged places. No. These more modest fires quickly burn off the leaf litter, the moist soil preventing the fire from completely destroying the soil’s upper layers. The fire moves quickly through dry leaf litter, and taller trees keep their branches well above the flames, the thick bark protecting the tree charring but surviving.

Acorns and chestnuts cannot sprout and grow underneath their own dense canopy; they require more sunlight hitting the soil than a dense forest offers. Thus, burning cleared out gaps in the forest for acorns and nuts to sprout and grow. If the Lenape did not burn, the forest would have matured, and growing underneath the oak trees would be the late-stage successional trees of maple, beech, birch, and hemlock, fine trees all, but with lower wildlife value and fewer nuts for themselves. So the Lenape kept forests frozen in mid-succession. Dr. Abrams researched an old growth forest in West Virginia that was being logged, and found burn scars in many of the cut stumps indicating indigenous people would burn a section of forest every 8-10 years or so, a number backed up by research from others in the field.

So Penn’s Woods neither belonged to Penn nor was a pristine wilderness. Lenapehoking instead was a highly managed and yet sustainable forest artificially kept in a lower stage of succession in many areas, propping up the plants the Lenape needed nearby, especially chestnuts and oaks. Among their many qualities, the Lenape were exceptional ecologists continuously molding the land to fit their lifestyle.

That’s just the beginning of the story; we hope you’ll register for “The Lenape and the Land,” and learn more about the first Philadelphians.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

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