Thursday, December 19, 2019


It's been another year of moving FOHWard at Herrontown Woods. The lease we negotiated with the town for the Veblen House and Cottage awaits town ratification this January. We built a new trail and continue to restore existing trails and habitat. The botanical garden is growing into a sea of wildflowers. A girlscout troop and other volunteers contributed to improvements in the grounds and signage. Ongoing research is expanding our appreciation of the vision and pioneering spirit that helped Oswald Veblen achieve so much in the world and our community.

Please support our work, and join us out at Princeton's first nature preserve.

  • Completed negotiations with Princeton to lease the Veblen House and Cottage, beginning early in 2020

  • FOHW volunteers continue to care for 220 acres of public land at Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation
  • A very wet spring prompted many trail improvements towards making trails useable year-round
  • Constructed a new trail through 7.5 acres of sloping woodland donated to Princeton in 2018 through FOHW’s initiative
  • Botanical Garden: With ongoing care, we are transforming a forest opening into a sea of native wildflowers and grasses to feed summertime pollinators, with 100 native plant species.
  • Collaborating with Town on control of invasive species

  • Keeping buildings secure and dry
  • Evaluating structures in preparation to begin repairs in 2020
  • Converting window covers to shutters to expedite window repair.
  • Redirecting runoff away from buildings and into attractive raingardens
  • Grounds around house and cottage mowed, maintained, invasive plants removed, paths installed.
  • Nurturing an edible forest of pawpaws, hazelnuts, butternuts, persimmons and plums.

  • Girlscouts Cadette Troop 72905 installed interpretive signage telling the history of the Veblen House and Cottage
  • Designed and produced educational flip cards for nature adventure backpacks available at the Princeton Public Library
  • Ongoing research and website posts about nature and the fascinating history of Veblen House at, and
  • Renewing connections with local schools
  • Regular nature walks led by area naturalists
  • Hosted our second annual Oswald Veblen Birthday BBQ in June. 

  • New board members and some particularly engaged friends of the preserve are adding their energy and expertise to FOHW’s work.
  • Had our second board “retreat” to develop strategic planning

  • Additional progress towards our initial goal of raising $100,000.

Thanks to all who have contributed to making these achievements possible.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Creative Reuse at Veblen House

Creative reuse is central to nature's vitality, and a central theme in our work at Herrontown Woods, where houses and a nature preserve, generously donated long ago for public use, had been left to languish for lack of care and attention.

As a formal lease moves towards town ratification early in 2020, we've been doing some small fixes at Veblen House and grounds, as part of our stewardship of the property. Most of the invasive species have been cut back, reopening vistas of the stonework and gardens. Some small berms and swales have nicely diverted surface runoff away from the house to feed raingardens. In preparation for last summer's Veblen Birthday BBQ, we expanded parking simply by cutting back vegetation that had long disguised the original width of the gravel driveway.

More recently, we collected lawn signs after the fall election and have used them as shingles to repair the wellhouse, which had lost its roof over the years. A few scavenged boards and the lawn signs were all that was needed to put the well house right again.

One of our board members, Peter Thompson, contributed a couple rainbarrels that are now catching runoff from gutters we added to the roof of the garage. Since there's no running water as yet at Veblen House, the collected rainwater will be handy for watering new plants during next year's growing season.

Also near the Veblen House, we've installed a leaf corral that holds leaves, but also has a critter-proof central cylinder that can hold food scraps. Once the corral is filled, the leaves will disguise the food scrap composting and provide insulation to speed decomposition. Earthworms and other decomposers rise up from the ground and into the leaves and food scraps to do their work. No turning of the contents is required.

The leaf corral, called a "Wishing (the Earth) Well" because it looks a bit like a wishing well for leaves instead of coins, made a good conversation piece at the end of our autumn nature walk.

Here's what it looks like with some snow and some leaves, which surround and disguise the inner cylinder of food scraps, brought by one of our board members who lacks a home compost bin.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A Walk in the Woods

Auspicious weather and a nice turnout made for a lovely fall walk through Herrontown Woods this past Saturday.

We started with a brief tour of the botanical garden next to the parking lot, where storms in recent years have knocked down the grove of white pines, leaving a gap in the forest. Last year, FOHW volunteers rescued this gap from a host of invasive species, and this year's rains fed a robust wave of weeds that had to be subdued. These interventions have made room for 100 native plant species, including sun-loving wildflowers like ironweed and Joe-Pye-Weed that feed pollinators in the summer when the forest has little nectar to offer. Shrubs already growing in the preserve, like blackhaw Viburnum, serviceberry, alternate-leaved dogwood, and wild azalea, are also benefitting from the additional sunlight and protection from deer that they get in this managed forest clearing.

Some sights photographed were these edible berries of blackhaw Viburnum

and some leaves of white oak that looked like they'd had paint spilled on them.

Deeper in the preserve, the blooms of witch hazel came as a surprise. As so often happens, people are more familiar with the spring-blooming asian witch hazels that are grown as ornamentals on Princeton campus and elsewhere, while the less-encountered native blooms quietly in local woodlands in the fall.

The remnants of a bird's nest looked like a beard. We walked up onto the ridge, past the boulder field, and made a stop at the cliff. There was talk of fire's historic beneficial role in woodlands, how the boulders came from igneous upwellings rather than from glaciers, which didn't make it this far south, and the past logging that can still be seen in the multi-trunked trees that originated as stump sprouts after a tree was cut down long ago.

Afterwards we headed to the Veblen House grounds for some refreshments, more conversation, and some tree climbing. Thanks to all of those who came and added to the enjoyment of the walk.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Fall Nature Walk, Saturday, October 19

On Saturday afternoon, October 19 at 2pm, join us for a Nature Walk in Herrontown Woods. The walk will be led by botanist Stephen Hiltner. Meet in the main parking lot, down a short street across Snowden Lane from the entrance to Smoyer Park. We'll check out this year's crop of wildflower seed in the phoenix garden, do some leaf identification along the way to a scenic overlook, then gather afterwards next to Veblen House for refreshments and conversation.

Rain date if needed will be October 26, same time.

In the photos, sweetgum leaves and a boulder lifted high by the rootball of a toppled tree.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Thanks to the Gert Volpp Family and Friends

A year ago, I had not heard the man's name, but now every time I encounter a father walking with his kids along a trail in Herrontown Woods, I think of Gert Volpp. After doing post-docs alongside Nobel Laureates in chemistry, he and his wife Ching moved to Princeton in 1963. The Veblens had donated Herrontown Woods as Princeton's first nature preserve only six years before, and Elizabeth Veblen was still living next to it in what we now call the Veblen House. The Volpps started a family, and before long Gert began bringing his kids to Herrontown Woods for hikes. Many others who grew up in Princeton remember the Volpps, and that time in the 60s and 70s when Herrontown Woods served as the primary destination for Princetonians wanting to immerse themselves in nature.

When Gert died earlier this year at the age of 88, his daughters and son remembered those days and asked friends of the family to contribute to our Friends of Herrontown Woods nonprofit in his memory. They appreciated that our group of volunteers had adopted the preserve in 2013, reopening trails that had all but disappeared for lack of maintenance. Thanks so much to the Volpps and their many friends from around the country who have now given more than $4000 to help us maintain the trails and create interpretive signage!

Gert was an avid hiker who loved adventure, and I can't help but think that the boulders of Herrontown Woods reminded him of his many hikes in the Alps. He left behind a wonderful collection of stories from his life, called Opa Stories, with adventures, quiet humor and life lessons, beginning with his childhood in Germany. Much of it can be read online at the link.

The obituary, pasted below, tells of a remarkable life and loved ones. It's fitting that Gert has a brother named, Kurt, given that Kurt Tazelaar has been the main force in restoring and improving the trails at Herrontown Woods.

Born in Lörrach, Germany, in July 1930, he was the second son of the late Anna Zeller and Otto Volpp. He received his Ph.D. degree summa cum laude from the University of Basel with a doctoral thesis on the structure of the African arrow poison ouabagenin (“Zur Konstitution des Ouabeginins”) under the direction of Nobel Laureate Thaddeus Reichstein. He arrived in the U.S. in 1958 to begin a five-year postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry at Harvard University, where he engaged in a total synthesis of colchicine with Nobel Laureate Robert Burns Woodward. At Harvard he met Ching Yuan, a postdoctoral fellow working with Nobel Laureate Konrad Bloch. The two were married in Oxford, England, where Ching, originally from Beijing, had a second postdoctoral fellowship with Sir Ewart Jones. They settled in Princeton in 1963, where they raised four children. Gert lived in Princeton for 55 years.
In 1963 Gert began a 38-year career at FMC Corporation, serving as Director of Commercial Development, Research and Development, Agricultural Products Group from 1978-2001. He traveled worldwide negotiating contracts with research laboratories for insecticide research and development. Initially focused on Japan and Western Europe, he extended the purview of FMC’s negotiations to Australia, China, Korea, India, and Eastern Europe. He held patents in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, France, Spain. Switzerland, Uruguay, the United Kingdom, Belgium, South Africa, the Philippines, Romania, and the Soviet Union.
He was predeceased by his wife Ching, and is survived by a brother, Kurt Volpp of Mosbach, Germany; a sister, Helga Reichel Kessler of Rheinfelden, Germany; three daughters, Sophie and Leti of Berkeley, Calif., and Serena of New York City; a son, Kevin, of Wynnewood, Pa.; and seven grandchildren, Daniel, Anna, Thea, Julia, Daphne, Nico, and Liliana.
Gert was an avid hiker, and loved hiking in the Alps. He spent his 80th birthday hiking in Yosemite. Until the birth of his children, he enjoyed piloting both small planes (the Cessna 182) and gliders. For his 86th birthday, he went paragliding, jumping from the Elfer mountain near Innsbruck, Austria. He was also an excellent storyteller, and a member of the memoir writing group at the Princeton Senior Resource Center, where he began his memoir, Opa Stories.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Friends of Herrontown Woods ( in his memory.
The Friends of Herrontown Woods is grateful for donations as we work to bring Herrontown Woods back to its former natural and cultural glory, including renovation of the Veblen House and Cottage.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

An Account of FOHW's 2nd Annual Veblen Birthday BBQ Bash

The Friends of Herrontown Woods held our second annual Veblen Birthday BBQ Bash this past Sunday on the Veblen House grounds. Thanks to all those who helped with preparations, and of course thanks to all those who came, bringing food, companionship, ideas, and even a poem about Veblen and Einstein.

Perry Jones was one of three grillmeisters who kept the hotdogs and hamburgers coming, adding that real BBQ feel to all the other food offerings. The non-meat versions were reportedly as tasty as the real thing.

It's a pleasure to gather and enjoy each other's company in this tranquil setting at the edge of Herrontown Woods.

Art teacher Sally Tazelaar brought rocks and paints,

with some beautiful results.

Some of Inge Regan's nature photos, to be found in the public library's borrowable adventure backpacks, made it onto the windows of the house.

The grounds of the Veblen House had been groomed, being careful to avoid mowing down the occasional green fringed orchid just coming into bloom. How many lawns have orchids growing in the grass?

Staying true to the theme of found treasures, the fish pond had gained a border of flagstones rescued two years ago from the patios of two houses on Snowden Lane just prior to their demolition. It was the heavy rains this spring that triggered the thought of improving the footing around this pond that dates back to Veblen days.

Hula hoop and ping pong didn't quite happen,

but some volleyball and badminton did, on a patch of meadow mowed for the occasion.

A few of us took a walk through what could be called an Edible Forest of pawpaws, hazelnuts, and butternuts all planted in recent years. All were grown or rescued from local populations.

The next day, June 24, Oswald Veblen's actual 139th birthday, a letter from one of the attendees, James Firestone, appeared in the local press, about what Veblen's transformative legacy in Princeton means to him.

All in all, a pleasurable and rewarding gathering to celebrate Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen's living legacy.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

June 23: Veblen Birthday BBQ Bash


Sunday, June 23, 2-5pm,


The Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW) will be hosting an event on the grounds of Veblen House at Herrontown Woods. Food, drink, games, and socializing, to celebrate the 139th birthday of mathematician and visionary Oswald Veblen. He and his wife Elizabeth donated Herrontown Woods as Princeton's first nature preserve in 1957.

We will provide a grill, hotdogs, hamburgers, and refreshments. Potluck offerings of food/drink are encouraged.

In honor of Veblen's mathematical work on trajectories, we'll have places to play volleyball, badminton, and pingpong, along with tours of raingardens, the horserun, and other features of the refurbished grounds. Also, some art activities for kids.

Or park in the main Herrontown Woods parking lot off of Snowden Lane, and walk up to the house (scroll down at this link for map). Facilities if needed are a short drive away at Smoyer Park.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Cadette Troop 72905 Leads Earthday Event at Herrontown Woods

It was a special celebration of Earthday at Herrontown Woods, as the eight grade girls of Cadette Troop 72905 led girls from Daisy Troops 72835 and 71829 on a walk through the woods, followed by snacks and activities on the Veblen House grounds.

Lots of parents showed up as well, making it a family venture.

First stop was a vernal pool, just down the red trail, where there were lots of tadpoles to see. Anika explained how the uprooted tree had created a hole in the ground where water collects and lingers long enough in the spring for the tadpoles to grow up.

It was moving to see the older scouts helping the younger ones across the stream.

We stopped by the Veblen Cottage, on our way to the Veblen House. The black vulture, faithful to this site and also faithful to its mate, who has not shown up the past couple years, was standing near the corncrib. The last family they raised was in 2017, which is when we began appreciating them as remarkable birds, and abandoned the cliche of black vultures as a haunting presence.

Three members of the 8th grade scout troop — Anika Simons, Lucy Kreipke, and Katherine Monroe — have developed and carried out a work plan for their Girl Scout Silver Award project at Herrontown Woods. A letter in Town Topics describes all the work they have done to help us, including building and installing signs that tell the history of the Veblens and the house and cottage they donated for public use.

For a work activity, I thought the younger scouts were going to want to pick up sticks, but they got really enthusiastic about pulling garlic mustard, an invasive plant. It was easy to identify with its white flowers and garlicky smell, and they pulled every last one they could find, proudly bringing them to the wheelbarrow as if it were an Easter egg hunt.

The older scouts also provided snacks and led a stone-painting activity at the picnic table.

The event made us aware of our role as setters of the stage at Herrontown Woods. The stepping stones we laid over a muddy patch of trail, the picnic table donated by a board member, the colorful bamboo walking sticks the kids took along on their walk, fashioned by one of our botanical garden stewards--the work we do comes back many times over in the reward of seeing kids discovering the park, and contributing their positive energy to make it even better.

A couple weeks later, the 8th graders had a table at Sustainable Princeton's Greenfest at the Princeton Shopping Center, where they had a chance to talk about all the work they've been doing. A big THANK YOU to Troop 72905!

Friday, May 17, 2019

Gardening and Composter-Making This Sunday, May 19

Meet at the Herrontown Woods main parking lot this Sunday morning, 10-12, to participate and learn as the Friends of Herrontown Woods transform a woodland clearing into a showplace for native plants. As we build paths, arrange fallen tree trunks into geometrical patterns to honor Oswald Veblen, weed out invasive species and add native plants and labels, the clearing is turning into a botanical garden. We sometimes call it a "Phoenix Garden," since it is rising from the fallen remains of a pine grove lost over the years to storms.

Come to help out, and at the same time learn about the common weeds of Princeton's gardens and preserves, and the many native plant species that will thrive if given a chance.

We'll also be making critter-proof composters. Called a Wishing (the Earth) Well, the composter is a leaf corral with an inner column for composting kitchen scraps, disguised by the surrounding leaves.

The parking lot for Herrontown Woods is down a short road off of Snowden Lane across from the main entrance to Smoyer Park. Click on this link for a map.

Kids young and old can check out the pollywogs in the two vernal pools just down from the parking lot.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Orchids, Edible Flowers, Ovenbirds--a Nature Walk With John Clark

The nature walk this past Saturday at Herrontown Woods with John L. Clark began in the parking lot while we were waiting for everyone to arrive. Thankfully, the only no-show was the rain in the ever-shifting predictions leading up to the walk.

Impressed by the diversity of birdcalls he was hearing, John pulled out a bird calling contraption (looked like this one) and began playing the call of a red bellied woodpecker. A real one quickly responded, flying in to have a closer look. John then played the "Teacher! Teacher!" call of an ovenbird, and again began a dialogue with the real thing nearby. Though it was a mechanical contraption, it seemed almost like John had a bird in his hand, calling out to the woods that surrounded us.

After checking out the growing tadpoles in the two vernal pools just down from the parking lot, we passed by a broad patch of spring beauties. This is the most common spring wildflower in the preserve, and John pointed out that it is also highly edible.

We munched on a few, and I realized that I had eaten a close relative of spring beauty in a restaurant two days prior. Spring beauty is an eastern species with the scientific name Claytonia virginica. What I had been served in a restaurant was miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), a western species named for its role in keeping miners alive during the Gold Rush.

John's knowledge of tropical flora also came into play with our common wildflower, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, which he explained produces heat in the flower, something I'd been aware of only in another common native plant in the Araceae family, skunk cabbage. Apparently all flowers in that family have heat-making ways. Producing heat can help volatilize the chemicals in the flower that attract pollinators.

John's daughter had an uncanny knack for making tropical birdlike sounds, provided a delightful soundtrack for the walk.

As we approached the second stream crossing, the beeches and musclewood trees became more numerous, and John pointed out that they, unlike other trees, have smooth bark. This strategy is common in tropical trees (John has spent many years in Ecuador studying plant life there), where smooth bark makes it harder for animals to climb and for epiphytes to attach themselves.

Some internet research after the walk brought up a short BBC article giving some pros and cons for smooth bark vs. thick furrowed bark.

The star of the walk was the showy orchid, found nowhere else in Princeton, as far as I know. Volunteers with the Friends of Herrontown Woods have been working to limit the growth of nonnative shrubs that tend to shade out spring wildflowers like this orchid. Nonnative shrubs, having evolved in a different part of the world, often have different biological clocks and tend to leaf out earlier, depriving the native spring ephemerals of the sunlight they need to store up energy for the next year's flowering. We were lucky that our walk coincided with the blooming of these plants, which are quite small but can be considered showy if looked at from close up.
(photo by John Clark)

Walks in Herrontown Woods are always enlivened by the interplay of boulders and trees. Here, a tree's root ball had become so enmeshed with a boulder that the boulder was catapulted skyward when the tree fell in a windstorm.

This tree looked like it was giving the boulder a smooch.

There was a visit to the cliff (not marked on the map), and a sighting of the lonely black vulture near the cottage. It lost its mate two years ago, but still returns to the farmstead, apparently steadfast in its attachment. The species' impressive commitment to family was very much on display two years ago. When a black vulture is soaring overhead, you can see the grayish silver tips underneath its wings, distinct from turkey vultures, which have silver running along the backside of the wing.

Afterwards, we had a tailgate gathering in the parking lot for refreshments and more conversation. Just off the parking lot is a botanical garden that FOHW is developing with labeled plants as an "intro to Herrontown Woods."

For those interested in learning more about our walk leader, John Clark, and his work at Lawrenceville School, there is a new exhibit there with O' Keefe-like images of plants he has discovered in Ecuador, along with photos documenting his annual treks with students to the tropical forests there.

Thanks to John for leading a pleasurable walk and adding to our insights into life at Herrontown Woods.

Monday, April 29, 2019

May 4 Nature Walk, 9am

Update: The walk will take place as planned. Predicted rain has not materialized.

The Friends of Herrontown Woods will host a nature walk Saturday, May 4 at 9am, co-led by John L. Clark and myself. John is a botanist specializing in the flora of Ecuador. He was an associate professor of botany at the University of Alabama, but family logistics lured him to Princeton, where he joined the faculty of the Lawrenceville School in a long-titled position, the Aldo Leopold Distinguished Teaching Chair. John's also an avid birder, so feel encouraged to bring your binoculars.

With the spring rains, Herrontown Woods has become one giant sponge slowly releasing water into Harry's Brook. The plant life is flourishing, but the abundant rain has presented a challenge for trail maintenance. In response, we've been installing dozens of stepping stones to traverse muddy patches of trail. Should be fine for the walk, but best to wear appropriate shoes.

Meet at the main parking lot, off of Snowden Avenue, across from Smoyer Park. This link takes you to relevant maps.

Photos are of spring beauty and jack in the pulpit.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Discovering Hidden Worlds at Herrontown Woods with Mark Manning

We had a wonderful nature walk at Herrontown Woods on April 6, led by Hopewell science teacher Mark Manning. Mark had been exploring the preserve with his son in recent years, and had reached out to the Friends of Herrontown Woods to share his findings about the amphibious life in the preserve.

The day began cool and wintry, as we gathered around one of the vernal pools just down from the parking lot. We wondered what there would be to see, since one of the main attractions, the adult frogs we'd seen a week prior, had disappeared back into the woods after laying their eggs.

As Mark explained the remarkable behavior of wood frogs--their capacity to remain frozen for long periods in the winter, the frenzied ritual of spring mating, the symbiotic relationship between their egg masses and an algae--we picked up a few eggs from the pool and found that the tadpoles were already hatching.

There was layer after layer to Mark's fascinating descriptions, as he found other amphibians under leaves and rocks.

Among the finds were 2-lined salamanders and red-backed salamanders.

They are improbably light, soft, skinny creatures to hold.

This photo was taken just before the salamander crawled up under the boy's sleeve.

We had ventured no more than a few hundred feet from the parking lot, but Herrontown Woods' charms were already beginning to draw us in. This is probably the cleanest stream in Princeton, as nearly all its headwaters are preserved as part of Herrontown Woods.

Each rock has its own pattern, decades in the making, as animate and inanimate worlds seem to merge and collaborate.

Dead wood remains a substrate for new life, in the form of moss

or mushroom. Peter Ihnat, who came on the walk, shared some of his knowledge of these "turkey tails" and other mushrooms.

Under some leaves, Mark found salamander eggs (the small white dots in the lower left, while the salamander's tail can be seen at the upper right of the photo).

Talk periodically shifted to the plant world, with Mark describing the incredible hardness of musclewood, and its applications.

(See an earlier post about musclewood and other trees encountered in winter at Herrontown Woods)

Under two towering tulip trees, Mark pulled out some rope he and his son had made from natural fibers.

He then proceeded to make rope from the bark of tulip tree, using a "reverse twist two-ply" method.

The white twine here is made from milkweed fibers. He said that dogbane is the best material to use. (Both milkweed and dogbane are in the dogbane family. Another common name for dogbane, Indian hemp, now makes sense, given that hemp is a plant whose fibers are used to make rope.)

We then headed over to Veblen House for refreshments and socializing. As we were gathered next to the house that Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen once called home, one of the kids who had been quiet all morning said to me, "I wish it was still a library. I love libraries." It melted my heart. That was the original wish of the Veblens, stated in their will, yet not acted upon. Forty five years later, our nonprofit is seeking to realize theVeblens' generous vision, and also use the house as a museum and meeting place for talks and music.

Though the walk covered just a couple of Herrontown Woods' shorter trails, we felt like we had come a long way. Mark Manning's insights had opened up new worlds for us, especially for the three kids who came along. The day, too, opened up, beginning cool and cloudy, then warming as the sun broke through. Over the course of two hours, we felt like we had walked from winter into spring.

(Some of these photos contributed by FOHW board member Inge Regan.)