Monday, February 11, 2019

A Winter Walk in Herrontown Woods

In winter, light floods the forest and vistas open up, with hints of dormant potential all around. It's a good time for a walk in Herrontown Woods. Halfway up to the Veblen Cottage, along the trail from the parking lot off Snowden Lane, is a small grove of trees with dark, knobby bark. Stop where the trail bends around the corner of a fence, look around you, and you'll see them. A couple have fallen, but five or six trees remain. These are native persimmons, a mid-sized tree struggling to compete for sunlight with the red maples and ash all around. Some may know the Asian persimmons with apple-sized fruits, grown in a few yards scattered around town. The native has smaller fruits that are extremely sour until they ripen into a rare and fleeting sweetness.

You can see in this photo that the persimmon has a very narrow crown, claiming a small patch of sky in the canopy far above. The nearest twig and bud is 50 feet up this slender trunk. Persimmons are dioecious (dye-EESH-us), which is to say that there are male trees and female trees, with only the females bearing fruit. Other dioecious woody plants at Herrontown include spicebush, Kentucky coffeetree, and winterberry. There is or was at least one female persimmon here, because I once found a fruit lying on the ground next to the trail. Standing next to one of these trunks, the tree can feel close and remote at the same time, with so much of its business being conducted out of sight, high above or underground.

Far more reachable is another special, much smaller and more easily known tree just a few feet off the trail, growing underneath the persimmons. Look for a cluster of tan stems growing out of the ground near the rock wall and you'll see a hazelnut tree. A big ash tree fell on it a few years back, and we cut away portions of the stem so the hazelnut could grow unhindered. Whereas some kinds of tree are found throughout the forest, hazelnuts tend to be loners. Though the Friends of Herrontown Woods has planted more of them at Veblen House and the botanical garden, there are only a few hazelnuts growing naturally in the preserve, each far from the others.

The many-stemmed plant doesn't appear distinct until you look more closely. These are the male catkins that will open later in the winter and early spring to release their pollen.

Continue up the path (the path is currently being rerouted to go through a pleasant grove of conifers near the cottage), and you'll emerge near the little red barn that is part of a farmstead built around 1875. Near the barn, and common elsewhere in the preserve, are spicebush. Look for shrubs with these small flower buds along the stem, then confirm by doing a scratch and sniff along the stem to smell the citrony fragrance that gives the shrub its name. Imagine early spring, a month from now, when small flowers emerge from these buds to create subtle clouds of yellow in the woods. The flowers quickly fade and by fall turn into sizable red berries rich with lipids for the birds.

Now that deer culling has reduced the intense browsing pressure these and other native shrubs were experiencing a couple decades ago, the spicebush are flourishing, each with many stems emerging from the ground.

Look more closely at one of the stems to see the speckled bark.

Taking a left down the green and white trail, you may encounter a tree with what my mother called "black potato chip bark." Black cherries are mid-sized native trees that eventually get shaded out by taller species, but some are hanging in there at Herrontown Woods. Unlike the furrowed bark of ash and oak, the cherry's bark is platelike, with subtle horizontal lines in the "chips."

Contrasting with the rough bark of most trees is the smooth, sinewy look of musclewood, also known as blue beech or American hornbeam.

Each musclewood has a distinct shape, with this one achieving something akin to a pose in ballet.

A short way into the woods on the right are the clustered stems of some very old witch-hazels.

While the showy cultivated Asian varieties seen in town and at the university bloom early in spring, the native witch-hazel has a subtle yellow flower with four slender petals that emerges in late October, when most trees have gone dormant for the winter. In winter, the remains of last fall's flowers can be seen along the stems. Witch-hazels are fairly common in this area of Herrontown Woods, in moist seeps below the ridge.

Further down the green/white trail, the yellow trail joins it from the right. Scan the forest and chances are you'll see pale brown leaves clinging to some of the trees. These are American beech trees, with smooth gray bark like the musclewoods but generally larger and without the sinewy look.

A closer look reveals the long, slender coppery leaf buds.

Scars where branches once were make distinctive patterns on the smooth bark of the beech trees.

Not sure what caused these scars, but they almost look like a doctor stitched them up.

These are a few of the many kinds of trees at Herrontown Woods, and as you look with a newly familiar eye for more of these new friends in the forest, wonder if the trees have been looking at you all along.

The yellow trail follows the edge of a stream, which after many cold days and nights was frozen into endlessly varied shapes, with water flowing just beneath the molded crust. In some places, large bubbles could be seen traveling under the ice, their shapes constantly shifting and bending in the liquid current, flowing downstream like ghosts. Even in the day's fading light, still visible in water, rock, and wood is the endless variety of Herrontown Woods.

Sunday, December 30, 2018


It's been the best year yet for Herrontown Woods. Through our advocacy, Herrontown Woods is now owned by Princeton, has a new addition of 7.5 acres, a newly planted botanical garden to acquaint the public with native species, ongoing restoration of trails and habitat, better protected Veblen House and Cottage, and funding for initial repairs. Our emphasis is on preserving and utilizing the Veblen's wonderful gift of land and historic buildings, and providing ways for the public to enjoy and learn about these natural and cultural legacies.

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

·      Convinced Princeton to accept transfer of the 142 acre Herrontown Woods from the county, including the buildings.
·      Our advocacy was crucial in adding 7.5 acres of sloping woodland to Herrontown Woods, at no cost to Princeton.
·      Our work at Herrontown Woods helped prioritize acquisition by Mercer County of 4.5 acres of pasture next to Veblen House. FOHW is working with DR Greenway and Princeton to determine how this important grassland habitat will be managed.

·      Doing the vital work of maintaining and improving trails
·      A new botanical garden: Many workdays have been devoted to planting and weeding a botanical garden, located in a forest opening near the main parking lot. Labeling has begun of more than 90 species of native trees, grasses and wildflowers
·      Partnering with Princeton and Stone Hill Church on invasive species control
·      Stockpiling rocks for use along the trails

·      Began negotiating a lease agreement for the Veblen House, Cottage, and grounds with Princeton
·      Improved the buildings’ appearance and weather resistance by improving the roof tarps and painting the window covers.
·      Discovered and restored some of the original drainage around the Veblen House and added two raingardens
·      Preparations for carrying out initial repairs to better stabilize and weatherize structures

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

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

·      Nature walks, plant labels, podcasts, and QR codes
·      Workdays with Girlscouts, the Charter School, and Jewish Center volunteers
·      Ongoing website posts
·      Collaborating with the public library on educational materials
·      Updated trail map

·      Hosted our first annual Oswald Veblen Birthday Party on June 24
·      Hosted our first annual gathering at a lovely home next to the preserve

·      Two articles in the Princeton Alumni Weekly--Adventures in Fine Hall, and at the ripe old age of 138 Veblen made the cover, looking confident and remarkably young, in an article entitled the Power of Small Numbers
·      A neighbor doing house cleaning came across a binder full of old correspondence about Herrontown Woods stewardship in the 1970s and '80s, and donated it all to FOHW

·      Some great articles in local publications about our work

Sunday, December 16, 2018

A Brisk and Beautiful Walk in Herrontown Woods

Sometimes cold weather makes for a good nature walk. The forest is filled with light, the frozen ground eases navigation, and the woods is filled with vistas and the evidence of seasons past and future.

We hiked to the cliff, then when someone asked about springs in Herrontown Woods, we hiked to a spring that had been dug out to make a swimming pool of sorts in the 1960s. Now it serves the amphibian community as a dependable vernal pool in the spring.

On the way back, we walked through a cratered landscape where water had accumulated in sizable holes in the ground and frozen in ornate patterns. This beauty, too, like the amphibians' use of the old swimming pool, was a collaboration of nature and culture. The craters were formed back when some of the large, partially sunken boulders in Herrontown Woods were cracked into blocks and hauled away as part of a quarrying operation. Water accumulates in the cavities left behind, and freezes in the winter. But as the ice is freezing, the water below is also slowly seeping into the ground, leaving the ice with less and less water beneath to support it. The result is a lovely terraced effect.

Having seen some of the special places in the woods, some of our hardy party headed to Veblen House afterwards for cider, hot cocoa and cookies provided by Friends of Herrontown Woods volunteers.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Nature Walk This Sunday, Dec. 9, 1pm

Naturalist and FOHW president Steve Hiltner will lead a nature walk this weekend, on Sunday, Dec. 9 on what promises to be a brisk but sunny day. Meet at 1pm at the main parking lot for Herrontown Woods, down the short road opposite the Snowden Lane entrance to Smoyer Park.

The woods this time of year is filled with light and vistas, the better to see the rocks, water and wood of the eastern Princeton Ridge.

Dress warmly and wear shoes for hiking.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Early Autumn Colors in Herrontown Woods

Sometimes the best way to know what trees you're walking under is to look down at the fresh carpet they are laying at our feet. Sweetgum leaves can turn brilliant red, but these are yellow. The female tree drops the distinctive prickly golfball-sized "gumball" fruits (lower left in the photo).

Black gum trees, also called tupelos, are starting to sprinkle flashes of orange on the forest floor wherever they grow.

The abundant red maples can be distinguished by the V-shaped notch between lobes. Sugar maples have U-shaped notches, as do Norway maples found in residential neighborhoods.

Hickory leaves and nuts are strewn throughout the woods. This is single leaf with five leaflets.

White oaks with their rounded lobes, will later turn a rich burgundy color.
(leaf photos by Inge Regan)

And a human touch of fresh color, as volunteers with the Friends of Herrontown Woods start sprucing up the Veblen Cottage with new window covers, thanks to some carpentry by board member Perry Jones.