Saturday, July 21, 2018

Princeton Takes Ownership of Herrontown Woods


It's been a good week for Herrontown Woods. Princeton council voted on Monday, July 16, to approve acquisition of the 140 acre preserve from Mercer County, a nice article about our work appeared in the Town Topics, and early on the morning of Friday, July 13, a monarch butterfly was seen visiting the new native garden next to the parking lot. It was the first witnessed there, sipping nectar from a purple coneflower just planted this spring.

Mercer County has owned the preserve since the original gift of 82 acres by the Veblens in 1957. That unprecedented gift may well have prompted the county to form its parks commission, which at first used Herrontown Woods for educational programming, but has since focused its resources elsewhere in the county. The transfer to Princeton brings Herrontown Woods home to local ownership, where it is much more likely to be given the attention it deserves.


That first documented visit by a monarch fits well with the native garden's concept, which has evolved over the past year. Planted this spring, more than 80 native species now call the garden home, gathering solar energy that will then travel up the foodchain to insects and birds.

As if he had read the minutes from our board meetings in which we discussed how to get kids to use their cellphones to learn about nature, this boy led his mother from the parking lot to a flower graced by a butterfly, and showed her a photo he had taken of it.

The butterfly was an eastern tiger swallowtail, which lingered on this bottlebrush buckeye for more than an hour. Another premise of the garden is that pollinators like this butterfly are not currently well served by Princeton open space. Thick woods, though it serves some species well, provides few flowers in the summer, and this garden can be home to the many summer-blooming native flowers that thrive in sunny places.

Another appealing visitor was a clear-winged moth that hovers expertly like a miniature hummingbird.

That day we also witnessed a fledgling robin making perhaps its first, shaky flight, from one tree to another.

The garden, growing amidst the ruins of a white pine grove felled by storms in recent years, would not have been possible without a lot of removal of invasive brush over the winter, clearing the way for planting. It can be said that the acquisition of Herrontown Woods by the town also clears the way, for more good things to happen at Herrontown Woods.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Veblen's First Annual Birthday Picnic at Veblen House


Nothing like throwing a party to stimulate some sprucing up. In preparation, the Veblen House got some fresh paint, a couple new raingardens, some restorative excavation, judicious mowing, new trails and, at the last minute, keeping with our guiding philosophy of re-use, some balloons left over from the Princeton High School graduation.


Volleyball, played on the mowed footprint of a former barn, was a big hit.

Croquet, not so much, though in mowing the field we discovered and protected two green-fringed orchids. Not every lawn sprouts native orchids.

Friends supplied lots of food, and grilled hotdogs scented the air. Thanks to all who came out to celebrate Oswald Veblen's 138th birthday. Along with our core supporters, we met new neighbors and distinguished guests from the Institute for Advanced Study.

To complement the gathering of people, there was a gathering of plants in the newly planted raingardens. Perry Jones and his fiance Alison thoughtfully brought plant labels to help the different species get to know each other. 

After all was said and done, cooked and eaten,  the plant labels stayed on, with some QR codes to give post-picnic visitors access to information on our websites FOHW.org and VeblenHouse.org.

For the newly planted Rose Mallow Hibiscus, protected from the deer by fencing, every day is a picnic at Veblen House.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Update on Veblen Birthday Gathering Sunday, 2-5pm


Bringing food/drink is optional for Sunday's birthday celebration. We'll provide some basics if anyone's hungry, along with some displays about Veblen House past and future, tours of the grounds, and some games.

The grounds have been getting more attention in recent weeks than perhaps at any time in the past 20 years, with rock walls getting rebuilt, the ground being restored to original grade, and paths being mowed to the edible forest plantings and to historic features like the horse run. This work builds on past clearings of invasive brush that reopened the views across this peaceful woodland setting that the Veblens called home.

"Windows into the Past" exhibits will include the stories of Herrontown Woods' magnetic rocks, a ten-year ecological study underway in the preserve, the Whiton-Stuart family that originally built and lived in the house, and some of the many facets of Veblen history.

As previously mentioned, park at the main parking lot off of Snowden Ave, across from the Smoyer Park entrance, then follow signs up to the house. Useful maps are at this link. We'll have refreshments and grill some hotdogs.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Weeding and Seed Bombing--A Girlscout Workday at Herrontown Woods

(Note: Join us for the June 24 Veblen birthday picnic.)


Thanks to Girl Scout Troop 72905 from the Princeton Service Unit, for participating in a spirited workday on a cool misty day. They started at the new botanical garden next to the Herrontown Woods parking lot, pulling out Japanese honeysuckle that would otherwise overwhelm the native species being planted there.

Then it was a short walk up to Smoyer Park, where the Friends of Herrontown Woods is taking care of a native meadow planted in the detention basin that catches and filters runoff from the fields and parking lot. The scouts mixed seed of native floodplain wildflowers and sedges into a shovelful of dirt, then made balls of a good size for throwing. "Seed bombing" is an activity originally mentioned by scout leader Pallavi Nuka, and we decided to give it a try.

Here, the merry gardeners are literally aiming to increase the plant diversity in the wet meadow.

It's a hail mari-gold approach to seed planting, although marigold wasn't in the mix. Species included rose mallow hibiscus, wild senna, ironweed, cutleaf coneflower, and several types of sedges. Already flourishing in the basin are big and little bluestem grasses, Indian grass, partridge pea and black-eyed susan.

The logic of the detention basin is to detain stormwater runoff long enough for it to seep into the soil and feed the groundwater reserves, rather than add to local flooding. The basin also makes a great place to show off the many native plant species that thrive in wet, sunny habitats. Kids, too, thrive in wet, sunny habitats, especially when they have rubber boots.

After the seed bombing, the girls stepped over the berm, behind the basin, to explore a seepage slope where consistently wet ground supports a lush natural wetland of sensitive fern, soft rush and sedges. With enough care, the basin could someday look this good.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

A Veblen Birthday Celebration on June 24, 2-5pm


Update: This event was originally posted as a potluck, but there's no need to bring food or drink. We'll provide refreshments and hotdogs. 

Come one and all to celebrate Oswald Veblen's 138th birthday on Sunday, June 24 on the Veblen House grounds at Herrontown Woods. Veblen was recently featured in a cover story by the Princeton Alumni Magazine, and the Friends of Herrontown Woods has decided to celebrate his legacy with a picnic next to the house he and his wife generously donated to the public trust.

The picnic gathering goes from 2-5pm, and will include displays about the past and future of the house and accompanying preserve, and tours of our work to restore the Veblen House grounds and create a new botanical garden. On the grounds are a horse run, the beginnings of an edible forest, and newly planted raingardens.

Park at the main parking lot off of Snowden Ave, across from the Smoyer Park entrance, then follow signs up to the house. Useful maps are at this link. We'll have refreshments and grill some hotdogs.

(The birthday picnic is a free event, but FOHW welcomes donations at this link.)



Pre-schoolers Plant Seeds at FOHW's New Botanical Garden



Four young families, part of a volunteer organization called Mini-Mitzvah Corps at the Jewish Center of Princeton, recently planted seeds of native wildflowers at Herrontown Woods. The planting was hosted by volunteers with the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW.org), which is creating a botanical garden next to the parking lot where visitors can learn about the native flora of Princeton. 

The children helped plant a part of the garden we're calling the Veblen Circle, named after mathematician and visionary Oswald Veblen and his wife Elizabeth, who donated Herrontown Woods in 1957 as Princeton's first nature preserve. The seeds of Joe-Pye-Weed, Cutleaf Coneflower, and other native species were collected from local wildflower populations by FOHW president and naturalist, Steve Hiltner.

Thanks to Marci Meixler for her efforts to organize the workday, and all the kids and parents who joined us for an enjoyable afternoon.

As we were finishing up planting, we happened to see a bald eagle flying high overhead, which we took as a good omen.


The seeds have since begun to sprout, with the help of some wet weather.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Oswald Veblen Featured in the Princeton Alumni Magazine


Note: We're planning a birthday picnic in honor of Veblen's 138th birthday on Sunday, June 24, 2pm. Details upcoming.

Oswald Veblen made the cover of the May 16 Princeton Alumni Weekly, looking confident and ready to change the world. At Herrontown Woods, we know him as the man who with his wife Elizabeth acquired and then donated 100 acres for Princeton's first nature preserve back in 1957. But while Veblen was acquiring and preserving open space in Princeton, he was also saving lives and careers, and in the process helping to make the U.S. ascendent in the world of mathematics. The feature article, written by Elyse Graham of Stonybrook University, tells of his tireless work in the 1930s and 1940s to find positions in the U.S. for European scholars whose careers and lives were imperiled by the Nazi rise.

Graham alludes to Veblen's many other contributions to Princeton and the world--his key roles in designing the extraordinary (Old) Fine Hall for mathematics on campus, bringing the Institute for Advanced Study to Princeton, and supporting the construction of early computers.


This photo was taken in 1936, the same year Veblen acquired the farm cottage at Herrontown Woods to use as his study. That acquisition could be considered the beginning of Princeton's open space movement.

There's been a gradual rediscovery of Veblen's quiet but deep legacy, beginning with the recognition at the 2012 Turing Centennial Celebration of his role in early computer development. George Dyson devoted a chapter to Veblen in his book, Turing's Cathedral, and delivered a talk entitled "The Institute for Advanced Study: the First 100 Years," in which he gave emphasis to the visionary influence not only of Oswald Veblen but also of his economist uncle Thorstein Veblen.

In 2013, the archive room at the IAS had an exhibit about Veblen's legacy,


and in 2017, a History Working Group at the Institute published an article crediting Veblen with overcoming director Flexner's hesitation and making the IAS a sanctuary that would welcome displaced foreign scholars.

An exhibit by the IAS History Working Group was placed in the hallway of Fuld Hall, including Veblen's role in finding a position for the great female mathematician, Emmy Noether.

These are welcome though likely temporary additions to the exhibit at Fuld Hall, which has long offered a simplified narrative that focused on founder and first director, Abraham Flexner.

The cover story in the Princeton Alumni Weekly is the second article written by Elyse Graham about mathematics at Princeton, the first being "Adventures in Fine Hall" back in January, which tells of Veblen's role in designing Old Fine Hall, and also as one of the main architects of "math's golden age."

That article offered an opportunity to write a letter to the magazine, and let Princeton alumni know about our work at Herrontown Woods.

Still more about Veblen's mulitfaceted legacy can be found in a PAW article from 2012 entitled "Before Turing, There Was Veblen, " by Jon R. Edwards.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A New Botanical Garden at Herrontown Woods


The native plants of Princeton will be featured at a new installation next to the Herrontown Woods parking lot. A clearing was created near the parking lot when an old pine grove blew down in storms over the past few years.  Invasive species moved into the gap, but as volunteers with the Friends of Herrontown Woods began removing these over the past year, we gradually realized we had a lovely setting for introducing visitors to Princeton's diverse native flora, and the pollinators so in need of summer wildflowers in this densely forested corridor.

The site's mix of wet and dry, sun and shade will provide the varied habitat needed to support a wide range of native wildflowers, shrubs, grasses, sedges, and rushes. Identification signs are already going up on trees that survived the storms. Most of the downed trees are being left to tell the story of their long lives and the winds and ice storms that finally brought them down. In a way, this is a Phoenix Garden, growing out of the ruins of the pine grove likely originally planted by Dr. Veblen himself.


As more species are planted, some are already blooming, like this bladdernut, a rarely seen shrub whose seeds will be encased in what looks like a green Chinese lantern.


A purple blossom found on the ground turned out to be from one of the few nonnative species being left to grow--a Princess Tree. The tree's early spring flowers attracted the attention of a hummingbird seen perching nearby.

Some seeds planted by pre-schoolers from the Jewish Center have already sprouted. At the end of that workday, we saw a bald eagle soaring by, high overhead, and decided to take it as another good omen.



One of the species given to the kids to plant is rose mallow, Princeton's native hibiscus, which flourishes along the canal and now is taking root in the botanical garden.


Seeds from a native swamp rose were tossed on the bare ground left by an uprooted pine.


Though the site is likely a couple acres, weeding has thus far been manageable, with scattered garlic mustards and the ubiquitous Japanese honeysuckle getting pulled as we plant natives.

The cool, wet spring has helped ease the weeding and sustain the plantings, with additional water coming from a nearby creek or the back of a Prius.

Spring Nature Walk, Saturday, May 12, 2pm


Update: Nature walk is on, though may be shorter due to potential rain later in afternoon. Be ready for some mud here and there.

On Saturday, May 12 at 2pm, the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW) will host a nature walk at Herrontown Woods in Princeton. The walk will include a brief intro to the native botanical garden being created at Herrontown Woods by FOHW volunteers, a walk up through the boulder fields of the Princeton Ridge, and end with refreshments.  Showy orchid and other rarely seen wildflowers of the Princeton ridge should be in full bloom.

The walk will be co-led by botanists John Clark and Steve Hiltner. John L. Clark teaches at the Lawrenceville School, and recently gave a talk at DR Greenway about discovering new species in Equador. Steve Hiltner is a naturalist who writes about nature at PrincetonNatureNotes.org, and is president of FOHW. 

Meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot, off of Snowden Lane, opposite Smoyer Park.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Princeton Charter School Service Corps Helps Out


One of the most satisfying aspects of tending to a nature preserve is the opportunity to work with local schoolkids. We were grateful on a recent afternoon for help from members of the Princeton Charter School Service Corp, who came out to do some much needed spring cleaning. First stop was the kiosk, for an intro to our mission.

Then it was up the trail, past the Veblen Cottage and over to the Veblen House, where the grounds were strewn with branches from winter's last nor'easter.

A couple students cleaned off Oswald Veblen's wooden walkway leading to the house.

One of the main goals of any workday is to get kids to work together, anticipating each other's needs. Even something as seemingly simple as carrying a log includes some built-in learning about mass and balance and logistics.

Students learned how to keep a saw from binding, as charter school's principal, Larry Patton, cut up a branch that had fallen out of the big eastern red cedar in the front lawn. History teacher Katelyn Schmitt (left) organized the workday and provided most of these photos.

An hour of intense effort left the Veblen grounds cleared, the better to appreciate the daffodils that Elizabeth Veblen loved so much. Most of the daffodils that once graced the lawn around the Veblen House had been lost over the years, due to crews beginning to mow before the daffodil leaves had absorbed enough energy to bloom the next year. This particular daffodil is one of many planted by Friends of Herrontown Woods last year, in ruts left by vehicles that had strayed onto the lawn. It's one of the ways we seek to make lemonade from lemons.


Thanks so much to the PCS Service Corp for their help!