Wednesday, April 17, 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.)

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Weekend Events: Nature Walk April 6, Daffodil Planting April 7


Frog eggs in vernal pools, the distant hammerings of pileated woodpeckers, spicebush in flower--these are some of the sights and sounds we'll likely encounter on a nature walk at Herrontown Woods this Saturday, April 6, from 9-11am. The walk will be co-led by Mark Manning and Steve Hiltner. Mark is a highschool teacher in Hopewell who has been walking through Herrontown Woods with his son and documenting the species of frogs and salamanders present. He encourages anyone interested in birds to bring binoculars. Steve is president of Friends of Herrontown Woods and can speak to the plant life and history of the preserve. The walk will end at the Veblen House, with some light refreshments. We'll take one of the drier routes through the preserve, but be prepared in case some portions of trails are wet.

Meet at the main parking lot for Herrontown Woods, across the street and down the hill from the main entrance to Smoyer Park. Maps at this link.


In honor of Elizabeth Veblen, we are recreating the fields of daffodils that graced her Veblen House garden. The photos are from the 1950s.

Bring a bulb planter or shovel if you have them, and good gardening clothes/gloves. We'll also do some general cleanup of the grounds. We'll have a few tools and gloves and a little something to drink and eat.

Meet at the Veblen House, down the gravel driveway at 474 Herrontown Road. (Entrance across the street from 443 Herrontown Rd)

Here's another photo from the 1950s, with Elizabeth Veblen walking the grounds of the cottage. Not surprisingly, the distinctive boulder in the foreground is still there, making this photo very useful for helping recreate the landscape the Veblens enjoyed before they donated their homes and land to the public.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Frog Season at Herrontown Woods

The email came the night of March 15 from Lisa, our lookout and Herrontown Woods neighbor, who said that frogs were crossing Herrontown Road in abundance, headed towards the vernal pools in Herrontown Woods. Road crossing is risky for the frogs, and there's talk of working with the town next year to warn motorists to keep an eye out when traveling that section during those spring nights when the frogs are moving en masse.

The frogs are having a good time in rain-soaked Herrontown Woods this spring. This vernal pool, in a depression left by a blown down tree, is one of two just 100 feet down the red trail from the main parking lot off of Snowden Lane. The wood frogs will probably dive down when you approach the pool, but stand still and soon they will pop back up, and float there in a relaxed sprawl. One of the clusters of eggs is denser than the others, which means it was more freshly laid. The eggs soak up water and expand, and when visited a day or two later looked like all the others.

My friend Fairfax sent a link to a good primer on frog egg identification.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Explorer Backpacks to Borrow at Princeton Public Library

Thanks to an initiative by board member Inge Regan, the Friends of Herrontown Woods contributed leaf identification cards to the Princeton Public Library's new explorer backpacks. 

The library describes the backpacks, available at this link, as:
"Ideal for inspiring families with children to explore the great outdoors, each backpack includes information about Princeton open spaces, compass, binoculars, magnifying glass, New Jersey pocket field guides, nature log and more. Available for check out at the Youth Services information desk. Funded by the Princeton Environmental Film Festival.”
Some of the photos and text on the leaf ID cards can also be found at this link.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Spring Flower Bulb Donation

Thanks to Princeton's Ace Hardware for donating their unsold spring bulbs to the Friends of Herrontown Woods! FOHW's vice president, Perry Jones, coordinated this donation, and helped fill up the back of Old Green with the partially filled boxes.

The bulbs will help recreate the english garden that once graced the grounds of Veblen House. Fortunately, we have photos of what the grounds looked like in the 1950s, while the Veblens were still alive, supplied to us years back by longtime resident of the Veblen House, Bob Wells. The photos show a clear emphasis on tulips, daffodils, and primrose. Elizabeth Veblen no doubt inherited her love of gardening from a youth spent in England.

Now is the time to identify all the boulders in these photos. That's Elizabeth in the photo, enjoying a brisk spring day, with daffodils holding forth along the edge of the field. The grounds were taken care of by Max Latterman, who had first worked for the Whiton-Stuarts before the Veblen's bought the house.

These low-growing yellow flowers are winter aconite, not to be confused with the closely related but highly invasive lesser celandine (also called fig buttercup).

The split rail fence that formed an oval around the Veblen House was planted with lilies and peonies, with fruit trees nearby. Some posts from that fence remain standing, due to having been made of rot resistant black locust.

Another photo with Elizabeth posing at the back of Veblen House. One of the house's two balconies, possible added by the Veblens, the better to view the garden, can be seen just up and to the left behind Elizabeth.

Looking the other direction, towards the Veblen Cottage from the back side of the house, this photo shows the curious structures that once graced the grounds: a dovecote and a hay barrack.

A dogwood tree, tulips and primrose, all cared for by the Veblens, her friends in the Dogwood Garden Club, and longtime caretaker Max. The son of the Kennedys, who lived nearby, said that going to the Veblen House felt like walking into a Beatrix Potter story.

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