New Jersey native plants legislation

I’ve been away for almost a month, and while I was away I received an email, through the NPSNJ list, from a member of Save Barnegat Bay. The email concerns a sensible piece of legislation that’s working its way through the NJ legislature. The proposed law would require the state Department of Transportation to plant only native plants along NJ highways. Here’s the text of the email I received; please follow the instructions for contacting your state senators and assembly members. Let’s make sure our representatives know how important native plants are to us:

The “DOT Native Plants Bill

S-2004 / A-3305

If enacted, this bill will require the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the NJ Turnpike Authority (which includes the Garden State Parkway), and the South Jersey Transportation Authority to use ONLY NATIVE PLANTS for landscaping, land management, reforestation, or habitat restoration on the 2,800 miles highways they manage in New Jersey.

Please write your state Senator and Assembly representatives and urge passage of the “DOT Native Plants Bill – S-2004 / A-3305” in order to preserve the water quality, natural beauty, and local character of all of New Jersey’s neighborhoods including its rivers, lakes, and bays for the future.

The name of your legislators and their addresses are very easy to find on the New Jersey State Legislature website,  The text of S2004 / A3305 can also be easily found there.

This bill was written for Save Barnegat Bay by Senator Jim Holzapfel and Assemblymen David Wolfe and Greg McGuckin. Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. and Senator Kip Bateman are co-sponsors. The bill has real momentum. It has already passed the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.


Pine bark beetles in the New Jersey Pinelands

For the past decade, two different species of pine bark beetles have extended their ranges over the western and eastern United States. In the west, the mountain bark beetle kills thousands of trees each year. In the east, the southern bark beetle is quickly extending its range northward to the Pinelands, a huge and important ecological reserve in southern New Jersey. The reason that the problem has been exacerbated in recent years? Climate change.

As the NY Times reported yesterday, in the past, cold winters kept the beetle population under control. The beetles cannot survive temperatures lower than minus 8 degrees Fahrenheit; in the past, the Pinelands experienced temperatures that low several times per decade. However, the last time the thermometer dipped so low was 1996; according to the Times report, the beetles were first noticed in the Pinelands five years later.

The problem is exacerbated by poor forest management practices: pine forests need fire to clear out dead wood and diseased trees and allow new, vigorous plants to sprout. But for the past hundred years, forestry practices have leaned toward fire suppression, leaving the forests crowded with weak trees. Weak trees are more susceptible to pests and diseases than strong healthy ones.

The solution advocated by most environmentalists includes controlled burns and selective cutting of diseased trees. This approach was approved by the NJ legislature but vetoed by Governor Christie. Instead, the state is simply spot-treating outbreaks with pesticides rather than  managing the problem in a more holistic and environmentally safe manner.

The Pinelands are an environmental jewel. The area contains a large a pristine aquifer, many species of rare plants, including orchids, and a unique ecosystem that encompasses the northern range of many southern plants and animals as well as the southern range of many northern ones. Do some reading about the area; plan a visit. And contact your state legislators to encourage them to work on a comprehensive forest management plan. New Jersey is more than suburbs and shore. Help protect the Pinelands before they indeed become barren.


A mast year


We’re having a mast year here in Bergen County, New Jersey, and, I suspect, in the wider area as well. “Mast” comes from a German word that means “forest food,” and a mast year, a phenomenon that happens every few years, is a year in which nut-bearing trees (in our area, oaks, hickories, and beeches) produce unusually large numbers of nuts. Notice it the next time you’re out walking–in some place there are so many fallen acorns that they blanket the ground entirely.


Masting results from chemical signalling among all the trees in the area (yes, plants send out chemical signals, both through the air and through their roots). It happens because, in most years, animals eat all the acorns and other nuts, so none remain to reproduce the trees. So every few years, the trees act together to produce such a large crop of nuts that the animals can’t possibly eat them all. Consequently, some will remain to germinate next spring. Next season, look for lots of seedling oak trees and a larger-than-normal chipmunk population. Isn’t nature wonderful?

Thanks to everyone who turned out for the Arboretum walk yesterday. It was a gorgeous day.


Native plant walk on Sunday, Oct. 27

Birch leaves turning yellow; grape leaves

Please join me this Sunday, Oct. 27, at 1:00 p.m., at the Thielke Arboretum on Doremus Avenue in Glen Rock. I’ll be leading a walk through the woods to identify the many native plants found in this lovely example of a northern swamp forest. We’ll talk about the components of a forest, types of native forests, and the plants to be found in the arboretum in different seasons. The walk is short and easy for all. The rain date is Nov. 3.

This walk is sponsored by the Bergen-Passaic chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey. For more information, contact the chapter at or the main group at

The wilds of New Jersey


Yup, that’s New Jersey. We hiked in Norvin Green State Forest near Wanaque today. Note the slight hint of red on the maples–it’s been a cool summer (but today it was quite hot).

Each year, we participate in the Invasives Strike Force, a partnership among several environmental organizations sponsored by the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. The Strike Force is a citizen-scientist program that trains interested people to monitor hiking trails for invasive plants and then goes out and eradicates invasives along our lovely local hiking trails. You attend a training session and then are assigned a trail section, usually a 2-mile loop; following a specific protocol, you check that trail for invasive plants. I’m happy to say that we saw very few invasives on our trail section today, except near the roads, and those most of those we did find were still few in number so should be fairly easy to control.

We hiked through a beautiful second-growth forest primarily of oaks (red and chestnut oak) and red maple with an understory of witchhazel and a shrub layer of blueberries. The ground layer was very varied; in addition to gazillions of blueberry bushes, there was Solomon’s seal, ferns, sedges, Canada mayflower, hepatica, and many, many other plants. On rocky outcroppings there was little bluestem, a native prairie grass.


And, of course, there was abundant wildlife, including numerous amphibians and lots of spiders.



Our dog, Fudge, always accompanies us on hikes and is expert at finding the trail when we are in danger of losing it. We think he must smell the presence of humans. The trails we were on today were little used and could have done with a few more blazes, but Fudge kept us going in the right direction. He’s not as young as he used to be, so he takes every opportunity to lie down in a cool spot.


He’s lying in a patch of Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum). Notice how it crowds out all other vegetation–a textbook example of invasiveness.

Take a hike

Really, go out and take a hike. We hiked a very short portion of the Appalachian Trail (AT) today. I mean a very short portion, about a mile out of the 2000+ miles that make up this magnificent trail (we were participating in a citizen-scientist project that involved monitoring particular plant species). But it was lovely to be in the woods, to stop and identify unusual plants, to smell the leaf mold, see the butterflies, and enjoy the sunshine on this delightful summer day.

We are gifted in this region with some of the best hiking in the world, less than an hour from New York City. Use the links on the AT site or check out the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, another conservation-minded volunteer organization. Either site will help you find a hike that’s right for you, whether you are a beginner or an experienced hiker, in great shape or not.

A great beginner’s hike takes you to the Pochuk Boardwalk in northwestern New Jersey. You will walk along a mile-long boardwalk over a wetland, viewing a variety of wildflowers, butterflies, and birds. Depending on the season you visit, you may cross over dry land, a shallow lake, or anything in between. Take a good wildflower or butterfly ID book, take the kids, and get out and enjoy the outdoors. While you’re at it, join the Trail Conference or the AT Conservancy and find out how you can help maintain the trails that keep nature available to all of us.

Take a hike!

Summertime (II)

Sweet joe-pye weed beginning to bloom.

To me, summertime in the garden is all about the promise of autumn. In my garden, sweet joe-pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) is just coming into bloom. The plants are not expending all that energy to look pretty for us. They’re doing it to attract pollinators, which will allow them to produce seed. For plants, as for most living things, it’s all about the next generation. They do it all for the children.

Little bluestem just stalking out.

Different types of plants have different strategies for reproducing. This picture shows little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), two different individuals with different colorations, just putting up their flower stalks. Little bluestem is one of the dominant plants of the midwestern prairies, but in nature it occurs frequently in the northeast as well. It’s an extremely tough, drought-resistant, deer-resistant plant that grows no more than 3′ high and has beautiful fall color. An excellent choice for the perennial border.

Grasses are pollinated by the wind, not by insects. There are two major groupings of flowering plants, dicots and monocots, named for the number of embryo leaves contained in their seeds. Grasses, bamboos (which are grasses), sedges, palm trees, orchids, and lilies are all monocots. They evolved more recently than dicots, which include most of the trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals we are most familier with.  Take a close look look at the flowers of grasses sometime and see how different they are from the flowers of, say, roses or violets. You’ll have to take a very close look because the flowers are generally quite small.


Purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis) is just coming into bloom, and this is a sight as spectacular as its species name implies. Note the lavender flower buds. This short grass (6-8″) still grows along roadsides throughout the northeast but is hard to find in nurseries. After looking for it in vain for years, I finally realized that it was growing in my front yard, dug it up, and now enjoy it in my perennial border. Look for roadsides carpeted in lavender haze in late July and early August–that’s purple lovegrass.

Brown-eyed susan just opening its eyes.

Another plant I eagerly anticipate each summer is my favorite Rudbeckia, R. triloba (brown-eyed susan). Isn’t it lovely (this one is the first to open–the flower will be larger in a day or so)? This plant is shorter (usually about 3′) than most other Rudbeckias, the flowers are smaller and Crayola orange-yellow, and they can only be described as adorable. The plant will bloom until first frost.

Unripe seedpods of new jersey tea.

This post is all about fruition (or at least it started out that way), so it’s appropriate to end with a fruit. Do you remember New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)? This is its fruit capsule, and it’s quite strange looking. Definitely not a member of the rose family! These capsules will gradually turn brown. They contains hundreds of tiny seeds that are typically dispersed by birds and small mammals. The seeds are hard to germinate–like the seeds of many other trees and shrubs, they must pass through the gut of an animal before they can germinate.

We’ll be in southern California for a few days–a completely different climate and environment than my beloved northeast, but I’ll try to check out some native plants and farmer’s markets while I’m there.