Fall Flowers

Woodland sunflower at Harry's

There are two places in the region where I know I can see fall flowers, more or less as they're supposed to be. One is a little country road near Frenchtown NJ with very steep banks. The other is at my friend Harry's-- he has about a dozen acres of woods inside a deer fence.

Wreath goldenrod, white wood aster, heart-leaved blue wood aster, turtleheads, woodland sunflowers - I miss the New Jersey I've never seen, where these plants lined every shady roadside, where joe pye weed and sneezeweed and New York ironweed earned their names.

Typical Sourlands Road

Sometimes our roadsides and woods edges are as bland as our lawns, between the depredations of the deer and the erratic mowing of municipal road crews. Slowly the flowers have disappeared from our lives, slowly enough that few people seem to have noticed. Instead, we've taken for granted the impoverished monotony of our surroundings.

Land without flowers: A potentially beautiful dry oak woods at the Somerset Sourland Mountain Preserve, which shamefully has no deer management in its entire 2500 acres

I took an interesting walk the other day, at Woodfield Reservation, in Princeton. Along the trails in the mature woods, I was thrilled to see long stems of wreath goldenrood, and the tenacious bright blooms of white wood aster. Looking closer, I saw that the native shrubs and trees had put on good growth during the season as well. Princeton's bold deer management initiative seems to be working.

Wreath goldenrod

Woodfield Reservation has its share of invasive plants - even species barely seen elsewhere have a strong presence here, like oriental photinia, and linden viburnum. Yet, looking around, these non-native shrubs were frequently surrounded by native spicebush thickets. Young invasives were at the same height as recovering maple-leaf viburnum and sapling dogwoods. And everywhere in between, the goldenrod and aster bloomed.

Recovery amidst invasion: shrub layer at Woodfield Reservation

I thought to myself-- maybe this is what recovery looks like. We'll never have "perfect", uninvaded woods again. But, I think I can live with the occasional winged euonymus or linden viburnum if it's flanked by forty spicebush. The multiflora rose and barberry largely get shaded out by a thriving native shrub layer, and the dinky annual japanese stiltgrass is nowhere in sight. Ecological restoration work undertaken in concert with natural recovery will be more effective at healing.

After that walk, I've started to think of white wood aster and wreath goldenrod as "indicator species". If I may be so bold: When our flowers come back, we'll know that the recovery of our natural world is underway.


New England Aster

Heart-leaved blue wood aster, shielded by boulder, Ridge Road