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Why Meadows Become Forests

Eastern red cedar seedling in an old field

Plant community succession: Why meadows become forest.

The normal plant community in the New York City to Philadelphia region is forest. This region receives an average annual rainfall of roughly 44 inches, distributed throughout the year. This means that woody vegetation will become established in undisturbed sites, given sufficient time (including dry, sandy soils of back dunes and pine-barrens). Periodic disturbance of storms, fires or clearing is what keeps some sites open. Without human interference, fire is a very infrequent cause of disturbance in this part of the country. Unlike the western United States we rarely have dry lightning, the regular cause of fires in the west. In the northeast, according to NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), lightning is almost always accompanied by rain. With few exceptions (some pine-barrens species), our native plants are not adapted to […]

Norway maple (Acer platanoides), an invasive tree

Acer platanoides Norway maple Aceraceae (sometimes included in the family Sapindaceae)

Norway maple is a canopy tree up to 65 feet tall native to Europe. The bark of mature trees is black, with narrow, longitudinal fissures and ridges in a fairly regular pattern. The bark of young trees is gray and smooth. The terminal winter buds are large, 0.6-0.9 cm (0.25-0.35 in.), wider than twig tip. They are green, to dark purple, and there are 3-4 pairs bud scales. The twig and leaf stalk sap is milky. These are some of the distinguishing characters that differentiate Norway maple from sugar maple and make identification of young trees easy.

The leaves are opposite, with a blade 8-18 cm (3.2-7.2 in.) wide, wider and darker than A. saccharum (sugar maple) leaves, but otherwise very similar. The autumn color is clear yellow, never red or orange, and the leaves turn color later […]

The Boxelder (Acer negundo) Story

Acer negundo Common names: boxelder, ash-leaf maple. Plant family: Aceraceae, maple family

Boxelder is a fairly common, rather weedy, tree native to the U.S. A. It is the most widely distributed North American maple, found mostly in the eastern half of the United States up through south-central Canada, but with a scattered range from coast to coast in the U. S. and south to the mountains of Mexico and Guatemala. Boxelder has been naturalized in New England, and eastern Canada; and in Washington and eastern Oregon1.

Description: Boxelder can grow to about 65 ft. (20 m) tall, but more often it is shrubby with no central trunk. It is short lived, about 60 years, and fast growing. The twigs are pale green to green-purple, with waxy bloom, cut plants resprout readily. The winter buds are blue to purplish, densely, finely white-hairy. The bud scales are opposite, and overlapping.

The roots […]

Callery Pear

Bradford Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’): Is it really Sterile?

A native of Korea and China, this, now ubiquitous horticultural tree, was first grown from seeds by the USDA Plant Introduction Station in 1963. It is very easy to grow and transplant, has white flowers in spring, leafs out early, holds its leaves well into autumn and has good color in late November. It also resists disease and insects. No wonder it is grown and planted so widely. There is also a story, apparently believed by many landscape architects, that it does not produce viable fruit, in other words, that it is sterile. So no worries about it being invasive, right?

Well, unfortunately, it is not at all sterile. Most individual trees produce crops of small, brown fruit the seeds of which are quite viable. Evidence of this can be seen along Route 440 in south Staten Island in New […]

In Praise of Poison Ivy


No one seems to like Toxicodendron radicans but poison ivy is an important plant in our urban and suburban natural areas. Poison ivy (Anacardiaceae, the cashew family) is a common woody vine, native to the United States and Canada from Nova Scotia to Florida, west to Michigan and Texas. It is also found in Central America as far south as Guatemala. It is all but ubiquitous in natural areas in the Mid-Atlantic United States. It has been recorded in over 70 wooded parks and other natural areas in New York City.

Poison ivy does have certain drawbacks for many people who are allergic to its oily sap. The toxins in poison ivy sap are called urushiols, chemicals containing a benzene ring with two hydroxyl groups (catechol) and an alkyl group of various sorts (CnHn+1).

These chemicals can cause itching and blistering of skin but they are made by the […]

Plants, Soil, and Fungi


One of the most active parts in a forest takes place in the soil where insects and other small invertebrate animals start to decompose fallen leaves, branches and animal remains. Fungi and bacteria complete the decay processes that return nitrogen, phosphorus and trace minerals to the soil to be taken up by roots and once again incorporated into living plants. These nutrient cycles support all the plants and animals of the forests and other natural areas.


Fungi play another vital role in the forest as symbiotic (sym -together, bios – living) partners of roots. Certain types of fungi are incorporated into the structure of roots and help them take up nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphate. In return, the host plant supplies the fungus with carbohydrates (sugars and starches).


When speaking of fungi, there are a couple of critical things to note. First, plants and fungi form […]

Forest Ecosystems in Urban and Suburban Midatlantic North American


Before the arrival of Europeans, forests covered the eastern United States. It was said that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic shore to the Mississippi River without ever touching the ground. Forested land has now been reduced to tiny fragments. The majority of our native plants and animals are adapted to life in forested ecosystems, Our forests vary from back dune holly forests along the sea shore, to moist coastal-plain forests on rich, deep soil; to dry, rocky upland oak woods. Our forests perform vital services for us. These services include carbon dioxide (CO2) uptake, oxygen (O2) production, uptake of pollutant gases, cooling through transpiration of water, soil formation, waste treatment, noise abatement, wind speed control, erosion control, storm water storage, filtration, and runoff control (i.e. flood control), nutrient cycling, habitat for plants and wildlife, and genetic resources. Forests provide habitat for plant pollinators and seed dispersers, and […]