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The Hempstead Plains – Remnants of a Relic

Credit: Long Island Pine Barrens Society

A map of the ecosystems historically shaped by fire on Long Island

In addition to the Atlantic Coastal Pine Barrens which have been shaped by fire ecology, there is another, lesser known climax ecosystem that still exists in small remnants in the Eastern U.S. It is known at the Atlantic Coastal Prairie, Sand Plains, Dry Tall Grass Prairie, etc. These semi-arid habitats are characterized by their poor sandy soils and their need for fire regimes (and now mowing). They are home to threatened and endangered species, including Agalinus acuta (sandplain gerardia), and were once home to a now extinct species of grouse known as the Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido var. cupido) (Palkovacs et al., 2004).

The extinct Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido var. cupido)

The endangered Sand Plain Gerardia (Agalinus acuta). The Hempstead Plains has at least 2 of the only 11 populations worldwide.

These unique eastern dry prairies still exist in isolated patches in New England and Long Island. The one I am most familiar with is the Hempstead Plains, the only naturally occurring prairie east of the Appalachian Mountains (Neidich and Kennelly, 2014). There is only around 100 acres left of the 60,000- 40,000 acres that existed prior to colonization. Since colonization, the plains have been used for farming and urban development. This has disturbed fragile topsoil crust and allowed woody and invasive plants to encroach on the grasslands. Once an important flyway for birds, the plains still serve as a home and migration stop for: wild pheasant, fox, orchard orioles, monarch butterflies, fritillaries, meadowlark, and others.

Credit: Harper 1911

These Plains were once a vast expanse.

The Hempstead Plains exist in a highly populated county directly adjacent to the burrow of Queens in New York City. Due to their close proximity to this metropolitan area, the flat land was prime for early urban sprawl developments. However, this also made them a good place for New York City botanists to study the unique flora assemblages, and there are botanical records going back over 100 years.They all noted the rapid disappearance of the ecosystem (Harper, 1911).

A Satellite image of Garden City, NY. The red pin is the site of the managed remnant of the Hempstead Plains. The green area just south of the pins is a larger, unmanaged portion. The green area to the east are golf courses that also contain grassland remnants.

The history of the development of these plains is an interesting one. They were once a commons grazing area for sheep. Years later, they were bought by a wealthy department store owner who opened golf courses, polo fields, and race tracks to entice other wealthy people to move to the area. Then, during the early 20th century they served as a major airfield where Charles Lindberg began the first Trans-Atlantic flight.

The Plains have been subject to unrelenting development up unto the 1970’s when a large stadium was built, and the community college was expanded. In 1991, 16.3 continuous acres were put under the management of a non-profit, Friends of the Hempstead Plains, for the purpose of education and preservation. Since the founding of the organization, both students and experienced botanists have conducted experiments regarding the specific plants that grow in these particularly dry soils. The unique soils are characterized by their upper lichen-moss covered crust, and well-drained, dark horizons above glacial out-wash. The Nature Conservancy carried out multiple controlled burns in the 1990’s in order to restore balance to the scarred and trampled remnant.

Black and white film prints of the Nature Conservancy controlled burns in the 1990s

Other, largely unmanaged portions are present on a nearby golf course, and across a highway from the managed parcel. It was on this county owned unmanaged preserve where a recent 5 acre wild fire occurred in 2016, causing a more blue curls and toad flax to bloom in 2017. This was where I found two species I was searching for to collect for a restoration project, Andropogon virginicus and Schizachryum scoparium. Although these species are extremely common, I needed to find them in this specific eco-region. As I mentioned before, this county is adjacent to New York City, highly developed and populated, so finding a wild population was not a walk in the park.

Prairie Three-awn (Aristida oligantha) growing through the cracks of an old airstrip.

I also collected an annual grass, Oligantha aristida  (Prairie Three-awn). This grass was growing between old slabs of asphalt and little blue stem. Talk about a tough little grass!

One of the many massive dumping sites within the unmanaged preserve.

As I walked through this rare piece of green space, in the center of a bustling city, I was disturbed by the utter neglect of management by the county. There are obviously ongoing problems of homelessness, off-roading,  and dumping. I couldn’t help but notice the irony that in the shadow of a huge hotel, there are people living in tents.

Friends of the Hempstead Plains at Nassau Community College Manages 19 acres of this rare Habitat

Compared to the tall grass prairie preserves out west this is a tiny swath of land. Some might question what the point of conserving such a small amount of land really is. In the middle of a metropolitan area, this natural landscape can teach so many people about the native flora and the history of the area. I for one got my start within the botanical field volunteering on this preserve. Now after seeing dozens of different habitats throughout the Mid-Atlantic and mainland U.S., I can tell how unique a place the Hempstead Plains really is.

To learn more about this grassland, go to Friendsofhp.org

Paradise Island

Paradise Island is a supposedly untouched (except for some mowed trails) example of what a coastal forest on Long Island once was before deer over population and anthropogenic disturbance. It is within the borders of Bayard Cutting Arboretum State Park in New York, between the Connetquot River and West Brook. The area has too many mosquitos for me to call it a paradise, even for a botanist. But, it is quite a paradise for birds with all the Aronia arbutiflora I found there.

Apios americana (American groundnut)

Found this special bean growing prolifically among phragmites, not much can do that! It has an edible pod, flower, and tuber. This was a crucial food source during pre-colonial and colonial periods in America. The smell of these flowers is very unique and sweet.


A view of the Connetquot river from the South western edge of Paradise Island. The treeline is the river walk of Bayard Cutting Arboretum

The Connetquot river is one of Long Island’s largest tidal rivers. Nearly the entire length of this great river is preserved within a state park that bears it’s name, just North of Bayard Cutting Arboretum.

ME holding some PLANTS.

I thought the sign behind me was kinda funny. A family of Osprey have 2 nests on the Island that Bald Eagles move into once the Ospreys migrate South for the winter.

Hibiscus mocheutos (Crimsoneyed Rosemallow)

I made a large collection of this salt loving flower. The population was super healthy with minimal weevil predation.

Elderberries for Dam Removal Restoration

Last week I took a solo scouting/collection trip to North-western New Jersey. I was scouting for Sambucus canadensis var. nigra, as well as some other species that were requested for a restoration project on the Musconetcong river. There have been a series of dam removals along this tributary of the Delaware river in the past few years, and the project coordinators are looking for genetically appropriate wetland species from ecoregions 67 and 58 to restore the river banks and floodplains

Ecoregions 67 and 58 are in the Appalachian highland region of New Jersey, not far from the Delaware Water gap. It is so much different from the pitch pine lowland habitats of South Jersey that I’m used to. So, it was very exciting for me to explore the cliffs and caves hidden under Hornbeam canopies..

I found Sambucus at multiple sites, but unfortunately not in great enough numbers to warrant collecting. I did find other restoration species like Cornus amomum (Silky dogwood), Apios americana (American ground-nut), and Viburnum acerifolium (Maple-leaf viburnum). As well as species I have never encountered before like, Celtis occidentalis (American Hackberry), Vaccinium staminum (Tall deer berry), and Corylus cornuta (Beaked hazelnut).

Here are some photos of my favorite discoveries from this trip.

*~The Fairy Hole~*

Archaeological evidence suggest this was ceremonial cave for Lenape. The Fairy Hole looks out at Ghost Lake, inside Jenny Jump State Forest.

The most Beautiful (Chicken) Mushroom.

This is New Jersey?
A huge agricultural valley seen from Shades of Death Road in Hope, NJ

Big ol’ Solomon Seal

Corylus cornuta  (Beaked Hazelnut)

These filberts dominated the forest under story along with the Tall Deer Berry. TASTY.

Asclepias incarnata (Swamp Milkweed)

For a nerd like me, this soil map of a wildlife management area is like a work of art.

I’ll stick to what I’m good at. Botany, not blogging.

All in all, this was a successful trip. I made two small collections of Carex species, and found several other potential collections for later on in the season. I’m so excited to be helping to restore habitats damaged by water impoundments. The net positive ecological impacts of dam removal is a great motivator for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Seed Bank to find these species and collect them.

Here is a link to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service blog where there is a video of a dam removal that occurred December 2016.

Video: Time-Lapse of Hughesville Dam Removal

The page contains a lot of links to other info on the past, present, and future dam removal projects along the Musconetcong river in New Jersey. CHECK IT OUT.

Wild, Free, and Fruity Forays

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, not every man’s greed.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

Throughout this internship I have felt like a professional forager. And I suppose am, having gotten paid to gather seeds, nuts, and fruit. I love foraging, collecting, gathering or “native plant material collection” as it’s put on my time sheet each week. Actually, I think I’m just a glorified squirrel. Using my tiny hands to grab at any seeds I can find, saving them, and forgetting about every third acorn. :3

There is something primal about gathering seed and fruit. The eyes adjust to the task at hand. They hone in on the color and shape of whatever they search for. Even when the object of desire may be obscured by the surroundings. It may be same color as the leaves, the soil, or other fruit that doesn’t suit the palate. A dormant instinct is reawakened when given the chance. It’s as if a human can partially revert back to being a undomesticated, nomadic gatherer-hunter when out on a foray.

I feel conflicted about foraging during my personal time. Gathering wild foods for the purpose of genetic preservation and restoration stock is a worthy reason to deprive other animals that live in these spaces the full bounty of nourishment. But for my own sustenance? With so much land on earth devoted to food production and life for humans, it seems selfish and unnecessary to just start taking food from the wild where free animals may still live as they should. But I want to be a free animal too! Humans once feasted on thousands of different species from hundreds of families over the course of one year, prior to the invention and domination of agricultural societies. In America we’re lucky if we get more than 50 different species in our diet over the course of a year. So shouldn’t the modern human diet still contain wild varieties of food? Foods that haven’t yet begun to lose their nutritional value through what Nikolai Vavilov (a pioneer in seed saving) called “varietal disintegration.” This is when nutritional value, resilience, and vigor diminishes the longer a species is domesticated. I would like to think so. I wouldn’t forage an entire meal unless I needed to in order to survive. I prefer harvesting some wild greens for pesto or salad garnish. Harvesting a handful of mushrooms for a dish. Or taking a taste of some berries when out hiking.

How do I know this is safe to eat? A general rule is if you’re going to harvest something for ingestion, it should be growing at least a few hundred feet from any roads or buildings. Be sure it’s not near or in any brownfields. Be sure what it is of course. For all of us at CLM that know how to look at plants, this is obvious. Consulting a few books and the internet is a given. Don’t end up like Chris from Into the Wild. Trust your palate. If it tastes bad, spit it out! Our taste buds aren’t just for pleasure, they are for determining edibility of foods we try. In short: Use the senses wisely. Research the plants. Avoid contamination.

Don’t I need a permit? I am not an expert on this but I would assume so, considering we had to use permits to collect seed on any state, national and private land. I have had the pleasure of foraging along the edges of farms where I have worked in the past so I never had to ask for anything more than verbal permission. Ask your neighbors, friends, and family that have some land if you can forage there. Maybe you have a big yard with some overgrown edges that provide some fruit and greens. Be creative.

Eating the local native flora can connect you to the land in a way that buying food from a grocery store never could

Here are some pictures of some of the delicious berries I collected/snacked on when out in the field this summer.



Opuntia humifusa

I just had a taste of this wild candy while collecting it. Watch out for their prickles!


Rosa palustris

Rose hips. They sweeten up in November, a great time to harvest and dry for tea. Or to save for seed banks of course.


Vitus riparia

A wild grape found along wet, sunny places.


Vitis rotundifolia

Muscadine grapes found growing wild. So delicious and refreshing on a hot day. I even eat the seeds.


Rubus cuneifolius

The sand black berry, one of our target species here at MARSB. They grow in sandy places (DUH) along the coast.


Rubus phoenicolasius

Native to Asia, and not to the US. The hairy stem distinguishes them from other Rubus species.


Gaylussacia baccata

Black huckleberries are one of our targeted species that is literally absolutely abundant in the understory shrub layer of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.



New Jersey Critters

The New Jersey SOS team explores some seemingly deserted places. We seldom see another person hiking the same trails, and were definitely the only ones wading through salt marshes. When there is a pause, our footsteps slow, upon closer inspection these wild free places are teeming with life under the umbrella of Animalia. This post is a dump of the pictures of all the beautiful creatures that stood still long enough to snap a picture. Enjoy.



Terrapene carolina carolina

Eastern box turtle hiding in their shell. Found em munching down on some Opuntia humifusa fruit.


Danaus plexippus

Monarch caterpillar doing their thang, munching down on Aslepias syriaca


Uca tangeri

Fiddler crab dabbin on ya.


Argiope aurantia

Writing spiders were a common sight around wet tall grass prairie. Their striking colors and zigzag pattern made it easy to ovoid getting caught in their webs.


Pandion haliaetus

Majestic osprey soaring with a fish clasped in their talons.


I don’t know who this is, but dang. Keep rocking those primary colors dawg!


Notophthalmus viridescens

Red-spotted newts were crawling all over this mountain!


Ardea alba

The most widespread and elegant bird encountered on the coast, the great egret.


Tetraopes tetrophthalmus

Red milkweed beetles.



Odocoileus virginianus

White-tail deer inhabit all ecosystems in New Jersey. Here’s a doe posing on the beach.


Malaclemys terrapin

A diamondback terrapin mama laying her eggs! She covered the nest so well I couldn’t even tell where it was after she left.


Fall Arrangements

Hello, everyone. I’m writing you all today because there is something I need to get off my chest. It’s been weighing down on me for some time now. I don’t think I can keep it in much longer. I figured that the CLM blog would be a safe space to come out and say this…..I love plants. Okay, I’m actually COMPLETELY OBSESSED with PLANTS. I can’t stop looking at them and thinking about them. I eat, sleep and breathe plants. I dream about them. Sometimes I even talk to them. I love house plants, food crops, native grasses, wildflowers, weeds, even some invasives! Cacti, moss, conifers, C3, C4, lichens since they’re like half plant, ALL OF THEM ARE BEAUTIFUL. That’s why this internship has been so perfect for me. I get paid to walk around and look at plants, and touch them too; “botanize” if you will. I’ve gotten to flex my identification chops and learn about hundreds of natives. I’ve gotten better acquainted with where they grow, when they bloom, and even when they fruit. I feel like the friendship between me and my green companions has become more personal, in a way.

In true friendship spirit, plants and I enjoy sharing activities together. One of my favorite activites (besides cooking and eating) is floral arranging. I found it to be very cathartic when I was stressed out in college, or when I’m sad about something. Floral arrangements are great way to take a little piece of a hike or a garden home with you. If you know how to dry the plants, their beauty can last quite a bit longer. You can take a nice bouquet home to your honey for smiles and smooches. Give one to a stranger for a weird look/new friendship. Make a centerpiece to gaze at while eating dinner, brighten up a room, or hang a seasonal wreath on a door. 

Now, I don’t want y’all to think I was just walking around pickin’ daisies when I was supposed to be working. It’s rare that I pick a flower unless I’m having a hard time trying identify the species, so I take a specimen to press for a later time. I always want to leave as many flowers for the pollinators so they can transform to fruits and seeds and spread their genes. It’s the cycle of life, folks. The only time I’ll interfere with the flow of the cycle, is when the plant is invasive. I don’t have a problem taking it out of an environment it does not belong in. When I was doing my capstone research on a dry prairie ecosystem, I would often make a bouquet of the invasive exotics encroaching on it at the end of a field day. It was enjoyable to make something pretty, while also helping manage the land. Imagine if florists did that! 

When making arrangements, I like to emulate the habitats the plants came from in the shape and sectioning of the piece. This is my own botanical style because I’m an amateur without any formal training. When constructing an arrangement, I try to incorporate elements of the plants’ homeland. I want my final product to be reflective of the open field or woodland path from which (it/they) came originally.  I also like to take in consideration the season that they bloom in. Spring might be most people’s favorite time of year for natural beauty, but I personally really like the muted and earthy shades of Autumn. Plus, when everything has already flowered and gone to seed, there’s no worrying about whether you might be stealing a bumble bee’s food.

In this native grass wall piece, I have collected Scirpus cyperinus, Schizachrium scoparium, Juncus canadensis, Andropogon glomeratus, foxtail, and 2 non-natives I have yet to identify. It is representative of a wet meadow in Tuckahoe wildlife management area.

In this native grass wall piece, I have collected Scirpus cyperinus, Schizachrium scoparium, Juncus canadensis, Andropogon glomeratus, foxtail, and 2 non-natives I have yet to identify. It is representative of a wet meadow in Tuckahoe wildlife management area.

Soldiago sempervirens, Bacchris halmifolia and foxtail are bundled in this quick little boutonnière bouquet I put together.

Soldiago sempervirens, Bacchris halmifolia and foxtail are bundled in this quick little boutonnière bouquet I put together.

Crafting floral arrangements is a way to repurpose nature’s own expression of evolution as a medium for new art, beauty, decorations, and mementos. You can touch them, smell them, and best of all, compost them when you’re ready to make a new one!

Decomposing my Troubles

“Fungi are the grand molecular disassemblers in nature. Fungi are the interface organisms between life and death. They generate soil.”

  • Mycologist Paul Stamets

There is something lurking in the swamps of New Jersey. It breathes oxygen. It respires CO2. It devours the dead for dinner.

What I’m talking about is fungus, of course!

When making plant collections in thick forests, it’s hard to miss the unique shapes and vibrant colors of the fungus that are contrasting with the brown and green background.   

This internship not only strengthens my skills in plant identification, but additionally gives me the opportunity to expand my realm of knowledge to other aspects of biotic life.  Like finding a 1up mushroom in a mario game, it’s like a prize to see a brightly colored cap along the path I’m hiking. As a naturalist, I enjoy matching each new plant or fungi to their correct species epithet, and learn about their functionality. Social media platforms, like Facebook, currently host tons of group identification forums. The online community is always helpful to plant-nerds like me whenever the right answer cannot be found in my field guide. So as I walk along, I snap a quick picture of these photogenic fungi and continue on my way. Here are some of my favorites:


Cortinarius iodes

“Violet cort”

This fungi gets a slimey cap after it rains.


Artomyces pyxidatus

“Crown coral”

An elegant coral mushroom.


Amanita muscaria var. Guessowii

American Yellow Fly Agaric”

What a pretty baby growing on the path!


Boletus edulis


The choicest of all mushrooms. Highly prized in Europe, they can sell for over $50 a pound dry.


Trametes Versicolor

“Turkey tail”

I often see these more than any other mushroom in my travels. Has medicinal and anti-cancer properties.


Pleurotus ostreatus

“Oyster mushroom”

These were growing on Fagus grandifolia, although they normally grow on oaks. They have a fishy smell and are commercially cultivated. I have noticed that the wild variety has a more fragrant smell than cultivated ones.

“Bicolor bolete”

Boletus bicolor

The “Bicolor bolete.”

This fungi, sports a red stem and cap, and yellow pores. It is apparently edible and bruises blue.


Laetiporus sp.

Chicken Mushroom”

MY FAVORITE. Serve em up anyway you like, batter em, fry em, stick em in a stew. Unmistakable and easy to spot. They have sulfur colored pores beneath. Tastes like chicken.


Lycoperdon pyriforme

“Pear Puffballs”

This species is white inside and can often be found growing on wood.

Clavaria sp.

Clavaria sp.

“Flame fungus”

When I saw these poking out from under the leaf litter I just thought, “Wow, the Earth is weird.”

I would have loved to pick some of these toadstools, however, I only had a permit to collect seeds, so I had to leave them be. When foraging mushrooms, it’s good to keep in mind that picking them will not destroy the mycelial networks that they sprout from. In fact, picking the mushroom can spread the spores that are produced from the fruiting body further when they are carried in something like a basket. If it is your style to pick, then try and cut or pinch the end that has soil/debris on it, (the part that you would cut off before eating) and leave it on the ground or on a piece of wood nearby. By incorporating this into your foraging habits, it can help proliferate culture in the future.

I saw most of these mushrooms in Northern New Jersey in both the piedmont and Appalachian ecoregions. I have also seen some in the pine barrens. Within the permits of the Mid- Atlantic Regional Seed Bank, one of the most biodiverse areas to collect is the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1960. Half of the refuge is designated wilderness area, and was the first wilderness under the management of the U.S. Department of Interior. Perhaps the area’s preservation from half a century ago left the mycelial networks intact better than the other areas I’ve explored that have roads through them. I usually associate the presence of a diverse array of fungi with a healthy swamp ecosystem.

There are roughly 5.1 million species of fungus on earth, of which 10 percent produce fruiting bodies or “mushrooms.” From food, to medicine, to bioremediation, to plant communication to decomposition; fungus is integral part of life in our world. Even when there aren’t any fruits to be seen, you can be sure there are webs of mycelial networks just beneath your feet.

There are secrets in New Jersey

New Jersey has a secret. It wears an industrial mask and is draped in a costume made from the fabric of loud boardwalks, clubbers, and miscellaneous state stereotypes.

But, beneath the façade, there is something very—very different. The secret’s out, New Jersey is bursting at the seams with plant life and environmental diversity.

My partner, Robbie, and I have gained a lot of memorable and joyous experiences exploring NJ and its plant life. We have driven through rough and gritty dirt roads deep into the soul of the Pine Barrens. We did not find the Jersey Devil, but we did find adventure.

We camped under hearts of oaks and pines, nestled in the rib cages of blueberries and huckleberries. N.J. unveiled its rare Lysimachia terrestristhe and Pogonia opioglossoides to us in the summer’s boiling bogs brimming with sun dew and pitcher plants.Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 10.10.03 PM

We have taken shelter from the sobs of the earth and its storming pulse under the spiral bark of the Atlantic white cedar.

We’ve inhaled the aromatic scents of Rhododendron viscosum of the Appalachian Mountains tucked away in the northwest of the state.


Rhododendron viscosum

We kayaked through the narrow veins of the creeks, and saw the Spartina species thriving on the scalps of muscle clams.

Egg Island, NJ

Egg Island, NJ

We escaped the vicious greenflies and their shocking vampiric bites.

We traced roads that evolved into thick, impassible tickets. We baked like potatoes in the summer’s oven. We searched through the labyrinth of dunes seeking beach plum (Prunus maritima), bear berry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) , and heather (Hudsonia sp.).

Endless Gaylussacia baccata

Endless under stories of Gaylussacia baccata

We saw proud bald eagles, and ravenous osprey gripping fish in their razor talons. We saw black face terns plummeting and breaking the skin of the sea. We eaves dropped into conversations of sand pipers and red winged black birds as they discussed territory defense strategy.

Turkey Beard (Xerophyllum asphodeloides)

Turkey Beard (Xerophyllum asphodeloides)


Our alarm clocks were not actual timepieces, but roaring torrential downpours, leaky tents, and whippoorwills gossiping into the night.

Our breath would escape our lungs from the snakes slithering across our boots.

We were freckled with ticks.

We waited patiently for nesting terrapins to cross the road.

We learned the language of the land and had the opportunity to listen closely. It spoke in gentle whispers. It said, “I have a secret. Can you guess what’s under this mask?”