By  Mike Weilbacher

Though the world is still in some kind of modified lockdown, though many of us are still working from home, though the dreaded surge may be coming, the Schuylkill Center has been able to continue placing new plants-- trees, shrubs, and wildflowers - across our forest.

At our front door, we just installed - and unveiled only last week - a bird-friendly, pollinator-friendly garden at our recently renovated front entrance. One of the featured plants there is a cranberry viburnum, a shrub with great flowers that pollinators like bees need and crave, but those flowers mature into fruits that drive birds crazy. Asters are there as well, great end-of-season pants so important to honeybees right now.

The garden was planted in honor of Roxborough resident Bea Kelly to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her joining our staff in October of  2000. She’s been our registrar for most of that time, so if you have come to a Schuylkill Center event, you’ve likely interacted with Bea. She’s also been our front desk receptionist for a long stretch of that time as well, so you've probably met her as you walked into our front door. (For the past five years, our receptionist has been another Roxborough resident, Michelle Havens.)

In addition, last week we planted a large white oak in our Founders Grove, a site dedicated to plantings in honor and in memory of friends and neighbors. Oaks are such important forest trees, their acorns holding up a world of blue jays, squirrels, chipmunks, and more. But their leaves are chewed on by literally hundreds of species of butterfly and moth caterpillars, and those caterpillars are in turn grabbed by parent birds who stuff them down the throats of baby birds of so many kinds. Oaks are simply a keystone species in our forest; literally thousands of other species depend on them for survival.

We planted this oak in honor of Kris Soffa, a great friend of the Schuylkill Center who has worked tirelessly over the last few decades on historic and open space preservation issues in Roxborough and across the city, and whom I profiled only three weeks ago in this column, as she is working on a toxic-free Philadelphia campaign, hoping to reduce the amount of pesticides and herbicides sprayed on public lands like parks and rec centers. Kris was meant to be feted at our Enchanted Forest annual party back in May, but that event was first postponed and then canceled due to COVID, and this was the make-good mini-celebration for Kris and her immediate family.

On top of this, our Land and Facilities team, working with an Eagle Scout candidate and his troop, planted a whopping 140 native trees and shrubs in a newly cleared area across from our beleaguered Pine Grove, the site slammed by a horrific storm back in June.

Until now, this site had been a large stand of the infamous devil’s walking stick, one of the most aggressive invasive trees in our region, and one that has ravaged the Schuylkill Center’s forest. You’ve seen them, spiky trees with equally spiky leaves; they look like trees you’d find growing on the Klingon home planet.

Though the tree is modest in size, it spreads underground via rhizomes that shoot out in all directions, popping up all around and soon creating a monoculture of just that one species. “They quickly become the only species left standing,” said Drew Rinaldi Subits, our Land Stewardship Coordinator, “and totally outgrow, outcompete, and out-resource all other species, especially eco-precious natives,” like the oaks I mentioned earlier.

Armed with a grant from TreeVitalize, a state-funded tree planting initiative that many nonprofits have greatly benefited from, Drew and our staff tirelessly pulled out the devil’s walking stick in this area; they then worked diligently through spring and summer to yank them out while making sure new ones did not keep popping up if they missed one of those pesky underground runners.

Then, on a beautiful Saturday morning and in a socially distanced tree planting event, the Eagle Scout brought in about 50 volunteers from Scout Troop 177 in Wyndmoor to help plant the trees and shrubs, and when done, erect a deer fence around the project to protect the young new paintings rom those overeager grazers.

"The Land and Facilities team was certainly excited for this particular location,” Drew continued, “as it is one of the most visible and popular sites on the property, just down the trail from the Hagy’s Mill parking lot and across from the well-known Pine Grove.” Check it out on your next walk through the Schuylkill Center.

You can also purchase native plants at our front entrance these days, and the third Saturday of each month is a restoration workday, where you can help us plant trees and remove invasive weeds like devil’s walking stick; check out our online calendar for dates and times. Finally, there is a Friday garden club of volunteers working on the Visitor Center’s gardens; email our volunteer coordinator, Paulina Le, at paulina@schuylkillcenter.org if you’d like to help us here.

Even in a pandemic, we’ve been able to keep to our core mission of improving and restoring the 340-acre sweep of forest and field that the Schuylkill Center maintains off Hagy’s Mill Road. Thanks to our staff for keeping all this work going, and we’d love to make sure you come visit this work to benefit from the beauty and diversity we are spreading across our forest.

We’re your green island during this insane time, and hope you come visit soon.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenterorg.

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