In the fall of 2015, I moved into a small cottage on the back of the Granogue Estate, a sprawling property in northern Delaware. When my parents first visited the estate, I could tell they were nervous. As we drove the mile-long driveway, the road got worse and worse. I tried to understand their apprehension; their daughter would be living alone in the last cottage on a woodland edge. I only had one small dog at the time, a feisty, unintimidating Yorkshire terrier. As we drove past cornfields and open meadows, and descended into the valley, all I saw in my new home was a childhood dream come true. My parents admitted that the old stone house, covered in white plaster, was charming.
A young woodland is located on one side of my cottage, and the Brandywine Creek runs directly behind it. The light reflects off the creek into the house in unusual patterns, and on winter evenings, geese fly to the river, passing so low that I can hear the whispering of their wings. I often think of the Sand County Almanac and search for signs of life, as Aldo Leopold described, in every season: the mergansers that appear like clockwork in February, the tracks left from a battle of fox and rabbit in the snow, and the beaks of trillium (Trillium spp.) poking up in the spring. I am captivated by my surroundings. These woods have provided me with years of comfort and continuously pique my curiosity. Each copse is unique, but most contain a mix of old tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), and hickories, primarily shagbarks (Carya ovata).
The house itself is two stories, built into the hillside. When the house was inhabited by a farmer, his wife, and eight children, the downstairs kitchen was an open structure for the livestock to bed down at night. Today the cottage (or “studio,” as the residents of the estate call it) is stacked with horticulture and botany books. These books are mostly gifts from my mentors, colleagues, and friends, and the bulk came from the lifetime collection of my graduate advisor, John Frett. His collection was so extensive that I turned an open staircase into a makeshift bookshelf to house them. The generous windows overflow with plants. In this ideal setting, I have completed a thesis, adopted two more dogs, started a nonprofit called Women in Horticulture, and begun a checklist for the flora of the property.
Irénée du Pont Sr. established the Granogue Estate and relocated his family to the property in 1923, when he was president of the DuPont company. The main house is now the residence of Barbara and Irénée du Pont Jr. Much of the 505-acre property is actively farmed for corn, soy, hay, and dairy production, but large sections of forest and meadow have been preserved. Although the estate is less than a twenty-minute drive from Trader Joe’s, Target, and a shopping mall, the landscape feels like a rural oasis. In these woods and meadows, I have walked my dogs almost every day for four years. While holding two leashes, and with a third dog strapped to my waist, I scribble out notes in a Moleskine notebook tucked in my dog-walking fanny pack, recording the flora that I observe. Although I must be a comical sight to my neighbors, which happen to be mostly cows, this method has been effective. Upon returning home, I add additional details to the notebook, and on rainy days when I am not outside as much, I update my Excel spreadsheet. Over time this exercise has turned into a checklist that is extraordinarily simple. The list itself records just the scientific name of the plant, and in some cases the date I observed it. What started as a means of learning about the land I lived on quickly morphed into a love of the plant communities that inhabit there. Already this information has had small impacts on land use.
One of my first successes on the property was when a trail-running race agreed to no longer use a path that was carved straight through a population of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). When the trail was created, before a March event, I was disheartened that I would not be seeing the glorious little white flowers or finally observing the goldenseal fruit in a wild population. I travel regularly in this section of the woods, so this part of the population was the easiest for me to view while corralling my dogs along the path. I showed the damage to an ecologist friend, and she was also dismayed. Goldenseal is not exceptionally rare in the state, but this population is the largest one we had ever seen in northern Delaware. After several attempts, I succeeded in contacting the race director and did my best to communicate how the path impacted that population of goldenseal. This was after two seasons of the race using the path. Thankfully, the director was amenable to my recommendations, and the population is slowly rebounding from the disturbance.
On another occasion, regular path maintenance was endangering a small group of common moonseed (Menispermum canadense). In this case, the damage to the population could not be avoided as this section of the property needs to be accessible by vehicles and a horse-drawn buggy. The woodland edge and the moonseed population had been slowly encroaching for years. To help preserve the genetic diversity of this population, whole plants were given to two botanical gardens: Mt. Cuba Center and Natural Lands’ public garden, Stoneleigh. After path edges were mown back, the moonseed has surprisingly rebounded from its roots.
The estate has also been a great resource for educational exercises. Mt. Cuba Center is located just 7.4 miles from the Granogue Estate and is a regional resource for everything related to native plants. I know the precise distance because I drove to Mt. Cuba every day for years as their plant recorder and assistant curator. Over the years I have had the pleasure of sharing the botanical treasures of Granogue with colleagues and friends, including those at Mt. Cuba. (I must admit, at this stage in my career, the terms “colleague” and “friend” are often synonymous.) Colleagues from Mt. Cuba were impressed by the extent of a large population of showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis) at Granogue, and two interns were sent to Granogue to do a population estimate and record associated taxa. Research on native orchids has been at the forefront of Mt. Cuba’s research initiatives, and data from Granogue were included in work by Adrienne Bozic, the orchid fellow at Mt. Cuba, who oversaw the development of an orchid inventory for a large part of Delaware.
I also worked with colleagues at the University of Delaware, where I completed my graduate work, to conduct an exploratory study on the impact an existing riparian buffer has on the water quality of the Brandywine Creek. My cottage is situated across a gravel driveway from a field for dairy cows. I am lucky that this field is used for breeding the next generation of bovines and not full dairy production. In the spring I have wrestled a newborn calf in the snow to tuck it back under the fence with its mother. For two years, however, I watched as cows defecated directly into a water source that drained into the Brandywine. Our analysis found that the small corridor of trees that served as a riparian buffer drastically reduced the amount of pollutants entering the Brandywine, confirming the ecological value of the plant populations that were included on my checklist. I am still hesitant to jump in the water downstream after an extreme rain event, but at least the impacts are much less than I anticipated.
My observations of the flora at Granogue also include comparisons to adjacent sites. The Brandywine Creek State Park is separated from Granogue by Thompsons Bridge Road. When crossing this road, the change in vegetation is apparent even to the most plant-blind of individuals. Although both sides have almost an identical canopy, the understory is drastically different. The state park has large swathes of Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) that create six-foot walls on either side of the path. Porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) covers defoliated trunks, and whole patches of forest have toppled due to stress, pests, and repeated wet summers.
The Granogue side of the road has faced the same stressors, but the understory is more complex, which seems to add resilience to the existing canopy. The understory shrubs and trees include spicebush (Lindera benzoin), common witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), American bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia), hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), American holly (Ilex opaca), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), black cherry (Prunus serotina), pinxterbloom azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides), swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum), smooth blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium), and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). The herbaceous layer is a fantastic mix of ferns, spring ephemerals, violets, sedges, and other native flora, including wild ginger (Asarum canadense), zigzag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis), white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata), numerous species of trillium (Trillium spp.), and yellow jewelweed (Impatiens pallida). Although most of these taxa are not considered rare, it is striking to see the contrast in population members between the state park on one side of Thompsons Bridge Road and the estate on the other.
This difference in taxa has captured my curiosity. Both properties were historically logged and then fragmented into farm fields. The hills are steep and rocky along the Brandywine, with the iconic “blue rocks” that our Minor League Baseball team is named after, and these rocky slopes were often too difficult to use for crops but were moderately successful for grazing sheep or goats. Old stone walls, characteristic of New England and the northern Mid-Atlantic, cut through sections of the existing forest, acknowledging this past. Despite these similarities, certain site characteristics provide at least a partial explanation for the floristic differences between the properties: The state park has increased human usage, and the estate, meanwhile, has increased deer hunting, lowering herbivory pressure. Locals have also suggested that the presence of cows on the estate deters deer, which seems to be true, at least anecdotally.
As stewards of your own properties or those publicly shared—neighborhood parks and even urban wilds—it is important to understand your land as thoroughly as possible, and part of this is to understand the plant and animal communities that are present. I’m reminded of a quote from Aldo Leopold: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” From the time we are born, we learn to “love and respect” our human communities, but we must teach ourselves to do the same for our natural communities that surround us. As an observer of plant communities, I have seen how sharing the knowledge of these communities changes the way in which humans treat them. A checklist provides the basis for assessments of biological productivity, ecosystem classifications, conservation decisions, and documentation of spatial or temporal changes over time. Without a basic checklist none of this would be possible.
Every effort towards a better understanding of our natural world counts. Without someone observing and documenting the plants at Granogue, projects involving the path modifications and subsequent off-site plant preservation would not have been possible. Even these small projects have had a positive impact beyond the Granogue boundaries. I might seem naïve or romantic, but I firmly believe if more nature enthusiasts observed their surroundings more closely and acted on what they were seeing, the impacts would be magnified in meaningful ways. I hope that the trend of encouraging citizen scientists continues to expand until we roll our eyes at how everyone now calls themselves a citizen scientist. What better citizen could we hope for?
Cat Meholic is the curatorial horticulturist at Ambler Arboretum of Temple University.