In an overgrown garden in suburban New Jersey, a rooster perches atop a tree stump with his beak open, to let out a crow. A large disco ball rises from the rooster’s back, refracting the morning sun.
This particular rooster happens to be a copper sculpture, in a permanent art installation.
But just imagine if he were a real, live disco rooster—he would probably crow the tune of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” at dawn. And maybe he does, because in the Botanical Art Garden at Herrontown Woods nature preserve, everything is possible.
There are just two guidelines here: first, be respectful of the earth, but certainly add some magic of your own if you’re so inclined; second, be sure to call the Botanical Art Garden by its nickname—the Barden—so the locals know you’re one of them.
The Barden is the heart of Herrontown Woods, a 142-acre public arboretum in northeast Princeton, NJ, with three miles of crisscrossing trails. I visited on Sunday in early October, to check its pulse. The Barden was pumping vigorously.
Nicole Bergman, a Princeton resident, stood at a rustic kiosk selling hot drinks and baked goods in her monthly pop-up, May’s Barden Café. Proceeds go toward restoration projects in the woods, she said. (Coffee’s three bucks a pop, but Bergman throws in a big smile for free.) Overhead, sunlight glittered through the yellow leaves.
Andrew Thornton, the caretaker of Herrontown Woods and curator of the Barden, greeted me like an old friend. He wore a hat with long plush flaps that drooped past his shoulders like bunny ears. “If you find a corner of the Barden that speaks to you,” Thornton told me, “you can make it yours, and create something there. We have a Fairy Garden, and someone’s been working on building Troll Mountain.” He kicked cheerfully at the wood chips beneath him. “It’s all very whimsical!”
Locals mingled around the gazebo, wearing fleece vests and hiking boots, steam spiraling from their travel mugs. The parking lot was full. Two little boys hunched in a repurposed garden shed playing the board game Stratego. A group of volunteers was busy collecting and cataloging seeds from the native wildflowers in the Barden. “Do you have a label for the swamp mallow?” someone asked. “You bet I do!” came the reply.
Among the memos on the Barden’s community posting board: a list of local birds, a flier for a concert by The Chivalrous Crickets, and a sign declaring, “Our Vision: Herrontown Woods is a preserve where people of all ages explore, enjoy and learn from nature to enrich their lives, and to become its stewards.”
Next to that, a donation box and a bottle of bug spray.
Have you ever strolled through a New England woodland and admired the draping purple blooms of Chinese wisteria in spring, or the vivid flares of burning bush in autumn? Were you blissfully unaware that these pretty plants are aggressive invasive species?
If this sounds familiar, you may suffer from what Dr. Inge Regan calls “plant blindness.” But rest assured, Regan and her fellow volunteers at Herrontown Woods are on a mission to provide the cure.
The Friends of Herrontown Woods, a cohort of green-thumbed and eco-minded Princeton locals, gather in the woods every weekend to maintain the trails, restore the native ecosystem, and find ways to engage the community. They are led by botanist Steve Hiltner, the group’s president.
Inge Regan, who practices emergency medicine in Princeton, found common ground with Hiltner in the language of science. She has become a vocal advocate of plant literacy at Herrontown.
“I’m trying to bridge the gap between physicians and the natural world,” said Regan, as she marched me through a garden path. Working closely with Hiltner has given her a whole new perspective. “I call botanists ‘the physicians of the earth’ now,” she said.
Regan also started to recognize the limits of sporadic volunteering. “When you go out and do a volunteer day,” she explained, “you go home and then you kind of forget what you learned.”
To provide community members with the lasting skills needed to combat invasive species, Regan launched the Invasive Species of the Month Club in August. The club, which now has 25 members, studies specific invasive species and works in Herrontown’s forest and garden to remove them.
Regan previously suffered from “plant blindness” herself, she said. When she started working in the woods, she tried to assist Hiltner by removing invasive stiltgrass from Herrontown’s Barden. She soon learned the risks of weeding with an untrained eye.
“I’m like, ‘Steve, look, I got all this stiltgrass!’” Regan recounted, gesturing to an imaginary pile of grass. “And he goes, ‘That’s not stiltgrass! There are twenty different kinds of grasses in here.’” She shook her head in mock exasperation and laughed. “So I had to re-study!”
Regan has come a long way in recognizing both native and invasive plants. In fact, she recently taught a class on stiltgrass for the Invasive Species club and was delighted by participant feedback.
One woman who attended the session later told Regan it made a real impact on her. “She was like, ‘I went for a run, and now I see stiltgrass everywhere!’” Regan said, “And someone else was like, ‘It’s a silent invasion!’ Her eye has now been trained.”
Regan is hopeful about the ripple effect of educating people on invasive species. “If we train people, and we’re like, ‘Listen, if you see it, pull it.’ Then you start to care about your own yard.” said Regan. “Then maybe you talk to your neighbor, ‘Hey, you wanna pull that stiltgrass you got going?’”
She emphasized how anyone can develop knowledge of their local flora. “It’s learnable,” she said. “Why aren’t we teaching this in local schools?”
Steve Hiltner was scheduled to lead a group hike and invasive species tour through the forest starting at 11am. “Sort of aspirational timing!” a local man warned me. Finally, around 12:30, Hiltner was ready.
“Okay,” he called, “we’re going to trek for about an hour!”
A woman laughed knowingly. “That’s what you say—it’s always two,” she quipped.
Nineteen of us traced the trails behind Hiltner, including three little kids, two big dogs, and a black and white puppy named Plato.
Hiltner pointed to a red shrub and asked if anyone knew what it was. A small boy in bright red sweatpants shouted, “It’s a fire bush! It’s an invasive species!” Hiltner grinned. “Well, yes, it’s actually called burning bush.”
He led us through a stretch of seven acres that had been covered in invasive wisteria. Before eradication efforts, Hiltner said, the wisteria made this area impassible. “This whole forest would eventually have fallen down. You have to go after it like it’s a monster,” he said.
Hiltner believes in precision herbicide application, and he puts the poison directly on the stumps of invasive vines, he told us. “It’s like medicine in the body. You want the medicine to just do one thing,” he explained.
Near the woodland stream, Hiltner held up a large branch with red berries. It’s an invasive species, he said, that hasn’t been identified. “Nobody knows what this is!” he proclaimed. “There’s no name for it! It may be something from Taiwan, but this is a new invasive and we don’t even know what it is.”
“It’s the Steve-berry!” a woman called.
Hiltner grimaced, then laughed. “Oh, I don’t think I want to be known for that!”
Like much that goes on at Herrontown Woods, the tour was pretty free-wheeling. “I’m running into too many interesting things,” Hiltner sighed, with delighted exasperation. “We’re not getting anywhere!”
At one point, he zipped open his backpack to find his favorite “buckthorn blaster” herbicide spray but pulled out two small green fruits. “Ah, pawpaws,” he said. “These are from my garden.”
We crossed the stream, and a black lab splashed in the water. The owner called to us, “This is her favorite spot in the woods!”
“There are magnetic rocks in there,” Hiltner said, pointing to the stream, “it’s because they contain magnetite.”
“Magnetite is an iron-oxide,” a man commented, to no one in particular.
In a clearing, we came upon a red shed that housed a ping pong table—Inge Regan’s innovation. Two boys were playing, their laughs reverberating off the trees.
At the end of the hike, Hiltner led us to a rocky outcrop. “See that pretty orange tree over there?” he asked, pointing to a tall trunk sheathed in bright leaves. “That’s all poison ivy.”
His audience ooooh’ed.
“And that tree is dead,” Hiltner concluded, wistfully.
After lingering in the Barden and meeting the Friends (and friends of Friends) of Herrontown Woods on that sparkling autumn day, one thing became clear. The community’s experience of this nature preserve is about much more than botany education.
Alistair Binnie, a Princeton local who recently retired, said he hoped to devote more time to volunteering at Herrontown. “The thing about gardening on your own is that there’s no sense of community about it,” said Binnie, “I think this is an interesting example of a community group. Steve has really done a great thing in building this, and letting it evolve in a community-facing kind of way.”
Binnie experiences Herrontown as a unique refuge of wilderness in a curated town. “Princeton is a pretty buttoned-down, highly-organized, almost suffocatingly-structured kind of place,” he said, “so, to have something that’s trying NOT to be that—it’s kind of nice. Nothing like it existed before in Princeton, that had the same kind of edginess, the wildness, to it.”
As Binnie spoke, a toddler wobbled past us, holding a large stick over his head. He wore a jacket with fabric spikes running up the hood, like a stegosaurus. We watched this minuscule person hurl the stick with all his might at an unassuming shrub.
“He’s a wild thing!” Binnie exclaimed, cracking up. “Small children playing with sticks, what’s not to like?”
Victoria Floor, a writer who has lived in Princeton since 2015, previously served on the Friends of Herrontown Woods board. She sees the preserve as a space that nurtures a sense of play in adults and children alike.
“These are workaholic adults who take themselves very seriously, with very profound careers, looking at things with microscopic vision and precision,” said Floor, gesturing to the locals chatting among the wildflowers. “Out here, it’s a place to relax. I think the kids lead the way and show you how easy it is. They’re just curious by nature, and there’s nothing like turning over a log or a stone and looking at the wriggling things underneath. It’s so simple—it’s so intuitive.”
Floor finds philosophical meaning in the complex ecosystems of the forest and garden, particularly in the face of climate change. “Everybody despairs about the environment,” she said. “But it’s not a despairing, tragic feeling around here. In fact, it’s very hopeful.”
“I approach this spiritually,” Floor went on. “It’s so deep and so important, that understanding it gives me more goosebumps than anything else. When I read about something like soil, I mean, humble soil is so fascinating… And then you read something that says thirty percent of the earth’s soil is being depleted every year, and it’s like, AAH!”
Floor believes that this sense of vital, even existential meaning keeps people connected to wild places like Herrontown.
“It’s that sense of awe on the one hand, and terror on the other,” said Floor, “which is basically what religion always offered people, that same sense of awe and terror. And salvation comes best through community.”
Herrontown Woods is rooted in the Princeton community, and its eclectic projects develop from the unique contributions of each community member.
“We’re going to see what comes,” Inge Regan told me. “And we’ll make something with it.”