Nighttime Gardeners

Nighttime gardeners trimmed these trees, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Every night gardeners roam Pennsylvania’s forests and trim the vegetation. We see their footprints in the morning and the landscape they’ve left behind. Our nighttime gardeners are white-tailed deer.

A doe browsing in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Unlike human gardeners, deer cut back the plants they like instead of removing weeds. It’s easy to notice what they over-browse (see arborvitae above), but the mix of plants they leave behind tell a story of poison and preference. Last weekend I decided to read that story in Schenley Park.

In early June the forest floor is green with native plants that deer won’t eat and invasive aliens that deer don’t like.

The “poison” story:

Native plants that thrive in Schenley Park are those that are toxic to deer.

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), photo by Kate St. John
Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
Golden alexanders (Zizia aurea), photo by Kate St. John
White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), photo by Kate St. John

The “preference” story:

These alien plants are unpalatable to deer and some are toxic. Interestingly some aliens cannot out-compete native plants without the help of deer. Where there are fewer deer, there’s less garlic mustard.

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria) in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) at DPW staging area in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Check out the mix of plants in your local forest or woodlot. If you find only toxic natives and unpalatable aliens it’s the cumulative effect of too many “gardeners” every night.

(photos by Kate St. John)

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