Friday, January 3, 2014

Trout Brook: Flood Plain, Riparian Habitat, Heaven

Trout Brook.  This watercourse near my house is home to hooded mergansers, great blue herons, killdeers, and yes, white-tailed deer.  Its banks abound with wildflowers:  corydalis in the spring, wild vetch in the summer, and milkweed in the fall.  Invasive species grow there too, including ubiquitous garlic mustard, the yellow lesser celandine, and the silvery Russian olive.

I care about Trout Brook because it's one place I can reach on foot that offers me the respite of nature, of things that grow and live wild.  Trout Brook's course has long since been re-engineered by the Army Corps of Engineers because the houses within its flood plain regularly got water in their basements after big storms.  As a result, the stream now runs through cement-lined banks for much of its course, to the detriment of its appearance but no doubt the enhancement of neighboring property values.

Still, its course cuts a green swath through my neighborhood, and I go there to see the flowers and take my dogs off leash.

In addition to being home to lovely wildflowers like corydalis, 

Trout Brook is also a home to species which are considered invasive, such as the lesser celandine, the yellow flowers here nestling so charmingly with violets (top) and corydalis (bottom) in May.

Wikipedia says that the lesser celandine is often considered invasive here in the US and is a persistent garden weed in the USA.   If Wikipedia says so, it must be true, right?  Also, writing for the New York Times on March 29, 2012, urban ecologist Marielle Anzelone wrote that the lesser celandine "emerges earlier than our native flora, choking it out. While it does reproduce sexually via seed, its invasive success is due to vegetative offsets called bulbils. In the coming weeks we will watch it overwhelm other wildflowers."

Another invasive species growing along Trout Brook is garlic mustard, alliaria petiolata.

The identity of this plant eluded me, as I searched all my plant-identification manuals for something looking like this.  Finally I remembered where I had seen it:  in one of my daughter's Flower Fairies books, where it was described as Jack by the Hedge:

I guess I have a long memory for children's books, for my daughter Julia, who with her friend Annya doted on the Flower Fairies, is now 31 yeas old.  By recalling the image of this flower back to the Flower Fairy books, I was able to put a name to them and find them on the Web.

According to Wikipedia, garlic mustard, a member of the mustard family, was "introduced in North America as a culinary herb in the 1860s and is considered an invasive species in much of North America.  As of 2006, it is listed as a noxious or restricted plant in the Alabama, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oregon,Vermont, West Virginia, and Washington."  In flood plain environments, it thrives by releasing a chemical into the soil that suppresses certain fungi that the other plants need for optimal growth.

Nevertheless, its chopped leaves impart mild flavorings of garlic and mustard  to salads and in sauces such as pesto.  That probably accounts for its nicknames Sauce Alone and Poor Man's Mustard. 

In addition to the lesser celandine, corydalis, and garlic mustard, Trout Brook also grows violets

and trout lilies..


and milkweed, the preferred and only food of monarch butterflies...

...and the silvery shrub known as Russian olive.  This shrub intrigued me with the silvery cast of its leaves (silver-leaved plants appeal to me so much that I actually have a silver garden in my back yard) but eluded identification.

I took photos and looked up similar-looking shrubs but was unable to identify this silvery creature until I contacted my friend Jane, a certified arborist who is also the official urban forester for the city of Middletown, Connecticut.

Jane identified this silvery creature as Russian olive, elaeagnus angustifolia, an invasive species that thrives in poor soil, outcompeting native vegetation.  In riparian habitats, perhaps like Trout Brook, it's known for colonizing places where overstory cottonwoods have disappeared.  I wasn't around when Trout Brook was made to flow through concrete, but it wouldn't surprise me if cottonwoods were sacrificed in the process.

I'm sorry that Russian olive is considered undesirable, because I do find it lovely:

In fact, this view of Trout Brook, framed by Russian olive branches, became the inspiration for my newest art quilt, Trout Brook II, recently completed and awaiting participation in my solo show at Hartford's Town and County Club, taking place over the month of February, 2014.

I tried to get that silvery look in the Russian olive leaves, which are felted, by placing a whispy layer of white roving on a base of darker green prefelt.  I made these leaves with my Baby Lock Embellisher.

The  backdrop is pimatex cotton, which was first painted with Pebeo Setacolor paints and then deeply embroidered with silk ribbon, pearl cotton, and embroidery floss.  The sky was created with Shiva paintstick in iridescent white. The sky and the banks were quilted and the result was layered under double arched frames and finally embellished with felted Russian olive leaves and branches.

Trout Brook has also inspired other fiber art creations, like these images of milkweed pods, now in a private collection:
and this view of the brook itself, created in 2009:
I'm excited about showing my 2013 creation, Trout Brook II, and sharing a look at the...riparian habitat that inspired it.  Despite the presence of invasive flora, Trout Brook is a little piece of heaven, within walking distance of home.


  1. Diane, There is a Facebook Group called You Know You Grew Up in West Hartford if..... it has over 4,000 members. Several people of a certain age have reminisched very eloquently about their time playing in and around Trout Book in their youth. I would like to post a link to your blog in the group. I bet you will get quite a few hits. I haven't read all of this carefully, but I plan to and probably will have more to say. Thanks for doing this. Marg.

    1. Sure, that sounds fine. Send me a link. How did you happen to find this blog entry?

    2. You posted it on Facebook.