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November 2023 Newsletter

Photo of 38 South Lake Drive by Angela James

Save the Date!

2024 House & Garden Tour - July 11, 2024

The 2024 Chautauqua BTG House Tour is scheduled for Thursday, July 11, 2024 during Week 3 of the 2024 Chautauqua Season.

Tickets will go on sale on the Chautauqua BTG website starting in February 2024. The tour always sells out so watch for the announcement in this newsletter. 

Some highlights:

  • Three historic cottages around Miller Park

  • A cottage with an award-winning porch 

  • An original “tent platform” house erected in 1876

  • Four large lakefront houses all built circa 1880 

  • A new lakefront cottage—one of only a few new houses on the grounds

  • The former home of Dr. Arthur Bestor who served as President of the Institution from 1915-1944 and entertained Amelia Earhart, Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John Phillips Sousa in the cottage. 

The first House & Garden Tour was in 1954. Seventy years later, it's still going strong. We look forward to welcoming you to the 2024 Tour this summer. 

- Rosemary Rappole and Francesca Rappole Koron, House and Garden Tour Chair and BTG Treasurer (and each other's aunt and niece!)


Photo by Jeanne Wiebenga

Getting Our Ducks in a Row...

The photo above was taken by Jeanne Wiebenga on November 20 of some bufflehead, ducks and gulls, all floating serenely in loose rows in Chautauqua Lake. If you look closely, I think you can see them gloating because they have already done their fall fundraiser and voted on their budget. 

Meanwhile back at the BTG, we have not gotten those particular ducks in a row yet. We have been busy though. We have been booking lots of great programs for next summer, refinishing benches for the Roger Tory Peterson Outdoor Classroom, creating a tree marker order to finish up the 1,000 marker goal and to replace the ones that were vandalized (grrr) AND we've had several long budget meetings by Zoom this fall (yawn!).

We have LOTS of great ideas for programs and projects—in other words, lots of great ideas for how to SPEND money. To keep us organized, on budget and on mission, our brilliant Finance Chair, Chris Fulton, has created a fancy online form for submitting project ideas. We want to plant more trees, plant more rain gardens, plant more gardens of every sort, remove invasive plants from the ravines and replant natives, restart our kids program, donate grow lights to the Gardens Department, buy new signage, etc., etc., etc.

So that’s the fun side of the ledger—the side where we use the money.  As any good CPA will tell you though, the books need to balance, so we need some numbers to fill up the other side of the ledger—the side where the incoming money shows up.

Of course we DO have the House and Garden Tour coming up this summer. You may be aware that the tour has always been our primary fundraiser. (Many of you ask about the Mushroom Sandwich Sale—that was a beloved event, but sadly never very profitable). And our Native Plant Sale is a break-even event which we use to educate Chautauquans and to get more native plants into the gardens of Chautauqua. 

However, the House and Garden Tour IS profitable thanks to the generous homeowners who open their homes and to the hundreds of volunteers who give their time as docents and committee organizers. It takes a whole lot of work and a whole lot of volunteers to pull off. Many of you have supported us in the past by volunteering your time as docents, buying tickets for the tour and joining our sponsorship society, the Henrietta Ord Jones Society, to cover the overhead costs of the tour so that 100% of the ticket sales can go toward mission and program. We hope you will continue to support us in this way. (More on that in the New Year, but as you plan your 2024 giving, you can expect Henrietta Ord Jones Society Donor Level Tickets to cost about $175.)

But while the House & Garden Tour will cover our program costs, we want to do so much more than program. We also feel that it is important to keep our House and Garden Tour ticket prices as low as possible to make the experience accessible to most. And selfishly, we want to spend our volunteer hours doing nature stuff and not fundraising. In other words, even though they make lots of money, we don't want to host a gala or an auction. So we are asking you to simply donate in any amount you can to help us continue to be the BTG (Best Thing Going!). 

Thank you in advance for your trust and generosity! 

~ Leslie Renjilian, BTG President (and preferably not Auction Planner)


Well, that title is a little misleading. It really should read:

Tree of Last Month: The Sourwood

by Leslie Renjilian

...but last month's newsletter was a little heavy on trees already and Mail Chimp keeps warning me that our newsletters are too long. The Mail Chimp Artificial Intelligence Bot sends me messages like: "Skimmablility was good, but your email will take the average reader 11 minutes to read. Let's try to get that down to 45 seconds.

Hopefully that means that AI is not as omniscient as we feared because it clearly underestimates our readers. But even I (a human) knew better than to add another tree article to the October newsletter so I saved this beauty for November. I took the photo above on October 28 of this year and the one below on July 9, 2021. 

Common names for the Oxydendrum arboreum include the Sourwood, Sour Gum, Sorrel Tree, Arrowwood, Lily-of-the-valley-tree and Bee Gum. As you know, common names always contain hints about the tree's unique properties, so take your time and try to figure out what they could be. It is interesting to note that this is the only species in the Oxydendron genus, and is not naturally found on any other continent.

The sourwood in the photo above at the Hall of Philosophy was planted in 1994 by the BTG and it has thrived here, which is somewhat of a surprise given that we are about 150 miles north of the native range and Chautauqua's climate is particularly harsh.  

Sourwoods are known for their absolutely beautiful fall color and this one was on full display in Chautauqua in October.

Native Americans used sourwood wood to make arrow shafts, and used the nectar and sap to treat diarrhea, dyspepsia, mouth ulcers, lung diseases, and asthma.

Sourwoods flower later than most trees—in late June/early July. The flowers are lovely, tiny things that look like lilies-of-the-valley and are fragrant and nectar-laden, the by-product of which is a delicious, hard-to-find honey. 

If you are not familiar with the nature writer, Donald Peattie, I urge you to you check out his book, A Natural History of North American Trees, from Smith Memorial Library (a gift from the BTG). Originally published in 1950, the book is a more of a love letter than a tree guide. The author tenderly describes over one hundred tree species in the 470 page book and I almost hold my breath when I check the glossary for a particular tree, preparing myself for disappointment in case the tree I'm hunting is not included. 

Michael Pollan wrote this about the book: "Each of these deeply knowledgeable and beautifully written profiles brings another species to life."

Googling coveted items and having them appear on your doorstep a day or two later is a marvel, however this bit of advice written by Mr. Peattie about how to procure sourwood honey may make you yearn for the days of yore. Settle in, read it slowly and think about the Before Times and an afternoon like the one he describes instead of a quick search on your phone.

When autumn comes, the foliage turns a gorgeous scarlet or orange or crimson, doubly welcome because the Sourwood in general grows outside the range of the Sugar Maple and the Aspen and takes their place in the South. Then especially in the southern Appalachians where Sourwood grows 50 and 60 feet tall is the season to set out on foot, or on horseback, or in your car, to buy Sourwood honey from your country neighbors. Some of them put out little signs along the roadside, but all you have to do is to watch for a row of “bee gums" not far from the farmer's house. For if the southern farmer has hives at all, he has Sourwood honey for sale. Fortunately the blooming period of Sourwood is just after the fading of Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron whose honeys are poisonous. Their honey the beekeeper throws away, but he is very careful to store his Sourwood honey, for it is the finest, in the opinion of many epicures, in the southeastern states and is not surpassed even by the most tangy sage honey of California.

Sourwood honey is medium light in color, of heavy body, and slow to granulate. An average flow of as high as 75 pounds per colony from Sourwood has been recorded. Usually the local demand takes the entire crop at prices above the open market, so that Sourwood is a honey like some of the choicest wines of the vineyards of Europe — that is, it practically does not appear upon the market at all and can be had only by those epicures who will journey far to partake of it. One buys Sourwood honey as one buys any such rare product from its producers - not in a commercial spirit, paying for it and carrying away the wares - but with all the due ceremony observed between a collector and a creative artist. You ride up to the cabin door; a woman appears at the barking of the hounds, with children peeping out from behind her skirts and mountain courtesy requires that you begin, not by stating your business but by telling where you come from. Then you assure her that she has a "right pretty place"; you praise her portulacas, her turkeys, and so, across the landscape, you arrive at her bee gums. Then you ask if she likes Sourwood honey as much as you do. You tell her that you would go far to obtain a little if only you could find somebody who would give up a few pounds of it. When the honey is produced, as it certainly will be, you accept it before asking the price. This will be shyly stated. You may safely pay it for your haggling was all done, by indirection, in your previous parley. And you are paying no more than a fico for nectar and ambrosia.


Bird Names...are for the birds!

by Jennifer Francois

Some people remember names and some people don’t.  I’m one of the people who doesn’t.  It is embarrassing to confess to someone who hasn’t forgotten your name that in fact you cannot remember theirs. 


Unfortunately for me, this applies to birds too.  I must be introduced to a bird many times before its name sinks in.  I have no trouble with certain ones like Bluebirds (actually “Eastern Bluebirds” where I live) and White-crowned Sparrows, which are gracing my winter garden as I am writing. Their names relate to physical features that are memorable and relatable.


But what about the Blackburnian Warbler?  Yes, it has some black on its head, but that is not its defining characteristic (males sport a bright orange throat and both sexes are adorned with a triangle shape around their eyes).  In fact, the Blackburnian Warbler is named after Anna Blackburne (British, 1726-1793).  Ms. Blackburne was an avid collector of bird specimens, many skins of which had been sent to her by her brother in New York.  A Mr. Thomas Pennant visited her collection in England and attributed his description of the (Blackburnian) warbler for the American Ornithological Society (AOS) to the specimen he observed in Anna’s collection.  As he was the first to describe the warbler, he chose to name it “Blackburnian Warbler”.  But was he really the first to describe it?


No! Long before colonists arrived on the shores of North America, birds such as the Blackburnian Warbler were known to and named by Indigenous Peoples.  It isn’t hard to find fault, therefore, with subsequently naming birds after people who are obscure in history today, and worse, conducted themselves in ways that are not accepted today and/or that perpetuate the negative impacts of colonialism.


The names given to birds are somewhat unlike names given to other organisms in that their common name is used as much, if not more, than their scientific name.  Thus, a consensus is required for common names of birds, and the common name is the bird’s official name (unlike the wild pansy, Johnny-jump-up, heartsease, and love-in-idleness which all refer to the same plant).  The AOS ultimately decides on bird names and has the exclusive authority to change those names. 

In June 2020 an organization called “Bird Names for Birds” officially petitioned the AOS to change the English names of birds that are named for people.  After a bumpy ride (which started long before 2020), the AOS announced on November 1, 2023, that it would change the names of 70-80 North American birds whose common names refer to people, in 2024. 


This is a huge step in the right direction in terms of acknowledging the many wrongs done by white European settlers during and since the age of colonialism. 


Anna Blackburne’s story is of a much milder sort compared to other Europeans with organisms (not just birds) named after them.  While it is difficult to get used to a new common name for a bird, especially if you struggle with names as I do, it will serve to make some bird names more memorable.  More importantly though, it will reinforce that bird names…are for the birds!!


A note to people who have mastered some of the bird names that do make sense: Beware!  The Red-tailed hawk does not always have a red tail!   That story, and many others like it, are for a future newsletter.

- Words by Jennifer Francois, Aspiring Birder, Master Naturalist, BTG VP and Program Chair and loads of other things ;)

- Photo by Jeanne Wiebenga of Red-breasted Mergansers on Chautauqua Lake on November 18. And in case you were wondering whether that name stuck, All About Birds says this about their name: The word “merganser” comes from the Latin and roughly translates to “plunging goose”—a good name for this very large and often submerged duck.


In the News!

Some of you may have been lucky enough to have seen Erik Danielson speak on the Trees of Chautauquaat our Brown Bag Lecture Series in August. He was terrific and became instantly Chautauqua Famous...but now he's 1,000 times more famous! Check out this New Yorker article: 

By Bill McKibbon 

November 23, 2023


The Floating What?

by Terry Mosher

If your cup of tea involves hanging out with friends from the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, hiking the trails at Audubon Community Nature Center, catching a BTG Brown Bag talk, or some other nature-oriented pursuit, you might recently have overheard the words “Floating Fen.” Often, along with those words come exclamations like these: “Nine hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars?!” “By the end of this year?”  “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Besides hoping you’re a little bit curious by now, I suspect you might be wondering, “What the dickens [exact language softened] is a fen, anyway?” Welcome to the club. When I first overheard some fen talk last winter, I knew that a fen was some sort of wetland, but there it ended. Here’s a good definition from a very good book: Annie Proulx’s Fen, Bog, and  Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis:

     FEN: A fen is a peat-forming wetland that is at least partly

     fed by waters that have contact with mineral soils, such

     as rivers and streams flowing in from higher ground. Such

     minerotrophic water can support reeds and marsh grasses. 

     Fen waters tend to be deep.

I’d add only that “peat” is partially decomposed organic matter (mostly plants). According to Google, it accumulates “under conditions of water logging, oxygen deficiency, high acidity, and nutrient deficiency.” Hmmm. At first blush, would you call a fen a less than promising-sounding place? Until I knew more, I did. But let’s stop for a moment and consider what we do know. So far, we know that somewhere in our county there’s a waterlogged, acidic, food and-oxygen-starved, decidedly spongy piece of property known as a fen. It’s for sale for the tidy sum of $925,000 (talk about sticker shock). There’s apparently a would-be buyer, too, determined to raise that money by the end of this December. But that leaves us as puzzled as ever. Who would ever buy such a place? And why would he or she do it?  Fair questions, I think. But the answers may make us rethink things. The fen’s prospective buyer is in fact the Western New York Land Conservancy, the highly respected, fully accredited land trust organization that purchased the SUNY-Fredonia College Lodge Forest a few years ago. And when it comes to preservation, the Land Conservancy seems to be in a league of its own. So far, this non-profit trust has acquired 7500 acres of Western New York land—all of high conservation value, and all in danger of being lost to development. Whatever the Floating Fen is all about, then, saving it must matter.  So let’s look at just a few of the features that make it special. 

First is the eight-acre fen for which the whole 223-acre property is named. According to Erik Danielson, the Conservancy’s botanist and forest ecologist, roughly 75 percent of our Western New York fens are gone now—lost to draining, dredging, and development. And a fen as large as eight acres is especially rare. That’s a strong, two-part argument for preserving this beautiful but fragile ecosystem while we still can.

Did someone say beauty? That’s another argument for preservation, and in this case you’d have to be there. With Erik Danielson or Kara Frisina from the Conservancy, I’d love to co-lead a walk for BTG folks in 2024 and show you first-hand what I mean. We’d go on an early morning in June, when blooming Blue Flag Irises seem to cover the whole peat mat and insectivorous Round-leaved Sundews lift their tiny white flower clusters above sticky pink rosettes of insect-trapping leaves. Lovely to us but lethal to gnats and flies, those Sundews.

And then there’s the birds’ department: the soundscape. Early last July, while sitting in a wooded spot near the fen, I had one of the best moments in a birding career of forty-plus years: All three of the golden-voiced woodland thrushes that breed in our county began to sing at once. For perhaps half a minute, the flutey triplets of a Wood Thrush, the silvery downward spirals of a Veery, and the ethereal, double-stopped notes of a rusty-tailed Hermit Thrush leaped and fell, circled and hovered around each other. For me, the moment was holy, a gift from the One who gives us sunlit wildflowers, singing thrushes, and priceless wild places like the Floating Fen to shelter and nurture them.

Third and finally, the Floating Fen does wonders for our air and water. The eight-acre peat mat itself is a formidable carbon sink, rivaling trees in its ability to absorb and sequester CO2 (See Sabrina Imbler, “Meet Peat, the Unsung Hero of Carbon Capture,” New York Times 2/2/22.) As the earth’s forests fall at alarming rates to timbering, fire, flood, and disease, peatlands like the Floating Fen become vital pushbacks against climate change. And then there’s water filtration.  Take a look at the massive beaver dam on the property’s largest pond, which assures the Wood Ducks, Mallards, amphibians, and other aquatic life clean water. This purified water flows through the fen and into the Bear and Cassadaga Lake Watersheds. It moves on to the Allegheny, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers, and from there to the Gulf of Mexico. So the Save the Floating Fen Project is a way of acting locally, regionally, and globally—or at least continentally. It’s conservation on three important scales.

I’m almost out of space, so let’s cut at last to the chase:  Insofar as holiday expenses and the painful bite of inflation permit, will you make a donation to the Western New York Land Conservancy’s Save the Floating Fen fund drive? With the days ticking down toward the December 31 deadline, time is now of the essence. And in yesterday’s mail, I got two pieces of great news to pass on to prospective donors: First, the Land Conservancy has now raised  $800,000 toward the goal of $925,000. If we squint, the finish line begins to appear in the distance. And second, a generous donor will match the next $50,000 in donations, dollar for dollar, doubling your gift. So please think hard, give what you can, and know that you’ve done something very good. And on behalf of the Floating Fen’s Black Bears and Fishers, its Barred Owls and Scarlet Tanagers, its White Pines and Lady’s Slipper Orchids, many thanks!

Check out a video and gorgeous photos of the fen and learn more and/or give online here

~ Words by Terry Mosher, BTG Life Member, Birder, Nature Guide, and Cover Model for the Spring 2023 Issue of the WNYLC Magazine! (Pin-ups may be available if you make a large enough gift...)




by Dennis McNair, PhD

All earthworms are good, right?  NO!  But they aerate our gardens’ soil, work organic detritus into it, neutralize its pH, etc.   Still, ask Betsy Burgeson, supervisor of Gardens and Landscapes at the Chautauqua Institution, about Asian Jumping Worms (Amynthas agrestis), an invasive exotic.  (There are actually three species - Amynthas agrestis, Amynthas tokioensis, and Metophire hilgendorfi - that co-occur.)  These diabolical creatures work only in the top inch or so of the soil and very rapidly reduce organic detritus plus soil to a substance resembling coffee grounds, made up of their castings (“worm poop”).  The remaining soil contains few nutrients and very little organic material.


In fact, no earthworms (soil inhabiting members of the subclass Oligochaeta of the Phylum Annelida) are native to North America, most species having been introduced from Europe along with plants and the soil that accompanied them.  Many earthworms are good for garden and lawn soils, but they’re not beneficial in our forests.  Our native tree species prefer acidic soils, and earthworms have calciferous glands that add calcium to their castings thus neutralizing the soil. (Earthworms dislike acidic environments.).  Some of our loveliest woodland plants, such as rhododendrons, blueberries, cranberries, and laurels, are ericaceous or acid loving. Exotic earthworms also stir up the top few inches of the soil, mobilizing nutrients and making the soil more compatible with non-native, fast-reproducing plants that thrive in disturbed areas – in a word, weeds.  Our native trees and woody understory plants depend largely on soil fungi to help them acquire nutrients, not earthworms.  Their seedlings and those of native trees are crowded out by neutral pH loving, fast growing weeds.

Earthworms didn’t evolve here and simply aren’t compatible with native soil- inhabiting organisms or parts of organisms (e.g., roots of native plants).  Earthworms can release all the nutrients from a year’s leaf fall in a few months, far too quickly for native plants to make proper use of them.  Our mature native trees and shrubs get their nutrients from deep in the soil, where the minerals are slowly released by root-associated fungi.  In return for the nutrients they get, native plants release carbohydrates that nourish fungi.  Recent research has shown that healthy fungi might even help plants communicate with each other through a “woods-wide web.”

All this doesn’t mean that you should treat earthworms in your garden with contempt.  Betsy suggests we throw those Jumping Worms onto the pavement where they will quickly desiccate and perish.  Regular earthworms can benefit our flowers and vegetable gardens, so we must learn to tell the bad guys from the good.  Asian Jumping Worms can reach 6 inches in length and bear a milky-beige or light gray band called a clitellum that wraps entirely around the body.  It’s found a little way behind the anterior end.   The worm populations are shallow and dense, and their castings change the consistency of soil so that it resembles coffee grounds.  They don’t really leap, but thrash about when they are uncovered and are more active than European earthworms.  The Jumping Worm adults die at the first freeze, but their cocoons (which are very tiny) survive and produce abundant offspring the following spring.

In the final analysis, our regular earthworms aren’t really “ours” or “regular.”  They’re exotics that perform useful functions in a few artificial communities but are disruptive in our native forests.  Asian Jumping Worms are both exotics and invasive and cause damage to both human-created and natural habitats.  So, the label we place on organisms depends upon their interactions in the communities where we find them.  Native organisms have adjusted to their environment, living and nonliving, through millennia of evolution, but exotics haven’t.  When we introduce exotics  (intentionally or accidentally), we always run the risk that they might become invasives.  It behooves us to remember the time-tested rule - “Nature always bats last.”

~ Words by Dennis McNair, PhD and BTG Entomologist

- Sadly, we do not yet have an official BTG Bugs and Other Small Critters Photographer, hence no worm photo. If you feel called to that position, please submit your resume. The beautiful sunrise photo below was taken by Jean Fulkerson on Saturday and we think there are probably some worms sleeping under the cool soil though we did not run this hypothesis past Dennis.

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