Category Archives: Historic Sites

Tender Care For A Most Egg-cellent Collection

How do you clean an egg more than a century old? Very, very carefully…

That was the challenge facing conservator Heidi Miksch at the State Park’s Historic Preservation Division at Peebles Island State Park. She had just gotten a case of bird eggs that had been collected in the late 19th century by the children of famous Hudson River School landscape painter Frederic Church.

While growing up in the family home at Olana in Columbia County, Church’s four children were part of the then-popular hobby of bird egg collecting, also known as oology or “birdnesting.” The children managed to collect and fill a large case with hundreds of specimens in wooden trays, each in a small labeled box lined with cotton.

The case had been stored ever since at what is now the Olana State Historic Site, where staffers intend to display part of the collection for the first time ever this spring in an exhibit on connections between art and the environment.

The mansion at Olana State Historic Site, where landscape painter Frederic Church and his wife, Isabel, , raised their four children who took up the popular Victorian-era hobby of egg collecting.

But many of the eggs were blackened with decades of dust and grime, and had to be cleaned before being displayed. So Miksch, who has conserved objects from a stuffed black bear to a piece of the Parthenon, researched a bit, and came up with her technique _ using conservation-grade cotton swabs, a dab of water, and gently rubbing. An average-sized egg takes about 20 minutes to clean, and the case contains eight trays, each with 36 boxes with most boxes containing one or more eggs. Miksch uses water, and not a cleaning solution, for fear of degrading the delicate eggshells.


Curator Heidi Miksch shows how she cleans bird eggs more than 100 years old.

Click through the slideshow as conservator Heidi Miksch (wearing the blue sweater) shows the Church childrens’ egg collection.


“The Church children collected many different kinds of eggs,” said Miksch. “I have even found a flamingo egg in there.” (For the record, a flamingo egg is white and oval in shape, appearing much like an oversized chicken egg.)

In the early 20th century, conservation concerns over the impact of bird egg collecting began to mount, and the practice later was limited in the U.S. under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918

But when Church’s children – Frederic, Theodore, Louis, and Isabel – were growing up in the Hudson Valley during the 1870s and 1880s, egg collecting was seen as a good way for children to learn about nature while also engaging in healthy outdoor exercise.

To preserve a collected egg, a tiny hole would be drilled into it, and the contents would be aspirated out of the hole, and then the egg would be rinsed out to prevent rot and decay. Or two holes could be drilled and then the contents would be blown out. The empty egg was then carefully stored.

Egg collecting was not just a hobby for children. Cultured gentlemen of the era, particularly in England, amassed large collections and ranged over many nations in pursuit of rare or unusual eggs. One of the world’s richest men at the time, English financier Baron Rothschild, had a collection of nearly 12,000 bird eggs, which now resides in the British Museum of Natural History.

Egg collecting was at its zenith from about 1885 through the 1920s, with children being the vast majority of collectors, according to a 2005 research paper by Lloyd Kiff, past director and curator with the California-based Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology.

Collectors of the day would trade eggs among themselves. There also were commercial egg sellers, who would offer eggs for sale in catalogs, just like dealers in stamps or coins.

Examples of egg collector catalogs. (Photo Credit- The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology)

An American collector, William Brewster, who in the 1880s was the chair of the American Ornithologists’ Union Committee on Bird Protection, collected thousands of eggs that are now held in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

But the hobby began dying out as conservation principles and legal restrictions took hold, and by the 1940s the practice was all but gone. Today, it is illegal to collect bird eggs in the U.S. without a permit issued for research purposes.

The practice is also outlawed in England, although a few fanatical collectors persist despite legal sanctions.

Kiff’s study estimates that there about 80 major egg collections in the U.S., composed of about a half million egg sets, representing some two million individual eggs. These collections have demonstrated significant scientific value in subsequent years, supporting the discovery that exposure to the pesticide DDT was causing eggshell thinning in birds like bald eagles, Peregrine falcons, and pelicans.

This evidence formed the basis of a $140 million federal government settlement with DDT manufacturers in 2001, which Kiff described as the most important ecological use of any bird-related specimens.


“By now, hundreds of eggshell-based studies of (DDT) have appeared in all major regions of the world, and the present ban on DDT use in all but a handful of countries is a direct result of this research.” – Lloyd Kiff

History, Present Status, and Future Prospects of Avian Eggshell Collections in North America, The American Ornithologists’ Union (2005)

He suggests that eggshell collections may also be useful in the future for the study of ongoing climate change and its impacts on birds.

This comes as expertise in this field is fading away, Kiff wrote, adding “The body of traditional oological knowledge may vanish, except on the browned pages of extinct journals, and existing egg collections may gradually become objects of greater interests to historians than to biologists.”

If you would like to see the eggs collected by the Church children displayed in the home where they grew up, visit Olana between May 9 and Nov. 1 for the exhibition entitled “Cross Pollination: Heade, Cole, Church, and Our Contemporary Moment.”

This exhibition features Martin Johnson Heade’s 19th-century series of hummingbird and habitat paintings – The Gems of Brazil – and their relationship to Hudson River School landscape painters Thomas Cole and Frederic Church.

Co-organized by the Olana State Historic Site and the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, as well as the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, this exhibition will also feature work by contemporary artists including Nick Cave, Mark Dion, Jeffrey Gibson, Paula Hayes, Patrick Jacobs, Maya Lin, Dana Sherwood, Rachel Sussman, and Vik Muniz.

And finally … here is a look at that flamingo egg.

Cover Shot- Close-up of part of the Church children’s egg collection. (All photos and videos by NYS Parks unless otherwise noted)

Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks


Resources

History, Present Status, and Future Prospects of Avian Eggshell Collections in North America, 2005, Kiff, Lloyd L., American Ornithological Society.

The Code of Nomenclature and Check-list of North American Birds

Ornithologists and Oologist, Semiannual, January 1889 – Victorian-era instructions on collecting and preserving. Explains collector practices of the time period.

Fragile Beginnings: Bird Egg Collection – Blog post on collection decisions made at Wesleyan University

University of WisconsinSearchable online database for egg identification

Gilded Age Ice Skater Carved Early Path

Staatsburgh State Historic Site, formerly the Gilded Age estate of the very wealthy and socially-prominent Ruth Livingston Mills and her husband, financier and philanthropist Ogden Mills, sits along the eastern bank of the Hudson River in the mid-Hudson Valley.

Commanding a view of the river and the Catskill Mountains, the estate’s Beaux-Arts mansion was once the scene of elegant house parties each autumn weekend for the glitterati of American society. The home is still filled with the original furnishings, art and décor chosen by Ruth and Ogden Mills after its redesign by prominent architect, Stanford White, circa 1895, from a 25-room home built by Ruth’s great-grandfather into the 79-room house we see today. 

Touring the home, one is struck by its opulence but also by its regal formality: Ruth’s bedroom, with its hand-carved bed on a platform, surmounted by a lavish baldachin (a kind of ceremonial canopy), and surrounded by walls of raspberry silk brocade, seems well-suited for a queen of society. 

Ruth Mills’ bedroom at the Staatsburgh Mansion.
A formal portrait of Ruth Livingston Mills painted in 1909 by artist François Flameng. Learn more about this portrait in this January 2018 post in the NYS Parks Blog.

Among her peers, Ruth was known for her acumen as a hostess, her exclusivity (reportedly opining that there were only 20 wealthy families in New York worth knowing), and her imperious poise.  As one of her contemporaries said:

“[Ruth Mills] would invite [guests] to her house…greet them with a limp hand, languidly extended, and a far-away expression, and then apparently forget their existence.  They were chilled but impressed.”

While it might be difficult to image, this reserved, aloof woman also had an athletic side uncommon for most women of that time. She helped build the popularity of the sport of figure skating as an early prominent practitioner and benefactor. And she also had a hand in the opening of one of the earliest indoor refrigerated ice rinks in North America.

My research into her history revealed some parallels with my own life. I have been a competitive figure skater for more than 20 years, and am a U.S. Figure Skating Gold Medalist after passing tests in four disciplines including freestyle and ice dancing. Now, I coach young skaters at a rink in nearby Saugerties.

For me, like it might have been for Ruth Mills, skating is athletic and artistic, allowing one expression through music and dancing.

Ruth Mills’ skating was widely recognized during her time. An 1893 New York Herald article praised her as an accomplished and graceful ice skater.  According to the newspaper, Ruth started skating with her twin sister Elisabeth when they were girls. That would have been during the 1860s, which was a time when skating was starting to become very popular in the United States. By that time, men and women were skating together on the same ponds (one of the few athletic activities where both genders were involved together), and even the press was supportive of women skating, extolling the health benefits.

Figure skating was the first sport where women participated for the pure joy of it and where their participation with men was widely accepted.  Skating became so popular in the mid-19th century that there was an estimated crowd of 100,000 on the pond in New York City’s Central Park on Christmas Day in 1860.

Newspapers of the day took note of Ruth Mills, with one reporter writing in the 1890s: “Mrs. Ogden Mills is quite too graceful and proficient.  As if by common assent, the others stop a moment to watch her do the double Philadelphia grapevine, about the most difficult gyration on ice known to the expert.” By this point, Ruth Mills would have been about 40 years old.

A portion of an account from the New York Herald on Jan. 6, 1895 on Ruth Mills’ skating technique.

Watchers of skating today might not recognize this move, but the double Philadelphia grapevine was seen as one of the most complex techniques of its time. As described in a contemporary magazine: “The double grapevine is the same as the single, except that a loop is introduced at the beginning and also at the end of the figure. It is executed, as in the single grapevine, by passing the right foot in front of the left foot with the chain step; but instead of making a half revolution, as in the single, the body is swung completely around by the means of two turns on the right foot and an inside loop on the left.”

Maria Reynolds demonstrates the double Philadelphia grapevine skating technique.
Illustration of the double grapevine technique from a skating instruction book of the period.

While newspapers of this time made a habit of fawning praise over wealthy and powerful members of New York society, it is clear that Ruth was an accomplished skater. To the modern skater, the fact that Ruth could maneuver gracefully on ice, in the corset and multiple layers of clothing covering her from neck to foot, which Gilded Age women were required to wear, makes her ability even more impressive.

Given Ruth Mills’ self-composed demeanor, I find it hard to imagine her falling on the ice in front of people. But she must have started skating very early in life and put in much practice to become as skilled and confident as she was. Some of that early practice likely must have been on the rough ice of the frozen Hudson River at Staatsburgh when she was growing up.

We know that the river was a very popular place to skate and we have a photo of the estate superintendent’s family skating in 1916.  The cove area near the estate’s powerhouse was a popular place for local village residents to skate.

Agnes and Bill Blair, children of the caretaker of Staatsburgh State Historic Site, skate on the Hudson River circa 1916.

While Staatsburgh was the primary residence of Ruth and Ogden Mills in the autumn, like many of their social set, the couple traveled with the seasons. New York City was where the elites dwelled in the winter months, as it was the season of the opera, and of lavish balls given in assorted Fifth Avenue mansions.

Whether dancing or ice skating, the elites of New York always preferred to pursue their leisure apart from the common folk, and in 1896, many of the wealthiest families, including Ruth and Ogden Mills, contributed to the construction of one of the earliest indoor ice rinks built in New York City, the St. Nicholas Skating Rink.

Skaters at St. Nicholas Rink in 1901. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

When skating depended on a pond or river to freeze, skaters were at the whim of mother nature (sometimes they had only 15 to 20 days a season to skate), but after the creation of indoor ice surfaces, the skating season would extend much longer.

The St. Nicholas Skating Rink also was one of the earliest indoor ice rinks made of mechanically frozen ice in North America. The arena also was the site of the first game between women’s ice hockey teams in the United States, when in 1917 the St. Nicholas team defeated Boston 1–0.

An illustration in a 1900 issue of Harper’s Bazaar magazine shows fashionable women playing ice hockey at the St. Nicholas Skating Rink in New York City. (Photo Credit- Hockeygods.com)

Building this rink was an investment of $300,000 (more than $9 million today) contributed principally by elite patrons like the Mills. Located on West 66th street, the rink was less than four blocks from the couple’s mansion, and contemporary newspapers accounts stated that Ruth Mills skated there nearly every morning.

Shortly after the rink opening, an article in The New York Times noted that Mrs. Mills was to host an “ice tea.”  Not the popular beverage, this exclusive social event included both skating on the rink and tables to consume tea and light refreshments.

An item in the April 5, 1896 edition of the New York Times announcing Ruth Mills’ “ice tea” event at the St. Nicholas Skating Rink.

So here, Ruth Mills got to combine her interests in both luxurious entertaining and skating. Sadly, the St. Nicholas Rink was demolished in the 1980s after a long history of hosting skating and boxing matches.

If you would like to know more about this family, and the Gilded Age lifestyle they led and the mansion in which they lived it, make a trip to Staatsburgh State Historic Site the Taconic Region.

Nearly 200 acres of the historic Mills estate is within the Ogden Mills and Ruth Livingston Mills Memorial State Park, which is open every day, all year, from sunrise to sunset, with no fee for park entry.  It includes the Dinsmore Golf Course, one of America’s oldest golf courses, as well as trails for hiking and cross-country skiing.

Guided tours and special programs are offered at the Mills mansion year-round; for programs information and hours of operation, call (845) 889-8851, or visit our website.

The 79-room Mills Mansion, which is located on the 120-acre Staatsburgh State Historic Site in Dutchess County. (Photo Credit- Andrew Halpern)

Cover Photo: The St. Nicholas Skating Rink in New York City. Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of NYS Parks.

Maria Reynolds, Ph.D., Historic Site Assistant / Curator, Staatsburgh State Historic Site

Reynolds has given lectures at Staatsburgh on “Gilded Age Tea & Talk” program series, presented each winter.  Now in its sixth season, this program series offers guests the chance to enjoy the site’s custom tea blend, created by Harney & Sons, along with scones, clotted cream, tea sandwiches and sweets, served in the mansion’s opulent formal dining room while listening to talks on various aspects of Gilded Age history. 

A Legacy of Strength

During the 1930s when racial segregation and Jim Crow held sway over much of America, there was a Depression-era federal public works unit where African-Americans, not whites, were in command. And it was here in New York State Parks.

To combat rampant unemployment among young men, President Franklin Roosevelt had created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 to perform public works projects.  

The struggles of the 1930’s reached beyond the economic depression. Major environmental issues plagued the nation as well.  The impact of poor farming practices, deforestation, and destructive pests were just a few of the things destroying thousands of acres of usable land. Across the nation, the CCC immediately put its companies to work solving these two major crises at once.

While discrimination based on ‘race, color, or creed,’ was against Roosevelt’s founding policy, that was to exist almost only on paper. When the first CCC companies formed, racial segregation was part of the process.  After two years of operation, this practice became official policy in 1935 when CCC Director Robert Fechner insisted on complete segregation of whites and colored enrollees.  The only exception allowed was if a company was formed in an area of the country with a small African American population.

Enrollees from big cities and small towns all over New York found themselves at Camp Dix, New Jersey, with thousands of other men who were desperate for work.  Upon arrival, men were assigned to a 200-man company, although many colored companies numbered less than 100. Each company was given a number, and a lowercase ‘c’ was added for ‘Colored’ where needed. And policy dictated that those in charge of all companies were white Army officers.

Men from New York quickly filled slots in several ‘Colored’ companies forming at Camp Dix. As these companies moved around the country, they were trained on the job by local professionals who were also white.  Pressure from Congress, the National Urban League, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began immediately for African American officers and professionals to work with African American companies, but it would be several years before things changed.


Click on this slideshow of the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps “Colored” companies from New York State.


By the fall of 1933, colored companies from Fort Dix including 246-c, 247-c, and 1245-c were formed and immediately sent out.  Company 246-c was shipped by train to Chelan, Washington State, to fight fast-moving forest fires. Their next mission took them across the country to Yorktown, Virginia, to excavate colonial buildings and reconstruct two historic sites — the Moore House and the White Swan Tavern, both of which still stand today.

From Virginia, the men of 246-c headed back to New York to the Orange County town of Wawayanda to begin working on the Wallkill Flood Control Project, a ten-mile-long canal designed to change the direction of the river and stem seasonal flooding.

Company 247-c headed to Idaho to build roads and fire trails and plant hundreds of trees in the Lake Pend Oreille Forest. They later went south to work as archaeologists at the Yorktown Battlefields collecting pottery chards and other bits before returning to New York. Company 1287-c fought forest fires in Idaho, built roads in Virginia, then moved into New York, joining the other companies for the Wallkill project.

Company 1245-c headed out in 1934 to create fire breaks, build truck trails, plant trees and dig wells before heading to the Wallkill. Company 3210-c and 3211-c, formed in 1935, went directly to the Wallkill project, with 3211-c later heading a few miles north to build roads.

Health care and food services were year-round jobs as well with the CCC, and often these were the first positions filled by young African American men. During the early years of the program, African Americans could be found as cooks and health orderlies but rarely as the head chef, doctor, or dentist.

Initially, trained African American officers in the U.S. Reserved Army were totally ignored, then slowly as more pressure from members of Congress and other groups continued, they began filling positions as medical officers, working alongside African American orderlies and chaplains. By 1936, such outside pressure forced Fechner to set-up a “demonstration camp” in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where a Colored company would be managed by African American commanding officers. If the experiment worked, other companies could be switched over.

While the Gettysburg effort was successful, only one other CCC company ever saw the change to Colored officers _  1252-c in New York State. Initially stationed at the Newtown Battlefield Reservation outside of Elmira, Chemung County starting in 1935, this company had started with white officers like all the rest. But in June 1939, colored officers were quietly brought in to run the unit.

The work of the men of Company 1251-c is still visible at Newtown Battlefield State Park, where they built the picnic pavilion and concession stand, sports fields, stone tables, and wooden bridges, as well as planted trees and plants, and added or graded topsoil.

A new CCC enrollee arriving at Newtown Battlefield Reservation.
At work at the battlefield.
The men of Company 1251-c at Newtown Battlefield Reservation with their officers, seated in the center of the front row.
Pavilion at Newtown Battlefield State Park built by the men of Company 1251-c.

Such work was only part of an average day for company members. Improving the education of enrollees was also part of the CCC’s mission. Civilian Educational Advisors (CEA) were local educators who were stationed at the various sites.

Classes were held regularly and for many of the colored companies stationed in New York the classes were taught by African American men. Reading and writing went hand in hand with Spanish, French, Mathematics, and Negro History. Recreational pursuits included bands, sports teams, and company newsletters.

Although hugely successful, the CCC came to an end in 1942 as the nation joined the Second World War. By then, more than two million men had gone into the program. Read more about New York’s history in the program in the Parks Blog post below…


Civilian Conservation Corps in New York State Parks

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) became president in 1933, the entire nation was in a state of turmoil never seen before or since. It was the height of the Great Depression: unemployment was at 25%, croplands were failing, and millions of families were going hungry. As governor of New York State, FDR had implemented the … Continue reading Civilian Conservation Corps in New York State Parks


Even in the face of economic hardship and ecological stress, racism and segregation had dogged the program each step of the way. CCC Director Robert Fechner’s insistence on racial inequality plagued the CCC in spite of constant pressure from the White House, Congress, and other groups striving to create a more equitable environment in the country.

The work done by the men in New York’s colored companies of the CCC continues to enrich the lives of New Yorkers everyday. Theirs is a legacy of strength we can all draw from.


Cover Shot: Company 246-c. All photographs from state Bureau of Historic Sites

Post by Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History, state Bureau of Historic Sites


At Gilbert Lake State Park,  Otsego County, other companies of the CCC constructed cabins, trails, roads, dams, and erosion control structures between 1933 and 1941. The park is also home to the New York State Civilian Conservation Corps Museum, which displays photographs and artifacts from the days of the CCC.

A 1935 poster for the Civilian Conservation Corps. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

Growing the Future in Gilded Age Greenhouses

State Parks contain a diversity of habitats, from forest and fields, to shrub swamp, marshes and streams. All these landscapes support a wide variety of native plants.

As part of efforts at Parks to restore land and protect biodiversity, it is important to have the right plants for the right habitats in order to support healthy ecological function, provide critical habitat for wildlife and reduce the threat from invasive species.

Such projects require a source of plants that are native to the area. Since it can be difficult to find such plants commercially, the Plant Materials Program was started at Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park in 2016.

This program was created by the Finger Lakes Environmental Field Team, which was working at Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, Ontario County, to restore a grassland habitat critical for endangered birds. And the job called for 200 different species of native plants.

Since then, such plants have been grown in the Sonnenberg’s historic greenhouses in Canandaigua, at the north end of its namesake lake in the Finger Lakes region, to cover parks projects in the eastern part of New York. Many of the Sonnenberg greenhouses had been vacant for years, so this was a perfect match for the facility.

Seedings for native plants, grown from seeds hand-collected in the field by State Parks staffers at the Plant Materials Program, fill the greenhouses at Sonnenberg.

Plant Materials Program Coordinator Brigitte Wierzbicki, Lead Technician David Rutherford and technician Elizabeth Padgett, supported by seasonal staff, partners, and interns, run the program. To fill orders, they identify native species in the field, sustainably collect seeds, propagate those seeds in the greenhouses, and deliver plants back to project sites.

Now in its fourth year, the Ganondagan project aims to recreate the oak savanna grasslands found there in the 1600’s, when the land was managed by the Onöndawá’ga (Seneca) people. This last season, the Plant Materials Program provided more than 5,000 plants towards this project, and over 100 pounds of hand-collected seed have been sown on site.

Currently, the Plant Materials Program provides for environmental stewardship projects across six State Park regions of the state, from the Finger Lakes Region and eastward to the Taconic Region. The program also works with Parks Western District Nursery and its Native Landscape Resource Center, managed by Kevin McNallie at Knox Farm State Park in Erie County, which provides native plantings for the western regions of the state.

Additional guidance on plant suitability for specific habitats or sites is provided by NY Natural Heritage Program.

Why Native Plants?

A wealth of literature points to native plants and species diversity as critical factors for successful restoration. Native plantings are better able to compete against invasive species than non-native plants. Planting more native species also increases both plant and animal diversity. Ensuring that plants are not only native, but regionally appropriate and genetically diverse increases the likelihood that the plantings will be successful and contribute to their local ecosystem.

Plant Materials Program staff search for wild, naturally-occurring populations for each project within the same ecoregion. Ecoregions are zones defined by their plants, soil, geography, geology, climate, and more. Plants that live in the same ecoregion have adaptations that help each species survive in those precise conditions, so seed has the best chance of survival if it is replanted within that zone.

New York State is split into 42 different ecoregions, with each region warranting a different seed collection so that seed is often not shared across projects. In the Sonnenberg greenhouses, plants are not allowed to hybridize (or cross-pollinate) with plants from other regions. Preserving the plant genetics of each ecoregion is important to maintain each unique habitat.

Science of Collecting Native Seeds

Seed collection involves more than just taking a seed from a plant. Our collectors ensure collections aren’t harming the population. Only a small fraction of seed is taken from each plant, so that enough seed remains to support that population, and to serve as food for insects and other animals.

Populations of a plant must be large enough to support seed collection. Areas are monitored before and after collection, and they are not collected from again for multiple years. The conservation of intact ecosystems is more effective than planting and restoring ecosystems, so it is important that seeds are collected in a way that protects existing plant populations.

Measures are also taken to capture genetic diversity, including collecting multiple times a season and using field techniques to collect evenly or randomly across a population. Collectors avoid selecting for specific traits, as that can reduce a population’s ability to adapt, and can in turn negatively impact other populations.

Native Plants Help an Endangered Butterfly

In the Capital Region, the Plant Materials Program collects wildflower seed to support Parks Stewardship staff in restoring rare butterfly habitat. Saratoga Spa State Park is home to the state and federally-endangered, and globally-rare Karner blue butterfly. This small butterfly lives in pitch pine-scrub oak barrens, and during its caterpillar stage, it feeds on only one wildflower: the blue lupine (Lupinus perennis).

Blue Lupine. (Photo Credit- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Karner blue butterfly on lupine. (Photo credit- C. Voight)

Picking seeds from the right lupine plants is extremely important, as the chemical makeup of lupine has been shown to vary across the range of the species. Introducing a new strain of lupine might be harmful or even toxic for the butterflies. For example, the same species of lupine growing in another state could be different enough from the ones growing at Saratoga Spa State Park that, if planted there, could be toxic to the Karner blue butterflies living in the park.

A 2015 study found that survival and development of the Karner blue was linked to which lupines caterpillars had fed upon. Expanding lupine at Saratoga Spa through local seed is the safest option to protect the unique genetics of both the butterflies and lupine.

New Life for Sonnenberg’s Historic Greenhouses

Each spring, the Plant Materials Program grows a new cycle of plants in Sonnenberg’s historic Lord & Burnham greenhouses. These are greenhouses which date back to the Gilded Age of the early 1900s and reflect the botanical passions of the home’s original residents, Frederick Ferris Thompson and Mary Clark Thompson, two prominent philanthropists.

The historic greenhouse complex at Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park. (Photo Credit- Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion)
One of the greenhouses that is currently under restoration. A not-for-profit group that manages the site is fundraising to help support such work. (Photo credit- Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion).

At the time of construction between 1903 and 1915, the greenhouses at Sonnenberg reflected state-of-the-art technology. Only a handful of other such Lord & Burnham structures survive today, with some major examples found at the New York Botanical Garden in The Bronx, The Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh.

The federal government acquired the Sonnenberg grounds in 1931 and passed it to a not-for-profit preservation organization in 1972. State Parks bought the property in 2005, while the not-for-profit group continues to manage it and raise funds to support the restoration of these historically-significant greenhouses.

This 50-acre estate and its greenhouses, gardens, and Queen Anne-style mansion are all open to the public from May through October. A portion of the greenhouses interprets the legacy of the site, including a palm house, orchid house, and cactus house.

Patrons can tour the greenhouses utilized by the Plant Materials Program and learn about the thousands of plants grown for restoration of native ecosystems. Housing the program at Sonnenberg expands the interpretative value for park visitors and supports the restoration of these historic structures.

During this long winter, know that the next generation of native plants for New York State Parks projects is being nurtured in a historic greenhouse complex that dates to the Gilded Age, and come spring, will be ready to preserve and protect some of our most precious places.

Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park in winter. The site is open May 1 to Oct. 31 each year.

Post by Brigitte Wierzbicki, Plant Materials Program Coordinator

Cover photo by Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Site


Consider Native Species When Planting At Home

  •  Check if you have natives already coming up in your garden or yard. It is likely that you already have some native plants that are providing habitat, and these will be best adapted to your local ecosystem. Use indentification resources to see what is from NY or New England. Apps like iNaturalist, online guides like GoBotany, or field guides like Newcomb’s (Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, Lawrence Newcomb) are great resources for getting started.

  • Native Plantfinder is a great resource to choose which plants are native to your zip code! It also ranks plants based on the number of native butterflies and moths that can use the plants—meaning you will be bringing in more wildlife into your garden including pollinators and birds. It is still in development and only a small fraction of these will be available commercially, so double check your favorites with what’s available.
  • Use the New York Flora Atlas to ensure the plant you’re interested in is native to the state. Even better if it’s native to the county you’re planting in!
  • Utilize the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Saratoga Tree Nursery. The 2020 Seedling Sale is currently ongoing and is an affordable way to purchase native plants and support environmental conservation work in the state.
  • Check out the Native Plant Nursery Directory to find your local native plant nursery. Request that your local garden center carries native plants, and ideally, ones that are from New York. Often the native species in nurseries are sourced from outside of New York, or even the southern U.S. These won’t be as well adapted to New York.
  • Avoid cultivars of native species. You may find some natives in nurseries with different names signifying they have been bred for different colors or flower shapes. These changes can reduce the ecosystem function of the plants, or even populations beyond your garden if they are able to breed. Our native species evolved with the native pollinators, and changes can make the plants completely unusable for native pollinators.
  • Do not collect from the wild for your garden. Taking from the wild can be more damaging to the ecosystem than the benefit that it may bring to your garden. Collecting from the wild is also often illegal. Many factors need to be considered for safe harvests, and many of our plant populations are experiencing declines due to development, habitat fragmentation, invasive species, deer overabundance, climate change, and more. It can be hard to know if the seeds you’re taking will damage the population or remove a critical food source, so don’t take the risk!

References

Bakker, J.D. & Wilson, S.D. (2004) Using ecological restoration to constrain biological invasion. Journal of Applied Ecology, 41, 1058–1064.

Fargione, J.E. & Tilman, D. (2005) Diversity decreases invasion via both sampling and complementarity effects. Ecology Letters, 8, 604–611.

Handel, K. (2015) Testing local adaptation of the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) to its single host plant the wild lupine (Lupinus perennis). (Electronic Thesis or Dissertation).

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Cake Trees And Clermont

“Can we plant a cake tree?”

The question caught me off guard.

“You know, like a cake tree. Or a cheese tree.”

It’s a chilly afternoon in mid-April several years ago, one of those sunny days that invites you out into the garden, but then leaves you shivering. It had been warm standing next to the bus as the Harvesting History Club disembarked at Clermont State Historic Site in Germantown, Columbia County, but soon we were in the dirt, one with the Earth, as spring arrived. Doing the digging were a dozen or so elementary school students, our garden educator Leslie, and me.

I was assisting one of the youngest students as she methodically planted her tiny seedlings and asked me questions. I handed her another seedling, a cool-weather vegetable she’d planted in a tray weeks earlier. Just like her, before the new semester began I knew next to nothing about plant. But I did know that cakes and cheese did not grow on trees.

“Oh,” her lips pursed at my answer. She took the kale and gently patted it into the dirt.

 “But,” I continued, “I know we have strawberries. You can use strawberries in cake.”

“OH!” she brightened. “Where are they?!”

I pointed to a wild tangle of leaves and vines, already vying for dominance in the far corner of the garden. The strawberries wouldn’t be ready until June, which she wasn’t thrilled about. But she perked up moments later, when another student discovered a cool bug and everyone ran to see it.

Two campers show off their gardening and nature journals.

Clermont has a centuries-old garden history. The mansion has stood since colonial times — when growing and harvesting was an essential part of life. One of the wealthiest families in early America, the Livingstons of Clermont grew most of their own food and took in significant farm contributions from their tenant farmers. Clermont Livingston (yes, they named their son after the house) kept weather journals detailing growing and harvesting on the manor from the 1840s through the 1890s.

Clermont in the 1890s.

Through the early 20th century, most of the mid-Hudson Valley was agrarian, with vast farms, orchards, dairies, and kitchen gardens populating the landscape.

Today, most people in the area are living on land that was farmed within the last century. With all of this in mind, it’s a little startling how many of us live so close to nature but are so disconnected from it.

To help reintroduce and reestablish that tie, Harvesting History began at Clermont in 2014, spearheaded by Site Manager Susan Boudreau and Garden Educator Leslie Reed. The purpose of the program is to connect Hudson Valley kids with their history and engage them hands-on by working in the garden. As they learn about seeds, plantings, and garden care, they also learn about healthy eating, the history of their home, and the natural world.

It’s amazing how many students start the program with no knowledge of where their food comes from or how it’s made. It’s not just young kids, like the little girl and the cake trees, but teenagers and young adults. I was 23 when I started working with the program and had no concept of growing seasons or how to plant something.

Two young gardeners help harvest Swiss chard.

It’s a blind spot that our parents and grandparents would not recognize, brought on by refrigerated trucks and supermarkets where you can buy tomatoes and avocados at any time of the year. By planting heirloom vegetables in the chilly spring air, students don’t just begin to understand the seasons, they begin to understand meteorology, biodiversity, and entomology. 

Students use nets to capture insects and magnifying glasses to identify potential garden pests.

Harvesting History has become quite popular. When I was first out in the garden in 2014, talking about cake trees and planting kale, we were serving 100 students annually. In 2018, we served 800 and we had even more students in 2019. The program is often on the road, visiting after-school programs, libraries, and schools, working on their own gardens and learning about healthy eating.

We do garden crafts, like making your own weather journal.

We even have this amazing bike blender we use to chop up herbs and veggies. Bike blender salsa is my absolute favorite way to make salsa now. 

After getting a demonstration, campers try their hands – or in this case, their feet – at making bike blender salsa.

This last spring, our little kitchen garden was expanded to 2,500 square feet, allowing for more students to visit and experience some hands-on history.

And to dream more dreams of cake trees.


Post by Emily Robinson, School Programs Coordinator and Camp Director, Clermont State Historic Site.

All photographs provided by New York State Parks