Fields and other Open Communities

In each of the communities covered, photographs of the community are accompanied by a description of the soil conditions favored, the distribution of the community, and other points of interest. This summary is followed by two lists; the list entitled 'Typical indicator species' includes plant species which tend to be dominant and typify the community. The second list, entitled 'Species to watch for' includes some of the rarer species which - in our area at least - tend to favor this community. Becoming familiar with the commoner species and their association with each other can be a good step toward finding rarer or more interesting plants.

Arable Farm Fields

Arable Farm Fields Arable Farm Fields Arable Farm Fields
Typical bare ground community with
flowering Common Field Speedwell
and European Field Pansy.
Cultivated and fallow land with large
stands of Wild Radish and amaranths
in the background.
Late season lush growth of Common
Ragweed, Common Thorn-apple and
Green Amaranth.

The growing of crops on an agricultural scale has pretty much become a thing of the past in Cape May County, but it is not too many years ago that fields of sweet corn and soybean could be seen along Route 47. Though one or two fields are still tucked away off the highway, it is mostly small scale growing of vegetables for farm stands that continues in our region. Arable farming is of course essential for us to have food, but it does provide an unnatural landscape, dominated largely by either bare earth, or a monoculture of cultivated plants, according to season. Heavy use of herbicide and pesticide can further reduce opportunities for wildlife to co-exist on such land.

Arable farmland offers growing opportunities mostly around the field edges, and for annuals or short-lived ephemeral plants only. European species of plants have had longer to adapt to such conditions and it is these species that most often dominate on bare ground. The precise species composition will in part be dependent on soil type and moisture content, as well as time of year, but generally a range of species dominated by plants from the Lamiace, Caryophyllaceae, Plantaginaceae, Chenopodiaceae and Asteraceae tends to develop, as well as a few grasses. These short-lived plants that can colonize bare ground represent the first stage in successional plant communities that gradually develop over time; continued abandonment of the land will see a succession from these plants, through perennial grasses to scrub and, finally, woodland.

A number of the plant species that do well in these bare ground communities germinate in late fall or early winter and remain green overwinter. This allows them to flower at the earliest opportunity according to the severity of the weather. Most years, a few species (especially Common Chickweed, Common Groundsel and the dead-nettles) will flower in November, then again in March and April (sometimes earlier). Thus, these are generally the first flowers of spring. As the season progresses, these early species disappear for a time and are progressively replaced first by the mouse-ears and mustard and cress family, then later by the goosefoots, then a number of alien species from warmer climes, especially the Amaranths and members of the nightshade family. If the soil is disturbed at any time, then the progression is halted and starts again.

Typical indicator species
  • Slender Parsley-piert
  • European Field Pansy
  • Dove’s-foot Crane’s-bill
  • Common Stork’s-bill
  • Cut-leaved Evening-primrose
  • Shepherd's Purse
  • Black Huckleberry
  • Sticky Mouse-ear
  • Decumbent Pearlwort
  • Green Amaranth
  • Purple Amaranth
  • Green Carpetweed
  • Field Madder
  • Common Thorn-apple
  • Common Field Speedwell
  • Ivy-leaved Speedwell
  • Henbit Dead-nettle
  • Red Dead-nettle
  • Canadian Fleabane
  • Common Ragweed
  • Species to watch for
  • Prickly Wireweed
  • Velvetleaf
  • White Pigweed
  • Palmer's Amaranth
  • Scarlet Pimpernel
  • Dwarf Plantain
  • Turnip
  • Field Bindweed

  • Early Successional Fields

    Early Successional Fields Early Successional Fields Early Successional Fields
    Typical early successional field,
    dominated by non-native grasses.
    A grass-dominated sward with Lance-
    leaved Tickseed and Sweet Vernal-grass
    in the foreground.
    An early successional field being prog-
    ressively invaded by Bermuda-grass
    (light tan grass), due to the mowing
    regime employed.

    If open ground is left to develop through the natural progression of plant communities, the annual 'weeds' that first colonize are soon replaced by more robust annual and perennial species. In particular, a variety of grasses will quickly take hold and, as with the annual weeds of arable farmland and other bare places, it is the introduced species from Europe that do particularly well here. Early successional fields tend to be rather transitory in their appearance, since successional scrub can colonize such areas quite quickly. But for two or three years, grassy swards of varying length can resemble a prairie, and this effect is often enhanced when prairie species native to areas further west in North America (such as Black-eyed Susan and Lance-leaved Tickseed) are artificially introduced. Sometimes, these communities are managed to favor the grasses by employing a cutting regime, and the timing of this can have a bearing on the species content. An early cut in February/March will generally favor native (so-called 'warm season') grasses, while a cut during summer or fall will favor non-native, often highly invasive ('cold season') grasses.

    Typical indicator species
  • Tall Fescue
  • Sweet Vernal-grass
  • Field Brome
  • Purpletop
  • Diffuse Crab-grass
  • Virginia Beard-grass
  • Bermuda-grass
  • Sand Blackberry
  • Indian Dogbane
  • Common Milkweed
  • Chicory
  • Tall Goldenrod
  • Frost Aster
  • Dog-fennel
  • Species to watch for
  • Hungarian Brome
  • Small Red Morning-glory
  • Small White Morning-glory
  • Carolina Desert-chicory

  • Powerline Cuts

    Powerline Cuts Powerline Cuts
    A powerline cut beside upland mixed
    forest with an integrated mix of both
    wetland and upland plant communities.
    Powerline cuts through dry, sandy soil,
    can hold interesting plant communities
    that include Heath-like Hudsonia,
    various pinweeds, and a number of
    ericaeous species.

    Powerline Cuts don't form a specific plant community in themselves, since the habitat along the cut will be very much dependent on what habitat was present when the powerline was installed, and which plant communities exist alongside the cut. However the powerlines that pass through a number of wooded areas around Cape May (especially in the northern half of the county) fulfill an important function. In these areas, the powerlines replicate open, grassy 'clearings' in the woods, a habitat that, in the past, would have been largely created by forest fires. Though clearances from forest fires are transitory in nature - since the trees will eventually return - there are a number of plant species that respond quickly to the freshly-cleared areas and will persist until tree cover makes conditions unsuitable. Their seeds can remain viable and lie dormant for many years until suitable conditions are created by another clearance and new plants can germinate. Although powerline cuts are not burned, a regime of periodic cutting to prevent tree and shrub encroachment provides suitable conditions for open ground species to thrive.

    Where powerlines cross wet ground, some important wetland habitats are created and often resemble the habitats covered under the wet meadows section below. Powerline cuts provide important habitat for a range of reptiles and amphibians, including the Pine Barrens Treefrog, as well as substantial colonies of a number of skippers and hairstreak butterflies.

    The lists below cover powerlines in dry, grass-dominated areas that replicate dry savanna conditions. Wetter powerline cuts are included under the Wet Meadows section below.
    Typical indicator species
  • Switch-grass
  • Virginia Beard-grass
  • Little Beard-grass
  • Round-headed Bush-clover
  • Bear Oak
  • Staggerbush
  • Anise-scented Goldenrod
  • Slender Goldenrod
  • Downy Goldenrod
  • Rough-stemmed Goldenrod
  • White Thoroughwort
  • Hyssop-leaved Thoroughwort
  • Rough Boneset
  • Round-leaved Thoroughwort
  • Species to watch for
  • Heath-like Hudsonia
  • Atlantic Poison-oak
  • Ipecac Spurge
  • Pine-barren Gentian
  • Soapwort Gentian
  • Hairy Bush-clover
  • Shaggy Blazing Star
  • Slender Aster
  • Eastern Showy Aster

  • Wet Meadows

    Wet Meadows Wet Meadows
    This area of wet meadow was once
    farmed but, after abandonment, a rich
    plant community developed, here
    dominated by New York Ironweed.
    Wet meadow dominated by New York

    Large tracts of wet meadow communities are rare in Cape May, but plants typically associated with open, wet habitats are nevertheless common in Cape May County and are more likely to be found forming a mosaic of communities with dry open habitats, largely according to the undulating nature of the soils in the area. Typically these areas do not have standing water but instead have soils that retain plenty of water in them; this can be either because there is a more or less impermeable layer lower down which prevents the water draining away readily, or that their soils are simply capable of retaining plenty of water - clays and loams rather than sands.

    These wet meadow habitats are placed here with the open habitats as their wet nature may not be apparent from a distance, or for a significant part of the year. However, a slight increase in the amount of freshwater inundation to these habitats can soon see them progressing to herb-rich marshes or cattail stands; indeed, classifying an area as a wet meadow community or as a herb-rich marsh may be ratrher arbitrary at times and can even be interchangeable depending on the time of the visit, or the vagaries of the weather at the time (the amount of rain that has fallen).

    A number of those wet meadow communities that can be found, are found on powerline cuts, where the cuts traverse wet areas. Here, the powerlines provide artifically created open areas, but ones which nevertheless can often produce interesing plant communities.
    Typical indicator species
  • Nuttall's Reed-grass
  • Steeplebush
  • Lance-leaved Violet
  • Maryland Meadow-beauty
  • Virginia Meadow-beauty
  • Yellow Thistle
  • Common Boneset
  • Species to watch for
  • White Fringed Orchid
  • Yellow Fringed Orchid
  • Meadow Garlic
  • Dwarf Prairie Willow
  • New York Ironweed
  • Spotted Joe-pye-weed

  • Inland Sand Dunes

    Inland Sand Dunes
    Stands of the rather unusual-looking
    Orange-grass are often a feature of
    wind-blown sand areas.

    Inland sand dunes form interesting and often dynamic habitats, but they are now far less common than they once were. As with coastal dunes, the fine sands can be influenced by the wind and can move periodically across the landscape. As more houses were built, these dune complexes suffered in two ways; firstly, roaming dunes could not be tolerated where they threatened to overwhelm human habitation and, secondly, the sands of the dunes were removed and used for construction purposes. In many cases, sand mining continued below the natural profile of the land and in many places where there were once mobile dune systems, there are now lakes and ponds. But small areas of inland sand dune still exist in Cape May County, especially in the northern half of the county.

    The plant communities of inland dunes are somewhat similar to those of coastal dunes, but there is less need for the plants to be salt-tolerant, so a number of extra species can be found inland that do not typically occur at the coast. Because aspect, topography and the influence of neighboring plant communities can affect the species that occur, it is hard to define a list of typical indicator species, and none of these species is specific to these habitats. But by their open nature, with areas of bare sand naturally dominating the scene, inland dunes can be identified relatively easily. Over time, a number of mobile sand systems have probably eventually become stabilized by the establishment of woody plants such as Beach Plum, Pitch Pine and Black Cherry. These locations then generally progress to pine-oak forest. But where the sands have not been colonized by woody plants, colonies of annual grasses, hudsonias, pinweeds, orange-grass and similar low plants tend to dominate.
    Typical indicator species
  • Small Bur-grass
  • Beach Plum
  • Orange-grass
  • Woolly Hudsonia
  • Slender Snakecotton
  • Species to watch for
  • Heath-like Hudsonia
  • Coast Jointweed

  • Short Grass Communities

    Short Grass Communities Short Grass Communities
    Municipal grass area in Sea Isle City.
    A close, dense sward of non-native
    A short grass community created by
    intensive grazing. As here, Bulbous
    Buttercups often dominate such areas
    as they are not eaten by livestock.

    Plant communities of areas dominated by dense swards of short grasses are invariably man-made as they do not occur naturally in the Cape May area. As might be deduced from this, such communities consist overwhelmingly of non-native species, and largely those of European origin. Typically these are communities of urban or suburban zones rather than rural areas, though they can occur on roadsides pretty much anywhere that conditions are right. Lawns - both private and municipal - as well as golf courses, airfields, playing fields and areas with livestock carry the bulk of these communities and their short nature is due to regular cropping, either mechanically or by livestock grazing. If left untouched, these habitats would eventually be colonized by a variety of taller species, at first herbaceous annuals and perennials, but later by woody perennials.

    Typically, such plant communities begin life as a grass seed mix which is artificially sown. Such mixes largely consist of European species of rye-grass, Fescue and meadow-grass ('blue-grass') and these species can often be found to be present in the absence of all others when maintenance of the area includes the use of herbicides. However, some lawns include other grass species such as crab-grasses and Bermuda-grass; these species tend to die down in the late fall and winter, leaving bare ground for short-lived annuals to grow and flourish for a while. The flowering of less well-tended lawns in late winter is a feature of Cape May, when sheets of Common Chickweed, Henbit and Red Dead-nettles, Common Field Speedwell and Common Stork's-bill bring the first vibrant colors after the dull days of winter.

    A number of other plants that either have a very low growth style, or are tolerant of regular mowing also do well, and later in the year such grassy areas can be smothered in flowering Sheep's-sorrel, Common Cat's-ear, Ribwort Plantain, Dove's-foot Crane's-bill, Bulbous Buttercup and a number of others. Since at least 2009, the highly invasive Asiatic Spike-sedge has been rapidly colonizing roadsides and other short grass communities and, by 2014, some private lawns in the Cape May Point area were already almost completely composed of this species. Conversely, a number of grass species originally introduced as lawn grasses are now abundant away from such areas, with the latest species showing an ability to do this being Manilagrass.

    Typical indicator species
  • Spring Vetch
  • Slender Parsley-piert
  • Dove’s-foot Crane’s-bill
  • Common Stork’s-bill
  • Thyme-leaved Sandwort
  • Little Mouse-ear
  • Dwarf Mouse-ear
  • Changing Forget-me-not
  • Small-flowered Forget-me-not
  • Wall Speedwell
  • Common Field Speedwell
  • Henbit Dead-nettle
  • Red Dead-nettle
  • Species to watch for
  • Compact Grape-hyacinth
  • Common Star-of-Bethlehem
  • Hoary Cinquefoil
  • American Field Pansy
  • Gray Field Speedwell

  • Gravel and Sand Workings

    Gravel and Sand Workings Gravel and Sand Workings
    Marginal areas of old sand workings
    provide excellent locations for marginal
    wetland plant communities to develop.
    Abandoned sand workings form some
    of the most important wildlife habitats
    in the county, including providing
    breeding sites for Eastern Tiger Salamanders.

    There has been a long history of gravel and sand extraction in South Jersey, particularly in Cumberland County and neighboring areas, with much of the best quality sand being used in the past for making glass. These days, sand and gravel extractions are mostly for the construction industry, for road-making or as a component of concrete. Many of the areas originally used for such purposes consisted of relatively shallow zones of wind-blown or glacial deposits and have now been depleted. Once abandoned, these diggings rapidly fill up with water and become lakes and ponds. Thus, there are two colonization periods of these areas by plants; firstly, during the working stage, when the habitat consists of wet sands and gravels and, secondly, after abandonment, when newly-created water courses are available for colonization by aquatic plants. In the latter case, the ponds are often steeper-sided and deeper than would usually be the case for a natural pond, which tends to limit the plant communities that develop to a range of species that can grow around the narrow margins. However, some old workings are rather shallow and function well as vernal ponds, making them excellent places for both plants and amphibians.

    While there are one or two large and obvious sand and gravel complexes in Cape May County, there are also many much smaller ponds that originated in this way. In particular, the course of the Garden State Parkway is lined with many small, square-sided ponds where sands and gravels for intersection construction were obtained locally. Many of these ponds are not only steep-sided, but neighboring vegetation has grown back up into woodland with woody plants overhanging the banks and offering little or no habitat for wetland plant communities to develop.

    Gravel and sand workings usually also include mounds of stored sand and gravel and areas where machinery and other equipment are stored. Such areas develop quite different plant communities and are covered elsewhere on this website under disturbed and urban sites. During the active stage of the workings, few plants except short-lived perennials will get a footing over much of the site, but abandoned corners and wet margins soon develop and here, typical communities at first consist of plants with seeds dispersed by wind, such as willows and members of the aster family. Marginal waterplants such as rushes and cattails may also appear quite quickly.

    These workings form a series of transitional habitats that are very much influenced by man. As such, there is no one list of species that can be used to determine gravel and sand workings. Typically, the plant communities will initially consist of those of disturbed habitats, gradually evolving into communities of either vernal or permanent ponds, depending on topography, geography etc. However, the artificial nature of these areas is usually detectable by the presence of a relatively high number of alien plant species which are mostly survivors of the early, disturbed stages. Particularly persistent species in this category include Common Mugwort, Common Reed, Hairy Crab-grass and Bermuda-grass, among others.