A Walk Through Nature: Flora and Fauna on Campus

Emily Sun, Staff Writer

The school planted 10,000 daffodils around the campus in 2015, Director of Facilities Management Gordon Jensen said. Come spring, the flowers bloom in yellow bursts that decorate the sidewalks and soak up the sun. Other plants follow suit: the magnolia tree by Tillinghast yawns open its milky petals, Callery pears scatter flowers like spring snow along 246th street, and breezes ruffle the Japanese cherry’s pink blossoms over Spence Cottage.

The flora and fauna on campus fill the air from the Shakespeare Garden to the sidewalks along Tillinghast with the scent of nectar and birdsong. For many students, faculty, and staff, the revitalized nature brings a welcome break from the stress of school and work.

Seeing little changes in the plants as they bud, flower, and bear fruit makes every day feel fresh and new, John Dorr Nature Lab teacher Kate Kerrick said. “Even though I pass by the buds and the flowers along Tillinghast every year, I still find them completely delightful.”

The school is located in a temperate deciduous zone, which means it has moderate temperatures and precipitation with four distinct seasons, science teacher Camilla Nivison said.

Deciduous trees lose their leaves in the fall, lay dormant in the winter, and grow back in spring and summer. “Now, they have that wonderful, gold-green color of brand new leaves,” Nivison said.

Many of the plants on campus, such as daffodils and crocuses, are perennial, meaning that once planted, they regrow every year, Nivison said. Over generations, the plants that live here have adapted to the cold winters and periods with little precipitation. They grow broad leaves to absorb sunlight during the growing season but shed them in the fall to withstand the weight of winter snow when there is little sunlight. During the cold season, the plants’ long roots absorb water when it is available, allowing for maximum photosynthesis during the growing season.

To maintain the plant life on campus, the school contracts Mario Bulfamante & Sons Landscaping, a New Rochelle-based company, who does a spring clean up in March. They come once a week after the initial clean up until October for general plant maintenance, Jensen said. The company pulls weeds, lays mulch on flower beds, removes fallen plants that died over the winter, plants new flowers, and trims the grass — except for Alumni Field, which the maintenance staff mows, he said.

Public Safety Officer Glenn Smith enjoys walking through the nature on campus because it helps ground him and relieves stress from work, he said. “Our brains are overloaded with so much information throughout the day, so watching nature forces you to be present and not think of any worries.” His favorite plants are the white crocuses that pop up by Spence Cottage at the start of spring, and the cherry trees around campus, he said.

When people spend most of their day at a desk, it is easy to fixate on the next period or the next task, instead of the bigger picture of their lives, Middle Division (MD) history teacher Caitlin Hickerson said. Stepping away from work to walk around nature can put peoples’ concerns in context, she said. “It helps us to see that what we’re doing right now is just one small thing, and that there’s a whole world out there.”

The grandeur and intricacy of the natural world on campus also helps alleviate English teacher Sarah McIntyre’s academic, social, and political anxieties, she said. “Seeing that I’m an organism among all of these other organisms brings me a sense of belonging,” she said. McIntyre appreciates the buttercups and muscari that surround the stairs from the parking lot to Spence Cottage and the pine tree beside it where birds nest. 

Hickerson feels soothed by the sounds of nature on campus, such as the songs of sparrows and bluejays that nest near the dogwood between the MD Atrium and Fisher Hall, she said. “When you start to recognize what the birds are, it’s like being surrounded by familiar voices and talking to old friends,” she said.

People might ignore birds because of their ubiquity, but changes and patterns in their behavior reveal a lot about the environment and what seasons mean for different organisms, Kerrick said. 

Birds are especially active in spring because it is their mating season, and male birds use their voices to establish their nesting spot and attract female mates, Kerrick said. Cardinals mark their territory from treetops, starlings squawk as they soar over the field, and mockingbirds mimic car alarms from the roof of Tillinghast.

The flora and fauna on campus remind people that they are a part of nature’s yearly cycles, which people can easily forget when they live in the city, Kerrick said. Paying attention to the natural world, such as the scent of the lilac bushes by the Business Office, can help people feel more connected to the place they are in.

“The field is one of my favorite parts of Horace Mann because it serves as a great space to relax and unwind during the day,” Jake Ziman (10) said. “I’m thankful for that because a lot of schools don’t have something like this.”

Besides the field, students also appreciate other outdoor spaces on campus. It feels serene to rest near the silverbells and wide-leafed hostas in Shakespeare Garden, Trish Tran (10) said. “When you have a really stressful school day, just sitting there and being a part of nature, looking at the colors, and listening to the ambient noise is really calming.”

Northern Mockingbird

Scientific name: Mimus polyglottos

Family: Mimidae

Duration: Year-round

The Northern mockingbird is the most common type of mockingbird in North America — Harper Lee was likely referring to this species in To Kill a Mockingbird. These birds have a polite demeanor: they perch on branches with a puffed chest, grey tail folded like a sheathed fan, and white ringed feathers that hug their sides in neat layers. Their inconspicuous appearance contrasts their vibrant vocal range as they can imitate over 200 sounds, including other birds, insects, dog barks, and the screech of car wheels.

European Starling

Scientific name: Sturnus vulgaris

Family: Sturnidae

Duration: Year-round

“I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him to keep his anger still in motion.” This line from Act I, Scene 3 of Henry IV, Part 1 is the reason you can hear these birds flutter past on campus: the American Acclimatization Society released 60 starlings into Central Park in 1890 because they wanted to introduce every species mentioned in Shakespeare’s works to North America. They look black from afar, but their feathers shimmer blue, purple, green, and orange, with white triangles on the ends. Their yellow beak makes them easy to spot between the leaves, and their calls are a mix of tight screeches, trills, and croaks.

Northern Cardinal

Scientific name: Cardinalis cardinalis

Family: Cardinalidae

Duration: Year-round

Male cardinals show off their vocal trills to attract mates and defend their territory. They often tweet two whistles followed by a dozen quick chirps. If their song is not distinctive enough, their plumage is crimson like the attire of cardinals in the Catholic church, with a black square on their face and a crest of feathers they raise when agitated. Female cardinals are brown or burnt orange with red splotches. Both sexes share a cone-shaped beak to crack open seeds and nuts, and male cardinals feed females beak-to-beak during courtship — a ritual that looks as if the two birds are kissing.

Carolina Silverbell

Scientific name: Halesia carolina

Family: Styracaceae

Duration: Deciduous Perennial 

Location on campus: Outside Pforzhiemer

Pendant-shaped blossoms jingle on the ends of silverbell branches in spring, encasing the bark in a white glow. Bumble bees buzz between the flowers to drink the nectar and brush their legs against their orange stamens. The blooms turn into four-winged copper drupes by fall, though the fruit is rarely eaten. Their fine-toothed leaves drape over the tree in summer and dry into yellow as the weather chills. They can live for up to 100 years and grow over 40 feet tall. 

Great Laurel

Scientific name: Rhododendron maximum

Family: Ericaceae

Duration: Evergreen perennial

Location on campus: Left of the entrance to Spence Cottage

Purple-dusted stamens stretch out from the laurel’s center, dotting its white petals with pink when bees brush by. Some variations of rhododendrons produce “mad honey,” which Ancient Greeks used to poison enemy soldiers because its grayanotoxin induces nausea. The laurel blooms in late spring over oblong blue-green leaves and crooked branches. These leaves are thermotropic: in cold weather or droughts, they curl up and droop down to prevent water loss. In forests, laurels can grow into impassably thick subcanopies dubbed “laurel hells,” in which a two hour walk can take two days.

Cherry Laurel

Scientific name: Prunus laurocerasus

Family: Rosacea

Duration: Evergreen perennial 

Location on campus: Spence Patio and Shakespeare’s Garden

White, one-centimeter flowers cluster in groups of 30 to 40 on each raceme of the cherry laurel bush. These evergreen shrubs can grow up to 20 feet tall, though most of the ones on campus are under five feet. Thousands of peach-toned pistils on each bush attract swarms of bees, and they produce tiny, dark plum drupes that last throughout the winter. They resemble berries, but do not pick them — these drupes and their almond-scented elliptic leaves contain poisonous hydrogen cyanide that suffocates the nervous system when consumed.

Blue Periwinkle

Scientific name: Vinca major

Family: Apocynaceae

Duration: Evergreen perennial

Location on campus: walkway above Shakespeare’s Garden

Six rhombus petals form a hexagon around the periwinkle’s center, like a pastel purple pinwheel that peeks out between leaves and vines. In Europe, they are called “flowers of death” because people laid them on deceased infants’ graves, and prisoners wore periwinkle garlands as they marched to the gallows. Introduced to North America in the 1700s, they can sprout roots where their stems touch soil and thrive in sunlight or shade. Their adaptable nature lets them multiply and choke out native species, creeping their way across uncultivated areas like abandoned homes and forest floors.

Japanese Andromeda

Scientific name: Pieris japonica

Family: Ericaceae

Duration: evergreen perennial

Location on campus: Spence Patio and Shakespeare’s Garden

Japanese andromedas bloom in rows that droop from the stems of their evergreen shrubs, each pinky sized cup nestled in star-shaped sepals. It is named “andromeda” because the string of flowers resembles the chains on princess Andromeda from the Greek myths, who was shackled to a cliff as a sacrifice for a sea monster. Those on Spence Patio are cream colored, but they also bud in pinks, greens, and pomegranate scarlet. The shrubs retain their glossy leaves year round: they rust umber in spring and deepen to olive in fall.