The woods of Northern Community Park and adjacent portions of Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park provide a glimpse of how the area may have appeared to the Lenape (len- ah-pay), the Native Americans who lived here, and to the first Europeans settlers. As you walk the trail near the bottom of the hill you will see very large and tall tulip trees. Because its wood has a fine grain and is easy to work, it was valued by Native Americans for canoes; one of its names is “canoewood.” Tulip trees can be the tallest and most massive trees in the northeast.
The wooded area at the bottom of the bluff has a number of unique plants not seen elsewhere in the Abbott Marshlands. Examples include Indian cucumber root, primrose-leaved violet, and alternate-leaved dogwood. In the understory also grow azaleas, mountain laurel, clubmoss, and various kinds of ferns. Some plants such as the American chestnut and sweet bay magnolia were once much more common. Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist, in 1749 noted that “there was an abundance of chestnut- trees in the woods” and that “the beaver-tree (the magnolia)…so perfumed the air that one could enjoy it before one approached the swamps.” By 1887, Charles Conrad Abbott noted that the beaver-trees were not common in local swamps. Later, the American chestnut was virtually eliminated from our forests due to the chestnut blight, a fungus disease brought to the United States in 1904 on trees imported from Asia. There are a few remnant, stunted American chestnuts along the trail.
As you walk along the trail at the bottom of the hill, you will note that the woods change to wet, wooded swamp. These areas support species more tolerant of wet soil, including sphagnum mosses and skunk cabbage.
Beyond the swamp is tidal marsh. These tidal freshwater wetlands are similar to tropical rainforests in the amount of plant material (biomass) produced in a single year. Tidal marsh species include sweet flag, wild rice, jewelweed, and water smartweed. Sweet flag is still highly prized by Native Americans for its medicinal properties. Wild rice seed, used for food by the Native Americans, is a favorite food of red-winged blackbirds in the autumn. The seeds of both jewelweed and water smartweed, a relative of buckwheat, were used as food, and the plants themselves had medicinal uses. Many birds and small mammals also eat seeds of these plants. Beyond the marshland is Crosswicks Creek.