Welcome to a whole new way of learning about nature—or at least the trees all around you.
And maybe, just maybe, since it involves smart phones, it will appeal to the younger generation.
In many parks and botanical gardens it is not unusual to see signs identifying trees, giving their name in English and Latin.
Union County Parks is now offering that and much more. In cooperation with The Smithsonian, Columbia University and the University of Maryland, Parks has designed a new signage system that connects to a virtual field guide so that it is possible to learn just about anything one would want to know about a tree, from how it propagates to the region it inhabits, with a click of the phone.
“The photography used in this virtual field guide is absolutely gorgeous,” said Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski, as she watched a group of volunteer Master Tree Stewards install new tree signage in Echo Lake Park.
The first of these new generation signs was installed two years ago in Lenape Park. In addition to Echo Lake, the tree stewards recently finished Nomahegan Park and plan to install a third trail this year at Briant Park.
“It really is amazing how this blends technology and nature in such a harmonious way,” said Freeholder Vice Chairman Bruce Bergen.
“There was a time when you had to bring a field guide with you if you wanted to learn more about this kind of thing. Now you can just go for a walk, and when you see one of these signs, you can scan the QR code and immediately be viewing the information and illustrations about the tree,” Bergen said.
While the signs are beyond reach to thwart vandalism, because the QR boxes are so large, any phone with a free QR phone reader app can easily scan the code.
“It’s no secret that the volunteer tree stewards have a particular fondness for trees,” said Dean Talcott, who coordinates the effort to identify the trees and install the signage.
“We would just like to be able to share this knowledge with the public and enable them to learn more about what is all around them,” he said.
Several years ago, The Smithsonian and the two universities joined forces to create an online tree guide called Leafsnap. While the app was written for iphones, the project had insufficient funds to create the app necessary to work with android and other phones.
“The one thing we didn’t want is a system that only worked with one brand of phones and tablets,” said Freeholder Chairman Mohamed Jalloh. “Parks solved that problem by a incorporating QR codes into the signs. Now they work with all phones, regardless of the operating system.”
Many of the signs in Nomahegan Park in Cranford are on a trail that is part of the East Coast Greenway http://www.greenway.org/, a 2,950-mile lowland Appalachian Trail from Maine to Florida that weaves through nearly every major city along the East Coast.
The signs in Echo Lake Park in Mountainside are located on a trail that connects Echo Lake to the Route 22 pedestrian overpass and the New Providence Road greenway that leads to the southern edge of the Watchung Reservation.
The tree sign identification is an offshoot of the Master Tree Stewards’ ongoing educational program. Volunteers visit youngsters in fourth grade classrooms to teach them about trees and to appreciate the importance of trees to the environment.
Anyone interested in joining the tree steward program should contact the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County, (https://njaes.rutgers.edu/county/quickinfo.asp?Union).