The prairie meadow at the top of the Hilltop Reservation
© Native Bergen

The Hills are Alive with Native Plants

About two years into my current day job I learned about a volunteer project that our company sponsored. The Hilltop Reservation is a secret (not by choice) natural preserve at the top of one of the Watchung Mountains in Essex County. Several times a year employees from our company work with a group called the Hilltop Conservancy in an effort to maintain the preserve.

This wild space sits on the border where the three towns Cedar Grove, Verona and North Caldwell intersect. It quietly exists and thrives amongst decaying infrastructure from the past as well as ever encroaching new suburbia. Passive land, trails and bike paths make their way through the wooded area but the center of the preserve cradles a meadowóactually a prairieóthe likes of which may not have been seen in Northern New Jersey for decades. Something out of Kansas or the Serengeti may be words that come to mind for the average visitor but for a specific set of plants and animals this patch has another name: home. The preserve’s †native plants include: indiangrass, big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass, bee balm, false sunflower, milkweed and goldenrod, among others. Cultivating these plants has attracted desirable critters like Monarch butterflies, deer, foxes, mice, voles and almost one hundred different bird species.

Tireless and dedicated Theresa Trapp
© Native Bergen
Tireless and dedicated Theresa Trapp

The Hilltop Conservancy and many dedicated volunteers get the credit for creating this northern New Jersey prairie. Politically that’s accurate but this space is really the result of years of slave labor from one tireless soldier, Theresa Trapp. I’ve visited the hilltop meadow without my company on random weekends in its different seasonal turns and each time Theresa has been there alone, clearing mugwort strongholds, or laying woodchips along the half-mile path with a wheelbarrow, a rake and her raw-knuckled tenacity.

A Water Tower breaks up the landscape in the Hilltop Prairie Meadow
© Native Bergen
A water tower painted in ‘sore thumb’ blue to remind all hilltop visitors, that this is not Kansas; its Jersey.

There is a tension to the hilltop meadow. The high grasses and outlying trees make for a rare and beautiful scene, but make no mistake, New Jersey, as we know it, is creeping in all around. Mcmansions and apartment complexes crown the entire space and a hideous blue water tower violates the meadow likeÖ likeÖ like a hideous blue water tower in the middle of a meadow! It’s fascinating to see the contrast between extreme typical New Jersey and extreme atypical New Jersey; both of them created by humans. Seeing that middle finger of a water tower jutting out of the land and a short walk in any direction towards Scott’s Turf, vinyl siding, drainage ditch and tennis courts is an abrupt reminder that the meadow is no accident.

Limited physical access as well as the site’s history gives it a Weird, N.J. mystique. No direct roads lead to the meadow; it has to be accessed by foot or by an Essex County Parks Department vehicle, if you can roll like that. You can park your car on nearby streets or illegally (at your own risk) in the condominium complex built near the space. The entire reservation is actually the former home of the Essex Mountain Sanatorium and also the Overbrook Insane Asylumóreason enough, †to make a trip, if you ask me. †Incidentally, you won’t find spoon-feed directions in this blog post because Google does it better and your quest to find the spot will make the entire journey sweeter.

How many times in New Jersey do you get a chance to see an environment go from established back to its natural form? "Every frickin’ day" some of you will sayóempty lots; the yards of bottom-shelf neighbors and passive land in town/county/state parks. But the hilltop meadow is an environment where a lot of human effort is not thwarting nature but alllowing it to thriveóminus all the invasive weeds and big box store plants that have proliferated the garden state.

Invasive weeds? The next time you take the train into Hoboken, look out the window. See those mini-palm looking trees (ailanthus) and that stuff that kind of looks like flat leaf parsley (mugwort)? Those are invasive weeds. Wanna’ see big-box store plants? Look in your neighbor’s yard.
A Monarch Butterfly caterpillar late in the season
© Native Bergen
All right, NativeBergen, I’m ready for my close-up.

When you finally do get there, take a slow and meditative walk through the one reluctant path that runs through the grass. Listen for sounds, at your feet in the grass around you and overhead. Smell the air. Try to identify the different scents that come to mind. Let your eyes focus on the individual plants close up and then the entire space, as a whole. Bring a camera, definitely, but keep your hands to yourself. It will be good for you to leave the plants, seeds, flowers and stems just as they are. It may look like a field of wheat but it’s actually the Bergen Mall for a host of wild animals that live in and visit the hilltop meadow. If you see any trash, pick it up; take it back home and throw it away, there.

The hilltop meadow’s environmental impact is priceless in a place like evil, suburban, New Jersey. But for NativeBergen, we’re jazzed by its creators’ inspiration to make the space. Theresa Trapp and her Hilltop cohorts are not claiming to be artists but their nature preserve means preserve nature ethos makes this space unique and inspiring. If you feel stifled by the guardrail and stripmall aesthetic that runs rampant from Newark all the way to Nyack then by all means go visit the prairie meadow in the hilltop. You will experience some different New Jersey and hopefully come away a little different yourself. †Get out of the house. Take leave of your gray/beige walled cubicle. †Visit the hilltop meadow, where solace and primal inspiration await you.October 24, 2011|Posted in OUTSIDE, PLACES|Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments|Permalink to The Hills are Alive with Native PlantsTrackback URL for this item

and tagged , , , ,


  1. you rule...i love this fred morrone April 6, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    • Hi Fred! It will never get old hearing from you. I'm looking forward to the warm weather so I can meet up and blog about your green thumb friends. When you get to work there will be green gifts on your desk from me. (Yuzu!) óNativeBergen April 9, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Leave a Comment

* (Never published nor shared.)

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>