It’s likely that most Verona residents do not know about the pond adjacent to the White Rock Road athletic fields. The spring-fed pond is the only year-round standing water in the Hilltop Reservation and it has fish, frog, and turtle residents, along with occasional ducks and herons. The pond is named Prisoner’s Pond after the Essex County Prison Annex that occupied the land around it for most of the 20th century. Prior to the prison, the surrounding land was used for farming. The pond’s proximity to the prison made it off limits to the public, isolating it for decades.
After the prison’s closure in 2003, people slowly started to rediscover the pond. More recently, the pond has been the object of the Hilltop Conservancy’s forest regeneration efforts. Recognizing the ecological and recreational benefits of restoring the forest surrounding the pond, in 2017 the Conservancy embarked on a five-year plan to regenerate five acres of it with native trees. For the past year, volunteers have devoted many hours to removing invasive trees and shrubs that had moved into the former pastureland around the pond.
These invasive plants outcompete native species, sometimes dramatically so, as at the pond site where bush honeysuckle dominates. Other invasive species encountered there include Norway maple, multiflora rose, Japanese knotweed, and wineberry – which you may mistake for raspberry while hiking at Hilltop (don’t worry, they are edible). To add insult to injury, the native ash trees at the site were either dead or dying from, you guessed it, an invasive beetle called the emerald ash borer as well as ash yellows syndrome.
Anyone who has hiked past the pond recently may be surprised by what seems like a clear-cut: many stumps and big piles of cut brush. This scene is the culmination of a year’s work to prepare for the Conservancy’s first planting of a variety of native trees, 80 in total. The forest regeneration project is not just about the trees, it is about restoring a stable, balanced ecosystem with the pond at its center. Once the trees are established, they will shelter understory plants and the birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects that require those native flora to survive. Restoration projects like the one at Prisoner’s Pond can be a model for additional forest regenerations at the Hilltop or other locales.
Stop by to visit and witness what will be a lasting legacy for nature’s corner in Verona. Join The Hilltop Conservancy and volunteers the weekend of April 26-28, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day to help plant the new trees. Visit the Conservancy’s website to learn more.