Underfoot: THE CIGAR TREE

By Susan Sprout

A “Cigar Tree” or Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) used to grow in a yard along my route to and from elementary school. We kids loved it and pretended “smoking” the long, bean-like seed pods if we were lucky enough to find some that had fallen to the ground. Kids! What can I say?
Now that the Catalpas have lost their large six to twelve inch leaves, you can easily look up and identify them by the “cigars” that have been left hanging there until springtime. Botanists use the name “silique” when referring to this type of dry fruit that splits in half between the two chambers where the seeds develop. The slender siliques range in length from ten to twenty inches. When pulled apart, the revealed seeds are flat with papery wings at each end and fringed with fine hairs – perfect for wind dispersal.

Looking upward to see the hanging seed pods

This particular species of Catalpa is the northernmost New World example of its tropical family – Bignoniaceae or Trumpet-creeper Family which has about 700 different flowering plants and trees in it that are mostly native to warmer places than Pennsylvania! Northern Catalpas can grow as tall as sixty feet with branches spanning from twenty to forty feet. The perfect shade tree for a large yard. Their dense foliage provides great shelter for birds when it rains. In late spring, large bunches of white trumpet-shaped flowers with purple spots and stripes inside entice hummingbirds and bees in to pollinate them.

The six-inch ruler shows length of Catalpa seed pods

Early settlers planted Catalpa for its straight-grained wood that was good for fence posts, RR ties, telephone poles, and furniture. It is a fast grower topping twenty feet in ten years and blooming in about three years. Its important medicinal uses back then were for bronchial problems and swellings. Pharmacological research today has shown that some tree parts have diuretic properties. 

Dried pod showing 1 to 2 inch seeds

Both Catalpas, Northern and Southern species, are host trees of the Catalpa Sphinx Moth (Ceratomia catalpa) that lays eggs on the leaves. The caterpillars grow nice and fat feasting on the leaves…so juicy and plentiful that people, especially in the southern parts of their range, plant lots of Catalpas in order to have plenty of “Catalpa worms” to bait their hooks when fishing for Largemouth bass.

Underfoot: GETTING TO THE ROOT OF THINGS at #PLANTSGIVING TIME!

By, Susan Sprout

For the past two years, the NPC blog has informed folks about an intriguing homework assignment given by Dr. Chris Martine, Professor of Plant Genetics and Research, to his students at Bucknell University. They are required to count and record the number of different plants and plant parts used to prepare their annual Thanksgiving feast. The results of this social media campaign are publicized using Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. What a great idea! In a small and personal way, the students and other people taking part in this by creating food for each other, are made more aware of the number and variety of plants they depend upon to accomplish the task. Then, perhaps, every time they cook something and eat it, they will be mindful of the great treasure we have in plants of all kinds. One hopes that public interest plus the knowledge and awareness gained from such as exercise will help us be more careful guardians of the natural world around us – its unique ecosystems and biodiversity and the connectivity of everything and everyone. It must be looked after for life now and the generations to come.

My root veggies (L to R) radishes, rutabaga, turnips, parsnips, carrots

We have to respect what marvelous survivors plants are to have overcome the challenges they met in order to thrive on dry land. Although the oldest fossil remains of land plants are 420 million years old, scientists have found evidence that pond scum first made landfall almost a 100 million years earlier. Think of the many adaptations plants have evolved over time just to be able to absorb water and minerals from dirt. We can’t do that. They have done it for us when we ingest them. They anchor themselves and stand upright, spread out sunlight collectors in order to make their food (and ours) and then store it for lean times. The fleshy, starch-filled roots developed by plants, did not go unnoticed by the early humans who began growing crops between 10,000 and 7,000 B.C. Some of their crops had roots like bulbs, or corms, or rhizomes or tubers or tap roots – many that could be stored for later use.

Taproot tips have smaller rootlets and hairs for better uptake of minerals and water

My learning curve was straight up when I began researching roots, in general. I have just recently added several that I consider edible to my past list of Thanksgiving worthy root vegetables – turnips, radishes, rutabagas, parsnips, and carrots. (OK, carrots were there before.) Botanists refer to these five plants as having “true” roots. What that means is their tap roots are somewhat straight, grow directly downward, have rather tapering shapes with thickened areas for carbohydrate storage. And they do store well when we keep them in cooler places at 32 to 40 degrees F. The turnips, radishes and rutabagas are all members of Brassicaceae or Cabbage Family. Some refer to it as the Mustard Family or Cruciferae for the cross-shaped petal arrangement of their flowers. Parsnips and carrots are members of a different family, Apiaceae or Parsley Family. Some of their close relatives are the herbs you may be using to season your food – parsley, cilantro, anise, dill, cumin, fennel, celery.

Roasted root veggies. Radishes, exempt from cooking, will be used in a salad.

I must confess, as a child, I pretty much refused to eat any of the root veggies I am now preparing for Thanksgiving. Roasted together with onion slices (another type of root vegetable) and preserved lemons, they are quite delicious. The use of an acid, like lemon juice, will decompose geosmin molecules that give many root vegetables an earthy, musty smell. Give them a try and don’t forget to write “lemon” on your list of plants. I am now officially rooting for root veggies!

Underfoot: Mock Strawberry or Indian Strawberry

By, Susan Sprout

I guess that most people usually expect to read about strawberries in the spring and summer. This small, low-growing perennial strawberry may just be creeping near the edges of your yard right now. Still mowing to mulch your leaves?

Compare plant size with spruce needles

Mock Strawberry or Indian Strawberry loves foot traffic AND mowing AND may still be blooming in your yard. Look for it! I took photos of mine in flower during the first week of November. The yellow flower made me stop and check it out. Then I found some bright red fruits nearby.

Look for the pointed sepals going every-other-one with the three-toothed bract leaves on the bloom without petals

Potentilla indica, previously known as Duchesnea indica, is a member of the Rose Family and came to live in this country from Southeast Asia because people thought it was a pretty ornamental plant that makes a great ground cover. Boy, does it cover the ground! Its reddish stolons, or runners, take off horizontally to root here and there at the nodes where its toothed-leaves emerge. Those leaves are palmate and made up of three leaflets. Blooms appear singly and have five small, pointed sepals and five larger, toothed bracts in alternating whirls under their five yellow petals. After pollination by small bees and flies, the fruit, less than an inch long, appears – pointing upward, making it highly visible. You can clearly see the seeds attached all over the outside of the strawberry like red goosebumps.

The fruits showing their seeds

These are not the yummy, sweet, succulent, strawberries of spring. They are small, relatively dry, spongy, and tasteless. Edible, but who would want to? Ha! Birds, squirrels, rabbits, mice, raccoons, deer. This extensively naturalized import does have wildlife benefits! Actually, humans have benefited from these plants for hundreds, if not thousands of years, because of their medicinal qualities: fresh leaf poultices for skin ailments and insect bites, tea for cold symptoms, probably due to vitamin C, D, and iron content. Recent research shows properties that act against the squamous cell activities of various cancers. 

Don’t confuse Indian or Mock Strawberry with the Wild Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana, that grows in Pennsylvania. Our native plant has white flowers, blooms in the spring, and has its seeds tucked up inside its fruits!

Underfoot: STRIPED MAPLE AKA MOOSEWOOD

By, Susan Sprout

How beautiful the leaves are this fall! Our hills and mountains appear upholstered with green leaves during the growing season. Now with the lessening of sunlight due to shorter days, the leaves have begun shutting down their food production. As the amount of chlorophyll, the green color, slowly fades from the leaves, other pigments in them become visible – xanthophylls (yellows), carotenoids (oranges), and anthocyanins (reds to purples). Sometimes all the colors may be displayed in a single leaf!

At the edge of the woods, this Striped Maple is getting more sunlight.

Right now, Striped Maples (Acer pensylvanicum) are excellent examples of brilliant yellow. Small understory trees hardly getting above sixteen feet tall, they just shine out like beacons from the shadows under the taller mixed hardwoods where they like to grow. Look for the leaf shape as you walk or ride along the back roads. They differ from the common maple leaves because they are bigger, up to seven inches long as well as across, too. They are three-lobed instead of five-lobed…and the lobes point straight forward instead of out to the side. The pointed tips of the lobes are long and thin. With such a large leaf area, I’ll bet those points act like drip tips to help drain off the rain that beads up on them. The leaf base is rounded where its reddish stem and its three main veins meet together at the bottom. As an understory tree, the development of them is slow, but will accelerate when an opening with more light becomes available. Then they can grow up to thirty feet tall with trunks eight inches in diameter. Their range is from Nova Scotia to the North Georgia mountains and west to Michigan and Ohio. They grow in cool, rocky woods and seem to prefer slopes. At least, that’s where I saw most of the ones I was stalking for a photograph!

Green and white striped trunk.

The striped part of the common name refers to the easily-identified outer layer of bark that is green with white vertical stripes when the tree is young. It darkens up with time to brown, but those stripes are still quite visible. Striped Maples may live for a hundred years. Indeed, they must be very hardy because they get chewed on a lot. Rabbits, deer, beaver, porcupine, and the caribou and moose populations of our more northerly neighbors, all browse on them at one time or another during the year. Some resources indicate that this type of maple can start to regain twigs and leaves as stump sprouts rather quickly, about two months, after being denuded and trimmed to the roots. Their roots which are shallow and wide-spreading, make the trees strongly competitive for soil moisture and nutrients. Our colonial ancestors fed green and dried leaves of this tree to their cattle in winter and would turn them out early in spring to graze on the newly growing foliage in the woods near their fields. Today, tests are underway to determine if there is a practical application for an active anti-tumor substance isolated from Striped Maples.

Check out the long, skinny leaf tips!

Underfoot: AMERICAN DITTANY

By, Susan Sprout

American Dittany, Cunila origanoides, is a perennial plant in the Lamiaceae or Mint Family. “American” is attached to its common name because there are other plants native to Europe with the same name. The second part of its scientific name indicates that this plant resembles Oregano. Not too surprising, as quite a few of our cooking herbs are classified in the Mint Family as well. In fact, along with square stems and opposite leaves, aroma is one of the BIG family traits. Basil, Sweet Marjoram, Sage, Lemon Balm. Rosemary – to name just a few. There are lots – that are mostly native to other continents.

Check out the opposite and slightly serrated leaves of an upright plant.

I accidently became acquainted with American Dittany almost forty years ago as I tried cliff climbing near a creek. My boot slipped, and I grabbed the nearest rocky ledge. My reward was two fold: 1) I did not fall; 2) I was suddenly blessed with an amazing aroma from the plant growing nearest to my nose. Through all the following years of visiting that cliff and those plants, I have become aware of the decrease in their population. When I climb up to find them, I have to look and step really carefully in order to get photos. They now appear smaller than the reference books’ height of eight to sixteen inches. I missed their blooming time this year occurring from August to October. None of the plants I saw had their tiny, two-lipped purple flowers or the dried remains of them. Maybe they didn’t have the stored energy in their fibrous root system to reproduce.

This plant was hanging over the edge.

American Dittany or Stone-mint or Frost-mint is native to this continent from New York to Florida and west to Texas and Illinois. It tends to grow in dry forests and in the thin soils of rock outcrops, especially where vegetation is sparse. The serrated, lance-shaped leaves, dotted with oil glands (the scent), are opposite and stalkless, flowering from their axils. The wiry stem is brown and appears woody. When rolled between my fingers, I can feel the bumps that make it “squared”. In some resources, American Dittany is dubbed as a “sub-shrub” which is a dwarf, woody plant. I have not yet witnessed the reason this plant received a common name of Frost-mint. Evidently, when the watery sap pushes out at the bottom of a stem that has been cracked open by a hard freeze, it freezes into ribbon-like projections around the base looking like “frost flowers”! I would love to get a photo of that! I may have to let that task to someone younger and more agile. At my age, I probably shouldn’t be climbing around on cliffs in the slipperiness of winter.

Sometimes I find more than plants – a message for all mankind!

Underfoot: WHAT IS THE SMALLEST FLOWER IN THE WORLD?

By, Susan Sprout

Did you ever go to the Library of Congress site named “Everyday Mysteries”? Luckily, I found it and the above question along with its surprising answer – Watermeal. Ever heard of that? I hadn’t, but I had seen the plant itself just four days earlier, growing in a pond as I walked the trail at Lime Bluff. What a coincidence! It is a joy to walk and bird and look at plants and trees there. That’s when I saw a completely green pond. Yuck, I thought, a total algae takeover! Then a slight wind arose, and all the green lazily swirled and parted to expose the water’s surface. NOT algae – because it would have stayed clumped together. I put my hand in the water and out it came, covered with lots of tiny green bumps. The plants were miniscule like poppy seeds and felt like them, too. 

The green pond.

I couldn’t wait to check out my PA plant reference. There I found Watermeal. Its other small relatives were listed and described, too, as species of Duckweed. But Watermeal is a different species and in a different genus and definitely the smallest of the whole bunch. Wow, the smallest flowering plant in the world growing nearby!

Using my binocular microscope and the grid pattern in the bottom of a Petri dish full of green specks, I was able to measure them – ranging from one-half to one millimeter long. Remember, there are 25.4 millimeters in an inch. Now, look at a ruler and be amazed at how tiny these plants really are! I am!

A closer look.

They have no roots, no veins, no stem. Just an oval-shaped leaf called a frond, kept afloat by tiny cavities filled with the oxygen made when they photosynthesize in the sunlight. They don’t bloom often, using their single anther (male part) and their solitary pistil (female part) to make one almost invisible seed. Most of the time Watermeal will reproduce vegetatively by making clones that emerge from budding pouches, located at one end of their fronds. The parent plant and clone may stay together for a while. In the fall, a special clone filled with starch called a “winter turion” is produced. The accumulated starch makes the turion heavier than water and it sinks, to overwinter on the pond bottom, using the starch to stay viable. It will rise in spring after making enough oxygen to create buoyancy. One resource indicated that Watermeal can cover an entire pond within a few weeks after arising from the pond bottom.

An even closer look at Watermeal.

Watermeal’s scientific name is Wolffia brasiliensis. It is a member of the Arum Family, like Skunk Cabbage, Green Dragon, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit…a morphologically divergent member of the Arum Family. Recent DNA testing got the whole Duckweed Family classified as a sub-family within the Arum Family. Watermeal, native to both North and South America, is considered an annual plant. It grows in the fresh water of ponds, sinkholes, swamps and slow-moving streams. Many times, it is found floating among its larger Duckweed relatives.

A lot of research is being done with Duckweeds (Lemna) and Watermeal (Wolffia) because of their effective up-taking of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, pathogens, and toxins in the mitigation of polluted waters. With that kind of nutritious diet, some species can double every 36 hours. The downside is they need to be removed from the water before they die and release all of the contaminates back into the same water.

Underfoot: SHINGLE OAK

By, Susan Sprout

Question: When does an oak leaf not look like an oak leaf?

Answer: When it is a Shingle Oak Leaf!

We’ve been taught there are two groups of oaks: white oaks whose leaves have rounded lobes on them and red oaks with sharp pointed and toothed leaves. Shingle Oak, or Quercus imbricaria, is a type of native red oak that has no points or teeth on its leaves – just nice smooth edges. Occasionally they may be found growing on moist hillsides or in bottom lands. I spied one walking on Canfield Island last week. I did not know what it was. The tree caught my eye because of its shiny, dark green leaves that looked sort of like rhododendron leaves only smaller and not leathery. I found a small bunch of leaves that had fallen, or been chewed off the tree, lying beneath it. They were smooth-edged, ranging in size from four to six inches long and were lightly furred underneath by very short, tannish hairs. I had to use my magnifier to determine that. Of course, it was all of the acorns growing on and lying beneath it that really clued me in…IT’S A SPECIES OF OAK! 

This Shingle Oak could grow to 100 feet in height.

Shingle Oaks are more frequently found west of here in the Ohio and Mississippi River Valley regions. They are commonly used as ornamentals, and this one may well have been planted here. What a treat to find and identify it! 

Twig of Shingle Oak leaves

Shingle Oaks flower in May when their leaves are about half-grown. Their acorns will then be ripe about eighteen months later. The species name imbricaria is Latin for “like a shingle” which could indicate its use as a source of hand-split shingles or shakes. Or, maybe, because of the caps on the small brown acorns that have wedge-shaped, pointed scales overlapping to resemble a shingled roof.

Acorns are about 1/2 inch in length 

How many native animals and insects need native oak trees for food or habitat? Of 435 species of oaks worldwide, 91 are found in the United States AND support more caterpillar species than any other genus of plants in all of North America – not to mention all the animals that eat acorns. Read more about them in Doug Tallamy’s book, “The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees.”

Underfoot – A GATHERING OF TRUE BUGS (Eastern Boxelder Bugs)

By, Susan Sprout

I was surprised recently by a large amount of insects sitting on the leaves of some Great Lobelia plants.  Maybe “amazed” would be a better word for it. There were a lot of them. I needed to identify them and learn why they were gathering there. Here’s what I learned – they are our native Eastern Boxelder Bugs. Considered “true” bugs because adults have piercing, sucking mouth parts and a characteristic triangle shape between the tops of their leather-like wings. The younger bugs with them are nymphs with bright red bodies, black antennae and legs. You can find them easily in the photo because they are the ones with small slate gray or black patches on their backs. These are their wing buds. When the nymphs emerged from eggs, they were only 1.3 mm in length. (There are 25.4 mm in an inch.) So tiny! Because they are invertebrates, or animals without backbones, they are held together, supported, protected by an exoskeleton made of chitin. It is stiff and hard. When the nymphs begin to grow, they must shed and replace that rigid exoskeleton with a new larger one in order to get bigger and attain adulthood with sexual organs and wings. They need to molt five different times, becoming darker red as they mature. The red V on the back of an adult is created by its folded wing edges. The other, larger red marks on their bodies may serve as a warning to predators that they are distasteful because they contain a pungent, bad-tasting compound. Preying mantis and spiders eat them anyway. Few birds will eat them. They sun together in large groups on warm surfaces. All of that red in one place probably serves to keep hungry predators from munching on them. 

Masses of Boxelder Bugs

Boxelder Bugs feed almost entirely on the developing seeds of boxelder, maple, and ash trees. They will suck juices from the leaves, but prefer the seeds. They do not sting or transmit diseases and are not classified as a pest. They can be found east of the Rockies in woods and gardens. There is a similar species that lives west of the Rockies. In autumn, swarms of females can be seen looking for thick piles of plant debris in which to overwinter. They emerge in spring to lay eggs which are hidden in bark crevices, under leaves in safe areas. 

Look for the nymphs with small wing buds mixed in with adults

Sometimes Boxelder Bugs are confused with the Eastern Milkweed Bugs that are reddish-orange and black in color. They are true bugs, too. Get yourself a bug book and check them out!

Nymphs of Eastern Milkweed Bugs on a seedpod

Tracking the Wild Mammals of Pennsylvania

A white tail deer track (outlined in yellow) nestled amongst the leaves of native trees and stellaria media. The common name for this wild edible is chickweed. Chickweed is a great source of food for white tails throughout the winter as it can grow all winter long and survive underneath the snow.

Ever wonder who lives among us in the Pennsylvania Woods? We found this nifty project called “The Mammal Atlas” that will take place over a 10 year period, and is a  project that seeks to answer that very question.It is a living document that tracks  and records the wild mammals of our region as well as throughout the entire state.

The project is done in partnership with the PA Game Commission, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the US Fish and Wildlife Service and many others. Additionally, some of the work and data collection is done by volunteers. 

On the home page there is a map that allows you to click on your county of interest and see what has been found to date.
There is even a check list which tells you if the animal is native, endangered and its ranking within the state. http://pamammalatlas.com/

They have this to say about using volunteers for their data collection,
“our best resource for collecting widespread data is you, the citizen scientists, submitting photographs and locations of the mammals you observe.”

Here is a cool info-graphic to get you started with identifying the mammals and birds of our region. Whether you volunteer with the Mammal Atlas or not, identifying wild animal tacks can be a great way to familiarize yourself with your local wildlife  and find out who is keeping you company on the trails or in your fields.

**As the snow begins to fall this is the perfect time to track and find who is out and about in the forests and fields of our regions. But be careful out there, if there are tracks near by, there could also be a critter nearby too. Always use caution when encountering wild animals and never provoke them or approach them.

Every Project Begins With a Story: The Kelley/New Garden Acquisition

 

Every project at NPC begins with a story. The story of family and community, and their connection to the land and waters of the region. But the story doesn’t begin and end there. With each project there is an arc. You know, the kind of arc your fourth grade English teacher taught you about, the arc of a narrative story…it kinda looks like a roller coasteror a mountain range… 

 

…kinda like a Pennsylvania mountain range 

But I digress…

A Classic Narrative

The story of how NPC conserves land is like a classic narrative in that it has a beginning, middle and an end. It’s never linear, and often it starts in the dark of night, on a Sunday afternoon, or in the middle of a rain storm.

There are many peaks and valleys, yes literally, but also figuratively. In the case of Kelley/New Garden, many players needed to play their part for the success of the acquisition. John Steinbeck couldn’t have made this stuff up!

A Cast of Characters

This story contains interesting characters whose paths cross and link through the acquisition of the land. County Commissioners, biologists, State Senators and Representatives, judges, lawyers and even a priest worked together to create communications and opportunities for the acquisition to move forward. Then there were the Kelley Estate heirs who had to agree to sell their portions of the estate in support of the partnership and conservation of the land, as well as the members of the West Keating Township community who used the land for generations to hunt, fish and at one time make their living. And last, but certainly not least, NPC’s director, Renee’ Carey and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s, Thom Woodruff, would work to partner with all of them to ensure the successful outcome of the project and the acquisition of the land. If I told you everyone who took part in the success of this acquisition, including NPC donors,  the list alone would be something like the opening of a JRR Tolkein saga!

The Climax

An aspect of the climax came when the Clinton County Courts deeded the property to NPC. The next step at year two in the acquisition project, was to transfer ownership of the property to the Bureau of Forestry and the PA Game Commission. The two state agencies would then work to decide how the property would be divided. Once these decision could be made the Conservancy and the Elk Foundation would begin to move forward with the sale. This would take another 2 years. Who knew where this story would end?!

A Happy Ending

For one week, in 1999, NPC was the proud owner of 4,200 acres of Clinton County Forest. A week later, the land was turned over to The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to help offset the insurance costs. Then in the summer of 2001, 3,100 acres were dedicated as State Game Lands 321, and 1,100 acres became part of the Sproul State Forest. A happy ending for a four year project.

Today the property is comprised of fields, woods, food plots, meandering runs, steep wooded side hills and 3 1/2 miles of river frontage along the West Branch of the Susquehanna.

There’s Always More to the Story

We hope you enjoyed this post, it is part of a series of pieces highlighting the stories of NPC’s work in the region. Until next time…