By Susan Sprout

The sunny and bright-blue Thursday afternoon last week had me convinced – spring had sprung! Exploring creekside to see which plants were erupting from sand tucked around the beach rocks, I was amazed and delighted by an aerial bombardment of the riffles there. Yes! And I made all the appropriate vocalizations to go along with that surprising display – a downward “eeeerow” and an explosive “bsssh” when contact was made with the water’s surface! Hundreds of tiny female insects were diving, submerging, and letting go of yellowish egg sacs emerging from their backsides. Had to find out more about them.

A Rolled-wing Stonefly casts her shadow on a warm rock.

I already knew about types of insects that live underwater because I have tied flies for fishing that mimicked various forms of “aquatic” insects. They live, eating and changing through their life stages, sometimes for several years, before they swim or crawl or fly out of the water all grown up and ready to mate. Obviously, the ones I saw had completed that last step and were seeding the creek with the next generation. For a while, I thought maybe the flights were a kamikaze-type with no survivors. Soon after, as I kept watching, the flying insects became swimming insects, landing on shore to sit on rocks in the sun. Were they resting before the next flight or had they completed their missions and would die there? Time for photos!

Check out the rounded wing edges on the stonefly on the right.

It turns out those ten to twenty millimeter long insects are (or were) members of the Leuctridae Family of Stoneflies. This family consists of over 390 species found on all continents of the Northern Hemisphere. So tiny! Their slender transparent wings didn’t just fold across each other down their backs to lie flat, but were cylindrical and appeared to wrap around the sides of their bodies. They are commonly known as Rolled-wing Stoneflies, also Needleflies or Willowflies. Adults develop in early spring unlike some other kinds of stoneflies that make their transitions later in the spring and summer. The adults I saw looked light-colored in the air as they flited toward the creek from their resting places on nearby tree branches. Once on the rocks, they appeared dark brown or black with their wing veins showing nicely.

I have never seen the yellow-colored larval forms of Rolled-wing Stoneflies. Illustrations show they are very thin for slithering between layers of leaves piled up underwater. They are considered “shredding detritivores” because they pull apart decaying leaves and gather nutrients that grow upon them, like fungus, algae, and bacteria. I have touched leaves submerged for long periods of time and found them covered with a slippery film. That must be what the larvae eat.

The adults are not very strong fliers according to some resources. I was able to snatch one out of the air as she flew by me. That was when I looked under her wings and discovered the egg sac on her backside!

Underfoot: Hibernaculum – A Tent for Winter Quarters

By Susan Sprout

Another Latin word in my ever-expanding vocabulary of all things botanical and biological…a place where a creature seeks refuge.

Lots of different animals – insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals like bats and rodents and bears – require shelters to overwinter. Recently my hibernaculum was in Fort Myers.

Spruce budworm (?) on the cold snow

We just returned to Pennsylvania in time for a lovely snowy day and a chance, finally, to try out new cross-country skis. Looking down as I glided past a stand of Norway spruce, I discovered an interesting black shape lying on the snow directly below them. Picking it up, I saw it was a fat worm – maybe some kind of spruce budworm. It was stiff as a board and hard as a rock. In my pocket for safe-keeping until I could identify it, the worm warmed up. By the time I skied to the truck and placed it on the hood for a photo shoot, its body had softened up – a lot! It rolled over.

Side-view of the worm (?) that will grow up to be a moth

This worm had turned from a hard nugget to a creepy-crawly. Hmmm…Wonder why.

Insects that do not migrate have to do something to avoid freezing to death. Some clump together in rock crevices or bury themselves in plant debris or dirt. My critter, if it is a spruce budworm, spins itself a silky hibernaculum attached to spruce buds as protection.

The heavy snow we had may have plopped down from a branch above, dislodging the worm from its abode. Certain death for it, but happy the bird that could have found it lying there on top of the snow. I intervened.

But, something else must have been going on to keep that worm stiff as a board and hard as a rock.  That “something else” is a process called “diapause” which halts an insect’s growth and keeps it in a state of suspended animation.

Insects like budworms can be stimulated to begin diapause by the length of daylight, temperature, and the biochemicals in the plants they consume – all signaling that environmental conditions are about to change. Internally, genetic programming in their tiny brains readies them with their own special bodily changes in hormones, cell chemicals, and enzymes.

These, in turn, stimulate changes in behavior such as searching for suitable overwintering sites. Low metabolism, arrested growth and anti-freeze proteins called cryoprotectants increase the depth of diapause. Tissues and cells can freeze but do not rupture from ice crystals formed from water inside of and around them.

Diapause slowly decreases and its end can occur abruptly when a budworm leaves its hibernaculum in early May.

Unless, of course, it gets dislodged from its hibernaculum and picked up by some crazy two-legger!

Underfoot: RuBisCO – An Enzyme We Can Count On!

By Susan Sprout

The great enjoyment I get by writing this plant blog is sometimes overshadowed by the amazing things I learn while doing it:  how plants grow and where, their uses over time, their development and evolution. Questions always appear in my mind that make me want to dig a little deeper. So I jot them down, making lists of ideas, quotes, plant names to look into later. RuBisCO was one I wrote down last year – what is it? What’s it do? Why do we need it?

Chickweed – still going strong in February

RuBisCO is an enzyme, a special class of protein that speeds up the rate of a specific chemical reaction in a cell and can be used over and over without being destroyed. Its full chemical name is Ribulose Bisphosphate Carboxylase/Oxygenase and is found in ALL green photosynthesizing plants, algae, and certain kinds of bacteria in the whole world. It may have evolved over 2.4 billion years ago before the Great Oxygenation Event when cyanobacteria transformed the earth’s atmosphere by producing oxygen through photosynthesis (Science News, UC Davis 8/31/20).

Root veggies from Plantsgiving thanks to RuBisCO!

I began my search with “photosynthesis” and found out that carbon, C numbered 6 on the Periodic Table of Elements, is a main building block of proteins, fats, muscles, DNA, carbohydrates (sugars, starches, cellulose). It constitutes about 18% of the human body mass, not in pure form, but in millions of carbon atoms that form thousands of molecules in just about every one of our cells (maybe 25 pounds worth in an adult) AND the cells of all living organisms on this planet.

Carbon sinks in PA forest. One survived a lightning strike.

But how does carbon get inside us? It is an inorganic element that is locked in minerals like coal, or in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Living things cannot absorb and use it in those forms, unless the carbon is changed into an organic form. Well, that is, except for photoautotrophs – organisms that are able to use the energy of sunlight and inorganic carbon to produce organic carbon in their tissues. RuBisCO is found in all of the lovely green leaves of plants, in the millions of cells that contain chloroplasts containing chlorophyll. There, using carbon dioxide that comes into leaves by way of tiny pores, AND water from plant tissues, AND light energy from sunlight, organic carbon is created by complex chemical reactions in the form of glucose or other sugars that are used as food or stored and oxygen as a by-product that is “exhaled” by the leaves. When the sun shines, the plants make food. Is that neat – created by life… for life!

We can count on RuBisCO to continue on making food for plants and trees and animals, including us. There’s a lot of other “counting” going on in regards to the amounts of carbon being removed from the atmosphere by all the plants and trees. USFS has reported that the photosynthesis done in American forests sequesters over 800 million tons of carbon per year. The trees themselves are considered a carbon sink because wood is made up of about 50% carbon.  At this point in OUR evolutionary history, we need every carbon sink we can get!!

Underfoot:  Sphagnum Moss

By Susan Sprout

It’s Sphagnum Moss, for Pete’s sake! And when it has been decayed and dried, it is called “peat moss.” I found some, alive and well, growing in quite a few places in my lawn and wondered if living on what used to be an old creek bank had anything to do with the moss’s being comfortable (successful and expanding) there. I found out that some species of sphagnum do grow in small patches in drier conditions, getting required moisture from local rainfall. But mostly, they live in wet bogs, coniferous forests, and moist tundra. There may be as many as 380 species growing worldwide. Peat bogs occur in almost every country of the world and on all of the continents, where they account for nearly half of the world’s wetlands. With some ranging as deep as fifty feet, bogs cover 3% of the world’s surface. According to various resources, they can store an amazing 30% to 44% of the earth’s soil carbon.

Sphagnum in my yard

Sphagnum mosses are a true moss (Phylum Bryophyta) that have no internal vessels for carrying water or nutrients, and are therefore limited in height. At the top of a plant is a dense cluster of young leafy branches. Small leaves that gather a majority of the plant’s energy do not have a mid-rib. They are made up of two kinds of cells – small, living, green ones that photosynthesize and larger, structural dead cells that have a huge water holding ability. Sphagnum can hold from sixteen to twenty-five times its dry weight, depending on the species.

Recent close-up of Sphagnum plants

Sphagnum is also non-flowering and reproduces by spores that form in capsules about a half inch above the ground. When matured and dried, the built-up tension within the capsule blows the lid off, dispersing minute spores (50 microns) in a vortex ring that travels at a speed of twelve feet per second. The donut-shaped spore cloud, similar to the smoke rings produced by cannon fire and cigar smokers, has been verified by high-speed photography to carry them upwards to heights of four to eight inches. Just what they need in order to catch the breeze for a good, long flight! On landing, the spores produce tiny, thread-like filaments that will bud and grow into more leafy moss plants. The plants especially in bogs can also reproduce by fragmentation. When a person or an animal slogs through, breaking apart the mosses and distributing the pieces, they float away and keep on growing. New plants eventually bury old plants. The acidic and watery and low oxygen conditions slow down the process of decomposition of the dead plants that keep being pushed down and compacted by what is growing above. Layer after layer of this slow buildup creates peat moss at the rate of about a millimeter a year. Carbon from the atmosphere captured and locked into the sphagnum’s tissues by photosynthesis makes peat bogs the largest terrestrial store of carbon in the world. The opposite occurs, of course, when people mine, drain, and dig up the peat bogs which have taken thousands of years to form. It adds a whopping two billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which is 5% of the carbon total yearly.

A red species of sphagnum growing in a conifer forest in Sullivan County

Peat bogs provide habitat for a wide variety of peatland plants that like acidic living conditions – wild orchids, carnivorous plants, huckleberries, cranberries, as well as for plants that need a stable and dependable water supply like black spruce and hemlock seedlings. Turtles, frogs, insects, birds, benefit, as well. Twigs of acid-loving shrubs that grow in or near the bogs provide browse for deer, rabbits, and moose in the north. Muskrats and beavers and their predators visit, too. In the United States, about one-third of the country’s endangered and threatened species live in wetlands such as bogs. With low rates of decay, botanists and scientists that study weather patterns can look at preserved plant fragments and pollen to figure out past environments.

For more information, please check out the following:
            World Wetlands Day instituted by the United Nations, and celebrated every February 2nd. (I should have written this article two weeks ago.)
             SWAMP Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program, a joint program through the Center for International Forestry Research, US Forest Service, Michigan Tech and Oregon State University.

A Little Allocapnia Along the Stream

Recently, staff visited a couple of past streambank stabilization projects while also looking at some sites for the 2023 construction season (which gets underway in March!!!).

At a site that had streambank stabilization done in 2018 and trees planted in 2019, we found this guy.

The stonefly in this photo is an adult Allocapnia (genus) in the family Capniidae, more commonly known as the “Tiny Winter Blacks” or “Snowflies”. They typically emerge as adults during the coldest part of the winter. So, the adults have very short, non-functional wings (visible in the photo), because air temperatures are often too cold for insects to fly during frigid winter days. Instead of flying, adult Allocapnia stoneflies move around by crawling on snow, ice, substrates, and vegetation (including trees).

Do you see the end of the log??

Thanks to Dave Rebuck for sharing this entomology lesson!

After the stream work to stabilize the streambanks, fencing was installed to keep the cows away from the stream. Can you tell how far under the fence strands the cow can reach??
We often focus on the macroinvertebrates and fish habitat created with these projects. Here’s an example of other animals who often have new habitat after a project.

Thank you to all the landowners who work with us, and all the donors who make it possible to reduce sediment and clean-up local streams.

Underfoot: Sprucing up the Blog – Norway Spruce

By Susan Sprout

No pun intended! Recent photos of snow-decorated Norway Spruce inspired me to learn more about them. And I did! I first checked the etymology of the word “spruce” and discovered it was an alteration of “Pruce” or Prussia known as “Spruceland.” Evidently, they must have had a lot of European Spruce growing there. Masts of sailing ships were made from their large, straight trunks, and the best ones came from Prussia.

Norway Spruces on a snowy day

Prussia also had a great reputation for its leather goods. Folks in the 1400’s wearing fine leather jerkins or jackets made in Prussia were considered “All spruced up.” You can just imagine how that comment traveled and morphed in definition through the centuries to “looking neat and trim.”

Drooping lower branches that have died

There seem to be a lot of Norway Spruces in our area. In the 1930’s, one hundred million were planted by the Civilian Conservation Core as reforestation projects all across the vast open areas of the northeast that had been denuded by various lumber barons’ business practices. Since then, many more have been planted as shade trees, shelter belts for wind protection, Christmas trees, and as plantations for lumber and pitch. There are more than one hundred and fifty different cultivars of Norway Spruce, many of them dwarfs for landscaping, when someone doesn’t want a hundred-foot tree in the yard.

Ground litter showing cones before and after squirrel munching

Norway Spruce (Picea abies) is an evergreen and cone-bearing member of the Pine Family, along with larches, firs, hemlocks, Douglas firs, and pines. It is not a native tree here, nor is it native to Norway as its name suggests. This species of spruce originated in Eurasia, the Black Forest, and other parts of the European continent way before moving into what is now the Kingdom of Norway, sometime around 500 BC, where it became the National Tree. Of the thirty-five species of spruce found in the northern temperate and boreal regions on earth, it is the most commonly planted tree in North America and Europe.

The growth habits of Norway Spruce can help with its identification – living in the deep woods or in town. Seedlings are fast growers during their first twenty-five years under good conditions, which would be humid and cool with moist soil. They have a striking pyramid-shaped crown of spreading branches which thins out as it ages. Twigs droop, and lower branches can dip to touch the ground, then tend to die off. The evergreen needles are four-sided, stiff, and sharply pointed (painfully sharp). The young twigs and needles of light green spring tips can be used to make Spruce beer and tea which can prevent and even cure scurvy caused by the lack of vitamin C. The bark is a scaly reddish-brown and exudes a very, very sticky resin called “pitch.” That characteristic gave this tree its scientific genus name Picea from the Latin “pix.” Seed production begins after thirty to fifty years of growth, in a life that can reach three hundred years in its natural range. Pollen-bearing pinkish male flowers are clustered along the stems. Green female cones are upright until they become pollinated, then hang down as they ripen and turn brown. Their mature cylindrical cones are the largest of all the spruces, averaging between four and six inches long. And red squirrels love to gnaw through the triangle- shaped scales of the cones and eat the protein-rich winged seeds inside.

As you can imagine, the wood harvested from Norway Spruce has many uses, from lumber to wood pulp. A  particularly interesting one is its use as tonewood in the crafting of musical instruments. Its stiff, but light, wood is good for soundboards because it gives a brighter sound vibration in violins, mandolins, guitars, harpsichords, and pianos. Its reddish-brown resin when purified is made into varnish, especially for those violins and other string instruments.


By Sue Sprout

Greater Celandine plant

Greater Celandine or Swallowwort is a biennial plant of the Poppy Family, Papaveraceae. It is not looking so great right now. Winter is upon us. However, I must say, when I took its photo, Celandine’s rosette of basal leaves had a measurement of twenty inches across, and that’s just from its first year of growth. It is green which means it may still be photosynthesizing during warm spells of full sun when moist air surrounds it. Not bad, indeed. And when you look closely at the light green center of the plant from which the somewhat hairy lobed leaves are growing, you can see where its “greatness” will spring from…in spring. At that time, the plant will put up a flower stem one to two feet tall with lovely four-petaled yellow flowers. This growth spurt would occur about the same time as the swallows began returning on migration to Celandine’s native lands of Eurasia and North Africa. That is why it has the scientific name Chelidonium majus – because the Greek word for swallow is “chelidon”. It flourished in spring when the swallows returned and withered when they departed.

Hairy stem and leaflet backs

Celandine’s range in North America is from N.E. Canada to N. Georgia and west to Missouri. It was probably introduced to this continent by early English settlers in New England, thanks to the Romans who brought it to Britain with them when they invaded. All that transporting from place to place was due primarily to its medicinal qualities. Considering Celandine is in the same family as Opium Poppies, there are many unwanted side effects and reactions. Celandine’s plant juice is a toxic bright yellow-orange latex which contains alkaloids that can cause irritating rashes or allergic reactions in some people when they get it on their skin. This is funny because in earlier times, it was used for removing warts and freckles, eczema and ringworm. Since the juice resembled bile, a fluid made by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, doctors in the Middle Ages used it to treat liver disorders like jaundice and gallstones. Today we know using Celandine plant parts may actually cause liver problems. AND, it is poisonous to chickens!

Amazing Celandine roots and yellow-orange latex from inside them

The seeds of Celandine have fleshy structures attached to them that are rich in fatty acids and proteins, called “elaiosomes”. When the dry seed capsules break apart and drop them to the ground, the seeds act like ant baits. The ants quickly transport the seeds to their nests so that their larvae can eat up all of the lipids and proteins. Yum! The seeds, not so much. They go to a waste disposal area where they are discarded among the dead bodies and frass (ant poop). And there, they germinate – away from the parent plant with no competition for nutrients, water, light. This is an example of mutualism, a win-win situation where both the ants and the plants benefit. As many as 35% of herbaceous plants in Eastern North American forests make seeds with the fatty acid and protein structure on them. Many of the spring plants I have written about in the last two years have used this method of getting their seeds distributed. To name a few: bloodroot, Dutchmen’s Breeches, species of violets, wild ginger, and trout lily.


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.

Survey Ribbons Marks Progress

By Renee’ Carey

You can measure progress in a lot of different ways. One way we’re measuring the progress of cleaning up the Tioga River’s Abandoned Mine Drainage is the colors of survey ribbon on the Coal Creek property. The design for the Active Treatment Plant (ATP) for the Tioga River clean-up is underway and you can see signs of the design process in pink, orange, and blue tied to tree branches and pinned to the ground.

With the help and support of our members and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, we purchased the Coal Creek property in May 2022 to ensure construction access to the largest discharge in the watershed (on a neighboring property). Last week, in January 2023, I spent a little time on the property before a meeting in Blossburg.

The surveyors have been hard at work. There were different colors of ribbon marking roads, paths, and flow paths. I have no idea what they were actually surveying and working through, and that’s okay. I was just super excited to see the ribbon and all the colors of ribbon.

To me, this is the next step. There are people on the ground gathering information and plotting out aspects of the ideas and concepts being considered. Progress!

The engineering firm is on schedule for wrapping up the design work this fall. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission estimates construction of the plant should start next year and cleaner water should be flowing into the Tioga River in two years.

Thank you to all the members and partners that are making this project a reality!

The sunset as I was walking out had similar shades to the survey ribbon!


By, Susan Sprout

I like hikes during the winter months when so many of our green plants turn brown and yucky. Why? Because of the outstanding plants I can find out there that don’t turn brown and yucky…like Yucca flaccida! This plant with the common names of Adam’s Needle and Weak-leaf Yucca and Beargrass was originally classified in the Lily Family (long, floppy leaves), then the Agave Family (long, spine-tipped leaves). Finally, it has been placed in a sub-family (Agavoideae) of the Asparagus Family. What a family history it has! And, it is still green now and photosynthesizing on sunny days. Some references consider it a perennial, evergreen shrub that is native to the North American continent, from Ontario southward and distributed throughout the Appalachian Mountains from North Carolina to Alabama and into Central America and the Caribbean region. Ethnobotanists think its naturalization in such a wide area took place before the Europeans came here. Native people could have traded for it and planted it near their villages for its useful fibers and roots.

Yucca plant with flower stalk remaining

Adam’s Needle has spear-shaped leaves with long, straight threads or filaments on their edges. And then, there’s the sharp, pointed needle at the end of each leaf, waiting to poke the unsuspecting human or animal that backs into it. There are a bunch of other yuccas whose armament is bigger and stands up and out straighter that Yucca flaccida AKA Floppy Yucca. Its stems spread underground creating small colonies and seem to grow better where the soil is dry and sandy. I look for this plant near old homestead sites and places where locals tell me Native American villages once stood. This type of Yucca is pretty hardy, but it does not like too much wind or winter wet which can kill the very center of it.

Look at Yucca leaves to find the needles and the threads

I still haven’t found out why it’s called Beargrass. They don’t eat it – even deer won’t eat it! Its roots contain toxic saponins, that when pounded and mixed with cold water, create soapy lather for bathing and laundry. Biologists believe the plant developed saponins as a defense against soil microbes and browsing animals. Yucca leaves soaked in water and pounded to separate the long fibers can then be twisted together to make ropes.

Look for this plant again in the summertime when it has a three to eight foot tall flower stalk filled with creamy white, bell-shaped blooms. You may be lucky to find some small white moths that seem to blend with the color of the flowers. They are White Yucca Moths that pollinate the flowers. According to the U.S. Forest Service web site, Yucca and Yucca Moths are so interdependent that one cannot live without the other.  As the natural range of the Yucca plants expanded, so did that of the Yucca Moths who desperately need to lay their eggs in the flowers’ ovaries.  These plants have amazing stories. Not yucky, at all!