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

Underfoot: WHITE VERVAIN

By, Susan Sprout

A volunteer plant grew near my woodshed – unexpected, but not unappreciated! It appeared over a month ago. I had to wait for it to grow bigger before introducing it to you and getting the photos that would capture its unique physique! Our native White Vervain (Verbena urticifolia) is a member of the Verbena Family, along with about 3,000 other species, mostly from warmer climates. Teak is one of them, prized for its beautiful and durable wood. I have always admired White Vervain and was happy to find it growing nearby. These annual or perennial plants usually choose moist fields, meadows, thickets or waste ground. Well, nothing much grows there except pennyroyal, and there is a downspout nearby. I guess that works in its favor.

Young White Vervain plant. My husband held a rug behind it as contrast in order to show its short flower spikes at its top.

White Vervain plants are compact at their start. When their small, tight, flower spikes appear, the magic begins! Their very slender flower stems begin to stretch out in all directions. The buds on them move further and further apart from each other until they look like little bugs sitting on thin branches. The really tiny white flowers open willy-nilly, here and there, as they mature. I pulled off one of the pollinated flowers and rubbed it gently between my fingers to tease out the four nutlets inside that will create the next generation of plants there. The flower stalks definitely stand out as an identifying characteristic of White Vervain. But, the rest of the plant needs to be checked out, too. It can grow from two to five feet tall, has a hairy, square stem, and stiff, opposite leaves that are doubly-serrated and look like the blades on a steak knife. If you want to look for this plant, it should be flowering from July to September in Pennsylvania. Its close relative, Blue Vervain, can be found inhabiting similar habitats, but has stiff pencil-like spikes of small, blue flowers that appear in a “more organized” fashion resembling a candelabra!

Large plant with expanded flower spikes reaching out in all directions.

Medicinally, Vervains are astringent, or drying, and have been used for millennia crushed up and applied externally to wounds, poison ivy sores and other skin complaints.

Underfoot: PURPLE-FLOWERING RASPBERRY

By, Susan Sprout

Purple-flowering Raspberry’s scientific name is Rubus odoratus. Its genus name is from Latin for “bramble”, defined as a prickly, scrambling shrub or vine of the Rose Family. But, its arching and sprawling branches have reddish-brown hairs that are sticky to touch instead of prickly to touch! This perennial plant is native to eastern North America. Its gorgeous rose-purple flowers that are about two inches wide made it a desired target of plant gathers from England in the 1770’s. It was taken there as an ornamental and has since naturalized as many plants from there have done here!

Purple-flowering Raspberry with five-pointed leaves

The leaves of this shrub resemble maple leaves with a heart-shaped base and three or five triangle lobes. The whole plant can reach to six feet tall. On a ledge or a shaded cliff where they seem to prefer growing, it is hard to get a true measure of their height. Their five-petaled flowers, pollinated by bees and insects, then create a large, flat berry made up of many little druplets. They bloom from May to August and set fruit from July to September depending on local conditions. I have found many adjectives describing the characteristics of these red berries: dry, tart, acid, bland, seedy, fuzzy to touch and on the tongue! Well, songbirds and game birds will eat them. Small mammals, too. The seeds are great for sowing in order to return native plants to an area and the roots work well at stabilizing banks. Many members of the Rubus genus, eighteen grow PA, have been used medicinally because their leaves are highly astringent and helped treat dysentery and diarrhea as well as skin ailments like sores and boils. 

Check out the hairy flower buds and the white, unripened fruit.

Underfoot: Marchantia or Umbrella Liverwort

By, Susan Sprout

The family Marchantiaceae contains a single genus and a single species which in turn has diverged into three sub-species. Marchantia polymorpha is the one I’d like to share with you – another cool and unusual plant growing in PA! Marchantia is a member of a whole group of plants known as Bryophytes which include mosses, hornworts, and liverworts. All are non-vascular land plants because they don’t have veins or tubes like xylem and phloem to carry water and minerals around their bodies. Consequently they are not able to grow as tall as most vascular plants. Marchantia is a liverwort. Someone somewhere probably thought it resembled the lobes of a green liver creeping along the ground. It has been growing on earth since the Cretaceous Era – going back about 252 million years. Because of its age and sustainability, it has been used for over 200 years as a model organism in the investigation of land plant evolution and the development of basic cell mechanisms. Its use has been revived as a modern model plant in order to study plant genetics and evolutionary processes using its DNA. 

Marchantia plant body with cups or gemmae. Spruce needles in the photo should indicate small size of this plant.

Marchantia’s thallus, or body, is held tight to the soil by single-celled, root-like structures called rhizoids which absorb water and nutrients. In fact, the whole thallus is like a thirsty sponge that pulls in water flowing over it and dust settling on it right into its body by the process of osmosis. That would be like you, putting your hand on a plate full of food and absorbing all of its nourishment through your skin into your body! The plant then uses the chlorophyll in its body to make food from the water and mineral nutrients.

Palm trees and umbrellas

Another amazing characteristic of Marchantia are the little cups, or gemmae, scattered across its upper surface. Sections of the plant having them can break off, usually at a fork, and start growing a new thallus. Marchantia can also reproduce sexually with the development of male and female plant parts. Here’s where it got a common name of Umbrella Liverwort – the male reproductive structures look like tiny, scalloped umbrellas! The female reproductive structures resemble very small palm trees. Water is then required, in drips, drops, and splashes from rain or nearby waterfalls, or streams. It is needed to wash the male and female gametes formed inside the umbrellas and palm trees together for the creation of new plants. (Is this too much like “the stork delivering a baby” story?)

Large mat of Marchantia

Marchantia is a cosmopolitan species, occurring from tropical forests to the Arctic tundra. It seems to have a tolerance for lead and  may be an indicator of high lead concentrations where it grows. Mats of liverworts growing on land after forest fires can help fight soil erosion. I guess the name “Palm Tree Liverwort” would make this short plant seem too tall. Hmm?

Municipal Officials Walk Through the First Draft of the Tioga River Mine Drainage Treatment System

The active treatment system that will be cleaning up abandoned mine discharge (AMD) from Coal Creek, Fall Brook, and Morris Run will have pipes moving water to the plant for treatment and then back to the streams for release through three municipalities. Recently, representatives from those municipalities and Tioga County were given an overview of the project concept and then visited several sites that will be used in the Tioga River Mine Drainage Treatment System.

Sami explained the overall concept as well as what infrastructure would be in each municipality.

The group began in the community room at Island Park for the overview.

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) and their engineers from Kleinfelder explained the current plan for how the water would be collected, conveyed to the treatment plant, and then how it will get back to the streams.  

After the overview and some questions the group headed out to see some of the sites being considered for pump stations.

The first stop on the tour was at the largest discharge, the one on Coal Creek. Many members of the group had never seen the discharge before, only heard about it. While the flow was lower than normal, it still impressed many of the attendees with the volume of water coming out of the hillside.

The consultant explained that the entry had collapsed, but had once been the “man entrance” to the mine. After the mining was complete, the entrance had been sloped to make it easier for the water to flow out and other modifications were made to help de-water the area of the mine that was being worked.

Tom (on the left) was explaining to George from Blossburg Borough how the Coal Creek discharge would be captured.

The group then walked down the road to see a potential location for a pump station that will help move the water from the discharge to the treatment plant. The site is along a well-used road. Discussions included known utilities (the consultants will be doing a formal review) and the depth the utilities are set at, as well as conversations related to plowing snow. There will need to be air vents along the lines, and the consultants wanted to ensure the vents won’t damage snow plows or be damaged by the plows.

The old mine road would be reopened to gain access to the Coal Creek discharge. The road the group is standing on would be used to get the water to the active treatment plant. In the next phase of design specific questions will be discussed about how the road will be rebuilt after the pipes are set.

The next stop was Morris Run. The village is named after its stream which is AMD impacted. There are two discharges close together here. These two will be captured and brought together before being conveyed to the treatment plant.

The two discharges in Morris Run are near the Township’s maintenance shop. (which made for easy parking for the tour)

Fall Brook was next. There is a passive treatment system currently treating some of the water from Fall Brook. In a passive treatment system the water flows through a series of limestone treatment cells or ponds. The water slows down and flows through the limestone increasing the pH which allows heavy metals to settle out. The passive system will stay in place and continue to operate with a set volume of water. The flow above that set volume will be directed to the active treatment plant.

The Caribbean blue in the distance, on the left is part of the current passive treatment system for Fall Brook.

The last stop on the tour was the proposed location for the actual active treatment plant. Here questions related to traffic patterns were discussed. There will be materials brought in frequently to keep the plant operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, for years and years.

Now SRBC and the consultants will begin following up with each of the municipalities and discussing details. These detailed discussions will inform the next phase of planning and design. It’s anticipated the next draft design will be presented to the officials in October.

The excitement about a cleaner Tioga River is building!

Underfoot – INDIAN PIPES

By, Susan Sprout

Here is an organism that could be misidentified just by its appearance and where it lives. Dark woods, waxy, white appearance, no chlorophyll. Is it a fungus of some kind, pushing up through the woodland humus? NOPE! It is a perennial plant and a recent addition to the Heath Family – which is surprising, as some of the other members of that family are teaberries, blueberries, cranberries, azaleas, and our state flower, Mountain Laurel. 

Colony of Indian Pipes

Blooming from June to September, its single, bell-shaped flower is a half-inch to an inch long and droops down to keep the rain water out until it has been pollinated by bees and flies that crawl in. As the seeds begin to mature, the flower raises its head upward and the whole plant turns dark brown to black. When dry, the five-sectioned oval seed capsule will split open to disperse them. It is quite a transformation of the whole plant from an all white (or pinkish) pipe-shaped plant, with no leaves, just tiny bracts sometimes having black spots… to the straight up and down black, dried up twig topped with a small pointed oval.

What a lot of common names for such a small and rarely seen plant! Corpse plant, Ghost plant, Ice plant, all referring to its pale presence in the deep, shadowy woods. I’ve always heard it called Indian Pipes because of the plants’ shapes. The scientific name, Monotropa uniflora, refers to the big, one-time upward move done by their one and only flower! 

Indian Pipes with pinkish tinge and black splotches on stems

Lacking the chlorophyll required to make their own food, Indian Pipes receive nourishment through their short, stubby roots from underground mycorrhiza, made up of fungal mycelium that in turn, are associated with photosynthetic trees like oak and pine. It is a three-way relationship, or network, that has actually been proven by scientists who mapped out the progress of radioactive carbon isotopes they used to tag the sucrose that travelled to the tree roots and was absorbed there by the fungus mycelium of Russula mushrooms as food, and then passed on to the Indian Pipes so they could grow. How great is that!

Indian Pipes are native to temperate regions in North America, northern South America and parts of Asia and have been used by many indigenous people living there with them. One interesting medicinal use is a water extraction of the plant for inflamed eyes that is actually antibacterial. The whole plant contains glycosides that may be toxic and should never be eaten.

Transformed Indian Pipes after seeds have matured

Underfoot: The “Holy Cow!” Plant – SALSIFY

By Susan Sprout

I just had to write about this particular plant, especially now, because it has started to set seed. Having often heard references to it on TV nature shows and personally, “Holy Cow! That’s the biggest dandelion I’ve ever seen”, I thought the plant should be correctly identified, given its due, so to speak. That big beige fluff ball of seeds was not made by a dandelion at all, but rather by a plant with the common names of Salsify, Oyster Plant, or Yellow Goatsfoot.  Three common names, three different plants, all found living in PA, and sharing some or all of those common names. They are non-natives, probably brought here from Europe as food plants. The long, narrow, grass-like leaves are edible in salads or cooked. Their long, white roots grow straight down like carrots, and when boiled or baked and eaten, taste somewhat like oysters.

Salsify seed head – Compare the Salsify seed head with the hand below for width size of 4 inches.

These three plants belong to the Aster Family for they all have composite flowers made up of tubular disc florets bunched in the middle with flatter, petal-like ray florets surrounding them on the outside. All are classified in the genus Tragopogan which is Greek for “goat’s foot”. The reason for that name may be because the thin, green bracts that grow beneath each single flower head are longer than the ray florets and stick out past them like a skinny triangle- shaped goat’s beard! Or it could be the fluffy, scruffy seed head.

Salsify flower beginning to open about 9 am.

How do you identify them? By the color of their flowers – yellow or pink. I have had trouble getting a decent photo of their flowers because they all close up by noon. The closed flowers may show a small flash of color at their tops. So, the yellow-flowered ones would be T. dubius and T. praetensis which flower from May to August. Both have similar height (2 – 2 1/2 feet tall) and flower width of two inches. They can grow for ten years before blooming and will then die off after. If you find a pink or purplish flowered one, it is the biennial T. porrifolius. They are taller than the yellow ones – up to four feet! Their two inch wide flowers bloom from May to July.

Salsify flowers closed by noon.

So, when you see some really big seed heads – up to four inches across – in fields, roadsides, waste places or in someone’s garden and they look like dandelions on steroids, REMEMBER  – “Holy Cow! It’s Salsify (pronounced sal-sa-fee by our English ancestors)!

July 4, 1776 – Along the Banks of Pine Creek

It’s the Fourth of July and according to legend the Fair Play Men read a declaration of Independence on the Banks of Pine Creek under an elm tree on July 4, 1776 unaware that THE Declaration of Independence was being read and debated in Philadelphia, PA.

The site where this event is reported to have taken place is now part of the Tiadaghton State Forest thanks to the members of the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy and a former owner of the property.

The blue and yellow marker under the large tree.

NPC owned the property for a short time in the early 2000s before transferring the property to the Bureau of Forestry. The Bureau of Forestry owns it because of its use accessing Pine Creek. I will warn you the bank to get to the Creek is steep and due to the historic nature of the site any development that would require digging or moving dirt is cost prohibitive.

If you visit the site now, you’ll see a large tree (not the tree the Fair Play Men would have stood under) and a Pennsylvania Historic Museum Commission blue and yellow marker.

Thanks again to NPC’s members for keeping this property along Pine Creek accessible and a little piece of local legend alive.

Underfoot: WOOD NETTLES

By Susan Sprout

Hikers beware! Wood Nettles, Laportea canadensis, can cause painful contact dermatitis when touched or walked through. I’ve seen large patches of them growing along trails and roads popular with walkers, runners, and bikers. Don’t be fooled into testing the softness of their large, hairy leaves. It is an invitingly tall and handsome plant after all. But here’s what will happen if you brush against them – the thin, silica tips will break from the hollow hairs that have penetrated your skin which, in turn, will make the cells at their bases expel various chemicals (formic acid, histamine, acetylcholine) up through them into you, like a hypodermic needle, causing itching and burning. Nettles’ family name, Urticaceae, supports this reaction, as it comes from the Latin word uro which means “I burn”.  Some say that Wood Nettle stings are more painful than the other nettle, Urtica dioica, that came here from Europe. Experts can neither explain the prolonged and possible synergistic effects of nettle stings nor have they determined the complete profile of chemicals they contain. So be careful out there! Some of their prickles are stout enough to penetrate clothing. The U.S. Forest Service suggests that a base substance like baking soda can be used to neutralize the strong acids that create the pain. What! You don’t carry baking soda in your fanny pack? Then how about a nice tube of antihistamine cream?

Wood Nettles along the trail

Wood Nettles are native perennials on the North American continent from Canada to Florida and west to Oklahoma. They grow anywhere in rich woods, bottomlands, and near streams. Their light requirement varies from deep shade to partially sunny edges. The whole plant can grow to four feet tall, with leaves three to six inches long and four inches across. Leaves grow alternately from long, hairy petioles or leaf stems that are attached to the main plant stem, on one side, then on the other side, all the way up. Flowers have just started to grow out now from the upper axils of the petioles where they meet the main stem. They may remain visible on the plants until September. The short-stalked male flowers are found on the lower part of the plant in tight, branching clusters. Attached to the top leaf axils will be the female flowers with longer stems and looser clusters. Their upward extension gives a spikey-hair quality to the greenish-white blooms. Wood Nettles will die back after the first hard frost.

Check out the stinging hairs on leaves and stems. Flowers just emerging.

Some research suggests that nettles evolved their chemical weaponry to keep vertebrates from eating them. There are a lot of invertebrates, like bees and ladybugs, out there that find them very useful for food and as a host plant for butterflies, like the Red Admiral. Nettles, especially those in Europe have been used by humans for millennia, dating back to the Bronze Age (3300 BC to 1200 BC) as a source of fiber. The word itself comes from an ancient root that means to tie or bind. It is interesting to note that Wood Nettle fibers – extracted, twisted, woven – were used by our Native Americans on this continent for the same purpose, cordage and nets. Had their ancestors brought this skill with them and then found a plant to use? Nettles have also been used for food, medicine and dye. Drying or heating the plant “kills” the sting. Speaking of stings, have you ever been stung by a red ant? Their venom contains formic acid just like nettles. Ouch!

June 2022 Annual Membership Meeting – Election to Board of Directors and Update on Conservation Projects

NPC members gathered at Pier 87 along Loyalsock Creek on June 15, 2022 for the Annual Membership Meeting.

The Nominating Committee recommended Dennis Ringling and Amie Penfield be elected to a first 3-year term. Both had been appointed to fill positions on the Board created when other Board members resigned from the Board.

Jonathan Bastian and Jonathan Nichols are both completing 2 consecutive 3-year terms and are rotating off the Board. Roy Siefert was elected to fill one of the seats.

The elections take effect at the June 28, 2022 Board meeting.

Pier 87 was chosen as the location in part as a nod to the Bar Bottom project in 2020 and all the work at State Game Lands 134 along Plunketts Creek (a tributary to Loyalsock Creek).

Here are some photos from the meeting:

An optional tour at State Game Lands 134 gave NPC’s members a chance to see the “after” of phases 1, 2, and 3 and hear about upcoming phase 4.
Attendees seemed to enjoy the casual atmosphere and ability to wear “fun” shoes.