By, Susan Sprout

On spring hikes near shaded banks of shale rocks, I like to look for Early Saxifrage, a member of the Saxifrage family. Its appearance in the crevices of rocks helps me remember the unusual name of Saxifrage. It comes from Latin saxum (rock) and frangere (to break) – ” rock breaker”. Because of this, early herbalists used it for treating kidney stones and bladder gravel. I suspect nature’s freeze/thaw cycle should get most of the credit for breaking up most of the cliff rocks around here!

A waving colony of Early Saxifrage

This interesting plant starts blooming when only three inches tall and continues an upward surge until it’s a foot high. Sometimes growing in patches, they wave back and forth in the breeze, especially after their tight flower clusters begin to loosen up and push apart. They appear rather top heavy. I had difficulty getting them to stand still for a group picture. Their stems are straight…and hairy! That’s actually a useful identification point. You don’t even need a magnifier. Some say it is to hinder ground insects from crawling up get nectar. Bees and other flying insects may offer better prospects for cross-pollination.

Basil leaves and hairy stems

Saxifrage leaves are oval-shaped with scalloped edges that form a basal rosette. They don’t grow up the flower stem. The white flowers are about one-quarter inch wide. The plant has deeply penetrating taproots with wiry root systems. After fertilization, a one-inch fruit capsule forms and turns from green to lavender or purple, and then splits to release the tiny black seeds. Early Saxifrage is native to eastern and central North America and grows from Ontario to Georgia as a perennial. There are more than 580 species in the Saxifrage Family worldwide which occur mainly in cooler regions of the Northern Hemisphere.

White flowers with yellow stamens circling the center

Underfoot: Spring Beauty

By Susan Sprout

Look around. There is much beauty to be found in the spring, and especially if it is a wild flower aptly named Spring Beauty!  Sometimes I have trouble finding them when they bloom. I’m either too early or too late. Last week, I was happy (and relieved) to find large colonial patches of two species of Spring Beauties native to North America. One in Sullivan County – Claytonia caroliniana and one in Montour County – Claytonia virginica. Check out the species’ names. Bet you can tell where these plants were first found growing and identified. Both are very similar in looks, except for their leaves – C. caroliniana’s leaves are wider in their mid-section and don’t resemble the thinner, almost grass-like leaves of C. virginica

Spring Beauties with thinner leaves

Spring Beauties aren’t very tall, up to about six inches when blooming. They have small white or pink flowers that have pointed tips and dark pink veins acting as nectar guides for pollinators, like bees, bumblebees, and flies. Researchers have counted up to seventy different species of pollinators attending them. Not surprising, as they have a wonderful sweet scent that floats around them in the cool dampness of the woods. In fact, I sensed them with my nose before I found them with my eyes.

Carilina Spring Beauties with wider leaves

These plants like the rich, loamy soil and dappled sunlight of moist woods. They grow from rounded underground tubers. According to some wildcrafters, their tubers have a sweet chestnut taste and the texture of potatoes when they are baked and eaten. They have only one pair of opposite leaves, found halfway up the thin flower stem. Geneticists are interested in Spring Beauties because they have an inconsistent number of chromosomes. They vary in number from plant to plant. Most species, including us, have a fixed number of chromosomes in our genetic make-up. Deer are interested in them, too, as a food source. Get out there quickly and find some Spring Beauties before their leaves and flowers are gone.

Project on Plunketts Creek Recognized with Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence

“Every year the Environmental Excellence honorees show the creative and innovative ways we can improve our environment, and this year is no different,” said Governor Tom Wolf. “The projects highlighted this year show tremendous diversity in how they are making Pennsylvania a better place.”

The Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy and Pennsylvania Game Commission’s efforts on Plunketts Creek at Proctor are being recognized with a Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence. The project removed an earthern berm, reconnected Plunkeets Creek to its floodplain, allowed improvements to Huckle Run Road, and works to reduce flooding for neighbors at the site and downstream.

Pennsylvania Game Commission food and cover crews out of Allenwood and English Center worked on all phases of the project at Plunketts Creek

The project was evaluated for the degree of environmental protection, innovation, partnership, economic impact, consideration of climate change, sustainability, and environmental justice, as well as outcomes achieved. It, along with 14 other projects from across the state, were recognized with the 2022 Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence in Harrisburg.

During the event, DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said, “It is always a privilege to spotlight people going above and beyond to improve the environment and make our great outdoor spaces more accessible. Each of the projects awarded this year will leave a positive lasting legacy for Pennsylvania.”

This project’s lasting legacy will be less flooding, more ecological functioning, and better water quality. Plunketts Creek is a High Quality-Cold Water Fishery with naturally reproducing trout. The Creek is in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the water in the Creek gets to the Bay through Loyalsock Creek, the West Branch Susquehanna River, and then the Susquehanna River

In Phase 1 in 2020 NPC and PGC stabilized the eroding streambanks on an 850 foot stretch of Plunketts Creek using log and rock structures designed by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. The eroding streambanks were adding sediment to the stream and covering the substrate on the bottom. By immediately stabilizing the streambanks, the source of the sediment was eliminated. Over time, the sediment on the stream bottom will flush out of the system.

In 2021, as Phase 2, the partners removed 2,200 linear feet of the earthen berm along Plunketts Creek and restored the Creek’s access to the floodplain, lowering adjacent flood elevations and the erosive potential of the stream. One of the outstanding attributes of the project was the 333rd Engineering Company of the US Army Reserves, based in Reading, PA, completed the project as their summer 2021 training exercise. The soldiers were able to get 3 weeks of training while also providing a huge environmental benefit to the community.

A Dirt and Gravel Road Project on Huckle Run Road (also on State Game Lands 134) received over 1,500 truckloads (approximately 15,000 tons) of material from the berm. The dirt road was incised forcing rain water and snow melt to run down the road. This directed sediment into nearby Huckle Run (also High Quality with Naturally Reproducing Trout). In addition to the water quality improvements, this road project also improves public access. Huckle Run Road will soon be open to allow the public to access the State Game Lands.

The project was only possible because of the efforts of a number of partners working together. One of the key partners was the 1st Platoon of the 333rd Engineering Company of the US Army Reserves. The Reservists used the project as their 2021 summer training project. Their assistance was possible because of the Department of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training program.

The partners who worked with the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy and Pennsylvania Game Commission to help make the project possible were:

  • Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission
  • Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
  • Lycoming County Conservation District
  • 333rd Engineering Company of US Army Reserves
  • Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds
  • Susquehanna River Basin Commission
  • PA Council of Trout Unlimited
  • Coldwater Heritage Program
  • Loyalsock Creek Men’s Club
  • Loyalsock Creek Watershed Association
  • American Legion Post 104 (Montoursville, PA)

If you’re interested in learning more about the project, check out these blog posts:

Army Reserve Engineering Unit Partnership with NPC and PA Game Commision

Plunketts Creek Berm Removal One Step Closer

333rd Makes Progress at Plunketts Creek

Berm Removal Along Plunketts Creek Wraps Up

Survey Work at Plunketts Creek

Plunketts Creek Using Its Floodplain

Thank you McCormick Law Firm for supporting conservation!

April Showers and May Flowers

By Sara Schlesinger

April showers truly bring May Flowers! While visiting easements in Columbia and Lycoming Counties this past week, I spotted several native wildflowers in bloom.

Wood Anemone (Anemone quinquefloia) is a perennial flower in the buttercup family with 5 white petals and a distinctive musky smell. Being that they are one of the earliest blooming flowers in our region, wood anemones are a great source of nectar for early pollinators.

Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) have large umbrella-likes leaves that grow to approximately 18” tall and up to 12” across, developing a single white flower. Typically found in damp, open woods, mayapples use rhizomes to colonize the forest floor, creating dense mats. Mayapples are currently unfurling their leaves and will begin to blossom later this month.

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) resemble a pair of pantaloons hanging upside-down on a clothes-line, with yellow around ‘the waist.’ They may be confused with Bleeding Hearts and Squirrel Corn, however these 2 have a more ‘heart-shaped’ flower, and lack the yellow coloring at the end of the spurs. The finely compound leaves of Dutchman’s Breeches resemble ferns. Refrain from collecting Dutchman’s Breeches, as their flowers wilt almost immediately upon being picked.

Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) is a perennial woodland species that thrives in shady areas with moist soil. They display clusters of dainty yellowish-green flowers, once the flowers have fallen, vivid-blue berries take their place.

Yellow Trout Lilies (Erythronium americanum) have a pair of brownish mottled leaves that resemble the markings of a brook trout, with a single yellow lily-shaped flower. It takes several years from germination for the plant to reach maturity and develop a flower, younger plants with only one leaf will not flower. Yellow Trout Lilies are found in areas with rich, moist soil that receive ample sunlight in early spring.

Tussock Sedge (Carex stricta) is a vigorous wetland plant that forms mounded clumps and grows to approximately 3’ tall. The large, dense root system, and its resiliency to deer browsing make the Tussocks Sedge an excellent choice for erosion control!

Thank you to McCormick Law Firm for supporting conservation!

A Few Invasives to Watch for this Spring

As you’re working in your yard this spring and summer think about what invasive plants you have and whether or not you can remove them and clear them out.

Burning bush

Invasive plants are often times beautiful to those who don’t know the ugly truth about them. Invasive plants, trees, and shrubs out-compete native species for resources and grow more rapidly than their native counterparts, and can eventually take over entire landscapes. Knowing what not to plant is as important as being able to identify invasive plant species that may already exist on your property. Early identification and management of invasive species are key to helping native flora flourish as nature had intended. Many of the invasive plants that we see today had been brought over from Europe and Asia for ornamental, landscaping purposes; some were brought to the U.S. over 100 years ago!

Burning bush stem

Burning bush, also referred to as winged euonymus (Euonymus alatus) was introduced as an ornamental shrub in the 1800’s for its vibrant red fall foliage. Often found in large thickets due to its prolific seed production, Burning bush outcompetes native plants due to the dense shade that it creates, while itself being shade tolerant and having no native pests. This is an easily identifiable invasive due to its prominent corky “wings” that run along the stems, and can grow to 15’ tall. When caught early, young plants can be hand-pulled from loose soil, larger more established shrubs require stump grinding or the addition of a glyphosate foliar application. Native shrubs that are a more ecologically friendly alternative include Strawberry Bush, Spicebush, Red Chokecherry, and Common Winterberry.

Bark of Alianthus, a.k.a. Tree-of-heaven

Ailanthus altissima, more commonly known as ‘Tree-of-heaven’ is not as heavenly as it may sound, the name refers to its rapid growth, and will quickly shade-out smaller plants. Roots of Ailanthus produce chemicals that prevent the establishment of other plants nearby, and can cause damage to sewer lines and house foundations due to its swift growth. In addition to Ailanthus being an invasive species itself, it also plays host to the Spotted Lanternfly which is an agricultural nightmare that has been spreading its way across Pennsylvania since 2014. Ailanthus looks similar to sumac and walnut trees, however the bark of Ailanthus has a white, diamond like pattern, broken twigs smell of burnt peanut butter, smooth leaf margins, and the tope leaves turn reddish in the summer. Hack and squirt or basal bark applications are found to be the most effective management for Ailanthus. Desirable natives with similar looking compound leaves include Staghorn Sumac and Black Walnut.

Alianthus, a.k.a. Tree-of-heaven

For more information on identification and management of these and other invasive plants visit www.dcnr.pa.gov/Conservation/WildPlants/InvasivePlants or extension.psu.edu

Thank you to McCormick Law Firm for their support!

Underfoot: Ramps AKA Wild Leeks

By Susan Sprout

Ramping up for spring? It could mean preparing for spring OR going out to dig up this pungent delicacy for a spring feast OR the time for making a required spring tonic from roots! The name – Ramps – is an interesting one that may have made its way here with colonists because it was their name for the wild garlic plants back in England. I’ll bet they were happy to find our native Wild Leeks growing here in the colonies, stretching from Canada to Georgia, for them to use.

Wild Leeks in April snow

I went hunting Ramps last week, hoping to find them back in their regular spots. O boy, did I!  By the hundreds! They like the rich woods and moist slopes of Loyalsock State Forest and surrounding areas. These plants are not your local grocery store variety of leeks (Allium porrum) but a wild and, to some, odiferous one (Allium tricoccum). 

Bulb and leaves with reddish lower stem

From a cluster of two to six white bulbs, they put up glossy, eight to ten inch-long, bright green leaves that photosynthesize like crazy in order to store energy. These flat, basal leaves are reddish on their lower stems, an important characteristic for correct identification. Their leaves begin to die back before flowering occurs. Soon after, a single round cluster, about 1 1/2 inches wide, and made up of white flowers, will appear on a smooth, leafless scape or stem. Each flower in the cluster will have six tepals (petals and sepals) and six stamens with creamy-yellow tips and a green ovary in the center. After fertilization, the three-lobed ovary will grow, then dry and split open, allowing small, black seeds to fall. The species name tricoccum comes from Latin for “three-seeded”. For a long time, I couldn’t put a name to this plant because first the leaves were there by themselves, and then the flowers were there by themselves. Finally, I figured it out!

Remains of last year’s flower among this year’s new leaves

There appears to be a difference of opinion about the family of Wild Leeks. I found them listed in three separate families! Using a reference updated in 2022, ITIS.gov,  the winner is Amaryllidaceae, which also contains the Daffodils I wrote about last week.  There also seems to be a difference of opinion on the taste and smell of Ramps – skunk smell, mild onion taste, strong garlic odor, pronounced onion flavor. There’s no accounting for taste, right? Anyway, perhaps the mineral content in the various soils where they grow affects their sensory output!  At least, people have come together on their opinions about sustainable harvesting techniques for Wild Leeks. Leaving the bulbs in the ground and cutting one or two leaves is best to ensure continuing populations for these perennials. For centuries these plants have been used beneficially for medicine and for food. People who used them were very knowledgeable and taught their children which plants to use and which to let alone. There are plants growing in similar environments as Wild Leeks that are not beneficial…they are poisonous. One in particular has harmed folks I know. It is named False Hellebore (Veratrum viride). Its large, ribbed leaves and rootstock contain extremely toxic alkaloids that cause nausea, vomiting, drops in respiration and blood pressure. Let this one alone.

Taken in July 2021…leaves all gone  and blossoms are here!
Thank you to McCormick Law Firm for their support!

Underfoot: Daffodil Connections

By, Susan Sprout

English poet William Wordsworth (1770 to 1850) made his home in the Lake District of northwestern England for sixty of his eighty years.  A lover of nature, he wrote, “Come forth into the light of things, and let nature be your teacher.” In 1807, he made Lake Windermere’s “host of golden daffodils” famous in his poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”. As a sixth-grade student, I was required to memorize his poem. I think of him, and my teacher, fondly each and every spring as the local daffodil population blooms.  

In 1905, artist and writer Beatrix Potter bought property in the Lake District, an area where she had spent childhood holidays with her family. She set many of her Peter Rabbit books there and used money from the sales of them and her paintings to support a movement to prevent development on Windermere’s lakeshore. She also helped a group who protested against widening a road that passed through Wordsworth’s daffodil field! She wrote,”This little corner of the country should be kept unchanged for people who appreciate its beauty”. An old friend of hers was one of the founders of England’s National Trust, created in 1895. Beatrix supported the Trust by willing 4,000 acres of land and fourteen farms to it. In 1951, the Lake District was made a national park. In 2017, it became a World Heritage Site. Small beginnings can lead to great outcomes!

Planted for naturalization

It’s daffodil time right now in Pennsylvania. Perhaps you have planted their bulbs to grow and spread on your property. They, at ground level, along with the taller Forsythia bushes, certainly brighten our landscape. Daffodils are not native plants. They could have been brought here from many parts of Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranean region, or Western Asia where they grow naturally. They are good plants for woods’ clearings, grasslands, rocky ground. I’ve found them in patches along creeks where they probably washed in from upstream.

Roadside daffodils

Daffodils are in the genus Narcissus. Folks seem to use both names interchangeably. Botanists who studied them have changed their family name and identified a whole bunch of species and cultivars based on frilly-edged or smooth, center coronas like bowls or trumpets, with the same or contrasting colors, having multiple flower stems. Yikes, our daff-o-down-dillies are pretty complicated!  And pretty looking, but definitely not for eating. Even deer don’t like them. They contain lycorine, a bad-tasting alkaloid, but good for medical science that has found promising uses for its anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties.

Little Pine Creek Project a Step Closer

The Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy is partnering with Little Pine State Park (DCNR Bureau of State Parks), the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, and Lycoming County Conservation District on a project to address eroding streambanks along Little Pine Creek within Little Pine State Park. Using log and rock structures approximately 1,600 feet of the streambank will be stabilized and some floodplain access restored.

Thanks to the Coldwater Heritage Partnership the project took one step closer to implementation. The Coldwater Heritage Partnership recently announced their spring grants and the project at Little Pine was awarded!!

If you’re familiar with the Park we’re looking at the stream stretch starting around the shooting range going downstream. Little Pine Creek is a Cold Water Fishery that is attaining for aquatic resources. The project site is in a stretch of the stream that also has naturally reproducing trout and is a Keystone Select trout stream.

Little Pine Creek’s streambanks are eroding, creating bank heights of 8 to 10 feet from water’s edge to the top of bank. The sediment from the eroding stream banks is entering the stream system and depositing in the area of this proposed project and down stream.

To give you some idea of the amount of sediment coming into the system we can use the location of the swimming buoys at Little Pine State Park’s lake which is downstream. The buoys are placed where there is 4.5 feet of water depth. In 2020 the buoys were placed approximately 75-feet from shore, in 2021 they were placed approximately 125 feet from shore. The buoys had to move further out because of the sediment filling in the lake.

As you will see in the aerial photos (below) comparing the site from 1995 (on left) to 2015 (on right) sediment is filling in the lake at Little Pine State Park. The sediment is from the eroding stream banks.

By working to eliminate sources of sediment and restore access to the floodplains the hope is Little Pine Creek can remain a Cold Water Fishery and continue to be attaining for aquatic resources as well as meet these other designations.

Jason Detar is a fisheries biologist for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and serves on the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture. He conducted a habitat analysis of Little Pine Creek. When asked by email his thoughts on this project he responded with:

“Substantial streambank erosion is occurring throughout the proposed project reach on Little Pine Creek. This has resulted in significant sediment transport downstream in the greater Pine Creek/West Branch Susquehanna/Susquehanna River watersheds impacting water quality and habitat. The Little Pine Creek stream channel is becoming overly wide and shallow from the bank erosion.  Little Pine Creek is unique in that it is a large stream that supports a wild Brook Trout population throughout the project reach. Brook Trout are intolerant of sediment and elevated water temperature. Completion of the project will improve water quality by reducing erosion and sediment deposition and improve habitat for wild Brook Trout.”

Thank you to the following organizations for their help with the application!

  • Lloyd Wilson Chapter of TU
  • Lycoming County Conservation District
  • Pine Creek Preservation Association
  • Pine Creek Watershed Council

We’ll be posting project updates here and on NPC’s social media account!

Thank you to C&N Bank for supporting conservation!

Triggers for Tree Response to Spring-like Weather

Written by Allyson Muth, Director, Center for Private Forests at Penn State

University Park, PA – April 18, 2022 – In the middle of April, we’re experiencing one of the (hopefully) last gasps of winter for the season. While nature can still surprise us – after all, for much of Pennsylvania, the “safe to plant your garden” timing occurs throughout the month of May – the near-term forecast looks like we might get more seasonal weather. We’ve had several surprisingly warm days throughout the winter months. It causes intrigue as to when the trees are going to break bud and when they wait.

Some level of green-up is occurring across the state. Here in central PA we had several of the street tree maples send out their flowers a few weeks ago, and subsequently get burned by frost. The serviceberry in the backyard is all but ready to put its flowers out. In some parts of the southern half of the state, people are talking about seeing leaves on trees. But as the street tree red maples show, there is risk to early bud break, flower set, and leaf break. Later season frosts can kill back those young structures. So how do trees know?

Turns out it is a mix of chilling requirements, growing degree days, and photoperiod. Each species uses some combination of these three to trigger growth.

For all trees that lose their leaves for the cooler months and experience a period of dormancy, there is a minimum temperature that must be experienced for the spring warmth to trigger bud break. This chilling requirement varies according to species, but essentially is a minimum temperature requirement for a set amount of time for the species of trees native to a place. “Native to place” is an important concept as, for example, red maples in the southern US have adapted to a higher minimum winter temperature and earlier spring than their cousins in the northern US. This variation within species and to site is called “plasticity.”

Warm spring temperatures can be an overriding driver of bud break, to an extent. Growing degree days are the days above a certain minimum temperature threshold. Each species requires a certain number of degree days above their temperature threshold to trigger growth. For those who track when trees break bud and, in comparison to historical records, bud break is occurring earlier than it used to in response to warmer spring conditions. Interestingly, there have been studies done in Concord, Massachusetts using the writings of Henry David Thoreau as a record for bud break to compare to today.

Day length, or photoperiod, is a check on the bud break system. Unseasonable warmth, but during the shorter days of early spring, may not trigger growth for those species with strong photoperiod requirements – helping to ensure they don’t get burned by late frosts. The air may be warm, but it’s not quite right, and our native species are regulated somewhat by daylength.

Species that have weak chilling requirements and minimal photoperiod requirements leaf out early, increasing their resources for growth, increasing their distribution and abundance. This is the strategy of many of our successful invasive plant species. The “early green” in Pennsylvania’s forests is triggered by day length and early warmth, giving these invasive plants a competitive strategy against our native species, which have stronger chilling and longer photoperiod requirements.

Bud break, flowers, and leaf out for trees and plants (and events like migration, emergence from hibernation, breeding, dispersal for animals) are part of the science of phenology. Phenology is the study of the annual timing of developmental events. Tracking timing events in your neck of the woods can enhance your understanding of your woods and contribute to larger scientific efforts about the changing natural world.

If you too are intrigued by the cues of nature, consider contributing to the National Phenology Network’s Nature’s Notebook or Project Budburst, and add your nature observations to the larger citizen science efforts.

Every spring, I remind myself to be patient with the trees. While we love to see the flowers and new growth of our native trees, they are more attuned to their site and less responsive to the warmth than we humans seem to be. And that understanding is an important part of our connection with the woods.

Columbine is a native wildflower. The plants started to grow a couple weeks ago. This morning (4/19/2022) the plants are covered in snow.
Thank you to C&N Bank for supporting conservation!

How Did the Cow Cross the Stream?

It’s not “why did the chicken cross the road?” it’s “how did the cow cross the stream?”

This Northumberland County landowner had eroding stream banks. He tried fencing the cows out of the stream (good move on his part), but the erosion already had a good foot hold.

The Conservation District had the stream partners look at the site. A crossing design and streambank design were completed.

The stream crossing was the first step. The stream team went out and did this on a Friday, so the “typical” streambank work could begin the next Monday.

The photos are from the about halfway point. The far bank is the before and hasn’t been worked on yet. The near bank is almost after (still a little work to be done).

Now, the cows will be crossing the stream using a stabilized stream crossing. Having a stable surface will not only reduce sediment and improve water quality, but it’s also safer for the cows.

Thank you to NPC’s members for their help in making these projects and cleaner water possible.