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!

Live Stakes Collected

Earlier this week, Sara and volunteers helped Chesapeake Conservancy and Merill W. Linn Land and Waterways Conservancy collect live stakes for the Live Stake Collaborative. The Live Stake Collaborative consists of a group of partner organizations including Chesapeake Conservancy, Merill W. Linn Land and Waterways Conservancy, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Susquehanna University, and Bucknell University who collect live stakes in the fall and winter that are then provided to the partners for restorations projects the following year.  

Live stakes are branch cuttings from wetland tree and shrub species that can be planted into the ground alongside streams. They root readily and eventually grow into viable and successful trees. As they grow into trees these live stake plantings help to stabilize the streambanks to stop sediment from eroding into the waterways as well as filter nutrients and other pollution from upslope runoff. They also provide food and shade to the water and the organisms that live there, such macroinvertebrates or fish. Live stakes are especially great because the methods are very simple and super low cost. 

Not all trees and shrubs are suitable for use as live stakes. Some of the more common species with high survival rates include Eastern Sycamore, Quaking Aspen, Pussy Willow, Black Willow, Silky Willow, Speckled Alder, Smooth Alder, Buttonbush, Silky Dogwood, Gray Dogwood, Red Osier Dogwood, Winterberry, Ninebark, and Elderberry. 

Silky Dogwood stem removed from source plant
The same Silky Dogwood with small branches and stems removed, ready to be cut to length

The collection of live stakes occurs during late fall to early spring while the trees and shrubs are dormant. Loppers or pruning shears are used to cut straight stems, removing no more than 30% of the source plant to allow it to regenerate, and waiting several years until that plant is harvested again.

The smaller branches and twigs are removed, then stakes measuring 10-36” in length and ½- 1 ½” diameter are cut, several live stakes can be taken from one individual stem.

Teams work to cut an angle to indicate the bottom end, then cut the top straight at bucket height

The bottom of the live stakes are cut at an angle to make it easy to determine the orientation when planting, the top end is cut flush. 

Groups of 20 live stakes are laid out to be painted according to the color coding system.

Stakes are then separated into groups of 20 of the same species, the tops are spray painted according to a color code for each species, and the groups bundled together with rubber bands.

The painted live stakes are put in groups of 20 then rubber banded together. This makes it easier to pull out for projects the following year.

The stakes are placed into a large garbage bag, as much air removed as possible and moistened rice hulls are added to provide moisture while the sealed, and labeled bags are kept just above freezing until they are needed for planting the following year. 

Bundles are placed into large bags with moistened rice hulls to help provide moisture. As much air as possible is removed from the bags, which are then sealed, labeled, and stored just above freezing until they are ready to be planted.

The Live Stake Collaborative’s efforts collected over 400 live stakes of Silky Dogwood and Elderberry during this outing. If you would like to learn more The Live Stake Collaborative of the live stake planting process visit https://www.chesapeakeconservancy.org/precisonconservationinpa/conserve/live-stake-planting/  

Tioga River Visit Looks at Erosion and Talks About Fish

The design work for the Active Treatment Plan (ATP) to address Abandoned Mine Drainage (AMD) on Coal Creek, Morris Run, and Fall Brook is moving along. If things go reasonably smoothly, the ATP will be constructed and online in 2025.

2025 sounds far away…until you realized November is half over and it’s almost 2023.

Tyler’s t-shirt, celebrating the Conservation District’s 75th anniversary, was very appropriate for the day’s activity.

Since that plant will be up and running before we know it NPC staff met with Blossburg Borough’s manager, staff from Trout Unlimited, and staff from the Tioga County Conservation District to discuss sites for possible fish habitat structures.

The Tioga River currently doesn’t have much if any habitat for fish. That doesn’t really matter right now since the water can’t support fish populations. But, the ATP will clean up the water so it could support fish. So, what can we do to create habitat in the Tioga River to give fish a helping hand (or should it be helping fin??)?

Trout Unlimited has grant funding now that allows their staff to make site visits, assess a site, and if needed and appropriate, develop a design for fish habitat structures to address erosion. The funding is focused on sediment reduction in the Chesapeake Bay.

We looked at 3 sites and 1 fit within the scope of Trout Unlimited’s program. The design is being developed now. The design will allow us to pull together the necessary funding so the project can be implemented around the same time that the ATP goes online.

Another site can use some help too, but a slightly different type than we were discussing with Trout Unlimited. NPC and the Tioga County Conservation District will have further conversations and work with Blossburg Borough on that one.

One of the things NPC is proud of is the way NPC members don’t just conserve land. There’s support and interest and action to improve the land too.


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!