By Susan Sprout

Dwarf Crested Iris (Iris cristata) is a spring-blooming, native plant growing from Pennsylvania to Georgia and west to Oklahoma. A member of the Iridaceae or Iris Family, which is named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow, it is considered an herbaceous perennial. “Herbaceous” because its soft, green stem does not become woody and dies back after the growing season. “Perennial” because it has a life cycle longer than two years. These plants grow from underground rhizomes and keep spreading to form dense colonies. Listed as “Endangered” in Maryland and Pennsylvania, it is a wonderful plant to find growing wild or in a good friend’s wild garden, having been purchased from a native plant nursery several years before!

This bud is ready to open and reveal a Dwarf Crested Iris.

The pale blue to violet flowers, even white occasionally, may resemble those of the tall Bearded Iris, but low to the ground, only four to six inches tall or even a little taller under the right growing conditions. Their choice of natural growing conditions where they have been found growing seem rather eclectic – oak woodlands, rocky hillsides, mountain ledges, wooded ravines, near streambanks, well-drained slopes, rich humus, peaty acid soil, alkaline soil, partial sun to partial shade. See what I mean about eclectic? These little beauties appear to like living everywhere, but just not with too much of a good thing! They are heat-tolerant if our climate gets hotter here. Several resources cited that this iris is even deer-tolerant. Hmmm, and several did not.

Part of a naturalized patch of tiny iris beginning to bloom.

The lovely flowers of Dwarf Crested Iris bloom locally during April and May, usually with one per stalk. They are only about three inches wide. Three downward-curved sepals each have a yellowish-white band of hairs called a beard at their center from the middle to the base. That is the “crest” you find in its common name and the species name cristata. About six to eight weeks after flowering, a three-sided seed capsule will appear. It will take two to three years for seedlings to have stored enough energy in order to bloom. This iris seems to spread faster vegetatively with its rhizomes.

What we wait for each spring, the blue flower with its fancy crests.

It is spring planting time. Think about getting some of these little beauties. They would make great groundcover, perhaps in the shaded area of a rock garden or naturalizing under a tree somewhere on your property.


By Susan Sprout

Virginia Bluebells, or Virginia Cowslips, are ephemeral – here in the spring and gone during summer. Look for them blooming now with nodding but showy, blue trumpet-shaped flowers. They arrive early, eager for the higher amounts of unhampered sunlight before the trees above them leaf out to block it. As the name suggests, their bright blue flowers hang in loose clusters like bells, their trumpets shaped by the fusing of five petals. The buds, which usually start out pink, bloom blue. They grow quickly to their eight-to-twenty-four-inch height before dying back and reverting to just underground parts. Considered dormant because they are not photosynthesizing, I will bet the woody roots that we do not see are still busy getting nutrients and water during the summer and fall. With all of their stored resources, they are ready to go when it is spring!

Virginia Bluebells – notice larger leaves nearer the bottom of the plant

Virginia Bluebells have oval leaves ranging in length from two inches at the top of the plant where they almost clasp on to the stem, then downward to the lower parts where they are eight inches long and tapered. Situated alternately on the stems, the leaves do not shade each other out – more sun for all. Another reason they can grow upwards in such a hurry. Seeds develop at the base of the flowers after they are pollinated by bees, especially bumblebees that look for pollen and nectar early in spring. The bumpy, roundish seed pod turns from green to tan to brown as it and the four seeds in each one mature.

Trumpet-shaped blossoms of five fused petals

These native perennials tend to grow in masses when water is near, in bottom lands and riverwoods, where the soil is rich and the land occasionally gets flooded. Once established, they will bloom year after year. Their seedlings will flower in their second year. They can be found from E. Canada south to North Carolina and west to Arkansas and Minnesota (lots of lakes there for bluebells to grow near).  The native people in those areas used the plant as a treatment for tuberculosis and whooping cough. And, guess what? Deer do not like to eat it!

Roundish, brown seed pods contain four seeds

Underfoot:  HOBBLEBUSH

By Susan Sprout

Ever been hiking off trail in the woods and get your foot caught by a shrub with drooping branches that had become rooted in the ground? You may have had a run-in with Hobblebush AKA Tangle-legs! If you can remember where you got entangled, hike back in for positive identification now because Hobblebush is in bloom from late April into May with flowers that are very distinctive and easy to recognize.

Across the creek and up the bank are more Hobblebushes.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides), a native perennial shrub, is found in what Thoreau called “the under-woods” – the understory of woods. It was cool and moist there, and down a ravine that I simply could not negotiate. I sat on the ground at the top of the ridge and scooted down as far as I could, without sliding to the bottom on my bottom. I leaned forward and got some photos. What lovely white flowers greeted me! Looking down from the trail above, I had spied some bushes with white on them, but could not distinguish if it was the flash of sunlight on shiny leaves or white flowers. Yeah, flowers! Elegantly arranged on sparse branches, the blossoms are made up of two kinds of flowers –small fertile ones in the center and larger, five-petaled infertile ones on the outer edges. I get the feeling that those bigger flowers are there to get the attention of pollinators who will service the inner cluster. When pollinated, those inner flowers will make red berries that change to a bluish-black as they mature in the early fall. The bright green leaves of Hobblebush grow opposite each other on the twigs. They were wrinkled and not yet fully extended when I found them. When fully grown, they are heart-shaped with a bumpy or irregularly-textured surface.

Blossoms with central clumps of tiny flowers surrounded by fewer large ones.

Hobblebush is listed as “occasional” in my PA plant reference, declining due to over-browsing by deer. The ecological importance of this shrub is without doubt. Gamebirds, songbirds, small mammals, butterflies, browsers – all make use of its bounty. Humans, too, have eaten the berries or made them into jam. Rubbing the head with its crushed leaves was a medicinal use of this plant by Native Americans who suffered from migraines. So, if you have a run-in with Hobblebush while hiking, extract your foot carefully so you do not pull the roots out. If you accidently do, tamp them back down into the dirt and duff gently.  We need them for the health of our woods and its inhabitants.

Sun and shadows highlight the bumpy nature of the unfurling leaves.

Editor’s note: Thank you Sue!! As someone who frequently trips while walking in the woods, I feel better now knowing I have a native shrub to blame.

Forest Bathing

By Alexa Radulski

Have you ever heard of the term “forest bathing”?

Contrary to its name, forest bathing requires no nudity or water! Forest bathing is a form of ecotherapy, but it is not reserved only for the nature lover. Forest bathing originated in Japan and is known as shinrin-yoku, the Japanese practice of relaxation in nature. Forest bathing is a very simple way to practice mindfulness and meditation, and is a good place to start if you have never given more formal meditation a try. Forest bathing is becoming popular in many places around the world.

How to practice forest bathing.

The first step is to go outside. Find yourself a natural spot that is away from man-made distractions. You can go on an official hike, or you can simply sit under your favorite tree. Once there, breathe in, breathe out. Pay attention to all of the senses of your surroundings. What does your environment smell like? Are the flowers in bloom? Maybe you can smell fresh pine or oak. Can you feel the ground below you? Is it squishy from the rain? Be aware of every sensation possible. Forest bathing can be as simple as you would like it to be. This mindfulness exercise is meant to be taken at a leisurely pace. It can be as basic as going for a walk or even just sitting in any natural environment such as a trail or a park. What is important is that you make a conscious effort to connect with what’s around you. This practice is meant for you to find moments of clarity, peace, and a calmer state of mind than when you started.

Benefits of forest bathing.

This practice is accessible to everyone and is one of the most cost-effective ways to unwind. It is easy to feel stressed or overwhelmed in our daily lives and we often forget how peaceful the outdoors can be. In today’s fast-paced world, most of us find ourselves spending too much time indoors. Forest bathing requires us to ditch our electronic devices, forget about our to do checklists for a mere twenty minutes. Spending just twenty minutes in nature can aid in the reduction of stress by increasing happy hormones and lowering blood pressure.

Grab a friend or venture out on your own and give forest bathing a go. NPC is holding a forest bathing event at Worlds End State Park on Sunday, July 23, 2023 (LT Pavillion). You can also find official forest bathing events and guides in your area, or do a quick search online and just dive in. You won’t be sorry.


By Susan Sprout

Going out and about, you have probably noticed our wonderful Eastern Redbud blooming now in Central Pennsylvania. So attractive and conspicuous with those magenta blossoms decorating all the branches! They certainly stand out whether they are growing along a country road or in people’s yards. A closer look reveals that the flowers have appeared before the leaves and are coming straight out of the bark. Growing in little clusters as they do, the branches look upholstered with the blossoms! A common folk tradition stemming from their early arrival is to take some branches inside the house “to drive the winter out.”

Eastern Redbud is widely cultivated as an ornamental.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is considered a shrub or small tree and a member of the Pea or Legume Family, Fabaceae. It is a native species as are two close relatives, Honey Locust tree and Kentucky Coffeetree. Redbud’s flowers are pea flower-shaped with a lower keel like a sailboat, and two vertical wings spreading out above like sails. The buds can remain unopened for quite a while and retain a darker pink color.  As they mature, the keel splits open revealing two rows of pollen-bearing stamens and the female receptacle called the stigma that receives pollen. At this time, they become a paler pink color. After pollination, groups of two-to-four-inch seed pods that resemble those of garden peas begin growing from the flowers and dangle downward. Starting out green, they mature turning dark brown to black and split open along one side to release four to ten flat bean-like seeds.

Flowers on half-inch stems coming out of the bark

Redbud leaves are bright green and heart-shaped with smooth edges and pointed tips. Three to five inches in diameter, they grow alternately on the branches or twigs and have five to seven veins radiating from the leaf base where it connects to the stem. Underneath, they are a lighter color and have some tufts of hair where the veins meet.

A younger branch with pea-shaped flowers, some split apart and ready for pollination.

Although slightly sour to taste, Redbud flowers are edible and high in Vitamin C. Several sources reported their use in salads and pancakes. In folk medicine, tree bark was used to treat dysentery. Our colonial ancestors used the green twigs to season wild game. Funny thing, the game, AKA venison on the hoof, enjoys those same green twigs as browse!


By Susan Sprout

In the Pennsylvania Wilds, growing in my favorite bog are Cranberries! It may seem odd that I am writing about them “out of season,” since they become mostly red and ready for picking in the fall and for eating at Thanksgiving and Christmas times. Who thinks about fresh cranberries in the spring? I do!

Wild cranberry plants with leaves that will green up as spring proceeds

Originally they were known as “craneberries” because the shape of their male reproductive organs, or stamens, tended to resemble a crane’s beak. Wild cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) are native here as well as large areas of Canada and Northeastern United States, southward to Tennessee and North Carolina. Cultivars created from wild species are grown commercially in artificial ponds. The top five states in cranberry production are Massachusetts, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Washington.

Cranberry fruit showing bottom side

Cranberries are members of the Heath Family, Ericaceae, along with locally known plants like huckleberries, teaberries, azaleas, laurels, and rhododendrons which all typically grow in acid soils. Cranberries seem to do well in acid soils in wet, peaty, seepy places – like my favorite bog! I visit there several times a year and have written blogs about five plants found growing in it. Never have I visited in March, until this year…and discovered red berries snuggled down in their brownish-purply, copper winter foliage. I tasted some of the berries left over from last fall and found they do not get any sweeter after freezing like rosehips do. Very tart or sour.

Cranberry plants nestled in with sphagnum and dewberry leaves

Why did I never notice them growing there before? I think they kind of blended in with the sphagnum mosses and dewberries trailing over the ground there.  And they do trail, their wiry stems forming dense masses. Cranberries have small oval leaves growing along stems that spread horizontally for a bit, then curve upward. Their tiny flowers with four backward pointing petals open in late June to form a pinkish-white carpet, ready for pollination by bees, and to create fruit ready for picking in September through November. Also in late summer, new terminal buds begin to form for next year’s crop of berries. They will require a period of dormancy in order to successfully produce flowers and fruit. They must undergo a sufficient period of cold temperatures and short daylight hours called “chill hours” during the winter months in order to break dormancy and open in mid-summer of the next year to start the blooming process all over again. If you count the months, you will see that it takes them from fourteen to sixteen months to produce berries. Hopefully the geographical range where the optimal conditions occur will not shrink due to climate change!

We love our cranberries – rich in Vitamin C and antioxidants! Cranberries, according to NIH National Library of Medicine, can prevent tooth decay, gum disease, inhibit urinary tract infections, reduce inflammation in the body, maintain a healthy digestion system and decrease cholesterol levels. Check out The Cranberry Institute for more information about these powerful little fruits!


By Susan Sprout

Don’t you just love the spring? Migratory birds passing thru or staying, plants poking up, leaf and flower buds plumping and ready to pop! I cannot help getting excited at the birth and regrowth of the plants and trees here in Northcentral Pennsylvania. My curiosity about plants, their names, and lifestyles (how they live and survive) doesn’t just stop when I leave Pennsylvania. Oh, no, it probably gets worse – so many new ones to discover when traveling! I would like to introduce you to a new one with the remarkable “super power” of greening up again after being dried up and crunchy.

Dehydrated Resurrection Ferns on tree bark

Appropriately named, Resurrection Fern (Pleopeltis polypoidioides) is one of as many as 1300 different species of plants that can tolerate extreme desiccation of their tissues during the absence of rainfall, full-blown droughts, or totally freezing. New studies are identifying more of them. Researchers will undoubtedly continue learning from these plants’ genetic make-up how the molecules they create in normal growth are used against dehydration-induced stress. With fluctuating weather patterns creating changes that damage many food crops, knowledge of how the sugars and lipids of resurrection plants keep them alive and growing may be useful in some way. One protein, dehydrin, allows for the folding up of cell walls in a way that can be easily reversed.

Check out the difference of the rehydrated frond between two dried ones

The Resurrection Ferns I found were a grey-brown, curled-up mass on the huge spreading branches of a Live Oak In Fort Myers, Florida. They are called epiphytes or “air plants” and live on tree bark in the south, starting in Virginia. They are not considered parasitic because they get their nutrients for growth from dust and rainwater on the outside of the tree bark. Sometimes, lichens and moss colonize tree branches first before the tiny air-born spores of the fern move in and start to grow. Careful not to detach the whole plant, I pulled off three dead-looking fronds for a closer look and decided to experiment with one of them by placing it in a bowl of water. Checking throughout the day as the frond slowly unfurled, I noticed that the undersides of it had been curled up over the top, exposing them first to any rainwater. Smart! After being in water overnight, it was totally back to its soft, green fern leaf self. You can see the results on the photo I took.

This species of Resurrection Fern is a neotropical native of the warmer parts of the Americas and southern Africa. It does not grow in Pennsylvania currently. It did and it may again, but not at this time.

Fossil remains have been found dating it back to about 300 million years ago. One reference called its existence “a triumph of adaptive evolution.” It can tolerate the loss of 95% of its cellular water content and exist that way for many years, then be back to normal after a few hours of rehydration. Amazing! 


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!!