Underfoot: Earth Day 2022 – Happy Day…happy us!

By Susan Sprout

The introductory article I created for UNDERFOOT two years ago was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. In it, I wrote that we would not be here without the planet and its components under our feet. I cited the number of different species in this world with us – over 87 billion – hinting that in just a handful of dirt there may be billions of single organisms. Now I would like to expand on that information.

In working to save the earth and its occupants, people come at it from many different directions. Conservation efforts support animals, plants, trees, land, air, water, soil. We only need to use our physical senses, as well as our common sense, to recognize the damage ecocidal practices and greed (corporate and personal) have done to the natural world.
The Age of Reason, during the 16th and 17th centuries, was a time when groups of people began to value ideas, ideals, and knowledge by using their powers of reasoning and the evidence gathered by their senses. Some of the true enlightenment that occurred then was based on the study of how things work in the natural world. I, personally, seem to be “plant-centric” as I search out what grows on top of the soil – pointing out flowering plants and trees and their lifestyles – in hopes that interested folks will take care of them. After all, plants and trees make up 80% of the total mass of all life on earth and are the base of vegetal support for all animals, including us. However, it is what is unseen, underground, that keeps the entire above-ground systems held together and working. The “rhizosphere microbiome” down there in healthy soils holds amazing amounts of fungi, bacteria, protists, insects, and arthropods – more than the number of humans who have ever lived on earth (Sheldrake, 2020).
Underground fungi grow as tiny, tube-shaped cells called hyphae that plow their way between soil particles. They group in masses called mycelium and create networks, fusing with or entering inside the roots of about 90% of all land plants and trees. And, there are so many, they make up 1/3 to 1/2 of the living mass of soil. Mycorrhizal (fungus root) associations have been around for over 400 million years, benefiting both partners and us.  Very large amounts of carbon, as well as nutrients, minerals, and water are absorbed, reabsorbed, stored, and shared back and forth between and among partners in the networks which can extend for miles. Findings of research done in Amsterdam to investigate how plants and fungi maintain their “balance of power” in so complex and entangled a relationship showed neither plant nor fungus was in complete control. They were able to strike compromises, resolve trade-offs, and deploy sophisticated trading strategies. Something that not all species everywhere can do!
On this Earth Day – to all individuals, organizations, trusts, agencies, conservancies – evolved and involved  – who can and do create networks by working together, by making beneficial compromises, using trade-offs and sophisticated strategies in order to help heal what’s wrong and harmful in the world and by continuing to support what works – for the earth and all of its inhabitants, seen and unseen – THANK YOU!
Learn more about fungi in “Entangled Life” by Merlin Sheldrake, Random House, 2020.

Underfoot: Skunk Cabbage

By, Susan Sprout

To all warm-blooded mammals reading this article – You undergo a process called “thermogenesis” to create your own body heat. Did you know that Skunk Cabbage is one of the few plant species that does this as well? Tramping along streams in very early spring, especially while snow and frost are still noticeable, you can see the purple and green mottled blossoms of Skunk Cabbage emerging from the cold, hard ground. They are able to because they use some of the carbohydrates they made last year, and stored in their foot-long, six-inch wide central root, to produce the heat energy they use to melt their way upward through the snow and out into the cold air. Their internal furnace can reach up to 60 degrees inside their four to six inch spathe or hooded cover that surrounds the club-shaped flower cluster or spadix. You may remember seeing the word “spathe” in an earlier article describing Green Dragon which is, along with Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Skunk Cabbage, a member of the Arum Family. 

Emerging Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage is a wetland plant that grows near swamps, marshes, and in wet woodlands. It takes five to seven years before a young plant can blossom. In spring, it flowers before its bright green leaves come up and unfurl. Then these plants really become obvious because their big leaves can grow from fifteen to twenty-one inches long and twelve to fifteen inches wide! While walking along Big Run, I found about fifty blossoms starting to emerge. They were in all stages of growth, and some were beginning to leaf out. 

When I pulled the edges of the spathe apart to look inside at the flowers, bunches of gnats and flies came zooming out. They were pollinators attracted by the warm air and stinky, putrescent odor. The name “skunk” is well-deserved in a plant with chemicals like skatole and cadaverine in its tissues to attract pollinators. Not many animals eat the roots, leaves or flowers either except bears in spring (They’ll eat anything.) and snapping turtles – because of the intense burning caused by calcium oxylate crystals found in their tissues. Slugs and snails help break down the dead plant when it dies back and goes dormant in the late summer. 

Hooded spathe surrounding the flower cluster or spadix

This is not a “cabbage” you should eat, although people have eaten it in the past after boiling three times and drying. Its leaves have been used medicinally for skin problems – ulcers, wounds, blisters. Fresh leaves can also cause blisters, too.  I found one reference of root usage in 1708 for treating “suppurating tumors”. 

Leaves starting to grow

This is a pretty hardy plant. but it does not bounce back well from the deforestation and water level changes that accompany clear cutting, agriculture, and development. 

Underfoot – Hairy Bittercress

By Susan Sprout

Hairy bittercress, or Cardamine hirsuta, is flowering right now! Look for them along sidewalks and in lawn edges near shrubs and trees. Depending on the weather and growing conditions, they can be either an annual or a biennial, and may complete two generations in one year. The plants I have been monitoring stayed green and photosynthesizing all winter long, and only had a couple dead leaves showing down under their rosettes of new compound leaves. Growing from seeds that germinated in the fall really gave them a head start flowering in the spring. That’s why there are so many of their tiny, white flowers coming up in my lawn.

Basal rosette growth pattern of lower leaves

Thirteen different species of Cardamine have been found growing in Pennsylvania. Some are native. This one was introduced from Eurasia. They are all members of the Mustard Family, and all have four-petaled flowers shaped like a cross. The family’s name used to be Cruciferae for that reason. In the early 20th century, it was officially changed to Brassicaceae, based on the Latin word for cabbage. I have seen both names being used. Whatever the name, we love to eat them – cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, mustard greens and the condiment created from their seeds, Brussels sprouts, turnips…maybe not. Don’t be put off by the word “bitter” in Hairy bittercress’s name. There is a sharp taste, but it is not really bitter. In fact, its Germanic root word “cresso” means sharp and spicy. About the “hairy” part of its name – there are very few white hairs on the leaves growing up the flower stem. I had to use a magnifier in order to confirm their existence. This plant makes an excellent addition to a lettuce salad, sharp and not hairy.

Note the long, thin seed capsules and smaller leaves on the flower stalk

Another interesting thing I learned about Hairy bittercress is how it seeds. After pollination, the individual flowers will expand upward in thin toothpick- size seed capsules called “siliques”. When they are mature, the seed capsules will open from the bottom upward and forcefully eject their seeds, flinging them out and away from the parent plant. This maneuver is called ballochory. A new word for me. It comes from Greek “ballein” (to throw) and is also part of an old word I know – ballistics. 


By Susan Sprout

You know that smell – digging in the soil, when rain is on the way or just over, that earthy, musty, spring-like scent coming your way on a breeze. It is petrichor, Greek for stone and blood of the gods, AND there is chemistry involved! A combination of geosmin, (C12 H22 O) an alcohol released by dead microbes, PLUS ozone, an ion of oxygen produced by lightning and other atmospheric gases, PLUS the aromatic oils of living and dried plants EQUALS petrichor! That wonderful, standing out on the porch and sniffing the air, “It’s sprinkling out” smell! I didn’t know it had a name. The word “petrichor” was just coined in 1964 by two chemists, although people have been smelling it forever. 

The major component of petrichor that we need to know more about is the geosmin, or earth smell, which provides the scent of dead soil bacteria. When raindrops fall on a porous surface like dirt, aerosols are released that carry the smell created by bacteria, like streptomyces, in those small bubbles, up, up and away on the wind. We humans appear to be extremely sensitive to geosmin, a trait we may have picked up and kept on our evolutionary journey to now. This may have come about due to our ancestors’ need to find water sources in order to survive. Certainly rain had a very important impact on their food sources as well.

We can smell and taste the geosmin molecule in other places besides the air. In fact, some folks don’t like where it occurs. For example, in community water supplies, especially those places that depend on surface water; the skin and dark muscle tissue of fish; the taste of mushrooms and root vegetables like beets and carrots. Researchers have found that using an acid in or on some of the above will decompose the geosmin molecules into odorless substances.  Can you make the connection…lemon slices in the water served by restaurants…lemon juice squirted on fish and other seafood…the use of vinegar to “pickle” beets and other root veggies…Got it?

Humans do seem to like the smell, however. Chemical companies actually create synthetic versions of geosmin that are used in perfumes, air fresheners, scented candles, and a lot of other places we may not know about. The bottom line is that odors can trigger both positive and negative emotions because they are associated with specific memories. What memories come to you in the rain or on a mushroom laden pizza?

Thanks to C&N for supporting conservation!!!

Family Fishing Program Scheduled for May

Would you want to try fishing with the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy?

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) and the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy (NPC) are hosting an afternoon of FREE fishing at Rose Valley Lake!

No license, equipment or bait is required. We’ll provide all the tackle, bait, and rods. Registering for the event (every participant adult, young adult, or child should be registered) is your license for the event.

After a quick overview of what fish eat, how to tie a basic knot, and some casting practice, we’ll get everyone tackle and bait and let you fish the afternoon away. Volunteers will be on hand to help and make sure there’s a photo of you with the trophy fish you catch.

The May 15, 2022 program begins at 12:30pm. You can fish as long as you want, but we will wrap up by 4:00pm. Please pre-register for the event .

You can register online at the PA Fish and Boat Commission’s website.

Please be sure to bring sunscreen, sunglasses, water, and snacks. The event will be held rain or shine, so bring an rain jacket or maybe an extra sweatshirt (May can be chilly at times).

The Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy is enrolled in PFBC’s Fishing Tackle Loaner Program. What is the Fishing Tackle Loaner Program?? Through the FTLP, the public can go to the locations identified and borrow rods, reels and a tackle box full of hooks and other terminal tackle. This equipment is borrowed in much the same way books are borrowed from a library. Those wanting to borrow gear complete a form and the loan is made. At the end of the loan period the equipment is returned to the site. The FTLP program is a partnership between the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the American Sportfishing Association, and multiple other sponsors. The program is designed to make it easy for anyone to access fishing tackle. This equipment may also be loaned to groups conducting angler education programs in the community.

Thank you to C&N for their support of conservation!

Underfoot: Horsetails

By: Susan Sprout

People use the phrase “living fossil” to refer to living organisms that have a close similarity to extinct ones. Members of the same family and genus may have survived rather than the actual species. So it is with Horsetails of the genus Equisetum, the only living genus of the Horsetail Family, Equisetaceae. The fossilized imprints and stems of their Carboniferous progenitors, the sphenophytes, can be found in many of the Pennsylvania coal mines.

Today, way above those underground beds, and in all parts of the world except Australasia, there are fifteen different species of Horsetails living. Seven can be found in Pennsylvania. I have found two of the most common growing nearby. They are Field or Common Horsetail (E. arvense) and Scouring Rush (E. hyemale). They both look so very different from other herbaceous perennials found locally, that I’ve always been attracted by them.

Field Horsetail fertile stem with spore cone and emerging vegetative stem

In early spring, Field Horsetails grow from underground rhizomes, putting out a pink to brown fertile stem with a spore cone at the top. The green spores from it will disperse in the wind shortly before the stem withers. The yearly vegetative stems come next, looking like little trees with naked branches whirling around them similar to the spokes of umbrellas. A gentle stroke of the plant will tell you this plant isn’t a softie! it has a rough, sand-like surface that comes from the same mineral as sand. A mix of silicon dioxide and water from the soil is absorbed by roots and crystallized in the plant’s tissues. It has been observed in all parts of the plant – rhizome, stem, leaf and spores.

Field Horsetail vegetative stems

Yes, there are leaves, though not very obvious. They are projected as tiny teeth, their bottoms fused together as a sheath, making a dark stripe around the hollow stem directly above the branches. Look for Field Horsetails in wet meadows, along dirt roads in the woods (where I found mine), and open meadows.

Scouring Rush with spore cones

Unlike Field Horsetails, Scouring Rush is unbranched and looks like a short bamboo forest when it emerges from the soil. Their jointed, hollow stems have dark bands where the tiny deciduous leaves are growing along them. Each shoot tip has a spore cone that will mature and release its spores to the wind from late spring to early summer. They are pretty hardy and can grow on stream banks (Muncy Creek on Chippewa Road), along railroad embankments, and roadsides. They seem to form colonies that spread a bit each year. 

Scouring Rush beginning to lose their color over winter

Horsetails were useful to many during the exploration and colonization history of the New World. The newcomers brought with them the knowledge of herbal remedies using horsetails that date back to the ancient Greeks and Romans who used the plants to stop bleeding, heal ulcers, and knit wounds. They were probably delighted to see them growing here for their use. The common name Scouring Rush indicates its use as a polishing material because it has the grit of a fine sandpaper. It was good for cleaning pots and pans way before the invention of Brillo pads. In a pinch, I have used them myself on black iron frying pans while camping. Yes, I forgot to pack the Brillo.

Thank you to C&N for your support of conservation!

Underfoot: Vines in General

By Susan Sprout

On the Movements and Habits of Plants” is a book written by Charles Darwin and published in 1875. It was based on an essay he wrote ten years earlier. His passion for the design of plants and the diversity of their powers of movement are amazing to me – the little girl who was taught that animals were different from plants because plants couldn’t move! Ha! Their adaptations as climbing vines has carried some plants to new heights. Their “leafage” in forests can account for 40% of a forest’s leaf mass. Biomass – not so much – just 5%. What this tells us is that the thin vines sprint skyward for light and create huge numbers of leaves to absorb it. Climbing vines aren’t all in the same family, either. This key innovation evolved independently in different families, with different climbing methods. Their success may be based on the fact they don’t have to use their energy to grow big, heavy trunks. They use the backbones of trees, buildings, fences, cliff faces, other plants. Check out trees (or other items) with vines  growing up them on your next walk. See if you can determine their special modus operandi for getting to the top.

Here are some of the ways they may use, with reference to the plants I wrote about in earlier blogs.

Aerial rootlets with adhesive discs that glue the growing plant to its support – Virginia Creeper.

This Virginia Creeper vine has adhesive disks holding it to the spruce trunk.

Twining and wrapping their stems around a support – Bittersweet – It only twines counterclockwise.

Follow the indents created by a Bittersweet vine as it curled counterclockwise up the tree trunk.

Scrambling or shooting out long stems that arch out and loop over the backs of others – Tear Thumb. This plant also has thorns that help it hold on.

Tendrils or specialized shoots that coil and/or branch – Prickly Cucumber

Check out the curly spring-like tendrils of Bur Cucumber, a close relative of Prickly Cucumber.

Trailing over the ground to cover as much territory as they can – Ground Ivy

A new vine came to live at my home this winter, brought from a much warmer clime. It is Piper nigrum, the Black Pepper Vine, the species of plant that provides us with over a million tons of pepper yearly. After growing up to 13 feet for about four or five years, a pepper vine will produce flowers on hanging spikes that turn into small pungent fruits, maturing from green to red to black. Picked while unripe, the berries are boiled and dried before being sent on their way from the twenty-five countries that produce them –  the world’s most traded spice!

Did you know the spice you use everyday, Black Pepper, grew on a vine?

Working on Cleaner Water Through Weather Whiplash

The projects with the northcentral stream partnership got underway the week of March 7. The first day was a little chilly to start, but sunny, and comfortable in the afternoon. However, it’s March. We’re in Pennsylvania. Yep. On day 2 of the stream construction season, it was cold and snowing. The team worked on.

Weather whiplash in full swing at this project in Union County. Here’s day 2. Day was was chilly to start, but comfortable by the sunny afternnon.

The weather isn’t done with us. Logs were delivered last week for a project that was scheduled to start today (Monday, March 14), but the weekend snowstorm required a delay. The ground is no longer frozen, so all the moisture from the snow will make things pretty muddy and we don’t like to generate more mud than necessary. We’re working to clean up water remember, and generally mud doesn’t help.

Logs being unloaded for an upcoming project in Montour County.

The team is keeping busy looking at potential project sites, re-visiting sites that were designed last year to see how they changed over the winter, and re-vising sites that had work done in prior years. Looking at streams, comparing them over time, and seeing how they respond is all important for learning and understanding.

Partners re-visiting a Lycoming County site.

The partnership will be back to projects soon!

Underfoot: Honey Locust AKA Thorny Locust

By, Susan Sprout

Take care when walking near this tree – it is armed and may be dangerous! Botanists have indicated that its thorns may be genetic upgrades developed to keep browsing animals from chewing on the bark. Honey locust, with the scientific name of Gleditsia triacanthos, is a member of the Fabaceae or Pea Family, like its close relative found nearby, Redbud, whose magenta flowers will be adorning bare branches soon. It is prettier and less prickly.

close-up of Honey locust thorn

Light-demanding Honey locust trees can be found in wetlands and uplands, too. It is a hardy species, native to states on both sides of the Mississippi and up through West Virginia and into central Pennsylvania. In fact, the USDA Forest Service map showing its spread, actually mirrors the shape of the Muncy “bump,” the geological feature that indicates the end of Bald Eagle Mountain and causes the Susquehanna River to swish around it in  a half-circle. (A much-used visual clue that I use when looking at maps, from there, I know where I am, a short hop to home.) 

I read somewhere that a tree’s trunk is its essential identity. Honey locust’s trunk has ridged and fissured gray-brown bark with thorns growing out of it, up to three inches long. They extend singly and in bunches of three’s up through lower branches. You can see them better at this time of year without leaf cover. Does this indicate that its bark is worse than its bite? And by “bite,” the meaning is clear – the very sweet, honey-flavored “snack” that awaits inside the ripe seed pods. The edible pulp develops between the hard bean seeds in flat and slightly twisted pods that can range in length from eight to sixteen inches long to about an inch wide. Used as food and medicine by many indigenous populations in its range, animals and birds, too, like the sweetness.

notice the rough, fissured bark as well as the thorns 

Do not confuse this tree with mature Black locust tree which has paired spines at the base of each leaf instead of long thorns. It has toxic properties. The Honey locust trees must grow to ten years of age before bearing seeds, with large crops occurring about every other year. They have been found alive up to 125 years old.

Today Honey locust is used as livestock food. Its dense wood is great for fence posts and furniture. Research is being done on its usefulness for treating diseases. A practical use, while camping, hiking, on extended walks – rips in cloth can be held together by thorns, carefully inserted like straight pins!

Thank you to PPL for your support!

In Your Woods – March

March is here! March is one of those months where it can still be winter (think about some of the record snowfalls that have happened in March) but we’re starting to see signs of spring.

Skunk cabbage is one of the first wildflowers (yes, it’s considered a wildflower) to appear in the spring. Through a chemical process the flower generates its own heat which can melt snow cover and allow the flower to poke through.

Take a walk in your woods (or on a public forest) and look for the reddish-brown spathe. Inside the spathe is the spadix and the flowers are on the spadix. As the flowers wilt, the leaves begin to unfold.

The reddish brown spathe of a skunk cabbage poking up in March 2021.

Skunk cabbage isn’t the only thing that starts to come back to life in March. If you are treating invasives on your property now is a good time to look at the treatment schedules. Penn State Extension’s “Invasive and Competing Plants” page is a great place to go to find information on invasive and competing plants as well as treatments to help remove the plants.

If you’re interested in citizen’s science you might want to check out Project Budburst. The Chicago Botanical Garden’s administers the program that allows citizens to report when trees reach certain phases in bud development and leaf-out. The page also has activities for families and kids to learn more about the trees around them and how trees grow.

Black bear will start to emerge from their dens (if they haven’t already) and their new cubs will start to wander out with mom. Red fox kits and opossum young are born in March.

Other species are starting the mating process. Keep an eye out for the aerobatics of the American woodcock and ear out for woodcocks drumming. Also known as the timberdoodle, the American woodcock lives in young forests and shrubby old fields. The bird walks slowly probing the forest floor with its long bill searching for earthworms.

As the days start to warm up and the amount of daylight increases you may be looking for things to do outside. It can be a great time to cut firewood. Downed trees may be easier to get to before other plants sprout and leaf out. The ground may still be frozen and easier to maneuver on.

If you are treating invasives on your property now is a good time to look at the treatment schedules. Penn State Extension’s “Invasive and Competing Plants” page is a great place to go to find information on invasive and competing plants as well as treatments to help remove the plants.

Japanese barberry – an invasive plant that can be manually removed in early spring before seeds start to develop and the plant becomes too active.

If you can avoid, the urge to “clean up” your flower beds and yards. Various pollinators use what we view as “yard debris” to overwinter. If you clean it up too soon, you’ll loose those pollinators. A general rule of thumb is wait until daytime temperatures are consistently 50°F.

Thank you to PPL for their support!