Underfoot: Staghorn Sumac

By: Sue Sprout

Whether it is pronounced “soo-mack” or “shoo-mack”; whether it is known as Velvet Sumac, Staghorn Sumac, or scientifically as Rhus typhina; whether people call it a tall shrub or a  small tree – it is what it is! And, it is a native (to Eastern N.A.), non-poisonous, deciduous, furry-limbed plant with amazing pyramid-shaped, hairy, red seed heads that stay on during the winter months to provide food for over 30 species of birds and small mammals. Whew! I feel like that should do it. Alas, I suspect some explanation is required.

What’s in a name? The fact that historically leaves and fruits were boiled to make black dye used in tanning leather and a waxy substance used for shining shoes may explain the “shoo-mack” pronunciation.

Deer antlers, as they develop, are covered by a nourishing layer of skin covered with short hairs (the velvet) and small blood vessels that carry the nutrients and minerals for growing bone. The trunk and stems of this plant are covered with short, soft hairs with a furry touch like velvet that resemble the growing antlers of deer. Thus, the use of the common names Staghorn Sumac and Velvet Sumac.

Notice the halo effect created by fine hairs on stem edges as the light hits them.

The species name typhina refers to deer antlers. The name Rhus refers to the whole genus of sumacs (about 35 kinds worldwide) where they are all members of the ANACARDIACEAE or Cashew family, along with some other plants you may recognize: pistachios, cashews, mangos, poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. Here is where the sad fact of misidentification or misnaming becomes apparent. There is another plant commonly named Poison Sumac that has smooth bark and white berries as seeds that hang down under the leaves. It is found growing in wetter areas than our Staghorn likes (most of the time). It is in a different genus grouping known as Toxicodendron along with its itchy relatives. Do you see the word “toxic” in their family name? None of them contain a poison, but rather, a very potent allergen that makes susceptible people who touch their leaves, stems or roots, get a contact dermatitis. Our Staghorn Sumac is non-poisonous.

Closeup of seed reveals seeds covered by tiny red hairs.

Look for Staghorn Sumacs along the backroads you travel, with large seed clusters sticking up above where their leaves used to be. These trees are deciduous and shed their leaves in the fall. Sometimes the smaller shrubs in the colonies formed by their spreading roots will retain their bright yellow, orange or red leaves longer. If you get a chance, look at the seeds. In June and July, hundreds to thousands of small yellow to greenish five-petaled flowers attracted many bees, wasps and beetles that spread their pollen around to create these big red clusters of hairy seeds. Look at them with a magnifier. Tiny red Muppets.

Medicinally, the seeds of this plant were removed from their stems and soaked like sun tea until the water turned red as the ascorbic acid in the red hairs seeped out, then strained through cloth so people didn’t actually drink the red hairs (or the bugs that lived in or among them). It was administered as a “refrigerant” or a cooling drink to those suffering from heat problems. It is bitter like lemonade without the sugar. This beverage was used a lot in hospitals during the Civil War. Back as far as 2000 years, Sumac was noted for its medicinal properties as a diuretic.

Silhouettes of Staghorn Sumac seed heads against the sky.

“Summaq” is an Arabic word for dark red. I use a spice mixture called Za’atar when I cook Middle Eastern dishes. The red berries of a species of Summaq that grows on the high plateaus of the Mediterranean region are ground and mixed with thyme and other herbs to provide a tartness that brings out the flavor of foods it is cooked with. BTW, the Emperor Nero used it as an anti-flatulent. TMI?

Susan Sprout is an environmental educator and long-time, loyal member of NPC. Learn more about the author here.

Plantsgiving Time 2023!

By Susan Sprout

“Sweet, sweet, a little more sweet” is a mnemonic for identifying the rhythm of the Yellow Warblers’ calls when they cannot be seen among the foliage. It occurred to me that that could be my own personal call as well, along with many other folks, too! Pies, cakes, cookies, candy and much, much more are awaiting us at Thanksgiving and onward towards Christmas. This year, let us be thankful for all of the sweetness in our lives, starting with families, including pets, and extended families, and friends, perhaps with whom we may be sharing a Thanksgiving feast including dessert. We do love our sweets. Even after a full meal, we chow down on something “a little more sweet!” Biologists, who have studied the rise of humankind from our ancient ancestors, report that the taste of sweet we crave may have evolved as a way to detect sources of food with higher calories that could be converted for more energy, fueling rapid growth, and storing more fat to be used later. We may have evolved to seek out and consume plant parts that carry more sweet-tasting fruits, berries, roots.

As you plan and cook your meal, pay attention to the wide variety of ways we get our sweet fix. Many of our sources come in bags of crystals, white to brown, that are refined from grasses like sugarcane or roots like beets. We use a teaspoon here or there to kick up the taste of a recipe or cups of tea and coffee. Do not forget syrups made from the fruits of plants and trees like agave, coconut, monk fruit, and sugar maple. We wouldn’t have the sweetness of honey without the flower nectar collected by bees. It gets broken down into simple sugars that are evaporated in the hive making a thick syrup. It takes 556 worker bees to gather nectar from two million flowers to make one pound. Sugar substitutes should not be forgotten, either. When made with erythritol, this type of alcohol is synthesized from corn.

While you are thanking the plants, trees, bees, don’t forget the taste buds in your mouth and your brain. When our tongues touch sugar, the taste buds there send a signal to the brain, which reacts in a way that brings us pleasure. Our response to this sensation may have been fixed in place over millennia by natural selection and has become an instinct. The sweet taste tells you to keep eating. A bitter taste may tell you to spit it out. (Hmm, that could explain my aversion to some leafy, green veggies that are supposed to be good for me.) Have a Happy Plantsgiving!   

Underfoot: Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera)

By Susan Sprout

As an historical reenactor using the living history personae of a Pre-Columbian medicine woman or a colonial dame or a Civil War Era soldier, I have had the distinct honor of introducing the people visiting my presentations to the plants and trees that I love so much. One special tree that I was introduced to in Virginia twenty-four years ago near a Civil War reenactment is Osage Orange, Maclura pomifera, a member of the Mulberry Family, MORACEAE. It just grabbed my attention. If you happen upon one, hiking or driving by fencerows on backroads or near abandoned pasturelands after leaf fall, Osage Orange may grab your attention as well! The greenish-orange fruits on mature female trees can grow up to 4 and1/2 inches in diameter and hang there like early Christmas tree decorations until they fall off!

Sue Sprout posing with Osage Orange fruit and trees at an event.

Native to the southwestern part of the country – Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas – they are more common south of Pennsylvania, but they are found growing here and have been planted in many different states for a variety of reasons. Native Americans fashioned bows using their tight, springy wood; farmers and ranchers planted rows of them as prickly fences to keep livestock from straying. They are definitely not planted for food as they are inedible by everything despite the word “orange” in their name.

Looking up at Osage oranges from along the road.

I carried home with me the fruits of this amazing tree for years, trying to get them to grow nearby. I would just dig a hole and pop the fruits in it and let nature take its course. No luck, even though each one of those hunky fruits could contain hundreds of seeds. Ah ha! Those fruits must come from a female tree whose June flowers have been germinated by bees carrying pollen from a tree with male flowers! Finally! Three years ago, success appeared in the form of a small forest of tiny, two-leafed saplings growing up in a tangled mass. As young as they were, I recognized their bright dye-filled yellow roots as I transplanted them in a dish. I now have a grove of Osage Orange trees to bring into my house for winter. Their yellow fall leaves are just beginning to drift off. In the spring, they will be planted here and there outside. Hopefully, they will have both sexes of trees growing near each other so they can reproduce.

Nan “Dragon Fly” Reisinger on the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail is a public footpath that follows more than 2,100 miles of Appalachian Mountain ridgelines between Maine and Georgia. Traversing the entire AT has been long been a coveted journey of thru hiking enthusiasts everywhere. It’s a rigorous and rewarding trek that each year thousands of hikers attempt; only about one in four makes it all the way.

For Nan “Dragon Fly” Reisinger, she not only completed the journey, but in doing so also earned the title as the oldest female hiker to complete the AT in one year.

On Wednesday, 11/1, NPC will welcome Nan to Orlando’s Restaurant in Muncy to share her story with the community. This FREE talk will take place at 6pm in the banquet room. Seating is first come, first serve.

The Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy (NPC) is a regional land trust conserving and enhancing the lands and waters in a 12 county area. With the support of its members and donors, the organization supports the environmental well-being and recreational needs of local communities.

For more information about this event, please contact the NPC office at 570-323-6222.

Underfoot: COMMON SNAPPING TURTLE (Chelydra serpentium)

By Susan Sprout

A surprising find, in the truck room of our local volunteer fire company – a baby snapping turtle! Coming back from a midnight fire call, my Safety Officer husband and the Assistant Chief saw a small dark shadow moving from the back wall of the station house toward the front doors. A lucky rescue for this silver-dollar-size hatchling that undoubtedly had been fending for itself from the minute it struggled out of its leathery, ping pong ball-shaped egg and began digging upward.

Baby snapper on mulch.

In the spring, female snapping turtles looking for suitable places to dig holes and lay twenty to eighty eggs, have been found up to a mile away from the water sources that were their homes. Nine to eighteen weeks later (depending on the temperature), the sand pile over the eggs erupts as hatchlings make a run for it toward the nearest stream, swamp, pond. They do not stick together, but go singly to learn about the world, instinctively heading for water. The firehouse snapper may have sensed wetness and entered to check it out. That got it a free ride to a local stream the next day where it crawled right in and swam away.

It did not have to learn hard lessons on the way to water: nest predators (minks, weasels, skunks, raccoons) nor wayside predators (dogs, crows, motor vehicles). In the water, other predators (bigger turtles, fish, and snakes, herons from above) will provide much needed life lessons.

Heading into the creek.

Snapping turtles spend most of their lives underwater – a nice muddy bottom to overwinter and lots of dense vegetation for hiding and eating. At least a third of their diet is made up of green plants. Since they are omnivores, they will start hunting smaller animals first (aquatic insects, spiders, worms, tadpoles, tiny fish) and work their way up to larger animals as they grow – grow into excellent ambush predators (birds, small mammals, other reptiles, faster amphibians) using the patience for waiting in stillness and lightning quick reflexes for grabbing their prey.

Beginning to submerge in its element, finally!

Our little firehouse snapper could grow up to two feet in length, weighing twenty-five to thirty-five pounds on average. In my mind, I try to picture a fully grown turtle with algae or moss growing on its carapace, or shell, hanging relaxed in a pond with only the nostrils on the tip of its snout protruding. The three small bumps on the top of its shell when younger, flattened by growth. And definitely not being the kind of turtle that retreats into a shell when frightened or maltreated. Heavens, no! It will snap and bite at the slightest excuse, make hissing noises and, perhaps, release a musty odor. With claws as sharp as bears’, strong hooked jaws, a large head with a longer neck, and powerfully-muscled legs of a body that just won’t all fit in the comparatively small shell, this turtle will do damage. Here, the only things snapping turtles have to fear are pollution, habitat destruction, food scarcity, and road mortality. 

Snapping turtles are native to the North American Continent from Nova Scotia to Florida and west to the edge of the Rocky Mountains. They are the largest of our freshwater turtles. If taken for food, their flesh may contain concentrations of toxic environmental pollutants. If found on a roadway, picking one up by the tail can severely injure its spinal column and pulling one could abrade its flesh possibly causing infection. Coaxed onto a blanket, tarp or sheet before dragging is a healthier (for it) and safer (for you) way to save a snapping turtle from road mortality.

Underfoot: INDIAN TOBACCO (Lobelia inflata)

By Susan Sprout

I have been looking for this plant. It can bloom from July to October, depending on where it grows. And depending on where I look since it is a native in North America all the way from Labrador to Georgia and Louisiana. According to a Pennsylvania native plant site on-line, it has been found growing in every county in our state. I finally found mine in disturbed soil under a shady Spruce tree in Lycoming County!

Indian Tobacco plant

Indian Tobacco is definitely not showy like its two-to-four-foot-tall bright red relative Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) that decorates stream banks and wetlands. Or its three-to-four-foot-tall bright blue relative Great Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), a plant I wrote about in a previous post. All three are members of the Bellflower Family and have tube-type flowers with five thin, pointed lobes – two at the top resembling ears extending upward and three on the bottom edge sticking out like lower lips.

Check out the five-lobed flowers and the white dots on leaf edges

Indian Tobacco is a thinner and much less robust-looking plant at three feet tall with ½ inch pale lavender to white flowers. Each flower tube is cupped at the bottom by a green leafy calyx with five thin green points that extend out beyond the lobes of the flower. Here is the totally cool thing about the cup on the bottom of the flower tube – it is where the seeds develop after pollination has taken place AND it is where the species name, inflata, comes from. As the fruits grow and swell, they morph or inflate into round capsules measuring about 3/8th inch and look like tiny balloons tied on the stems. When mature and dried, the balloons will burst and give seeds to the wind!

Seed “balloons”

The simple leaves of Indian Tobacco can be hairy on both sides. They grow alternately on the plant stem that can be hairy, too. They are oval and range from 1 to 2 1/2 inches in length. Another feature that may catch your eye is the leaves’ toothed edges that have white dots on them. Surprise! I do not know, maybe it is the plant’s milky sap oozing out the tips.

The common name, Indian Tobacco, comes from native populations’ documented use of the leaves for smoking as a tobacco, by itself or mixed with other dried plants. Chewed leaves were also used for internal cleansing as an emetic, a practice that gave the plant another common name – Puke Plant! This plant and others in the same genus contain moderately poisonous alkaloids like lobeline. Nausea, vomiting, sweating, heart palpitations can result from its use. Beware!

Underfoot: King Philip Came Over For Good Spaghetti *

(A mnemonic for remembering Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species)

By Susan Sprout

Remember learning this sentence in Life Science class? It was used to help students remember the various steps in the Linnaean Classification System developed in the 18th century and used to group organisms together based on the body structures they shared. Wow, has this system evolved since then as advanced knowledge and technology became available to help biologists do a better job of it!

Let us look at the “Phillip” word – PHYLUM. It is the name given to a major group of animals or plants that share important characteristics which set them apart from all the other plants and animals. For example, Phylum Mollusca. Mollusks are soft-bodied animals without backbones. Two unique body parts are their radula, a flexible toothed “tongue” used to rasp (like a file) food into their digestive tracts and their mantles, organs that create protective shells of calcium carbonate. There are roughly 80,000 different kinds of mollusks living today. We need to add 100,000 to that total if we count all the mollusk fossils that have lived and died out for the last 500 million years.

We do not need to visit a sandy beach near the ocean to find mollusks because we have them right here in Pennsylvania! I was able to photograph two different kinds of mollusks – a snail, having a shell, and a slug, that does not grow a shell on the outside of its body. Pennsylvania has over 100 SPECIES (“Spaghetti” word) of land snails and slugs and 63 species of freshwater snails at last count. Biologists have completed population samples of snails and slugs in some of the wild places in this state.

Snail on the sidewalk measured about an inch across its shell

Land snails and slugs make short work of dead and alive (sadly, for gardeners) plant matter. Their bodies return nutrients in the items they eat to the environment quickly, recycling them for others to absorb and use. The muscular body part that gets them around is called a “foot.” Its cells exhude mucus that smooths their travels over the sharp or scratchy things they encounter and helps them stick fast as they climb. Dried, it becomes a shiny trail used to locate other snails and slugs. It was a shiny trail that called my attention to the comings and goings of the snail I photographed and simply followed to find where it was hiding under a leaf. On their heads, snails and slugs have four tentacles, two longer ones that have eyes at their tips and two shorter ones under them for catching scent. Their eye parts, like ours (retina, lens, optic nerve), help them respond to light or movement as well as see in front of them. They have both male and female reproductive organs in their bodies and, according to some resources, can lay 500 eggs per year.

Slug on a piece of wet paper. They can elongate their bodies to slip through tiny holes. Notice the mucus behind its tail.

Snails and slugs can play roles as pollinators when the fragrant smell of flowers lures them in. When they eat fungus, they dispense spores. They provide food sources for predators – birds, raccoons, insects, voles.  They are decomposers that provide nutrients through their scat and their bodies when they die. Their shells are an important source of calcium for other animals. They are considered important environmental indicators and biodiversity predictors that may well play a role in monitoring the changing climate.

*Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species

102 Acres Conserved in Plunketts Creek Township, Lycoming County

Conservation happens at varying speeds. Some projects take years, if not decades to navigate and complete, and other projects happen in weeks. The Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy’s members invest in both slow and fast conservation. Providing the support to build trust over time and work through questions and contemplations as well as supplying the resources to act when an opportunity presents itself.

Back in March 2023 there was a need for fast conservation. The Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy was contacted about 2 parcels adjacent to State Game Lands 134 being sold by auction about 3 weeks later. The parcels lay side by side. One shares its western boundary with existing State Game Lands and they both share their northern boundary with existing State Game Lands.

It didn’t take long to find out the Pennsylvania Game Commission was interested in the parcels. The parcels would provide management access into an area of the existing State Game Lands that doesn’t have that access now. Access for management allows projects to improve habitat for wildlife and support and improve the ecosystem services the property provides.

Within a matter of days of finding out about the auction, we looked at maps and plans to understand how these parcels fit into the bigger conservation picture.

In addition to being adjacent to the existing State Game Lands, the property is also close to a block of the Loyalsock State Forest and near an existing conservation easement held by NPC.

The property includes a seasonal stream that flows into a tributary of Plunketts Creek. This is just upstream from where NPC facilitated work in 2020 and 2021 (the project where the Army Reserve Unit removed the earthen berm). Keeping these properties forested and improving the health of the forest through management will help improve the water quality in Plunketts Creek, building on work we’ve done in the past.

We scheduled a site visit and walked the parcels to understand the habitat on site and understand what we would be bidding on. NPC’s Conservation Committee recommended the Board agree to purchase the properties with the intent to work with the Pennsylvania Game Commission to transfer the properties into the State Game Land system. The Board voted to bid on the properties.

The day of the auction came. While it was a damp, overcast April day NPC was the high bidder!!!

We closed on the properties in late June and now own just over 102 acres in Plunketts Creek Township, Lycoming County!

The acquisition was acted on by the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Commissioners at their July 7, 2023 meeting. They voted to approve the acquisition and we are now working on the paperwork for that phase of the project.

Thank you to all of our members and donors who make it possible to be ready when an opportunity presents itself!! We never know when that might be.

The properties were enrolled in the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Hunter Access Program. Anyone who wishes to hunt the properties during archery or firearms season should contact the NPC office with your name and phone number 570-323-6222; office@npcweb.org).


By Susan Sprout

What a joy to get outside and see what is happening, after being cooped up for days by rain showers! I am not complaining because we do need the rain to recharge above-ground and underground water resources. I would like to share some of the things we saw during our lovely time outside.

The rain must have really been pelting down to clear out a ditch on the road’s edge and reveal what appeared to be fresh wave-like mud bumps alongside it. Wow! On closer inspection, those riffle marks I photographed were not laid down recently. They are ancient rock-hard shale built up over millions of years and lifted high by collisions of the continental plates to create our endless mountains.

Ancient riffle marks resemble a stream running downhill.

We saw hordes of fresh orange daylilies blooming everywhere. They will continue to provide us with new flowers until all their buds are used up. Here today, mostly gone tomorrow – droopy heads shriveled up and falling off.

Orange Daylilies on a hillside

Aaaah! It was definitely “Spa Day” for the Green Frog we carefully passed. The spa puddle took up most of the road, but he or she did not flinch a bit as the waves of our passing went by. It was a good, wet day in the neighborhood there! The green upper lip, the large eardrum, and the prominent ridges on the side of its back give hints of the species even though it stayed submerged.

Spa Day for a Green Frog

Deptford Pinks, small, pinkish-purple flowers with skinny leaves lent a bit of color to the fresh green of happily watered plants. This flower may have originally been found growing in Deptford, SE London! It has since been extirpated in England.

Deptford Pink flowers have spotted petals and ragged edges.

Cattails in a roadside ditch! I like seeing them all dressed out with both types of flowers showing. The top, staminate ones, provide the pollen for the lower pistillate ones that will make the seeds – lots of seeds. I bet you have seen them as they ”fluffed out” during the fall and wintertime, sending their seeds in furry bunches to waiting wet areas. 

Looking more like the tails of cats with the full complement of flowers extending the entire length of the tall stem.


By Susan Sprout

Purpleleaf Willowherb is a perennial native plant in the Evening Primrose Family, Onagraceae, that can grow up to four feet tall. I love its scientific name, Epilobium coloratum, which means “colored flower upon a pod” in Greek. Very tiny pink to white flowers appear to be perched atop a long stem, except that the long tube-like stems are actually their ovaries where seeds will develop! This unusual configuration is the main characteristic of willowherbs.

The blooms of Purpleleaf Willowherb look like fireworks spreading out in flight.

Seven species of them live in Pennsylvania. Their traits are variable from one species to another and sometimes difficult to see. I had to make a second photo trip to check and recheck characteristics I missed the first time, including some with a magnifier: curled hairs in lines on the stems below leaves and on new growth, purple splotches on older leaves growing opposite each other, upper leaves with alternate leaf arrangements.

Buds are pink before they open.

The flowers of this species of willowherb are only about a quarter to a third of an inch across. Each petal is notched in the middle on its outside edge and has thin colored lines extending out from its center. The flowers attract bees and small flies seeking nectar and pollen. Once pollinated, the thin tube of ovaries   will elongate to about three inches as it matures, drying to a brownish color. Splitting open lengthwise, the pod will disgorge tiny seeds, each with tuft of reddish-brown hair to carry it high in the air and off to a nice disturbed area where it can germinate immediately or within two years. Those reddish-brown hairs are responsible for another common name for this plant – Cinnamon Willowherb.

A small straight pin helps show the small size of the flowers and ovary tube.

Willowherbs are considered pioneer plants and are close relatives of Fireweed, Epilobium angustifolium. It was one of the first plants to colonize the heavy ash deposits of Mount St. Helens. You see, pioneer species are hardy plants and animals that are the first to colonize barren environments or ecosystems that have been disrupted, like after a fire, or a construction site or road cuttings.

Purpleleaf Willowherbs are native to the eastern part of North America and much of Canada. You may find them in wetter open areas next to swamps and riverbanks and ditches, too. The photos I took were of volunteer plants that showed up growing in a garden at church! There are wetland areas across the street.