Underfoot: NORTHERN WILD SENNA

By, Susan Sprout

Northern Wild Senna is a member of the Fabaceae family, well-known as the legume or pea or bean family and having about 20,000 species in many countries. This particular species, Senna hebecarpa, is a perennial plant native to northeastern United States from the Great Lakes to Georgia. I found it growing in a field of goldenrods. Taller than I am, it was a real stand out in all that yellowness because of its height. It has yellow flowers, too. Its leaves are pinnately compound – smooth-edged leaflets arranged in pairs, up to ten opposite each other on a single stem, kind of like the barbs of a bird’s feather are arranged on a quill.

Northern Wild Senna plants in the field

This plant’s blooming period begins in late summer, and its yellow petals are beginning to turn white now as they age. Very visible in each flower are five black anthers containing pollen and one curled pistil with long, white hairy edges waiting to pull in the pollen grains. The pistil will slowly develop into a flat, brownish seed pod having up to eighteen segments, each containing one seed. A mature pod is curled and amazingly hairy.

Closer look at some developing seed pods

Something else that sets this plant apart from many is that its flowers do not contain nectaries, the glands that produce nectar! The bees that visit, come for its nutritious pollen because it is higher in protein according to a study done at Penn State in 2016. So where’s the nectar? It is in small, club-shaped glands found singly on leaf stems near their point of attachment to the main plant stem. The nectar there seems to attract parasitic wasps, lady beetles and ants which may in turn protect the plant from other types of insects determined to eat its foliage.

Yellow petals turning white, black anthers, above the red dot is a nectary

Northern Wild Senna plants have a tendency to spread by horizontal rhizomes under the soil and create colonies. They like partial to full sun and loamy, moist soil near streams and water catchment areas. They can also live in sandy and rocky places, too, once they get a foothold. The plants have a vertical growing habit, but may get top heavy as the seed pods develop and flop over sideways.

White-tail deer and other herbivores don’t seem to care for the rather toxic and cathartic (purgative) foliage. Senna plants, like this one, and their near relatives, have been used by native populations in many countries for millennia as laxatives, worm remedies, and as poultices for healing sores.

A Flat Tire for One Leads to Help for Many

NPC’s members have always understood that when we work to conserve a property through a partnered acquisition we should be ready to help ensure people recreating and using the property can do so safely. This means helping with infrastructure needs in areas where we’ve added land to the state system.

This time, staff realized what was needed through their own bad luck. A flat tire while bike riding on the Pine Creek Rail Trail has led to a new bike repair station and tire pump on the Trail. Out of air and 8 miles from the car, there was plenty of time to think about what would be helpful and partners that could help.

NPC worked with the Pine Creek Preservation Association and the Tiadaghton State Forest staff to get the unit and get it installed. (Thank you maintenance crew!!!!)

The idea is to help bicyclists who may be having bike problems and are trying to get back to their car (see first paragraph above). This unit is installed at the comfort station at Bonnell Flats so the Bureau of Forestry staff can keep an eye on things.

Jersey Shore Borough has installed a similar unit in the Borough at the trailhead. There are also three units in the Tioga County stretch thanks to the Wellsboro Rotary.

While we hope you never need it, we’re glad we could partner with other groups, so they’re there!

Teamwork on Halfmoon Creek

The second week of August the stream partnership worked on a project on Halfmoon Creek in Centre County.

The Centre County Conservation District is working with the landowner on some management changes.

Once completed this project will have new cattle exclusion fencing and a stream crossing to protect the newly stabilized streambank from erosion. 

The District is using funding partially from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). When DEP’s watershed manager was reviewing the project on site with the District, he asked if the landowner had been approached about log and rock structures to stabilize the eroding streambanks.

The project has a lot of partners and a lot of moving parts. In early July we all met on site to review everyone’s timeline and discuss how to coordinate and what needed to shift around.

One thing led to another and the stream partnership worked on the streambanks while the fencing crew worked on the new pasture fencing and getting the livestock out of the stream.

Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission oversaw construction and were in the stream building the structures. Sara helped out for one of the days they were working.

In these photos you can see the difference before and after log vanes and log framed deflectors were installed. In this before photo, notice the height of the streambank. You can also see the cutbank, or the dirt, with the grass on top.
In this after photo the left side of the photos is graded and ready for seeing and mulching. The right side still needs some backfill and graded. Now during higher flows, the water will be able to rise up and flow out of the stream channel instead of washing away soil and eroding into a deeper canyon.

Chesapeake Conservancy is also involved in getting various Best Management Practices installed that will reduce the amount of sediment and nutrients entering the stream.

ClearWater Conservancy is using grant funding they have to plant a riparian buffer in the areas the livestock will no longer have access to the stream. By installing the log and rock structures first we’ve stabilized the streambanks with trees adding to that stabilization as their roots grown and help hold the soil.

David relocated a northern green frog upstream before structures were constructed where it was found.  

Better Access Less Sediment on State Game Lands 252

The War Department condemned the town of Alvira in Union County, PA in 1942 in order to establish a munitions manufacturing facility. Known locally as “the Ordnance,” the site used water drawn out of the West Branch Susquehanna River below Montgomery to manufacture munitions for the war effort during World War II.

This sign on State Game Lands 252 provides a snapshot of the property’s history.

Eighty years later, the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy worked with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and Union County Conservation District to stop the erosion created by establishing the Ordnance.

Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission staff and Union County Conservation District staff work together to secure a log with rebar.

After the residents of Alvira were gone, the structures in the community were torn down and burned with the exception of a stone church. The Pennsylvania Ordnance Works was established and production got underway.

During the process of establishing the Pennsylvania Ordnance Works, a perimeter road was built. Presumably for security and to allow the property boundaries to be patrolled and secured.

That road was built in a straight line. Spring Creek which flows through the southern side of the Ordnance does not flow in a straight line. It bends and turns and twists back.

The straight road cut off an oxbow, or u-shaped bend, in Spring Creek from the flowing stream channel. By looking at aerial photos from the 1930s and today you can see the large wetland that developed where the oxbow was.

During a spring site visit the Canada Geese were using the wetland formed by cutting off the stream’s oxbow.

Streams are stubborn. If they want to bend and wiggle, they will flow and cut and erode their way into the bend and wiggle they want.

That’s what happened here. Over time, the now channelized Spring Creek was eroding the streambanks as it was trying to get some of its bend back.

In the late 2010s the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC), Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and Union County Conservation District (UCCD) looked at the site and developed a design to help stabilize the streambanks and improve access to the stream.

This stretch of Spring Creek is on State Game Lands 252. After World War II the property taken for the Ordnance was divided up. Just over 3,000 acres was used to established State Game Lands 252 in 1964.

Since State Game Lands are open for public recreation and this stretch of Spring Creek is stocked there is a lot of fishing activity on the property. The activity was pretty concentrated in a couple of spots because it was difficult to get to the stream. The perimeter road, now used as a management road by the Game Commission, creates a steep side that isn’t easy to get up and down.

Sadie is standing at the top of the bank. You can see how steep the streambank is and how difficult it would be for someone to get down to the stream to fish.

With a design in hand the group waited until funding could be found to support the project.  That funding was found in late 2021. The plan was dusted off and updated. Streams can change a lot year to year and this stream had over 5 years to change.

Austen is in the stream using his feet and the staff (in his hand) to determine what material is on the stream bottom. Jason is on top of the bank providing perspective on the height of the eroded streambanks.

The site was added to the schedule for the 2022 construction season and additional grant funding was secured through Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful’s Healing the Planet Grant Program with support from The GIANT Company.

The first two weeks of August were set aside for the project. The team wanted the water levels down and August is typically dryer with lower water levels. There are some deep holes in the stream and we didn’t want those to be problematic for construction. Another reason to wait until August – there’s less activity on this area of the State Game Lands. The crew saw a trail runner a few times and a couple of horseback riders, but we weren’t interfering with their recreation.

Before we got on site, the Game Commission’s crew brushed out the area to make it easier to work and to help set the stage for a tree planting. They set some of the trees so they could be used in the structures and built brush piles with some (we not only create fish habitat, but we also caused rabbit habit to be created).

The team started upstream and worked downstream installing the log and rock structures.

It really didn’t take long for fish to move in. The first couple of days the team wasn’t seeing much, by the end of the project the group was seeing more fish overall and a greater variety of fish species.

The contractor did a great job with the bank full benches. These areas allow the stream to spread out in high water, slowing down the water’s speed and reducing the erosion. They also create areas where people can stand and fish. The group worked to ensure the bank leading to the bank full bench was sloped in a way to make it easier to walk down and get to the stream’s edge.

Along water’s edge you can see woody material sticking out from a habitat structure. The bank was graded with more slope to allow water space to spread out and slow down. There was enough rain to get the winter oats to sprout!!

Things will be given a year or two to settle in and then more trees and shrubs will be planted. These plants will help shade the stream to keep summer temperatures cooler, and the roots of the plants will provide additional stabilization.

Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission Executive Director Tim Schaeffer stopped by on the last day of construction. It was a great opportunity to highlight the teamwork needed to get projects on the ground.

During the tour, Tim got to see completed structures and structures that still needed back filled and graded. Here the group is at one of the structures that still needs back filled.

If you use State Game Lands 252 stop by and let us know what you think of the project.

If you’re interested in learning more about Alvira Robin Van Aucken and the Montgomery Historical Society have sites that may be helpful.

Underfoot: THREE-SEED MERCURY

By, Susan Sprout

A rather unusual-looking plant got my attention recently, and I found out it has an unusual name as well. Three-seed Mercury sports three green seeds (yellow as they mature) in the middle of spiked bracts that have five to nine triangle-shaped pointy ends sticking out on all sides of them. These points must have resembled wing feathers thrust out because someone, somewhere named the plant after the Roman Messenger god Mercury who had wings attached to the sides of his shoes to hasten his travels! This native plant has the scientific name of Acalypha rhomboidea and is a member of the Spurge Family, Euphorbiaceae. A lot of the spurges are known for their milky sap. Three-seed Mercury stands out again as different for having clear sap.

Whole view of Three-seed Mercury plant with fifteen side stems.

The stem of this plant is erect and can grow upwards from six inches to two feet, depending on conditions. It prefers disturbed areas and can tolerate clay and gravelly soils. That means, you can probably find some on roadsides, wooded slopes, field and garden edges and along railroad tracks. A straight taproot extends down from the woody-looking stem bottom which is wiry and difficult to break by hand. I checked out the lower stem and underground features as I weeded them. Being annuals, they were plentiful and growing near each other. Stem shapes are more rounded on the lower portions of the plants, but become more square towards their tops. An important identifying characteristic is the lines of hairs that curve inward on the stems, leaves and bracts. I needed a flashlight and a magnifier to detect their presence. I counted as many as five individual bracts of different sizes extending out of the plant stem above the individual leaf axils. Tiny groups of flowers on a single stem are attached to those bracts that will then hold the developing seeds. Once mature, those seeds fall off easily onto the ground. The birds love them, especially mourning doves. I had difficulty getting photos of the seeds nestled on the bracts. As I pawed through the foliage looking for mature seeds, I managed to dislodge most of them. 

Side view of one stem. Notice the leaves and flower bracts compacted more toward the top.

The shape of the plant depends on its age. Newer plants are a single stem with the leaves and bracts crowding the upper parts of the stem. As they mature, they bush out with many side stems growing from the main one and lots of alternating leaves and bracts. The leaves seem to stand out from the stem because their petioles are long, about half the length of the leaf. There is another species of Mercury growing in PA – Virginia Three-seed Mercury, Acalypha virginica. This plant has bracts with nine to fifteen hairy triangle points extending from them instead of just five to nine. I’d love to find one of those to see if the seeds fall off as easily when they mature, being surrounded by so many more points.

Look for six bunches of blossoms and two bracts containing three seeds each.

Underfoot: Marchantia or Umbrella Liverwort

By, Susan Sprout

The family Marchantiaceae contains a single genus and a single species which in turn has diverged into three sub-species. Marchantia polymorpha is the one I’d like to share with you – another cool and unusual plant growing in PA! Marchantia is a member of a whole group of plants known as Bryophytes which include mosses, hornworts, and liverworts. All are non-vascular land plants because they don’t have veins or tubes like xylem and phloem to carry water and minerals around their bodies. Consequently they are not able to grow as tall as most vascular plants. Marchantia is a liverwort. Someone somewhere probably thought it resembled the lobes of a green liver creeping along the ground. It has been growing on earth since the Cretaceous Era – going back about 252 million years. Because of its age and sustainability, it has been used for over 200 years as a model organism in the investigation of land plant evolution and the development of basic cell mechanisms. Its use has been revived as a modern model plant in order to study plant genetics and evolutionary processes using its DNA. 

Marchantia plant body with cups or gemmae. Spruce needles in the photo should indicate small size of this plant.

Marchantia’s thallus, or body, is held tight to the soil by single-celled, root-like structures called rhizoids which absorb water and nutrients. In fact, the whole thallus is like a thirsty sponge that pulls in water flowing over it and dust settling on it right into its body by the process of osmosis. That would be like you, putting your hand on a plate full of food and absorbing all of its nourishment through your skin into your body! The plant then uses the chlorophyll in its body to make food from the water and mineral nutrients.

Palm trees and umbrellas

Another amazing characteristic of Marchantia are the little cups, or gemmae, scattered across its upper surface. Sections of the plant having them can break off, usually at a fork, and start growing a new thallus. Marchantia can also reproduce sexually with the development of male and female plant parts. Here’s where it got a common name of Umbrella Liverwort – the male reproductive structures look like tiny, scalloped umbrellas! The female reproductive structures resemble very small palm trees. Water is then required, in drips, drops, and splashes from rain or nearby waterfalls, or streams. It is needed to wash the male and female gametes formed inside the umbrellas and palm trees together for the creation of new plants. (Is this too much like “the stork delivering a baby” story?)

Large mat of Marchantia

Marchantia is a cosmopolitan species, occurring from tropical forests to the Arctic tundra. It seems to have a tolerance for lead and  may be an indicator of high lead concentrations where it grows. Mats of liverworts growing on land after forest fires can help fight soil erosion. I guess the name “Palm Tree Liverwort” would make this short plant seem too tall. Hmm?

Underfoot: The “Holy Cow!” Plant – SALSIFY

By Susan Sprout

I just had to write about this particular plant, especially now, because it has started to set seed. Having often heard references to it on TV nature shows and personally, “Holy Cow! That’s the biggest dandelion I’ve ever seen”, I thought the plant should be correctly identified, given its due, so to speak. That big beige fluff ball of seeds was not made by a dandelion at all, but rather by a plant with the common names of Salsify, Oyster Plant, or Yellow Goatsfoot.  Three common names, three different plants, all found living in PA, and sharing some or all of those common names. They are non-natives, probably brought here from Europe as food plants. The long, narrow, grass-like leaves are edible in salads or cooked. Their long, white roots grow straight down like carrots, and when boiled or baked and eaten, taste somewhat like oysters.

Salsify seed head – Compare the Salsify seed head with the hand below for width size of 4 inches.

These three plants belong to the Aster Family for they all have composite flowers made up of tubular disc florets bunched in the middle with flatter, petal-like ray florets surrounding them on the outside. All are classified in the genus Tragopogan which is Greek for “goat’s foot”. The reason for that name may be because the thin, green bracts that grow beneath each single flower head are longer than the ray florets and stick out past them like a skinny triangle- shaped goat’s beard! Or it could be the fluffy, scruffy seed head.

Salsify flower beginning to open about 9 am.

How do you identify them? By the color of their flowers – yellow or pink. I have had trouble getting a decent photo of their flowers because they all close up by noon. The closed flowers may show a small flash of color at their tops. So, the yellow-flowered ones would be T. dubius and T. praetensis which flower from May to August. Both have similar height (2 – 2 1/2 feet tall) and flower width of two inches. They can grow for ten years before blooming and will then die off after. If you find a pink or purplish flowered one, it is the biennial T. porrifolius. They are taller than the yellow ones – up to four feet! Their two inch wide flowers bloom from May to July.

Salsify flowers closed by noon.

So, when you see some really big seed heads – up to four inches across – in fields, roadsides, waste places or in someone’s garden and they look like dandelions on steroids, REMEMBER  – “Holy Cow! It’s Salsify (pronounced sal-sa-fee by our English ancestors)!

July 4, 1776 – Along the Banks of Pine Creek

It’s the Fourth of July and according to legend the Fair Play Men read a declaration of Independence on the Banks of Pine Creek under an elm tree on July 4, 1776 unaware that THE Declaration of Independence was being read and debated in Philadelphia, PA.

The site where this event is reported to have taken place is now part of the Tiadaghton State Forest thanks to the members of the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy and a former owner of the property.

The blue and yellow marker under the large tree.

NPC owned the property for a short time in the early 2000s before transferring the property to the Bureau of Forestry. The Bureau of Forestry owns it because of its use accessing Pine Creek. I will warn you the bank to get to the Creek is steep and due to the historic nature of the site any development that would require digging or moving dirt is cost prohibitive.

If you visit the site now, you’ll see a large tree (not the tree the Fair Play Men would have stood under) and a Pennsylvania Historic Museum Commission blue and yellow marker.

Thanks again to NPC’s members for keeping this property along Pine Creek accessible and a little piece of local legend alive.

June 2022 Annual Membership Meeting – Election to Board of Directors and Update on Conservation Projects

NPC members gathered at Pier 87 along Loyalsock Creek on June 15, 2022 for the Annual Membership Meeting.

The Nominating Committee recommended Dennis Ringling and Amie Penfield be elected to a first 3-year term. Both had been appointed to fill positions on the Board created when other Board members resigned from the Board.

Jonathan Bastian and Jonathan Nichols are both completing 2 consecutive 3-year terms and are rotating off the Board. Roy Siefert was elected to fill one of the seats.

The elections take effect at the June 28, 2022 Board meeting.

Pier 87 was chosen as the location in part as a nod to the Bar Bottom project in 2020 and all the work at State Game Lands 134 along Plunketts Creek (a tributary to Loyalsock Creek).

Here are some photos from the meeting:

An optional tour at State Game Lands 134 gave NPC’s members a chance to see the “after” of phases 1, 2, and 3 and hear about upcoming phase 4.
Attendees seemed to enjoy the casual atmosphere and ability to wear “fun” shoes.

Adventurists and Bad Adventures Donate to Coal Creek Project

Paddle Happy West Branch was organized and orchestrated by Bad Adventures, a guiding service for paddling and hiking trips. The trip benefitted the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy’s Coal Creek project with Bad Adventures matching donations made by the adventurists.

Staging at the Ellamaker boat launch in Montoursville

NPC purchased 216 acres along Coal Creek in Blossburg Borough to provide access to the largest Abandoned Mine Drainage discharge in the Tioga River Watershed. A treatment plant is being designed now to address the Coal Creek discharge and several others. The funds raised during this paddling trip will help offset the costs of the project.

The 2-day paddling trip had participants paddle from Montoursville to Montgomery on day 1 with a lunch stop at the Muncy Heritage Park and Montgomery to Milton on day 2 with lunch at the park in Watsontown.

While most participants stuck to their kayaks there was a rather large canoe on the trip. Built by Aaron Myers, the wooden canoe weighs around 450 pounds and holds 10 paddlers. Saturday they were a few short of 10, but Sunday they had 10 people paddling and they flew down the West Branch Susquehanna!

The “big” canoe with Aaron Myers, the builder, in the stern.

Riverside Campground in Montgomery was “home base” for the trip and where about half the group camped Friday and Saturday nights.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner was provided each day along with folk music at lunch and dinner. In addition each stop has water and Gatorade as well as the snacklebox (okay they just call it the snack box, but I think snacklebox is way more fun to say).

The snacklebox

The trip is a great way to “show-off” the West Branch Susquehanna to out of town guests, or maybe see it for yourself for the first time. The 2023 dates will be coming out later this year. Start planning your staycation or vacation to join other adventurists, Bad Adventures, and the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy in exploring and supporting conservation!