Tag Archives: native plants of PA

Underfoot: WHITE VERVAIN

By, Susan Sprout

A volunteer plant grew near my woodshed – unexpected, but not unappreciated! It appeared over a month ago. I had to wait for it to grow bigger before introducing it to you and getting the photos that would capture its unique physique! Our native White Vervain (Verbena urticifolia) is a member of the Verbena Family, along with about 3,000 other species, mostly from warmer climates. Teak is one of them, prized for its beautiful and durable wood. I have always admired White Vervain and was happy to find it growing nearby. These annual or perennial plants usually choose moist fields, meadows, thickets or waste ground. Well, nothing much grows there except pennyroyal, and there is a downspout nearby. I guess that works in its favor.

Young White Vervain plant. My husband held a rug behind it as contrast in order to show its short flower spikes at its top.

White Vervain plants are compact at their start. When their small, tight, flower spikes appear, the magic begins! Their very slender flower stems begin to stretch out in all directions. The buds on them move further and further apart from each other until they look like little bugs sitting on thin branches. The really tiny white flowers open willy-nilly, here and there, as they mature. I pulled off one of the pollinated flowers and rubbed it gently between my fingers to tease out the four nutlets inside that will create the next generation of plants there. The flower stalks definitely stand out as an identifying characteristic of White Vervain. But, the rest of the plant needs to be checked out, too. It can grow from two to five feet tall, has a hairy, square stem, and stiff, opposite leaves that are doubly-serrated and look like the blades on a steak knife. If you want to look for this plant, it should be flowering from July to September in Pennsylvania. Its close relative, Blue Vervain, can be found inhabiting similar habitats, but has stiff pencil-like spikes of small, blue flowers that appear in a “more organized” fashion resembling a candelabra!

Large plant with expanded flower spikes reaching out in all directions.

Medicinally, Vervains are astringent, or drying, and have been used for millennia crushed up and applied externally to wounds, poison ivy sores and other skin complaints.

Underfoot: PURPLE-FLOWERING RASPBERRY

By, Susan Sprout

Purple-flowering Raspberry’s scientific name is Rubus odoratus. Its genus name is from Latin for “bramble”, defined as a prickly, scrambling shrub or vine of the Rose Family. But, its arching and sprawling branches have reddish-brown hairs that are sticky to touch instead of prickly to touch! This perennial plant is native to eastern North America. Its gorgeous rose-purple flowers that are about two inches wide made it a desired target of plant gathers from England in the 1770’s. It was taken there as an ornamental and has since naturalized as many plants from there have done here!

Purple-flowering Raspberry with five-pointed leaves

The leaves of this shrub resemble maple leaves with a heart-shaped base and three or five triangle lobes. The whole plant can reach to six feet tall. On a ledge or a shaded cliff where they seem to prefer growing, it is hard to get a true measure of their height. Their five-petaled flowers, pollinated by bees and insects, then create a large, flat berry made up of many little druplets. They bloom from May to August and set fruit from July to September depending on local conditions. I have found many adjectives describing the characteristics of these red berries: dry, tart, acid, bland, seedy, fuzzy to touch and on the tongue! Well, songbirds and game birds will eat them. Small mammals, too. The seeds are great for sowing in order to return native plants to an area and the roots work well at stabilizing banks. Many members of the Rubus genus, eighteen grow PA, have been used medicinally because their leaves are highly astringent and helped treat dysentery and diarrhea as well as skin ailments like sores and boils. 

Check out the hairy flower buds and the white, unripened fruit.

Underfoot: Virgin’s Bower

By, Susan Sprout

The four-petaled, pure white flowers on this perennial vine may have been responsible for the common name of this plant, along with the fact that it grows upward, winding itself over bushes and trees to form a shaded shelter or bower. Virgin’s Bower, Clematis virginiana, is a member of the Buttercup Family. There are over 250 different species of Clematis in the world; this one is a native of North America. It ranges from Manitoba to Nova Scotia southward and from New England to Georgia. There are two other native Clematis in PA. Both have purple blooms rather than white.

The cascading seed heads of Virgin’s Bower.

This time of the year, you won’t find any pretty white blossoms or three-part leaves. What remains is very recognizable, however, along roads or low areas near streams where it likes to grow. It will be sprawled over the tops of small trees and thickets that have lost most of their leaves. The female flowers have morphed by now into cascading, snowball-like clusters of silvery-gray, feathery hairs, each holding a dry, one-seeded fruit that doesn’t split open at maturity – it just hangs on and floats away in the winter wind. Of course, Virgin’s Bower has received another common name from this characteristic, Old Man’s Beard! Itchy! Scratchy! Not the beard part of the plant, but rather, the fresh green foliage, which can cause dermatitis and blistering of the skin! And that, in turn, is very strange because the early settlers used the plant to treat itch and skin diseases! 

Feathery haris each holding a single seed of Virgin’s Bower.
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Underfoot: Eastern Hemlock

By Susan Sprout

Growing up, I was lucky to have two Eastern hemlock trees in my yard, much taller that our two-story house. One had lower branches for easy climbing; the other, with high branches, provided places for swings. Kid heaven! I learned the meaning of words like “evergreen” and “conifer” from them.

Eastern hemlocks

As I travel the back roads near my home now, I try to imagine what an entire forest of trees resembling the current state champion hemlock in Cook Forest State Park would look like. It is 125 feet tall, 5 feet in diameter and has a spread of 70 feet. Penn’s Woods was covered by magnificent old-growth forests of pine, hemlock and different kinds of hardwoods at the time of its settlement similar to this state champion tree. The loss of these giants is well-documented in histories of the lumbering industry in this area. I still like to see them in my mind, dominating the cool, moist, north-facing slopes.

Unlike many trees, hemlocks grow well in shade with their long, slender, horizontal branches drooping to the ground. Half-inch long green needles with two white stripes underneath run up both sides of the bumpy twigs. Cones are light brown and oval with short stalks holding tight to the ends of branches. Although heavy cone producers when they reach fifteen years, the life of their seeds is low due to infertility, lack of even temperatures, and the moisture required for germination. Hemlocks are very slow growers and may only get an inch and a half in height in their first year with a root of one-half inch, making them very sensitive to the drying effects of higher temperatures. They are considered fully established at three to five feet tall. Seedlings seem to grow well in rotten logs, stumps, and mounds that provide a better moisture supply, many times creating pure stands of hemlocks the same size and age.

Hemlock cones

These native giants are under attack by a very tiny insect that attaches itself under the small leaves along their stems and causes a loss of nutrients to the whole tree. Hemlock Woolly Adelgid females lay white, woolly masses of sacks containing from fifty to three hundred eggs in two generations per year. These insects insert their long, sucking mouthparts directly into the food storage cells of the tree which responds by blocking off the tiny wounds to disrupt the outflow of sap. This, in turn, cuts off the flow of nutrients to the needles and twigs, leading eventually to their death.  Dieback to major limbs can occur within two years and generally progresses from the bottom of the tree upward. Originally introduced from Japan in the 1950’s, Hemlock Woolly Adelgid has spread to eighteen eastern states from Georgia to Maine and now covers nearly half the range of native hemlocks, appearing to spread about ten miles per year. 

We need our hemlocks because they make the damp, cool, shady environment required by many of the forest plants. They also keep it cool for small streams and their inhabitants. They provide wonderful shelter and nesting sites, nooks and crannies for dens, and food in the form of seeds and greens for browse. As young landscape plantings, they soften the rigid outlines of houses and sheds and cut be trimmed to create hedges. And, after all, they are our Pennsylvania State Tree!

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Underfoot: Rattlesnake Plantain

By, Susan Sprout

The beautiful and very unique leaves of Rattlesnake Plantain caught my attention as they peeked out from the leaf litter along a trail at the WMWA.

Rattlesnake Plantain

This native terrestrial orchid is a member of the second largest plant family on earth with over 28,000 species. Sixty are native to Pennsylvania, many of them rare and threatened in the wild. I found these plants growing on a slight incline among mixed hardwoods and conifers. They do well in dry, sandy to moist soils, but cannot thrive in water-logged soils that do not drain – hence on an incline! Physical characteristics lead to the naming of many plants. In this case, fine, downy hairs on stems, rhizomes, and leaves gave the scientific name, Goodyera pubscens. The checkered, silvery pattern on the leaves that look like the scales of a snake’s skin and the shape like the sole of a human foot gave the name Rattlesnake Plantain (Latin – planta). 

Once a year, sometime between May and August, a mature plant (four to eight years of age) will send up from its basal rosette of leaves, a leafless stalk of small white flowers that look similar to those in the photograph of Nodding Ladies’ Tresses in an earlier post during the week of September 27. After flowering, the fleshy rhizome of the plant will grow one to three offshoots which will live on after the original rhizome dies. Rattlesnake Plantain’s seeds are minute and abundant like dust. Charles Darwin thought if all the seeds of a single orchid would live and grow into plants, the great-grandchildren of that single orchid plant would “cover the earth in one continuous carpet.” He was not aware that those plentiful seeds need some help to grow. With no energy reserve in the tiny seeds, orchids require a special relationship with a mycorrhizal fungus or symbiont (AKA body buddy) that will provide the carbon needed to grow. The more, the better the growth! Some established orchids will continue to get nutrients from fungi as adults which can also help them tolerate stress.

The creeping rhizomes grow in a colonia pattern

There are two other species of Goodyera that grow in Pennsylvania, Dwarf and Checkered. Both are rare. The leaves of Rattlesnake Plantain have white, silvery lines on both sides of the center mid-rib. That is what helped me Identify them!

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