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Underfoot: Pie Marker

By Susan Sprout

It is autumn – time to find your pie marker and get baking those yummy apple pies. What! No pie marker?

There is a type of plant that grows around here, commonly known as Pie Markers. The resemblance of their strangely-shaped seed capsules to the baking tools used for marking or fluting or crinkling the upper edges of pie crust is, well, remarkable! I was taught by my gram to use the pinch-finger technique for crimping my crust edges and have never owned a pie marker. Until now! Thanks to the owner of the antique store in Pennsdale, I  have an example to show you. 

Pie Marker flower with green seed capsules

The Pie Marker plant was brought to this continent in the 18th century to be cultivated for its strong, jute-like fibers for making string, ropes, rugs. Indigenous to India and grown in China from around 2000 BCE, known as Qing Ma, it was used medicinally for an antiseptic, an astringent, and as a demulcent – think “soothing”. The fiber business went bust, and we now have a plant whose seed output yearly (per plant) can top 15,000, depending on height – which can be up to five feet tall, having many downy branches, eight-inch velvety leaves, and lots and lots of five-petaled yellow flowers. The pollinated flowers create the seed capsules made up of twelve to fifteen segments that form the round “pie markers”. 

Older plant with mature seed capsules

Pie Marker AKA Pie Maker AKA  Abutilon theophrasti  AKA Velvet Leaf AKA Indian Hemp AKA…I found eleven common names so I’ll quit now… is considered a damaging weed to agricultural crops like corn and soybeans because of its competitiveness over nutrients and water plus the fact it harbors maize and tobacco pests and soybean diseases. There are many other plants in the Mallow Family – okra, cotton, ornamentals like Rose of Sharon, Hollyhocks and Hibiscus – that are “positive” members of our plant community.

Botanical and man-made pie markers

I may have inadvertently spread Pie Marker seeds on my property after collecting the pods for a dried flower arrangement. I found them growing on the edge of a field. They seem to like disturbed places like edges, compost heaps, and alongside buildings in town. They added a lot to the arrangement. But, I will have to be vigilant weeding new plants as they appear next spring. Their seeds can remain viable for 50 years in dry soil. I guess that will keep me busy for the rest of my life!

Underfoot: SHINGLE OAK

By, Susan Sprout

Question: When does an oak leaf not look like an oak leaf?

Answer: When it is a Shingle Oak Leaf!

We’ve been taught there are two groups of oaks: white oaks whose leaves have rounded lobes on them and red oaks with sharp pointed and toothed leaves. Shingle Oak, or Quercus imbricaria, is a type of native red oak that has no points or teeth on its leaves – just nice smooth edges. Occasionally they may be found growing on moist hillsides or in bottom lands. I spied one walking on Canfield Island last week. I did not know what it was. The tree caught my eye because of its shiny, dark green leaves that looked sort of like rhododendron leaves only smaller and not leathery. I found a small bunch of leaves that had fallen, or been chewed off the tree, lying beneath it. They were smooth-edged, ranging in size from four to six inches long and were lightly furred underneath by very short, tannish hairs. I had to use my magnifier to determine that. Of course, it was all of the acorns growing on and lying beneath it that really clued me in…IT’S A SPECIES OF OAK! 

This Shingle Oak could grow to 100 feet in height.

Shingle Oaks are more frequently found west of here in the Ohio and Mississippi River Valley regions. They are commonly used as ornamentals, and this one may well have been planted here. What a treat to find and identify it! 

Twig of Shingle Oak leaves

Shingle Oaks flower in May when their leaves are about half-grown. Their acorns will then be ripe about eighteen months later. The species name imbricaria is Latin for “like a shingle” which could indicate its use as a source of hand-split shingles or shakes. Or, maybe, because of the caps on the small brown acorns that have wedge-shaped, pointed scales overlapping to resemble a shingled roof.

Acorns are about 1/2 inch in length 

How many native animals and insects need native oak trees for food or habitat? Of 435 species of oaks worldwide, 91 are found in the United States AND support more caterpillar species than any other genus of plants in all of North America – not to mention all the animals that eat acorns. Read more about them in Doug Tallamy’s book, “The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees.”

Underfoot: SULPHUR POLYPORE

By, Susan Sprout

Well, I’ve done it again – sneaked out of the Plant Kingdom and into the Kingdom of the Fungi!

Sulphur polypores on a dead tree

And for a very good reason, too, just look at this fantastic group of Laetiporus sulphureus. Just call it Chicken of the Woods, Sulphur Shelf or Sulphur Polypore. It was a very colorful find on an extremely brownish and crunchy- dry hike to the top of Skyline Drive. And who wouldn’t want to hang out on the side of a dead tree overlooking this view, hmm? All of those overlapping, bright orange, fan-shaped caps range from smooth and suede-like to finely wrinkled with sulphur yellow margins and pores, not gills, underneath. Those pores, tiny little holes, dispense white spores, creating another generation of wood recyclers. The living, dead or decaying wood they grow on provides them with the nutrients to live and reproduce. The bright coloration will fade as these organisms age. The fresh flesh, thick and soft, will become tougher, not decaying like the mushrooms in your yard would.

The view!

Sulphur Polypores grow fruit bodies from spring to autumn. They range across the North American continent, east of the Rockies , providing good eats for beetles and deer. 

The many pores of a polypore

Underfoot – A GATHERING OF TRUE BUGS (Eastern Boxelder Bugs)

By, Susan Sprout

I was surprised recently by a large amount of insects sitting on the leaves of some Great Lobelia plants.  Maybe “amazed” would be a better word for it. There were a lot of them. I needed to identify them and learn why they were gathering there. Here’s what I learned – they are our native Eastern Boxelder Bugs. Considered “true” bugs because adults have piercing, sucking mouth parts and a characteristic triangle shape between the tops of their leather-like wings. The younger bugs with them are nymphs with bright red bodies, black antennae and legs. You can find them easily in the photo because they are the ones with small slate gray or black patches on their backs. These are their wing buds. When the nymphs emerged from eggs, they were only 1.3 mm in length. (There are 25.4 mm in an inch.) So tiny! Because they are invertebrates, or animals without backbones, they are held together, supported, protected by an exoskeleton made of chitin. It is stiff and hard. When the nymphs begin to grow, they must shed and replace that rigid exoskeleton with a new larger one in order to get bigger and attain adulthood with sexual organs and wings. They need to molt five different times, becoming darker red as they mature. The red V on the back of an adult is created by its folded wing edges. The other, larger red marks on their bodies may serve as a warning to predators that they are distasteful because they contain a pungent, bad-tasting compound. Preying mantis and spiders eat them anyway. Few birds will eat them. They sun together in large groups on warm surfaces. All of that red in one place probably serves to keep hungry predators from munching on them. 

Masses of Boxelder Bugs

Boxelder Bugs feed almost entirely on the developing seeds of boxelder, maple, and ash trees. They will suck juices from the leaves, but prefer the seeds. They do not sting or transmit diseases and are not classified as a pest. They can be found east of the Rockies in woods and gardens. There is a similar species that lives west of the Rockies. In autumn, swarms of females can be seen looking for thick piles of plant debris in which to overwinter. They emerge in spring to lay eggs which are hidden in bark crevices, under leaves in safe areas. 

Look for the nymphs with small wing buds mixed in with adults

Sometimes Boxelder Bugs are confused with the Eastern Milkweed Bugs that are reddish-orange and black in color. They are true bugs, too. Get yourself a bug book and check them out!

Nymphs of Eastern Milkweed Bugs on a seedpod

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: 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!

Thank you to Evergreen Wealth Solutions for your support!

Underfoot: Northern Maidenhair Fern

By Susan Sprout

These elegant-looking perennial ferns, preferring acid soil and partial shade, are likely to be found on wooded slopes and ravine bottoms that are moist. They “brown-up” early in summer when they are too dry. Northern Maidenhair Fern or Adantium pedatum is the Eastern North American native of this genus growing world-wide that has nearly two hundred different species in it.  I love looking for their circular patterns of horizontal fronds and bright green leaflets divided into little fan shapes! They are lacy and delicate. The shiny black stems holding them all together are a great clue when trying to identify Maidenhair Fern, and thus, the name. And they are tough! They were used by Native Americans in their basket-making. With many other ferns, there is an observable difference between fertile fronds carrying spores and non-fertile fronds without them. Not so with Maidenhair! Their foliage looks the same until you turn one over and find little sori curled up on underside edges behind the vein tips of the leaflet. Though tiny and tucked away, wind will disperse the spores to grow into heart-shaped gametophytes responsible for sexual reproduction and creation of the next generation of ferns. Over time, they will grow into colonies, spread by their underground rhizomes. In spring, look for the pinkish-brown crosiers or shepherd’s crooks pushing up. Return trips are a must…to see them gracefully unfurl!

Northern Maidenhair Fern
Circular frond pattern

Phelps’ Mills Canoe Access Celebrated

The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Secretary Cindy Adams joined the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy (NPC) and local supporters for a dedication ceremony at the Phelps Mills Canoe Launch on Pine Creek in the Tiadaghton State Forest in Pine Creek Township, Clinton County just across the Creek from the borough of Jersey Shore.

The moment the ribbon was cut!
(photo credit: Wesley Robinson)

“The story of the Phelps Mills Canoe Launch is a testament to the power of collaboration and the impact it can have providing recreational opportunities in our communities,” Dunn said. “Thank you to NPC, its volunteers, George and Shirley Durrwachter, and everyone who helped make this project a reality.”

The ceremony formally welcomed Phelps Mill Canoe Launch on Pine Creek under the Bureau of Forestry umbrella. Although the canoe launch has been a managed as a part of Tiadaghton State Forest since late 2019 when DCNR purchased the property from NPC, the obeservance on June 25, 2021 allowed the project partners to come together and celebrate what they achieved.

Thank you to everyone who helped make the project possible and came out to celebrate!
(photo credit: Wesley Robinson)

NPC was able to purchase the property and conduct environmental assessments due to a generous donation from Dr. George and Shirley Durrwachter.

This photo from before the improvements show the path down to Pine Creek with just a bit of the gate in the lower left corner.

“Having this boat launch available to local residents will allow them to traverse the creek and the river to downtown Jersey Shore,” George Durrwachter said. “Creating recreational opportunities closer to where people live is important not only because of time constraints but it will also reduce congestion on the highways.”

In addition to the donation from the Durrwachters to acquire the land, NPC secured grants and support from the Western Pennsylvania Canoe Access Fund and the Clinton County Tourism and Recreation Fund to support improvements at the canoe launch.

The improvements were completed in August 2020 and helped stabilize the canoe launch, improve the walking surface, improve the parking lot, and replace the gate with a bollard to make it easier to carry canoes and kayaks down the path.

By October 2020 the site improvements were complete and the pathway was easier to use and navigate, especially if carring a canoe or kayak.

The black lab who showed up just as the group photo was wrapping up wasn’t planned, but was perfectly timed. The lab had his stick and headed straight to the water, running down the improved pathway, and launched into the Creek.

Thank you again to George and Shirley for their support that made this possible! Thank you also to Carl Barlett for speaking on behalf of NPC and Commissioner Jeff Snyder for his remarks on behalf of the Clinton County Tourism and Recreation Fund and the Clinton County Commissioners.

The unplanned black lab who demonsrated how to enjoy the Creek.
(photo credit: Wesley Robinson)

We hope you enjoy rivers all summer long! If you want to check out this access, the address is 1019 E. Central Ave., Jersey Shore, PA (but you’re on the west side of the Creek/the Avis side, not the east side of the Creek/the Jersey Shore side).

Underfoot: American Beech & Bagworm

By: Susan Sprout

The smooth, silvery-gray bark distinguishes an American Beech tree.

American Beech
Our native beech trees are a standout in the woods around here, with or without leaves! Several references use the phrase “elephant-legged beeches” to describe the smooth, silvery-gray bark of mature trees, as well as the diameter of their trunks. Not elephant trunks, silly!

During winter months, young beeches are excellent examples of marcescence, the retention of dried, dead leaves. Their dull, greenish-blue leaves grow up to five inches long during the growing season. In fall, they turn yellow and brown and remain attached to gracefully slender twigs bearing new, pointy buds for spring. Look for their leafy groupings along forest roadsides.

They are shade tolerant, but slow growing, taking ten years to grow two feet tall in northern PA. They compensate for slow growth-rate with longevity: three lucky beech trees are listed in the PA section of Monumental Trees, all over 200 years old.

A cluster of American Beech trees.

When colonists arrived here, they recognized our species as being related to their European beech back home and knew they typically grew on moist, well-drained slopes and rich bottomlands – perfect places to make their new farm fields. Many of our older and taller beeches, which can grow up to eighty feet, fell to their axes.


Bagworm
An intriguing find on deciduous and evergreen shrubs and trees during the winter months is the cocoon of the Bagworm moth. For you fly fishermen and women, it resembles a much larger 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inch version of the camouflaged caddisfly case, except attached to tree branches instead of creek rocks!

Bagworm Moth Cocoon
This species of caterpillar is a serious pest that can cause defoliation and death of shrubs and trees.

The cocoon pictured was located on a small Japanese maple and shows a hideaway covered with leaf stems and tiny branches looking like a little pinecone. The tiny, just-hatched caterpillars of this moth species will balloon out of the bag on silky cords and begin making their own protection in late May or early June, crawling along with just their heads and first pair of legs exposed. They will feed and expand the length and thickness of their bag by adding fresh green plant material near the head-end for about three months until they have matured.

The bags will look different depending on the host plant. At that time, the larvae pupate for 7 to 10 days. Females will never leave their bags because, as adults, they lack wings and legs. All they do before dying is develop from 300 to 1,000 eggs, laying them inside or retaining them in their bodies for overwintering. Adult male moths do have wings, and thither may they fly to female bags insuring the next generation (one per year in PA).

A dissected cocoon of Bagworm Moth.

This species of caterpillar is a serious pest that can cause defoliation and death of shrubs and trees, depending on the severity of the infestation. It is best to detach found examples and place them in soapy water. 


Find out what’s underfoot with NPC member and environmental educator, Susan Sprout! Catch up on past issues of Underfoot: Introduction & BloodrootTrout Lily & ColtsfootBlue Cohosh & Dutchman’s BreechesGround Ivy & Forget-Me-NotsGoldthread & Wild GingerCommon Mullein & Sweet WoodruffAniseroot & Butterfly WeedMyself Jewelweed & SoapwortAmerican Pennyroyal & Great LobeliaBoneset & Common RagweedPokeweed & Blue ChicoryPrickly Cucumber & WintergreenBeech Drops & Partridge BerryPipsissewa & NostocWitch HazelPlantsgivingBlack Jetbead & Decorating with WinterberryWild Bergamot & Bald Cypress Tree, Galls & Bittersweet.