Tag Archives: northcentral pennsylvania conservancy

Underfoot: THE CIGAR TREE

By Susan Sprout

A “Cigar Tree” or Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) used to grow in a yard along my route to and from elementary school. We kids loved it and pretended “smoking” the long, bean-like seed pods if we were lucky enough to find some that had fallen to the ground. Kids! What can I say?
Now that the Catalpas have lost their large six to twelve inch leaves, you can easily look up and identify them by the “cigars” that have been left hanging there until springtime. Botanists use the name “silique” when referring to this type of dry fruit that splits in half between the two chambers where the seeds develop. The slender siliques range in length from ten to twenty inches. When pulled apart, the revealed seeds are flat with papery wings at each end and fringed with fine hairs – perfect for wind dispersal.

Looking upward to see the hanging seed pods

This particular species of Catalpa is the northernmost New World example of its tropical family – Bignoniaceae or Trumpet-creeper Family which has about 700 different flowering plants and trees in it that are mostly native to warmer places than Pennsylvania! Northern Catalpas can grow as tall as sixty feet with branches spanning from twenty to forty feet. The perfect shade tree for a large yard. Their dense foliage provides great shelter for birds when it rains. In late spring, large bunches of white trumpet-shaped flowers with purple spots and stripes inside entice hummingbirds and bees in to pollinate them.

The six-inch ruler shows length of Catalpa seed pods

Early settlers planted Catalpa for its straight-grained wood that was good for fence posts, RR ties, telephone poles, and furniture. It is a fast grower topping twenty feet in ten years and blooming in about three years. Its important medicinal uses back then were for bronchial problems and swellings. Pharmacological research today has shown that some tree parts have diuretic properties. 

Dried pod showing 1 to 2 inch seeds

Both Catalpas, Northern and Southern species, are host trees of the Catalpa Sphinx Moth (Ceratomia catalpa) that lays eggs on the leaves. The caterpillars grow nice and fat feasting on the leaves…so juicy and plentiful that people, especially in the southern parts of their range, plant lots of Catalpas in order to have plenty of “Catalpa worms” to bait their hooks when fishing for Largemouth bass.

Underfoot: YUCCA ISN’T YUCKY!

By, Susan Sprout

I like hikes during the winter months when so many of our green plants turn brown and yucky. Why? Because of the outstanding plants I can find out there that don’t turn brown and yucky…like Yucca flaccida! This plant with the common names of Adam’s Needle and Weak-leaf Yucca and Beargrass was originally classified in the Lily Family (long, floppy leaves), then the Agave Family (long, spine-tipped leaves). Finally, it has been placed in a sub-family (Agavoideae) of the Asparagus Family. What a family history it has! And, it is still green now and photosynthesizing on sunny days. Some references consider it a perennial, evergreen shrub that is native to the North American continent, from Ontario southward and distributed throughout the Appalachian Mountains from North Carolina to Alabama and into Central America and the Caribbean region. Ethnobotanists think its naturalization in such a wide area took place before the Europeans came here. Native people could have traded for it and planted it near their villages for its useful fibers and roots.

Yucca plant with flower stalk remaining

Adam’s Needle has spear-shaped leaves with long, straight threads or filaments on their edges. And then, there’s the sharp, pointed needle at the end of each leaf, waiting to poke the unsuspecting human or animal that backs into it. There are a bunch of other yuccas whose armament is bigger and stands up and out straighter that Yucca flaccida AKA Floppy Yucca. Its stems spread underground creating small colonies and seem to grow better where the soil is dry and sandy. I look for this plant near old homestead sites and places where locals tell me Native American villages once stood. This type of Yucca is pretty hardy, but it does not like too much wind or winter wet which can kill the very center of it.

Look at Yucca leaves to find the needles and the threads

I still haven’t found out why it’s called Beargrass. They don’t eat it – even deer won’t eat it! Its roots contain toxic saponins, that when pounded and mixed with cold water, create soapy lather for bathing and laundry. Biologists believe the plant developed saponins as a defense against soil microbes and browsing animals. Yucca leaves soaked in water and pounded to separate the long fibers can then be twisted together to make ropes.

Look for this plant again in the summertime when it has a three to eight foot tall flower stalk filled with creamy white, bell-shaped blooms. You may be lucky to find some small white moths that seem to blend with the color of the flowers. They are White Yucca Moths that pollinate the flowers. According to the U.S. Forest Service web site, Yucca and Yucca Moths are so interdependent that one cannot live without the other.  As the natural range of the Yucca plants expanded, so did that of the Yucca Moths who desperately need to lay their eggs in the flowers’ ovaries.  These plants have amazing stories. Not yucky, at all!

Underfoot: GETTING TO THE ROOT OF THINGS at #PLANTSGIVING TIME!

By, Susan Sprout

For the past two years, the NPC blog has informed folks about an intriguing homework assignment given by Dr. Chris Martine, Professor of Plant Genetics and Research, to his students at Bucknell University. They are required to count and record the number of different plants and plant parts used to prepare their annual Thanksgiving feast. The results of this social media campaign are publicized using Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. What a great idea! In a small and personal way, the students and other people taking part in this by creating food for each other, are made more aware of the number and variety of plants they depend upon to accomplish the task. Then, perhaps, every time they cook something and eat it, they will be mindful of the great treasure we have in plants of all kinds. One hopes that public interest plus the knowledge and awareness gained from such as exercise will help us be more careful guardians of the natural world around us – its unique ecosystems and biodiversity and the connectivity of everything and everyone. It must be looked after for life now and the generations to come.

My root veggies (L to R) radishes, rutabaga, turnips, parsnips, carrots

We have to respect what marvelous survivors plants are to have overcome the challenges they met in order to thrive on dry land. Although the oldest fossil remains of land plants are 420 million years old, scientists have found evidence that pond scum first made landfall almost a 100 million years earlier. Think of the many adaptations plants have evolved over time just to be able to absorb water and minerals from dirt. We can’t do that. They have done it for us when we ingest them. They anchor themselves and stand upright, spread out sunlight collectors in order to make their food (and ours) and then store it for lean times. The fleshy, starch-filled roots developed by plants, did not go unnoticed by the early humans who began growing crops between 10,000 and 7,000 B.C. Some of their crops had roots like bulbs, or corms, or rhizomes or tubers or tap roots – many that could be stored for later use.

Taproot tips have smaller rootlets and hairs for better uptake of minerals and water

My learning curve was straight up when I began researching roots, in general. I have just recently added several that I consider edible to my past list of Thanksgiving worthy root vegetables – turnips, radishes, rutabagas, parsnips, and carrots. (OK, carrots were there before.) Botanists refer to these five plants as having “true” roots. What that means is their tap roots are somewhat straight, grow directly downward, have rather tapering shapes with thickened areas for carbohydrate storage. And they do store well when we keep them in cooler places at 32 to 40 degrees F. The turnips, radishes and rutabagas are all members of Brassicaceae or Cabbage Family. Some refer to it as the Mustard Family or Cruciferae for the cross-shaped petal arrangement of their flowers. Parsnips and carrots are members of a different family, Apiaceae or Parsley Family. Some of their close relatives are the herbs you may be using to season your food – parsley, cilantro, anise, dill, cumin, fennel, celery.

Roasted root veggies. Radishes, exempt from cooking, will be used in a salad.

I must confess, as a child, I pretty much refused to eat any of the root veggies I am now preparing for Thanksgiving. Roasted together with onion slices (another type of root vegetable) and preserved lemons, they are quite delicious. The use of an acid, like lemon juice, will decompose geosmin molecules that give many root vegetables an earthy, musty smell. Give them a try and don’t forget to write “lemon” on your list of plants. I am now officially rooting for root veggies!

Underfoot: Mock Strawberry or Indian Strawberry

By, Susan Sprout

I guess that most people usually expect to read about strawberries in the spring and summer. This small, low-growing perennial strawberry may just be creeping near the edges of your yard right now. Still mowing to mulch your leaves?

Compare plant size with spruce needles

Mock Strawberry or Indian Strawberry loves foot traffic AND mowing AND may still be blooming in your yard. Look for it! I took photos of mine in flower during the first week of November. The yellow flower made me stop and check it out. Then I found some bright red fruits nearby.

Look for the pointed sepals going every-other-one with the three-toothed bract leaves on the bloom without petals

Potentilla indica, previously known as Duchesnea indica, is a member of the Rose Family and came to live in this country from Southeast Asia because people thought it was a pretty ornamental plant that makes a great ground cover. Boy, does it cover the ground! Its reddish stolons, or runners, take off horizontally to root here and there at the nodes where its toothed-leaves emerge. Those leaves are palmate and made up of three leaflets. Blooms appear singly and have five small, pointed sepals and five larger, toothed bracts in alternating whirls under their five yellow petals. After pollination by small bees and flies, the fruit, less than an inch long, appears – pointing upward, making it highly visible. You can clearly see the seeds attached all over the outside of the strawberry like red goosebumps.

The fruits showing their seeds

These are not the yummy, sweet, succulent, strawberries of spring. They are small, relatively dry, spongy, and tasteless. Edible, but who would want to? Ha! Birds, squirrels, rabbits, mice, raccoons, deer. This extensively naturalized import does have wildlife benefits! Actually, humans have benefited from these plants for hundreds, if not thousands of years, because of their medicinal qualities: fresh leaf poultices for skin ailments and insect bites, tea for cold symptoms, probably due to vitamin C, D, and iron content. Recent research shows properties that act against the squamous cell activities of various cancers. 

Don’t confuse Indian or Mock Strawberry with the Wild Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana, that grows in Pennsylvania. Our native plant has white flowers, blooms in the spring, and has its seeds tucked up inside its fruits!

Underfoot: STRIPED MAPLE AKA MOOSEWOOD

By, Susan Sprout

How beautiful the leaves are this fall! Our hills and mountains appear upholstered with green leaves during the growing season. Now with the lessening of sunlight due to shorter days, the leaves have begun shutting down their food production. As the amount of chlorophyll, the green color, slowly fades from the leaves, other pigments in them become visible – xanthophylls (yellows), carotenoids (oranges), and anthocyanins (reds to purples). Sometimes all the colors may be displayed in a single leaf!

At the edge of the woods, this Striped Maple is getting more sunlight.

Right now, Striped Maples (Acer pensylvanicum) are excellent examples of brilliant yellow. Small understory trees hardly getting above sixteen feet tall, they just shine out like beacons from the shadows under the taller mixed hardwoods where they like to grow. Look for the leaf shape as you walk or ride along the back roads. They differ from the common maple leaves because they are bigger, up to seven inches long as well as across, too. They are three-lobed instead of five-lobed…and the lobes point straight forward instead of out to the side. The pointed tips of the lobes are long and thin. With such a large leaf area, I’ll bet those points act like drip tips to help drain off the rain that beads up on them. The leaf base is rounded where its reddish stem and its three main veins meet together at the bottom. As an understory tree, the development of them is slow, but will accelerate when an opening with more light becomes available. Then they can grow up to thirty feet tall with trunks eight inches in diameter. Their range is from Nova Scotia to the North Georgia mountains and west to Michigan and Ohio. They grow in cool, rocky woods and seem to prefer slopes. At least, that’s where I saw most of the ones I was stalking for a photograph!

Green and white striped trunk.

The striped part of the common name refers to the easily-identified outer layer of bark that is green with white vertical stripes when the tree is young. It darkens up with time to brown, but those stripes are still quite visible. Striped Maples may live for a hundred years. Indeed, they must be very hardy because they get chewed on a lot. Rabbits, deer, beaver, porcupine, and the caribou and moose populations of our more northerly neighbors, all browse on them at one time or another during the year. Some resources indicate that this type of maple can start to regain twigs and leaves as stump sprouts rather quickly, about two months, after being denuded and trimmed to the roots. Their roots which are shallow and wide-spreading, make the trees strongly competitive for soil moisture and nutrients. Our colonial ancestors fed green and dried leaves of this tree to their cattle in winter and would turn them out early in spring to graze on the newly growing foliage in the woods near their fields. Today, tests are underway to determine if there is a practical application for an active anti-tumor substance isolated from Striped Maples.

Check out the long, skinny leaf tips!

Underfoot: AMERICAN DITTANY

By, Susan Sprout

American Dittany, Cunila origanoides, is a perennial plant in the Lamiaceae or Mint Family. “American” is attached to its common name because there are other plants native to Europe with the same name. The second part of its scientific name indicates that this plant resembles Oregano. Not too surprising, as quite a few of our cooking herbs are classified in the Mint Family as well. In fact, along with square stems and opposite leaves, aroma is one of the BIG family traits. Basil, Sweet Marjoram, Sage, Lemon Balm. Rosemary – to name just a few. There are lots – that are mostly native to other continents.

Check out the opposite and slightly serrated leaves of an upright plant.

I accidently became acquainted with American Dittany almost forty years ago as I tried cliff climbing near a creek. My boot slipped, and I grabbed the nearest rocky ledge. My reward was two fold: 1) I did not fall; 2) I was suddenly blessed with an amazing aroma from the plant growing nearest to my nose. Through all the following years of visiting that cliff and those plants, I have become aware of the decrease in their population. When I climb up to find them, I have to look and step really carefully in order to get photos. They now appear smaller than the reference books’ height of eight to sixteen inches. I missed their blooming time this year occurring from August to October. None of the plants I saw had their tiny, two-lipped purple flowers or the dried remains of them. Maybe they didn’t have the stored energy in their fibrous root system to reproduce.

This plant was hanging over the edge.

American Dittany or Stone-mint or Frost-mint is native to this continent from New York to Florida and west to Texas and Illinois. It tends to grow in dry forests and in the thin soils of rock outcrops, especially where vegetation is sparse. The serrated, lance-shaped leaves, dotted with oil glands (the scent), are opposite and stalkless, flowering from their axils. The wiry stem is brown and appears woody. When rolled between my fingers, I can feel the bumps that make it “squared”. In some resources, American Dittany is dubbed as a “sub-shrub” which is a dwarf, woody plant. I have not yet witnessed the reason this plant received a common name of Frost-mint. Evidently, when the watery sap pushes out at the bottom of a stem that has been cracked open by a hard freeze, it freezes into ribbon-like projections around the base looking like “frost flowers”! I would love to get a photo of that! I may have to let that task to someone younger and more agile. At my age, I probably shouldn’t be climbing around on cliffs in the slipperiness of winter.

Sometimes I find more than plants – a message for all mankind!

ROCK PICTURES from PICTURE ROCKS

By Susan Sprout

I wanted to write an article about the geology of our area – a study on the amazing hows and whys of the built-up layers and types of rock and mineral formations under us, plus the soils deposited here for growing things and us to walk on and build on. Researching and writing an article about that far down Underfoot would undoubtedly be a complex task, something I really don’t have the background for.

I’m here where I want to be looking for plants, and the plants certainly seem to know where they want to put down their roots in clay, dirt, sand, mud, rocks, acid, alkaline, wet dry. So I guess maybe there is no need…and yet, sometimes there are days… when I mosey along the creek, looking down, and want to know where the vast amounts of pebbles and rocks came from upstream.

I look at all of the different colors there, made possible by coal, slate, quartz, shale, limestone, mudstone – a palate of blues, greens, browns, pinks, ecrus, whites, blacks. All at one time were part of huge, gorgeous, solid mountains, the ancient Applalchians, first formed roughly 480 million years ago during the Ordovician Period and, some say, as tall as the Himalayas. Now in our time, eroded, broken down, tumbled and jostled until they are almost round, practically sorted by size as the bank slopes to the water – their placer and their maker. Millions and millions of years it took for the pretty rocks to get here, down to pick-up-able size, for kids of all ages to plop back into the water or skip across it, to enjoy the smooth feel of shale or the bumpiness of sandstone or just the fun of drawing colored pictures on flat rocks.

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