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Underfoot: Yellow Wild Indigo

By Susan Sprout

Where the wild indigo grows

What an enjoyable afternoon we had at the top of Highland Mountain, gazing toward the horizon across Sullivan County and being serenaded by American Towhees with their “Drink your tea” songs! If that wasn’t great enough, looking across the clearing, I spied lots of small yellow flowers on squat shrubby-looking bushes. A new plant to explore…one whose name I did not know. It is Yellow Wild Indigo, with the scientific name of Baptisia tinctoria, from Latin verbs  baptiso (to dip or dye) and tingo (to soak in dye). 

Check out the bluish foliage

I had met its cousin before, the true “of India” Indigo, the well-known dye plant in the same Pea Family, FABACEAE. Here was a plant, native to Pennsylvania, used by Native Americans and colonists as a blue dye plant, as well as for medicine. The inch and a half long pea-like flowers were being pollinated by bees. Pods created by that interaction will look like short, fat peapods that turn brown as they mature. The leaves attached to the stem are in groups of three like clover, another relative. The bluish-green color of the young bushes sets them apart visually from the other greens of the field. The whole plant will turn black rapidly as it dries out, making it a stand-out among the fall colors, too.

See how their clover-like leaves turn  black when dried.

I was happy to discover Yellow Wild Indigo is a host plant to some of our native butterflies…they evolved together! Check out Clouded and Orange Sulphurs, the Eastern Tailed-Blue, and, most especially, the Wild Indigo Dusky Wing – its own very special butterfly!

Underfoot: Black Jetbead & Decorating with Winterberry

By: Susan Sprout

Black Jetbead
There has been a case of mistaken identity…and I did it! The story begins in April when I passed by a brushy, unkempt-looking shrub blooming gloriously with single, white flowers. One quick look, and I thought “Mock Orange” and kept right on walking.

Cut to December. Same walk, same shrub without leaves and flowers, same unenlightened me. Then I saw them – small bunches of shiny black, beadlike fruits, surrounded by brittle, sharply-pointed little leaves or sepals. How interesting! How gorgeous! How NOT Mock Orange! After photographing them, I kept right on walking – straight back to my resource books. I had discovered Black Jetbead, Rhodotypos scandens, a member of the Rosaceae or Rose family. My April mistakes were many and obvious – petal number, leaf stem and shape, seed amounts in each fruit or capsule, bloom time and arrangement on stalks, wrong family!

Black Jetbeads after snow.

I now know a new shrub to look for during fall and winter. With its leaves and four-petaled flowers gone, its one-third inch long black fruits are visible and easily identified as belonging to Black Jetbead, a non-native shrub from Eastern Asia. It was brought to the U.S. in 1866 as an ornamental and has escaped into the wilds, dispersed by birds. To many, it is considered invasive, displacing native plants with its dense, arching branches that restrict tree seedling establishment.

My sincere apologies, Mock Orange. I will try to make it up to you in print during your May bloom time when I see your beautiful five-petaled white flowers on my walks.

Decorating with Winterberry
The week after PlantsGiving is PlantsDecorating! That’s what I have been doing this week. Whether using living or man-made lookalikes, we do put up a lot of plant, shrub, and tree parts to “spruce up” our homes and businesses, inside and out, for the December/January Holiday Season. Garlands of pine, cedar, juniper surround the doors while their circular counterparts are placed on doors in colorful welcome. As welcome as we can be, considering the pandemic.

You are probably familiar with the prickly Japanese holly commonly used in landscaping. Many people, myself included, use its cut evergreen branches with berries on as decorations. There is another rather common native plant you may find in marshy spots that is not an evergreen like Japanese holly, but has the bright red berries just like it. Both are in the same family AQUIFOLIACEAE. It is known as Winterberry.

Winterberry before losing its leaves.

Another common name for it is Black Alder. It is not really a true Alder because true Black Alders are members of the Birch family and have little cones, not red berries. Forty years ago, I dug up a Winterberry sapling and planted it near my house. Although it wasn’t in its happy place with wet feet, it has matured and grown to about ten feet in height and provides us with enough lovely red berries for winter decorations.

Winterberry: A vibrant and festive seasonal decoration!

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 & Nostoc, Witch Hazel, Plantsgiving.