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).
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.
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!
Getting a forkful at Forksville this week, afforded me
the opportunity to visit several of my favorite Sycamores, AKA Planetrees. that
live along Loyalsock Creek.
In Pennsylvania, some have matured to absolutely huge
proportions when left alone to keep growing: one in Philadelphia County is over
149 feet tall; Delaware County has one 404 years old; one in Chester County has
a circumference at breast height of over 30 feet. Amazing – see why I love
Sycamore Trees – such potential!
As they grow, their less than elastic bark cracks and
sloughs off to reveal lighter under-bark creating an easy to identify blotchy
camouflage pattern of gray, brown, cream and tan that any hunter would be proud
to wear. These native trees are common along waterways and low woods, where
once established, they appear to be drought-resistant.
Sycamores’ leaves may resemble maple leaves, but they are
much bigger – five to nine inches
across, with prominent yellow veins, and furry undersides. And, they are not
related to maples at all, but are members of the Planetree Family (Platanaceae)
that has only eight known living species in the world. The family has been
around for over one hundred million years, making some paleobotanists consider
our modern Sycamores to be living fossils.
Reproduction takes place in the spring when inconspicuous
male and female flowers in hanging bunches are pollinated by the wind, just
about the time the leaves begin to sprout. The seeds develop in round spikey
balls, green turning to brown, that hang on for about a year before falling to
the ground. Pick one up and pull it apart to find the individual seeds
surrounded by long hairs – they float in the air and on the water, a second
dispersal mechanism. No wonder they are so successful!
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!
I hope you are familiar with the native plant
Jack-in-the-pulpit because I would like to introduce you to Jack’s less
well-known relative in the same genus – Green Dragon. Arisaema dracontium,
also a member of the Arum Family with Jack, is a native perennial plant that
lives in the rich ground of low woods and flood plains.
The first one I ever found was along the muddy edge of
the West Branch Susquehanna River, downstream from the Ellmaker Boat Landing in
Montoursville. Green Dragons like dappled sunlight when they first appear in
the spring and then more shade later on. That had happened quite naturally as
the sycamores and silver maples leafed out over them there.
Each plant has a single leaf made up of five to fifteen smooth, oval leaflets and a single naked stem topped with its inflorescence or flowers, both arising from an underground tuberous corm. The unusual leaf usually grabs my eye first because it looks like the palm of a hand with too many fingers, swirling around the stem. Then I peek under it, and there is a dragon’s tongue!
Start at the very tip of the “tongue” and travel down four to ten inches and you will find the flowers at its base like little greenish-yellow balls hugged by the spathe, a leaf-like bract that partially surrounds them and allows the dragon’s tongue to ascend out the top. Fungus gnats attend to pollinate them, turning the flower column into a red-orange club made up of at least a hundred pear-shaped berries containing one to three seeds…treats for wild turkeys. Don’t try them yourself – they contain enough calcium oxalate to burn your mouth and, if eaten, cause severe gastric distress and kidney damage.
Look for the Green Dragon now. It will fly away… I mean
As above, so below. Looking downward, I saw the stars! Five to nine smooth, lance-shaped leaves were whorled around a thin stem, some in double tiers, looking like stars scattered about on the shady forest floor. The Indian Cucumber Root (Medeola virginiana) I found along the Double Run Nature Trail at Worlds End was blooming…a delightful experience to behold!
Greenish-yellow flowers, one or two, hang on drooping stems beneath circles of leaves, their petals curved back showing their long, brown styles that carry pollen to the ovaries where purple to black berries will eventually form. Parallel leaf veins speak to their ties with the Lily Family, Lilaceae. The cucumber part of the common name comes from the two to three inch long tuberous white root that smells and tastes like cucumbers. Native Americans gathered them as food, a labor not recommended today because of the scarcity of this native plant.
There were other “stars” in the Double Run
woods that day, June 12, 2021. DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn, Deputy
Secretary for Parks and Forestry John Norbeck, Worlds End Park employees and
Friends of the Park were there along with others who gathered to witness the
dedication and induction of the park’s 780 acres into the Old-Growth Forest
Network. Dr. Joan Maloof, founder and
director of the network presented a commemorative sign and spoke about the
importance of protecting older forests, at least one in every county of every
state in the US, building not only a network of forests, but also an alliance of
people who care about forests. Eighteen PA counties have old-growth forests
placed in the network so far. Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania State
Constitution states that people have a right to clean air, pure water, and the
preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the
environment. DCNR as a caretaker of these resources for citizens now and
generations to come, sees the conservation and maintenance of them as their
Squawroot is a strange and wonderful plant that I knew only from photos in plant books. In late fall of 2020, my plant buddy Debbie and I came upon what looked like its sad remains. Wild and crazy, I jumped up and down, wahooing! Then, the waiting began. Finally, after three visits this spring, I found it had finally shouldered its way up through the pile of oak leaves that had blanketed it over winter. And, here it is!
A member of the Orobanchaceae or Broom-rape Family, known for being parasitic herbs without chlorophyll. Squawroot, Conopholis americana, is a native ranging from eastern Canada to Florida. Its genus name comes from the scales it has instead of leaves (pholis) and when dried it resembles evergreen tree cones (conos). Most of this plant’s biomass is underground where it develops for four years before emerging to bloom. It develops swollen knobs as its root system attaches to an oak root and slowly receives from the sap enough nourishment and energy to reproduce. Its flowers are cream-colored in dense fleshy unbranched spikes.
It is a perennial plant that will live up to ten years in forests where its presence and relative abundance may indicate the forest’s age and stability. Native American usage of it was for menopause symptoms and reproductive problems. Amazingly, Squawroot has estrogen-like properties that doctors today would use for just such conditions. Its flowers are pollinated by flies and bumblebees and become food for deer and bears. Where conditions are right…shady, oak-forested sites, large colonies often flourish.
Northern Bayberry It has been a joy for me this snowy season to search out my favorite plants and trees in their winter garb in order to share them with you. Some lose leaves, some keep leaves, some have easily identified bark, some retain scent, some have recognizable fruits like seedpods or berries. Northern Bayberry, (Myrica pensylvanica), native to eastern North America, has leaves, scent and fruits! It is a member of the MYRICACEAE Family like Sweet Fern, last week’s post.
This bushy perennial shrub can be found growing in a wide range of soil conditions, especially relatively poor sandy ones, because of the beneficial symbiotic relationship with colonies of bacteria growing in its root nodules. The Bayberry provides sugars and a variety of minerals for the bacteria, while the bacteria uses its complex biochemical processes to transform atmospheric nitrogen (N2), unusable by the plant, into NH3, an ammonia that provides nutrition for it.
Look for it in open woods, old fields, especially around old homesteads, where early settlers who made their own candles could easily have sent their children out to pick large amounts of the wax-covered grayish-green berries. After boiling the berries in water to melt off the fragrant wax, it was cooled, removed from the water, and re-melted for pouring into candle molds or for the slow process of dipping wicks into it. The resulting candles were treasured for their scent when burning, particularly for holiday celebrations.
Sweet Fern Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina) is a flowering shrub, not a fern at all! A member of the Bayberry Family, MYRICACEAE, and the only living species in its genus, it is a native of Eastern North America.
Because it is a nitrogen-fixer, I like to think that this plant may have been an important soil builder-upper of the glaciated areas of PA, following the retreating ice sheets of the Pleistocene Era. Its long, thin notched leaves have an exotic look about them, as well as an amazing spicy, aromatic scent when crushed. During winter, the leaves will turn from olive green to a coppery-brown color, but retain their scent. That is probably why American colonists used them to stuff mattresses…for sweet dreams and to repel pesky fleas and lice.
I have found colonies of Sweet fern in open woods, fields, and marsh edges, full sun to part shade. If you are out camping and bothered by flying insects, throw a handful of Sweet fern on your campfire coals for an instant and great smelling smudge.
Seedpods: Spreading Dogbane & Indian Hemp On your winter rambles – especially near wet or disturbed old fields or cindery ground near limestone outcrops – look for the unusual seedpods of these plants.
They look like wishbones hanging down against the snow. We have two native species in our area identifiable in summer by different colored blooms and both attracting bees, moths, and butterflies. They are members of the APOCYNACEAE or Dogbane Family, perennials found throughout North America.
The common name “dogbane” because the white milky sap is toxic to dogs, livestock, us; although it was used as a heart medicine in times past. The common name “Indian Hemp” because its tough fibers were used to make nets and cordage. Surprise! Both names have been used for both plants! See why I like to use scientific names for plants?
Anyway, the one mostly called Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)is taller, up to four feet, and has longer pods, five to eight inches long. The one mostly called Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) is shorter at about two feet with two inch long pods. And the scientific names are the reason why people use common names! Right?
Just look for the pods and think about summer… when these plants’ flowers each put out a pair of long, tapered pods that release fluffy parachutes of seeds into the warm, sunny sky.
American Chestnut Tree The American chestnut tree and my recent post, the American beech tree, are both members of the same family, FAGACEAE, or Beech Family. Our native chestnut, Castanea dentata, was a very large tree, up to 100 feet tall with a massive trunk and a broad crown. These trees provided strong, straight-grained wood for building and lots of sweet, meaty chestnuts for humans and wildlife to enjoy.
Sadly, an airborne Asian bark fungus was accidently imported in 1904 and spread so rapidly in forty years, it wiped out this once abundant species which had made up a quarter of the Eastern Hardwood forests from Maine to Mississippi. Some say as many as four billion trees were infected, girdled, and killed. Fortunately, their underground roots can survive and put up stump sprouts that may grow long enough to reproduce before succumbing to the blight.
The American Chestnut Foundation is one of many organizations dedicated to creating a blight-resistant American chestnut that can be reintroduced to our forests. Until then, we have stump sprouts which can grow up to thirty feet tall and be identified during the winter because they retain their leaves, like American beech. On your walks or skiing, look back through the woods for brown leaves, five to eight inches long with hooked teeth at the end of each parallel vein and check to see if the tree they are on is part of a group of trunks, coming up from an old tree stump.
Wild Bergamot Poking through the recent snow on skinny stems are the spent seed heads of Wild Bergamot.
During the growing season, its two-lipped lavender flowers are held in readiness for blooming by pinkish tubular calyxes. Starting in the center, the flowers bloom outwardly until they form a wreath, then drop off leaving their calyxes. Wild Bergamot, or Monarda fistulosa, is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae)…square stem and all!
It is a native perennial with several common names that are also used to identify other plants in the same genus. So, we’ll stick with Wild Bergamot. Its species name comes from a Latin word for tube or pipe. Looking at the dried seed head, you can see why! All of the little tubes that held the individual flowers are visible. If you locate the remains of this plant on your rambles or skiing, take a moment to gently stroke the seed heads with your hand underneath them. You may be rewarded with a look at some remaining seeds.
They are tiny, brown, smooth and may take off if its breezy out. Squeeze the seed heads and sniff your fingers to check for any lingering scent. During the bright summer days, so long ago, the whole plant, including its opposite gray-green leaves exuded, a spicy, minty odor which some say resembles oregano, another member of the mint family.
Bald Cypress Tree An outstanding tree in parks, forests, and yards this time of year is Bald Cypress…because it really does stand out among all the luscious colors of our wintery evergreens. It has lost its leaves, being a deciduous conifer, and appears underdressed!
The stabilizing buttressed trunk looks like thick cords run under its peeling orange and brown bark. Its rather thin branches protrude, creating indents under them like long armpits. O.K. Weird, but that’s how I remember the difference between defoliated Bald Cypress and a defoliated Dawn Redwood which lacks that particular (or peculiar) anthropomorphic body part.
Bald Cypress or Taxodium distichum can grow to 120 feet tall and is a member of the Cupressaceae Family which is found worldwide from Arctic Norway to Southern Chile, except for Antarctica. Its ancient ancestors were living on the supercontinent Pangea when it broke apart about 150 million years ago. Its descended lineages were separated and evolved in isolation from each other creating over 130 different species.
This tree is native to southeastern U.S. and is adaptable to a wide range of soils and amounts of moisture. On stream banks, it can soak up flood waters and prevent erosion. Bald Cypress is the oldest known wetland tree species on earth! For the last fifty years, I have loved looking at and keeping track of the one that is growing about a block away from my house near Muncy Creek.
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!
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.
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.