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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 – INDIAN PIPES

By, Susan Sprout

Here is an organism that could be misidentified just by its appearance and where it lives. Dark woods, waxy, white appearance, no chlorophyll. Is it a fungus of some kind, pushing up through the woodland humus? NOPE! It is a perennial plant and a recent addition to the Heath Family – which is surprising, as some of the other members of that family are teaberries, blueberries, cranberries, azaleas, and our state flower, Mountain Laurel. 

Colony of Indian Pipes

Blooming from June to September, its single, bell-shaped flower is a half-inch to an inch long and droops down to keep the rain water out until it has been pollinated by bees and flies that crawl in. As the seeds begin to mature, the flower raises its head upward and the whole plant turns dark brown to black. When dry, the five-sectioned oval seed capsule will split open to disperse them. It is quite a transformation of the whole plant from an all white (or pinkish) pipe-shaped plant, with no leaves, just tiny bracts sometimes having black spots… to the straight up and down black, dried up twig topped with a small pointed oval.

What a lot of common names for such a small and rarely seen plant! Corpse plant, Ghost plant, Ice plant, all referring to its pale presence in the deep, shadowy woods. I’ve always heard it called Indian Pipes because of the plants’ shapes. The scientific name, Monotropa uniflora, refers to the big, one-time upward move done by their one and only flower! 

Indian Pipes with pinkish tinge and black splotches on stems

Lacking the chlorophyll required to make their own food, Indian Pipes receive nourishment through their short, stubby roots from underground mycorrhiza, made up of fungal mycelium that in turn, are associated with photosynthetic trees like oak and pine. It is a three-way relationship, or network, that has actually been proven by scientists who mapped out the progress of radioactive carbon isotopes they used to tag the sucrose that travelled to the tree roots and was absorbed there by the fungus mycelium of Russula mushrooms as food, and then passed on to the Indian Pipes so they could grow. How great is that!

Indian Pipes are native to temperate regions in North America, northern South America and parts of Asia and have been used by many indigenous people living there with them. One interesting medicinal use is a water extraction of the plant for inflamed eyes that is actually antibacterial. The whole plant contains glycosides that may be toxic and should never be eaten.

Transformed Indian Pipes after seeds have matured

Underfoot: WOOD NETTLES

By Susan Sprout

Hikers beware! Wood Nettles, Laportea canadensis, can cause painful contact dermatitis when touched or walked through. I’ve seen large patches of them growing along trails and roads popular with walkers, runners, and bikers. Don’t be fooled into testing the softness of their large, hairy leaves. It is an invitingly tall and handsome plant after all. But here’s what will happen if you brush against them – the thin, silica tips will break from the hollow hairs that have penetrated your skin which, in turn, will make the cells at their bases expel various chemicals (formic acid, histamine, acetylcholine) up through them into you, like a hypodermic needle, causing itching and burning. Nettles’ family name, Urticaceae, supports this reaction, as it comes from the Latin word uro which means “I burn”.  Some say that Wood Nettle stings are more painful than the other nettle, Urtica dioica, that came here from Europe. Experts can neither explain the prolonged and possible synergistic effects of nettle stings nor have they determined the complete profile of chemicals they contain. So be careful out there! Some of their prickles are stout enough to penetrate clothing. The U.S. Forest Service suggests that a base substance like baking soda can be used to neutralize the strong acids that create the pain. What! You don’t carry baking soda in your fanny pack? Then how about a nice tube of antihistamine cream?

Wood Nettles along the trail

Wood Nettles are native perennials on the North American continent from Canada to Florida and west to Oklahoma. They grow anywhere in rich woods, bottomlands, and near streams. Their light requirement varies from deep shade to partially sunny edges. The whole plant can grow to four feet tall, with leaves three to six inches long and four inches across. Leaves grow alternately from long, hairy petioles or leaf stems that are attached to the main plant stem, on one side, then on the other side, all the way up. Flowers have just started to grow out now from the upper axils of the petioles where they meet the main stem. They may remain visible on the plants until September. The short-stalked male flowers are found on the lower part of the plant in tight, branching clusters. Attached to the top leaf axils will be the female flowers with longer stems and looser clusters. Their upward extension gives a spikey-hair quality to the greenish-white blooms. Wood Nettles will die back after the first hard frost.

Check out the stinging hairs on leaves and stems. Flowers just emerging.

Some research suggests that nettles evolved their chemical weaponry to keep vertebrates from eating them. There are a lot of invertebrates, like bees and ladybugs, out there that find them very useful for food and as a host plant for butterflies, like the Red Admiral. Nettles, especially those in Europe have been used by humans for millennia, dating back to the Bronze Age (3300 BC to 1200 BC) as a source of fiber. The word itself comes from an ancient root that means to tie or bind. It is interesting to note that Wood Nettle fibers – extracted, twisted, woven – were used by our Native Americans on this continent for the same purpose, cordage and nets. Had their ancestors brought this skill with them and then found a plant to use? Nettles have also been used for food, medicine and dye. Drying or heating the plant “kills” the sting. Speaking of stings, have you ever been stung by a red ant? Their venom contains formic acid just like nettles. Ouch!

Underfoot: Pennsylvania Native Species Day – June 17

By, Susan Sprout

The Governor’s Invasive Species Council is launching PA’s first Native Species Day this month. On the council’s Dept. of AG website, they provide their explanation of “native”. It refers to PA’s “diverse plants, trees, insects, fish, birds, and mammals that originated here thousands of years ago and thrive in MUTUAL dependence”. I capitalized “mutual” because it is important for us to understand that species depend on each other just like we depend on others in our lives. When our interaction, purposeful or accidental, gets rid of native species whose lives and lifestyles support many other natives, we risk disabling the whole system. The increased presence of imported, exotic or non-native, invasive plants and insects and animals and pathogens living and taking root in PA can out-compete the natives and threaten their survival. They are “recognized as one of the leading threats to biodiversity and impose enormous economic costs to agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and other enterprises, as well as to human health” (LandsScope America).

Invasive, non-native plants now make up 37% of PA’s wild plant population, currently over 285 species. And they are not just in our forests, either. Suburban areas made up of 92% lawns don’t help with the problem because they do not contribute to local food webs. “We treat plants and trees like ornaments in our yards, ignoring their environmental roles,” according to Doug Tallamy in his podcast “Native Plants Support Local Food Webs”. They just don’t provide the nutrition needed by by our native pollinators, for example. Without appropriate pollinators, many plants, including food products we require, will not set seed and reproduce. Our survival is threatened as well. “A diverse mix of native trees, shrubs, perennial flowers and warm-season grasses provide food sources for native pollinators” (#PA Native Species Day). We need to become stewards of our properties and contribute in a healthy manner to the environment around us.

If you are interested in learning about native plants for your yard, check out the PA DCNR tag Native Plants. The article entitled “Bring Life to Your Yard with Native Plants” gives excellent suggestions. A word of caution when purchasing plants: many of the available plants are cultivars or plant varieties  that have been produced in cultivation by selective breeding and genetic engineering. They aren’t the native plants of the past. If you personally have trouble digesting and assimilating GMO products from the store, imagine what happens to native insects, bees,and butterflies that try to get nutrition from plants that are “foreign” to their tastes, digestion, and egg-laying protocols. They can’t just dine there anyway because they have evolved along with certain plants that they require and that have sustained their species for millennia.

Underfoot: Spring Beauty

By Susan Sprout

Look around. There is much beauty to be found in the spring, and especially if it is a wild flower aptly named Spring Beauty!  Sometimes I have trouble finding them when they bloom. I’m either too early or too late. Last week, I was happy (and relieved) to find large colonial patches of two species of Spring Beauties native to North America. One in Sullivan County – Claytonia caroliniana and one in Montour County – Claytonia virginica. Check out the species’ names. Bet you can tell where these plants were first found growing and identified. Both are very similar in looks, except for their leaves – C. caroliniana’s leaves are wider in their mid-section and don’t resemble the thinner, almost grass-like leaves of C. virginica

Spring Beauties with thinner leaves

Spring Beauties aren’t very tall, up to about six inches when blooming. They have small white or pink flowers that have pointed tips and dark pink veins acting as nectar guides for pollinators, like bees, bumblebees, and flies. Researchers have counted up to seventy different species of pollinators attending them. Not surprising, as they have a wonderful sweet scent that floats around them in the cool dampness of the woods. In fact, I sensed them with my nose before I found them with my eyes.

Carilina Spring Beauties with wider leaves

These plants like the rich, loamy soil and dappled sunlight of moist woods. They grow from rounded underground tubers. According to some wildcrafters, their tubers have a sweet chestnut taste and the texture of potatoes when they are baked and eaten. They have only one pair of opposite leaves, found halfway up the thin flower stem. Geneticists are interested in Spring Beauties because they have an inconsistent number of chromosomes. They vary in number from plant to plant. Most species, including us, have a fixed number of chromosomes in our genetic make-up. Deer are interested in them, too, as a food source. Get out there quickly and find some Spring Beauties before their leaves and flowers are gone.