Tag Archives: underfoot

Underfoot: Rattlesnake Plantain

By, Susan Sprout

The beautiful and very unique leaves of Rattlesnake Plantain caught my attention as they peeked out from the leaf litter along a trail at the WMWA.

Rattlesnake Plantain

This native terrestrial orchid is a member of the second largest plant family on earth with over 28,000 species. Sixty are native to Pennsylvania, many of them rare and threatened in the wild. I found these plants growing on a slight incline among mixed hardwoods and conifers. They do well in dry, sandy to moist soils, but cannot thrive in water-logged soils that do not drain – hence on an incline! Physical characteristics lead to the naming of many plants. In this case, fine, downy hairs on stems, rhizomes, and leaves gave the scientific name, Goodyera pubscens. The checkered, silvery pattern on the leaves that look like the scales of a snake’s skin and the shape like the sole of a human foot gave the name Rattlesnake Plantain (Latin – planta). 

Once a year, sometime between May and August, a mature plant (four to eight years of age) will send up from its basal rosette of leaves, a leafless stalk of small white flowers that look similar to those in the photograph of Nodding Ladies’ Tresses in an earlier post during the week of September 27. After flowering, the fleshy rhizome of the plant will grow one to three offshoots which will live on after the original rhizome dies. Rattlesnake Plantain’s seeds are minute and abundant like dust. Charles Darwin thought if all the seeds of a single orchid would live and grow into plants, the great-grandchildren of that single orchid plant would “cover the earth in one continuous carpet.” He was not aware that those plentiful seeds need some help to grow. With no energy reserve in the tiny seeds, orchids require a special relationship with a mycorrhizal fungus or symbiont (AKA body buddy) that will provide the carbon needed to grow. The more, the better the growth! Some established orchids will continue to get nutrients from fungi as adults which can also help them tolerate stress.

The creeping rhizomes grow in a colonia pattern

There are two other species of Goodyera that grow in Pennsylvania, Dwarf and Checkered. Both are rare. The leaves of Rattlesnake Plantain have white, silvery lines on both sides of the center mid-rib. That is what helped me Identify them!

Thank you to Evergreen Wealth Solutions for the support!

Underfoot: Coral Fungus

By Susan Sprout

…and will the real coral fungus please stand up! Do you remember the old television show that used that line? So, which one would you pick as a photo of coral fungus?

Which is the real coral fungus???

There is a fungus that grows in North America on the ground under mixed hardwoods and conifers. It is not your ordinary mushroom that resembles an umbrella. This one looks like coral, the kind that lives in warm, southern waters, and may, depending on its species, build up large coral reefs of calcium carbonate.

White coral fungus has an upright growth pattern not unlike its undersea look-alike. Its spreading branches are white on its many tiny, flat, tooth-like tips. Its middle part can be beige or pinkish before returning to white near its base.

The one I discovered near Essick Heights is Crested Coral Fungus or Clavulina coralloides. There are several different species of fungus in PA that resemble coral – white crowns with cone-shaped points, yellow, violet to purple, deep pink, with some stems pointing up and some down, growing singly or in bunches. The lovely white color of coral fungi can become gray to black at the bottoms of their branches when they are parasitized by another type of fungus growing in the soil around it. With a hand lens, you can see the little black dots as they invade their way upward on the stems. 

(The real Crested Coral Fungus is #1)

Crested Coral Fungus or Clavulina coralloides
This installment of Underfoot is brought to you by Evergreen Wealth Solutions

UNDERFOOT: On the Ground or In One’s Way?

By, Susan Sprout

When asked to write articles for NPC, it didn’t take me long to come up with the title “Underfoot.” My habit of looking down as I walk along is my way of exploring for what’s there – plants, ants, fungus, rocks – consistently searching out little mysteries on the ground. A wise person, my mother, kept a saying on the bulletin board next to the phone as I was growing up. The thought evidently stuck with me, as did the paper it was printed on, which is now thumb-tacked next to my desk: “Thank heaven for the happy touch of getting joy from nothing much.” That’s me, down to the ground. Pun, intended!

Which brings me to this week, when I was presented with another totally different and equally appropriate definition of “underfoot.” As I readied the upper back porch for winter, there, between the folds of the curtains was something “present and in one’s way” – a little brown bat! I certainly didn’t want to remove the curtain and dislodge it. My curiosity was aroused as to why it was there.

A close-up of the sleeping bat on the curtain.

Here’s what I discovered: this little bat is Myotis lucifugus, Little Brown Myotis, or as its scientific name explains “mouse-eared and “light-shunning.” It certainly didn’t like the flash of my camera. I suspect it did enjoy being close to Muncy Creek in warmer weather where it could catch up to 1,200 insects in just one hour.

According to the PA. Game Commission, this microbat (3.1 to 3.7 inches) is one of the most common state-wide. I couldn’t get a look at its belly fur, but its back fur – dense, fine and glossy, pale tan to reddish to dark brown – fits the description for its species. According to one source, they can live to thirty years in the wild.

The bat was just over 3 inches long.

All bats have taken a big hit from White Nose Syndrome (WNS).This one was one of the first bat species documented with the disease, and one of three types of bats to lose a total of 90% of their combined populations. I was worried because it was all by itself, as little brown bats are colonial.  I did find out that adult males and non-reproductive females will roost by themselves.

According to an article in Journal of Mammalogy, before WNS only 1.6% of little brown bats hibernated singly; after WNS, the percentage grew to 44.5% hibernating singly. Smart little dudes! The bat equivalent of social distancing? So that has put my worries to rest.

Needless to say, the curtains are still up and will remain that way until the little brown bat stops hanging around here!

Thank you to Evergreen Wealth Solutions for sponsoring this month’s blog!

Underfoot: Jeepers, Virginia Creepers!

By Susan Sprout 

Virginia Creeper is a native, woody vine belonging to the VITACEAE, or Grape Family. Surprised?

You have probably seen many of them clinging to the sides of trees. They are versatile, growing in any kind of soil, partial shade to full sun, in fields, woods, or flood plains, from Maine to Florida. Virginia Creepers are good cover for erosion control as they…well…”creep” along on the ground. But, if there are trees around, up they go, growing to fifty feet in a year.

Virginia Creeper beginning its journey upward.

Their leaves are compound, made up of five, coarsely-toothed, six-inch leaflets that meet in the middle resembling fingers spread out on the palm of a hand. Small white flowers blooming in late spring may be difficult to see among the leaves. Fleshy, purple berries grow from the pollinated flowers and hang on red stems in branching clusters, remaining hidden until after their bright red to purple autumn leaves fall.

Fall red leaves of Virginia Creeper.

How do Virginia Creepers hold on to the trees as they climb? The answer to this question is a clue to their identification. They have many branched tendrils with adhesive disks or holdfasts produced on the plants’ stems opposite from the leaves. I carefully removed a piece of stem to investigate and found the tiny, three-sixteenth of an inch disks pushed down in the cracks and craters of tree bark in such a way, they were difficult to pull off. There were eight small disks on the tendrils, and with them came small hunks of bark. I read somewhere that allowing Virginia Creeper to grow up the side of a house can ruin painted surfaces, damage stucco, and the mortar between bricks. Those holdfasts are small, but mighty. Before checking out this feature for yourself, make sure the plant you are examining has five leaflets per leaf. Poison Ivy of “leaves of three, let them be” fame are climbers, too. Their holdfasts are more like hairy rootlets, however.

And just because Virginia Creeper is a member of the Grape Family, don’t think that you can eat the berries or leaves. You cannot – they are toxic, containing calcium oxalate crystals. Let them for twelve species of songbirds, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, and skunks to eat!  

This blog post sponsored by Evergreen Wealth Solutions

Underfoot: Sassafras

By Susan Sprout

Bright standouts amidst the autumn colors are our native Sassafras trees. They can grow to a height of least sixty feet. One in Kentucky is one hundred feet tall.  Look for them growing in hedgerows, forest openings, and on roadsides.  If traveling on foot, do a close check on their variable leaf shapes, having zero to three lobes. They look like mittens to me…a left-handed one, a right-handed one, and a mitten with the pinky finger and the thumb sticking out on each  side. There are some plain oval leaves with no lobes at all, too. I keep looking for one shaped like the Star-Trek “Live Long and Prosper” shape. No luck yet. 

Notice the mitten shaped leaves

Sassafras is a member of the Laurel Family along with Spicebush (last week’s post), Sweet Bay (source of bay leaves for flavoring soups and stews), and Cinnamon (provider of ground cinnamon that makes just about everything taste better). Not to be outdone by its aromatic relatives, Sassafras has been used to flavor tea, root beer, toothpaste, chewing gum, tobacco, and soap. Its dried leaves are finely ground to make Filé Powder used as a thickener in Creole cooking. Since the 1960’s, its strong oil has not been used internally because it may cause liver and kidney damage. 

Sassafras may have been one of the first medicinal plants sent to Europe by the Spanish from their colony in Florida. It was a major export  because explorers and colonists at the time thought of it as a cure-all. They saw Natives using it for treating fevers, rheumatism, and as a blood purifier. My grandparents used Sassafras wood chips boiled in water as a spring tonic.

Underfoot: Spicebush

By: Susan Sprout

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is THE native shrub I love to find while taking nature walks with kids, especially in the fall when its leaves are starting to turn yellow and its spicy berries (drupes) have ripened to a bright red. The squeezing and the sniffing of berries, leaves, and twigs make for a great multi-sensory experience.

Early fall berries before the leaves turn yellow.

The Laurel Family, of which Spicebush is a member, also gives us Sassafras, locally, as well as tropicals like Cinnamon and Sweet Bay. Hooray for this fragrant family! There is also a similar species of Spicebush (with finely hairy twigs) growing in the southeastern U.S., where it is endangered from habitat loss.

Spicebush leaves turn yellow before they fall.

Our Spicebush is three to seven feet tall and commonly found in moist woods or in the understory along stream banks. To identify it in the spring, look for clusters of tiny, one-eighth inch yellowish flowers, attached directly on the twigs, usually during March and April. They begin blooming before the two to five inch, egg-shaped leaves appear.  In the autumn, look for peeks of red shining through the leaves to find the berries. Sometimes this can be a difficult task because Spicebush is dioecious with male and female flowers on separate plants, requiring the pollen to move quite a distance to pollinate the female flowers. If it doesn’t get there, no berries. You may have to identify it by the lemony fragrance of a crushed leaf…not an unpleasant task!

Spicebush has many culinary and medicinal uses, like the rest of its family – tea from leaves and twigs, spice from dried and ground berries, extract from leaves and bark for inducing perspiration to break a fever or as liniment for rheumatism and bruises or a tonic for colds.

Underfoot: Tearthumb

By Susan Sprout

In the 1800’s, Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American poet and philosopher, wrote that weeds are just plants whose virtues haven’t been discovered yet. I do try to be thorough as I learn about various plants, but researching Tearthumb did not turn up many virtues. It is edible, cooked or raw; berries, too. Birds and ants like the seeds and disperse them; chipmunks, squirrels, and deer eat it. However, since its accidental introduction in northeast US in the 1930’s, Asiatic Tearthumb has thrived so well that it’s been designated as a noxious, aggressive, highly invasive weed in many states, including ours. 

Mile-a-Minute’s slender, reddish stems can grow up to thirty feet a year. Its triangular green leaves have barbed mid-ribs that along with its prickly stems, help hold it while climbing towards the light, shading out, and killing other plants as it goes. Do not grab onto Devil’s Tail with your bare hands as it will live up to its other name and tear your thumbs. Better double glove! 

Look for Giant Climbing Tearthumb along roads, crawling and sprawling in thickets, and uncultivated open fields resulting from both natural and human causes. This member of the Buckwheat Family (Polygonaceae) loves the things we do to the soil – the digging, the clearing, the farming, the dumping – and will move right in. Another identifying feature of Asiatic Smartweed are its fruits which can be all different colors – green, blue, red – hanging together on the stem ends like tiny bunches of grapes. Since Persicaria perfoliata likes moist soils, too, you can find it frequently hanging over waterways where it will persist until after the first frost. Its pretty fruits are buoyant, able to float for up to nine days, providing another seed dispersal method.

Did you find all of the common and scientific names of Tearthumb in the text!  If you did, Bravo! Maybe its virtue is to show that plants can have many names!

Here are the common names of Persicaria perfoliate:
*Devil’s Tail
*Giant Climbing Tearthumb
*Asiatic Smartweed

Thank you to Pennsylvania American Water for sponsoring the NPC blog during October!

Underfoot: Nodding Ladies’ Tresses

By Susan Sprout

When I find Nodding Ladies’ Tresses, it makes me want to twist and shout!  In thanks for the plant being there, growing  –  AND –  in honor of a very special movement each little white flower on the stem has to make in order to bloom.

The labellum or lip which is attached above, actually twists down and around so that it is now below the other petals as it opens! This action provides a landing place for visiting insects and may also allow the lip to get more sunlight, showing patterns and nectar guides better.

Orchid flowers that do the twist are called “resupinate”. Yes, this plant is an orchid, native to Eastern North America. While it is not an uncommon plant, it is picky about where it lives and with whom. I found these in partial shade, along a dirt road where  the soil was wet and acidic.

Nodding Ladies’ Tresses will spread slowly by underground rhizomes to form colonies. They can reproduce by seed, too, but their seeds lack the store of starch and nutrients necessary for successful germination. Therefore, they require the help of mycorrhizal fungi to provide fixed carbon and mineral nutrients for the growth of seedlings…a specific species of fungus. Picky!

Look for them. They will keep blooming until the first frost. The single stem, about sixteen inches tall, holds a six-inch flower spike with a coiled spiral of white or ivory flowers, each one being held by a bulbous bract that is green and covered with minute hairs that spread about halfway down the stem. You may find two or three really thin leaves tightly clasping the lower stem. A basal rosette of leaves will be gone by the time the plant blooms. The tongue-shaped lower lips of the flowers are thin and lacy.

At least ten species in the genus Spiranthes can be found in Pennsylvania in various forms and locations.

When you find some, twist and shout!

Underfoot: Turkey Tails

By Susan Sprout

Mr. Crabapple, a stump in our backyard, has grown a braid!

OK, that’s what I call it. Normal folks would probably call it shelf fungi.

Turkey Tails is their common name, reflecting the wonderful concentric color zones of tan, brown, gray and cinnamon that look like fanned turkey tails. These are one of the most frequent types of fungi found in our woods and throughout the world.

Turkey Tail Fungi

Until the 1960’s, fungi were categorized as plants. We now know, from biochemical and DNA studies, they are more closely related to animals than plants and are placed in a separate kingdom which includes yeasts, molds, mushrooms, and mildews.

Turkey Tails are saprobes, decomposers of dead hardwood logs and stumps. I see them all the time when I hike. Ah well, I actually can’t see the fungi’s main body, the mycelium, made up of microscopic thread-like hyphae, because they live deep inside what they are recycling – secreting digestive enzymes to break down the wood molecules and absorb them as building blocks in order to keep growing. What I do see are the fruit bodies formed to make and release their reproductive spores.

The white underside of the Turkey Tail is covered with very tiny holes from which the white spores are released, usually in fall or winter. The thin, flexible “shelves” can grow up to four inches in diameter and may overlap in layers as their fruit bodies grow.

I am always amazed by their soft, velvety exterior when I check them under a magnifier. Mr. Crabapple thinks they look cool! Little does he know…

Underfoot: Swamp Dewberry

By Susan Sprout

The trailing, woody stems of this native plant like to grow sprawled out across my favorite bog. Hiking in is like walking on a thick carpet.

Their shiny green leaves of three won’t raise welts though to some folks, they may resemble poison ivy.

Swamp Dewberry

Swamp Dewberry or Bristly Dewberry (Rubus hispidus) is a member of the Rose Family – like the other berries we love to eat during the summer. Unfortunately, the ripe fruit of Dewberry doesn’t taste that great to humans. Song birds, game birds, other mammals, yes. To us, the taste is quite sour.

The small, white, five-petaled flowers have finished blooming by now, and the ones pollinated by small bees and flies have grown into small, individual druplets that are clumped together to form the aggregate fruits we call Dewberries! They start out white, then green, then red and finally purplish-black when totally ripe. You may find all of these colors at one time or another on their slender and bristly red twigs.

Look for swamp Dewberries growing where the soil is acid and damp and the sunlight is dappled. Their tendency to form dense thickets also provides nesting habitat and protective cover for birds and smaller animals. The favor is returned when seeds of the fruits are dispersed into new areas.

Check out Swamp Dewberry’s bristly stem!