Tag Archives: underfoot

Underfoot: Northern Bayberry & Sweet Fern

By: Susan Sprout

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.

Northern Bayberry

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.

Northern Bayberry branch

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.

Sweet Fern in winter.

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.

October leaves of Sweet Fern.

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.

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 & NostocWitch HazelPlantsgivingBlack Jetbead & Decorating with WinterberryWild Bergamot & Bald Cypress TreeGalls & BittersweetAmerican Beech & Bagworm, Seedpods & American Chestnut.

Underfoot: Seedpods (Spreading Dogbane and Indian Hemp) & American Chestnut

By: Susan Sprout

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.

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 & NostocWitch HazelPlantsgivingBlack Jetbead & Decorating with WinterberryWild Bergamot & Bald Cypress TreeGalls & Bittersweet, American Beech & Bagworm.

Underfoot: Wild Bergamot & Bald Cypress Tree

By: Susan Sprout

Wild Bergamot
Poking through the recent snow on skinny stems are the spent seed heads of Wild Bergamot.

Dried Wild Bergamot plants.

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.

Wild Bergamot seeds next to a peppercorn. Tiny!

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!

Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)

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.

Late fallen Bald Cypress leaves decorate a snow bank.

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.  

This Bald Cypress has a crown of leaves remaining.

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 & NostocWitch HazelPlantsgiving, Black Jetbead & Decorating with Winterberry.

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.

From Underfoot to on your Table: Some thoughts on #Plantsgiving

Planning a #Plantsgiving

Given concerns over COVID-19, people all over the U.S. are making the tough choice to avoid gathering in large groups this Thanksgiving. Bucknell Professor Chris Martine, biology, and his botanical colleagues suggest that one way to still bring everyone together for the holiday is to join them in the 2020 edition of #PlantsGiving, a social media campaign in which people challenge one another to count the number of plant species used in their Thanksgiving meal. Learn more about #Plantsgiving here.

Below, Susan Sprout, shares some insight on some not-so-noticeable plants that are likely to be apart of your Thanksgiving meal.

By: Susan Sprout

I love the thought and act of giving thanks anytime. We don’t do it nearly enough. What a great idea to count the blessings of plants as part of Thanksgiving preparations! Plants provide so much to the human population of this planet and yet, we probably overlook their presence in many of the items we eat. So now is the time to take some time and to be mindful of the many unique and tasty ways in which we enjoy or eat or imbibe plants.

STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

By counting the number of different plant species used in our Thanksgiving feast and sharing the information, we are providing recognition due to all plants for their continuing support all these years. We should also look at this as a way to educate others – friends, family, students, all plant primary and secondary consumers – about their many and varied uses. This being said, you have probably guessed by now that I really love plants and enjoy telling their stories and sharing them with you. The plants that I report on most are natives or plants living here so long, everybody thinks they are natives. I would like to take this opportunity, since it’s Thanksgiving and #PlantsGiving, to tell you about some non-native plants you will probably use this week. They are spices used in pumpkin pies and muffins and breads. They are cinnamon and allspice.

My Ceylon cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum zeylandicum) and my allspice tree (Pimenta dioica) are tropical trees that live in my backyard during the warm months and inside the house the rest of the year. They are taller than I am, so the photos show their long, shiny, evergreen leaves instead of the whole tree. Cinnamon is a member of the Lauraceae Family like sassafras and bay leaves. Allspice is a member of the Myrtaceae Family like eucalyptus. Cinnamon can grow from 20 to 60 feet. I will definitely be keeping mine trimmed down to a manageable size. Some people are so surprised to find out the cinnamon powder is made from the inner bark of this tree, after it is striped off, bundled and allowed to ferment. The outer layer of bark is then scraped off and the inner bark is rolled into quills and allowed to dry. It is the second most popular spice in the USA, after black pepper. My allspice tree is native to the West Indies. Our ground allspice is made from the small green fruits that are picked in mid-summer and dried by the sun or in ovens. Its name reflects the fact that it has the aroma and flavor of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves combined.

Have a splendid #PlantsGiving. Some clues for your search:

  • Read labels, look for different types of gums in milk products and gluten-free baking mixes.
  • My favorite bread from Wegman’s has 17 different flours, seeds, and nuts. So, be vigilant!
  • Don’t forget herbs and spices.
  • There is corn starch in baking powder.
  • Check beverages for sugar and Stevia.
  • Don’t forget the wine!

Enjoy!!!

Susan Sprout is the author of the recurring series, Underfoot, on the NPC blog. 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.

Underfoot: Prickly Cucumber & Wintergreen

By: Susan Sprout

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 Ragweed, Pokeweed & Blue Chicory.

Prickly Cucumber

There has been a fight going on right under my nose…well, right under the bridge walkway. Aggressive, non-native Japanese Knotweed plants have taken over the Muncy Creek streambank, pushing and shading out our local native plants. One plant is fighting back – Prickly Cucumber, a member of the same family as pumpkins and squash.

It has five-lobed leaves and tendrils that help it hold fast as it climbs all over that tall knotweed. It is a fight for light by this feisty native plant. It keeps growing upward and spreading out its leaves over its adversary. You can identify Prickly Cucumber at this time of year by finding its fruit, a one to two inch fleshy, egg-shaped capsule covered with bristles.

Native Americans used its bitter root for a tonic. That bitterness is caused by cucurbitacins, biochemical compounds produced as defense against herbivores. Its defense against bullying plants that want to take over? Just keep climbing!

Wintergreen

Have you had a teaberry milkshake lately? So good, yum! The commercial flavoring for one is synthetically produced methyl salicylate. Before that, it was obtained from birch trees. But before that, this amazing flavor was distilled from the leaves of our native Wintergreen plant.

Wintergreen because it stays green in the winter like its other evergreen Heath family members like Mountain laurel, Huckleberries, and Cranberries. The plant spreads by runners forming small colonies of plants in poorer dry to wet soils in woods and clearings all the way from Canada to Georgia and west to Minnesota. Its nodding white flower grows at the leaf base in mid to late summer. Fertilized by this time of year, the flowers have grown into round, pinkish fruits that turn a bright scarlet among its dark green oval leaves when fully ripe. The fruits or capsules often remain on the plant until the next flowering season, if not eaten by wildlife like birds or deer (or me).

Historically, wintergreen was used to flavor teas, candies, medicines and chewing gum. Applied to the skin, it has also relieved aching muscles and rheumatism, all the while making a person smell like a yummy teaberry milkshake tastes!

Click here to get to know Susan Sprout!