Tag Archives: underfoot

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.

Underfoot: Ramps AKA Wild Leeks

By Susan Sprout

Ramping up for spring? It could mean preparing for spring OR going out to dig up this pungent delicacy for a spring feast OR the time for making a required spring tonic from roots! The name – Ramps – is an interesting one that may have made its way here with colonists because it was their name for the wild garlic plants back in England. I’ll bet they were happy to find our native Wild Leeks growing here in the colonies, stretching from Canada to Georgia, for them to use.

Wild Leeks in April snow

I went hunting Ramps last week, hoping to find them back in their regular spots. O boy, did I!  By the hundreds! They like the rich woods and moist slopes of Loyalsock State Forest and surrounding areas. These plants are not your local grocery store variety of leeks (Allium porrum) but a wild and, to some, odiferous one (Allium tricoccum). 

Bulb and leaves with reddish lower stem

From a cluster of two to six white bulbs, they put up glossy, eight to ten inch-long, bright green leaves that photosynthesize like crazy in order to store energy. These flat, basal leaves are reddish on their lower stems, an important characteristic for correct identification. Their leaves begin to die back before flowering occurs. Soon after, a single round cluster, about 1 1/2 inches wide, and made up of white flowers, will appear on a smooth, leafless scape or stem. Each flower in the cluster will have six tepals (petals and sepals) and six stamens with creamy-yellow tips and a green ovary in the center. After fertilization, the three-lobed ovary will grow, then dry and split open, allowing small, black seeds to fall. The species name tricoccum comes from Latin for “three-seeded”. For a long time, I couldn’t put a name to this plant because first the leaves were there by themselves, and then the flowers were there by themselves. Finally, I figured it out!

Remains of last year’s flower among this year’s new leaves

There appears to be a difference of opinion about the family of Wild Leeks. I found them listed in three separate families! Using a reference updated in 2022, ITIS.gov,  the winner is Amaryllidaceae, which also contains the Daffodils I wrote about last week.  There also seems to be a difference of opinion on the taste and smell of Ramps – skunk smell, mild onion taste, strong garlic odor, pronounced onion flavor. There’s no accounting for taste, right? Anyway, perhaps the mineral content in the various soils where they grow affects their sensory output!  At least, people have come together on their opinions about sustainable harvesting techniques for Wild Leeks. Leaving the bulbs in the ground and cutting one or two leaves is best to ensure continuing populations for these perennials. For centuries these plants have been used beneficially for medicine and for food. People who used them were very knowledgeable and taught their children which plants to use and which to let alone. There are plants growing in similar environments as Wild Leeks that are not beneficial…they are poisonous. One in particular has harmed folks I know. It is named False Hellebore (Veratrum viride). Its large, ribbed leaves and rootstock contain extremely toxic alkaloids that cause nausea, vomiting, drops in respiration and blood pressure. Let this one alone.

Taken in July 2021…leaves all gone  and blossoms are here!
Thank you to McCormick Law Firm for their support!

Underfoot: Daffodil Connections

By, Susan Sprout

English poet William Wordsworth (1770 to 1850) made his home in the Lake District of northwestern England for sixty of his eighty years.  A lover of nature, he wrote, “Come forth into the light of things, and let nature be your teacher.” In 1807, he made Lake Windermere’s “host of golden daffodils” famous in his poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”. As a sixth-grade student, I was required to memorize his poem. I think of him, and my teacher, fondly each and every spring as the local daffodil population blooms.  

In 1905, artist and writer Beatrix Potter bought property in the Lake District, an area where she had spent childhood holidays with her family. She set many of her Peter Rabbit books there and used money from the sales of them and her paintings to support a movement to prevent development on Windermere’s lakeshore. She also helped a group who protested against widening a road that passed through Wordsworth’s daffodil field! She wrote,”This little corner of the country should be kept unchanged for people who appreciate its beauty”. An old friend of hers was one of the founders of England’s National Trust, created in 1895. Beatrix supported the Trust by willing 4,000 acres of land and fourteen farms to it. In 1951, the Lake District was made a national park. In 2017, it became a World Heritage Site. Small beginnings can lead to great outcomes!

Planted for naturalization

It’s daffodil time right now in Pennsylvania. Perhaps you have planted their bulbs to grow and spread on your property. They, at ground level, along with the taller Forsythia bushes, certainly brighten our landscape. Daffodils are not native plants. They could have been brought here from many parts of Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranean region, or Western Asia where they grow naturally. They are good plants for woods’ clearings, grasslands, rocky ground. I’ve found them in patches along creeks where they probably washed in from upstream.

Roadside daffodils

Daffodils are in the genus Narcissus. Folks seem to use both names interchangeably. Botanists who studied them have changed their family name and identified a whole bunch of species and cultivars based on frilly-edged or smooth, center coronas like bowls or trumpets, with the same or contrasting colors, having multiple flower stems. Yikes, our daff-o-down-dillies are pretty complicated!  And pretty looking, but definitely not for eating. Even deer don’t like them. They contain lycorine, a bad-tasting alkaloid, but good for medical science that has found promising uses for its anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties.

Underfoot: Earth Day 2022 – Happy Day…happy us!

By Susan Sprout

The introductory article I created for UNDERFOOT two years ago was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. In it, I wrote that we would not be here without the planet and its components under our feet. I cited the number of different species in this world with us – over 87 billion – hinting that in just a handful of dirt there may be billions of single organisms. Now I would like to expand on that information.

In working to save the earth and its occupants, people come at it from many different directions. Conservation efforts support animals, plants, trees, land, air, water, soil. We only need to use our physical senses, as well as our common sense, to recognize the damage ecocidal practices and greed (corporate and personal) have done to the natural world.
The Age of Reason, during the 16th and 17th centuries, was a time when groups of people began to value ideas, ideals, and knowledge by using their powers of reasoning and the evidence gathered by their senses. Some of the true enlightenment that occurred then was based on the study of how things work in the natural world. I, personally, seem to be “plant-centric” as I search out what grows on top of the soil – pointing out flowering plants and trees and their lifestyles – in hopes that interested folks will take care of them. After all, plants and trees make up 80% of the total mass of all life on earth and are the base of vegetal support for all animals, including us. However, it is what is unseen, underground, that keeps the entire above-ground systems held together and working. The “rhizosphere microbiome” down there in healthy soils holds amazing amounts of fungi, bacteria, protists, insects, and arthropods – more than the number of humans who have ever lived on earth (Sheldrake, 2020).
Underground fungi grow as tiny, tube-shaped cells called hyphae that plow their way between soil particles. They group in masses called mycelium and create networks, fusing with or entering inside the roots of about 90% of all land plants and trees. And, there are so many, they make up 1/3 to 1/2 of the living mass of soil. Mycorrhizal (fungus root) associations have been around for over 400 million years, benefiting both partners and us.  Very large amounts of carbon, as well as nutrients, minerals, and water are absorbed, reabsorbed, stored, and shared back and forth between and among partners in the networks which can extend for miles. Findings of research done in Amsterdam to investigate how plants and fungi maintain their “balance of power” in so complex and entangled a relationship showed neither plant nor fungus was in complete control. They were able to strike compromises, resolve trade-offs, and deploy sophisticated trading strategies. Something that not all species everywhere can do!
On this Earth Day – to all individuals, organizations, trusts, agencies, conservancies – evolved and involved  – who can and do create networks by working together, by making beneficial compromises, using trade-offs and sophisticated strategies in order to help heal what’s wrong and harmful in the world and by continuing to support what works – for the earth and all of its inhabitants, seen and unseen – THANK YOU!
Learn more about fungi in “Entangled Life” by Merlin Sheldrake, Random House, 2020.

Underfoot: Skunk Cabbage

By, Susan Sprout

To all warm-blooded mammals reading this article – You undergo a process called “thermogenesis” to create your own body heat. Did you know that Skunk Cabbage is one of the few plant species that does this as well? Tramping along streams in very early spring, especially while snow and frost are still noticeable, you can see the purple and green mottled blossoms of Skunk Cabbage emerging from the cold, hard ground. They are able to because they use some of the carbohydrates they made last year, and stored in their foot-long, six-inch wide central root, to produce the heat energy they use to melt their way upward through the snow and out into the cold air. Their internal furnace can reach up to 60 degrees inside their four to six inch spathe or hooded cover that surrounds the club-shaped flower cluster or spadix. You may remember seeing the word “spathe” in an earlier article describing Green Dragon which is, along with Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Skunk Cabbage, a member of the Arum Family. 

Emerging Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage is a wetland plant that grows near swamps, marshes, and in wet woodlands. It takes five to seven years before a young plant can blossom. In spring, it flowers before its bright green leaves come up and unfurl. Then these plants really become obvious because their big leaves can grow from fifteen to twenty-one inches long and twelve to fifteen inches wide! While walking along Big Run, I found about fifty blossoms starting to emerge. They were in all stages of growth, and some were beginning to leaf out. 

When I pulled the edges of the spathe apart to look inside at the flowers, bunches of gnats and flies came zooming out. They were pollinators attracted by the warm air and stinky, putrescent odor. The name “skunk” is well-deserved in a plant with chemicals like skatole and cadaverine in its tissues to attract pollinators. Not many animals eat the roots, leaves or flowers either except bears in spring (They’ll eat anything.) and snapping turtles – because of the intense burning caused by calcium oxylate crystals found in their tissues. Slugs and snails help break down the dead plant when it dies back and goes dormant in the late summer. 

Hooded spathe surrounding the flower cluster or spadix

This is not a “cabbage” you should eat, although people have eaten it in the past after boiling three times and drying. Its leaves have been used medicinally for skin problems – ulcers, wounds, blisters. Fresh leaves can also cause blisters, too.  I found one reference of root usage in 1708 for treating “suppurating tumors”. 

Leaves starting to grow

This is a pretty hardy plant. but it does not bounce back well from the deforestation and water level changes that accompany clear cutting, agriculture, and development. 

Underfoot – Hairy Bittercress

By Susan Sprout

Hairy bittercress, or Cardamine hirsuta, is flowering right now! Look for them along sidewalks and in lawn edges near shrubs and trees. Depending on the weather and growing conditions, they can be either an annual or a biennial, and may complete two generations in one year. The plants I have been monitoring stayed green and photosynthesizing all winter long, and only had a couple dead leaves showing down under their rosettes of new compound leaves. Growing from seeds that germinated in the fall really gave them a head start flowering in the spring. That’s why there are so many of their tiny, white flowers coming up in my lawn.

Basal rosette growth pattern of lower leaves

Thirteen different species of Cardamine have been found growing in Pennsylvania. Some are native. This one was introduced from Eurasia. They are all members of the Mustard Family, and all have four-petaled flowers shaped like a cross. The family’s name used to be Cruciferae for that reason. In the early 20th century, it was officially changed to Brassicaceae, based on the Latin word for cabbage. I have seen both names being used. Whatever the name, we love to eat them – cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, mustard greens and the condiment created from their seeds, Brussels sprouts, turnips…maybe not. Don’t be put off by the word “bitter” in Hairy bittercress’s name. There is a sharp taste, but it is not really bitter. In fact, its Germanic root word “cresso” means sharp and spicy. About the “hairy” part of its name – there are very few white hairs on the leaves growing up the flower stem. I had to use a magnifier in order to confirm their existence. This plant makes an excellent addition to a lettuce salad, sharp and not hairy.

Note the long, thin seed capsules and smaller leaves on the flower stalk

Another interesting thing I learned about Hairy bittercress is how it seeds. After pollination, the individual flowers will expand upward in thin toothpick- size seed capsules called “siliques”. When they are mature, the seed capsules will open from the bottom upward and forcefully eject their seeds, flinging them out and away from the parent plant. This maneuver is called ballochory. A new word for me. It comes from Greek “ballein” (to throw) and is also part of an old word I know – ballistics. 

Underfoot: Horsetails

By: Susan Sprout

People use the phrase “living fossil” to refer to living organisms that have a close similarity to extinct ones. Members of the same family and genus may have survived rather than the actual species. So it is with Horsetails of the genus Equisetum, the only living genus of the Horsetail Family, Equisetaceae. The fossilized imprints and stems of their Carboniferous progenitors, the sphenophytes, can be found in many of the Pennsylvania coal mines.

Today, way above those underground beds, and in all parts of the world except Australasia, there are fifteen different species of Horsetails living. Seven can be found in Pennsylvania. I have found two of the most common growing nearby. They are Field or Common Horsetail (E. arvense) and Scouring Rush (E. hyemale). They both look so very different from other herbaceous perennials found locally, that I’ve always been attracted by them.

Field Horsetail fertile stem with spore cone and emerging vegetative stem

In early spring, Field Horsetails grow from underground rhizomes, putting out a pink to brown fertile stem with a spore cone at the top. The green spores from it will disperse in the wind shortly before the stem withers. The yearly vegetative stems come next, looking like little trees with naked branches whirling around them similar to the spokes of umbrellas. A gentle stroke of the plant will tell you this plant isn’t a softie! it has a rough, sand-like surface that comes from the same mineral as sand. A mix of silicon dioxide and water from the soil is absorbed by roots and crystallized in the plant’s tissues. It has been observed in all parts of the plant – rhizome, stem, leaf and spores.

Field Horsetail vegetative stems

Yes, there are leaves, though not very obvious. They are projected as tiny teeth, their bottoms fused together as a sheath, making a dark stripe around the hollow stem directly above the branches. Look for Field Horsetails in wet meadows, along dirt roads in the woods (where I found mine), and open meadows.

Scouring Rush with spore cones

Unlike Field Horsetails, Scouring Rush is unbranched and looks like a short bamboo forest when it emerges from the soil. Their jointed, hollow stems have dark bands where the tiny deciduous leaves are growing along them. Each shoot tip has a spore cone that will mature and release its spores to the wind from late spring to early summer. They are pretty hardy and can grow on stream banks (Muncy Creek on Chippewa Road), along railroad embankments, and roadsides. They seem to form colonies that spread a bit each year. 

Scouring Rush beginning to lose their color over winter

Horsetails were useful to many during the exploration and colonization history of the New World. The newcomers brought with them the knowledge of herbal remedies using horsetails that date back to the ancient Greeks and Romans who used the plants to stop bleeding, heal ulcers, and knit wounds. They were probably delighted to see them growing here for their use. The common name Scouring Rush indicates its use as a polishing material because it has the grit of a fine sandpaper. It was good for cleaning pots and pans way before the invention of Brillo pads. In a pinch, I have used them myself on black iron frying pans while camping. Yes, I forgot to pack the Brillo.

Thank you to C&N for your support of conservation!

Underfoot: Honey Locust AKA Thorny Locust

By, Susan Sprout

Take care when walking near this tree – it is armed and may be dangerous! Botanists have indicated that its thorns may be genetic upgrades developed to keep browsing animals from chewing on the bark. Honey locust, with the scientific name of Gleditsia triacanthos, is a member of the Fabaceae or Pea Family, like its close relative found nearby, Redbud, whose magenta flowers will be adorning bare branches soon. It is prettier and less prickly.

close-up of Honey locust thorn

Light-demanding Honey locust trees can be found in wetlands and uplands, too. It is a hardy species, native to states on both sides of the Mississippi and up through West Virginia and into central Pennsylvania. In fact, the USDA Forest Service map showing its spread, actually mirrors the shape of the Muncy “bump,” the geological feature that indicates the end of Bald Eagle Mountain and causes the Susquehanna River to swish around it in  a half-circle. (A much-used visual clue that I use when looking at maps, from there, I know where I am, a short hop to home.) 

I read somewhere that a tree’s trunk is its essential identity. Honey locust’s trunk has ridged and fissured gray-brown bark with thorns growing out of it, up to three inches long. They extend singly and in bunches of three’s up through lower branches. You can see them better at this time of year without leaf cover. Does this indicate that its bark is worse than its bite? And by “bite,” the meaning is clear – the very sweet, honey-flavored “snack” that awaits inside the ripe seed pods. The edible pulp develops between the hard bean seeds in flat and slightly twisted pods that can range in length from eight to sixteen inches long to about an inch wide. Used as food and medicine by many indigenous populations in its range, animals and birds, too, like the sweetness.

notice the rough, fissured bark as well as the thorns 

Do not confuse this tree with mature Black locust tree which has paired spines at the base of each leaf instead of long thorns. It has toxic properties. The Honey locust trees must grow to ten years of age before bearing seeds, with large crops occurring about every other year. They have been found alive up to 125 years old.

Today Honey locust is used as livestock food. Its dense wood is great for fence posts and furniture. Research is being done on its usefulness for treating diseases. A practical use, while camping, hiking, on extended walks – rips in cloth can be held together by thorns, carefully inserted like straight pins!

Thank you to PPL for your support!

Underfoot: Lichens

By Susan Sprout

I like lichens, always have, always will… for lots of amazing reasons that I’d be happy to share with you! First of all, I really enjoy looking at them and studying their diverse shapes and sizes and colors and growth habits and where they grow and uses and, well, everything! Aren’t they lovely to look at, as they decorate tree trunks, upright or fallen? They brighten the dark winter bark, especially after a good wetting – fog, rain, snow – because moisture causes the topmost layer of “skin” to become more transparent, allowing the green algae layer to show through. They aren’t as crispy and brown then.  Think of all the vertical paint they provide on rock faces that you’ve seen along the road. Lichens have special pigments caused by acids (four hundred are known) that provide a variety of colors – reds, oranges, yellows, browns, and of course, the green from algae.

Foliose lichens

Lichens have many different shapes and lifestyles. They are usually described by lichenologists (people who study lichens) as Foliose (flat, leaf-like lobes); Crustose (tightly adhering and crusty);  Fruticose (branching with shrub-like tufts);  Leprose (powdery);  Gelatinous (jelly-like);  Filamentous (stringy, matted hair);  Byssoid (wispy, teased wool);  Structureless. This doesn’t surprise you because you’ve seen them all, right? They are everywhere – from cold Arctic to hot, dry desert – growing on bark, wood, rock, soil, peat, glass, metal, plastic, cloth. They can even be found inside rocks, growing between the grains or mineral crystals. It has been estimated they cover six to eight percent of the earth’s surface, all the while pumping out oxygen for us air-breathers!

Crustose lichens

And that’s a segue to another reason lichens are so wonderfully interesting. They have a mutualistic relationship with algae which grows inside the main body or thallus of the fungus. Both parties benefit, a win-win situation. The fungi benefit from the carbohydrates produced by the algae (and sometimes cyanobacteria) as they photosynthesize to make food for growth AND the algae benefit by being surrounded with fungal filaments that protect and retain moisture for them in harsh environments. If cyanobacteria is present, it can fix atmospheric nitrogen to complement the food making process.  A well-known lichenologist Trevor Goward has written, “Lichens are fungus that have discovered agriculture.”

There maybe upwards from 13,000 to 20,000 different species of lichens in the world, with North America boasting 3,600. Some of them may even have more than one species of fungus and algae on board. They can morph in shape and lifestyles (chimeras). Their long life span and slow, regular growth rate can be used to date events (lichenometry). There are lichens in England with a diameter of 18 to 19 inches that began life in 1195 A.D. and specimens in Sweden that are 187 inches across that may have been alive for 9,000 years. 

Fruticose lichens

Lichens can be used for food, clothing, insulation, colorfast dyes, soft drink colors, extracts in toothpaste, deodorants, salves, fixatives for perfumes, potpourri, and medicines. Modern medical research is verifying many of the old lichen remedies. Supposedly fifty percent of lichens have antibacterial properties. One drawback of ingesting lichens is their higher absorption rate and accumulation of Strontium 90 and Cesium 137 from radioactive fallout, which is anywhere from ten to one hundred times more than most other plants in temperate and northern regions.

Underfoot: Northern White Cedar AKA Arborvitae

By Susan Sprout

You have probably seen a lot of evergreen trees called Arborvitae. It is a name used in the horticulture trade for the more than three hundred cultivars of Thuja occidentalis being sold for wind screens, privacy hedges, ornamentals and such. Did you know that the original, non-genetically modified, non-cross-bred Thuja occidentalis is native to North America, growing wild from the Arctic treeline to the southern Appalacian Mountains of Tennessee? Cool! (They DO actually grow better in places with cooler summers.)There are no known original stands of them in Pennsylvania, and are considered extirpated, which occurred, perhaps, during the lumber boom. There are many different re-imaginings of them growing here now, where people have planted all sorts of varieties – by their houses, in cemeteries and parks. Enough that some have become naturalized.

The closed green female cones of a September Arborvitae are beginning to dry and turn brown.

Arborvitae is not a true cedar, but a member of the Cypress Family, CUPRESSACEAE, that contains junipers, bald cypress, northern and Atlantic white cedars. Arborvitae’s scale-like leaves are flat against the fan-like, horizontal branches on which they grow. The tree’s trunk and large branches are light, reddish-brown with easily shredded bark. They are naturally adapted to wet forests, but grow on upland alkaline limestone soils as well.  Often stunted in less favorable locations, this tree can slowly grow up to sixty feet tall and live for fifty to one hundred fifty years. One of the oldest trees in Eastern North America is an Arborvitae that is alive and well and living in Southern Ontario at the ripe old age of 1,316! They have the amazing ability to keep growing when parts of them have been killed or damaged. It also helps when they live on cliffs away from deer who strip their green branches for winter browse. 

The open and empty, woody female cones of a December Arborvitae. The tiny male cones can be seen on the very tips of branches. Look for a tan coloration.

In 1588, this tree received the common name “arbre de vie” or Arborvitae – “Tree of Life” – because it was so helpful in preventing and treating Scorbut (scurvy), the winter illness from which many French sailors and explorers in the New World died. We know today that the leaf and bark teas made from the green Arborvitae twigs hold healing amounts of vitamin C and several essential amino acids. Externally, the leaf oil distilled from twigs is antibacterial and antiviral. Research and experimentation are on-going. The lightweight wood of Arborvitae splits easily and is used for poles, shingles, cross-ties and posts. It is very rot resistant. This fact maybe another reason for the longer lives of The Trees of Life.