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Underfoot: Staghorn Sumac

By: Sue Sprout

Whether it is pronounced “soo-mack” or “shoo-mack”; whether it is known as Velvet Sumac, Staghorn Sumac, or scientifically as Rhus typhina; whether people call it a tall shrub or a  small tree – it is what it is! And, it is a native (to Eastern N.A.), non-poisonous, deciduous, furry-limbed plant with amazing pyramid-shaped, hairy, red seed heads that stay on during the winter months to provide food for over 30 species of birds and small mammals. Whew! I feel like that should do it. Alas, I suspect some explanation is required.

What’s in a name? The fact that historically leaves and fruits were boiled to make black dye used in tanning leather and a waxy substance used for shining shoes may explain the “shoo-mack” pronunciation.

Deer antlers, as they develop, are covered by a nourishing layer of skin covered with short hairs (the velvet) and small blood vessels that carry the nutrients and minerals for growing bone. The trunk and stems of this plant are covered with short, soft hairs with a furry touch like velvet that resemble the growing antlers of deer. Thus, the use of the common names Staghorn Sumac and Velvet Sumac.

Notice the halo effect created by fine hairs on stem edges as the light hits them.

The species name typhina refers to deer antlers. The name Rhus refers to the whole genus of sumacs (about 35 kinds worldwide) where they are all members of the ANACARDIACEAE or Cashew family, along with some other plants you may recognize: pistachios, cashews, mangos, poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. Here is where the sad fact of misidentification or misnaming becomes apparent. There is another plant commonly named Poison Sumac that has smooth bark and white berries as seeds that hang down under the leaves. It is found growing in wetter areas than our Staghorn likes (most of the time). It is in a different genus grouping known as Toxicodendron along with its itchy relatives. Do you see the word “toxic” in their family name? None of them contain a poison, but rather, a very potent allergen that makes susceptible people who touch their leaves, stems or roots, get a contact dermatitis. Our Staghorn Sumac is non-poisonous.

Closeup of seed reveals seeds covered by tiny red hairs.

Look for Staghorn Sumacs along the backroads you travel, with large seed clusters sticking up above where their leaves used to be. These trees are deciduous and shed their leaves in the fall. Sometimes the smaller shrubs in the colonies formed by their spreading roots will retain their bright yellow, orange or red leaves longer. If you get a chance, look at the seeds. In June and July, hundreds to thousands of small yellow to greenish five-petaled flowers attracted many bees, wasps and beetles that spread their pollen around to create these big red clusters of hairy seeds. Look at them with a magnifier. Tiny red Muppets.

Medicinally, the seeds of this plant were removed from their stems and soaked like sun tea until the water turned red as the ascorbic acid in the red hairs seeped out, then strained through cloth so people didn’t actually drink the red hairs (or the bugs that lived in or among them). It was administered as a “refrigerant” or a cooling drink to those suffering from heat problems. It is bitter like lemonade without the sugar. This beverage was used a lot in hospitals during the Civil War. Back as far as 2000 years, Sumac was noted for its medicinal properties as a diuretic.

Silhouettes of Staghorn Sumac seed heads against the sky.

“Summaq” is an Arabic word for dark red. I use a spice mixture called Za’atar when I cook Middle Eastern dishes. The red berries of a species of Summaq that grows on the high plateaus of the Mediterranean region are ground and mixed with thyme and other herbs to provide a tartness that brings out the flavor of foods it is cooked with. BTW, the Emperor Nero used it as an anti-flatulent. TMI?

Susan Sprout is an environmental educator and long-time, loyal member of NPC. Learn more about the author here.

Underfoot: King Philip Came Over For Good Spaghetti *

(A mnemonic for remembering Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species)

By Susan Sprout

Remember learning this sentence in Life Science class? It was used to help students remember the various steps in the Linnaean Classification System developed in the 18th century and used to group organisms together based on the body structures they shared. Wow, has this system evolved since then as advanced knowledge and technology became available to help biologists do a better job of it!

Let us look at the “Phillip” word – PHYLUM. It is the name given to a major group of animals or plants that share important characteristics which set them apart from all the other plants and animals. For example, Phylum Mollusca. Mollusks are soft-bodied animals without backbones. Two unique body parts are their radula, a flexible toothed “tongue” used to rasp (like a file) food into their digestive tracts and their mantles, organs that create protective shells of calcium carbonate. There are roughly 80,000 different kinds of mollusks living today. We need to add 100,000 to that total if we count all the mollusk fossils that have lived and died out for the last 500 million years.

We do not need to visit a sandy beach near the ocean to find mollusks because we have them right here in Pennsylvania! I was able to photograph two different kinds of mollusks – a snail, having a shell, and a slug, that does not grow a shell on the outside of its body. Pennsylvania has over 100 SPECIES (“Spaghetti” word) of land snails and slugs and 63 species of freshwater snails at last count. Biologists have completed population samples of snails and slugs in some of the wild places in this state.

Snail on the sidewalk measured about an inch across its shell

Land snails and slugs make short work of dead and alive (sadly, for gardeners) plant matter. Their bodies return nutrients in the items they eat to the environment quickly, recycling them for others to absorb and use. The muscular body part that gets them around is called a “foot.” Its cells exhude mucus that smooths their travels over the sharp or scratchy things they encounter and helps them stick fast as they climb. Dried, it becomes a shiny trail used to locate other snails and slugs. It was a shiny trail that called my attention to the comings and goings of the snail I photographed and simply followed to find where it was hiding under a leaf. On their heads, snails and slugs have four tentacles, two longer ones that have eyes at their tips and two shorter ones under them for catching scent. Their eye parts, like ours (retina, lens, optic nerve), help them respond to light or movement as well as see in front of them. They have both male and female reproductive organs in their bodies and, according to some resources, can lay 500 eggs per year.

Slug on a piece of wet paper. They can elongate their bodies to slip through tiny holes. Notice the mucus behind its tail.

Snails and slugs can play roles as pollinators when the fragrant smell of flowers lures them in. When they eat fungus, they dispense spores. They provide food sources for predators – birds, raccoons, insects, voles.  They are decomposers that provide nutrients through their scat and their bodies when they die. Their shells are an important source of calcium for other animals. They are considered important environmental indicators and biodiversity predictors that may well play a role in monitoring the changing climate.

*Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species


By Susan Sprout

Dwarf Crested Iris (Iris cristata) is a spring-blooming, native plant growing from Pennsylvania to Georgia and west to Oklahoma. A member of the Iridaceae or Iris Family, which is named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow, it is considered an herbaceous perennial. “Herbaceous” because its soft, green stem does not become woody and dies back after the growing season. “Perennial” because it has a life cycle longer than two years. These plants grow from underground rhizomes and keep spreading to form dense colonies. Listed as “Endangered” in Maryland and Pennsylvania, it is a wonderful plant to find growing wild or in a good friend’s wild garden, having been purchased from a native plant nursery several years before!

This bud is ready to open and reveal a Dwarf Crested Iris.

The pale blue to violet flowers, even white occasionally, may resemble those of the tall Bearded Iris, but low to the ground, only four to six inches tall or even a little taller under the right growing conditions. Their choice of natural growing conditions where they have been found growing seem rather eclectic – oak woodlands, rocky hillsides, mountain ledges, wooded ravines, near streambanks, well-drained slopes, rich humus, peaty acid soil, alkaline soil, partial sun to partial shade. See what I mean about eclectic? These little beauties appear to like living everywhere, but just not with too much of a good thing! They are heat-tolerant if our climate gets hotter here. Several resources cited that this iris is even deer-tolerant. Hmmm, and several did not.

Part of a naturalized patch of tiny iris beginning to bloom.

The lovely flowers of Dwarf Crested Iris bloom locally during April and May, usually with one per stalk. They are only about three inches wide. Three downward-curved sepals each have a yellowish-white band of hairs called a beard at their center from the middle to the base. That is the “crest” you find in its common name and the species name cristata. About six to eight weeks after flowering, a three-sided seed capsule will appear. It will take two to three years for seedlings to have stored enough energy in order to bloom. This iris seems to spread faster vegetatively with its rhizomes.

What we wait for each spring, the blue flower with its fancy crests.

It is spring planting time. Think about getting some of these little beauties. They would make great groundcover, perhaps in the shaded area of a rock garden or naturalizing under a tree somewhere on your property.


By Susan Sprout

In the Pennsylvania Wilds, growing in my favorite bog are Cranberries! It may seem odd that I am writing about them “out of season,” since they become mostly red and ready for picking in the fall and for eating at Thanksgiving and Christmas times. Who thinks about fresh cranberries in the spring? I do!

Wild cranberry plants with leaves that will green up as spring proceeds

Originally they were known as “craneberries” because the shape of their male reproductive organs, or stamens, tended to resemble a crane’s beak. Wild cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) are native here as well as large areas of Canada and Northeastern United States, southward to Tennessee and North Carolina. Cultivars created from wild species are grown commercially in artificial ponds. The top five states in cranberry production are Massachusetts, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Washington.

Cranberry fruit showing bottom side

Cranberries are members of the Heath Family, Ericaceae, along with locally known plants like huckleberries, teaberries, azaleas, laurels, and rhododendrons which all typically grow in acid soils. Cranberries seem to do well in acid soils in wet, peaty, seepy places – like my favorite bog! I visit there several times a year and have written blogs about five plants found growing in it. Never have I visited in March, until this year…and discovered red berries snuggled down in their brownish-purply, copper winter foliage. I tasted some of the berries left over from last fall and found they do not get any sweeter after freezing like rosehips do. Very tart or sour.

Cranberry plants nestled in with sphagnum and dewberry leaves

Why did I never notice them growing there before? I think they kind of blended in with the sphagnum mosses and dewberries trailing over the ground there.  And they do trail, their wiry stems forming dense masses. Cranberries have small oval leaves growing along stems that spread horizontally for a bit, then curve upward. Their tiny flowers with four backward pointing petals open in late June to form a pinkish-white carpet, ready for pollination by bees, and to create fruit ready for picking in September through November. Also in late summer, new terminal buds begin to form for next year’s crop of berries. They will require a period of dormancy in order to successfully produce flowers and fruit. They must undergo a sufficient period of cold temperatures and short daylight hours called “chill hours” during the winter months in order to break dormancy and open in mid-summer of the next year to start the blooming process all over again. If you count the months, you will see that it takes them from fourteen to sixteen months to produce berries. Hopefully the geographical range where the optimal conditions occur will not shrink due to climate change!

We love our cranberries – rich in Vitamin C and antioxidants! Cranberries, according to NIH National Library of Medicine, can prevent tooth decay, gum disease, inhibit urinary tract infections, reduce inflammation in the body, maintain a healthy digestion system and decrease cholesterol levels. Check out The Cranberry Institute for more information about these powerful little fruits!


By Susan Sprout

Don’t you just love the spring? Migratory birds passing thru or staying, plants poking up, leaf and flower buds plumping and ready to pop! I cannot help getting excited at the birth and regrowth of the plants and trees here in Northcentral Pennsylvania. My curiosity about plants, their names, and lifestyles (how they live and survive) doesn’t just stop when I leave Pennsylvania. Oh, no, it probably gets worse – so many new ones to discover when traveling! I would like to introduce you to a new one with the remarkable “super power” of greening up again after being dried up and crunchy.

Dehydrated Resurrection Ferns on tree bark

Appropriately named, Resurrection Fern (Pleopeltis polypoidioides) is one of as many as 1300 different species of plants that can tolerate extreme desiccation of their tissues during the absence of rainfall, full-blown droughts, or totally freezing. New studies are identifying more of them. Researchers will undoubtedly continue learning from these plants’ genetic make-up how the molecules they create in normal growth are used against dehydration-induced stress. With fluctuating weather patterns creating changes that damage many food crops, knowledge of how the sugars and lipids of resurrection plants keep them alive and growing may be useful in some way. One protein, dehydrin, allows for the folding up of cell walls in a way that can be easily reversed.

Check out the difference of the rehydrated frond between two dried ones

The Resurrection Ferns I found were a grey-brown, curled-up mass on the huge spreading branches of a Live Oak In Fort Myers, Florida. They are called epiphytes or “air plants” and live on tree bark in the south, starting in Virginia. They are not considered parasitic because they get their nutrients for growth from dust and rainwater on the outside of the tree bark. Sometimes, lichens and moss colonize tree branches first before the tiny air-born spores of the fern move in and start to grow. Careful not to detach the whole plant, I pulled off three dead-looking fronds for a closer look and decided to experiment with one of them by placing it in a bowl of water. Checking throughout the day as the frond slowly unfurled, I noticed that the undersides of it had been curled up over the top, exposing them first to any rainwater. Smart! After being in water overnight, it was totally back to its soft, green fern leaf self. You can see the results on the photo I took.

This species of Resurrection Fern is a neotropical native of the warmer parts of the Americas and southern Africa. It does not grow in Pennsylvania currently. It did and it may again, but not at this time.

Fossil remains have been found dating it back to about 300 million years ago. One reference called its existence “a triumph of adaptive evolution.” It can tolerate the loss of 95% of its cellular water content and exist that way for many years, then be back to normal after a few hours of rehydration. Amazing! 


By Susan Sprout

The sunny and bright-blue Thursday afternoon last week had me convinced – spring had sprung! Exploring creekside to see which plants were erupting from sand tucked around the beach rocks, I was amazed and delighted by an aerial bombardment of the riffles there. Yes! And I made all the appropriate vocalizations to go along with that surprising display – a downward “eeeerow” and an explosive “bsssh” when contact was made with the water’s surface! Hundreds of tiny female insects were diving, submerging, and letting go of yellowish egg sacs emerging from their backsides. Had to find out more about them.

A Rolled-wing Stonefly casts her shadow on a warm rock.

I already knew about types of insects that live underwater because I have tied flies for fishing that mimicked various forms of “aquatic” insects. They live, eating and changing through their life stages, sometimes for several years, before they swim or crawl or fly out of the water all grown up and ready to mate. Obviously, the ones I saw had completed that last step and were seeding the creek with the next generation. For a while, I thought maybe the flights were a kamikaze-type with no survivors. Soon after, as I kept watching, the flying insects became swimming insects, landing on shore to sit on rocks in the sun. Were they resting before the next flight or had they completed their missions and would die there? Time for photos!

Check out the rounded wing edges on the stonefly on the right.

It turns out those ten to twenty millimeter long insects are (or were) members of the Leuctridae Family of Stoneflies. This family consists of over 390 species found on all continents of the Northern Hemisphere. So tiny! Their slender transparent wings didn’t just fold across each other down their backs to lie flat, but were cylindrical and appeared to wrap around the sides of their bodies. They are commonly known as Rolled-wing Stoneflies, also Needleflies or Willowflies. Adults develop in early spring unlike some other kinds of stoneflies that make their transitions later in the spring and summer. The adults I saw looked light-colored in the air as they flited toward the creek from their resting places on nearby tree branches. Once on the rocks, they appeared dark brown or black with their wing veins showing nicely.

I have never seen the yellow-colored larval forms of Rolled-wing Stoneflies. Illustrations show they are very thin for slithering between layers of leaves piled up underwater. They are considered “shredding detritivores” because they pull apart decaying leaves and gather nutrients that grow upon them, like fungus, algae, and bacteria. I have touched leaves submerged for long periods of time and found them covered with a slippery film. That must be what the larvae eat.

The adults are not very strong fliers according to some resources. I was able to snatch one out of the air as she flew by me. That was when I looked under her wings and discovered the egg sac on her backside!

Underfoot: RuBisCO – An Enzyme We Can Count On!

By Susan Sprout

The great enjoyment I get by writing this plant blog is sometimes overshadowed by the amazing things I learn while doing it:  how plants grow and where, their uses over time, their development and evolution. Questions always appear in my mind that make me want to dig a little deeper. So I jot them down, making lists of ideas, quotes, plant names to look into later. RuBisCO was one I wrote down last year – what is it? What’s it do? Why do we need it?

Chickweed – still going strong in February

RuBisCO is an enzyme, a special class of protein that speeds up the rate of a specific chemical reaction in a cell and can be used over and over without being destroyed. Its full chemical name is Ribulose Bisphosphate Carboxylase/Oxygenase and is found in ALL green photosynthesizing plants, algae, and certain kinds of bacteria in the whole world. It may have evolved over 2.4 billion years ago before the Great Oxygenation Event when cyanobacteria transformed the earth’s atmosphere by producing oxygen through photosynthesis (Science News, UC Davis 8/31/20).

Root veggies from Plantsgiving thanks to RuBisCO!

I began my search with “photosynthesis” and found out that carbon, C numbered 6 on the Periodic Table of Elements, is a main building block of proteins, fats, muscles, DNA, carbohydrates (sugars, starches, cellulose). It constitutes about 18% of the human body mass, not in pure form, but in millions of carbon atoms that form thousands of molecules in just about every one of our cells (maybe 25 pounds worth in an adult) AND the cells of all living organisms on this planet.

Carbon sinks in PA forest. One survived a lightning strike.

But how does carbon get inside us? It is an inorganic element that is locked in minerals like coal, or in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Living things cannot absorb and use it in those forms, unless the carbon is changed into an organic form. Well, that is, except for photoautotrophs – organisms that are able to use the energy of sunlight and inorganic carbon to produce organic carbon in their tissues. RuBisCO is found in all of the lovely green leaves of plants, in the millions of cells that contain chloroplasts containing chlorophyll. There, using carbon dioxide that comes into leaves by way of tiny pores, AND water from plant tissues, AND light energy from sunlight, organic carbon is created by complex chemical reactions in the form of glucose or other sugars that are used as food or stored and oxygen as a by-product that is “exhaled” by the leaves. When the sun shines, the plants make food. Is that neat – created by life… for life!

We can count on RuBisCO to continue on making food for plants and trees and animals, including us. There’s a lot of other “counting” going on in regards to the amounts of carbon being removed from the atmosphere by all the plants and trees. USFS has reported that the photosynthesis done in American forests sequesters over 800 million tons of carbon per year. The trees themselves are considered a carbon sink because wood is made up of about 50% carbon.  At this point in OUR evolutionary history, we need every carbon sink we can get!!

Underfoot:  Sphagnum Moss

By Susan Sprout

It’s Sphagnum Moss, for Pete’s sake! And when it has been decayed and dried, it is called “peat moss.” I found some, alive and well, growing in quite a few places in my lawn and wondered if living on what used to be an old creek bank had anything to do with the moss’s being comfortable (successful and expanding) there. I found out that some species of sphagnum do grow in small patches in drier conditions, getting required moisture from local rainfall. But mostly, they live in wet bogs, coniferous forests, and moist tundra. There may be as many as 380 species growing worldwide. Peat bogs occur in almost every country of the world and on all of the continents, where they account for nearly half of the world’s wetlands. With some ranging as deep as fifty feet, bogs cover 3% of the world’s surface. According to various resources, they can store an amazing 30% to 44% of the earth’s soil carbon.

Sphagnum in my yard

Sphagnum mosses are a true moss (Phylum Bryophyta) that have no internal vessels for carrying water or nutrients, and are therefore limited in height. At the top of a plant is a dense cluster of young leafy branches. Small leaves that gather a majority of the plant’s energy do not have a mid-rib. They are made up of two kinds of cells – small, living, green ones that photosynthesize and larger, structural dead cells that have a huge water holding ability. Sphagnum can hold from sixteen to twenty-five times its dry weight, depending on the species.

Recent close-up of Sphagnum plants

Sphagnum is also non-flowering and reproduces by spores that form in capsules about a half inch above the ground. When matured and dried, the built-up tension within the capsule blows the lid off, dispersing minute spores (50 microns) in a vortex ring that travels at a speed of twelve feet per second. The donut-shaped spore cloud, similar to the smoke rings produced by cannon fire and cigar smokers, has been verified by high-speed photography to carry them upwards to heights of four to eight inches. Just what they need in order to catch the breeze for a good, long flight! On landing, the spores produce tiny, thread-like filaments that will bud and grow into more leafy moss plants. The plants especially in bogs can also reproduce by fragmentation. When a person or an animal slogs through, breaking apart the mosses and distributing the pieces, they float away and keep on growing. New plants eventually bury old plants. The acidic and watery and low oxygen conditions slow down the process of decomposition of the dead plants that keep being pushed down and compacted by what is growing above. Layer after layer of this slow buildup creates peat moss at the rate of about a millimeter a year. Carbon from the atmosphere captured and locked into the sphagnum’s tissues by photosynthesis makes peat bogs the largest terrestrial store of carbon in the world. The opposite occurs, of course, when people mine, drain, and dig up the peat bogs which have taken thousands of years to form. It adds a whopping two billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which is 5% of the carbon total yearly.

A red species of sphagnum growing in a conifer forest in Sullivan County

Peat bogs provide habitat for a wide variety of peatland plants that like acidic living conditions – wild orchids, carnivorous plants, huckleberries, cranberries, as well as for plants that need a stable and dependable water supply like black spruce and hemlock seedlings. Turtles, frogs, insects, birds, benefit, as well. Twigs of acid-loving shrubs that grow in or near the bogs provide browse for deer, rabbits, and moose in the north. Muskrats and beavers and their predators visit, too. In the United States, about one-third of the country’s endangered and threatened species live in wetlands such as bogs. With low rates of decay, botanists and scientists that study weather patterns can look at preserved plant fragments and pollen to figure out past environments.

For more information, please check out the following:
            World Wetlands Day instituted by the United Nations, and celebrated every February 2nd. (I should have written this article two weeks ago.)
             SWAMP Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program, a joint program through the Center for International Forestry Research, US Forest Service, Michigan Tech and Oregon State University.

Underfoot: Sprucing up the Blog – Norway Spruce

By Susan Sprout

No pun intended! Recent photos of snow-decorated Norway Spruce inspired me to learn more about them. And I did! I first checked the etymology of the word “spruce” and discovered it was an alteration of “Pruce” or Prussia known as “Spruceland.” Evidently, they must have had a lot of European Spruce growing there. Masts of sailing ships were made from their large, straight trunks, and the best ones came from Prussia.

Norway Spruces on a snowy day

Prussia also had a great reputation for its leather goods. Folks in the 1400’s wearing fine leather jerkins or jackets made in Prussia were considered “All spruced up.” You can just imagine how that comment traveled and morphed in definition through the centuries to “looking neat and trim.”

Drooping lower branches that have died

There seem to be a lot of Norway Spruces in our area. In the 1930’s, one hundred million were planted by the Civilian Conservation Core as reforestation projects all across the vast open areas of the northeast that had been denuded by various lumber barons’ business practices. Since then, many more have been planted as shade trees, shelter belts for wind protection, Christmas trees, and as plantations for lumber and pitch. There are more than one hundred and fifty different cultivars of Norway Spruce, many of them dwarfs for landscaping, when someone doesn’t want a hundred-foot tree in the yard.

Ground litter showing cones before and after squirrel munching

Norway Spruce (Picea abies) is an evergreen and cone-bearing member of the Pine Family, along with larches, firs, hemlocks, Douglas firs, and pines. It is not a native tree here, nor is it native to Norway as its name suggests. This species of spruce originated in Eurasia, the Black Forest, and other parts of the European continent way before moving into what is now the Kingdom of Norway, sometime around 500 BC, where it became the National Tree. Of the thirty-five species of spruce found in the northern temperate and boreal regions on earth, it is the most commonly planted tree in North America and Europe.

The growth habits of Norway Spruce can help with its identification – living in the deep woods or in town. Seedlings are fast growers during their first twenty-five years under good conditions, which would be humid and cool with moist soil. They have a striking pyramid-shaped crown of spreading branches which thins out as it ages. Twigs droop, and lower branches can dip to touch the ground, then tend to die off. The evergreen needles are four-sided, stiff, and sharply pointed (painfully sharp). The young twigs and needles of light green spring tips can be used to make Spruce beer and tea which can prevent and even cure scurvy caused by the lack of vitamin C. The bark is a scaly reddish-brown and exudes a very, very sticky resin called “pitch.” That characteristic gave this tree its scientific genus name Picea from the Latin “pix.” Seed production begins after thirty to fifty years of growth, in a life that can reach three hundred years in its natural range. Pollen-bearing pinkish male flowers are clustered along the stems. Green female cones are upright until they become pollinated, then hang down as they ripen and turn brown. Their mature cylindrical cones are the largest of all the spruces, averaging between four and six inches long. And red squirrels love to gnaw through the triangle- shaped scales of the cones and eat the protein-rich winged seeds inside.

As you can imagine, the wood harvested from Norway Spruce has many uses, from lumber to wood pulp. A  particularly interesting one is its use as tonewood in the crafting of musical instruments. Its stiff, but light, wood is good for soundboards because it gives a brighter sound vibration in violins, mandolins, guitars, harpsichords, and pianos. Its reddish-brown resin when purified is made into varnish, especially for those violins and other string instruments.


By Sue Sprout

Greater Celandine plant

Greater Celandine or Swallowwort is a biennial plant of the Poppy Family, Papaveraceae. It is not looking so great right now. Winter is upon us. However, I must say, when I took its photo, Celandine’s rosette of basal leaves had a measurement of twenty inches across, and that’s just from its first year of growth. It is green which means it may still be photosynthesizing during warm spells of full sun when moist air surrounds it. Not bad, indeed. And when you look closely at the light green center of the plant from which the somewhat hairy lobed leaves are growing, you can see where its “greatness” will spring from…in spring. At that time, the plant will put up a flower stem one to two feet tall with lovely four-petaled yellow flowers. This growth spurt would occur about the same time as the swallows began returning on migration to Celandine’s native lands of Eurasia and North Africa. That is why it has the scientific name Chelidonium majus – because the Greek word for swallow is “chelidon”. It flourished in spring when the swallows returned and withered when they departed.

Hairy stem and leaflet backs

Celandine’s range in North America is from N.E. Canada to N. Georgia and west to Missouri. It was probably introduced to this continent by early English settlers in New England, thanks to the Romans who brought it to Britain with them when they invaded. All that transporting from place to place was due primarily to its medicinal qualities. Considering Celandine is in the same family as Opium Poppies, there are many unwanted side effects and reactions. Celandine’s plant juice is a toxic bright yellow-orange latex which contains alkaloids that can cause irritating rashes or allergic reactions in some people when they get it on their skin. This is funny because in earlier times, it was used for removing warts and freckles, eczema and ringworm. Since the juice resembled bile, a fluid made by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, doctors in the Middle Ages used it to treat liver disorders like jaundice and gallstones. Today we know using Celandine plant parts may actually cause liver problems. AND, it is poisonous to chickens!

Amazing Celandine roots and yellow-orange latex from inside them

The seeds of Celandine have fleshy structures attached to them that are rich in fatty acids and proteins, called “elaiosomes”. When the dry seed capsules break apart and drop them to the ground, the seeds act like ant baits. The ants quickly transport the seeds to their nests so that their larvae can eat up all of the lipids and proteins. Yum! The seeds, not so much. They go to a waste disposal area where they are discarded among the dead bodies and frass (ant poop). And there, they germinate – away from the parent plant with no competition for nutrients, water, light. This is an example of mutualism, a win-win situation where both the ants and the plants benefit. As many as 35% of herbaceous plants in Eastern North American forests make seeds with the fatty acid and protein structure on them. Many of the spring plants I have written about in the last two years have used this method of getting their seeds distributed. To name a few: bloodroot, Dutchmen’s Breeches, species of violets, wild ginger, and trout lily.