Archive for the 'Plants' Category

Aug 28 2016

A Close Look at Wingstem

Published by under Plants

Wingstem flowers (photo by Kate St. John)

Wingstem flowers (photo by Kate St. John)

From a distance the flower head on wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) looks like a pin cushion or a sea urchin dog-ball.

Close up you can see that each “spike” is a small flower with a pistil that splits in two curls at the top.

Wingstem flowers, closer and sharper (photo by Kate St. John)

Wingstem flowers, closer and sharper (photo by Kate St. John)

How fancy!

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 27 2016

Slender Ladies’ Tresses

Published by under Plants

Slender ladies tresses at Marcy Cunkelman's (photo by Kate St. John)

Slender ladies tresses at Marcy Cunkelman’s (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s an orchid that’s blooming now in western Pennsylvania.

Slender ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes lacera) grow in open habitats in eastern North America.  They’re found in both natural and disturbed areas.

Marcy Cunkelman was mowing when she saw two of these flowers growing among the grass.  Wow!  She stopped the mower and protected them with stakes and bright pink ribbon.

Dianne Machesney’s photo below shows that the entire plant isn’t very large and could easily be overlooked in the grass.

Slender ladies' tresses (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Slender ladies’ tresses (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Without the pink ribbon it really blends in.

 

(photos by Kate St.John and Dianne Machesney)

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Aug 23 2016

Balm For A Horse?

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Horse balm in bloom (photo by Kate St. John)

Horse balm in bloom (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s a tall woodland plant that’s easy to overlook because its flowers aren’t big and beautiful.

Horse balm (Collinsonia canadensis) is a perennial mint that grows 1.75 to 5 feet tall in deep woods.  Even in the middle of its blooming cycle it looks ragged with flowers in every stage of development from bud to bloom, from fade to seed.

Closeup of horse balm flowers (photo by Kate St. John)

Closeup of horse balm flowers (photo by Kate St. John)

At very close range the flowers are fancy tubes with lips and protruding stamens (click here to see). You’ll also notice that the plant smells like cheap lemon scent, giving it the alternate name cintronella horse balm.

The name “balm” comes from its medicinal properties described at eNature: “Tea can be brewed from the leaves, and the rhizome was formerly used as a diuretic, tonic, and astringent.”

But why is it horse balm?

I haven’t found horses mentioned anywhere in the literature about this plant.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 20 2016

Bird’s-Eye View

Published by under Plants

Orange jewelweed (photo by Kate St. John)

Orange jewelweed (photo by Kate St. John)

The color and shape of orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) are specially designed for hummingbird pollination.

“Hello, hummingbird,” says the flower. “Come on in!”

 

p.s. Curious about the design?  Click here to read more.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 16 2016

Inside The Lanterns

Published by under Plants

Flower and fruit of Ground cherry (photo by Kate St. John)

Flower and fruit of Ground cherry (photo by Kate St. John)

“What is this?”

That’s what I said to myself when I saw this plant at Moraine State Park in early August.  The leaves resemble tomato or green pepper leaves but the lantern seed pods were new to me.

It looks festive, doesn’t it?

Smooth ground cherry plant (photo by Kate St. John)

Ground cherry plant (photo by Kate St. John)

It reminds me of Chinese lanterns.

Newcomb’s Wildlfower Guide keys this out to Ground Cherry (Physalis) with a choice of three species.   The leaf shape is wrong for clammy ground cherry and the stems and leaves aren’t downy so it must be smooth ground cherry (P. subglabrata, now P. longifolia).

Well, maybe. There are a lot of native ground cherries in the Americas — 46 species in Mexico alone. The extent of maroon inside the flower may give a hint. Physalis longifolia var. subglabrata is as close as I can get.

Inside the dangling Ground cherry flower (photo by Kate St. John)

Inside the dangling Ground cherry flower (photo by Kate St. John)

What I do know is that when the paper lantern dries the fruit is edible, though everything else about the plant is poisonous including the paper husk.

The fruit looks like a tiny tomato.  (click here to see.)  Its close relative, P. philadelphica, is cultivated for tomatillos.

Perhaps I’ll go back this fall to see the tomatoes inside the lanterns.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 09 2016

A Plant With a Place in American History

Published by under Plants

American Groundnut flowers, August 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

American Groundnut flowers, August 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

These mauve-brown flowers aren’t big and showy but they have a place in American history.

American groundnut (Apios americana) is a perennial vine in eastern North America with tuberous roots that are good to eat.  Many Native American tribes cultivated the plant, dug the roots and ate them like potatoes. The Lenape people called them “hobbenis” or hopniss.

Flower and leaves of American groundnut (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Flower and leaves of American groundnut (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When Europeans arrived in North America they knew nothing of the plant but learned quickly from the natives to avoid starvation.  The Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims where to find it and how to cook it.  It was probably on the menu at the first Thanksgiving.

Here’s what a freshly dug harvest looks like:

Tubers ("potatoes") of American groundnut (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Tubers of American groundnut (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Europeans took hopniss back to the Old World and tried raising it as a crop, but the projects were soon abandoned because Apios americana doesn’t grow well in monocultures and it isn’t large enough to harvest until it’s two to three years old.

More recently the wild foods community has rediscovered hopniss but its desire to grow with other plants — and engulf them — is frustrating to tidy gardeners.

This month is a good time to see American groundnut in the wild.

It’s blooming now in western Pennsylvania.

 

Note:  If you decide to forage for this plant get permission from the landowner before you begin.  This goes for public lands too. For instance, it is illegal to take flowers, plants and animals from Pittsburgh City parks and Allegheny County parks.

(flower photo by Kate St. John. Remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals.)

 

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Aug 07 2016

Wear Gloves

Published by under Plants

Arrowleaf tearthumb, flower (photo by Kate St. John)

Arrowleaf tearthumb, flower (photo by Kate St. John)

Don’t pick this flower unless you wear gloves.

Arrowleaf tearthumb (Polygonum sagittatum) is a sprawling annual vine in the Buckwheat family that grows in moist areas.  Individual plants are three to six feet long but you’d have to untangle them to prove it.  I don’t recommend doing that.

The stems are lined with tiny hooks that bend toward the root of the plant.  If you pull the plant with your bare hands … Owww!  It tears your thumb.

Arrowleaf tearthumb: the hooks (photo by Kate St.John)

Arrowleaf tearthumb: the hooks (photo by Kate St.John)

 

We found arrowleaf tearthumb at Jennings Prairie yesterday.  The flowers are quite small so it’s easy to overlook.  Here’s my thumb near the stem to give you some perspective.

Arrowleaf tearthumb: the stem and my thumb (photo by Kate St. John)

Arrowleaf tearthumb: the stem with a thumb nearby (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Remember to wear gloves.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

 

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Aug 02 2016

Come to Jennings Prairie, August 6

Published by under Books & Events,Plants

Culvers root and tall sunflowers at Jennings Prairie, August 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Culvers root and tall sunflowers at Jennings Prairie, August 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Every year the Wissahickon Nature Club holds a late summer outing at Jennings Environmental Education Center to enjoy the wide variety of wildflowers that grow on the prairie.

This year the outing will remember our late president Chuck Tague who passed away in June.

Chuck Tague in 2011 (photo by Marianne Atkinson)

What: Wissahickon Nature Club outing led by Dianne Machesney

When: Saturday, August 6, 10:00am

Where: Jennings Environmental Education Center, also called Jennings Prairie, Butler County.  Directions From Pittsburgh: 79N to 422E roughly 5.8 miles to 528N. Go 7 miles. Meet in the Jennings Prairie parking lot on the left (west) side of the road.

Bring binoculars, field guides, lunch, beverages and water for the trail. The Prairie is hot and shadeless. Wear a hat and sunscreen.

This walk is open to the public. All are welcome and encouraged to bring a friend.

We’re sure to see Culvers root, tall sunflowers, dense blazing star and purple fringed orchids.  And though we’ll focus on flowers, Wissahickon is a “general” nature club so we’ll look at everything that strikes our fancy — flowers, birds, butterflies and all.

Click on the links above to read more about the flowers.

 

(photo at Jennings by Kate St. John, photo of Chuck Tague in 2011 by Marianne Atkinson)

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Jul 31 2016

A Coralroot With Many Names

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Striped or summer coralroot (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Spotted coralroot blooming, July 2016 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Now blooming in western Pennsylvania, Corallrhiza maculata is an orchid with many common names:
Spotted coralroot, Speckled coral root, Summer coralroot, Large coralroot, Many-flowered coralroot, and Western coralroot.

The names describe the plant:

  • Its flower lip is spotted or speckled
  • It blooms in the summer, July and August
  • It’s large compared to other coralroots: 8-20 inches high with flowers 1/2 to 3/4 inches long
  • It has many flowers, up to 40 per plant, and …
  • It has a wide distribution that includes the U.S. West.

You’ll notice that none of the names include a color.  That’s because this leafless plant can be brown, purplish, reddish or yellow.  The flower lip is always white but the yellowish plants have no spots.

Wildflowers Of Pennsylvania by Mary Joy Haywood and Phyllis Testal Monk says, “This plant, which goes dormant for years, grows in shady deciduous or coniferous forests, and is found throughout Pennsylvania.”

But finding it is difficult. Like the other coralroots it matches its habitat and to find it you have to go out in July’s heat.

Dianne and Bob Machesney found this one on a very hot day in Butler County.

 

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

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Jul 26 2016

The Largest Crop in America

Published by under Musings & News,Plants

Irrigating the largest crop in America (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Irrigating the largest crop in America (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you think about it, a lot of us are farmers.  We devote our small acreage to a crop that we fertilize, water and harvest.  Then we throw away the harvest or grind it up to re-fertilize the crop.  We never eat it and we don’t feed it to our animals.

Grass.  In Pennsylvania we devote 1.8 million acres to lawns.  Our next largest crop uses 1.6 million acres. (*See table below.)

The amazing dominance of the lawn is true everywhere in the continental the U.S. except in the Central West — Montana to Nevada to Kansas — where hay, corn and soybeans take up more space.  Click here and scroll down for the map.

This isn’t really news.  A 2005 study by Cristina Melisi used satellite data to show that lawns are the largest crop in America and the most irrigated by acreage.  This is no surprise in Florida and the West where lawns have built-in irrigation systems, but do we irrigate in the Northeast?  You bet!  The sprinklers are running this month.

Some homeowners break the mold by making meadows or growing vegetables but they often have to explain it to their neighbors.  The two-year-old Beacon-Bartlett meadow in Schenley Park has educational signs explaining “This is intentional.”

If I was a gardener I’d convert my tiny backyard lawn but I’m not even a participant.  I am, at best, an observer using my Newcomb’s Guide to identify what comes up.  I never water, weed or seed it. When it grows, it gets cut. It’s not growing right now.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

(*) TEXT UPDATED July 26, 9:30pm:  The original text was wildly incorrect!  Thank you Mary Ann Pike for providing a correction with this link at USDA.  Here’s a table combining lawn and USDA statistics for Pennsylvania:

Cultivation/ Crop Acreage in PA
Lawns 1.8 million
Hay and Haylage 1.6 million
Corn for grain/silage 1.3 million
Soybeans 0.9 million
Wheat 0.1 million

This means that lawns are about 30% of Pennsylvania’s cultivated lands.

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