Archive for the 'Plants' Category

Oct 20 2015

These Aren’t Leaves

Published by under Plants

Liverwort ay Slippery Rock Gorge (photo by Kate St. John)

Liverwort (photo by Kate St. John)

Though these look like leaves, they aren’t.  They’re liverwort, a plant related to moss that often grows right next to it.

The flat green ribbons place this plant in the thallose liverwort group.  There are also leafy liverworts that look like moss, some so tiny that they require an expert with a magnifying glass to identify them.

Liverworts (Marchantiophyta) are ancient plants with these amazing characteristics:

  • They have no water transport system (i.e. non-vascular). Without internal pipes they’re at water’s mercy to come and go wherever it will. Thus they don’t grow tall.
  • They have no protection against water loss so liverworts have evolved the ability to dehydrate and recover in a technique similar to hibernation.
  • Liverworts’ cells contain only a single set of chromosomes (haploid). They produce diploid cells only for reproduction.  Animals and most plants are the opposite with double chromosomes in our normal cells and singles only for reproduction.
  • Liverworts have no roots.  Instead they have specialized cells on the underside called rhizoids that cling to the surface.  Each cell is holding on!

Look closely and you can see that the “leaf” is a mosaic of plates, each with a dot in the middle.  The dots look like stomata for regulating water loss but they’re actually air pockets.  (Click here for a schematic from the University of British Columbia.)

Liverwort, closeup (photo by Kate St.John)

Liverwort, closeup (photo by Kate St.John)

Liverwort got its name during the Doctrine of Signatures era when people believed that plants that resembled a body part treated diseases of that body part.  Since liverwort resembled animal livers people thought it must be a good treatment for liver disease.  Liver + wort is “liver-plant.”   In reality, liverworts have no medicinal use.

Because they’re at water’s mercy look for liverworts in cool, damp, shady places.  I found these on a north-facing cliff near Breakneck Falls at McConnell’s Mill State Park.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Oct 12 2015

Not Yellow Beans

Published by under Plants

Spreading dogbane seed pods (photo by Kate St. John)

Indian hemp(?) seed pods (photo by Kate St. John)

In October these seed pods look like long yellow beans but they’re actually the “fruits” of Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum) … or maybe spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium).  (See comments below!)

When you see the entire plant they don’t look edible — and they aren’t!  The plant is called “dogbane” because it’s poisonous to dogs and mammals including humans.

Spreading dogbane with seed pods (photo by Kate St. John)

Indian hemp(?) with seed pods (photo by Kate St. John)



During the winter, the pods turn dark brown and crack open to reveal fluff and seeds inside, similar to milkweed.  Click here to see.

Find a spreading dogbane this month and watch the pods change and open over the winter.


p.s. I originally called this plant spreading dogbane because the stems are ‘spreading’ and red but it is probably Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum) as you can see from the comments below.  This specimen is on the meadow hillside below the Fern Hollow Nature Center.

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Oct 10 2015

Wild Raisins

Published by under Plants

Wild raisins (photo by Kate St. John)

Wild raisins, Witherod viburnum (photo by Kate St. John)

This shrub’s common name is witherod but the fruits are wild raisins.

Last month we found witherod viburnum at Moraine State Park during the joint Wissahickon-Botanical Society outing.  Those in the know said “Wild raisins!” and ate a berry.

When the tasters didn’t fall down, I ate one, too.  Good texture but boring flavor.

Witherod (Viburnum cassanoides, or Viburnum nudum cassanoides) is a dense shrub, 12-20 feet tall, that grows in moist or wet soil.  It is beautiful year round with white flower umbels in spring and deep red leaves in the fall.  Its fruit attracts birds and it’s mildly resistant to deer damage so it’s a good choice for the garden.

I was surprised to learn that witherod is endangered in Pennsylvania, perhaps because I see so much of it every August-September at Acadia while the fruits are still pink and white, plentiful and unwrinkled.

If I visited Maine in October I’d see that the fruit turns black and shrivels into Wild Raisins.


(photo by Kate St. John)


p.s.  Dianne Machesney says, “The fruit of Nannyberry  (V. lentago) looks similar but you can tell the difference by looking at the leaves.  Nannyberry is more toothed and the petioles are winged where it connects to the stem. Wild Raisin has blunt little teeth and no wings. Both fruits are edible so you won’t pay for a mistaken ID.”

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Oct 04 2015

Two Orchids: Common and Rare

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Yellow ladies tresses (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Yellow Ladies’ Tresses (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Winter’s not here yet so there’s still time to see fall orchids blooming in western Pennsylvania.

Yellow Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes ochroleuca) are relatively common.  Standing 4 to 21 inches tall, they grow in dry open habitats such as open woods, thickets or meadows and even by side of the road.  Dianne Machesney photographed the one above at Moraine State Park.

October Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes ovalis), below, are so rare that they’re listed as endangered in Pennsylvania. Their USDA Pennsylvania map shows them occurring only in Lancaster County.

Lesser or October Ladies' Tresses (photo by Dianne Machesney)

October Ladies’ Tresses (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Despite this status, Dianne and Bob Machesney found them blooming at both McConnells Mill and Moraine State Parks on September 19.

You can find October Ladies’ Tresses this month in moist, shady woods or thickets, or along the edges of marshes.  Keep your eyes peeled for a flower that’s 2 to 15 inches tall.


(photos by Dianne Machesney)

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Oct 01 2015

Don’t Clear Your Garden

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Milkweed pods in winter (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Milkweed pods (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

October’s here, the growing season is over, and soon you’ll clear your garden.

This year, don’t do it.  Save yourself the labor and increase bird activity in your yard.  Here’s why from Marcy Cunkelman in this 2010 Throw Back Thursday article:  Why Not to Clear Your Garden.


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Sep 27 2015

Two Gentians

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Closed Gentian (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Bottle Gentian (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Autumn would not be complete without a look at two gentians that bloom in western Pennsylvania from late August to October.

Bottle or closed gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) is relatively common, especially in damp shaded soil at Moraine State Park.  When the flowers bloom they remain so tightly closed that only bumblebees can force their way in and pollinate the plant.  Other insects cheat, however, and pierce the flower to reach the nectar.

Fringed gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) is such a rare plant that the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy acquired and preserved the Fringed Gentian Fen in Lawrence County to protect it.

Fringed Gentian (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Fringed Gentian (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Fens are open wetlands dominated by grasses and sedges that have pH neutral or alkaline water with lots of dissolved minerals.  Fens seem useless to humans because they’re so soggy but they’re exactly where fringed gentians love to grow.

Visit damp places in September and October to find these two gentians.


(photos by Dianne Machesney)

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Sep 21 2015

White Snakeroot + Schenley Walk Reminder

White snakeroot, flower close up (photo by Kate St. John)

White snakeroot, flower close up (photo by Kate St. John)

Schenley Park Walk:
Just a reminder that I’m leading a bird and nature walk in Schenley Park on Sunday September 27, 8:30am – 10:30am.

This time we’ll meet at Bartlett Shelter on Bartlett Street near Panther Hollow Road.  This is not the usual meeting place at the Visitor’s Center.

Click here for more information and updates if the walk must be canceled for bad weather.

White Snakeroot:
On the August walk we saw white snakeroot and we’re sure to see it this month, too.  At the time I called it tall boneset, a confusing alternate name.  What was I thinking?!  I should have used its most common name.

White snakeroot grows 1 – 5 feet tall with opposite, toothed, egg-shaped leaves and branching clusters of bright white flowers.  Each flower head is a cluster of very tiny flowers, shown above.

White Snakeroot in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

White Snakeroot in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

The plant is similar enough to boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) that it used to be in the same genus, but it’s been reclassified to Ageratina altissima.   To avoid confusion with unrelated boneset I’ll call it “white snakeroot” from now on.

Unfortunately “snakeroot” is confusing, too.  White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is not related to black snakeroot (Actaea racemosa, black cohosh).  Arg!

In any case, we’ll see it next Sunday.


(photos by Kate St. John)

UPDATE: 27 September 2015:  We were a small group but we saw some cool things including this Best Bird:  A red-tailed hawk hovered above Panther Hollow and then screamed in (silently!) with talons extended to catch something on the ground! But he missed it.  We weren’t in the line of fire but we were certainly impressed!

Participants in 27 Sept 2015 Walk in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Participants in 27 Sept 2015 Walk in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)


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Sep 20 2015

Tiny Autumn Orchid

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Late Coralroot, flower close-up (photo by Kate St. John)

Late Coralroot, flower close-up, 14 Sep 2015, Butler County, PA (photo by Kate St. John)

Last Monday I attended a botanical outing that promised fall orchids including this one: Late Coralroot.

Late or Autumn Coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza) is a tiny orchid that grows in eastern North America from Quebec to Texas.  Like Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) it’s a parasitic plant that feeds on fungi so it has neither chlorophyll nor leaves. Most of the year it lives underground.  Then in late summer it sends up one stem to produce tiny flowers only 1/5″ long which bloom from August to October.

The stems we found in Butler County, Pennsylvania were dark purple-brown, about 8 inches tall.  From above they looked like small useless sticks but as soon as we found them we realized how easy it would be to step on one unawares. Yow.

The plant’s color and size made it difficult to photograph. Nonetheless, here are some (poor) photos to give you an idea of the plant.  Here it is as seen from ground level, though not the entire plant.

Late Coralroot (photo by Kate St. John)

Late Coralroot (photo by Kate St. John)

This closeup shows the flower’s white un-notched lip with purple spots.  It also shows a strange characteristic: Some flowers are rotated sideways.

Late Coralroot flower, turned on its axis (photo by Kate St. John)

Late Coralroot flower, turned on its axis (photo by Kate St. John)

When the flowers go to seed they droop along the stem.

Late Corlaroot, flowers gone to seed (photo by Kate St. John)

Late Corlaroot, flowers gone to seed (photo by Kate St. John)

Though abundant in the spot where we found it, this plant is listed as endangered in several states and “Exploitably Vulnerable” in New York … so I’m not revealing its location.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Sep 15 2015

Extirpated From Pennsylvania?

Published by under Plants

Hobblebush with fruit, early Sept in Maine (photo by Kate St. John)

Hobblebush with fruit, early Sept in Maine (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s a plant that’s easy to find in Maine but is nearly gone from Pennsylvania even though our state is in the middle of its range.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) is a shrub 6-12 feet high that grows in rich moist forests from Quebec to Georgia. Its arching branches hold pairs of leaves with delicate white flowers in the spring (click here to see) and abundant fruit in the fall that ripens from red to blue.  It’s called “hobble” bush because its long branches take root where the tips touch the ground, then hobble passersby.

Hobblebush is not extinct in Pennsylvania but it’s extremely hard to find and is extirpated from most counties.  In 20 years of Pennsylvania hiking I have seen it only once, growing on top of an isolated, sheer-sided, 15-foot high boulder near Cook Forest.

For plants, habitat loss is the usual cause of local extinction but hobblebush disappeared from Pennsylvania without the help of bulldozers.  The agent of change here is white-tailed deer.

Deer in western Pennsylvania, Fall 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Deer in western Pennsylvania, October 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Hobblebush is such a favorite deer food that the plant’s abundance is in inverse proportion to the deer population.  Where deer are in balance with their habitat, hobblebush thrives and they enjoy its flavor, but in Pennsylvania we have 30 deer per square mile (sometimes 70!) so our hobblebush was eaten to the ground long ago.

This situation is not new.  For more than half a century deer have been so abundant in Pennsylvania that they’re forced to consume everything edible from the ground to as high as they can reach.  Our forests have browse lines — shown below — and deer eat the hemlocks that shelter them in winter, a case of eating themselves out of house and home.  (Click here to read more.)

Browse line in Butler County, PA (photo by Kate St. John)

Browse line (empty gap beneath trees) in Butler County, PA (photo by Kate St. John)

So that’s why seeing hobblebush in Maine is such a treat and why it’s found on top of high isolated boulders in Pennsylvania.  At that elevated location the deer can’t reach it.

Have you seen hobblebush in Pennsylvania?  Or is it extirpated from your area?


(photo of hobblebush at Acadia National Park and a browse line in Pennsylvania by Kate St. John,
photo of deer in Pennsylvania by Steve Gosser

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Sep 12 2015

Still Blooming In September

Published by under Plants

Cardinal flower, 3 Sep 2015, Wild Gardens of Acadia (photo by Kate St. John)

Cardinal flower at Wild Gardens of Acadia, 3 Sept 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

I found this beautiful cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) blooming at the Wild Gardens of Acadia last week.

Its striking red color beckoned to the many ruby-throated hummingbirds still migrating through Maine.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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