Archive for the 'Plants' Category

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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Jul 24 2016

Bladder Campion

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Bladder campion, 17 Jul 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Bladder campion, 17 Jul 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

This unusual flower with a swollen calyx is blooming now in western Pennsylvania.  Though the plant stands two feet tall its bladder-like flowers weigh down the branches when it’s in full bloom.

Bladder campion (Silene vulgaris) is a member of the Pink family (Caryophyllaceae) native to Eurasia.  It prefers to grow in waste places or sandy soil and is found as far north as Greenland and Alaska.  Some people call it a weed.

Why is it here?  Perhaps because its leaves and young shoots are eaten in some Mediterranean dishes.  Or because it’s pretty.

I found this one blooming by the side of the road at the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail.

 

p.s.  Sometimes the swollen calyx is pink as shown in this article from 2011 entitled Balloons.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 23 2016

Now Blooming: Water Willow

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Water willow, Ohiopyle, July 2016 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Water willow, Ohiopyle, July 2016 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Here’s a plant you might not notice unless you walk to the water’s edge. Even then, it’s unremarkable from a distance because it looks like a clump of tall grass –> like this.

American water willow (Justicia americana) is the hardiest member of the tropical Justicia genus and the only one found in Pennsylvania. It likes to keep its feet wet so it typically grows on muddy shores or islands in creeks and rivers.

It’s always associated with water and its leaves resemble willows and so it got its name.

Water willow’s iris-like flowers are 1.5 inches across so they’re hard to see on a distant island.  However, I’ve found them on shore at Duck Hollow, in Slippery Rock Creek at McConnell’s Mill State Park and in Chartiers Creek at Boyce-Mayview wetlands.

In this weekend’s hot weather, check out the water’s edge.  Dianne Machesney found this one blooming at the Youghiogheny River in Ohiopyle.

 

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

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Jul 18 2016

Bees and Electricity

Bumblebee on thistle with pollen grains (photo by Kate St. John)

Bumblebee on thistle with pollen grains (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s an amazing thing: The hairs on a bumblebee’s body tell it where the flowers are.  It’s done with electricity.

Flowers use scent, patterns, nectar and even ultraviolet colors to attract insect pollinators.  Each flower also has an electric field that says, “I’m here!”  Scientists thought that insects picked up this communication, but how?  A study published in PNAS last May explains that bumblebees sense the electric field with their body hairs.

Bees and flowers are oppositely charged.  Without even trying, bees build up a positive charge on their bodies as they fly.  Flowers are negatively charged and that makes their pollen stick to bees through static electricity.  But the electric field is more than just that static charge.

Positive and negative electric fields: bee and flower (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Positive and negative electric fields: bee and flower (image from Wikimedia Commons)

In the diagram above, imagine that the bee is red and the flower blue.  As a bumblebee approaches the flower, a frisson of excitement passes along its body as its hairs bend in response to the flower’s electric field.  The bee feels the approach. Its hairs are pointing to the flower!

We humans can barely imagine this because we’re not sensitive to electric fields.  As we walk on a carpet we don’t feel the doorknob’s electric field until we touch it and are shocked at the discharge.  The best we can do is see our hair stand up after we rub a balloon on our head.  Here’s Emma at Emma’s Science Blog to show us how:

image linked from Emma's Science Blog: Emma does an experiment with static electricity, April 2014

from Emma’s Science Blog: Emma does an experiment with static electricity, April 2014

 

Now that we know about this communication between bumblebees and flowers, scientists think that lots of hairy insects sense electric fields, too.

I wonder if the house fly sees me with his hairs as well as his eyes as I approach to swat him.

 

Read more about bumblebees and electricity here at mashable.com.

(bumblebee photo by Kate St. John. electric field diagram from Wikimedia Commons.  Emma with balloon linked from Emma’s Science Blog. Click on the field and balloon to see the original images)

p.s. Thanks to Michelle Kienholz for alerting me to this story.

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Jul 16 2016

Striped Wintergreen in the Woods

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Striped wintergreen, 2 July 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Striped wintergreen, 2 July 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Striped wintergreen’s leaves can be found at any time of year but the plant only blooms from June to August.

The flowers hang like a chandelier from three branches on the main stem. Each flower resembles a lamp: five up swept white petals, paired anthers, and a bulbous green pistil (shown above).

You can tell the difference between striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) and its close relative Pipsissewa because wintergreen leaves are pointed, whorled and distinctly striped on the midrib.

Striped wintergreen (photo by Kate St. John)

Striped wintergreen (photo by Kate St. John)

Striped wintergreen is endangered in Canada, Illinois and Maine and exploitably vulnerable in New York.  I found this one in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 14 2016

The Pink Invader

Published by under Plants

Crown Vetch (photo by Christopher Bailey via Wikimedia Commons)

Crown Vetch (photo by Christopher Bailey via Wikimedia Commons)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Crown vetch (Securigera varia) is blooming along roadsides now and everywhere else it can gain a foothold.

If you’ve ever had it in your garden, you know how easily it takes over and how hard it is to eradicate.  

Read more here about the nasty qualities of this pretty pink invader:

Pink Invader

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Jul 09 2016

Montana Flowers And A Tree

Published by under Plants,Travel

Beargrass in bloom, Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Beargrass in bloom, Glacier National Park, 29 June 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

In my final Montana installment, here are some plants seen at Glacier National Park, June 27-30, 2016.

Beargrass grows up to five feet tall with grass-like leaves and a knob of white flowers on top.  As you can see in this poorly lit photo, the beargrass was hard to ignore on the Josephine Lake trail.

Hikers next to beargrass, showing the height of the flower, Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Hikers next to beargrass showing the height of the flower, Glacier National Park, 29 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

At Logan Pass we saw Glacier Lilies that resemble our own Trout Lily.

Glacier lily at Logan Pass, Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Glacier lily at Logan Pass, Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

 

And at woodland edges, Pink Wintergreen (Thank you, Dianne Machesney, for identifying this for me) …

Pink Wintergreen, Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Pink Wintergreen, Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

… plus Sticky Geraniums …

Sticky Geranium, Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Sticky Geranium, Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

… and Sego Lilies, the state flower of Utah.

Sego lily, Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Sego lily, Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

 

The meadows were full of wildflowers.

Paintbrush …

Paintbrush species, Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Paintbrush species, Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Larkspur …

Larkspur, Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Larkspur, Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Blanket flower (I think. Please correct me if I’m wrong!)

Blanket Flower Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Blanket Flower, Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

and the remnants of Camas flowers that had bloomed in mid-June.

Camas flower, McGee Meadow, Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Camas flower, McGee Meadow, Glacier National Park, June 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

 

And finally, I marveled at the huge Western Redcedars on the wet, western side of Glacier National Park. They are so much bigger than our cedars back home.

Western Redcedar, Glacier National Park, 30 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Western Redcedar, Glacier National Park, 30 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jun 27 2016

Daisy Fleabane

Published by under Plants,Schenley Park

Fleabane blooming in Schenley Park, 10 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Daisy fleabane blooming in Schenley Park, 10 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

You’ve probably seen these small, thin-petaled “daisies” just about everywhere.

Daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus) is a native plant with a long blooming period — May to October — so you’ll see these flowers for months to come.

Click here to read about fleabane’s daily exercise program (I’m not kidding!) at The Bane of Fleas.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jun 24 2016

Sneaky Orchids

Most flowers offer food to attract pollinators.  Trumpet vine, for instance, provides nectar for hummingbirds who incidentally pick up pollen and transport it to the next flower.

But some orchids have no food to offer.  Instead they look and smell like sexy female insects so the males will attempt to mate with them.  In doing so the orchids’ pollen clumps (pollinia) become stuck to the male insects and are taken to the next flower.

Watch the video above from BBCWorldwide to see how it’s done.

Sneaky orchids!

 

Thanks to Bonnie Isaac, President of the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania, for pointing out this cool video in the Society’s second quarter bulletin.

(video from BBCWorldwide on Youtube)

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Jun 22 2016

Spots Under The Leaf

Published by under Plants

Sporogenesis under the fern leaf (photo by Kate St. John)

Sporogenesis under the fern leaf (photo by Kate St. John)

Ferns look simple.  They don’t have flowers so they must be boring, right?  Not!

Look under the leaves(*) in June and you’ll see spots, called sporangia, that are creating spores for the next generation.  Here’s another example.

Sporangia under fern leaf (photo by Kate St. John)

Sporangia under the fern leaf (photo by Kate St. John)

The spores are single haploid cells with only one set of chromosomes, just like the sperm and eggs of mammals. But the spores don’t “mate” with anything.  Instead the next generation grows directly from the spore.  It’s a small heart-shaped green thing called a prothallus and it’s also haploid.  The prothallus eventually produces sperm and eggs that unite in water to become the next generation, the leafy fronds.

The frond phase is diploid with two sets of chromosomes.  In time, the plant produces sporangia and the process repeats.

Because of this fern “parents” and “kids” look nothing like each other: prothallia, leaves, prothallia, leaves … on and on and on.

Confused? Here’s a video that explains it better than I can.

 

(*) Some ferns, such as sensitive fern, produce spores on parts of the plant that have no leaves. Others, such as hay-scented fern, don’t display their sporangia as openly as those pictured above.  Read more about ferns here.

(photos by Kate St. John, video posted by Gabe Fierro on YouTube)

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