Archive for the 'Plants' Category

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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Sep 06 2015

Master Asters

Published by under Books & Events,Plants

Asters (photo by Kate St. John)

Asters (photo by Kate St. John)

September is the month for asters and goldenrods but these plants are so hard to identify that I usually say: “It’s an aster (or goldenrod) but I don’t know which one.”

Now there’s hope for the aster-onomically challenged.  Pennsylvania Botany is offering a one-day seminar on identifying asters and goldenrods on September 22 at Nescopek State Park.  Participants will use keys and floras and get plenty of hands-on practice.

Master asters at this seminar.  It’s open to the public but is not free.  See the links below for more information.

Aster and Goldenrod Identification Workshop
September 22, 2015 • 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Nescopeck State Park, Environmental Education Center
1137 Honey Hole Road • Drums, Pennsylvania 18222
Directions/information on Nescopek State Park.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 31 2015

Bees Can’t See Red

Honey bee at camas (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Honey bee at camas flower (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When I wrote about hummingbirds and orange jewelweed last week, some of you wondered if the birds sipped at pale (yellow) jewelweed, too.  While finding the answer I learned a cool fact:  Bees can’t see red.

Hummingbirds are attracted to shades of red so they see the spots on orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) as a delicious target and rely on this plant during fall migration.

Over time the spur on Impatiens capensis has evolved to maximize pollination by hummingbirds with a tight cone-shaped entrance that guides the birds’ bills.

Spotted jewelweed, Impatiens capensis (photo from Flora Pittsburghensis)

Orange jewelweed, Impatiens capensis (photo from Flora Pittsburghensis)

Hummingbirds don’t care about yellow so they don’t choose the other jewelweed — the “pale” one — but bees do.

Bees see yellow, purple, blue, and a color called bee’s purple, a mixture of yellow and ultraviolet which we humans can’t see.  Bees can’t see red so they aren’t much attracted to orange jewelweed.

However, pale jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) is designed for bees.  Not only is it yellow but its expandable entrance accommodates both large and small bees, brushing their bodies as they walk in.

Pale jewelweed, Impatiens pallida (photo from Flora Pittsburghensis)

Pale jewelweed, Impatiens pallida, with a bee inside (photo from Flora Pittsburghensis)

Though the two jewelweeds grow near each other, they send different signals.  Red is for birds.  Yellow is for bees.


(Honey bee photo from Wikimedia Commons. Orange and pale jewelweed photos by Flora Pittsburghensis.  Click on the images to see the originals)

p.s. On the subject of bees (in general) here’s a recent article from The Allegheny Front about breeding stronger honey bees:  Building a Better Honeybee

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Aug 30 2015

Showy Food For Birds

Published by under Plants

American spikenard fruit at Schenley Park, August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

American spikenard fruit at Schenley Park, 20 August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s a native perennial that produces lots of fruit for migrating birds.

American spikenard (Aralia racemosa) is a showy plant that grows three to five feet tall and wide.  It blooms in airy greenish-white spikes from June to August and ripens its fruit in August and September, just in time for migrating birds. Click here to see it in bloom.

American spikenard, Schenley Park, August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

American spikenard, Schenley Park, 20 August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

In my opinion, the plant was misnamed. People must have hoped it was similar to the real spikenard, Nardostachys jatamansi, a Himalayan plant in the Valerian family whose root is made into fragrant essential oil (called nard), but American spikenard is not at all like it and isn’t even in the same family. The American plant isn’t valuable to humans; it cannot make perfume.

But Aralia racemosa is valuable to birds. It’s a low maintenance plant that likes full sun or partial shade and spreads slowly by seeds and rhizomes.  In August it offers showy fruit for birds.

Click here for more information at the Missouri Botanical Garden.



(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 29 2015


Published by under Plants

Boneset in bud (photo by Kate St. John)

Boneset in bud, July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

In the field guides Boneset’s leaves are described as perfoliate. Its scientific name says it too: (Eupatorium perfoliatum).

The word comes from Latin.

Per means “through”

Foliate, from folium, means “leaf”

Through the leaf.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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