Archive for the 'Plants' Category

Nov 01 2015

Now What?

Published by under Plants

Halloween pumpkins, uncarved (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Halloween pumpkins, uncarved (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Our Halloween pumpkins have reverted to vegetables.  Let me be the first to suggest what to do with them now that the holiday is over.

Did you carve the pumpkin?  It’ll rot soon.  You could throw it in a garbage bag for the landfill or …

Carved pumpkin, rotting (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

  • Compost it.
  • Cut it up and feed it to wildlife. (Don’t litter, though.)
  • Bury it in your garden to enrich the soil.

Is it uncarved?  Then it’ll last longer “as is” or you can open and eat it.

  • Continue to use the pumpkin as a decoration until it begins to decay.
  • Bake and puree the flesh to turn it into pumpkin pie, etc.
  • Toast and eat the seeds.

For a really good list, see Jessica’s 2014 post at BrightNest:  7 things to do with your old pumpkin


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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Oct 28 2015

I Yam Not A Yam

Published by under Plants

Sweet potatoes or yams (photo by Jérôme Sautret via Wikimedia Commons)

Yams a.k.a. sweet potatoes (photo by Jérôme Sautret via Wikimedia Commons)

The other day I was eating a yam and wondered where the name “yam” came from.  The Oxford English Dictionary said the word is from West Africa and it’s not the name of the plant I was eating.

True yams are in the Dioscoreaceae family. Native to Africa and Asia, there are many cultivated varieties. Our yams were named by African slaves who saw the resemblance to their yams back home.  A true yam (African type) looks like this.

True yams in Brixton market (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

True yams in Brixton market (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

North America does have native members of the Dioscoreaceae family but we don’t eat them.  Have you ever seen these leaves in the woods, often in a whorl?  Wild yamroot (Dioscorea villosa) is common in western Pennsylvania.

Wild yam leaves (photo by Tim McCormack from Wikimedia Commons)

Wild yamroot leaves (photo by Tim McCormack from Wikimedia Commons)

The yams we eat are Ipomoea batatas.  They’re labeled Yams in the grocery store because of USDA rules.  White inside = “sweet potato.” Orange inside = “yam.”  They’re the same plant.

Should we call them sweet potatoes instead?  Well, that’s not accurate either.  They’re not in the same family as potatoes (Solanaceae family).

The Ipomoea batatas flower gives us a clue to its identity.  What family does this look like?

Ipomoea batatas flower (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Ipomoea batatas flower (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yes, our sweet-potato-yam is a member of the morning glory family, Convolvulaceae.


I’ll call it a yam so I can find it in the grocery store.


Read more here at the Huffington Post: What’s the difference between sweet potatoes and yams?

(photos from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the images to see the originals)

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Oct 25 2015

Giant Puffball

Published by under Plants,Schenley Park

Giant puffball mushroom in Schenley Park, 18 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Giant puffball mushroom, 18 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

No, that’s not a soccer ball in the woods.  It’s a giant puffball mushroom.

Giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantea) grow within a few weeks to become 4″ to 28″ in diameter.  Really giant ones can be 59 inches across and weigh 44 pounds.

They’re edible while young (white inside), not edible when mature (anything but white inside; turns yellow then greenish-brown), and then they decompose. 

Don’t rush out there and eat one unless you know what you’re doing.  Here’s a video that describes how to identify and cook them.

Notice this mushroom’s size compared to the oak leaves.  I wonder how much larger it will grow.

Giant puffball mushroom in Schenley Park, 18 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Giant puffball mushroom, 18 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Close by was an open one, perhaps broken by an animal.  It was still white inside.

Giant puffball, broken open (photo by Kate St. John)

Giant puffball, broken open (photo by Kate St. John)

I’d never seen giant puffballs in the city before but spied these during a long walk in my neighborhood last Sunday.

I left them where I found them.  I’m not so fond of mushrooms that I’d pick and eat wild ones on my own.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Oct 21 2015

A Starburst Of …

Published by under Plants,Quiz

What is this?

What is this?

Today, a quiz!  What is this?


  • Six of us found these unusual starbursts sticking out of the ground at Wolf Creek Narrows, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania on October 14.
  • The starburst measures 1.25 inches across.
  • The stalk stands a foot tall.
  • There are no leaves on the stalk nor at the base of the stalk.
  • Each tip ends in a shiny black bead. (Some of the beads fell off my specimen.)
  • A Google image search on this photo results in pictures of jewelry.  🙂

Bonus Question:  What U.S. city is named for this plant?

Leave a comment with your answer.  After you’ve had a chance to vote I’ll post the answer in the Comments.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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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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