Archive for the 'Series' Category

Jun 21 2017

Surprisingly Poisonous

Hooded pitohui (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Hooded pitohui (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know that your fingers will go numb or burn if you handle this bird?  You’ll be lucky that’s all that happens.  This bird is poisonous!

Though it superficially resembles our orchard oriole the hooded pitohui (Pitohui dichrous) is an Old World oriole that lives on the islands of New Guinea. Its skin and feathers are poisonous to touch though not as deadly as the golden poison frog of South America shown below.  Both animals exude batrachotoxin, a deadly neurotoxin that kills by paralysis and cardiac arrest.  The frog is 50 times more poisonous than the bird.  He contains enough poison to kill 10 men!

Golden poison frog, Columbia (photo from Wikimdeia Commons)

Golden poison frog, Columbia (photo from Wikimdeia Commons)

These animals are poisonous because they eat poisonous insects and yet they don’t die!

Fascinated?

I learned this and more at The Power of Poison exhibit at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Power of Poison in the Natural World (exhibit banner from Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

Power of Poison in the Natural World (exhibit banner from Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

The exhibit explores our relationships with poison in nature including how we avoid it, work around it, use it to kill or use it to cure.  Throughout it all we are fascinated by its power.  Here are a few of the cool things you’ll see:

  • A terrarium with live golden poison frogs!  (Find out why these particular frogs are harmless.)
  • Foods we eat that are/were partly poisonous. How about cashews?
  • The real poisons behind famous literary scenes in Macbeth‘s witches’ brew, Alice in Wonderland‘s Mad Hatter, Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie.
  • What killed the Borgias’ enemies? Cleopatra? Ponce de Leon?
  • Poisons that cure cancer and treat high blood pressure.

In the end you’ll get to test your skills with solve-it-yourself poison mysteries.

Visit the Carnegie Museum’s The Power of Poison exhibit, now through September 4, and find out what’s surprisingly poisonous.

Make plans for your visit here.

 

p.s. By the way, poisons in nature aren’t that unusual.  We have poisonous blister beetles, jimsonweed and poison ivy in Pennsylvania, just to name a few.

(photo credits: bird and frog photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals.
‘Poisons in Nature’ banner from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History
)

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Jun 14 2017

Nightshade in the Garden

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Bittersweet Nightshade (photo by Chuck Tague)

Bittersweet Nightshade (photo by Chuck Tague)

Last week Anne Marie Bosnyak sent me a photo, below, of a plant that popped up in her garden.

It has purple flowers and tomato-like fruit. It’s obviously growing in the wrong place.  Is it a weed?

Bittersweet nightshade out of place in the garden (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Bittersweet nightshade out of place in the garden (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Well, yes.

It’s bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), a perennial from Eurasia that’s considered invasive in Pennsylvania.

Did you know it’s related to potatoes?  Don’t eat it!  Read on.

Not Tomatoes!

 

(flower photo by Chuck Tague, plant photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

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May 27 2017

Now Blooming: Pink Lady Slipper

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Pink lady slipper (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

Pink lady slipper (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

Paul Staniszewski reminded me this week that pink lady slippers (Cypripedium acaule) are blooming now in Pennsylvania’s woods.

Take some time to look for them this weekend.

Last year I found some in a deer exclosure at Ohiopyle State Park.

 

(photo by Paul Staniszewski)

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May 23 2017

Fluff In The Air

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Cottonwood fluff on the ground (photo by Chris Evans, University of Illinois, Bugwood.org)

Cottonwood fluff on the ground (photo by Chris Evans, University of Illinois, Bugwood.org)

In late May, you’ll see white fluff in the air as you search the sky for birds.  It’s not dandelion fluff.  This is cottonwood season.

The eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) grows in open and riparian habitats from the Rockies to the southeastern coast. Western Pennsylvania is on the eastern edge of their range.

Range map of the eastern cottonwood (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Range map of the eastern cottonwood (image from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Cottonwoods are one of the fastest growing and largest trees in North America.  Reaching up to 130 feet tall the trunk can be more than five feet across.  The trees require bare soil and full sun to germinate so you usually see them out in the open, sometimes alone.

Eastern cottonwood (photo by Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org)

Eastern cottonwood (photo by Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org)

 

Their species name, deltoides, describes the leaf shape that looks a lot like aspens. Both trees are in the willow family.

Cottonwood leaves (photo by T. Davis Sydnor, The Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)

Cottonwood leaves (photo by T. Davis Sydnor, The Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)

 

In early spring cottonwoods sprout male and female catkins. The females are fertilized by wind-blown pollen and become drooping strings of seed capsules.  In May the capsules burst open to release thousands of tiny seeds, each one attached to a bit of “cotton” that carries it on the wind.  (The brown spots in this photo are seed capsule covers, not the seeds.)

Eastern cottonwood seeds, still on the branch (photo by Troy Evans, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bugwood.org)

Eastern cottonwood seeds, still on the branch (photo by Troy Evans, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bugwood.org)

 

The fluff breaks off and blows away but each tree is so prolific that in windless conditions, when the fluff falls straight to the ground, it looks like snow.

Do you want to see a lot of cottonwood fluff?  Drive north on Route 528 from the bridge over Moraine State Park‘s Lake Arthur. Eventually cottonwoods are on both sides of the road.

There’s fluff in the air there!

 

(photo credits:
fluff on the ground by Chris Evans, University of Illinois, Bugwood.org
range map from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original
clump of cottonwood trees by Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org
cottonwood leaves by T. Davis Sydnor, The Ohio State University, Bugwood.org
cottonwood seeds on the branch by Troy Evans, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bugwood.org
)

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May 21 2017

Jack In The Pulpit

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Jack in the pulpit, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Jack in the pulpit, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) has been blooming for about two weeks in western Pennsylvania.  As the forest floor greens up you might not notice this unusual flower.

Here’s a whimsical look at Jack’s odd characteristics.  Sometimes he is “Jill.”

Jack Explains Himself

 

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May 19 2017

Apples in May

Mayapple flower turning into a May Apple (photo by Kate St. John)

Mayapple flower turning into an apple in May (photo by Kate St. John)

I’m taking a break from peregrines today.   Here’s a plant.    🙂

In Schenley Park, mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) bloom in April and fruit in May. The plants must have two leaves to produce a flower because the flower stalk grows from the Y between the leaves.

Here’s what they look like when they bloom.

Mayapple in flower with twin leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Mayapple in flower with twin leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The fertilized flower transitions from flower to apple in May, as shown in the photo at top.

You can eat a mayapple when it’s ripe but Be Careful!  The entire plant is poisonous and the apple is only edible when ripe!  Find out more and see a mayapple sliced open in this vintage article from 2011.

Eating Mayapples

 

 

(top photo by Kate St. John. Blooming photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

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Apr 18 2017

A Busy Week For Trees

Sugar maple flowers, 15 April 2017, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Sugar maple flowers (wind pollinated), 15 April 2017, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Are you sneezing yet?

It’s a busy week for trees in southwestern Pennsylvania as they open flowers and unfurl new leaves.

Redbud flowers fully open, 15 April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Redbud flowers fully open (insect pollinated), 15 April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

 

In Schenley Park the trees are flowering everywhere, from insect pollinated redbuds (pink above) to wind pollinated sugar maples (yellow at top) and hophornbeams (below).

Hophornbeam catkins, 15 April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Hophornbeam catkins (wind pollinated) 15 April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Last weekend it was so dry that pollen coated my car and made my throat and eyes itch … and this was before the oaks had bloomed!  (Pollen note: Both oaks and pines are wind pollinated. Southwestern PA has an oak-hickory forest with few pines.)

Other busy trees include the bursting buds of hawthorns and hickories.  …

Hawthorn buds bursting, 15 April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Hawthorn buds bursting, 15 April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Bitternut hickory bud is opening, 15 April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Bitternut hickory bud is opening, 15 April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

… and new leaves on Ohio buckeyes.

Ohio buckeye shows off its leaves, 15 April 2017, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Ohio buckeye shows off its leaves, 15 April 2017, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

 

The city is a heat island so Schenley Park’s trees are ahead of the surrounding area.  Our red oak buds burst yesterday so you can expect several busy weeks ahead for trees in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Are you sneezing yet?

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

3 responses so far

Apr 16 2017

To see the cherry hung with snow

Published by under Phenology,Trees

Blooming cherry trees, Paris (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Blooming cherry trees, Paris (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Spend time today to see spring’s beauty. A reminder from A. E. Housman.

 

Loveliest of trees

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

A. E. Housman

 

(poem: The Loveliest of Trees by A. E. Housman (1859-1936), #II  from “A Shropshire Lad
photo: from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Apr 12 2017

White Lace Among Bare Trees

Published by under Phenology,Trees

Downy serviceberry, a.k.a. shadbush, barking Slopes, 9 Apr 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Downy serviceberry or shadbush, Barking Slopes, 9 Apr 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

The ground has thawed, the shad are running, and across the hillsides there’s white lace among bare trees.

Downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) is one of the first wild trees to bloom in eastern North America.  At 30 feet tall with smooth gray bark, it opens its curly white flowers in early spring.  The tree stands out against the gray backdrop of the hills in April but we don’t notice it in summer. The birds do, though, because its reddish-purple berries are a favorite food.

Serviceberries have a wealth of common names.  On the eastern seaboard they bloom when a special fish, the American shad (Alosa sapidissima), swims upstream to spawn.  In that region it’s called a shadbush.

Shadbush at the Allegheny River, also called Downy serviceberry, 9 Apr 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Shadbush at the Allegheny River (where there are no shad), 9 Apr 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

In Appalachia the serviceberries bloom when the ground has thawed enough to bury the dead and hold a funeral service.  Where the word service is pronounced “sarvis,” it’s called a sarvisberry.

Though they’re members of the Rose family and have perfect flowers (containing both male and female parts) serviceberries can reproduce asexually and they hybridize freely, crossing and back crossing until it takes an expert to identify them.  Even then there are disagreements.  David Sibley’s Guide to Trees points out that the number of species has ranged from 3 to 25; pegged at 16 when the book was published.  Downy serviceberry is one of them.

In Schenley Park I was able to reach a low branch and photograph the flowers.  This specimen is a cultivated variety, recently planted, so I can’t identify it for sure.

Serviceberry closeup, Schenley Park, 10 Apr 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Serviceberry’s “perfect” flowers, Schenley Park, 10 Apr 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

But it can show you why one species has the downy name.

Downy serviceberry refers to the soft hairs on the back of its young leaves.  The hairs disappear as the leaves get older.

Do you think this cultivated leaf is downy?

Serviceberry flowers and new leaves, closeup at Schenley Park, 10 Apr 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Serviceberry flowers and new leaves at Schenley Park, 10 Apr 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Maybe so.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Apr 09 2017

Lacy Trees

Published by under Phenology,Trees

Sun shining through the lacy leaves of an elm tree, early April 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Sunshine through a lacy tree, early April 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

For five months Pittsburgh’s trees are bare.  This month they look lacy.

In April the trees open their tiny flowers and leaves.  Sunlight falls through the branches and heats the ground, prompting woodland wildflowers to bloom.

Many trees are still in bud.  The redbuds look dark pink because their rosy flowers aren’t open yet.

Redbud buds along the stem (photo by Kate St.John)

Redbud flower buds along the stem (photo by Kate St.John)

In a few weeks the trees will be full of leaves.  Now’s the time to appreciate their lacy look.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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