Extirpated From Pennsylvania?

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

15 September 2015

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 by Steve Gosser

5 thoughts on “Extirpated From Pennsylvania?

  1. Kate, the largest station of hobblebush I’ve seen in W.PA happened to be across the
    road from Lee Tosh’s cabin, at Lake Stoneycreek, Somerset Co. I’ve seen a nice bunch of
    it somewhere else, but presently my memory fails where.

  2. A couple of years ago I found some Hobblebush growing on Laurel Ridge along the Laurel Highlands Trail. This area also had an abundance of Painted Trillium.

  3. YES! We have hobblebush… actually RIGHT in SALT SPRINGS Park!!! (and LOTS of it at Ricketts Glen! =)

    I have seen Hobblebush (pre-Aug 2018 flooding) above the second falls… I have a picture when it was in bloom, yet haven’t noticed IF the shrub is still there (as I usually cross creek now to climb falls.)
    Also, back in the West Meadow there are a few plants – likely to have been planted amongst some poke weed & such. (Jim, I think you were with me?)
    ALSO, we have a TULIP Poplar as well (not noticed until Rob pointed it out)– also in West Meadow and probably planted!!!

    COOL discoveries!

    ~Concetta Schirra, EEC, FSSP, Susquehanna County, PA 18818

    Very cool!

  4. Beautiful shrub! I seen them often in NY and VT. I finally found some in PA, in Gallitzin State Forest. They can’t be beat for autumn color!

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