Category Archives: Plants & Fungi

After a Long Hard Frost

Squill showing frost damage, 30 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

3 April 2022

As I mentioned last weekend, the weather was lovely on 24 March with a high of 60oF but things went sharply downhill from there. For three and a half days Pittsburgh was below freezing and the weather deteriorated from windy snow on 27 March to lows of 14-19oF and blizzard conditions on 28 March.

Heavy snow & low visibility, 29 March 2022, 12:35pm (photo by Kate St. John)
Heavy snow became blizzard conditions, 29 March 2022, 12:35pm (photo by Kate St. John)

Finally the temperature rose rise above freezing at midday 29 March but it was too late for the early-returning tree swallows who had no insects to eat right when they needed lots of food to stay alive. Julie found three dead in the bluebird boxes she tends at Moraine State Park. Fortunately purple martin landlords kept their early birds alive with supplemental feedings.

Flowers took a beating, too. The squill pictured at top bloomed after the frost passed but its tips were damaged. You can see the same effects on northern magnolia bud and flower below.

Frost damage on northern magnolia bud, Schenley Park, 30 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Frost damage on northern magnolia flower, Schenley Park, 30 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Forsythia wilted.

Wilted forsythia flowers after the frost, 28 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile some alien plants came through without a scratch. Coltsfoot sent up cheerful flowers in the sunshine on 30 March.

Coltsfoot blooming on Eckert Street, 30 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

And lesser celandine bloomed at Frick Park on 31 March.

Lesser Celandine, Frick Park, 31 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Though tonight’s low will be 31oF the rest of the week will be above freezing, though wet. I hold out hope that April won’t see a long hard frost.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Flowering cherry in Pittsburgh, 24 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

26 March 2022

This week the elms, maples, ornamental cherries and northern magnolias began to bloom in Pittsburgh. Their flowers have not yet reached their peak and that’s a good thing. Tomorrow night the low will be 19 degrees F and will devastate the tender petals.

Above, an ornamental cherry shows off its delicate pink-white blossoms in the sun on Thursday 24 March. Below, a northern magnolia flower peeks out of its winter coat in Schenley Park on Tuesday 22 March.

Northern magnolia flower bud, 22 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Red maple flowers are either male or female. These female pistils are waiting for pollen from the male flowers. Pollen season is coming soon!

Red maple flowers, 22 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), one of the earliest shrubs to bloom in western Pennsylvania, is a Eurasian member of the dogwood family. It can also look like an understory tree.

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) at Moraine State Park, 24 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Also blooming in yellow this week, forsythia is putting out tentative flowers.

Forsythia blooming (photo by Kate St. John)

And at Frick Park the hellebore planted near the Environmental Education Center is in full bloom (probably Hellebore odorus). I wonder if these nodding flowers will survive the cold.

Hellebore in bloom in Frick Park, 25 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile I’m not worried about the new leaves on these hardy invasive plants. I doubt they’ll be damaged by the cold.

Bush honeysuckle leaf out in Frick Park, 21 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Privet leaf out in Oakland, 23 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Garlic mustard leaf out in Frick Park, 21 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Take a look at flowers today. They’ll be gone tomorrow night.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Spring Has Been Dealt A Setback

Morela at the snowy nest, 12 March 2022, 8am (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

13 March 2022

After yesterday’s 2.5 to 5 inches of drifting snow, this morning’s temperature is 14oF. Our progress toward Spring has been halted in only a day.

Last week I saw hopeful signs of Spring.

  • Skunk cabbage was blooming at Jennings Prairie on 5 March.
Skunk cabbage, Jennings Prairie, 5 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
  • Northern magnolia buds were beginning to open at Schenley Park on 8 March.
Skunk cabbage, Jennings Prairie, 5 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
  • Spring peepers had started to sing at Moraine State Park on 10 March, calling very slowly in the cold. Turn up your speakers to hear 5 creaky peeps in the video.
  • And The Crocus Report came back positive on 7 March when I found a lawn of purple crocuses blooming on North Neville Street.
Crocuses blooming, North Neville Street, 7 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Lawn of purple crocuses, North Neville Street, 7 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

But yesterday morning brought heavy snow and gusty winds, drifts and bare patches.

(building provides a dark backdrop so you can see the snow.)

The tender plants have died. Those crocuses are gone. Spring has been dealt a setback.

Keep up with the status of Spring at the National Phenology Network. Watch it move north on this animated map.

Six-leaf index anomaly showing the progress of Spring (animated map from the National Phenology Network)

(photos by Kate St. John and from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh, map from the National Phenology Network)

Seen This Week

Sunrise on 3 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

5 March 2022

This week in Pittsburgh the weeping willows turned yellow for spring and male red-winged blackbirds came back to the marshes. At Homewood Cemetery the two combined when a red-winged blackbird called from a large willow. He’s the black dot at 9 or 10 o’clock (on the dial) in my photo.

Yellow willow tree + red-winged blackbird, Homewood Cemetery, 2 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

The red-wings didn’t look so spiffy three weeks ago at Frick Park’s feeders, below. Now they are sharply black and red.

Red-winged blackbirds, 9 Feb (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Over at Schenley Park the moss is greening up on the tufa bridges and purple “weed” leaves are looking hairy.

Tufa bridge has moss and purple basal leaves (photo by Kate St. John)

A closer look reveals the hairs may be tiny rootlets. Last summer I knew the name of this “weed” but I don’t remember it now. (Best guess via Stephen Tirone is hawkweed)

Are these tiny roots growing from the leaves? (photo by Kate St. John)

At Carnegie Mellon’s campus cultivated witch-hazel is blooming in yellow and red. Our native witch-hazel is all yellow and blooms in November. These plants have yellow petals and red centers.

Cultivated witch-hazel blooming, 2 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

They are probably Chinese or Japanese witch-hazel, both of which bloom in February and March.

Cultivated witch-hazel blooming, 2 March 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

I haven’t see an American woodcock (Scolopax minor) yet but Adrian Fenton reported three at North Park on 3 March. The woodcocks are back in New York City, too. This one danced at Bryant Park. Woo hoo!

Today the temperature will reach 68 degrees F. It’s time to get outdoors!

(photos by Kate St. John & Charity Kheshgi)

Mallards Help Plants in Winter

Flock of mallards in Järvenpää, Finland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

26 January 2022

Since plants are rooted to the ground, the only way they find a new place to live is through seed dispersal. Pressure to find new places is intensified by climate change but a study published this month in Science points out:

Half of all plant species rely on animals to scatter their seeds through hitchhiking in scat, fur, or beaks. When mammal and bird populations decline, so does the ability plants have to disperse their seeds and adapt to climate change. Loss of mammals and birds cuts a plant’s ability to adapt by 60 percent.

With Fewer Animals to Move their Seeds, plants are stuck in threatened habitats

Mallards to the rescue.

In 2017 study at Utrecht University found that mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) significantly help plants and isolated wetlands by dispersing seeds in winter.

Mallards change their diet during the year, from carnivorous in the breeding season to vegetarian in winter. During migration they stop to eat then disperse seeds later along the way. This particularly helps isolated wetlands that would not gain new seeds otherwise.

Mallards also help every day on their wintering grounds by moving back and forth from roosting to feeding areas. Where there is hunting pressure you might not see this because mallards change their ways: eating at night and hiding at the roost during the day.

Mallards in flight (photo by Imran Shah via Wikimedia Commons)

Mallards are the most abundant duck species on earth and perform this seed dispersal service on four continents: North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

Find out more at Wintering Ducks Connect Isolated Wetlands by Dispersing Plant Seeds.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

In The Land of Mistletoe

Tree with mistletoe, Tidewater Virginia (photo by Kate St. John)

24 December 2021

This weekend we’re in Tidewater Virginia where the trees are bare but not empty. Many hold green balls of American mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum), a hemi-parasitic plant that extracts water and nutrients from tree branches while it also photosynthesizes.

Mistletoe in tree, Tidewater Virginia (photo by Kate St. John)

At this time of year it sports sprays of white berries that are toxic to humans but good for birds.

American mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpum (illustration from Wikimedia Commons)

While the birds eat the berries I marvel that mistletoe is common here. We don’t have it in western Pennsylvania (‘x’ = Pittsburgh).

Occurrence of American mistletoe (map from Wikimedia Commons plus ‘x’ for location of Pittsburgh)

At home we buy mistletoe in a store to carry on this Christmas tradition.

It’s above us in the backyard in the land of mistletoe. Perhaps that’s why Virginia is For Lovers.

(photos by Kate St. John and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Cactus With A Pittsburgh Connection

Saguaro silhouettes (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1 December 2021

This iconic symbol of the Sonoran Desert has a Pittsburgh connection.

The only member of its genus, the saguaro cactus was given the scientific name Carnegiea gigantea to honor Andrew Carnegie who established the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill for native plant research in Tucson in 1903.

Saguaro cacti at Saguaro National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though now a symbol of deserts everywhere, this unusual “tree” is native only to the Sonoran desert of Arizona, California and northwestern Mexico.

Saguaro (pronounced “sah-WAH-ro“) grows to 50 feet in height; its tremendous weight, up to nine tons, is supported by a skeleton of about two dozen spongy, wooden rods. Accordion pleats [expand and] contract as they gain and lose moisture. White flowers open after nightfall and close by late afternoon the following day. Saguaro has fleshy red fruit. Giant, leafless, columnar tree cactus with massive, spiny trunk and usually 2-10 stout, nearly erect, spiny branches. Saguaro cactus account

The saguaro’s woody skeleton is exposed when the plant dies. Click here to see a skeleton with arms.

Skeleton of saguaro cactus (photo by Jay Iwasaki via Flickr Creative Commons license)

The pleats expand and the trunk looks fat after the rainy season.

Saguaro with expanded accordion pleats (photo by Kate St. John)

The plant reproduces via cross-pollinated flowers that bloom at the tips. The saguaro grows arms to produce more flowers.

Flowers are at the tops of saguaro branches (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Saguaro flowers closeup (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds, animals and humans make use of this cactus.

Native Americans made use of the entire cactus. … Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers make round holes near the tops of branches for nests that are used afterwards by elf owls, cactus wrens, and other birds. Wildlife, especially white-winged doves, consume quantities of the seeds. Saguaro cactus account
Gila woodpecker feeds on a saguaro flower (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
White-winged dove at saguaro fruit (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Saguaros can only survive where the temperature never drops below 28oF. They grow in Phoenix because of its urban heat island.

Read more cool facts about saguaro in this abbreviated account by C A Martin at Arizona State.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Jay Iwasaki on Flickr with Creative Commons license; click on the captions to see the originals)

Leaves and Merlins

Hornbeam seeds with spider/insect cocoons, 21 Nov 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

27 November 2021

Nature was busy this week. Spiders or insects wove tiny white cocoons inside this hornbeam seed structure. Chickadees look for these cocoons and eat the tasty treats inside.

As predicted, Schenley Park’s gingkos lost all their leaves in a single day — 20 November.

Gingkos shed all their leaves on Schenley Drive, 20 Nov 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Norway maples were not far behind on the 24th.

Three trees on 24 Nov 2021: 1 bare, 2 maple fallen leaves, 3 red oak leaves waiting (photo by Kate St. John)

I went to Schenley Park golf course to find a merlin just before sunset on 23 November. Instead I found three merlins jostling for the highest perch on the highest hill. The tallest snag in this photo is not the highest perch but the dot on top is merlin #2 of 3 who is watching the airshow as 2,500 crows fly over from the Allegheny Valley to where? Crows were still passing overhead when I left.

After sunset the sky still glowed.

Cathedral of Learning, Heinz Chapel, and WQED’s transmission tower after sunset 23 Nov 2021, Pittsburgh, PA (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Invasive Barberry is Banned At Last

Japanese barberry in October (photo by Kate St. John)

17 November 2021

If you’ve ever tangled with Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) you know this thorny plant has pretty berries but grows quickly into an impenetrable hedge. Imported for landscaping in the late 1800s, it has gone wild in the state and invaded the woods. Deer refuse to eat it. Despite its invasive attributes it was still sold for landscaping in Pennsylvania until now.

Last month the PA Department of Agriculture added Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) to the state’s list of noxious weeds. As of 8 October 2021 it cannot be legally sold or cultivated in the state though you may see it in nurseries while enforcement is phased in over the next two years. In the meantime, you should not be offered Japanese barberry as a landscaping choice; don’t buy it.

By fall 2023 Japanese barberry should be a thing of the past in the landscaping world but it is rampant in the woods and already may be in your yard. Cultivars were bred for colorful leaves from yellow-green to red to purple.

A reddish variety of Japanese barberry in a garden (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the wild and waste places it reverts to plain green leaves.

Japanese barberry in the woods in May, Connecticut (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

No matter where you find it don’t get too close. If you brush against it — or heaven forbid, have to bushwhack through it! — check your clothing for ticks. Japanese barberry is a magnet for black-legged ticks that harbor Lyme disease. As Wikipedia explains:

It is hypothesized that spread of barberry is correlated with the spread of Lyme disease. Tick numbers are higher in areas with thick barberry understories, as opposed to areas with controlled barberry or no barberry. In one study, 280 ± 51 adult black-legged ticks, Ixodes scapularis, were found per hectare in a barberry infected area, while only 30 ± 10 adult black-legged ticks were found per hectare in otherwise similar area with no barberry present.

Wikipedia Berberis thunbergii account

Do you have Japanese barberry in your yard? Did you get Lyme disease in your garden? After I took the photo at top I found a tick on my pants. Beware!

This 2016 video from Minnesota shows how to recognize Japanese barberry in the wild and then describes how they’ve tried to eradicate it in Minnesota. Flames!

Thankfully Pennsylvania will no longer add new barberry to the landscape. Invasive Japanese barberry is banned at last.

(photos by Kate St. John and from Wikimedia Commons, see the captions)

Fall Colors, Frost, and Bad Air

Colorful trees at Moraine State Park, 3 Nov 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

8 November 2021

Last week began as a warm colorful autumn and ended with frosty mornings. This week begins with bad air.

Before last week’s frost I found splashes of fall color including this amaranth in an unusual place at Phipps Conservatory. Click here to see where this red plant was growing.

Amaranth in an unusual spot at Phipps Conservatory, 30 Oct 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Colorful leaves at Schenley Park, 30 Oct 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

On 4 November the leaves glowed yellow as the sun gained altitude at Frick. When the sun melted the frost, leaves quickly loosened and dropped from the trees.

Sun through golden trees on a frosty morning at Frick Park, 4 Nov 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

On Saturday morning at Yellow Creek State Park the frost was beautiful, ephemeral and cold. Hoarfrost decorated the weeds in the parking lot.

Hoarfrost on a grassy weed, Yellow Creek State Park, 6 Nov 2021, 9:39am (photo by Kate St. John)
Hoarfrost at Yellow Creek State Park, 6 Nov 2021, 9:39am (photo by Kate St. John)

Frost remained in a tree’s shadow but not for long.

Frost in the shadow, Yellow Creek State Park, 6 Nov 2021, 9:49am (photo by Kate St. John)

Last week I re-learned how to dress for winter. This week will be warm with highs in the 60s, lows in the 40s, temperature inversions and bad air in Pittsburgh.

Roger Day captured these views of the Mon Valley yesterday morning, 7 November, from Frick Park’s Riverview overlook. The Allegheny County Health Department has issued an air pollution warning and the state DEP has issued a Code Orange warning. Read more here.

Edgar Thompson Works in Braddock pouring smoke, seen through smog at Frick Park, morning of 7 Nov 2021 (photo by Roger Day)
Inversion: Edgar Thompson Works in the distance, Frick Park, morning of 7 Nov 2021 (photo by Roger Day)
Inversion: Kennywood seen through smog from Frick Park, morning of 7 Nov 2021 (photo by Roger Day)

Don’t breathe!

(photos by Kate St. John & Roger Day)