Category Archives: Plants

Ghost Flower

Indian pipe, Schenley Park, 11 July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

I found a ghost flower blooming in Schenley Park last Monday.

Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) looks ghostly because it has no chlorophyll. Instead it’s symbiotic or parasitic on fungi that have a symbiotic/parasitic relationship with tree roots. This makes Indian pipe a parasite on a parasite … sort of.

Though it’s a perennial member of the Heath family, Indian pipe only grows when conditions are perfect and these are so impossible to replicate that the plant isn’t cultivated.

Its stems and flowers grow and bloom in a couple of days. The flowers are pollinated, in part, by long-tongued bees and fade within 1-2 weeks. After pollination the developing fruit makes the flower head stand up. Click here to see.

Later this month I’ll return to see the fruiting stems and will look for remnants of the bizarre truck accident that was in progress when I found the flowers.

Tri-axle truck falls over the hill, 8 July 2019: I found Indian pipe while on a shortcut past the paving project on Serpentine Road. My normal route was closed because a huge tri-axle dump truck had pitched over the hillside, dumped its load of asphalt and was lying on its side. On Tuesday July 9 they winched the truck out of the valley. Unfortunately, as of Friday July 12 the asphalt is still on the hillside. 🙁 Click on the embedded news links to see what the accident looked like.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Look Under The Leaves

Milkweed blooming at Schenley Park, 26 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

All across western Pennsylvania a wide variety of milkweed is blooming and with it come the insects who depend it, especially monarch butterflies.

Look closely at the underside of milkweed leaves. If you find a small white dot it’s a monarch butterfly egg.

The plant I found didn’t have monarch eggs, but here’s a photo from Wikimedia Commons that shows you what to look for.

Monarch butterfly egg on underside of milkweed leaf (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I hope the milkweed leaves in Schenley Park have eggs soon …

(photos by Kate St. John and from Wikimedia Commons)

Scarlet Pimpernel

Scarlet pimpernel blooming in Pittsburgh, 9 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Early this month I found scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) blooming in my city neighborhood. It’s not just a book, it’s a tiny orange-red flower.

Originally from Europe, Western Asia and North Africa the plant is hardy and sometimes invasive. It doesn’t mind growing next to salted roads so it has a lot of habitat in Pittsburgh. This one was growing in a crack in the sidewalk.

When I picked it I didn’t know that the plant is mildly toxic. For some people the leaves cause dermatitis. Fortunately they didn’t affect me.

Scarlet pimpernel is sometimes called poor man’s barometer because the flowers close at night and don’t bother to open on overcast days.

We haven’t had many clouds this summer so you should have no problem finding scarlet pimpernel blooming by a road near you.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Alaskan Flower

Alpine forget-me-not, Denali (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding Tour with PIB: at Denali 15 June 2019

Forget-me-nots in Pennsylvania are the Eurasian species, Myosotis scorpiodes, but in Alaska they have a native one. Found in alpine regions of Europe, Asia and North America, the alpine forget-me-not (Myosotis alpestris) is the State Flower of Alaska.

According to Wikipedia, “it grows well throughout Alaska in open, rocky places high in the mountains, flowering in midsummer. It is also found throughout the Himalaya range at elevations of 9,800–14,100 ft.”

Its common English name, Forget-me-not, is a literal translation of its German name: Vergissmeinnicht.

It blooms at Denali in June.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Is This Tomato Planting Day?

Tomato plants in a "ring culture" (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Tomato plants in a ring culture (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Even though I don’t grow tomatoes I know a gardening rule of thumb from 40 years ago:  “Don’t plant tomatoes outdoors in Pittsburgh until Memorial Day.”

But times have changed.  Our growing season is longer than it used to be. USDA’s 2012 Plant Hardiness Zone map has a warm stripe that follows the Monongahela and Ohio valleys.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map for Pennsylvania as of May 2018 (map from
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map for Pennsylvania as of May 2018 (map from

Neighborhood gardening friends know it, too. They told me, “You can plant tomatoes in mid-May if you want.”

Well, believe it or not I’m not a gardener.  When the growing season arrives I spend all my time birding.  Around Memorial Day (today) I glance at the garden and think, “Something must be done!”  I go out there with my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide and identify what’s growing. I pull out only the noxious weeds and leave everything else in place. At least I know king devil when I see it.

Today isn’t tomato planting day at my house, but I might pull a weed or two.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, map from USDA. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Used To Be Wild Flowers

Tulips (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We often forget that garden flowers were originally wildflowers. This is easy to do with tulips because they look so perfect and don’t match any of our wildflowers.

Tulips (Tulipa sp.) are members of the Lily family (Liliaceae) originally from southern Europe and Central Asia. Their nearest relatives are three wildflower genera, shown in the slideshow below.

  • Erythronium: The leaves are the right shape but the flower faces down. This is the genus of our trout lilies.
  • Amana: The flower looks like a tiny white tulip but the leaves are too narrow.
  • Gagea: This mostly Asian genus has thin leaves and more open flowers, least like a tulip.
  • Erythronium caucasicum, native to central Caucasus and North Iran (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

None of the tulips’ wild relatives look exactly like a tulip because they’ve been cultivated and crossbred since the 10th century in Persia. In the 1500s, Europeans visiting the Ottoman Empire saw garden tulips and were so impressed that they brought them home. Everyone fell in love with them.

By the 1600s tulips were a luxury item, The Netherlands was the main tulip-producing nation, and the most prized tulips were those with a color “break” of two or more colors, often striped as shown below. (Ironically the “break” was caused by a virus that damaged the tulip.)

The Semper Augustus Tulip, the most expensive tulip sold during Tulip Mania (image from Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1630s the Netherlands developed a futures market on tulip bulbs and set the stage for Tulip Mania, a period of wild speculation in 1636-1637. At the height of Tulip Mania the top price paid for a coveted tulip rose to 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. It’s hard to translate that into today’s dollars, but my guess is $500,000 to $1 million for a single tulip bulb.

The mania ended abruptly when the market collapsed in February 1637.

Tulips went back to the garden and eventually escaped to the wild in western Europe. After all, they used to be wild flowers.

This 7-minute video is a good explanation of Tulip Mania.

(photos and chart from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Quiz: Which Ones Are Lilies?

Day lily (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last weekend we learned about a member of the Lily family called false hellebore. Today, a quiz.

All of these flowers have the word “lily” in their names but not all of them are in the Lily family (Lilieae). Can you point out the true lilies?

  1. Day lily, above
  2. Canada lily, below.
Canada lily, Raccoon Creek State Park, July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

3. Cala lily

Cala lily (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4. Trout lily.

Trout lily (photo by Kate St. John)

5. Lily of the Valley

Lily of the valley (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6. Bluebead lily (Clintonia)

Clintonia borealis (yellow blue-bead lily), Ashford, CT (photo by Doug McGrady, Creative Commons license on Flickr)

Leave a comment with your answer. Later today I’ll put the answers in a comment of my own.

(photos by Kate St. John, Doug McGrady Creative Commons license on Flickr, and from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)

False Hellebore: Pretty And Poisonous

False hellebore (photo by Kate St. John)

In eastern North America, spiral stalks of pleated leaves are often found in wet places where skunk cabbage grows. These pretty leaves are sometimes mistaken for skunk cabbage or wild leeks but a word to the wise: leave them alone. This plant is false hellebore (Veratrum viride) and it is very poisonous.

False hellebore is a member of the lily family that grows in wet meadows, hillside seeps, and along stream banks. It blooms in big greenish-yellow clusters but I’ve never seen its flowers, probably because I only notice the plant in late April when it isn’t blooming.

In fact, lots of people in Appalachia notice false hellebore in the spring because they’re looking for ramps (wild leeks, Allium tricoccum) to eat at home. Those who mistakenly eat false hellebore are in for a very bad time:

Symptoms of false hellebore poisoning include burning sensation in the mouth and throat, excessive salivation, cold sweat, headache, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain and gastrointestinal distress (diarrhea, gas), slow respiration and breathing difficulty, slow and irregular heartbeat, low blood pressure, and spasms or convulsions. If not promptly and effectively treated, false hellebore poisoning can cause general paralysis and even death. It is also known to cause birth defects.

from National Parks Traveler

The comments at this National Parks Traveler link tell some harrowing tales.

It’s good to know what all three look like: Ramps, skunk cabbage and false hellebore.

Ramp season is mostly over but here’s some advice for next year. When in doubt, crush the leaves. Ramps smell like onions.

(photos of false hellebore and skunk cabbage by Kate St. John, photo of ramps from Wikimedia Commons)

Irritants Are Leafing Out

Poison ivy, young leaves, 25 April 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Trees are not the only plants leafing out right now, so are two irritating plants.

Poison Ivy:

The young leaves on woody stems (above) look a lot like the new leaves of ash or maple saplings, but don’t be fooled. This is poison ivy.

Look at the plant from above to count 3 leaves. Notice that the stem on the middle leaf is much longer than the other two, a telltale sign of poison ivy.

Poison ivy, 24 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

For more identification tips, check the poison ivy ID page at

Stinging Nettle:

Stinging nettle (photo by Kate St. John)

Stinging nettle looks innocent until you touch it.

The stems and leaves are coated with tiny hollow hairs that contain histamines and painful chemicals. When you touch the plant the hairs detach and become needles in your skin. Look closely to see them on the leaf edges and stems below.

Stinging nettle resembles a lot of other nettles so the best way to identify it is to look closely for those tiny hairs. Watch out! … Ow!

(photos by Kate St. John)

Now Blooming

Bluets at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 16 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 April 2019

Wildflowers are blooming, elms are setting seed, and some early trees are leafing out. Here’s a sampling of buds and blooms this week in southwestern Pennsylvania.

At Raccoon Wildflower Reserve on Tuesday our group found many flowers opening including bluets (above) and early saxifrage (below). Our complete list is at the end.

Early saxifrage at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 16 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

The trail at Racoon Wildflower Reserve was littered with the tips of sugar maple branches, chiseled off by squirrels. These Acer saccharum buds are opening to reveal new flowers.

Sugar maple bud opening at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 16 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile in the City where it’s warmer …

This spruce in Shadyside was flowering, too. The pink buds will become cones.

American elms (Ulmus americana) have already set seed. You can tell this is an American (not slippery) elm because the samaras are deeply notched.

American elm samaras from Schenley Park, 16 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

In Schenley Park, invasive Norway maples (Acer platanoides) are leafing out.

Norway maple leaf-out in Schenley Park, 17 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spend time outdoors this weekend and see what’s blooming near you.

Here’s are list of flowers seen at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve on Tuesday 16 April 2019, in no particular order. Many flowers were only beginning to open. By now they’ll be in full bloom.

(photos by Kate St. John)