Category Archives: Plants

Why Not To Clear Your Garden This Fall

Goldenrod gall with a woodpecker hole (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I’ll bet you have a gardening project planned this weekend or next. Here’s some time-saving advice:  Don’t clear your garden in the fall.

Why not?

  • Seeds on the old plants provide winter food for birds and animals.
  • Insects overwinter on plants in egg masses, cocoons and galls.  Birds eat those insects. 
  • The brush provides shelter for the birds.
  • You won’t have to mulch.
  • You’ll enjoy watching birds among the old plants.

The photo at top shows that an old goldenrod gall contained food for a woodpecker. He hammered a hole to get the bug.

On Throw Back Thursday, read more about this time saving plan in a 2010 article: Why Not to Clear Your Garden

p.s. The only downside I can think of is this: It’s hard to plant bulbs when the old stuff is in the way. 

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

What’s a Peduncle?

Fuji apples (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a puzzle. Don’t google it.  Look at the photos to arrive at an answer.

In botany: What is a peduncle?

We encounter peduncles every day though we don’t use the word much anymore.  Since 1950 the word has fallen out of common use and because it looks like pedophile+uncle the urban dictionary lists a raunchy meaning. But that’s not what it is.

Peduncle comes from ped (Latin for foot) plus -uncle (an Old French diminutive ending) so it literally means tiny foot.

Each photo on this page has at least one visible peduncle.  Can you find it?

Black raspberries (photo by Kate St. John)
Elderberries at Jennings, 4 Aug 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Elderberries at Jennings, 4 Aug 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Fruit of the ginkgo tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a clue.  The number of peduncles in each photo above is:

  • Apples = 1
  • Black raspberries = 5 (three are hidden)
  • Elderberries = too many to count
  • Ginkgos = 9

Final clue: The photo below shows no fruit, but it has peduncles.

Fruit stems on a Sassafras Tree (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Still stumped?  Click here for the answer.

(photos from Kate St. John, Dianne Machesney and Wikimedia Commons. Click on the Wikimedia captions to see the originals.)

The Gall Tells All

Goldenrod gall (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In September the globes embedded in goldenrod stems are undergoing a special process.  The bug inside each one is getting ready for winter.

These ball-shaped galls are made by the larvae of the goldenrod gall fly. If you open a gall you’ll find the larva inside. You might accidentally slice the bug in half. (Eeewww!)

Goldenrod gall fly larva inside the gall (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Since the goldenrod gall fly uses only a couple of species for hosting its eggs, the gall helps you name the plant.  Goldenrods are notoriously difficult to identify but I’ve heard that in western PA most of the flies lay their eggs on Solidago canadensis

An adult female fly is shown below, much larger than real life. She’s slightly bigger than a housefly.

Goldenrod gall fly, adult female (Florida Division of Plant Industry , Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services,

In the spring she uses her sharp ovipositor to insert her eggs into goldenrod stems near the developing buds. When the eggs hatch, each larva chooses a place to rest and eat. Its saliva contains a chemical that induces the plant to grow a gall which becomes the larva’s food and shelter.

The larva molts twice and overwinters inside the gall, surviving even the coldest winters because it has “anti-freeze” in its body.

Goldenrod gall in winter (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

In September the larva prepares its exit strategy, even though that won’t happen until next spring.  It digs a narrow tunnel to the outside that doesn’t break the surface. Next spring when it becomes an adult, the fly will chew a hole in the outer cover to escape.

Not all of them make it. During the winter downy woodpeckers and chickadees probe the galls to eat the bugs.

Read more about the goldenrod gall fly at the University of Wisconsin Master Gardener Program.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and (click on linked captions to see the originals); winter goldenrod gall by Marcy Cunkelman)

Blue Beads In The Woods

Blue beads on clintonia, September 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

In September keep an eye out for blue beads in the woods.  Yellow Clintonia has gone to seed.

Clintonia borealis is native to the boreal forest but also grows in western Pennsylvania, especially in the Laurel Highlands.  I was surprised to find this one a few years ago in Moraine State Park.

If you find green beads, come back later for the beautiful blue.

Unripe bluebeads, starting to turn blue (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Blue Flower Beverage

Chickory in bloom (photo by Kate St. John)

For months we’ve been seeing chicory’s daisy-like blue flowers blooming by the roads and trails.

Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is native to Europe where it’s been cultivated as food for people and forage for livestock since at least Roman times.  Settlers brought it to North America for food and it soon became a weed.  In Colorado it’s listed as a noxious weed.

We eat chicory’s leaves, buds and roots but we call it by different names depending on its purpose.  The varieties grown for leaves and buds are called endive, radicchio, Belgian endive, sugarloaf (and others). The variety grown for roots is called chicory.  Just to confuse things, in the U.S. chicory’s close relative curly endive (Cichorium endivia) is sometimes called chicory.

Chicory roots are minced, roasted, ground, and then blended with coffee or brewed as a substitute.  Since chicory has no caffeine, it’s a good coffee substitute if you like the taste. Otherwise people drink it straight when they can’t get coffee, usually during economic crises and wars such as the Great Depression and World War II.  New Orleans still prefers chicory-blend coffee, a tradition since the Civil War.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you eat chicory from the wild you’ll find it’s bitter compared to cultivated varieties. Remember, don’t forage by busy roads. Those plants absorb pollution from vehicles and residue from pesticide and defoliant sprays.

Read more about chicory, foraging and brewing at these links:

(chicory photo by Kate St. John. coffee cup from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Great Lobelia

Great lobelia closeup (photo by Kate St. John)

When I wrote about cardinal flower in late August Carol Smith remarked, “By now my cardinal flower is finished blooming. Yesterday we saw three hummers at one time sipping nectar from great blue lobelia flowers. Even though they aren’t red, they are apparently a good nectar source and … they bloom a little later. “

Perhaps the hummingbirds saw the flowers’ resemblance.  Great lobelia or great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is in the same genus as cardinal flower.   The plants are a similar height and the flowers a similar shape.

Great lobelia (left) and cardinal flowers (right) are similar in shape, though not color

Great lobelia grows in medium to wet soil so it tolerates drier locations than cardinal flower.  The blue one will grow in a drainage ditch by the trail; the red one always has wet feet. 

I don’t have to bushwhack to get close to great lobelia.  I took this photo while standing above the plant. 

Great lobelia in bloom from above (photo by Kate St. John)

Notice how the flowers spiral around the stem — another example of the Fibonacci sequence that I wrote about this week.

Big and blue this lobelia is great.

(photos of great lobelia by Kate St. John; cardinal flower by Tim Vechter)

Why Sunflowers Follow The Sun

Sunflower field (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know that young sunflowers follow the sun? They face east at sunrise, track the sun across the sky, and face west at sunset.  The next morning they’re all facing east again!

This trait is called heliotropism but only young sunflowers do it.

Adult sunflowers always face east.  That’s why this field is not facing the sun in the late afternoon — the flowers are (probably) adults.

Sunflowers NOT facing the sun (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

How do sunflowers do this? 

Their secret is explained this Science Magazine video.

Read more in this NPR article from August 2016.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. video from Science Magazine on YouTube)

Pros and Cons of Stinging Nettle

Close-up of the top of stinging nettle (photo by Kate St. John)

Right now it’s too hot to wear long pants while hiking, but I wear them anyway to protect my legs from poison ivy and stinging nettle.

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is hard to avoid in early September. Three to seven feet tall, it leans into the trail completely coated with hollow stinging hairs that contain histamines and painful chemicals.  The whole plant is shown below with the closeup circled in red.

Stinging nettle with crown circled in red (photo by Kate St. John)
Stinging nettle with crown circled in red (photo by Kate St. John)

A gentle brush against the plant causes the hollow hairs to detach and become needles in your skin.  The sting is memorable. For those desperate to hold the plant a firm grasp flattens the hairs so that fewer penetrate.   This is counter-intuitive and not for the faint of heart.

Closeup of stinging nettle needles (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

That’s the bad news, here’s the good.  Stinging nettle is the host plant for quite a few butterflies and moths. Here are two North American butterflies whose caterpillars rely on it:

The Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)

Red admiral butterfly on milkweed (photo by Dianne Machesney)

and the Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis)

Question mark butterfly dorsal view (photo by Kate St. John)
Question mark butterfly dorsal view (photo by Kate St. John)
Question mark butterfly showing its punctuation (photo by Kate St. John)

As with many things, a closer look reveals both pros and cons.

UPDATE:  Another good thing (sort of). Several readers have pointed out that stinging nettle is edible. Yes, it is.  My 1975 edition of The Joy of Cooking has a recipe for nettle soup. The first step is: “Using rubber gloves to protect you from the stinging nettles, remove the central stem from 1 quart of young nettle tops.”
You’d have to gather a quart of young nettle tops. No thank you!

(photo credits: green stinging nettle and question mark photos by Kate St. John; closeup of stinging nettle stingers from Wikimedia Commons, red admiral butterfly by Dianne Machesney)

Blooming Where It’s Wet

Ruby-throated hummingbird at cardinal flower (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) are on migration now, heading for their wintering grounds in Central America.  On the way they look for red flowers to sip.

This native perennial — cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) — is one of their favorites. 

Look for cardinal flower along creeks and marshes. You’ll find it blooming where it’s wet.

(photo by Lauri Shaffer at, video by the Capital Naturalist on YouTube)