Category Archives: Plants & Fungi

Fleabane’s Daily Exercise Program

Philadelphia fleabane, 17 May 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

5 August 2021

Fleabane has a daily exercise regimen that responds to light.

Daisy fleabane, 30 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

At sunset Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus) and daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus) close their ray petals and bow their heads. In the morning they raise their heads and open their petals, ready for insect pollination.

The process is called nyctinasty and is controlled by their circadian clocks.

Daisy fleabane opening in the morning (photo by Kate St. John)

Learn more about their exercise program and how to identify daisy and Philadelphia fleabane in this vintage article: The Bane of Fleas.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Two Tobaccos

Indian tobacco at Moraine State Park, 30 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

3 August 2021

Indian tobacco is a poisonous plant unrelated to cultivated tobacco yet it has the same name. What’s the difference?

Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata) is native to eastern North America with tiny blue flowers on a plant six inches to three feet tall. The flowers are so small you might not notice them among the plant’s rumpled leaves. The one pictured above is blooming this week in Moraine State Park.

The plant’s alternate name is “puke weed” for good reason.

This acrid poisonous annual is found in a variety of sites, often in poor soil. The American Indians were said to have smoked and chewed its leaves; hence the common name. Though once used as an emetic, the root should not be eaten, for if taken in quantity it can be fatal.

wildlfower.org description of Lobelia inflata

Both tobaccos are poisonous but in different ways.

Indian tobacco contains multiple alkaloid compounds that are poisonous if ingested. A member of the family Campanulaceae, it is related to bellflowers, not related to real tobacco. You can be poisoned by Indian tobacco if you swallow it.

Cultivated tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) is a hybrid of two or three wild tobaccos native to the Andes Mountains of Bolivia and Argentina. It’s in Family Solanaceae and related to tomatoes, potatoes, and some very poisonous plants including Datura. You can see that the tobacco flower is quite different from the Indian tobacco flower.

Tobacco is poisonous because it contains nicotine which can hurt you in a number of ways. Did you know it be absorbed through the skin? Tobacco workers must wear gloves, long sleeve shirts, long pants and water-resistant clothing to prevent nicotine poisoning that causes nausea and vomiting and can lead to heat stroke.

In a choice between the two tobaccos I’d rather deal with the Lobelia.

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

Late July Flowers and Seeds

Oxeye or false sunflower, Nine Mile Run Trail, 29 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

31 July 2021

In late July field flowers bloom while others develop seeds.

The photo at top of oxeye or false sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides) was supposed to be a documentation photo so I could study the leaves. Can you find the milkweed bug on one of the flowers?

Blue vervain (Verbena hastata) is blooming at Presque Isle State Park where I took this photo on Wednesday. Vervain flowers are so small that the plant looks boring from afar. It is well worth a closer look.

Blue Vervain, Presque Isle State Park, 28 July 2021

On Thursday Charity Kheshgi and I explored the grassland top of the slag heap at Nine Mile Run. In one area the slag is so porous that rainwater percolates straight though it, creating a desert habitat. Nonetheless we found a vibrant orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in bloom.

Butterfly weed at the slag heap, 29 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Namesake plant: Dwarf St. John’s wort (Hypericum mutilum) is native to North America.

Dwarf St. John’s wort, Moraine State Park, 30 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Seeds! Redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) in the city parks have a bumper crop of seed pods this year.

Redbud seed pods, thick on the branches, Nine Mile Run Trail, 29 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Nodding thistle (Carduus nutans) has gone to seed along the lower Nine Mile Run Trail where it looked like this in June (click here). We saw many American goldfinches feeding on these natural thistle feeders.

Nodding thistle seeds, Nine Mile Run Trail, 29 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Today is our last chance to enjoy July. The weather is lovely in Pittsburgh so get outdoors.

(photos by Kate St. John)

True and False Sunflowers

Oxeye or false sunflowers at Jennings Prairie, August 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

25 July 2021

At Jennings Prairie Richard Nugent taught me a trick for identifying sunflowers true and false.

Sunflowers are daisy-like composites with a central disc surrounded by ray petals. The disc contains many tiny flowers.

True sunflowers: In true sunflowers, genus Helianthus, the fertile parts are all in the central disc where this bee is feeding. The ray petals are showy but not flowers in their own right.

Tall sunflower with bumblebee, Jennings Prairie (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s easy to find true sunflowers at Jennings Prairie. Tall sunflowers (Helianthus giganteus) towered over our heads.

Tall sunflowers, Jennings Prairie (photo by Kate St. John)

False sunflowers: False sunflowers have fertile rays in addition to the central disc. If you pull off a ray petal you’ll see a tiny pistil at the end where it was attached.

That’s why another name for oxeye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) is false sunflower.

Oxeye or false sunflowers, Jennings Prairie (photo by Kate St. John)

This method is so much easier than deciphering the leaves among Helianthus species.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Blooming This Week in July

Nodding onion (Allium cernuum) at Phipps fence, 19 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

24 July 2021

The weather came out of the northwest bringing cooler temperatures on Tuesday and Wednesday and smoke from the Canadian wildfires more than 1,000 miles away. Even when the air quality was bad this week I went outdoors. Perhaps I was fooled that it was OK since it didn’t have that sulfur smell typical of Pittsburgh pollution.

This week I went further afield than Schenley Park. Here are highlights from Frick, Schenley, Aspinwall Riverfront Park and Moraine State Park. The captions tell the story.

Horse nettle (Solanum carolinense), Frick Park, 20 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Black Snakeroot (Actaea racemosa or Cimicifuga racimosa) at Moraine State Park, 22 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) has small flowers that we rarely see up close because they bloom on a six foot spike.

Common mullein inflorescence, Aspinwall Riverfront Park, 21 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

We definitely notice the spike. And then the rest of the plant.

Common mullein, Aspinwall Riverfront Park, 21 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile, my namesake plant is still blooming. This one was at Moraine State Park.

St. John’s wort (Hypericum sp.), Moraine State Park, 22 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Photos From a Humid Week

Peppergrass, Duck Hollow, 3 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

10 July 2021

Pittsburgh’s weather fluctuated this week from pleasant to oppressively humid. Always late to get outdoors, I missed the best part of each day. The flowers were open but the birds were hiding at:

  • Duck Hollow and Lower Nine Mile Run on 3 July. 73 degrees, a pleasant day!
  • Montour Trail on 5 July. 85 degrees in the shade, cooler in Enlow Tunnel.
  • Three Rivers Heritage Trail on the South Side on 6 July. Almost 90 degrees and very sunny.
Echinacea, Lower Nine Mile Run Trail, 3 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tall meadowrue, Montour Trail, 5 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Fringed loosestrife, Montour Trail, 5 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
White avens, Lower Nine Mile Run Trail, 3 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bush honeysuckle fruit, Lower Nine Mile Run Trail, 3 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

I was dripping with sweat on 6 July when I found this namesake plant, St. John’s wort (Hypericum prolificum), pushing up from a crack in the sidewalk. What a hardy plant standing tall on a hot day. I wilted after 30 minutes in the sun.

St. Johnswort pushing up from a crack in the sidewalk, South Side Pittsburgh, 6 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

p.s. A story about peppergrass.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Flowers on the Cusp of July

Yarrow in unusual pink, Schenley Park, 29 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

3 July 2021

As June turned into July I found yarrow (Achillea millefolium) blooming an unusual pink in Schenley Park.

Daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus) flowers close at night and reopen in the morning. I caught these petals in the act at Frick Park on the last day of June.

Daisy fleabane opening on a chilly day, Frick Park, 30 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Sulphur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) turned its face to the sun at Piney Tract on 23 June.

Sulphur cinquefoil at Piney Tract, 23 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Blooming now in Schenley Park, bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) opens its flowers from the bottom up.

Bottlebrush buckeye in bloom, Schenley Park, 28 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

The word bladder has unpleasant connotations but also describes anything both inflated and hollow. The bladdernut tree (Staphylea trifolia) has inflated and hollow seed pods, seen yesterday at Frick Park.

Bladdernut seed pods, Frick Park, 2 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

And on the subject of bladders, bladder campion’s (Silene vulgaris) pink, inflated flowers drew our attention at Piney Tract on 23 June. Thanks to Barb Griffith for the photo.

Bladder campion, Piney Tract, 23 June 2021 (photo by Barb Griffith)

Two species in this list are not native to North America. Can you name which ones?

(photos by Kate St. John and Barb Griffith)

Milkweed and Scissor-Grinders

Swamp milkweed with carpenter bee, yellow jacket, and pearl crescent butterfly (photo by Kate St. John)

1 July 2021

July is the month for bugs and field flowers and late nesting birds — for milkweed and scissor-grinder cicadas.

Among the milkweeds my favorite is swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) for its vibrant pink color and more delicate leaves. Insects like it, too.

July is also when the first scissor-grinder cicadas (Neotibicen pruinosus) appear (in my neighborhood, first heard on 3 July 2021). Their whirring drone is said to resemble the sound of scissors being ground or sharpened, but who among us has heard that manufacturing sound? Scissor-grinders are more common than the sound they were named for.

Scissor-grinder annual cicada, Pittsburgh PA, (photo by Kate St. John)

Lots more is on tap for the month of July. Check out the list in this vintage article: Milkweed or What to Look for in July.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Enchanting Sky and Flowers

Sunrise on 24 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

26 June 2021

The sky was enchanting on Thursday morning while enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana or perhaps Circaea canadensis) was blooming in Schenley Park.

Enchanter’s nightshade, Schenley Park, 25 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

On 16 June, six of us were enchanted by mountain laurel and hundreds of pitcher plants blooming at Spruce Bog on top of Laurel Mountain.

  • Mountain laurel on Laurel Mountain, 16 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

In the slideshow above, notice the leaf that’s wrapped and sealed into a tube. The structure was made by an insect. I don’t know which one.

p.s. Read more here about the enchanter’s nightshade name. Interestingly the plant is not in the nightshade family.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Becoming Summer

Yellow Goat’s Beard flower and seed pod, 11 June 2021, Moraine State Park (photo by Kate St. John)

12 June 2021

Temperatures have fluctuated widely in the past couple of weeks — from chilly damp to searing heat — but the plants and insects keep on their steady march to summer.

Above, yellow goat’s beard (Tragopogon dubius) now has both flowers and seeds.

Below, this sprig of bedstraw (Galium sp) has almost finished blooming with just one flower and many seeds. The plant feels sticky because its stems, leaves, and seed pods are all covered in tiny hooked bristles that act like Velcro.

Bedstraw gone to seed, 11 June 2021, Moraine State Park (photo by Kate St. John)

In Schenley Park the tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) have finished blooming, the “tulips” are fading and dropping their petals.

Tuliptree flower is fading, 8 June 2021, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

As birdsong wanes the bugs are taking over the soundscape. I’ve already heard the first crickets and an unknown-to-me insect that buzzes at 5,000 hertz in Schenley Park.

And who is this? None of us could name him yesterday at Moraine State Park. Can you identify this hunched insect with bright orange antenna tips? If so, please leave a comment.

UPDATE: This insect is a leaf-footed bug, probably Acanthocephalus terminalis, thanks to Kim’s comment.

Who is this? Insect at Moraine State Park, 11 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Who is this? Insect at Moraine State Park, 11 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)