Category Archives: Schenley Park

Late March in Schenley Park

  • Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), 28 March 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring is coming at a good pace this year. Unlike hot years, such as March 2012, there’s time to appreciate each new leaf and flower before the next set appears.

My photos above show a selection of leaves and flowers at Schenley Park this past week. Most were taken on March 28 but the real surprise was coltsfoot blooming on St. Patrick’s Day. That flower hid for ten days and appeared again last week.

Unfortunately, all of these plants are alien and some are invasive. Their ability to spring ahead of the local plants gives them an advantage all year long.

Click here for that same honeysuckle branch, bud-to-leaves on March 11, 16.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Weeping Willows Hint of Spring

Weeping willow turning yellow, Schenley Park, 15 Feb 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Weeping willows (Salix babylonica) are popular landscape trees that were brought here from Asia. They’re easy to notice at this time of year because their drooping stems turn yellow in very early spring. From a distance you see a splash of yellow.

Imported species, especially those from Europe, grew up in a steady climate with few spring surprises so they’re quick to bloom in the spring and late to drop their leaves in autumn.

Meanwhile our native trees are still brown, conservative about producing tender shoots because they know that volatile spring weather can bring a killing frost in April.

Are you tired of winter? Watch for the weeping willow’s hint of spring.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Sap Freezing

Frozen sap of red oak, 10 Feb 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

The weather this month has been up and down like a yo-yo: A low of 6oF on February 2, highs in the 50s and 60s for six days, then a low of 14oF on February 9. During those warm days the sap started running in the trees. I wouldn’t have noticed except …

On February 10 during a walk in Schenley Park I found flash-frozen sap on the damaged trees. At top, a fallen red oak made a red-orange waterfall. Below, a small amount of sap in a fungi-encrusted tree dripped like orange ribbons.

Sap runs and freezes inside healthy trees, too. We just can’t see it.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Pittsburgh Parks Listening Tour, Now Through April

Schenley Park, Panther Hollow lake, April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

If you live in the City of Pittsburgh and visit our parks you’ll want to participate in this survey, available now through April 2019.

Pittsburgh has 165 parks sprinkled throughout our neighborhoods from small playgrounds to regional parks — Schenley, Frick, Riverview, Highland and the future Hays Woods. The City’s goal is to have well maintained parks within a 10-minute walk of every resident.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that infrastructure is crumbling in many of them. The park system gets big donations for capital improvements (bricks & mortar) but not for maintenance, so we have new buildings like the Frick Environmental Center but deteriorating playgrounds, landscape and trails. How do we fix that inequity and how much will it cost?

The City of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy have teamed up for the Parks Listening Tour, a citywide initiative to hear what neighbors love about our parks and what they would love to improve.

The Listening Tour includes meetings in every neighborhood and online tools. Attend a meeting to find out more or go online to view the presentation and take the survey. Click here for the schedule and online tools.

This is your chance to speak up for the parks. Your comments will shape their future.

(acknowledgements: text and tour logo from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, photo of Schenley Park by Kate St. John)

The Shapes of Trees: Tuliptree

Tuliptree in winter, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

The Shapes of Trees continues today with the tuliptree or yellow-poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera.

Tuliptrees are the tallest eastern hardwood, 70 to 190 feet tall at maturity.  They’re characterized by straight branch-less trunks for most of their height because they jettison their lower branches as they grow.  The crowns have arching branches and up-swept twigs(*). On mature trees some branches are bent or zigzag, but they are never as gnarly as black locusts. 

The photos below show their typical shape as seen from the side and below.  Notice that the trunk is straight and limbless.

Tuliptrees in winter (photos from Bugwood.org: 1609187 by John Ruter, Univ. GA, UGA1118275 by Brian Lockhart, USDA Forest Service)

Younger trees have tapered tops like candle flames.

Young tuliptree with characteristic candle flame shape (photo by Kate St. John)

In early winter tuliptrees are still dotted with clustered samaras that look like pale wooden flowers, but you have to use binoculars to see them. 

If you’re lucky to find a twig at eye level you can easily identify the tree by its large smooth end bud, shaped like a duck’s bill.

Tuliptree twig with duckbill bud (photo by Kate St. John)

But the mature trees have no low hanging twigs so you’ll have to use other clues.

Learn how to identify tuliptrees in winter and see photos of the bark, buds and samaras in this vintage article: Winter Trees: Tuliptree.

(*) Quoted from The Sibley Guide to Trees, page 100.

(first photo and bud photo by Kate St. John. Tuliptrees in winter from Bugwood.org: 1609187 by John Ruter, Univ. GA, UGA1118275 by Brian Lockhart, USDA Forest Service. Click on these links to see the originals)

The Shapes of Trees: Black Locust

Silhouettes of two black locusts in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Now that the leaves have fallen we can see the skeletal shapes of trees.  Did you know it’s possible to identify them by shape?

Seven years ago I wrote a series on identifying trees by their buds and bark but I didn’t mention shape except for this gnarly twisted tree, the black locust.

Black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia) are easy to find in Pittsburgh because we’re within their native range and they grow well in disturbed soil.  They’re often described as brittle and invasive but that’s because of what we did to them. 

Native range of black locust (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Because their hard wood is very durable and prized for furniture, flooring and fence posts, we planted black locusts around the world.  Outside their range the trees became invasive.  Meanwhile their natural enemy, the locust borer (Megacyllene robiniae), followed them wherever they went.

Locust borer larvae drill holes in the heartwood and weaken the tree.  Before 1900 the bugs were in balance but that year the locust borer population exploded everywhere. Since then black locusts are usually infected and brittle so the trees rarely reach full size before they blow down. 

Black locust damaged by locust borer (photo by James Solomon, USDA Forest Service, via Bugwood.org)

But they do retain their distinctive shape.  Here’s another example. 

Gnarled black locust tree (photo by Kate St. John)

On Throw Back Thursday, learn more cool facts about black locusts and how to identify them in this vintage article: Winter Trees: Black Locust.  Then take a walk outdoors to find their distinctive gnarly shapes. 

In the next few months I’ll add more Shapes of Trees as I encounter them outdoors.

(photos by Kate St. John; map from Wikimedia Commons. click on the caption to see the original)

Tiny Opals

Hackberry fruits (photo by Paul Wray, Iowa State University, bugwood.org)

This month I read Lab Girl by Hope Jahren and learned that she made an amazing discovery in 1998 during research for her doctoral dissertation:  Inside common hackberry fruit is a small hard pit with a lattice made of opal.

Hackberry fruits, pictured at top, are drupes similar to cherries and peaches with fleshy fruit surrounding a central pit.  The fruit is thin and the pits are large so we rarely eat hackberries but birds love them.

The pits in cherries and peaches are made of wood (or something like it) but hackberry pits are made of stone: calcium carbonate inside a lattice framework. When Hope Jahren used Xray diffraction on the crushed lattice material its composition came up “opal.” 

When I found this out I searched for the pits under hackberry trees in Schenley Park. At this time of year the fleshy purple fruit is gone, only the white pits remain.  Here’s what I found, one whole, one opened. The exterior is a network of tiny raised lines. 

Opal is in these hackberry pits (photo by Kate St. John)

The pits don’t look like opal and probably never will.  You’d have to use acid to remove the calcium carbonate (the white stuff of seashells) and then examine the remaining latticework under a microscope.  There’s a tiny bit of opal in there.

And so I wonder: How does a tree put opal in its drupes?  I don’t know, but here are the raw materials:

[The rock] Opal is formed from a solution of silicon dioxide and water. As water runs down through the earth, it picks up silica from sandstone, and carries this silica-rich solution into cracks and voids, caused by natural faults or decomposing fossils. As the water evaporates, it leaves behind a silica deposit. This cycle repeats over very long periods of time, and eventually opal is formed. 

From Opals Down Under

Trees take up water that contains dissolved minerals including the building blocks of opal.

Miraculously, the hackberry tree pulls out what it needs and makes an opal latticework inside its drupes.

Learn how to identify hackberry trees in winter at Winter Trees; Hackberry.  Then search the leaf litter for tiny opals.

For further reading see : Hackberry: A Gem of a Weed

(photo credits: hackberry fruits by Paul Wray, Iowa State University, bugwood.org, hackberry pits by Kate St. John)

Snow On Leaves

Snow on leaves, Schenley Park, 16 Nov 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

On Thursday it rained. Then it sleeted. Then it snowed in the wee hours of Friday morning, especially north of Pittsburgh.

In the old days most of the trees would be bare by now, but this year many still have leaves.

Ice and snow made the leaves heavy and some of the trees came down, hitting power lines as they fell.  By Friday morning KDKA reported that 65,000 households north and east of the city were without electricity.  No power, no heat, and for those with well water, no water.  It may take until Sunday evening to get all of the power restored..

The City is warmer than surrounding counties so Schenley Park had snow on the leaves, but no ice.

Snow on leaves, Schenley Park, 16 Nov 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s what my favorite hillside looked like yesterday. 50% of the trees still have leaves.

Only half of the trees are bare, Schenley Park, 16 Nov 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

The power failures wouldn’t have been so bad if most of the trees had been bare. 

(photos by Kate St. John)

When Will Most Of The Trees Be Bare?

Leafless bur oak, Schenley Park, 4 Nov 2011 (photo by Kate St. John)

Every year I record the date when most of the trees are bare on my favorite hillside in Schenley Park — the hill at the end of the Greenfield Bridge.

In 2008 the leaves were gone by 2 November.  In 2012 Hurricane Sandy stripped them from the trees by 4 November.

Last year the changes happened much later. In 2017, the leaves were still green in late October and more than half were still on the trees on 27 November.  Here’s a 2017 slideshow of autumn trees on that hillside.

  • 26 October 2017: Lots of green at the end of October 2017.

This year is similar to last so I wonder … When will most of the trees be bare?  November 15?  20?  30? Later?

Let me know how the trees look where you live and vote for the date “When Most of the Trees Will Be Bare” by leaving a comment below.

HINT!  Two factors that affect leaf loss on this hillside:  (1) More than half of the trees are oaks; oaks drop their leaves later than maples.  (2) This city location is warmer than surrounding counties.

(photo by Kate St. John)