Archive for the 'Plants' Category

Aug 30 2014

The Good Thistle

Published by under Plants

Swamp thistle in bloom (photo by Kate St. John)

Can a thistle be good?  This one is.

Swamp thistle (Cirsium muticum) is practically smooth.  Its hollow 6-foot stem has no spines and its deeply cut leaves look pointy but aren’t very sharp.  It is very beautiful with big purple flowers that attract bees, butterflies and hummingbird clearwing moths.

Compare this native biennial to other big thistles and this is the one you’ll prefer to touch.  Pasture thistle (Cirsium pumilum) is more prickly though it smells very sweet.  Field thistle (Cirsium discolor) and non-native Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) are so spiny they’re absolutely scary. Wear stout gloves!

The easiest way to identify Swamp thistle is by its bud which looks cob-webby with fine white hairs.  Here’s a closeup.

Swamp Thistle bud (photo by Kate St. John)

Swamp thistle is native to eastern North America from Labrador to Louisiana (and Texas) where it grows in swamps, wet woods and thickets.

I photographed these two at Jennings Prairie in Butler County, Pennsylvania earlier this month.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 17 2014

Yo, Joe!

Published by under Plants

Joe-Pye Weed closeup, Jennings Prairie (photo by Kate St. John)

These are the tiny flowers of a very large plant.

Joe-Pye Weed is huge — 10 feet tall! — and stands out in any setting.  Its small flowers are arranged in large dome-shaped clusters, 6 to 9 inches across, that give dramatic tops to these perennials.

Their size is amazing considering they achieve it in only four months.  Click here for a view of the entire plant.

Two common species in our area, Sweet Joe-Pye (Eutrochium purpureum) and Spotted Joe-Pye (Eutrochium maculatum), are distinguished by the colors on their stems but they hybridize and mix it up.

So big and beautiful, I don’t care which one it is.

Yo, Joe!

 

(photo by Kate St. John, taken at Jennings Prairie, Butler County, Pennsylvania)

p.s.  Read Marcia Bonta’s blog to find out why it’s called “Joe-Pye.”
p.p.s. The genus name only recently changed from Eupatorium to Eutrochium, another case where I prefer the old name.

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Aug 09 2014

August Nectar

Honeybee at blue vervain, August 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

August flowers have broken the nectar dearth.

This honeybee is feeding at blue vervain (Verbena hastata) in Schenley Park.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 30 2014

Peppergrass

Published by under Plants

Peppergrass (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s a pretty plant that grows in ugly places.

Peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum) is a native edible member of the mustard (Brassicaceae) family that occurs naturally in North and Central America.  Sometimes it’s cultivated for its peppery taste.  The young rosette leaves taste like mild arugula and the round flat seed pods, when chewed, are a substitute for black pepper.

However most of us know this plant — if we notice it at all — for its indomitable attitude toward degraded habitat.  It will grow almost anywhere, a trait that has given it the status of “Weed.”

I found this one growing from a crack in the sidewalk of the Greenfield Bridge.

Though one could eat the seed pods from a roadside specimen, don’t do it!   The soil next to a busy road is contaminated with toxic metals from car and truck exhaust. Plants in the Brassicaceae family are such good hyperaccumulators of metals that they can be used to clean up toxic top soil.  This roadside plant is full of toxins.

If you decide to taste peppergrass, look for a plant that’s in good clean soil far from the road.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 20 2014

The Helleborine

Published by under Plants

Helleborine Orchid, McConnell's Mill (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Dick Nugent pointed out — and I’ve noticed too — that this is a particularly good year for Helleborine orchids in western Pennsylvania.

Dick wrote:

This year we have a Helleborine Orchid blooming in our yard. It magically appeared in one of our flower beds. Helleborine is one of the most common orchids in PA. It is an alien species and may be slightly invasive (I have trouble thinking of an orchid as being invasive)[*].  I have been finding them all over western PA in a wide variety of habitats. They are blooming right now and frequently grow on the shoulder of roads and trails.  Like many orchids, I suspect that this one has tiny seeds which are spread by the wind. It is a small flower with many flowers on one stalk. Through a magnifying glass the flower is really pretty.

Dianne Machesney photographed these at McConnell’s Mill State Park.  Here’s a close-up of the flower.

Helleborine Orchid, McConnell's Mill (photo by Dianne Machesney)

The common name got me wondering… Is “Helleborine” a reference to the Greeks as in “Hellenic?”  No.  The name means “like Hellebore,”  a European genus in the buttercup family.  The word began as “ellebore” and acquired a leading H.  Though it doesn’t refer to the Greeks, both Hellebore and Helleborine are foreign plants to North America.

I’m always thrilled to see an orchid, even if it’s an alien.

 

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

[*]  p.s. The species at this link Epipactis helleborine is invasive.

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Jul 19 2014

Thimbleweed

Published by under Plants

Thimbleweed, Armstrong County, 12 July 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

There aren’t many flowers that bloom in the woods in the summer, but you might find this one.

Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) stands 2-3 feet tall in the sun-splashed forest.  The flower has an elongated central disk surrounded by large white petals and is noticeable because it’s alone on a long stalk above the leaves.

When the flower is fertilized, the petals fall off and the central disk becomes a seed pod.  It looks like a thimble, hence the name.

I found this one blooming at the Roaring Run Watershed in Armstrong County last weekend.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 12 2014

Rare in Pink

Published by under Plants

Pink touch-me-not (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

I’ve seen yellow and orange touch-me-not but here’s a rare jewelweed in pink.

Thanks to Marcy Cunkelman for sending this along.  It blooms in her garden.

 

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Jul 08 2014

Detective Work

Published by under Plants,Quiz

Perfoliate, alternate, entire (photo by Kate St. John)

Today we’ll have a plant identification quiz.  I have an answer but you may have a better one.

I found this plant on June 29 at Dead Man’s Hollow in Allegheny County.   The leaves are so distinctive that its identity begs for some detective work.  Here are the clues I gathered:

Leaves:

  • alternate on the stem,
  • edges are entire (not toothed),
  • leaves are perfoliate.  (The stem perforates the leaves, a very cool feature.)
  • bottom leaves are larger than the violet leaves nearby.

The plant had no flowers and no buds.  Instead it had developing fruits which gave me clues about the flowers.  Here are two photos of the fruits.

Developing fruit, 3-sided with 6 sections (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Developing fruit, 3-sided with 6 sections (photo by Kate St. John)

The fruits are:

  • on stems that sprout from perfoliate spots on the leaves
  • three sided with a seam in the middle of each side.  Does this mean the flower was three-petaled or six-petaled?
  • still maturing?  Or are they in their final form?

I looked up “six petals with alternate, entire leaves” in my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide and found a familiar spring wildflower with perfoliate leaves.

However, I am not completely satisfied with my identification.  I have never seen “my plant” arc horizontally like this when it’s blooming and the fruits in the illustration look different.  Is my Newcomb’s Guide missing a species?  Have I never noticed that the plant “lies down” in the summer?  Are the fruits going to match the illustration when they mature in a few weeks?

So here’s the quiz:  What plant is this?

Leave a comment with your answer.  I’ll post my guess after I’ve heard from you.

UPDATE:  See the Comments for the answer and a link to the flowering version of this plant.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 06 2014

Why It’s Called Wingstem

Published by under Plants

Wingstem, upper stem (photo by Kate St. John)

Two months before it blooms we can identify this plant even though it has no flowers.  Look at its stem!

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) is already five feet tall and on its way to eight.  It will look like this in August.  Meanwhile the stem gives away its name.

The “wings” are petiole extensions that run the length of the stem.  The newest wings at the top of the plant are straight with a dark margin. The older part of the stem has long white hairs in the margins. Sometimes the wings are wavy.

Winged stem on Wingstem (photo by Kate St. John)

To me the wings look like flanges.  “Flange-stem?”

Say that three times quickly and you’ll know why it’s called wingstem!

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 05 2014

What The Bee Sees

Pale touch-me-not (photo by Kate St. John)

Blooming now in southwestern Pennsylvania, Pale Touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida) beacons to bees with its yellow landing pad.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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