Archive for the 'Plants' Category

Nov 21 2015

Violets In November

Published by under Plants,Weather & Sky

Violets blooming on November 13 in Pittsburgh (photo by Fran Bungert)

Violets blooming on 13 November 2015 in Pittsburgh (photo by Fran Bungert)

Just over a week ago Fran Bungert was walking in South Park with her husband and dogs when she came upon some violets in bloom and sent me this picture from her cellphone.

November is a very odd time for violets (Viola sororia sororia).  They normally bloom from April to June.

Are they confused by our warm El Niño autumn?  Or have some violets always bloomed in November and I’ve just not paid attention?

What do you think?


(photo by Fran Bungert)

5 responses so far

Nov 15 2015

The Resurrection Plant

Published by under Plants

Unfolding of Selaginella lepidophylla when watered; time span 3 hours (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Unfolding of Selaginella lepidophylla when watered; time span 3 hours (image from Wikimedia Commons)

On the way to somewhere else I found …

A desert plant that curls into a ball and “hibernates” during dry weather, then revives at the touch of water.

You’ll never see this plant in Pennsylvania unless you buy one as a novelty item to wow your friends.

Selaginella lepidophylla is a spikemoss native to the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico and the southwestern U.S. with many common names including false rose of Jericho, rose of Jericho, resurrection plant, resurrection moss, and doradilla.  Its resurrection ability is similar to the real Rose of Jericho, Anastatica, native to the Middle East and Sahara.

How long does it take this plant to revive?  The photos were snapped at five minute intervals over a period of three hours.

I stumbled upon this animation while searching for photos of Lycopodium because a second (synonymous) scientific name for the resurrection plant is Lycopodium lepidophyllum

Who knew!


(image from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

2 responses so far

Nov 01 2015

Now What?

Published by under Plants

Halloween pumpkins, uncarved (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Halloween pumpkins, uncarved (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Our Halloween pumpkins have reverted to vegetables.  Let me be the first to suggest what to do with them now that the holiday is over.

Did you carve the pumpkin?  It’ll rot soon.  You could throw it in a garbage bag for the landfill or …

Carved pumpkin, rotting (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

  • Compost it.
  • Cut it up and feed it to wildlife. (Don’t litter, though.)
  • Bury it in your garden to enrich the soil.

Is it uncarved?  Then it’ll last longer “as is” or you can open and eat it.

  • Continue to use the pumpkin as a decoration until it begins to decay.
  • Bake and puree the flesh to turn it into pumpkin pie, etc.
  • Toast and eat the seeds.

For a really good list, see Jessica’s 2014 post at BrightNest:  7 things to do with your old pumpkin


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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Oct 28 2015

I Yam Not A Yam

Published by under Plants

Sweet potatoes or yams (photo by Jérôme Sautret via Wikimedia Commons)

Yams a.k.a. sweet potatoes (photo by Jérôme Sautret via Wikimedia Commons)

The other day I was eating a yam and wondered where the name “yam” came from.  The Oxford English Dictionary said the word is from West Africa and it’s not the name of the plant I was eating.

True yams are in the Dioscoreaceae family. Native to Africa and Asia, there are many cultivated varieties. Our yams were named by African slaves who saw the resemblance to their yams back home.  A true yam (African type) looks like this.

True yams in Brixton market (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

True yams in Brixton market (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

North America does have native members of the Dioscoreaceae family but we don’t eat them.  Have you ever seen these leaves in the woods, often in a whorl?  Wild yamroot (Dioscorea villosa) is common in western Pennsylvania.

Wild yam leaves (photo by Tim McCormack from Wikimedia Commons)

Wild yamroot leaves (photo by Tim McCormack from Wikimedia Commons)

The yams we eat are Ipomoea batatas.  They’re labeled Yams in the grocery store because of USDA rules.  White inside = “sweet potato.” Orange inside = “yam.”  They’re the same plant.

Should we call them sweet potatoes instead?  Well, that’s not accurate either.  They’re not in the same family as potatoes (Solanaceae family).

The Ipomoea batatas flower gives us a clue to its identity.  What family does this look like?

Ipomoea batatas flower (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Ipomoea batatas flower (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yes, our sweet-potato-yam is a member of the morning glory family, Convolvulaceae.


I’ll call it a yam so I can find it in the grocery store.


Read more here at the Huffington Post: What’s the difference between sweet potatoes and yams?

(photos from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the images to see the originals)

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Oct 25 2015

Giant Puffball

Published by under Plants,Schenley Park

Giant puffball mushroom in Schenley Park, 18 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Giant puffball mushroom, 18 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

No, that’s not a soccer ball in the woods.  It’s a giant puffball mushroom.

Giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantea) grow within a few weeks to become 4″ to 28″ in diameter.  Really giant ones can be 59 inches across and weigh 44 pounds.

They’re edible while young (white inside), not edible when mature (anything but white inside; turns yellow then greenish-brown), and then they decompose. 

Don’t rush out there and eat one unless you know what you’re doing.  Here’s a video that describes how to identify and cook them.

Notice this mushroom’s size compared to the oak leaves.  I wonder how much larger it will grow.

Giant puffball mushroom in Schenley Park, 18 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Giant puffball mushroom, 18 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Close by was an open one, perhaps broken by an animal.  It was still white inside.

Giant puffball, broken open (photo by Kate St. John)

Giant puffball, broken open (photo by Kate St. John)

I’d never seen giant puffballs in the city before but spied these during a long walk in my neighborhood last Sunday.

I left them where I found them.  I’m not so fond of mushrooms that I’d pick and eat wild ones on my own.


(photos by Kate St. John)

4 responses so far

Oct 21 2015

A Starburst Of …

Published by under Plants,Quiz

What is this?

What is this?

Today, a quiz!  What is this?


  • Six of us found these unusual starbursts sticking out of the ground at Wolf Creek Narrows, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania on October 14.
  • The starburst measures 1.25 inches across.
  • The stalk stands a foot tall.
  • There are no leaves on the stalk nor at the base of the stalk.
  • Each tip ends in a shiny black bead. (Some of the beads fell off my specimen.)
  • A Google image search on this photo results in pictures of jewelry:-)

Bonus Question:  What U.S. city is named for this plant?

Leave a comment with your answer.  After you’ve had a chance to vote I’ll post the answer in the Comments.


(photo by Kate St. John)

7 responses so far

Oct 20 2015

These Aren’t Leaves

Published by under Plants

Liverwort ay Slippery Rock Gorge (photo by Kate St. John)

Liverwort (photo by Kate St. John)

Though these look like leaves, they aren’t.  They’re liverwort, a plant related to moss that often grows right next to it.

The flat green ribbons place this plant in the thallose liverwort group.  There are also leafy liverworts that look like moss, some so tiny that they require an expert with a magnifying glass to identify them.

Liverworts (Marchantiophyta) are ancient plants with these amazing characteristics:

  • They have no water transport system (i.e. non-vascular). Without internal pipes they’re at water’s mercy to come and go wherever it will. Thus they don’t grow tall.
  • They have no protection against water loss so liverworts have evolved the ability to dehydrate and recover in a technique similar to hibernation.
  • Liverworts’ cells contain only a single set of chromosomes (haploid). They produce diploid cells only for reproduction.  Animals and most plants are the opposite with double chromosomes in our normal cells and singles only for reproduction.
  • Liverworts have no roots.  Instead they have specialized cells on the underside called rhizoids that cling to the surface.  Each cell is holding on!

Look closely and you can see that the “leaf” is a mosaic of plates, each with a dot in the middle.  The dots look like stomata for regulating water loss but they’re actually air pockets.  (Click here for a schematic from the University of British Columbia.)

Liverwort, closeup (photo by Kate St.John)

Liverwort, closeup (photo by Kate St.John)

Liverwort got its name during the Doctrine of Signatures era when people believed that plants that resembled a body part treated diseases of that body part.  Since liverwort resembled animal livers people thought it must be a good treatment for liver disease.  Liver + wort is “liver-plant.”   In reality, liverworts have no medicinal use.

Because they’re at water’s mercy look for liverworts in cool, damp, shady places.  I found these on a north-facing cliff near Breakneck Falls at McConnell’s Mill State Park.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Oct 12 2015

Not Yellow Beans

Published by under Plants

Spreading dogbane seed pods (photo by Kate St. John)

Indian hemp(?) seed pods (photo by Kate St. John)

In October these seed pods look like long yellow beans but they’re actually the “fruits” of Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum) … or maybe spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium).  (See comments below!)

When you see the entire plant they don’t look edible — and they aren’t!  The plant is called “dogbane” because it’s poisonous to dogs and mammals including humans.

Spreading dogbane with seed pods (photo by Kate St. John)

Indian hemp(?) with seed pods (photo by Kate St. John)



During the winter, the pods turn dark brown and crack open to reveal fluff and seeds inside, similar to milkweed.  Click here to see.

Find a spreading dogbane this month and watch the pods change and open over the winter.


p.s. I originally called this plant spreading dogbane because the stems are ‘spreading’ and red but it is probably Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum) as you can see from the comments below.  This specimen is on the meadow hillside below the Fern Hollow Nature Center.

(photos by Kate St. John)

7 responses so far

Oct 10 2015

Wild Raisins

Published by under Plants

Wild raisins (photo by Kate St. John)

Wild raisins, Witherod viburnum (photo by Kate St. John)

This shrub’s common name is witherod but the fruits are wild raisins.

Last month we found witherod viburnum at Moraine State Park during the joint Wissahickon-Botanical Society outing.  Those in the know said “Wild raisins!” and ate a berry.

When the tasters didn’t fall down, I ate one, too.  Good texture but boring flavor.

Witherod (Viburnum cassanoides, or Viburnum nudum cassanoides) is a dense shrub, 12-20 feet tall, that grows in moist or wet soil.  It is beautiful year round with white flower umbels in spring and deep red leaves in the fall.  Its fruit attracts birds and it’s mildly resistant to deer damage so it’s a good choice for the garden.

I was surprised to learn that witherod is endangered in Pennsylvania, perhaps because I see so much of it every August-September at Acadia while the fruits are still pink and white, plentiful and unwrinkled.

If I visited Maine in October I’d see that the fruit turns black and shrivels into Wild Raisins.


(photo by Kate St. John)


p.s.  Dianne Machesney says, “The fruit of Nannyberry  (V. lentago) looks similar but you can tell the difference by looking at the leaves.  Nannyberry is more toothed and the petioles are winged where it connects to the stem. Wild Raisin has blunt little teeth and no wings. Both fruits are edible so you won’t pay for a mistaken ID.”

4 responses so far

Oct 04 2015

Two Orchids: Common and Rare

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Yellow ladies tresses (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Yellow Ladies’ Tresses (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Winter’s not here yet so there’s still time to see fall orchids blooming in western Pennsylvania.

Yellow Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes ochroleuca) are relatively common.  Standing 4 to 21 inches tall, they grow in dry open habitats such as open woods, thickets or meadows and even by side of the road.  Dianne Machesney photographed the one above at Moraine State Park.

October Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes ovalis), below, are so rare that they’re listed as endangered in Pennsylvania. Their USDA Pennsylvania map shows them occurring only in Lancaster County.

Lesser or October Ladies' Tresses (photo by Dianne Machesney)

October Ladies’ Tresses (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Despite this status, Dianne and Bob Machesney found them blooming at both McConnells Mill and Moraine State Parks on September 19.

You can find October Ladies’ Tresses this month in moist, shady woods or thickets, or along the edges of marshes.  Keep your eyes peeled for a flower that’s 2 to 15 inches tall.


(photos by Dianne Machesney)

2 responses so far

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