Archive for the 'Plants' Category

Jun 07 2014

What-Flowered? Valerian

Published by under Plants

Few flowered Valerian (photo by Dianne Machesney)

If you have Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, I can tell you this flower is not in the 1977 edition.

Back in the late 1990′s I bought a Newcomb’s Guide and learned how to key out wildflowers in Esther Allen’s class at the Rachel Carson Institute.  Pretty soon I thought I could key out almost anything.

Hah!  I found this flower blooming at Raccoon Creek State Park Wildflower Reserve in early June of 1997.  I couldn’t figure it out.  Is it keyed as an irregular flower with opposite, divided leaves?   Or a 5-petaled flower?  No matter where I looked it wasn’t there.

Eventually at a Wisshickon Nature Club meeting I asked Esther about this mystery.  She immediately knew what I was describing.  “That isn’t in the book,” she said. “It’s Few-flowered Valerian, Valeriana pauciflora.”

I learned its common name from Esther’s translation of its scientific name — pauciflora means “few-flowered” — but on most plant databases it’s called Large-flowered Valerian.

Whatever the “flowered,” I drew it on page 286 of Newcomb’s in the section for 5-petaled flowers with opposite, divided leaves.

Look for it at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve in early June.


(photo by Dianme Machesney)

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May 31 2014


Published by under Plants

Starflower (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Here’s a flower that’s amazingly difficult to photograph.

Last weekend at Cape Cod I found many starflowers blooming in the woods.  They ought to be easy to photograph, right?  Wrong!  The flower’s whiteness engulfs its depth.  My photos made them look like two-dimensional blobs.  Thanks to Dianne Machesney we can see the details.

Starflower (Trientalis borealis) is a northeastern plant that ranges from Labrador to North Carolina. It prefers cooler climates so you’ll find it at higher elevations the further south you go.

It blooms at the end of May along the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail in Pennsylvania … and at Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

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May 28 2014

Jack Explains Himself

Published by under Plants,Schenley Park

Jack in the Pulpit, Schenley Park, 16 May 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

When I found this Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) blooming in Schenley Park, he begged for an opportunity to explain himself.

Go ahead, Jack.  What’s on your mind?

First off, I’m not always a guy.  I’m both male and female but not at the same time.  What you call “Jack” is my spadix whose base is covered in tiny male or female flowers.  I can turn them off and on depending on my age and environmental conditions.  Sometimes I’m male.  Sometimes I’m female. Call me Jack or Jill.

I’m pollinated by fungus flies so I smell like a mushroom.  (Oh, really?)

My pulpit is called a spathe — rhymes with bathe.  My hood looks like a garden spade if you open it up.  I’m not happy when you do that but I understand the temptation.

Botanists cannot decide whether I am one or three species.  I, personally, am all green inside. Some of us have fancy stripes.  Click here to see.

My trifoliate leaves start near the ground and sometimes look unrelated to me, but they’re mine.  Yes, they look like “leaves of three.” No, I am not poison ivy.

When I’m female I’m quite pretty in the fall.  I drop my spathe and develop a cluster of bright red berries on my spadix.  Check back in a few months and you’ll be impressed.

And finally, don’t eat me.  I’m full of calcium oxalate. Native Americans had recipes for my use but you have to know their special preparations or you’re in for a nasty burning, possible sterility or poisoning.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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May 24 2014

Wild Sarsaparilla

Published by under Plants

Wild Sarsaparilla (photo by Dianne Machesney)

This plant is hard to look up if you say it the way I do:  sass-pa-rilla.   My pronunciation eliminates two critical letters at the beginning of the word.  Fortunately Google anticipated my mistake and offered sar-sa-pa-rilla when I spelled it without the additional “R” and “A.”

Wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) is common in rich woods in northeastern North America. Even when it’s blooming you’ll notice its leaves first. They’re more than a foot tall and grow on a long stem that splits into three compound leaves.  (Click here to see.)

The flowers are arranged as an echo of the leaves but because the flower and leaf stems grow directly from the ground they appear to be unrelated plants.  Follow the stems and you’ll see.

In a typical year wild sarsaparilla would be blooming today but in this cold spring it’s probably delayed.  Look for it in the Laurel Highlands.


(photo by Dianne Machesney)

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May 11 2014

Mothers’ Day Flowers

Published by under Plants

Foam flower, Fayette County (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Foam Flower (Tiarella cordifolia) blooms in early May in Pennsylvania’s woods.

Happy Mothers’ Day with wildflowers.


(photo by Dianne Machesney)

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May 04 2014

A Shell Of Its Former Self

Published by under Plants

Wild cucumber seed pod found in the spring (photo by Kate St. John)

This spiny 2-inch-long seed pod is all that’s left of a Wild Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) fruit.

Click here to see what it looked like last summer.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Apr 30 2014

April Showers Bring…

Published by under Phenology,Plants,Trees

Great chickweed (photo by Kate St. John)

While it feels like it’s been raining forever, last weekend’s weather was sunny and so were the flowers. Here’s a selection I found at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve and Friendship Hill National Historic Site on Saturday and Sunday.

Above, a very close look at Great Chickweed (Stellaria pubera), also called Star Chickweed.  The flower is only 1/2″ across and it has only five petals but they’re so deeply cleft that they look like ten.

Below, inch-long Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) in bloom at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve.  I love how they change color as they open.

Virginia Bluebells (photo by Kate St. John)


Toad Trillium or Toadshade (Trillium sessile) is rarely seen from this angle because the plant is only four inches tall.  (I got muddy taking this picture.)  The dark, closed petals look boring from above but graceful from the side.  Perhaps they open like this so the pollen can disperse more easily.  It’s dusting the leaf at front left.
Sessile trillium (photo by Kate St. John)


Today’s April showers will bring May flowers. It’s hard to believe that May begins tomorrow.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Apr 27 2014

Leaves In The Shape Of…

Published by under Plants

Halberd Leaved Violet (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Dianne Machesney found this Halberd-leaved Violet blooming at the Cucumber Falls Trail in Ohiopyle State Park last week.

A halberd is a long pole with a battle ax; the ax always has a hook on the back end.  It was a popular weapon in the 14th and 15th centuries.

What do you think?  Is this a “halberd” leaf?


(photo by Dianne Machesney)


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Apr 19 2014

Natives Bounce Back

Published by under Plants

Star magnolia flower mildly damaged by freeze, April 2014, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
The mid-week freeze damaged flowers on our northern magnolia trees. Above, a bruised Star magnolia, below, a very brown Saucer magnolia, both in Oakland.

Northern magnolia turned brown by late freeze, 16 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Northern magnolias are non-native trees from Asia, specially cultivated for their early blooms, so their timing isn’t right for our mid-April cold snaps.

Our native plants had no problem because the freeze occurred within the normal span of our last killing frost.

Yesterday Dianne Machesney found beautiful flowers blooming at Cedar Creek Park in Westmoreland County, some of them new since I was there last weekend.

Harbinger-of-spring’s tiny flowers are quite hardy.  This plant is often the first to bloom.
Harbinger of spring, 18 April 2014 (photo by Dianne Machesney)


Twinleaf is new this week because its internal clock told it to wait.  The flower resembles bloodroot but the leaves are quite different. (Click here for a view of its twin leaves.)
Twinleaf in bloom, 18 April 2014 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

The natives bounce back fast.


(northern magnolia photos by Kate St. John. Flower photos by Dianne Machesney)

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Apr 15 2014

It Was Fun While It Lasted

Published by under Plants,Weather & Sky

Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, 12 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

During the past three days we had a burst of blooms in Pittsburgh.  Between Saturday morning’s foggy low and Sunday’s high of 82F the landscape transformed from incipient buds to gorgeous flowers.  (Today will be different, but more on that later.)

On Saturday I found bloodroot at its peak at Cedar Creek Park in Westmoreland County (above) as well as spring beauties…
Spring beauties (photo by Kate St. John)

trout lilies…
Trout Lily at Cedar Creek Park, 12 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

and hepatica.
Hepatica blooming at Cedar Creek Park, 12 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)


This morning the temperature is dropping fast.  It was 65oF at 5:00am and has already fallen to 47oF as I write.

Tomorrow’s prediction: 21oF at dawn. This will surely ruin the flowers.

It was fun while it lasted.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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