Archive for the 'Plants' Category

Mar 19 2015

The Crocus Report

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Crocuses at Phipps, 18 March 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Ta dah!  We’ve reached a milestone in The Signs of Spring.  It’s time for the crocus report.

Yesterday morning the crocuses at Phipps Conservatory’s outdoor garden were just about to pop open.  The bright sun warmed the mulch and after another hour they had opened halfway.  I can say with confidence that they bloomed on March 18.

Crocuses opening at Phipps (photo by Kate St. John)

Is this late for crocuses?   I checked back through my blog posts, linked below, to collect their blooming history in Pittsburgh’s East End:

So … though this winter has seemed very cold the crocuses are not delayed too, too long.


(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s. They may have bloomed during Monday’s heat but I didn’t walk over to Phipps until yesterday.

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Mar 17 2015

Looking For Luck on St. Patrick’s Day

Published by under Plants

A selection of four-leaf clovers (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On the day that shows off the three-leafed clover — the St. Patrick’s Day’s shamrock — what are the odds of finding a lucky four-leafed one?  It’s harder than you think.

First of all you have to find clover.  Clover used to be common in every lawn because it was mixed with grass seed to provide natural fertilizer for the grass.  But now clover is absent because lawn care products poison all broad-leafed plants.  Clover is broad-leafed so it dies, too.  No luck for the folks with “perfect” lawns!

Then you have to find the odd ball four-leafed mutation among a sea of three-leafed plants.  On white clover (Trifolium repens) there are usually three leaflets per leaf.  (That’s one leaf on the stem).  But sometimes there’s a mutation and a recessive gene expresses into four.  What luck!  Even rarer and luckier, five leaflets.

On your first hunt through the clover patch, you have a 1 in 10,000 chance of finding a four-leafed clover and a 1 in a million chance of finding the five-leafed variety, according the Minitab statistics blog.   In other words, you’re lucky to find one.  If you do, mark the spot because more lucky leaves are likely to appear on that plant.

Looking for four-leafed clovers today in March’s still-brown grass may be a challenge but here are some tips to help you search.

And save yourself some time.  Don’t look for luck in a perfect lawn.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons, CC by SA 3.0.  Click on the image to see the original)

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Mar 01 2015

Poised To Drop

Published by under Plants

Wingstem seeds poised to drop, Feb 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

In two months of freezing weather the wingstem’s papery seed pods have worn away.  The seeds are exposed and the heads are bowed, poised to drop.

I know they’ve changed because the pods stood straight up on January 1.

Wingstem seeds, North Park, 1 Jan 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

The seeds are ready for Spring … when it arrives.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Feb 21 2015

Face On A Tree

Published by under Plants

Shelf mushrooms make a face on this tree (photo by Kate St. John)

Shelf mushrooms frown on a dead ash tree.

Is this a comment on the weather?


(photo by Kate St. John, taken at at Raccoon Creek State Park)

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Jan 02 2015

First Day Findings

Published by under Hiking,Mammals,Plants

Wingstem seeds, North Park, 1 Jan 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

What can you find outdoors on January 1 in Pittsburgh?  Nine intrepid naturalists from the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania and Wissahickon Nature Club hiked at North Park to find out.

Though yesterday was quite sunny the temperature hovered just below freezing and the wind was strong.  We bundled up to look at seeds, trees, dry weeds, and birds.

Above, a wingstem seed pod looks just like a dried version of the flower’s central disk.  Below, in the thicket we found juncoes, titmice and chickadees … and then changed our focus to identify the trees.
Participants on the New Year's Day hike at Irwin Rd (photo by Kate St. John)

Dianne Machesney found this still-red scarlet oak leaf.  I held it to take its picture.
Scarlet oak leaf, 1 Jan 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

The ground wasn’t frozen but the creek had glimmering white ice.

Ice on Irwin Run, 1 Jan 2015 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

After the hike, some of the party drove up Pearce Mill Road to check on the beaver dams on the North Fork of Pine Creek.

The beavers were snug in their beds while we braved the cold.

Beaver dam on the North Fork of Pine Creek (photo by Dianne Machesney)

(photo by Dianne Machesney)


(photo credits: wingstem, hikers and oak leaf photos by Kate St. John.
Creek ice and beaver dam photos by Dianne Machesney

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Nov 28 2014

Why They’re Here

Published by under Plants

Honesty pods, Chinese lanterns and Oriental bittersweet (photo by Kate St. John)

Though this arrangement reminds us of autumn’s beauty, none of the plants are from North America.

  • The translucent Silver Dollars are the seed pod remnants of Lunaria annua, a flower native to the Balkans and southwest Asia.
  • The orange Chinese Lanterns are the papery fruit containers of Physalis alkekengi, a plant native to southern Europe, southern Asia and Japan.
  • The woody branches with orange berries are Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) originally from Asia, invasive in North America.

These plants are here because they’re pretty.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Oct 22 2014

An 80,000-Year-Old Tree

Published by under Plants

The world's oldest organism, Pando aspen (photo by USDA via Wikimedia Commons)

This may look like an aspen forest but it’s a single tree, 80,000 years old.

Last week at the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania we were wowed by the news that this stand of quaking aspen, covering 106 acres near Utah’s Fish Lake, is a single “tree.”  All the trunks are shoots from a single clonal root.

We learned this during Wil Taylor’s lecture on Jennings Prairie when he explained that aspen is threatening to take over Jennings.  DCNR burns or cuts the prairie to keep it open but aspen love that treatment.  They come back even stronger the next year with more shoots from the same root.  In fact, fire and low rainfall are probably the reason why this huge aspen is doing so well in Utah.

Discovered by Burton V. Barnes in 1968 and nicknamed The Trembling Giant, Barnes used morphological clues to determine this Populus tremuloides was from one clonal root.  In the 1990s Michael Grant studied it further and named it Pando.  DNA proves it to be one plant hosting 40,000 stems and weighing 13 million pounds.

Pando’s given age is 80,000 years but that’s the conservative estimate.  It may be as much as 1 million years old.  No one knows for sure.


(photo in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

3 responses so far

Oct 19 2014

A Stellar Year For…

Published by under Plants

Honeysuckle fruits, October 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s a stellar year for bush honeysuckle berries.  The stems above were just a small part of the huge display at Wingfield Pines last week.

Can you count the berries?

Honeysuckle berries, October 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Birds like to eat honeysuckle fruit so these berries will disappear over the winter.

Too bad this plant is invasive.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Oct 12 2014

Not A Rose

Goldenrod gall (photo by Kate St. John)

Though shaped like a green rose this knob is not a flower. It’s a goldenrod bunch gall.

A search at*) indicates:

The gall was made by a midge, Rhopalomyia solidaginis, that lays its egg at the tip of the goldenrod stem.  “Its larva secretes a chemical that prevents the goldenrod stem from growing although it continues to produce leaves, thus a shortened bunch of leaves is formed.”(*)

The resulting rosette provides shelter for many insects as well as the midge.

This fall I’ve seen many bunch galls in goldenrod fields.  This one was at Wingfield Pines in southern Allegheny County.

Click here to read more about the midge at


(photo by Kate St. John)


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Sep 27 2014

Beech Drops Up Close

Published by under Plants

Close-up of beech drops' flower (photo by  Kate St. John)

From a normal distance beech drops (Epifagus americana) look brown and dry.  (Click here to see.)

I didn’t know its tiny flowers are purple and white with yellow pistils … until I took this photograph.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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