Archive for the 'Plants' Category

Jun 19 2014

A Plant With Four Names

Published by under Plants

Bowman's root, Gillenia trifoliata (photo by Tom Potterfield, Creative Commons license on Flickr)

On the day we saw the upland sandpipers Carole Winslow showed me a “Life Flower”(*) growing by the road.

The delicate flowers of Bowman’s Root (Gillenia trifoliata) have five petals, but they’re arranged irregularly as you can see in Tom Potterfield’s photo above. When the flower fades each petal falls alone leaving three and four-petaled flowers to confuse us amateur botanists.

I took a (poor) photo of the profuse flowers and drooping stems.  They look as if the rain beat them down but this perennial just won’t stand upright.
Bowman's root, Clarion County, 14 June 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Gillenia trifoliata has two scientific names because there was a big disagreement about its first one.  Conrad Moench named it Gillenia in honor of German botanist Arnoldus Gillenius, but another of Gillenius’ fans later named a completely different plant Gillena in his honor. Professor Britton decided that the single letter “i” was not enough to distinguish the two names so he renamed Bowman’s Root Porteranthus trifoliatus in honor of his friend, Thomas C. Porter.

Which name is right?  In scientific naming there’s a rule that the first name takes precedence unless, of course, the organism is reclassed.  As we have seen with warblers, the Dendroica genus name completely disappeared when American Redstarts, Setophaga ruticilla, were reclassed into the Dendroica genus.  Because Setophaga is an older name the American Ornithologists’ Union declared that Setophaga replaced Dendroica. (Don’t get me going on how much I hate this!)  Apparently botanists made no such pronouncement on Gillenia so both names continue.

Bowman’s Root has another common name, Indian Physic, because Native Americans used the powdered root for an emetic (bleah!) and other medicinal uses.

Four names are a heavy load for these ethereal flowers.  I like to call them Bowman’s Root.


(Top photo taken at Longwood Gardens by Tom Potterfield. Click on the image to see the original.  Bottom photo by Kate St.John)

(*) Life Flower: I’m borrowing a term from birding to describe the first time I’ve ever seen this species.

2 responses so far

Jun 15 2014

King Devil

Published by under Plants

King Devil at Raccoon Creek State Park (photo by Kate St. John)

My neighbors will tell you I am not a gardener.  When the growing season arrives I spend all my time birding.  Around Memorial Day I glance at the garden and think, “Something must be done!”  I go out there with my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide and identify what’s growing.  I pull out the noxious weeds and leave everything else in place.

That’s how I got King Devil.

Also called Field Hawkweed (Hieracium pratense), it’s a perennial creeping plant whose yellow flowers cluster at the top of a tall, hairy stem.  The leaves are basal, thin, hairy, untoothed and hardly noticeable compared to the flowers.

I find the flowers interesting in all their phases.

King Devil at Raccoon Creek State Park (photo by Kate St. John)

I left the King Devil where it sprouted.

Wikipedia says, “This species finds its habitat where the soil has been neglected.”  That’s a pretty good description of my gardening efforts.  The birds are luring me away from home.


(photos by Kate St. John)

2 responses so far

Jun 08 2014

A Goat’s Beard

Published by under Plants

Yellow Goat's Beard (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday morning I helped count birds at the Emerald View BioBlitz with David and Colleen Yeany and Eva Simms.   Eva showed us the new trails in Olympia and Mt. Washington Parks.  What a lot of work they were, but well worth it!  Check them out on this map.

Above Route 51 in Mt. Washington Park we found unusual flowers three feet tall with daisy-like heads, thin leaves, and long puckered buds.  I used my photos to identify them when I got home.

Yellow Goat's Beard, Emerald View, Pittsburgh, PA (photo by Kate St. John)

Yellow Goat’s Beard (Tragopogon dubius) is an introduced annual from Europe so I’m not surprised we found it growing in a sunny area reseeded by PennDOT several years ago.  It’s distinguished by the green bracts that show around the edge of the flower.  Fortunately we were there in the morning.  This flower closes in late afternoon.

None of the flowers had gone to seed yet so we didn’t see the reason this plant is called Goat’s Beard:  its huge seed head.  Click here for a look at it.

This is not the only “Goat’s Beard” and for a moment I was excited by the thought of another one, Aruncus dioicus, which hosts the rare Dusky Azure butterfly (Celastrina nigra).  Though similarly named they are unrelated and don’t even resemble each other.  Aruncus dioicus is a native in the Rose family and grows in shady and moist deciduous woods.

One of many goats’ beards, this one is yellow.

(photos by Kate St. John)

2 responses so far

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)

2 responses so far

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)

Comments Off

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)

5 responses so far

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)

2 responses so far

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)

No responses yet

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)

No responses yet

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)

5 responses so far

« Prev - Next »

Bird Stories from OnQ