Archive for the 'Plants' Category

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)

One response so far

Mar 23 2014

A Brief Appearance

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Crocuses blooming at Phipps outdoor garden, 22 Mar2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

At last the crocuses are (or rather… were) blooming in Pittsburgh, though not in my yard.

Yesterday was a sunny and breezy day with a high of 50F.  I took a long walk in Schenley Park and found nothing blooming except a small selection of snowdrops and crocuses at Phipps Conservatory’s outdoor garden.

Today it has already snowed a little, tonight will be 15F and the cold will continue through Tuesday so these flowers won’t last.

If you want to see spring in all its glory visit the Spring Flower Show, indoors at Phipps Conservatory.  Theirs are the only flowers that have put in more than a brief appearance.


(photo by Kate St. John)

2 responses so far

Jan 16 2014

The Largest Living Organism

Published by under Plants,Trees

Armillaria ostoyae (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On my way to somewhere else I found…

It’s hard to believe these mushrooms represent the largest living organism but they’re the outward and visible sign of a subterranean and sub-bark network.

The network can be quite large, as described here on Wikipedia:  “The largest living fungus may be a honey fungus of the species Armillaria ostoyae [now called Armillaria solidipes].  A mushroom of this type in the Malheur National Forest in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon was found to be the largest fungal colony in the world, spanning 8.9 km² (2,200 acres) [and] estimated to be 2,400 years old.  … If this colony is considered a single organism, then it is the largest known organism in the world by area.”

And so it was named the “Humongous Fungus.

There are many species of Armillaria, all with dark shoestring-like rhizomorphs that grow through the soil or under bark and white mycelial fans which spread under bark via root contacts and root grafts.  Here’s what they look like: rhizomorphs on the left, mycelia on the right.  (For a sense of scale, these are tree trunks)

Armillaria rhizomorphs and mycelia (photos from

Sometimes the mycelia are luminescent and cause foxfire!

Armillaria spreads widely. Click on the image below to see an animation from an article on Armillaria root rot by J. Worrall at

Animated disease cycle of Armillaria infection. (Courtesy J. Worrall, copyright-free)


Fascinating as their huge size may be, Armillaria infects trees and can either kill them outright or be a contributing factor to their demise.  I have seen Armillaria in Schenley Park without realizing what it was: rhizomorphs, mycelia and mushrooms.

So now I understand how a live tree can just fall over…

Bur oak toppled by armillaria root rot (Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service,

… when infected by Armillaria root rot.


(photo credits:  mushrooms by Walter J. Pilsak via Wikimedia Commons (click on the image to see the original).  Rhizomorphs and dead tree on grass by Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service via  White mycelial fan by Borys M. Tkacz, USDA Forest Service via

No responses yet

Dec 26 2013

Tiny Mistletoe

Published by under Plants,Trees

Dwarf mistletoe, Arceuthobium americanum, female plant (photo by John W. Schwandt, USDA Forest Service,

‘Tis the season for kissing under the mistletoe but this genus is too small for the purpose.

Mistletoes are parasitic plants in the sandalwood family.  The ones we associate with kissing, Phoradendron leucarpum and Viscum album, are evergreen plants that parasitize oak and apple trees.  In winter they look like green balls in the bare trees.  Click here for a photo and description.

Dwarf mistletoe, on the other hand, is amazingly small.  Arceuthobium’s 42 dioecious species parasitize only conifers.  The female plant of American dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium americanum) is shown above, the male below. Notice the tiny size of the plant relative to the pine needles.

Dwarf mistletoe, Arceuthobium americanum, male plant (photo by Brytten Steed, USDA Forest Service,

Dwarf mistletoe begins its life as a seed that lands on a tree branch, then germinates and grows beneath the bark, sucking water and minerals.  It rarely kills the tree but the tree fights back by developing witches’ brooms or losing branches as shown on this lodgepole pine.  Foresters hate dwarf misletoe.

Dwarf mistletoe, Arceuthobium americanum, damage to lodgepole pine (photo by Mike Schomaker, Colorado State Forest Service,


Many mistletoes depend on birds to spread their seeds, but dwarf mistletoe takes matters into its own hands.  During the 18 months of seed maturation, water pressure builds up in the seed capsule until it finally bursts out, traveling at almost 50 mph … like this!

Dwarf mistletoe, Arceuthobium americanum, shoots a seed (photo by Frank Hawksworth, USDA Forest Service,

Pow!  The size of a grain of rice, it can travel 65 feet!

Tiny but powerful.  Watch out below!


(all photos are American dwarf mistletoe, Arceuthobium americanum, from 1241494 by John W. Schwandt USDA Forest Service, 2141082 by Brytten Steed USDA Forest Service, 2250003 by Frank Hawksworth USDA Forest Service, 5367211 by Mike Schomaker Colorado State Forest Service)

One response so far

Dec 25 2013

Merry Christmas

Snow on Pyracantha (photo by Bob Muller, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

The colors of a Merry Christmas…

Pyracantha after a rare snowfall in Nags Head, North Carolina, February 2006 by Bob Muller.


(photo by Bob Muller (bobxnc), Creative Commons license via Flickr)

2 responses so far

Dec 22 2013

Deck The Halls

Published by under Books & Events,Plants

Bromeliad Christmas wreath at Phipps Conservatory (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Though Christmas wreaths are a northern tradition this one at Phipps Conservatory is made of bromeliads from the American tropics.

After the weather turns cold tomorrow you might be wishing you were somewhere warm.  If you’re in Pittsburgh you can warm up at the Winter Flower Show at Phipps Conservatory.  They’re all decked out for the holidays through January 12.

I love to bask in the humid warmth with tropical plants when its cold outside.  I can almost believe I’m on vacation.


(bromeliad Christmas wreath at Phipps Conservatory. photo by Dianne Machesney)

One response so far

Dec 08 2013

Bitter And Sweet

Published by under Plants

Oriental Bittersweet fruit (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Poisonous to us but popular with birds, Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) stands out in the landscape now that the leaves are off the trees.

This closeup of the berries shows why we like to use it in floral arrangements.  Very beautiful.

But it’s aggressive.  Imported in 1879 it grows more easily than American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) with which it hybridizes.  It occurs in nearly every state east of the Mississippi and is listed as invasive from Maine to North Carolina, from Wisconsin to Tennessee.

Watch for small flocks of birds feeding in the woods and you’ll find this vine.  Click here to see what it looks like from a distance.

Bitter and sweet: an unruly competitor that’s food for birds.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

No responses yet

Nov 27 2013

Unnatural Shape

Published by under Plants

Canned cranberry sauce (photo from Flickr by busybeytheelder)

I happen to like jellied cranberry sauce with Thanksgiving turkey.  How does a native North American fruit end up like this?

It begins with this flower, the Large Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon).
Large Cranberry (photo by Dianne Machesney)

The plants are grown commercially in bogs completely surrounded by dikes.  When the flower becomes a ripened fruit…

fruit_cranberry_plant_rsz2_wikiRipened cranberries on the plant (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

…the field is flooded for harvesting.  Harvesting machines, nicknamed “eggbeaters,” knock the berries off the plants. The floating berries are corralled to a conveyor belt.  (This Good Morning, America video shows the cranberry harvest on Cape Cod.)

Cranberry harvest in New Jersey (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


After the harvest the berries look like this…

Cranberries (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They have enough natural pectin that their juice jells on its own if it’s boiled with sugar.

So you could boil them in sugar, strain out the solids, pour the juice in a mold, chill it and voilà.  You have the same jellied cranberry sauce but it doesn’t look like a can.

But really.  I like the magic of a jiggling food shaped exactly like the can it slid from.

A natural fruit in an unnatural shape.


(photo of canned cranberry sauce by busbeytheelder, Creative Commons license. photo of cranberry flower by Dianne Machesney. All other photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see their originals)

2 responses so far

Oct 28 2013

Tick City!

Published by under Plants

Japanese barberry, Moraine State Park, 20 Oct 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

I remember these little red fruits from my childhood.  I used to pick the berries along my walk to elementary school and roll them between my fingers.  Firm, shiny, and somehow soothing.

Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is a pretty plant which forms a thorny border that discourages kids and dogs from entering one’s yard.  For this and other reasons it was introduced to the U.S. in 1875.  Unfortunately by now Berberis thunbergii and its European cousin (Berberis vulgaris) have overtaken our native barberry (Berberis canadensis) and become invasive.

Japanese barberry has a secret advantage over Pennsylvania’s native plants. Deer won’t eat it so it easily forms dense, thorny thickets.  But don’t plant it!  It’s a tick magnet.

Studies by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in Lyme, Connecticut discovered a strong link between dense Japanese barberry thickets and Lyme disease.  Deer ticks prefer these thickets for their cool, moist microclimate.  White-footed mice hang out in the thickets because the larger predators can’t reach them there.  White-footed mice are the main carriers of Lyme disease bacteria.  The ticks bite the mice and voilà!  Lots of Lyme disease.

The Adirondack Daily Enterprise wrote of this study: “Deer ticks are 67 percent more likely to be in areas infested with barberry than those areas that have native plants, and a higher percentage of ticks in infested areas carry the Lyme bacteria than those in areas that are barberry-free – 126 infected ticks per acre versus 10 per acre. When managers removed barberry plants, the number of ticks dropped up to 80 percent – a compelling outcome.”

So if you want to find deer ticks and Lyme disease, bushwhack through a barberry thicket.

The plant in this photograph was alone, growing by the side of a rail trail, but I found a tick on my pants after I took the photo.

Tick City!

(photo by Kate St. John)

3 responses so far

Oct 21 2013

Eats Poison Ivy

Published by under Bird Behavior,Plants

Yellow-rumped warbler eating poison ivy berries (photo by Cris Hamilton)

How many of us get a rash from poison ivy?  (Raise your hands.)

It looks like the vast majority of us are allergic to it while some are not sure.

I know only one person who’s immune to poison ivy.  The rest of us get a rash, mild to severe, or avoid the plant so carefully that we haven’t tested the limits recently.

Birds are not only immune to poison ivy’s itchy oils — they eat its berries.

Here, a migrating yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) inspects a cluster of poison ivy berries, and then he swallows one.

Yellow-rumped warbler about to swallow a poison ivy berry (photo by Cris Hamilton)

It makes my throat itch to think about it.


(photos by Cris Hamilton)

p.s. Notice this warbler’s wide field of vision.  In the first photo you can see both of his eyes from the top of his head.

No responses yet

« Prev - Next »

Bird Stories from OnQ