Archive for the 'Plants' Category

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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.

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Oct 12 2013

Slightly Aggravating

Published by under Plants

Agrimony seeds, focus stack (Museum of Toulouse via Wikimedia Commons)

Take a walk outdoors at this time of year and you’re likely to come home with some of these stuck to your clothing.

These tiny burs are the seed pods of agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), a plant native to Europe that was brought to North America for its herbal properties. (See Mark’s comment! This species doesn’t occur locally but we have similar natives.)

Though the burs look wicked in this close up, they’re actually small and rather weak. Compared to burdock they’re only slightly aggravating.

Click here for a view of a local species (Agrimonia parviflora) when it’s flowering — photos I took at Jennings Prairie last year.


(photo produced using focus stacking, Museum of Toulose, from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

4 responses so far

Oct 05 2013


Published by under Plants,Schenley Park

Beggar Ticks (photo by Kate St. John)

Related to Spanish needles, most of the Beggar Ticks (Bidens frondosa) in Schenley Park have not yet gone to seed.

When they do they will stick tight to my clothing.  It happens every year.

Click here to see the seeds.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Sep 30 2013

Invasion Of A Thousand Leaves

Published by under Plants

Eurasian watermilfoil (photo by Charlie Hickey)

What are these spiky flowers Charlie Hickey found peeking out of a lake near his home?

Charlie identified them as Eurasian Water-milfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) an invasive aquatic weed with soft, feathery, submerged leaves that form thick mats in North American lakes. Click on the photo and scroll down to read his description of it.

When I looked further I was amazed to learn that…

  • Eurasian Water-milfoil can propagate from a small piece of stem so a little bit caught in the boat propeller in one lake can be carried to another lake and spawn a new invasion.  I saw signs in Maine warning people to clean their boats after they take them out of the water.
  • North America has its own native water-milfoil called Northern Water-milfoil (Myriophyllum sibiricum).  The two species can be identified by their leaves but they hybridize and the hybrid inherits characteristics of both.  Very hard to identify.
  • The invader is hard to get rid of.  Many techniques have been tried including imported biological controls using a moth, a weevil and a fish.  The fish didn’t work out so well.  It prefers to eat native plants so it denuded the lakes and left the Eurasian water-milfoil for last.
  • In the Adirondacks and New England divers remove it by hand every year.  This technique is so successful that according to Wikipedia:  “After only three years of hand harvesting in Saranac Lake the program was able to reduce the amount harvested from over 18 tons to just 800 pounds per year.”

How did water-milfoil get its name?  My guess is that “milfoil” is a contraction of the French “mille feuille” which means “thousands of leaves.”

When it overruns a lake it looks like an invasion of a thousand — no, a million — leaves.

(photo by Charlie Hickey. Click on the image to see the original)

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Sep 29 2013

Why It’s Here

Published by under Plants

This month Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum or Fallopia japonica) is showing off another reason why gardeners imported it.

The flowers have become delicate white seed pods perched above the symmetrical leaves.

Too bad it’s invasive.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Sep 21 2013

Spanish Needles

Published by under Plants

Spanish needles in bloom (photo by Kate St. John)

These small yellow flowers look innocent, but after they’re fertilized the central disk grows longer and develops into hard, brown seeds.


The seeds splay out as they dry. Each one is topped by a tiny pitchfork of two to four spikes with downward-facing barbs.

Sanish needles gone to seed (photo by Kate St. John)

The needle-like seeds detach easily from the plant…


… and stick to my sweater.

Spanish needles on my sweater (photo by Kate St. John)

That’s when I noticed the plant.


The Spanish Needles plant (Bidens bipinnata) is so annoying I was sure it was an alien invasive.  Not!  It’s a native annual that’s very adaptable, willing to grow in disturbed soil in vacant lots.  These seeds grabbed me on Winthrop Street in Oakland.

Bidens bipinnata has many hitchhiker relatives in the Bidens genus.  I identified this one by its lobed leaves and needle-like seeds.


(photos by Kate St. John)

3 responses so far

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