Archive for the 'Plants' Category

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)

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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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Sep 17 2014

Lasting Impression

Published by under Plants

Stinging nettle closeup (photo by Kate St. John)

Stinging nettle captured my imagination at the age of seven.

In Now We Are Six, Christopher Robin offers the Little Black Hen three things if she’ll lay him an egg for Easter Day.  Of the three, the only thing she cares to see is the nettle-place on his leg which she touches gently with her wing. “Nettles don’t hurt if you count to ten.”  This left a lasting impression on me.

For decades I thought stinging nettles were foreign, exotic and only grew in England so I was awed when shown a huge patch of them in Pennsylvania.  It was spring.  They smelled like cat pee.  I kept a wide berth and vowed to always wear long pants while hiking (which I do to this day).

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is native to Europe, Asia, northern Africa and North America. The nominate subspecies dioica that Christopher Robin encountered is introduced.  Three to seven feet tall, stinging nettle is coated with hollow stinging hairs loaded with histamines and painful chemicals.  A gentle brush against the plant causes the hairs to detach and become needles in your skin.  The sting is memorable. For those desperate to hold the plant a firm grasp flattens the hairs so that fewer penetrate.   This is counter-intuitive and not for the faint of heart.

At very close quarters the plant looks bristly.  The close-up above is of the crown at the top of the plant.
Stinging nettle crown (photo by Kate St. John)

Even the tiny leaf-like structures have stinging hairs.
Closeup of stinging nettle crown (photo by Kate St. John)

Because of my cautionary introduction to nettles, it took me a long time to believe the plant is good to eat and has a wide variety of medicinal uses.  I was skeptical about the Nettle Soup recipe in my Joy of Cooking cookbook.  “Using rubber gloves to protect you from the stinging nettles, remove the central stem from 1 Quart young nettle tops.”  (Sure!  I’m going to eat that??)  But it’s true.  Nettles are eaten around the world.  Young leaves are best. Click these links for food and medicinal uses.

Some people take nettle eating to an extreme.  There’s an annual World Nettle Eating Championship in Dorset England which began on a dare in 1986. Beer is involved.

In September stinging nettles still have a frizz of whitish flowers dangling from their stems — or perhaps seeds, I did not get close! — as seen in the whole-plant photo below.  I’ve circled the crown area of the close-ups in red.
Stinging nettle with crown circled in red (photo by Kate St. John)


So now you know what it looks like … in case you want to try.  😉


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Sep 07 2014

New England. Aster

Published by under Plants

Aster in New England (photo by Kate St. John)

When I snapped this photo I was so intent on the flower that I forgot to examine the leaves.

New England (Aster novae angliae) and New York (Aster novi belgii) asters are so similar that the deciding field mark is their hairy or smooth clasping leaves.  My photo doesn’t show that.

However, the flower is in Maine at Acadia National Park (and so am I) so it’s safe to say, “In New England. An aster.”


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Sep 06 2014

Unusual Color

Published by under Plants

Late Coralroot in pink (photo by Dianne Machesney)

It sounds really exotic to say that there are orchids at Moraine State Park, but yes there are.  Last weekend Dianne and Bob Machesney found late coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza) including this very unusual pink one.

Late coralroot’s 1/4 inch flowers bloom from August to October so now’s the time to look for them.  Unfortunately the plant is often hard to see because it’s only 4-7 inches tall and a brownish-purple color that matches the forest floor.  But not this one.  I have no idea why it’s pink but it’s certainly pretty.  Click here to see what it looks like when it blooms in normal color.

Coralroots are very picky about habitat because they’re twice-dependent.  They are saprophytes that get their nutrients from fungi which are getting their nutrients from dead and decomposing plant material.  Coralroots are particular about the species of fungi they parasitize so you can’t find these orchids just anywhere.  Your best bet may be to look where there are pine needles on the ground.

Thanks to Dianne for this unusual photo and her description of the plant.  Now I know what to look for.


p.s. It should go without saying that you should not collect these plants.  They are endangered in many northeastern states and in Florida.

(photo of unusual Late Coralroot by Dianne Machesney)

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