Archive for the 'Plants' Category

Aug 17 2013

Now Blooming: Wingstem

Published by under Plants

Wingstem blooming (photo by Kate St. John)

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) is now blooming in sunny woodlands in western Pennsylvania.

It’s easy to identify by its ragged yellow flowers whose central disk stands up and whose petals look as if they’ve been blown back by a strong wind.

Failing that, you’ll be able to identify it by the stem which has several “wings” or flanges that run its length.

The stem of Wingstem (photo by Kate St. John)

Wing. Stem.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 10 2013

More Jewels

Published by under Plants

Slender-leaved sundew (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Here’s a closeup of another plant whose leaves bear tiny jewel-like drops, but they aren’t benign like jewelweed.

This is slender-leaved sundew (Drosera linearis), a member of the Drosera genus of carnivorous plants whose mucilage droplets attract, trap and digest insect prey.  The drops are so sticky that insects can’t escape.  The tentacles are so sensitive to touch that at the footfall of an insect they bend to entrap the victim.  The insect dies within 15 minutes.

It seems ironic that the plant also produces flowers and holds them high to attract pollinators.  Isn’t it counterproductive to eat the insects it depends on for pollination?  But it doesn’t.  The pollinators aren’t attracted to the droplets so they don’t get hurt.

When the flower blooms the plant looks like this.

Slender-leaved sundew blooming (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Two species of sundews bloom in spaghum bogs in western Pennsylvania from June through August.  The slender-leaved sundew is relatively rare.  Round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) is more common.

The flowers only open in strong sunlight.  My favorite place to see them is at Spruce Flats bog at Laurel Summit State Park.


(photos by Dianne Machesney)

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Aug 08 2013

Experiments with Jewelweed

Published by under Plants,Schenley Park

Jewelweed jewels (photo by Kate St. John)

Tuesday dawned cool and clear with patchy morning fog and lots of dew.  As I walked to work through Schenley Park I noticed that the jewelweed leaves were dripping with tiny round jewels.

Jewelweed gets its name from the way water beads up on top of the leaves but I’d never before seen jewels drip from the tips so I took a picture.  Then I experimented.

What would happen if I touched a jewel?

It came off on my finger and stayed in its rounded jewel form.  It wasn’t pure water.  It didn’t roll off.
Jewel on my fingertip (photo by Kate St. John)


While I was experimenting with these tiny drops Art Schiavo, an avid birder from Hershey, PA, was thinking about jewelweed too (amazing coincidence!) and sent me this message:

“I’m sure you know that jewelweed is in the Impatiens Genus.  I’m also fairly certain you know that its medicinal value is insect bite, stinging nettle exposure, and poison ivy relief, but did you know that the seeds are edible and taste similar to sunflower seeds?”

Wow.  I had no idea you could eat the seeds.  A little investigation uncovered this document that explains which parts of the plant are edible and how to cook them.  There’s no need to cook the seeds but good luck catching them when the casing pops.

More experiments ahead!


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 01 2013

Plant a Shrub, Start a Fight

Published by under Plants,Trees

Leylandii, Roman Bank, Holbeach Hurn (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The tall square hedge in this photo is the species that launched 17,000 complaints.  It’s also been blamed for the decline of the house sparrow in the UK.

When a tree is implicated in the decline of a bird I’m compelled to find out why.

Leyland cypresses (Leylandii) are an accidental hybrid of the Nootka and Monterey cypresses (of the Pacific Northwest), first discovered in the gardens of Leighton Hall in northern Wales in 1888.  The hybrid is sterile but can be propagated by cuttings. It became popular in UK landscaping because the foliage is so thick it provides privacy from neighbors.

Leylandii are huge trees that grow three feet per year and can reach 130 feet tall, but they’re used as hedges and therein lies the problem.

When planted as cute little “shrubs,” people imagine their Leylandii will look like this…

Well-trimmed Leylandii in Chilwell (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

…but that tidy look takes constant trimming.  Instead the hedgerow turns into this…

Leylandii hedgerow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

…and can engulf nearby buildings.

For instance, Snarestone Pumping Station was visible from the road in 1994 before Leylandii were planted at the perimeter.  By 2010 only the top of the smokestack can be seen above the trees.  (Notice the little red car at the right side of the right hand photo.  These trees are huge!)

Snarestone pumping station before and after Leylandii, 1994 & 2010 (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Leylandii block views and create very dense shade.  Neighbors ask owners to trim them.  The disputes begin.

By 2005 there were 17,000 disputes, prompting Parliament to pass an “anti-social” law to settle them.  When neighbors object to Leylandii they must first try to settle the dispute privately.  If this fails they can ask local Council to intervene and pay a fee to begin.  Council can rule that the trees be trimmed to 2 meters (6 feet).  Failure to comply can result in a £1000 fine.

Here’s an example of a dispute in Plymouth, complete with a video that shows the neighborhood.  The trees completely obscure the owner’s house.  Notice that the neighborhood has no plantings for birds either.

How do house sparrows figure into this?  House sparrow population studies have shown they thrive where there are deciduous trees, not evergreens.  House sparrows are declining.  Leylandii are oppressive evergreens.  Voilà!

(photos of Leylandii from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the images to see the originals)

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Jul 27 2013

Tall Bellflower in Bloom

Published by under Plants

fThree stems of Tall Bellflower joined by a vine (photo by Kate St. John)

I almost forgot the name of this plant when I found it blooming last weekend.

Despite the fact that the flower is not bell-shaped, this plant is called tall bellflower (Campanulastrum americanum).  The flowers are a pretty shade of cornflower blue and have an ornate pistil arrangement that looks like a stripped down version of the purple passion flower, also known as maypops.

Here are side-by-side close-ups of maypops and tall bellflower so you can see what I mean.

Compare purple passion flower to tall bellflower (photo of maypops from Wikimedia Commons, photo of bellflower by Kate St. John)


The stems in the first photo are in an unusual arrangement.  They’re bunched because a vine wrapped the three together.  Click here for a more typical view.


(tall bellflower photos by Kate St. John. Maypops from this page at Wikimedia Commons)


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Jul 21 2013

Up Close With Blue Vervain

Published by under Plants

Close-up of Blue Vervain blooming (phto by Kate St. John)

Here’s an unusual look at blue vervain — a view from above at very close range.

Verbena hastata is one of my favorite flowers because of its color and size.  The plant can grow five feet tall but its flowers are tiny, five-petaled and blue.  They bloom in clusters that ring the flower spikes as they bloom from bottom to top.

Click here for a more typical view.

Blue vervain blooms from late June through September in western Pennsylvania.  You’ll find lots of it at Jennings Prairie.

Visit the prairie with the Wissahickon Nature Club on Monday, July 29.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 17 2013

Metallic Green On…

Metallic green bee on Spotted knapweed (photo by Kate St. John)

Close looks reveal new wonders.

Until recently I had no idea that metallic green bees existed.  Then I saw one on a chicory flower in Schenley Park and that started the ball rolling.

Soon I found another one, this time on spotted knapweed on the Montour Run bike trail.  She’s a beautiful green color with huge yellow pollen sacks on her legs.  (I don’t know the sex of this bug; just guessing.)

My searches on the web indicate she’s one of 11 species of Agapostemon sweat bees, bugs of the western hemisphere.  If I had known what to look for I could have used this guide at Discover Life to identify her species.

Though sweat bees are sometimes attracted to sweat, the bees I found were only interested in flowers, especially blue and violet flowers like spotted knapweed.

Spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa) has a pretty flower but it’s an invasive species that’s consumed 7 million acres of North America.  It gains a foothold in disturbed soil, then spreads through high seed production, toxins in its roots that inhibit other plants, and an unpalatable taste that prevents deer and other animals from eating it (alas!).

It’s identified by its distinctive thistle-like flower head with black-fringed bracts.

Spotted Knapweed (photo by Kate St. John)

Spotted knapweed is blooming everywhere right now.

Look closely and you might find a native metallic green bee taking a sip.


p.s. Check the comments for a link to a cool close-up by Mike Vosburg!

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 14 2013

Guess What

Published by under Plants,Quiz

Intricate flower on a common weed (photo by Kate St. John)

This summer I’m having fun taking a close-up look at nature.

Here’s a small, incredibly common flower that a lot of people can’t stand.  Can you guess what it is?

Here are some interesting facts about it:

  • It’s native to Eurasia, introduced to North America and Australia.
  • The flower spike blooms bottom to top.
  • The plant is wind-pollinated, which probably explains why the stamens stick out so far.
  • It grows very easily in sunny disturbed soil.  I’ve found it growing in cracks in the pavement.
  • In archaeology its pollen has been used as an indicator of agriculture.
  • It is very hardy and will come back again and again after mowing.
  • Tea made from its leaves is an herbal remedy for coughs.
  • In some states it’s not listed as invasive because it only grows in disturbed soil and waste places.
  • Chemical lawn treatments target these broad-leaved plants but force those lawns to be monocultures of grass.

Can you guess what it is?  


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 13 2013

Enchanters’ Nightshade

Published by under Plants,Schenley Park

Enchanters' Nightshade in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

This plant has a conspicuous name and inconspicuous flowers.

Enchanters’ Nightshade (Circaea lutetiana, ssp. canadensis) blooms in shady woodlands in June and July. Subspecies are native to Europe, north Africa, western Asia and eastern North America.

The plant’s common and scientific names both refer to magic though it’s hard to find out why.  Some sources say Circe used this plant to turn Odysseus’ men into swine, thus the genus name Circaea.  The species name lutetiana is the Latin name for Paris.  Is this Paris the city?  Or is it Paris of Troy who started the Trojan War that spawned Odysseus’ epic journey home?  The sources don’t agree.

I like this plant’s open airy structure but that makes it hard to photograph.  I spent a lot of time on my knees in Schenley Park and threw away a lot of bad pictures.  Above is the best I could do.

To see the flowers, here’s a closeup from Wikimedia Commons taken by Randy Nonenmacher in Skaneateles, New York.

Close-up of Enchanters' Nightshade flowers (photo by Randy Nonenmacher on Wikimedia Commons)

Notice how the flower stems turn down and the receptacles(*)  are poised to become the seed pods. The flowers look so delicate.



(whole-plant photo by Kate St. John.  Close-up from Wikimedia Commons; click on the close-up to see the original image)

(*) Receptacles are defined in this diagram of a flower.

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Jul 09 2013

The Bane Of Fleas

Published by under Plants,Schenley Park

Fleabane (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s a flower so common you might think it’s a weed.

Fleabane is native to North America and very common in western Pennsylvania.  It grows so easily that you’ll find it along roadsides.

Pictured here is daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus) in Schenley Park.  Its white or pink-tinged flowers are 0.5 to 0.75 inches wide and its leaves do not clasp the stem.  Common or Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus) has slightly larger, pinker flowers and its leaves *do* clasp the stem.  To remember this think “Common = Clasp.”

Fleabane flowers respond to light.  The white rays open and close at sunrise and sunset. Before they bloom they bow their heads.  In the morning fleabane pulls up its flower heads and opens its white rays.  This seems like a lot of exercise for a small flower but I imagine it’s meant to prevent nighttime pollination.

Fleabane got its name from the belief that the dried plant kills fleas.  Bane comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning murderer or destroyer and is often used in plant names.  For instance, “baneberry” means death-berry; it’s poisonous.

If wanted to kill fleas I could dry some fleabane.  Thankfully I’ve never had occasion to need it.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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