Archive for the 'Plants' Category

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

Apr 27 2014

Leaves In The Shape Of…

Published by under Plants

Halberd Leaved Violet (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Dianne Machesney found this Halberd-leaved Violet blooming at the Cucumber Falls Trail in Ohiopyle State Park last week.

A halberd is a long pole with a battle ax; the ax always has a hook on the back end.  It was a popular weapon in the 14th and 15th centuries.

What do you think?  Is this a “halberd” leaf?


(photo by Dianne Machesney)


No responses yet

Apr 19 2014

Natives Bounce Back

Published by under Plants

Star magnolia flower mildly damaged by freeze, April 2014, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
The mid-week freeze damaged flowers on our northern magnolia trees. Above, a bruised Star magnolia, below, a very brown Saucer magnolia, both in Oakland.

Northern magnolia turned brown by late freeze, 16 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Northern magnolias are non-native trees from Asia, specially cultivated for their early blooms, so their timing isn’t right for our mid-April cold snaps.

Our native plants had no problem because the freeze occurred within the normal span of our last killing frost.

Yesterday Dianne Machesney found beautiful flowers blooming at Cedar Creek Park in Westmoreland County, some of them new since I was there last weekend.

Harbinger-of-spring’s tiny flowers are quite hardy.  This plant is often the first to bloom.
Harbinger of spring, 18 April 2014 (photo by Dianne Machesney)


Twinleaf is new this week because its internal clock told it to wait.  The flower resembles bloodroot but the leaves are quite different. (Click here for a view of its twin leaves.)
Twinleaf in bloom, 18 April 2014 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

The natives bounce back fast.


(northern magnolia photos by Kate St. John. Flower photos by Dianne Machesney)

3 responses so far

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

« Prev - Next »

Bird Stories from OnQ