Archive for the 'Plants' Category

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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Aug 30 2014

The Good Thistle

Published by under Plants

Swamp thistle in bloom (photo by Kate St. John)

Can a thistle be good?  This one is.

Swamp thistle (Cirsium muticum) is practically smooth.  Its hollow 6-foot stem has no spines and its deeply cut leaves look pointy but aren’t very sharp.  It is very beautiful with big purple flowers that attract bees, butterflies and hummingbird clearwing moths.

Compare this native biennial to other big thistles and this is the one you’ll prefer to touch.  Pasture thistle (Cirsium pumilum) is more prickly though it smells very sweet.  Field thistle (Cirsium discolor) and non-native Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) are so spiny they’re absolutely scary. Wear stout gloves!

The easiest way to identify Swamp thistle is by its bud which looks cob-webby with fine white hairs.  Here’s a closeup.

Swamp Thistle bud (photo by Kate St. John)

Swamp thistle is native to eastern North America from Labrador to Louisiana (and Texas) where it grows in swamps, wet woods and thickets.

I photographed these two at Jennings Prairie in Butler County, Pennsylvania earlier this month.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 17 2014

Yo, Joe!

Published by under Plants

Joe-Pye Weed closeup, Jennings Prairie (photo by Kate St. John)

These are the tiny flowers of a very large plant.

Joe-Pye Weed is huge — 10 feet tall! — and stands out in any setting.  Its small flowers are arranged in large dome-shaped clusters, 6 to 9 inches across, that give dramatic tops to these perennials.

Their size is amazing considering they achieve it in only four months.  Click here for a view of the entire plant.

Two common species in our area, Sweet Joe-Pye (Eutrochium purpureum) and Spotted Joe-Pye (Eutrochium maculatum), are distinguished by the colors on their stems but they hybridize and mix it up.

So big and beautiful, I don’t care which one it is.

Yo, Joe!


(photo by Kate St. John, taken at Jennings Prairie, Butler County, Pennsylvania)

p.s.  Read Marcia Bonta’s blog to find out why it’s called “Joe-Pye.”
p.p.s. The genus name only recently changed from Eupatorium to Eutrochium, another case where I prefer the old name.

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Aug 09 2014

August Nectar

Honeybee at blue vervain, August 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

August flowers have broken the nectar dearth.

This honeybee is feeding at blue vervain (Verbena hastata) in Schenley Park.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 30 2014


Published by under Plants

Peppergrass (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s a pretty plant that grows in ugly places.

Peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum) is a native edible member of the mustard (Brassicaceae) family that occurs naturally in North and Central America.  Sometimes it’s cultivated for its peppery taste.  The young rosette leaves taste like mild arugula and the round flat seed pods, when chewed, are a substitute for black pepper.

However most of us know this plant — if we notice it at all — for its indomitable attitude toward degraded habitat.  It will grow almost anywhere, a trait that has given it the status of “Weed.”

I found this one growing from a crack in the sidewalk of the Greenfield Bridge.

Though one could eat the seed pods from a roadside specimen, don’t do it!   The soil next to a busy road is contaminated with toxic metals from car and truck exhaust. Plants in the Brassicaceae family are such good hyperaccumulators of metals that they can be used to clean up toxic top soil.  This roadside plant is full of toxins.

If you decide to taste peppergrass, look for a plant that’s in good clean soil far from the road.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 20 2014

The Helleborine

Published by under Plants

Helleborine Orchid, McConnell's Mill (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Dick Nugent pointed out — and I’ve noticed too — that this is a particularly good year for Helleborine orchids in western Pennsylvania.

Dick wrote:

This year we have a Helleborine Orchid blooming in our yard. It magically appeared in one of our flower beds. Helleborine is one of the most common orchids in PA. It is an alien species and may be slightly invasive (I have trouble thinking of an orchid as being invasive)[*].  I have been finding them all over western PA in a wide variety of habitats. They are blooming right now and frequently grow on the shoulder of roads and trails.  Like many orchids, I suspect that this one has tiny seeds which are spread by the wind. It is a small flower with many flowers on one stalk. Through a magnifying glass the flower is really pretty.

Dianne Machesney photographed these at McConnell’s Mill State Park.  Here’s a close-up of the flower.

Helleborine Orchid, McConnell's Mill (photo by Dianne Machesney)

The common name got me wondering… Is “Helleborine” a reference to the Greeks as in “Hellenic?”  No.  The name means “like Hellebore,”  a European genus in the buttercup family.  The word began as “ellebore” and acquired a leading H.  Though it doesn’t refer to the Greeks, both Hellebore and Helleborine are foreign plants to North America.

I’m always thrilled to see an orchid, even if it’s an alien.


(photo by Dianne Machesney)

[*]  p.s. The species at this link Epipactis helleborine is invasive.

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Jul 19 2014


Published by under Plants

Thimbleweed, Armstrong County, 12 July 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

There aren’t many flowers that bloom in the woods in the summer, but you might find this one.

Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) stands 2-3 feet tall in the sun-splashed forest.  The flower has an elongated central disk surrounded by large white petals and is noticeable because it’s alone on a long stalk above the leaves.

When the flower is fertilized, the petals fall off and the central disk becomes a seed pod.  It looks like a thimble, hence the name.

I found this one blooming at the Roaring Run Watershed in Armstrong County last weekend.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 12 2014

Rare in Pink

Published by under Plants

Pink touch-me-not (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

I’ve seen yellow and orange touch-me-not but here’s a rare jewelweed in pink.

Thanks to Marcy Cunkelman for sending this along.  It blooms in her garden.


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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