Archive for the 'Winter Weeds & Trees' Category

Oct 29 2014

Mitten Leaves

Published by under Winter Weeds & Trees

Sassafras leaves in three shapes and two colors (photo by Kate St. John)

These very different leaves came from the same tree.

Sassafras turns red and yellow in the fall showing off its unlobed leaves, two-lobed “mittens” and three-lobed “paws.”  All three shapes grow on the same tree including both right and left-handed mittens (I checked).

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a medium-sized tree native to eastern North America from southern Maine to Florida to eastern Texas. In Pennsylvania it grows everywhere except on the central high plateau of the Northern Tier.

The tree’s roots, bark, shoots and fruit were used directly in many foods, drinks, perfumes and medicines (think “root beer”) until the essential oil, safrole, was discovered to be carcinogenic and outlawed by the FDA in 1960.  Sassafras by-products can still be used in food and cosmetics as long as they’re certified safrole-free.  Safrole is used in pesticides.

In Europe people plant sassafras as an ornamental for its aromatic scent and unusual leaves.

I found these in the wild in Harrison Hills County Park.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Oct 27 2014

Witch-hazel Blooming

Witch-hzel blooming in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

American witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is blooming in southwestern Pennsylvania.  Look for small yellow flowers clustered on the stems of a shrub or small tree.

Its four petals resemble lemon peel and are slightly hidden by the leaves right now but they’ll persist into November when they’ll be easier to see.

Witch-hazel blooming in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Witch-hazel is the only tree I know of that blooms in the fall, September to November.  It has other odd traits, too.

  • Though it blooms in the fall, it doesn’t set fruit until the following August, nearly a year later.
  • Just before it blooms the old fruit explodes, dispersing seeds up to 20 feet away.
  • Witch-hazel can find water. Its branches are used as divining rods.
  • It’s no coincidence that this plant has the same name as the astringent “witch hazel.”  The topical treatment is an extract of witch-hazel’s leaves and bark.

I found this one blooming in Schenley Park along the Lower Panther Hollow Trail.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s. Check the comments for Sally’s question about pollination and the fascinating answer.

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Nov 30 2013

Late November Signs Of Life

Witch hazel blooming in Schenley Park, 28 Nov 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

Though it’s been cold and snowy I found signs of life in Schenley Park on Thanksgiving Day.

Above, witch hazel is blooming along the Lower Trail.  The yellow flowers don’t stand out but once you notice them you’ll see several trees sporting lemon-peel petals.

Below, bush honeysuckle stands out green against the snow.  This out of synch condition reminds us that this plant is from another country.

nvasive plant out of sync with our seasons (photo by Kate St. John)

When you see green deciduous plants in the snow, check them out.  They’re often imports.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Oct 27 2013

Wild Hickory Nuts

Shagbark hickory nuts (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s something I literally stumbled on in Schenley Park:  shagbark hickory nuts (Carya ovata).

The big round balls, which cradle easily in the palm of my hand, are husk-covered nuts.  They’re green when ripe but turn brown with age (bottom right).  Their four sections naturally come open as the nut ages and sometimes burst when they hit the ground.

I didn’t need any special tools to open the husks, just my fingers.  At first I didn’t realize they were merely husks so I thought it was odd that they didn’t protect the nut but…

The nutshell is another story (center of the photo).  Irregularly shaped and slightly larger than a quarter, I tried to open it by cutting and other gentle means but it was impossible.  The meat inside is reputed to be sweet but I had to destroy the nut to taste it.

Hmmm.  Get out a hammer or hire a squirrel.

I got out the hammer.

The first nut had very shriveled meat inside.  Perhaps it had been attacked by a bug.

The second and third nuts looked promising except that the meats resembled dried Chinese wood ear mushrooms and they tasted like nothing.  (My photo doesn’t do this justice.)

Shagbark hickory nuts, hammered open (photo by Kate St. John)

Either I was doing something wrong — quite possible — or these nuts are not as good as described.

I wonder how many nuts the squirrels spend time opening only to find that the meat inside was not worth it.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Oct 26 2013

Twisted Trunks

Black cherry and red oak twist around each other, Moraine State Park, Oct 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last weekend I found these twisted trees in Moraine State Park.

It’s unusual to find trees like this — even more unusual when they’re two different species.

A black cherry (left at base) and a red oak (right at base) germinated next to each other.  At the ground their trunks touched and melded. As they grew they twisted around each other.

Amazing.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Oct 03 2013

Acorns Are Connected

Acorns of northern red oak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Stop and listen in Schenley Park right now and you’ll hear acorns falling, blue jays calling and squirrels scurrying.   It looks like a bumper crop for acorns in Pittsburgh. (*see p.s.)

Right now the red oaks are putting on a show.  Acorns in the white oak group mature in the same year they flower.  Acorns in the red oak group take two years to mature so those falling now were formed in the hot spring and summer of 2012, influenced by spring precipitation, summer temperatures and the date of the last killing frost.

Though we (usually*) don’t eat them, acorns are a key link in the woodland food web.  They’re so popular that oaks have evolved an abundance-scarcity strategy to throw off their consumers.  In some years acorns are so abundant that the crop overwhelms the acorn-eaters.  In other years they’re so scarce the consumers go hungry.  To further confuse things the oak groups cycle on different schedules: white oaks have a bumper crop in 4-10 years, red oaks on a 3-4 year basis.

Who eats these acorns?  Squirrels and chipmunks are the obvious consumers but plenty of other species depend on them including white-footed and deer mice, blue jays, red-headed woodpeckers and wild turkeys.  Deer, ruffed grouse, bears, mallards and wood ducks eat acorns, too.

The bumper crops have a ripple effect.  A 24-year study, headed by Clotfelter and Pedersen in the southern Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, followed the effects of acorn crops on rodent abundance, raptor abundance and the nesting success of ground-nesting birds.  They focused on white-footed mice, deer mice and dark-eyed juncoes and found these amazing acorn effects:

  • The population of white-footed and deer mice increases in the year after a bumper crop of acorns.
  • Rodents attract predators so the raptor population increases.
  • Too many rodents and raptors causes junco nest failure due to predation on eggs, nestlings and birds.
  • Mice eat gypsy moths so the gypsy moth population drops.
  • The number of ticks increases as white-footed mice and deer increase.

And then, this information from PLOS links acorns to Lyme disease:  Lyme disease increases predictably two years after an acorn bumper crop because white-footed mice are a main reservoir for the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria.

Don’t blame the acorns.

Everything is connected to everything else.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

*p.s. Is this a bumper crop year?  I wrote about acorns because I’ve been dodging them in Schenley Park as they fall, but not all the trees are prolific.  Hmm….

*”We don’t usually eat acorns”:   Well, we can … after a lot of work.  See kc’s comment!

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Nov 13 2012

The Trees With Leaves Are…

At this point in November most of the trees in western Pennsylvania have lost their leaves.  There are exceptions and you’re likely to find them in parks and residential areas.

Yesterday morning I took this picture at the big bend on Greenfield Road in Schenley Park.  If you didn’t know it was a recent photo you’d think it was taken in early October at the peak of autumn color.

These are Norway maples whose native range in Europe extends further north than Pittsburgh.  Our short November days are the same length as those they experience in October back home.  For instance, the sun will be up for exactly 10 hours today in western Pennsylvania.  That’s the day length in mid October in Scandinavia.

Right now our native trees are bare or retain just a few leaves at the top (tulip trees) or brittle brown leaves overall (oaks and beeches).

The non-natives plants are out of synch and late November is the one time of year when you can easily see them across the landscape.

Make an effort to identify the trees and plants with green or colorful leaves and you’ll find that they’re probably imported.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Nov 06 2012

Since 1600


When Northern Europe was deforested many centuries ago only one native pine survived:  the Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris).

Beginning in the 1600′s when Europeans came to North America, they brought the Scots pine with them.  No matter that eastern North America already had more than a dozen native pine species.  They planted this one anyway.

Since then the Scots pine has had a checkered history on this continent.  In some places it became invasive, in others it was stunted by poor growing conditions.  During my childhood it was a popular Christmas tree.

Nowadays it grows naturally from Maine to Wisconsin to West Virginia.  You’ll recognize it by its twisted trunk, rusty red bark near the top of the tree, and two needles per bundle.

The cones are fun to collect because they aren’t prickly.  If you live within the Scots pine’s range, these are easy to find.

(photo by Didier Descouens, Museum of Toulouse France, from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Nov 04 2012

The Trees Are Bare?

Lots of the trees are bare now that Hurricane Sandy came through Pennsylvania.  But not everywhere.

Here, the trees look wintry in Schenley Park on November 1.

But just around the corner the view from Panther Hollow Bridge is mixed.  The large sycamore is bare — see the ghostly white bark? — but the red oaks still show off their russet tones.  (These pictures are dark because it was raining. It rained every day last week.)

 

Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, winter comes earlier.

Here’s a picture from the Quehanna Wild Area taken on October 13.  Three weeks ago most of the trees were already bare in this part of Clearfield County.

What’s it like where you live?

(photos by Kate St. John)

 

 

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Oct 14 2012

Ash Leaves

This is one of the things I’m going to miss when all the ash trees have died.

In autumn ash leaves turn yellow, orange and lavender.  Often, all of the colors are on the same leaf.  No other tree is quite as beautiful.

Fall won’t look the same when the ashes are gone.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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