Now that the flush of forest spring wildflowers has passed, it’s easy to overlook most of the late bloomers. Yet our June woods produce some lovely native wildflowers, beginning with the pink lady’s-slipper.
Although it starts to bloom in mid-May, it holds its single crimson-pink slipper for three weeks. The pink lady’s-slipper orchid (Cypripedium acaule) is also called moccasin flower, squirrel-shoes, camel’s foot, hare’s lip, and whippoorwill-shoes because of its unique, pouch-shaped flower. Supposedly, whippoorwill-shoes comes from an old Indian legend that says when whippoorwills go courting at night, they wear lady’s-slippers as moccasins. In Pennsylvania, lady’s-slippers once were called “ducks” because when children partially filled the lip of the flower with sand and floated it on water, it looked like a duck to folks.
Usually, I count between 50 and 60 blooming pink lady’s-slippers along our wooded trails, but I find many more sets of two large, parallel-veined leaves without a flower. For years, I was puzzled over this until I read about Dr. Frank Gill’s 14-year study of 3,300 pink lady’s-slipper plants in a Virginia forest. Over the years, only 1,000 flowered and of those, a mere 23 had been pollinated. Even though it looks and smells like a nectar-producing flower, not only does it not produce nectar, but it traps a bee inside its pouch. The bee has to force its way back out, bearing a blob of pollen on its head. Only a dimwitted bee would visit a second lady’s-slipper to complete the pollination process or, as Dr. Gill concludes, “What I think is that a minority of bees don’t learn or that their levels of desperation are sufficiently high to make a second visit.”
Another wildflower that puts out more large, parallel-veined, oblong-shaped leaves than flowers is white clintonia (Clintonia umbellulata). Its single stalk holds an umbel of fragrant, white flowers, often dotted with purple or green. Every year I find 12 or more plants clustered at the base of an oak tree above our hollow road, but only one or two flower. Another spot beside our stream produces five plants and sometimes as many as three of those plants flower. In the deepest part of the hollow above the stream, single plants often flourish and flower. A member of the lily family, it is also called speckled wood lily and white bead lily, the latter name because its cluster of black berries looks like beads. This elegant plant lights up the dark forest and is one of my favorite wildflowers.
Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), like white clintonia, is spreading every year along our hollow road and beside our stream. It too sends out more of its leaves than its flowers because it takes three or more years to produce a flower. Each leaf has three leaflets, hence its species’ name triphyllum, and looks much like a trillium leaf. It is famous for its sex change performances, called “sequential hermaphroditism” by botanists, meaning the plant can be male, female, or both, depending on its environment the previous year. Those with two large sets of leaves are female and should probably be called jill-in-the-pulpit. The smaller plants are males. But jack-in-the-pulpit depends more on asexual reproduction by underground corm, a bulb-like stem that forms buds which produce new plants.
Jack-in-the-pulpit has even more nicknames than pink lady’s-slipper, to whit, brown dragon, Indian jack, wood pulpit, little pulpit, starchwort, cuckoo flower, devil’s ear, dragonroot, memory root, Indian turnip, pepper turnip, marsh pepper, and Indian almond. The plant is poisonous because it contains calcium oxalate crystals, but the corm, if properly dried and cooked, can be used as a root vegetable, thus the turnip names. It was also an Indian medicinal for treating sore eyes, rheumatism, bronchitis, and snakebite.
Its most intriguing nicknames, though, refer to its amazing shape — the pulpit or hood-like spathe a light green, veined with a deeper tint, or stained with purple — arched over the jack or club-shaped spadix. At the base of the spadix, grow the tiny, unisexual flowers. This unique wildflower has even inspired a long poem by Clara Smith that begins, “Jack-in-the-pulpit/ Preaches today/ Under the green trees/ Just over the way.” The preacher even moralizes, rebuking the “White Indian pipes/ On the green mosses lie!/Who has been smoking/ Profanely so nigh?”
I don’t believe any of our jack-in-the-pulpits grow close to our Indian pipes. They flourish mostly higher up Laurel Ridge in numerous clumps that appear later in June. The Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is white with scale-like leaves, its flower looking like a drooping pipe before it is pollinated. Afterwards, it turns its pipe skyward. Because it lacks chlorophyll, it cannot get energy from the sun. Hence, it is parasitic on fungal hosts, mostly in the Russula genus, which, in turn, get their energy from trees. Also called ghost plant, corpse plant, convulsion root and fits roots, the Indian pipe has recently been reclassified in the heath family (Ericaceae) from the family Momotropaceae.
In early June, I can usually find a couple clumps of squawroot (Conopolis americana) growing along our Pit Mound Trail. Before a previous owner logged that portion of our property on Sapsucker Ridge, I found dozens of these intriguing flowers thriving among the decaying leaves of 100-year-old red oak trees. A member of the broomrape family, squawroot is parasitic on the roots of oak trees, its suckers forming large, round knobs on the host tree’s roots. The plant looks like an elongate pine cone covered with overlapping brown scales, its hooded, two-lipped, yellowish flowers set between the scales. Growing singly or in groups of several from a thickened base, one of its alternate names—bear corn—aptly describes its appearance, whereas squawroot refers to its use by Indians in treating women’s health problems..
Another plant used to treat women’s health, the well-known medicinal black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), flourishes beside our hollow road and inside our deer exclosure. One of its alternate names is squawroot. Others are black snakeroot, bugbane, bugwort, rattleroot, rattleweed, and, my personal favorite, fairy candles. How else to describe its upright spires of white, feathery, ill-scented flowers growing above a wreath of sharply-toothed leaflets? Instead of driving bugs away, as its generic Latin name indicates as well as its nickname bugbane, its carrion smell attracts pollinating insects. Its plant is also the sole food for the caterpillars of the Appalachian azure butterfly (Celastrina neglecta-major). This butterfly lives in the central and southern Appalachians from southern Pennsylvania to northern Georgia and thrives in rich, deciduous woods, especially near streams, exactly the habitat we have. I don’t think that I’ve seen this species yet, but we may not be far enough south, or perhaps I have misidentified some of our spring azures. Rattleroot and rattleweed refer to the seeds of black cohosh that rattle inside their pods or perhaps, along with snakeroot, to its use against snakebite by Indians.
The rest of our June native forest wildflowers are less showy. Both sweet-cicely (Osmorhiza claytonia), also called Clayton’s sweet root, and aniseroot (O. longistylis) grow beside our hollow road. Members of the parsley family, both have fern-like leaves, small umbels of white flowers, and club-shaped, blackish fruit that cling to clothes, but sweet-cicely has hairy stems and short styles whereas aniseroot has longer styles than the petals and smoother stems. In addition, all parts of aniseroot are anise-scented.
A few Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus) plants also grow beside our hollow road. A member of the daisy family, its small, pink-rayed, yellow-centered flowers have from 50 to 100 petals, and its leaves clasp its soft, hairy stem. Another name for this attractive plant is the Philadelphia daisy.
Hooked crowfoot (Ranunculus recurvatus), also called hooked buttercup or blisterwort, is a buttercup with tiny, pale yellow flowers that grows along our stream and is pollinated by small bees. The “hooked” refers to its spiny-looking fruit. Wood ducks, ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, and eastern chipmunks relish its seeds.
The single, greenish or white, five-petaled flower of thimbleweed or tall anemone (Anemone virginiana) grows atop a two-to-three-foot high, hairy stem above a set of whorled, three-part, toothed leaves. Its name comes from its thimble-shaped fruit. It too grows along our hollow road, and, like hooked crowfoot, is a member of the buttercup family.
Indian cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana) crowds our road bank and flourishes beside our stream. Its lance-shaped leaves grow in two whorls, and beneath the upper whorl dangle two greenish-yellow flowers with long and spreading, spider like styles. A member of the lily family, its upper leaves are stained with crimson in the fall, a striking contrast to its dark purple berries above those leaves. Its generic name is after the sorceress Medea, for its supposed medicinal values, but Indians used its rootstock, shaped like a cucumber, as food. In fact, Indians called it “his cucumber” from which it got its name. Euell Gibbons, in his classic Stalking the Healthful Herbs, describes them as “snow-white, crisp, tender, and delicious, with a distinct flavor of cucumber” and even made excellent dill pickles with them, although usually he merely substituted them for commercial cucumbers in his tossed salad.
Whorled loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) is especially abundant inside our three-acre deer exclosure. From axils of whorled leaves, grow flower stems, each of which support a five-petaled, golden-yellow flower marked with red. Both its species’ name and an alternate name—four-leaved loosestrife—refer to the number of leaves in every whorl, although sometimes it has five leaves. A member of the primrose family, it grows in dry, open woods.
Every June I discover at least one new native wildflower. Last June I found a yellow-flowered plant nestled among huckleberry shrubs along Black Gum Trail—a legume with pea-like flowers and alternate, three-leaf, clover-shaped leaves. On it, mating craneflies fluttered their long, graceful wings. I identified it as wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria)—an herbal “commonly known among farmers as horseflyweed, because it is often used by them to keep flies from annoying horses,” according to Joseph Harned in his charming Wildflowers of the Alleghanies. He continues, “In the mountains this plant grows in great abundance. Dried specimens invariably turn black” which I proved by drying a plant. Furthermore, Harned claims, “It contains a bitter glucoside, is used as an infusion in typhus, locally for ulcers, and when given internally acts as a cathartic and emetic.”
Authorities that are more recent add that wild indigo is a dye plant used as a poor substitute for true indigo, hence its alternate name “yellow false indigo.” Like black cohosh, its seeds rattle around in pods when ripe. Some lepidopterans such as Io moths, frosted elfin butterflies, and wild indigo duskywing butterflies eat its leaves. Apparently, the wild indigo duskywing was comparatively rare until it also adapted to eating crownvetch and is now common.
Finally, the little pairs of fragrant, white, trumpet-shaped flowers of partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) bloom at the bases of its evergreen, shiny, white-veined twin leaves. This trailing plant blankets sections of our road bank and provides scarlet, edible berries for ruffed grouse, hence, its name, since partridge is a New England name for grouse as we discovered when we lived in Maine many years ago. In addition, wild turkeys, foxes, mice, bobwhite quail, and songbirds eat them. Also called checkerberry and twinberry, it is a member of the madder family, and its generic name honors Dr. John Mitchell, an able, amateur botanist from Virginia during colonial days.
With all these treasures and more to discover, I spend many June hours afield in search of both old plant friends and new.
All photos taken in Plummer’s Hollow by Dave Bonta except where indicated.
Thunder rumbled ominously as my husband Bruce and I rushed to join Dr. Jim Bissell on a Dune Walk at Presque Isle State Park. Under a lowering sky spitting rain, we waited anxiously at Beach 10 Parking Area. Cars pulled in and out, but no one arrived for the 10:00 a.m. field trip. Then, Bissell drove up, leaping from his truck with his storied enthusiasm. A few minutes later, one other person joined us. She was a native of the Erie-area and was as eager as we were to learn more about the plants from a renowned expert.
Undeterred by the weather or scarcity of participants, Bissell, who is Curator of Botany and Coordinator of Natural Areas at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, launched into what turned out to be a two hour mini-course on the dune and sand plain plants of the park. Since 1984 he has been researching and mapping the flora of Presque Isle State Park and has found 80 Pennsylvania threatened, rare, or endangered plants there.
“You can barely go anywhere without finding a rare species,” he told us.
And sure enough, we barely moved from one area, yet he showed us several rare and interesting plants.
The major dune builder now is American beachgrass, a Pennsylvania threatened species which is endemic to the Great Lakes — Ammophila breviligulata ssp.champlainensis— although some botanists consider it a distinct species and call it A. champlainensis. Originally native to the shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Champlain, the breakwaters erected on the western side of Presque Isle to protect the beaches created larger dunes and greatly increased American beachgrass at the park, Bissell said.
This species differs from the Atlantic coast species because it blooms in late June and produces much longer spikes in late August and early September. Its undisputed genus name Ammophila is Greek for “sand lover” and usually grows on the first line of coastal sand dunes. Its creeping rhizomes spread rapidly and thus it can flourish on shifting sands and withstand high winds.
Another plant Bissell showed us was coastal little bluestem or seaside bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium var. littorale, which only grows in Pennsylvania at Presque Isle State Park, even though it lives on sand dunes throughout the Great Lakes’ area. This species is one of many Presque Isle species listed as Pennsylvania rare by the Pennsylvania Biological Survey.
Beach wormwood or mugwort (Artemisia campestris ssp. caudata), another coastal dune species that is related to western sagebrush, is listed as Pennsylvania endangered. So too is hairy puccoon (Lithospermum caroliniense), still another plant found only at Presque Isle in Pennsylvania. Known also as hispid gromwell and golden puccoon, it displays clusters of one-inch, yellow-orange flowers in mid-May.
A species that Bissell couldn’t show us is bearberry manzanita (Arctostaphylos uvba-ursi), also called kinnikinick, mealberry, hog cranberry, and sandberry. This circumpolar species that grows in northern Europe, Asia, and North America is now extinct in Pennsylvania even though it was common on Presque Isle back in the 1930s. A lovely, evergreen, prostrate ground cover shrub, it has white, urn-shaped flowers in spring and bears bright red berries in late summer. Bissell blames its demise on deer which “outdo breakwaters in terms of damage” to plant species.
Back in 1949, O.E. Jennings, a botanist and former director of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, writing in the Pennsylvania Park News, discussed what he called the “bearberry heath” at Presque Isle State Park and added that, “unfortunately there are now too many deer and the bearberry and many other plants of the unusually varied flora of the peninsula are being exterminated.” In 1987, speaking in front of the Presque Isle State Park Authority, Bissell also warned about deer damage especially to hairy puccoon, beach mugwort, and wild blue lupine (also Pennsylvania rare), but he said that “the exotics [invasives] really are the greatest threat in the park.”
Twenty-three years later he reiterated that same message to us and mentioned the same invasive he had warned about then—phragmites or common reed (Phragmites australis)—a widely distributed clonal grass that grows on every continent but Antarctica. In Europe, it’s protected because of its important ecological functions. In the United States, it is considered a threat to native wetland plants. At Presque Isle, it competes with a host of threatened, rare, and endangered species.
Phragmites can grow 13 feet high, and its large flower plumes, which persist into winter, are filled with seeds. Worst of all, though, Bissell said, are its incredible rhizomes or lateral roots. They can grow 60 feet in a year, with new plants sprouting at each node, and when they are removed, they will recover in a few months.
We have been coming to Presque Isle State Park periodically since 1983, and on every visit, we are struck by how phragmites has spread on the peninsula. Usually our botanical host is Evelyn Anderson who writes “Nature’s Way” for the Erie Morning News. She has shown us dozens of rare and unusual plants growing in the six ecological zones of this seven-mile-long recurving sandspit. Much of what she has learned has come from her association with Bissell so I was pleased finally to meet and learn from him, if only for a few hours.
The Dune Walk was one of several field trips offered at the Wild Resource Festival last May 1. As a member of Pennsylvania’s Wild Resource Conservation Program’s Advisory Committee, I had wanted to attend one of these nature-oriented events, which first began in 2005. I was also curious to see the Tom Ridge Environmental Center at the park.
I remember the beginning of what was then called the Wild Resource Conservation Fund back in 1982. That’s when Governor Dick Thornburgh signed the Pennsylvania Wild Resource Conservation Act, designed to support the management and protection of non-game wildlife and native wild plants and funded by citizens’ voluntary donations of part or all of their state income tax refund.
My filing cabinet contains all the issues of the WRCF’s Keystone Wild Notes from volume 1, number 1 published in the summer of 1985 until the Fall/Winter issue of 2007. Since then this little publication, crammed full of information about the many funded projects, such as the otter reintroduction, fisher reintroduction, study of freshwater mussels, the breeding bird atlas, etc., has been published online. The latest edition features pieces about the energy challenges ahead and how they will affect Pennsylvania’s natural world.
Today, the WRCF has been renamed the Wild Resource Conservation Program and is administered by the DCNR. It is financed not only by state income tax refunds, but also by Growing Greener grants and public contributions. Although they continue the work of studying and conserving our rare species and habitats, they have now “a special emphasis on helping our species and natural systems survive global climate change,” according to their website. “We are Pennsylvania’s biodiversity conservation program,” and they work closely with the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission to conserve Pennsylvania’s non-game animals, wild plants and their habitats. The needs are great, but the funding is dwindling even as Pennsylvania’s natural world faces more problems than it did when the WRCF was started.
The weather had worsened and the festival’s afternoon bird field trip to Gull Point was cancelled. But over a thousand people, mostly families with children, visited the many exhibitors set up in the 65,000-square foot, state-of-the-art, green-designed Tom Ridge Environmental Center (TREC). In addition to permanent exhibitions that feature Presque Isle’s history, ecosystems, wildlife, plants, and bird migrations, TREC has five classrooms and eight laboratories for research and educational programs. It also houses the Regional Science Consortium, a collaborative, non-profit organization that focuses on and coordinates research and educational projects for Lake Erie and the upper Ohio basin, such as migratory bird night flights, invasive plants and animals, and local bat populations.
The Regional Science Consortium, along with Gannon University, Presque Isle State Park, and TREC were partners with the WRCP in presenting the Wild Resource Festival. The exhibitors came from a range of state government, non-governmental organizations, and museums.
We were struck particularly by the number of enthusiastic volunteers displaying examples of pressed specimens they had photocopied and mounted of some of the rare plants and invasives from the TREC Natural History Museum.
“We are the invasive capitol of Pennsylvania,” one volunteer said.
Another volunteer, Bob Harris, a retired engineer who looks much younger than his 78 years, took us back to the laboratory area to show us the social wasp display he had designed and constructed as well as other examples of his work. He also gave us a tour of the Aquatics Lab. Clearly, he and the other volunteers we spoke with are proud of TREC and devote many hours to it.
As usual, the most popular exhibitor was Chris Urban of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission who had live rattlesnakes and turtles, including the endangered bog turtle, on display. The crowd was so dense that I could barely get a glimpse of the creatures.
John Rawlins, also on the WRCP Advisory Committee, and Robert L. Davidson of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History showed off rare insects and encouraged folks to bring insects for them to identify. Mark Klinger, also of the Carnegie, displayed local butterflies and offered a Butterfly Walk. Tom Erdman and Tim Taylor of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry helped folks identify trees and answered forestry questions. We especially liked their wildflower picture display and nice guide books. Other knowledgeable people presented material for kids and adults on prehistoric animals, the American chestnut restoration, composting first-hand for kids, the Climate Change Vulnerability Index, and more.
We were interested especially in Maria Wheeler’s exhibit about the DNA study of eastern golden eagles by the National Aviary. She told us that it looked as if the eastern golden eagle is not a separate subspecies even though it has a different life style from the western golden eagle. Most likely, she said, that was because western golden eagles had been brought east when the easterns were dying from DDT spraying.
Overall, we enjoyed our first Wild Resource Festival and urge anyone interested in nature and conservation to attend this year’s festival at Point State Park in Pittsburgh on October 15.
To subscribe to Keystone Wild Notes: www.dcnr.state.pa.us/wrcp/subscribe.html. This is an excellent teaching publication and contains information for folks of all ages. The WCRP website: www.dcnr.state.pa.us/wrcp. You can also e-mail them at email@example.com.