Wildflowers of a June Forest

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.

pink lady's-slipper

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.”

White clintonia

White clintonia

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.

Fly on a Jack-in-the-pulpit

Fly on a Jack-in-the-pulpit

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..

Black cohosh

Black cohosh

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.

"Fairy candles" (black cohosh)

"Fairy candles" (black cohosh)

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 as it will appear in September

Indian cucumber-root as it will appear in September

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.”

Wild indigo

Wild indigo (photo by Anita Gould on Flickr, Creative Commons BY-NC)

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.

A Wild Resource Festival

Jim Bissell points out dune grasses at Presque Isle

Dr. Jim Bissell points out dune grasses at Presque Isle

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.

Jim Bissell with coastal little bluestem

Jim Bissell with coastal little bluestem

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.

Bob Harris and his social wasp display

Bob Harris and his social wasp display

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.

Maria Wheeler's golden eagle display

Maria Wheeler's golden eagle display

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 ra-wrcp@state.pa.us.

The Tree of Great Peace

Sunset through white pine, by Cheryl Platt (Creative Commons Attribution licence)

The Iroquois called it the “Tree of Great Peace.” Its cluster of five needles to a bundle represented the five nations of the Iroquois and its spreading roots, reaching east, north, west, and south were the roots of peace that extended to all peoples.

We call this tree, more prosaically, eastern white pine — Pinus strobus — meaning “gum-yielding pine tree,” and “white” referring to its light-colored wood.  It’s also been called sapling, pumpkin, soft, northern, and Weymouth pine, the latter name a tribute to Thomas Viscount Weymouth who, in 1605, had eastern white pine planted on his Longleat estate in England.

And what a tree it was then, providing towering, straight ships’ masts for the British Navy.

“Much of Pennsylvania… — so it has been asserted — was one vast White Pine forest,” Donald Culross Peattie wrote in his comprehensive A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America.  Loggers sent tremendous rafts of eastern white pine down both the Delaware and Allegheny rivers.  Those trees cut in the 1760s in northeastern Pennsylvania produced 120-foot-long logs four feet or more in diameter for British ships.  As colonists pushed westward, often in pursuit of eastern white pine, the longest haul of rafted logs in the nation began in pine forests 200 miles north of Pittsburgh and arrived 2000 miles later in New Orleans.

old-growth white pine in Pennsylvania's Delaware State Forest

Old-growth white pine in Pennsylvania's Delaware State Forest, by Nicholas T (Creative Commons Attribution licence)

Eastern white pine, Peattie wrote, was “the most generally useful wood our country has ever possessed.” Covered bridges, homes, flooring, furniture, and shingles were made of eastern white pine.  Arguments, some lethal, over who had the right to cut and sell eastern white pine trees, often erupted between the British and their colonial subjects before and even during the Revolutionary War.  In fact, disputed ownership of these profitable trees was one of the reasons for the war.

Native Americans had different uses for eastern white pines. The Iroquois mixed the white resin that seeps out of tree wounds with beeswax to seal canoe seams and waterproof their baskets.  Several tribes, especially the Algonquians, used the inner bark or cambium of the trees, which could be dried and pounded into a flour-like substance, as emergency food.  For this reason, the Iroquois called the Algonquians “Adirondack,” meaning “tree-eater.”  The Ojibwa stewed young, first-year cones with meat to sweeten it, and the Chippewa treated gangrenous wounds with the tree’s sap.  All the tribes enjoyed the white pine’s tasty, nutritious seeds.

Ranging from Newfoundland to Manitoba in Canada, south through the northern states from Maine to Pennsylvania and on through the Appalachians to Georgia, and west to Iowa, eastern white pine is the largest native pine species east of the Rocky Mountains.  Logging operations, moving ever south and westward, decimated the great pine forests over the centuries.  Although in 1875 Pennsylvania led our nation in wood production, which was mostly eastern white pine, by 1900 that tree was depleted.  Of course, the almost legendary eastern white pines, those that once soared straight and as high as 80 feet to the first branch, had long been gone.

Today, only a very few of the old groves are left.  Heart’s Content in the Allegheny National Forest has one eastern white pine tree that is 167 feet high and 4 feet 2 inches in diameter.  But Cook Forest State Park hosts the 183.6 foot-tall Longfellow Pine, which was climbed and measured by tape drop by the Eastern Native Tree Society, which is “devoted to the celebration of trees and to the accurate measurement and documentation of tall, historical, significant trees and forests,” according to their website.

New growth on a white pine, by scarlatti2004 (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence)

The park also contains 110 eastern white pines that are 150 feet tall — the largest collection of such trees in the northeastern United States.

Once the deciduous trees drop their leaves, the scattering of eastern white pines in our forest is more noticeable.  Several loom above even the tallest of our deciduous trees, and when January snow covers their soft, flexible, bluish-green needles, they are arguably the loveliest trees on our mountain.  The 4- to 7-inch-long drooping cones they produce, their thin, rounded scales festive with resin-frosted tips, make ideal Christmas tree and wreath decorations.  Our three sons, when they were young, even tried to improve them with paint before hanging them on our tree.

A mature eastern white pine — and we have several along our road and trails — produces from 200 to 300 cones a year, but it takes two years for a cone to develop.  Both male and female flowers grow on the same tree, the bright pinkish-purple female flowers at the top of the tree while the yellow, oval, male flowers are lower down at the base of the season’s new growth of needles.  When the male flowers release their pollen in May in Pennsylvania, the wind carries it in all directions. Peattie claimed that “When the male flowers bloomed in these illimitable pineries, thousands of miles of forest aisle were swept with the golden smoke of this reckless fertility, and great storms of pollen were swept from the primeval shores far out to sea and to the superstitious sailor seemed to be ‘raining brimstone’ on the deck.”

Maturing green cone of a white pine, by Eric in SF (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence)

At first, the cones are green and tightly closed, but during their second season, they ripen to a light chestnut-brown and open to release their ¼ inch-long, winged, wind-dispersed seeds.  The seeds travel 200 feet within a stand of trees but more than 700 feet in the open.  White-footed mice and red-backed voles also grow new trees by burying their caches of seeds beneath leaf litter but on top of the kind of mineral soil that encourages the seeds to sprout.

Eastern white pine sprouts well after a fire or logging, but it will also sprout in shade, although it will only thrive and grow if there is a break in the canopy.  A seedling grows slowly at first, taking as long as ten years before reaching five feet in height.  But then it speeds up, and a 30-year-old tree can be 60 feet tall with a two-foot diameter trunk.  I’ve been watching a seedling tree grow inside our three-acre, deer exclosure and another that we fenced in our front yard. The former is six years old and only two-and-a-half feet tall.  The front yard tree is 14-years-old and 11-feet tall.

We would have many more eastern white pine trees if it weren’t for the deer.  Our son Dave planted 50 seedlings from the Game Commission a decade ago, and all were browsed to the ground by whitetails.  Porcupines, squirrels, and snowshoe hares eat eastern white pine bark.  Mice, voles, chipmunks, squirrels, and a bevy of songbirds — nuthatches, chickadees, pine siskins, grosbeaks, and crossbills — relish their seeds.  Red squirrels, for instance, can strip 45 seeds from a cone in two minutes.  They also use white pine branch crotches as pantries, according to Charles Fergus, who wrote in his excellent book Trees of Pennsylvania and the Northeast, “I have watched red squirrels carry mushrooms — the red-and-white fruiting bodies of Russula emetica — into white pines and hang them in branch crotches for storing.”

Osprey nest in white pines, Umbagog Lake, NH, by Shannon and Christine Fournier (Creative Commons BY-NC licence)

Many bird species nest in eastern white pine.  I recall trying to see a crow’s nest high in the dense branches of our largest white pine years ago and early last spring I watched from my backyard as crows gathered twigs which they carried to an eastern white pine tree halfway up Laurel Ridge. Another year I frequently flushed a great horned owl from an eastern white pine tree that still had a few feet to grow before it topped the tallest deciduous trees.  Other owl species, hawks, common ravens, blue jays, flycatchers, grosbeaks, finches, warblers, and mourning doves also use them to raise their young.

White pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola), which came from European nursery stock, was a major killer of eastern white pines until it was discovered that the fungus spent part of its life cycle on gooseberry or currant shrubs.  Once those shrubs were kept a quarter mile away from eastern white pines, the fungus could not harm them.  When we lived in rural Maine back in the mid-1960s, I remember that it was against the law to plant currant and gooseberry shrubs anywhere.

The white pine weevil (Pissodes strobe), a native species, only attacks pines growing in full sunlight, and lay their eggs in growing buds where its larvae eat and kill the leading shoot.  But the tree survives because its side buds develop, although it won’t be a perfect, pagoda-shaped tree.

Eastern white pine doesn’t tolerate air pollution, heat, drought or salt.  But once it is 60 feet high and has rough bark on its lower trunk, it can survive low- and even moderate-severity fires.

Harvest moon over white pines, by : rebecca : (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence)

Lying beneath a large eastern white pine is sheer bliss.  Because it sheds half its needles every fall, they provide a soft covering over the hard ground.  It is there I listen to the wind soughing in the pines and am perfectly content.  Unlike my boys, I never felt compelled to climb the ladder-like limbs of an eastern white pine, but each boy seemed to grow in stature, at least in his own eyes, once he surveyed his world from his lofty perch.

In Maine and Michigan, eastern white pine is the state tree.  Ontario honors it as its provincial tree.  Now that our state tree — eastern hemlock — is being destroyed by another foreign invader, the hemlock woolly adelgid, I propose that we consider changing our state tree to the eastern white pine. It is, after all, an important part of Pennsylvania’s natural and historical history.

Click on photos to go to their pages on Flickr and view larger sizes.

A Fruitful Year

Some years are more fruitful than others.  Last year was one of those years.  From mid-June until mid-August I never set out for my morning walk without slipping a pint jar into my pocket.  I wanted to be prepared to pick first the low bush blueberries, then the huckleberries on the powerline right-of-way, and later, in August, the blackberries that overhung the Far Field Road.

But for nearly three weeks in July, most of my berry-picking centered on our home grounds where, for the first time in more than two decades, black raspberries escaped most of the ravages of deer and the attention of black bears and produced a crop that I could barely keep up with.

Video of Marcia picking raspberries in 2008. (Subscribers must click through to watch.)

Back in 1971, when we first saw our place on a Fourth of July weekend, I couldn’t believe the abundance of black raspberries growing in the backyard. Over the years, as the deer herd increased, the black raspberry canes decreased. Then, the bears appeared. Those canes that survived the browsing of the deer, namely those growing on the steep slope below the front porch, were trampled by bears overnight and stripped of their almost-ripe fruit.

The ubiquitous white-tailed deer

The ubiquitous white-tailed deer

During the last several years, our hunters have trimmed the deer herd and the black raspberries have begun to recover.  Last summer we had a perfect storm of berries — patches outside the kitchen door, below the front porch, surrounding the springhouse, on a steep slope beside the guesthouse, and in the guesthouse backyard.  Secondary patches thrived beside the driveway and in our side yard.  Every hot, humid morning I was out early, picking several quarts.  Although some went into the freezer for winter fruit salads, we ate most at our meals, either alone or combined with blueberries and huckleberries, depending on whether I had the strength and will to pick both in one day.

The word “fruit” comes from the Latin fructus meaning “that which is used or enjoyed,” and we certainly did both with our wild berry crops.  I did most of the picking.  Occasionally, I was rewarded with more than berries.  Once in the patch outside the kitchen door I found a song sparrow nest that contained four greenish-white eggs heavily blotched with brown.  While picking blueberries on the powerline right-of-way, a tiny American toad hopped in front of me.  Hooded warblers serenaded me as I harvested blackberries on the Far Field Road.

With all the bears on our mountain, I was surprised that they left the black raspberries alone and that I never encountered them amidst the blueberry and huckleberry shrubs.  No doubt, the incredible abundance of wild berries everywhere on our mountain kept them busy.  I, after all, ranged only a mile or so in search of berries, but I knew of other patches on neighboring properties that had as much or more berries than our property and that were not picked by humans. And the bear scat on our trails certainly showed evidence that they were enjoying berries as much as we were.

Not only did the wild fruit crops palatable to humans thrive.  So too did those palatable to birds and animals, such as the red-berried elder, also called mountain elder. This beautiful, native shrub likes cool, moist, rocky woods and blooms in April.  On steep slopes, where deer cannot reach to browse its twigs and foliage, red-berried elder thrives, bearing pyramidal clusters of berry-like drupes here by the sixteenth of June.  Our son, Dave, photographed chipmunks eating them, and I have watched rose-breasted grosbeaks gobbling them up.

chipmunk with red elderberries

chipmunk with red elderberries

The naturalist-writer Henry David Thoreau once wrote in Faith in a Seed, “If you would study the habits of birds; go where their food is, for example, if it is about the first of September, to the wild black-cherry trees, elder bushes, pokeweed…” The “elder” he meant is the common elder, those shrubs with flat-topped, clusters of small, white flowers that  are even more popular wildlife food.  By early September, those shrubs inside our three acre deer exclosure hung heavy with the umbels of purplish-black, berry-like drupes, and I flushed two ruffed grouse feeding on them.

Because common elder blooms long after the last frost — in late June and early July — it always produces a bumper crop of fruit.  “Many species of wild birds are attracted to the ‘banquet table’ which the common elder spreads in the fall,” William Carey Grimm wrote in The Book of Shrubs, such as gray catbirds, American robins, eastern bluebirds, northern cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, eastern towhees, red-bellied woodpeckers, brown thrashers, and wood and hermit thrushes.  But because white-tailed deer browse on its twigs and foliage, the “common” elder has become uncommon in many areas. What the deer don’t eat, the sprayers of roadsides, drainers of swamps, loggers of stream sides, and abolishers of fencerows destroy, because this is a shrub of fencerows and waysides that flourishes in rich, moist soils along streams and swamps.  Those in our exclosure grow along its moist border, reaching a height of seven feet, while those that grew along our stream at the edge of our First Field wetland are gone because of deer browsing.

Wild black cherry trees are not deer food so we have many in all stages of growth including large trees. As early as the second of July, I flushed a brown thrasher fledgling that was eating wild black cherries from a medium-sized tree at the edge of First Field.  But it was mid-August before most of the cherries in the forest began to ripen.  Then they were loaded with fruit, some of which were green, some red, and some black.  Common grackle flocks quickly discovered them, and during an evening walk, my husband Bruce and I watched hundred of blackbirds stream over First Field and land on Sapsucker Ridge, their black bodies silhouetted against a golden sky as they ate cherries.

Cedar Waxwing in an ornamental cherry tree (photo by m. heart, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license)

Cedar Waxwing in an ornamental cherry tree (photo by m. heart, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license)

The following day, Tim Tyler, one of our hunter friends, was cutting out black locust trees on First Field when he discovered a cedar waxwing nest with four pale gray eggs spotted with brown in a locust tree.  He immediately stopped cutting there and left a small grove of six trees standing to protect the incipient waxwing family.

Thoreau wrote about finding a small black cherry tree in “full fruit” and hearing the “cherry-birds — their shrill and fine seringo — and robins… The cherry-birds and robins seem to know the locality of any wild cherry tree in town…” “Cherry-birds” are cedar waxwings. Had the waxwings waited for the cherry crop, which was unusually late because of a cold spring, before starting their family?  They do, after all, feed fruit to their nestlings. On the other hand, it could have been a second nesting.  Successful cedar waxwing couples often have second families, especially during good fruit-bearing years.

I kept an eye on the nest from a distance and always saw the female sitting on it.  But on the fifteenth of September, a cedar waxwing keened from the bare branch atop one of the tall black locusts above the nest site.  It looked around alertly, as male cedar waxwings do when they are on guard for their family. I peered at the nest through my binoculars and saw the female on the nest as usual.  Then she flew up toward the male and both of them flew off.  I took the opportunity to check their nest and found four nestlings.  One looked more advanced than the others did, but this sometimes happens with waxwings because often the female starts incubating before she lays all her eggs.

That was the only time I went near the nest, but I continued to watch it from a distance.  Soon the nestlings’ little crested heads were visible above the rim of the nest.  At least one parent was on guard in the tall locust whenever I walked past. Based on my calculations, that the female sits 12 days on her eggs before they start to hatch—a process that can take form 48 to 96 hours—and another 16 days as nestlings, I expected them to fledge around September 24.

Sure enough, on the morning of September 24, the cedar waxwing nest was empty except for a broken egg still holding smelly liquid and two squished wild black cherries.  The nest had been woven of wild grape stems, lined with dried weeds and plastered on the outside with fluffy white material.

In addition to cedar waxwings, I saw red-eyed vireos, blue jays, and scarlet tanagers harvesting wild black cherries, but the list of songbirds and other wildlife that feast on them is legion.  Thoreau mentioned gray catbirds, brown thrashers, eastern kingbirds, blue jays, red-headed woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds and northern cardinals as the most common birds that eat wild black cherries, in addition to robins and cedar waxwings.  Huge piles of bear scat studded with cherry pits on our trails testified to their popularity with bears. And the smaller animals, such as foxes, squirrels, and chipmunks, also ate the fruit.

A bower of pokeweed above Coyote Bench ripened too in September.  Pokeweed, known by many alternative names, for instance, pokeberry, poke, redweed, inkberry, and pigeon berry—can grow up to 12 feet tall in rich, moist soil.  Its long clusters of dark purple berries and large shiny seeds are popular with many songbirds, especially mourning doves, hence its name “pigeon berry.”  Philadelphia-based bird artist, Alexander Wilson, wrote back in the early nineteenth century that “the juice of the berries is of a beautiful crimson and they are eaten in such quantities by these birds [robins] that their whole stomachs are strongly tinged with the same red color.” I’ve watched eastern bluebirds harvesting the berries from pokeweed growing beside our house.

Solomons plume (AKA false Solomons seal) in berry

Solomon's plume (AKA false Solomon's seal) in berry

Several of our spring wildflowers flaunted autumn fruit also.  In mid-September, I walked down our road and found twin orange berries hanging from the end of yellow mandarin stems.  A series of twin blue berries dangled beneath Solomon’s seal stems, bright red clumps of jack-in-the-pulpit berries bent over from their weight, and a string of pinkish-red berries hung from the stem ends of false Solomon’s seal.  Wild spikenard displayed upright clusters of wine-colored berries.  Even the small beginnings of maple-leaved viburnum shrubs had a few dark, bluish-black clumps of berries.

But the wild nut crops were thin or non-existent, probably due, in part, to a cold spell in late spring.  No wonder wildlife was busily harvesting the September fruit crops. Because nature often gives bounteously with one hand and takes with another, the more diversity we have in wildflowers, shrubs, and trees in our forests, the more likely the animals and birds are to find enough to eat even if a major food fails.

All photos were taken by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow except where indicated otherwise.