The Amazing Mayapple

mayapple leaves carpeting ground by Martin LaBa

mayapple leaves carpeting ground by Martin LaBar (Creative Commons BY-NC)

After twelve years, the first mayapples bloomed inside our three-acre deer exclosure. Almost as soon as we put the fence up in March 2001, mayapple leaves popped up in the lower, wet, wooded section of the exclosure. But they were single leaves, not the double leaves with a notch in the middle from which a single, six-petaled, waxy, white flower would emerge.

Last spring on our mountain the first umbrella-shaped mayapple leaves unfurled on March 30, by far the earliest date ever for this wildflower that often doesn’t flower until the second week in May. The frosts of April didn’t wilt the leaves, and on the 18th of April, I found three double-leaved mayapples in the exclosure, each bearing a large flower bud.

The exclosure isn’t the only place mayapples bloom. These clonal plants have formed large colonies beside our road, along Sapsucker Ridge Trail, and beside the Far Field Road. But the largest colony of all covers more than an acre at the Far Field thicket. One leaf even appeared in the middle of the Far Field last spring, but I doubt it will make much headway against the goldenrod and asters.

As usual the first mayapples bloomed along the Far Field Road on April 27, the earliest blooming date ever during our 40 years here, but those mayapples beside our access road didn’t flower until May 1, right in time for May Day.

While the first part of its common name refers to the month it usually flowers in, the “apple” refers to the yellow-green, egg-shaped fruit that is purported to appear in August or September after the plant has fallen down. I say purported because I’ve never actually found a fruit on any of our mayapples. Although the deer allow our mayapples to leaf and flower, they never allow them to fruit. Or maybe the culprit is the occasional eastern box turtle that finds and devours the odd fruit. Apparently, the seeds inside the fruit must go through the gut of a box turtle in order to germinate.

I had always hoped to find enough mayapples to make Euell Gibbons’s mayapple marmalade, which he describes as “ambrosia” in his delightful book on wild foods Stalking the Wild Asparagus. (He also says that “the woods are full of ripe Mayapples.”) Despite having a laxative effect on some people, many have found the taste of mayapple fruit worth the risk. Back in 1612 Captain John Smith described it as “a fruit that the Inhabitants call Maracocks, which is a pleasant wholesome fruit much like a lemond (sic).” The Huron Indians gave it to the French explorer Samuel Champlain in 1619, and he thought it tasted like a fig. Early Rhode Island settlers called it “a pleasant fruite (sic).” Gibbons claims that the flavor “is not easily described…When I eat a thoroughly ripe May apple, I am reminded of several tropical fruits, the guava, the passion fruit and the soursop, but I can’t honestly say that it tastes like any of them.”

Girl balancing mayapple blossom on her nose

Girl balancing mayapple blossom on her nose, by talkingplant (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND)

Even its odor was debated, and Charles F. Saunders, in his book Edible and Useful Wild Plants of the United States and Canada, describes the strong scent of the ripe fruit as a composite of cantaloupe, summer apples, and fox grapes. Gibbons writes that “I love the sweet scent of the ripe fruit with its hint of mysterious muskiness.” But all of this is hearsay as far as I’m concerned.

Despite the appeal of its ripe fruit, its raw leaves and roots are poisonous. Native Americans used the plant to commit suicide and made an insecticide from it to kill corn worms. Today it is an ingredient in laxatives and is useful for the treatment of intestinal worms.

But its most important use derives from its ability to produce podophyllotoxin, which is “the starting material for the semi-synthesis of the anti-cancer drugs etoposide, teniposide and etopophus,” according to Rita M. Moraes, Hemant Lata, Ebru Bedir, Muhammad Maqbool, and Kent Cushman in their paper “The American Mayapple and its Potential for Podophyllotoxin Production.” These compounds have been used to treat lung, testicular, stomach and pancreatic cancers, and some leukemias. It’s also a precursor to a new derivative called CPH 82, which may be useful for treating rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and even malaria.

It’s expensive for pharmaceutical companies to synthesize podophyllotoxin and originally, back in the 1970s, when its anti-cancer properties were discovered, the pharmaceutical companies used the rhizomes of our mayapple—Podophyllum peltatum—to produce podophyllotoxin. In one year they harvested more than 130 tons of American mayapple rhizomes.

Then the scientists found that P. emodi, a perennial rhizomatous herb growing in the understory of Himalayan subalpine forests, contained more podophyllotoxin than P. peltatum, so during the next three decades, they switched to the roots and rhizomes of the Himalayan species. The demand by the international market for this plant quickly turned it into an endangered species.

Mayapple with fruit and leaves spotted with rust

Mayapple with fruit and leaves spotted with rust by OakleyOriginals (Creative Commons BY)

For this reason Moraes, Lata, Bedir, Maqbool, and Cushman used a different extractive method on the leaf blades of our mayapple to produce podophyllotoxin. Unlike ripping up the roots and rhizomes, which destroys the plants, leaf blades are a continually renewable resource. Then, too, our mayapple is common and grows in large colonies from northern Quebec and Minnesota to Florida and Texas and west to Nebraska. It also thrives under wide-ranging growing conditions from the low winter temperatures of the north to the high summer temperatures of the south.

Like many spring wildflowers, mayapples reproduce both sexually and asexually. Sexually, bumblebees and other long-tongued bees cross-pollinate the flowers from one clonal colony to another, while asexually the rhizomes continually expand in dense circular clones, usually crowding out any competing vegetation. The plants are one to one and a half feet tall and consist of sterile, immature, palmate-shaped, single leaves or two to three, palmately-lobed, reproductive leaves.

Both its genus name—Podophyllum—which means “foot leaf,” and its species name peltatum meaning “shield-shaped” refers to its leaves. So too do three of its common names—”umbrella leaf,” “duck’s foot,” and “Puck’s foot” (the forest fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Its fruit has also inspired several alternative names—”Indian apple,” “hog apple,” (wild pigs love it), “wild lemon,” “ground lemon,” and “raccoon berry.”

Its medicinal uses have given it still more nicknames that need more explanation for modern readers. “American mandrake,” the most popular alternative name for mayapple, referred to one of the most powerful of Old World medicinal herbs, mandrake—Mandragora officinarum—that grows in the Mediterranean countries. Its brown root, which penetrates deep into the ground, often branches and resembles a human figure. While neither the plant nor its flower looks like our mayapple, its fruit is a large, fleshy, yellow to orange-colored berry. It was used as a sleeping pill when the sufferer was in pain or being operated on, as a remedy for depression, and as a purgative. Like mayapple, the plant is poisonous.

Mayapple flower

Mayapple flower by M.W. Fisher Jr. (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND)

“Devil’s apple” may refer to its fruit or, more likely, to its medicinal use, because mandrake is also known as “Satan’s apple.” “Vegetable mercury” probably refers to its similar uses to dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis) a poisonous plant that is taken as a purgative or laxative. “Vegetable calomel,” comes from the fact that calomel was used as a purgative and as a fungicide and is also called mercurous chloride, which brings me back to the “vegetable mercury” nickname. “Wild jalop” is similarly confusing. Jalop is a Mexican morning glory used as a purgative, but wild jalop (Ipomoea pandurata), the hated bindweed, is used to treat skin diseases and as a laxative by some herbalists although again it is dangerous to overdose on.

A member of the Barberry family, the mayapple genus has only four species worldwide, our own mayapple and three Asian species. It also has its own fungus—Podophyllum podophylli or the mayapple rust, which only lives and reproduces on mayapple leaves. I find some of the angular, yellow spots on some mayapple leaves every spring.

According to Joan Maloof in her book Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests, the life cycle of the mayapple rust is more complex than that of the mayapple itself. When the mayapple germinates, she writes, a “dark, spiky, club-shaped thing smaller than a grain of sand” also germinates in the forest soil and produces tiny spores. All are in search of mayapple shoots.

When one spore finds a mayapple, it produces a “microscopic, threadlike filament” called a hypha, which is in search of another hypha thread made by a second hypha spore. If they find and merge successfully, they create a hypha with two nuclei in every cell instead of one. They then produce more dark, club-shaped spores which germinate and create a second generation of spores just as the mayapple leaves unfurl. Using wind and/or water, those spores are carried on to the stems and leaves of mayapples. Again the spores germinate and their hyphae look for nutrition and each other.

Under the mayapple parasols by Dave Bonta

Under the mayapple parasols by Dave Bonta

If the spores land on a mayapple stem or vein with sufficient nutrition, they will create more dark, club-shaped structures that will overwinter on dead leaves on the forest floor, but if they “fuse on leaf blades, they will form pockets filled with rust-colored spores,” Maloof writes, that cannot live through the winter. However, she adds that they “can reinfect the plant, germinate, and eventually form the dark overwintering clubs.” The yellow spots on the leaves are a signal that the fungus has used up the food in the leaf cells and infected the leaves. But Maloof calls this “Mother Nature’s yellow and green abstract art work,” rejecting the negative connotation of the word “infect.”

Maloof reminds us, after her discussion of mayapple rust, that a forest is more than its trees. “And in ways we do not yet fully understand, these small things may determine the lives and deaths of trees.” And not only those of trees, but of humans too, in the case of our amazing medicinal American mayapple.

Wildflower Drive

wildflower hunters along Route 22

Wildflower hunters along Route 22

A chorus of birds greets me this cool, foggy day — song sparrows, eastern phoebes, dark-eyed juncos, robins, and northern cardinals — all predictable on the tenth of April. And then, from the top of First Field, the imitative song of a brown thrasher unwinds. At last a sign that this late spring is underway.

At least I certainly hope so. My son, Dave, and I are leading members of our Juniata Valley Audubon Society on an early wildflower drive a few miles south in Huntingdon County, and I’m worried. Not even our trailing arbutus has bloomed yet. Will we see any wildflowers at all?

The previous spring, on this date, Dave and his wildflower aficionado friend, Lucy, had taken our planned route and seen scores of wildflowers, even the elusive and increasingly rare twinleaf. On this day the weather looks unpromising as we rendezvous with fellow members in an abandoned parking lot beside an auto parts dealer on the outskirts of Huntingdon.

bloodroot

Bloodroot blooms among the roadside litter next to the Huntingdon strip

Why there, I wonder. But the moment we park our car, I understand. The high, steep, wooded bank behind the line of stores is blanketed with budding bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches, and early meadow rue. We scramble up a portion of the slope amid the rocky rubble, searching for at least one opened flower to show the increasing number of participants pulling up, parking, and rushing over to see what we’ve discovered.

We’re all eager for signs of spring, and when one person finds a blooming bloodroot, we clamber up for a look. Meanwhile, cars and trucks stream past on U.S. Route 22, vehicles filled with people who have no idea about the miracle of spring we are admiring.

Bloodroot — Sanguinaria canadensis — is named for its reddish stem that leaves orange-red juice on your fingers if you pick it. Its leaf will bleed also when cut or bruised and its thick, fleshy root contains orange-red juice. But its flower displays seven to 12 long, narrow, snow white petals that surround a yellow center of 20 stamens and one large, yellow-tipped stigma. So fragile are these flowers that a wind or rain will tear them apart. However, they can withstand more cold than many wildflowers because, like other early bloomers, bloodroot stored energy and food in its thick roots the previous year.

bloodroot

The first bloodroot to flower, still wrapped like a mummy

Bloodroot, also known as Indian paint, coon root, snakebite, sweet slumber, red root, corn root, turmeric, tetterwort and red puccoon, was once renowned as a cure-all for coughs, colds, and skin diseases. Native Americans used its red juice to treat cramps, stop vomiting, induce abortions, and repel insects. They also mixed the juice with fat to paint their faces and bodies and dye their baskets and clothing.

More recently, an extract of bloodroot, called sanguinarine, has been added to some toothpastes and mouth rinses to fight plaque and gum disease. In addition, a few doctors have been using bloodroot to treat minor ear and nose cancers.

But on this warming spring day eleven people from four counties — Perry, Huntingdon, Blair and Centre — are more interested in the beauty of this and other wildflowers we plan to track down.

Our next stop is at the base of The Thousand Steps on Jack’s Mountain, east of Huntingdon in Jack’s Narrows, still along U.S. Route 22. There we find another rocky mountainside covered with blooming Dutchman’s breeches, cutleaf toothwort and more bloodroot. A few adventurous folks climb a hundred feet above us, and soon we hear a happy shout. They have discovered some twinleaf growing amid a patch of cutleaf toothwort.

Twinleaf

Twinleaf

I don’t have my hiking boots on. I hadn’t thought we would be climbing up steep hillsides to find wildflowers. I should have known, though, that such places are natural refugia from white-tailed deer herbivory. But I am desperate to see twinleaf, a wildflower I have somehow missed during my 70 years. Finally, a way is found across a stream and up the back side of the hill for the less sure-footed of us to reach those twinleafs.

And there it is. Another white-petaled flower that resembles bloodroot. But it is named for its large leaves almost divided in half atop their tall stems and resembling angel wings or a butterfly in shape. Twinleaf — Jeffersonia diphylla — was named in honor of Thomas Jefferson by his botanist friend Benjamin Barton.

Its leaves are unique enough and its eight waxy-white petals encircling erect, yellow stamens around a green ovary are lovely enough, but I wish I could see its fruit — a green, pear-shaped capsule with a hinged lid that pops opens and spills out seeds when they are ripe, hence its alternate names “helmet pod” and “ground squirrel pea.”

Twinleaf is also called rheumatism root because of its purported medicinal uses. Native Americans concocted infusions to treat urinary tract problems and as a poultice for sores and inflammation. A decoction of the plant treated liver problems and diarrhea. American settlers utilized the entire plant as an emetic, general tonic, antispasmodic, and diuretic. More recently, scientists found that its roots contain berberine, an anti-tumor alkaloid. All in all, another useful and beautiful wildflower.

Dutchman's breeches

Dutchman's breeches

Dutchman’s-breeches — Dicentra cucullaria — has been one of my favorite wildflowers ever since my father showed it to me many years ago in Montgomery County near his hometown of Pottstown. As a child it wasn’t difficult to remember the name of the spray of yellow-tipped, white, pantaloon-shaped flowers nodding at the tip of a curved stem. Other folks imagined other shapes and called them soldier’s caps, white-hearts, eardrops, monk’s head, butterfly banners, kitten breeches, bachelor’s breeches, and little boy breeches.

But Victorian admirers of wildflowers were not amused by the term “breeches,” especially those who knew that the original meaning of the word was “buttocks” or “rump.” Naturalist F. Schuyler Mathews, at the end of the nineteenth century, admitted that the name sounded “A bit unrefined,” but “I like the name because of its knickerbockers flavor, and although it is suggestive of a bit of rude humor, it is not without a certain poetic significance.” On the other hand, its scientific name means “two-spurred” and “hooded.”

Those upside down blossoms, though, protect its pollen from the weather and from most non-pollinating insects. Only long-tongued native bumblebees can reach its nectar and hence the pollen of Dutchman’s breeches.

It, too, like bloodroot and twinleaf, prefer rocky, calcareous, wooded hillsides and forms sizable colonies. Also, as nineteenth New York state naturalist/writer John Burroughs pointed out, “As soon as bloodroot has begun to star the waste, stony places…we are on the lookout for Dicentra.” Perhaps, even he was embarrassed to use its common name.

cutleaf toothwort

cutleaf toothwort

The more pedantically named cutleaf toothwort — Cardamine concatenate — has a spray of nodding white or pinkish, four-petaled, cross-shaped flowers on top of a stem of three deeply-cut leaves.

Sources differ over why it is named toothwort. Some say it refers to the tooth-like appearance of its rhizome or underground stem. Others insist that it was used to cure toothaches, thus its name “toothache root.” Crinkleroot is still another description of its iconic rhizome. So too are pepperwort and pepper-root because the rhizome is edible and has a spicy, radish-like flavor that gives a zippy touch to a spring salad. Even its species’ name honors the rhizome because concatenate is Latin for “joined together,” yet another description of the root. I’ve not been able to account for other nicknames — lady’s smocks, crow’s toes, and milkmaids — but Cardamine is Greek for bittercress, which is appropriate for a member of the Mustard family.

Tired of the constant stream of traffic on U.S. Route 22, we retrace our tour and turn off on the two-lane, little-traveled River Road that winds its way along the Raystown branch of the Juniata River. We stop often to admire rock formations on the right side of the road from which sprays of maidenhair spleenwort ferns dangle. And we finally hit another jackpot of wildflowers when we pull into the Corbin’s Island Recreation Area, a half mile below Raystown Dam where the river still flows strongly, and we catch our first glimpse of migrating waterfowl swimming on the water.

Juniata Valley Audubon members on the River Road

Juniata Valley Audubon members on the River Road

It’s sandy at this flat area, and our group spreads out in search of new wildflowers. First they find the spotted, elongate leaves of trout lilies and then whole beds of them. Sure enough, on this day that has gradually warmed and sunned, their single, nodding, bell-shaped, yellow flowers have opened on innumerable stems. After seeing so many white flowers, the trout lilies seem positively exotic.

The trout lily — Erythronium americanum — is indeed a member of the Lily family and has finally been given a proper common name. The purple blotches on its leaves look like some trout species, and the flower appears just as trout season opens. But if you look at older wildflower books in search of trout lily, you will find it under dog’s tooth violet or adder’s tongue. However, it is not a violet, although its underground corms are pointed somewhat like a tooth. Mary Durant, in her book Who Named the Daisy? Who Named the Rose?, says that a European variety of trout lily has dog-toothed roots and is violet colored, hence the probably origin of dog’s tooth violet.

Adder’s tongue is a little harder to decipher, although some authorities say that the marks on the leaves look like snake markings. Others think that its twin leaves resemble a snake’s forked tongue or conversely that the leaves pop out of the soil and “Whoever sees the sharp purplish point of a young plant darting above the ground in earliest spring… at once sees the fitting application of ‘adder’s tongue,’” one expert writes. Really?

trout lily

A JVAS member taking a trout lily's picture with her phone

If you don’t like any of those names, fawn lily was John Burroughs’s choice because he thought the spotted leaves resembled those of a fawn. “Its two leaves stand up like a fawn’s ears, and this feature with its recurved petals, gives it an alert, wide-awake look.” So it is a flower that should appeal to fisher folk and hunters as well as naturalists.

Other names include yellow lily, yellow bells, rattlesnake tooth violet, rattlesnake violet, yellow snakeleaf, lamb’s tongue, deer’s tongue, snake root, star-striker, and scrofula root, the latter because it was thought to cure that skin disease. Early Pennsylvania settlers were said to favor yellow snowdrop.

Whatever the name, though, trout lilies are flower as delicate as those of bloodroot and last only a few days. We are lucky to have found so many ephemeral spring wildflowers on what one member calls our “voyage of possibilities.” All our possibilities have come true, and we leave, pleased with a day that has blossomed with the sun.

trout lily

trout lily


All photos by Dave Bonta (click on them to see larger versions at Flickr)

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.