Found a new geranium in upstate New York. New to me that is. Saw it last autumn while walking on a drive next to the Pine Bush in Albany County. It was a low-growing roadside weed with a pretty pink flower. I remember it appeared to be a geranium, similar to wild geranium but much smaller. It was growing at the edge of the Pine Bush Preserve, along a two-lane road, between the trees and the road.
Dug up a couple sections of root and carried them in plastic grocery bags. The greenery was still lifelike in October. Transplanted them back here on the mountain top, as we like to call our place in the woods on the mountain ridge, on the east side of the house in worked up soil with oak leaf mulch.
This spring I see the little geranium is coming back to life. The transplant was a success! Now, I’ll have to watch and wait for the flowers. I thought it might make a nice ornamental cover grass for areas under trees or among azaleas along the house, which is where the bit was transplanted to. Photos taken 24Mar2010.
Here’s a spring blooming plant that you won’t see unless you go into the woods during early Spring, called hepatica. Hepatica americana can be found among the leaf litter beneath the trees of oak-hickory-maple forests.
We see the flowers here in Pennsylvania during the last part of March through the first half of April. Hepatica is one of the Spring Ephemeral flowers, only blooming for a short time in early spring before the trees leaf out.
Native to forests of Eastern North America, hepatica is a perennial with some medicinal properties. The Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants indicates that hepatica was highly sought after in the late 1800s for its revered ability to soothe the liver. A liver tonic craze saw tons of hepatica harvested here and abroad. A common nickname for hepatica is liverleaf.
Native Americans made a leaf tea for liver and digestive ailments. Folk tradition used hepatica tea for coughs and fevers, also. We don’t harvest it for anything, we just appreciate it being there!
Taking a walk in the woods, you’ll first be able to spot the dark green, shiny leaves, or the rounded edge of a leaf. Moving a few leaves aside will uncover the thick, waxy clover-shaped leaves.
When the leaves are new they arise in an erect posture. Once the leaves grow to full size – a couple inches or more across, the flower stem relaxes so that the large rounded leaves lie prostrate to the ground. Most often you’ll see the larger, older leaves that overwinter still hiding among the leaf litter when the flowers are present.
The young leaves also have a more angular shape than the mickey mouse ears of the older leaves. Leaves and stems are fuzzy with hairs when young and lose the hairs at some point.
The pastel flowers sort of jump out at you when you finally see one. The purple, blue, pink or white petals are so perfect, in symmetry with the white stamens. The colorful petals are actually sepals. Green bracts underneath the flower head are rounded or pointed, depending on the kind of hepatica.
Sharp-lobed hepatica, H. acutiloba, has pointed, tri-lobed leaves and bracts. Round-lobed hepatica, H. americana, has rounded lobes on its leaves and bracts. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service classifies these two hepaticas as varieties of one species, Hepatica nobilus, with the sharp-lobed variety as H. nobilus var. acuta, and the round-lobed variety as H. nobilus var obtusa.
In the vicinity or same microhabitat of the hepatica plants pictured here, we find downy rattlesnake plantain, a member of the Orchid family. Its perennial, cross-veined leaves are hiding among the leaf litter, but they can be found all over the north- and west-facing hillsides. At this time of the year you have to know where look for it and move leaves aside to see it. Rattlesnake plantain is easier to spot in the summertime when there is less leaf litter.
I’ve mentioned before that Pennsylvania Bittercress, Cardamine pensylvanica, is already blooming. We saw it first blooming on March 19th, but I suspect the first flowers can be found blooming even earlier. (Photos taken 25 March 2010.)
How do you know that it’s Pennsylvania bittercress? The characteristics that identify it include the shape and arrangement of both leaves and flowers, as well as the very early blooming time. The Peterson Field Guide to Wildflowers states that it will bloom from April to June and that it can be found “nearly throughout” the Northeastern and North-Central United States.
Blooming time alone can’t identify a flowering plant, but it can help eliminate other possibilities from a tentative list. Some plants like dandelion will bloom periodically through out the year, so the time of blooming is not always helpful in identifying a plant. Other flowers will bloom in defined periods which does help in plant identification. For example, skunk cabbage blooms in late winter, sunflowers bloom in the summer, and goldenrods bloom in autumn.
The early Spring blooming of PA Bittercress heralds in the warmer weather. Still, there’s cold weather and possibly snow to fall yet at this time of year, but the little flowers of this member of the mustard family produces seed so fast that it will surely come back next year – even if the mother plant were to be frozen out by extreme March weather.
Take a look at the seeds already produced, near the flower clusters. The seed pods are thin and erect, surrounding the flowers at the tops of the stems. When the seeds have matured, brushing past the plant will forcefully eject the seeds from their pods. Pulling up the plant will also disperse the seeds, so there’s no use trying to make the lawn free of this prolific weed.
The white, four-petaled flowers are small, measuring less than 1/4 inch, but borne in clusters of 4, 5 or more. Here’s a photo looking down on a cluster of 4 flowers —
The rounded basal leaflets are in pairs with the terminal leaflet being slightly longer. Leaflets are narrower and less round on the compound leaves found higher up on the plant.
This Cardamine species, Pennsylvania bittercress, is found in moist areas, near springs or roadside ditches, and in lawns.
Red-flowering maple trees are one of the signs of spring that I look forward to seeing each year. The maple flowers give a red tint to the hills around us in the mountain ridges. We have a kind of love-hate relationship. Love their pretty look and signaling of warmer weather to come, hate their pollen. It’s probably a source of dripping noses and itchy eyes for many of us. Tree pollen is very high at the moment.
Looking at the woods we still see deeper into the woods than we’ll be able to in a couple weeks. Without the leaves full out on the trees we can see farther among the trees. Right now our house seems like we have a lot of room around us — it sits in a clearing of the forest. When the trees are leafed in, it will feel a little closed in at first. Kinda claustrophobic until we get used to the new look. Then, when winter comes again we’ll feel a little bare.
Barren trees belie their current state of activity. The sap is flowing and they are getting ready to burst forth with greenery.
Note that you can see through the trees all the way over to the next hill. Green showing in the lower part of the picture is from the white pines.
Most trees are bare of leaves, but the maples are sprouting their red flowers.
Take a closer look at the flower. It has many long stamens that gives the maple blossom a bushy or fluffy appearance. I just love the deep red color, though!
One neat thing is that the flowers appear before the leaves do. I guess that happens with quite a few trees, but the maples are the first to sprout some color.
The Peterson Medicinal Plants Guide says that coltsfoot can be found from Nova Scotia south to New Jersey and west to Ohio and Minnesota. It is an alien plant, or one that is not native to America. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide simply marks it with an asterisk to note that it’s an alien plant.
Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, is native to parts of Europe and Asia. It was most likely brought to North and South America by settlers who used the plant for its healing properties.
Coltsfoot has been used in folk medicine for a long time. Leaves and flowers are used in herbal tea as an expectorant and demulcent. The dried leaves are smoked for coughs and asthma.
Caution: compounds in wild coltsfoot have been found to be toxic to the liver.
The toxic compounds were more concentrated in the flower than in the leaf. Since we don’t know the dose that we’d get in a cup of tea from any particular plant, we probably should play it on the safe side and not drink the tea too often — and drink herbal tea made from the leaves, not flowers.
In the early summer we’ll be harvesting coltsfoot leaves for a Soothing Throat Tea.
Here’s a photo of coltsfoot leaves taken on 25 Jun 2007. They get pretty big at about 8-10 inches long by 6-8 inches wide in a scalloped, horseshoe shape.
Places for more research on Coltsfoot medicinal uses:
Blooming coltsfoot is another sign of Spring. Coltsfoot only blooms in very early Spring in Pennsylvania, during the last week of March and the first week of April. I first saw them blooming on March 24th this year and expect them to continue blooming for another week.
Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, can be mistaken for a dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, at first glance. Closer inspection shows the flower head is similar to dandelion, but the leaves of coltsfoot are quite distinct. Can’t show the leaves just yet as they haven’t emerged. That’s one big difference between coltsfoot and dandelion, dandelion leaves appear before the flower does. Another difference is that the dandelions aren’t blooming yet. So, near the end of March you’re likely to find dandelion leaves but no flowers, and coltsfoot flowers, but no leaves.
Coltsfoot flowers are composites of yellow, just like the dandelion, but the rays are thinner and more delicate-looking in the coltsfoot. Once the flower is pollinated, the resulting seeds are arranged in a fluffy ball, just like a dandelion, and its seeds are dispersed by the wind, too.
Note the small bracts or scales along the flower stem. These inch-long bracts are held close to the flower stem and are maroon to brown.
The true leaves are supposedly shaped like that of a young horse’s hoof, thus the name coltsfoot, but I don’t see the resemblance. Leaves are heart-shaped at the base and emerge after the flowering is all but finished. Leaves continue to grow larger for a couple weeks more. The coltsfoot leaves will finish out the summer looking like little canopies all along the roadside where the flowers once bloomed.
I did see bunches of daffodils or jonquils, Narcissus spp., blooming in town yesterday. Although native to parts of Europe, North Africa, and Asia, you can see Narcissi flowering in American woods and empty lots here, marking where old homesteads once were — planted near the old house, no doubt. No matter when or where they’re planted, everyone knows it’s Spring when they see the daffodils blooming.
Crocuses bloom a short time before the daffodil group, but they probably bloom together for a little while. Crocus flowers last about a week. One individual plant might bloom over a week’s time and other plants will bloom earlier or later. A group of crocuses can then be blooming for about two weeks as the early ones fade away and later ones reach full flower.
Every year the crocus bulbs produce one or several clones of themselves. Over the years the proliferation of bulbs will create a compact grouping of crocuses. When there are too many plants in the same small area, they must be thinned out in order to propagate them further.
Here, three or four bulbs were planted four years ago for each of the three clumps of crocus blooms. Each group of crocus now provides about two dozen blooms.
About every three years we’ll dig up the crocuses – and other bulbs – and re-distribute them or plant some in new areas. This time I might plant some randomly in the yard instead of tidily in a flower bed. Thanks, Martha!
The felines will be happy that the catnip keeps coming back. I don’t know what drives them crazy about catnip, but we do know that they really enjoy it. The outdoor cats will come by to roll around on and near the catnip plants and to take a nibble. The indoor cat demands a fresh sprig now and then. After a playful romp it’s nap time.
A few years back we sprinkled some catnip seed — from some flowering tops we harvested and allowed to dry — along the front of the house, next to the driveway and near the flagstone walk. Since that day we have had catnip plants every year, much to the delight of our feline friends.
I am a little surprised how extensive the catnip colony is getting. From the original few plants that sprouted from seed, there is now a large group of plants. The root system probably keeps this set of plants coming back year after year, while allowing the mother plant to spread out. More plants are popping up right in the gravel driveway and between the flagstones. Some of them are pulled up, given away or harvested for the kitties, but it seems like we’ll always have a few plants around.
Here in Pennsylvania catnip grows wild along the roadsides. Once you can recognize the plant it’s easy to see that catnip is quite common. It’s growing really close to the ground right now, but if you wait until mid-summer then you’ll be able to see the 3 feet tall plants more easily. When the catnip blooms, its white blossoms are easy to spot along a country road.
Leaves of catnip are soft, almost fuzzy to the feel while other mints don’t feel quite as downy. The scalloped edges of the triangle-like catnip leaves are distinctive.
If you’re unsure whether you’ve got another member of the mint family or catnip, just rub a leaf and smell it. The odor should tell you which plant you have found. If you can’t smell, just give it to a cat. They will wrinkle up their noses if it’s a different member of the mint family!
Now, what good ‘ole country girl doesn’t have a cat or two to play mouse-catcher?