Sunflowers, Giant Hyssop and Stevia

Tending to the garden this morning, I couldn’t help see the frenzied cabbage butterflies as they flit about the place. We saw two cabbage butterflies mating on a tomato leaf.

Butterflies mating on a tomato leaf.

Butterflies mating on a tomato leaf.

Then we saw two more butterflies mating on the same tomato leaf!

Two others using the same leaf!

Two others using the same leaf!

Sunflowers are composite flowers of many blooms. See the individual blossoms near the center in the close up.

Individual blooms in the composite sunflower.

Individual blooms in the composite sunflower.

Beautiful symmetry in this sunny flower.

Beautiful symmetry in this sunny flower.

Blue giant hyssop is growing in the garden from seeds planted a few weeks ago. It is not yet giant, nor blue. The flowers will appear next month and should attract butterflies and bees. The leaves of giant hyssop have an anise-like taste and can be used in salads.

Giant blue hyssop will flower in the late summer.

Giant blue hyssop will flower in the late summer.

Peppers are maturing in the vegetable garden. Summer salads await! Baby cucumbers are hiding under their canopy of cucumber leaves.

Baby cucumbers still attached to their yellow blossoms.
Baby cucumbers still attached to their yellow blossoms.

The Stevia plant that was purchased at a local greenhouse is doing quite well in the garden and now is about two feet tall. No visible signs of bugs eating this Sweet Leaf plant. Not a single chew! This member of the mint family can be used as a natural bug repellant by rubbing the leaves on your skin. Certainly worth a try as the smell of DEET is very offensive.

Stevia, or Sweet Leaf, growing in the garden.

Stevia, or Sweet Leaf, growing in the garden.

Closeup of sweet leaf.
Close-up of sweet leaf.

The Japanese beetles would probably like my girl’s pesto judging by their appetite for the basil blossoms and leaves. For fun around here we go around knocking beetles off the plants into a vessel of soapy water so they never to return to their nasty habit!

Basil leaves and flowers are devoured by Japanese beetles.

Basil leaves and flowers are devoured by Japanese beetles.

Basil flowers and holey leaves.
Basil flowers and holey leaves.

The Roma tomatoes are green and looking very delicious.

Green Roma tomatoes will soon be at the top of the dinner menu.
Roma tomatoes will soon be at the top of the dinner menu.

The greenery of the Canna Lilies is about two feet tall and it’s not quite immune to the culinary tastes of the Japanese beetles. The canna lily bright red blossoms should attract a few hummingbirds later in the summertime.

Bee-Balm is Oswego-Tea

Even though this blog concentrates on wildflowers, I can’t help but add some comments on the garden flowers and animals that we observe here in the mountains of Pennsylvania.

A small group of about a dozen turkeys were wandering around the edge of the woods around noontime today. The group appeared to be a couple mature females and some young ones. They were pecking at bugs and probably taking in a few stones from the gravel lane. At the slightest noise the turkeys scampered back into the woods.

The indoor plants are doing well in the warm conditions upstairs. The diffenbachia is blooming and showing off its pure white spathe.

Diffenbachia sporting a pure white blossom.

Diffenbachia sporting a pure white blossom.

A mushroom appeared in the clay pot that holds a Norwegian pine. Never saw that before!

Norwegian pine pot with a yellow mushroom.

Norwegian pine pot with a yellow mushroom.

Driving along a country road we found a nice batch of Bee-Balm, Monarda didyma, growing near the edge of the road. The hummingbirds have to like this stuff — the blossoms are so red!

Bee balm by the roadside.

Bee balm by the roadside.

Monarda didyma flowers are brilliant red.

Monarda didyma flowers are brilliant red.

Identifying characters for Bee-Balm are that the blossoms are scarlet red and the bracts are red, too. Even some of the leaves have red coloration where they attach to the stems. Bee balm is a beautiful addition to any flower garden with the added benefit that it is a plant native to America.

Bee balm bracts are scarlet red.

Bee balm bracts are scarlet red.

Bee balm is also known as Oswego-Tea. A tea made from the leaves was used by Native Americans to treat colds, fevers, stomachaches, and colic, among other maladies.

Garden poppies have pretty much died out with the heat coming on in July, but they are being replaced by the zinnias, marigolds, dahlias and sunflowers.

Black Bear Rubs a Tree

A black bear was our latest visitor on the Mountain Top! At first I thought it was the neighbor’s Newfoundland dog as I saw it from the kitchen window just before dusk. He was right at our front door sniffing around the portulaca and dahlias. Then I saw his little round ears — not to mention the size of him. We pushed the dog into a different room so he would not cause a racket, but I don’t think the bear would have cared. He was ambling along at his own pace.

I ran for the camera and got this shot through a dusty garage window as he had rounded the side of the house to the back yard.

A black bear walking over a small tree as if to mark his territory.

A black bear in the backyard walking over a small tree.

Did you notice that he is deliberating walking over this little maple tree, which is about 6 feet tall? There is plenty of grass on either side of the tree, so we think he was either marking his territory or maybe just scratching his butt!

From the back door we watched the black bear take down a few sunflowers to check them out – not ripe yet! Then he ambled back into the woods by the way of the compost heap. As he slowly walked into the woods you could hear the leaves go shuush-shuush-shuush!

Black bear shuffling back into the woods.

Black bear shuffling back into the woods.

The berries have been ripening and that probably drew him here, along with the neighbor’s dumpster. Now that the corn is ripe, he is probably stuffing himself with corn. The farmer said that you can tell when a bear has been in the corn fields. The black bear is so lazy he justs sits in one spot and grabs all the corn he can from that spot, and so, will leave a circle of destruction where he sat in the field!

Pine Bush Sands and Native Lupines

About a half day’s drive northeast from here one would expect the flora to be somewhat behind in blooming. I observed several Spring ephemerals in bloom near Albany, NY whereas the same flowers were past blooming in my neck of the woods in Southcentral Pennsylvania. Here, in NY, periwinkle and common violets are blooming profusely at the edge of some juniper bushes. A beautiful red trillium is a great example of this longitudinal blooming shift.

Red trillium still in bloom in New York.

Red trillium still in bloom in New York.

Skunk cabbage leaves are already quite large, but Mayapples have not opened their blossoms yet in NY.

Mayapple flower buds are not yet open in NY.

Mayapple flower buds are not yet open in NY.

Skunk cabbage near the Kaikout Kill, Albany Pine Bush Preserve, Albany County, NY.

Skunk cabbage near the Kaikout Kill, Albany Pine Bush Preserve, Albany County, NY.

Honeysuckle blossoms are here, but not yet offering their sweet scent.

Honeysuckle blossoms are here, but not yet offering their sweet scent.

Northern downy violets are still in bloom in NY, but have all disappeared in PA.
Taking a hike along the Red Trail in Albany Pine Bush Preserve, I spotted an orchid that was not yet in full bloom. The pink lady’s slipper in NY will be blooming in about a week’s time while these orchids are at peak blooming color in PA.

Pink Lady's Slipper a week before it is to bloom.

Pink Lady’s Slipper a week before it is to bloom.

Albany Pine Bush Preserve, Albany County, New York.

Albany Pine Bush Preserve, Albany County, New York.

The Pine Bush is described as a “forever green” area that is protected from further development. It encompasses a unique habitat which is home to the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly and 50 other imperiled species. The Karner Blue Butterfly lays its eggs on the Wild Lupine, Lupinus perennis, and the caterpillar depends on the native wild lupine for its only food source. Protecting the habitat of the wild lupine then protects the Karner Blue Butterfly and other endangered butterflies.

Wild lupine is the only native lupine in New York State.

Wild lupine is the only native lupine in New York State.

Wild lupines are necessary for the survival of the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly.Wild lupines are necessary for the survival of the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly.

Wild lupines are necessary for the survival of the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly.

The soil of Pine Bush is unbelievably sandy. The land is basically a bunch of sand dunes in what is called a “pine barrens”. The pine barrens of the Northeast US are rapidly becoming fragmented to the point of no return. Read more about the Albany Pine Bush Preserve to learn more about this special habitat and its inhabitants.

One inhabitant I saw evidence of its having been there, but did not actually see the bird, was a pileated woodpecker. The telltale sign was a rotten tree having big pieces chiseled out and strewn some feet from the tree. The bill on this woodpecker is quite large and so it can drill out large holes in trees in search of a meal. My boot is in the bottom of the picture for a size reference. The wood splinters are as big as my index finger!

Large wood splinters are signs that a pileated woodpecker lives in the forest.

Large wood splinters are signs that a pileated woodpecker lives in the forest.

Barberry, Newts and A Cow Rub

In autumn I collect a few sprigs of the Japanese barberry for some greenery and a splash of color. The red berries that dangle down from the barbed branches are perfect for a little Christmas decoration. There are several of the barberry plants along the water stream that runs off from the pond. I only found one Japanese barberry plant blooming and it was situated high in the woods on the west side of the lane. I watched a bumble bee visit a few of the yellow, solitary flowers. None of the barberry near the runoff of the pond were blooming. The Japanese barberry is another alien plant that has escaped cultivation and adapted to local growing conditions. The pretty, scarlet red fruits hang from the leaf axils.

Yellow blooms of the Japanese barberry hang from the leaf axils.
Yellow blooms of the Japanese barberry hang from the leaf axils.

As I approached the pond I saw and heard several frogs jump in. Standing near the pond I spotted the first newts of the season. I saw a couple red spotted newts come up for a breath of air and then dive back down to a deeper area. The pond is pretty muddy-looking, partly from the goldfish that were seen spawning a few days ago, and partly from the plankton bloom that is happening. The newts were at the surface as they danced, one wrapping his tail around the other. They broke apart and embraced only a couple times before sinking back to the depths.

Violet mania has struck! Each time I drive or walk down the lane I go slowly to savor the beauty of the violets since I know their days are numbered.

Violets adorn our country lane at many places.
Violets adorn our country lane at many places.

The Common Blue Violet has five petals, like any other Viola species, with the two lower lateral petals being bearded and all three lower petals heavily lined.

Common blue violet up close showing bearded petals.
Common blue violet up close showing bearded petals.

Coltsfoot is doing a mating dance all its own. The once bright yellow flowers now look like dandelions’ heads just before you blow off the seeds. The coltsfoot leaves are giving away their namesake — the shape of a colt’s foot.

Colt's foot leaves are apparent as the flowers are ready to re-seed themselves.
Colt’s foot leaves are apparent as the flowers are ready to re-seed themselves.

One reason that I enjoy taking flower walks is that I can take my time and really observe things up close. For instance, consider this little weed, called Gill-Over-the-Ground. It is a very low-growing plant that noone driving a car will ever see. It has beautiful, irregular flowers, much like an orchid in shape, which are blue and violet. It is an established alien plant. As a member of the mint family it has been used traditionally in folk medicine for treatment of lung and kidney ailments and as a blood purifier.

Gill-Over-the-Ground is also known as Ground Ivy and will bloom until July.
Gill-Over-the-Ground is also known as Ground Ivy and will bloom until July.

The Pink Lady Slippers are about 4 inches out of the ground. Their blooming should be right around Mother’s Day.

A favorite woodland flower is also blooming that we take special pride in announcing. The fairy wings are blooming! Fringed polygala, or gaywings as they’re called, look like little fairies. Of the five sepals two lateral ones look like wings. The three petals form a tube from which the stamens erupt in a round, fringed little fairy head. Fairy wings are members of the milkwort family. In olden days it was thought that if a nursing woman, or cow for that matter, ate milkwort then her milk production would increase. Don’t know if there is any truth to that tale.

Fringed polygala, Gaywings, or Fairy Wings, are delights to see on a woodland path!
Fringed polygala, Gaywings, or Fairy Wings, are delights to see on a woodland path!

Speaking of cows, who said they are dumb animals? Check out this big girl using a wire to scratch an itch!

Cow rubbing her rear end itch.
Cow rubbing her rear end itch.
Cow rubbing her front end itch.
Cow rubbing her front end itch!

Wild Ginger and Pedro

The Wild Ginger has made a nice comeback from last year. The roots are sprouting up twice as many plants and the flowers that hug the ground are beginning to bloom. The rounded, heart-shaped leaves are still somewhat crinkley.

Wild ginger is a native perennial with a unique flower that sits on the ground.
Wild ginger is a native perennial with a unique flower that sits on the ground.

The wild ginger was obtained from a native plant conference that will take place again at Millersville University, June 2 and 3, 2006. The native plant sale is open to the public and it is a great place to talk with other native plant enthusiasts.

The mimosa trees are just now starting to show their buds. They must be one of the last to wake up from winter.

Lily-of-the-Valley plants are up and their flowers are formed, but not yet open. Can’t wait to take a whiff of these lovely perennials!

Lily-of-the-Valley has showy white flowers and a wonderful scent, too!
Lily-of-the-Valley has showy white flowers and a wonderful scent, too!

To my dismay I found at least one Eastern Hemlock tree is infected with the dreaded wooly adelgid. A couple hemlocks deeper in the woods are apparently not yet infected, but this tree that shows the telltale white blobs on the underside of small branches certainly is. I suspect the traffic that passes by the infected tree may have had a hand in bringing the pests to it. This hemlock sits next to the farmer’s lane that the farmer uses to reach a field adjacent to our property. Pickup trucks, four-wheelers, sprayers, tractors and combines have all passed by and who knows where else they’ve been.

The white blobs on the underside of the Eastern Hemlock branches are Wooly Adelgid pests.
The white blobs on the underside of the Eastern Hemlock branches are Wooly Adelgid pests.

My Wild False Indigo has taken three years from seed to get this far. I can’t wait to see it blooming!

Wild False Indigo started from a planted seed three years ago.
Wild False Indigo started from a planted seed three years ago.

In my walk around the property today I spotted someone watching me. Pedro! No, the farmer doesn’t employ any illegal aliens, but that is the name I have given the yellow and white tabby cat that must be one of the barn cats. Can you spot Pedro?

Pedro watching me watching him.
Pedro watching me watching him.

Bagging the Bag Worms

Today I started out taking a walk with intentions of finding some flowers to photograph, but when I saw so many bag worms my plans were changed. I went back to the house, grabbed a couple of plastic grocery bags and headed back into the woods that separate the house from the farmer’s field. In this small area I bagged the bag worms, or tent worms if you prefer, from nearly a dozen small trees. An entomologist would call them Eastern Tent Caterpillars, Malacosoma americanum.

In the past I have burned them out with a lighter or used a stick to scramble their nest. Today, I thought to physically remove them from the cherry trees that they seem to prefer. Is it the taste of the leaves? Why do these destructive caterpillars choose cherry trees for their nests? Is it because many of the cherry trees are already damaged by a blight? I’ll research this a bit, but if anyone can enlighten me — please do!

Bag worms, also called tent worms, are infesting this small cherry tree.
Bag worms, also called tent caterpillars, are infesting this small cherry tree.

Wrapping my hand from the outside of the bag over the nest, squishing the worms into a big handful and sliding them into the plastic was pretty gross! I got over it though. I don’t like the idea of spraying chemicals to kill things, so manually removing the worms was necessary. Burning them out was not possible due to the dry state of things at the moment. If left untouched, the caterpillars would eat every leaf on their tree and other nearby trees.

Rue Anemone and Sassafras

The trees are beginning to leaf out in earnest now. Cherry trees are showing their white blossoms which are short-lived and last for about a week. On the left side of the drive you can see a cherry tree blooming.

Cherry blossoms brighten the driveway as the trees are still developing their leaves.
Cherry blossoms brighten the driveway as the trees are still developing their leaves.

There is a little patch of Rue Anemone along the gravel road which comes back year after year. This patch receives morning sun and is shaded in the afternoon by a big oak tree. Rue anemone is also known as Windflower, Anemonella thalictroides. The three-lobed leaves are in whorls and the white to pink petals, sepals really, number 5 to 11. A root tea was used by Native Americans to treat diarrhea and vomiting. As always take caution in ingesting any member of the buttercup family, like Rue Anemone, as they are toxic to some degree.

Rue anemone, or Windflower, is a showy Spring woodland flower.
Rue anemone, or Windflower, is a showy Spring woodland flower.

Mayapples are making their appearance for the season. Their large umbrella-like leaves emerge from the ground in a rolled-up fashion, slowly unfurling to a more erect posture. Here, a stand of mayapples is just coming up. Flowers of mayapple,
Podophyllum peltatum, will appear in a couple weeks.

Mayapple, also known as American Mandrake, is a perennial woodland favorite.
Mayapple, also known as American Mandrake, is a perennial woodland favorite.

Walking about the woods this week I did see my first snake — a small, brownish garter snake. I was surprised that I had not seen any snakes until this point in the season as we have been having unusually mild weather. Since the first sighting, a black snake and another garter have been spotted.

The dogwood trees are beginning to bloom. A faint white color is noticeable from a distance, but the blossoms should be more prominent in a few days.

A favorite tree of mine is Sassafras, Sassafras albidum. It is a member of the Laurel family along with cinnamon, sweet bay, avocado and spice bush. When the leaves or branchlets are broken they give off a pleasant odor. I’ll often break off a leaf or stem of sassafras for a little do-it-yourself aromatherapy. The sassafras flowers about the time the leaves are starting to appear. Male flowers have 9 stamens and female flowers have 6 sterile stamens and a central pistil. Each flower is small, 5 to 8 mm in diameter, and has 3 yellow petals and 3 yellow sepals that look alike.

Sassafras male flowers are showy at the edge of the woods.
Sassafras male flowers are showy at the edge of the woods.