Virginia Bugleweed and Wild Mint Share the Lane

Correction: American Bugleweed was incorrectly identified as Virginia Bugleweed in the original post. Changes have been made to the text below.

This wet year has brought out a few plants in abundance that are not normally seen in such numbers. So far, I’ve mentioned that the Elderberry harvest has been great, the blackberries were huge and in abundance, and the Joe-Pye Weed actually flowered this year. I think there are more of the wood asters and white snakeroot getting ready to flower this year than in the past couple of years, too. Jewelweed is flowering in great abundance now all along the lane, but especially in the lower, wetter areas.

Another new plant I’ve discovered along the lane is a non-aromatic mint. Sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? Most members of the Mint Family, Labiatae, have small glands that produce aromatic compounds that we’re familiar with, like peppermint and spearmint, but this plant is an exception. Crushing a leaf produces no smell that I can detect.

Having a squared stem, opposite leaves and tiny tubular flowers in the leaf axils are all characteristics that place American Bugleweed, Lycopus americanus, in the mint family.

American Bugleweed.

American Bugleweed along the west side of the lane has toothed leaves that taper at each end and clusters of small, white axillary flowers. Photo taken 18 August 2008.

Toothed leaf of American Bugleweed.

The toothed leaf of American Bugleweed is strongly tapered at both ends.

The small white axillary flowers are tubular and without a hand lens seemingly without definition. Inspecting the flowers a little closer, you can see that the top “lip” of the bugle-shaped blossom has 2 lobes while the lower lip has 3 lobes. Nearly every set of leaves occurs with clusters of flowers.

Wild mint shares a number of characteristics with its family member, American Bugleweed. Wild Mint, Mentha arvensis, sports the squared stem, opposite toothed leaves and small tubular flowers in the leaf axils. Blossoms of wild mint are typically a lilac color, but sometimes they’re white.

Wild mint, Mentha arvensis.

Wild mint grows along the east side of the upper lane, near the blackberry plants. Lower leaf sets have pairs of small leaves in the leaf axils, not flowers as the American Bugleweed does.

Other characteristics that separate Wild Mint from American Bugleweed are the stem texture and leaf shape. The bugleweed stem and leaves are smooth, while the stem of wild mint has a rougher feel due to numerous fine hairs. Wild mint leans to more of a trailing habit where its stem may curl slightly, whereas American Bugleweed grows upright and its stems are straight.

Wild mint flower clusters, and the flowers themselves, are larger than those of the bugleweed.

Wild mint flower clusters.

Wild mint flowers cluster in leaf axils. Spiny or hairy projections of the sepals are very evident after the flowers have fallen away. Photo taken 8 August 2008.

The leaves of wild mint are oval or egg-shaped and not strongly tapered at both ends like those of the bugleweed. The leaf teeth are much more prominent on bugleweed.

Wild mint, with its strong minty scent, is enjoyed as tea because of its aromatic qualities. Bugleweed doesn’t have the minty aroma, but the entire plant has been used medicinally as a mild sedative and to treat coughs, thyroid disease, heart disease and diabetes. Studies suggest further research is warranted for treating hyperthyroidism.

Since both the wild mint and bugleweed are perennials we’ll harvest some leaves and dry them for winter tea.

Wet Year Brings Bountiful Elderberries to Pennsylvania

Weather is interesting to many people because it’s always changing. Daily and seasonal cycles bring changes to the weather. Outdoor activities often depend on the weather being suitable, and if it’s extremely hot or cold you’ll find many of us indoors.

If I remember correctly, 2008 is a La Nina year. For the Northeastern United States a La Nina year means the summertime weather is cooler and wetter than usual. I would say that has been true this year.

We have had a few spells of hot weather in the 90s, but those extremes were tempered with nighttime rains. I’m not sure that we’ve had an abundance of rain in 2008, but we have been blessed with rainfall quite often during these summer months.

The garden tomatoes and peppers are just now coming off and the garlic fizzled out. Just not hot enough for those guys to produce a bumper crop. The corn is fantastic in all of Pennsylvania this year. The rains have produced plants well over my head, perhaps 12 feet tall with 3-4 ears on each stalk.

Cooking some water-soaked corn right in the husk over an open fire can’t be beat! Just delicious!

Elderberries hid well for a while until I realized that they like growing in semi-wet areas. The elderberries on our land grow along the lane where they receive runoff from the spring and in the wetland area that is just to the north of the pond, which is really a catchment basin. The rainwater that drains from the dirt road travels in culverts into this wetland area before trickling into the pond. Here, I found four elderberry plants loaded with berries.

The farmer’s land just to our south has a few really nice elderberry bushes next to a small stream. Some of those went into my first Elderberry Jelly. What a nice berry flavor!

Elderberries weigh down the branches.

Near a small stream deep purple elderberries weigh heavy on the branches.

A 5-gallon bucket of elderberry clusters was a lot to work with and it took a few hours to twist off the berries. All those berries filled a 4 quart Dutch oven and half-filled a 2-gallon metal pail.

Elderberries in abundance.

Sixteen pints of elderberries plucked from their clusters.

Wide-mouth pint jars were filled with elderberries, a pinch of purified sea salt was added on top and the jar was filled with water before putting on the lid. Each jar was preserved in a pressure cooker by heating the canner up to pressure, turning off the heat and letting the jars stay at pressure for 25 minutes.

Elderberries in jar ready to be preserved.

Salted, elderberry and water-filled jar ready for preserving.

That five gallons of elderberry clusters made 16 pints of berries, 14 of which are preseved in jars for making pies or other treats in the future, and the remaining two were used to make Elderberry Custard Pies – one pint of berries to a pie. Just delicious!

Take your favorite custard pie recipe, pour the custard over a pint of berries in a blind-baked pieshell, and you’re in for a treat.

Elderberry Custard Pie!

The last piece of Elderberry Custard Pie!

The first pie was nearly gone before I got out the camera, and the second pie went to the farmer whose elderberries were harvested the day before. After tasting the pie he exclaimed that he didn’t know elderberries could taste so good! He said he won’t be taking down that Elderberry bush afterall!

Chicory Blossoms Decorate Country Roads with Sky Blue Wild Flowers

This morning I found the cereal cupboard bare except for a sample-sized box of Fiber One cereal, made by General Mills. Left behind by one of the summer guests of the mountain, I figured that the children chose all the really sweet ones first.

Fiber One cereal box.

Fiber One sample cereal box.

I wouldn’t have purchased the small boxes because they have too much packaging to throw away. Different from the scored boxes we had as kids that doubled as bowls, this one had no scoring, and instead, the cereal was safe inside a heat-sealed plastic bag. Eating milk and cereal right from the box was fun – probably a memory from my childhood that today’s little ones won’t experience.

As I munched on the surprisingly sweet cereal right out of the bag, I just had to read the ingredients to see which sweetener was inside…sugar (second ingredient), fructose and dextrose. There’s little surprise there. Maybe it’s a great source of fiber with 9g per 1 cup serving, but the carbs, at 41 g, might be a little high for a diabetic.

Here’s the ingredient list for those of you trying to find a healthy alternative to Sugar Smacks:

whole grain wheat
corn bran
chicory root extract
rice bran and/or canola oil
trisodium phosphate
soy lecithin
natural and artificial flavor
bht added to preserve freshness
enriched with a host of vitamins and minerals

There’s some whole grain goodness inside, but probably too much sugar to earn a gold star.

Surprised by the fourth ingredient, chicory root extract, I’m wondering if that is the ingredient responsible for the “caramel delight” flavor. What gives the natural and artificial caramel flavor? Perhaps the chicory root provides the light brown color. Before reading it on this cereal label I’ve only heard of roasted chicory root being used as a coffee substitute. It has to impart some taste to the cereal, doesn’t it? I wonder what other foods contain chicory root extract.

Chicory, Cichorium intybus, is in bloom all along the country roads in Pennsylvania. The sky blue blossoms are really pretty especially when a lot of chicory grows together.

Chicory decorates country roads.

Chicory flowers along the road.

Chicory flowers along the Pennsylvanian country roads.

Up close you can see that the petals are fringed at the ends. The chicory flowers are sessile and appear to be attached right at the stem. Leaves are few and variable along the stem and basal leaves are similar to dandelion. Long, arching blue stamens stand out nicely.

Close up view of chicory flower.

Fringed petals of chicory give its flowers a unique look.

Queen Anne's Lace and Chicory.

Queen’s Anne Lace seems to be chicory’s main cohort. I see them together everywhere along the country roads and in empty fields.

The long tap root of chicory can be roasted for use as a beverage like coffee and, as I’ve read more about it, chicory leaves can be used in salads. Commercial growers in Michigan and a few other states in the Midwest now provide most of the chicory consumed in the U.S. It is an alien plant that European settlers imported into their new country.

Chicory root contains a sugar-like compound that is most likely used for soluble fiber content in my morning cereal.

Another Orchid on the Mountain: Whorled Pogonia

For three years now I have been spying on a special plant, just waiting for it to flower. We’re fortunate enough to have three members of the orchid family, Orchidaceae, on our property here in Central Pennsylvania.

Pink Lady’s Slipper, Cypripedium acaule, and Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, Goodyera pubescens, have already flowered this year. The Pink Lady’s Slipper, or Moccasin flower, blooms around Mother’s Day and the Downy Rattlesnake Plantain blooms in late Summer, around now.

I found a new colony of the Downy Rattlesnake Plantain yesterday near a stand of hemlock trees with four plants blooming and a large number of plants that almost formed a mat.

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain colony.

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain colony on the ridge near the hemlock grove. Photo taken 13 August 2008.

Our third orchid is a whorled pogonia, Isotria species, and we have yet to see it bloom. Since the greenery comes up each year, it may be Whorled Pogonia, Isotria verticillata, but I can’t rule out the endangered Small Whorled Pogonia, Isotria medeoloides, until the blossoms are visible.

Pogonia oval-shaped leaves.

Oval-shaped pogonia leaves join at their bases, each having a pointed tip. Photo taken 10 July 2008.

There are two pogonias in one location and a colony of 12-15 of them in a second location on the ridge.

Pogonias hide amongst the gaywings on the forest floor. Gaywings or Fringed Polygala, Polygala paucifolia, have a similar appearance of about five leaves joined at their bases, but if you look closely you will see vein branching in the leaves and short leaf stems. Pogonias, being orchids and therefore, monocots, have leaf veins that are parallel and no apparent leaf stem. Gaywings are dicots and have branching leaf veins.

Fringed polygala leaves.

Fringed polygala on the forest floor. Photo taken 29 July 2008.

Gaywing leaves are sturdy with an almost waxy feel. Pogonia leaves feel more delicate. Bugs do not seem to consume either of them very much.

As far as medicinal properties go, neither gaywings or any of these orchids have medicinal properties that are worth sacrificing the plants.

White Vervain Grows Along the Lane in Part-Sun

A new plant caught my eye last week as I walked down the lane to pick a couple hands full of blackberries. It reminded me of Lopseed because it had a similar arrangement of very small flowers on spikes that arose from leaf axils and from its terminal stem.

White Vervain.

No flowers were open early in the day when I took these pics as the plant was still mostly shaded, but they are tiny, white, five-petaled and joined at the base.

Several pairs of opposite leaves are toothed and egg-shaped. Stems are hairy, but not prickly.

The habitat is mostly shady where this White Vervain, Verbena urticifolia, is growing as trees are all along the lane. At the lane’s edge it receives part sun at mid-day.

Flower spikes and opposite leaves of vervain.

Photo taken 11 August 2008 shows the flowers arranged in spikes and the opposite leaves of White Vervain.

Hairy stem and toothed leaf of White Vervain.

Hairy stem and toothed leaf of White Vervain.

White Vervain doesn’t appear to have any medicinal properties, but close relatives do. Leaf tea of Blue Vervain, Verbena hastata, was used by Native Americans to treat cold symptoms and gastrointestinal problems. The seeds were roasted and ground to create flour. European Vervain, Verbena officinalis, tea is still used for a number of ailments. It has been studied in China and Russia and found to have analgesic, anti-inflammatory and diuretic properties.

Giant and Common Ragweed Made for Sneezing

Out of curiosity I let this really fast growing plant continue growing – even though I was pretty sure it was a bad weed. I was too curious for my own good – perhaps I was a cat in another lifetime.

Anyway, this 10 foot tall plant is a giant. Some of the leaves are the size of a dinner plate. The leaves are not all the same shape, some have one lobe, others have two or three lobes. All leaves are shallowly toothed, hairy, and have pointed tips. This, plus the fact that there is no woody stem, differentiates Giant Ragweed from Sassafras.

Giant Ragweed.

Sandwiched between Echinacea on the left and Fennel on the right, Giant Ragweed grew as tall as the door.

Giant Ragweed grows wide and tall!

Giant Ragweed reaches over three feet wide and 10 feet tall.

Giant Ragweed or Great Ragweed, Ambrosia trifida, is unmistakable once you see its size and those spikes of sneeze-producing, pollen-filled flower heads.

The flower spikes are just like those of the Common Ragweed, Ambrosia artemisiifolia, which grows along roads and in fields and waste places. The flowers are green and its parts are indistinguishable, but the yellow pollen is quite noticeable.

Giant ragweed flowers.

Common Ragweed leaves have many lobes and that differentiates it, apart from size, from the giant ragweed. Giant Ragweed has single-, double- or triple-lobed leaves. The tri-lobed leaf is the most recognizable as belonging to the Great Ragweed plant.

Tri-lobed leaf of Giant Ragweed.

Tri-lobed leaf of Giant Ragweed.

So, to be a complete fool, I’ll admit I could have moved the Giant Ragweed before it got to the flowering stage as it was in a pot! Now it’s in the burn pile and since the rain has stopped, it’s toast. As it grew I had this idea that I would be sorry to have let it go for so long. Next year I hope the mint will out compete new seedlings and overtake this area. If I need to pull out seedlings, that key to the broadleaved weeds might come in handy.

If it were the Common Ragweed I could just look for the highly dissected leaves having rounded lobe tips.

Common Ragweed plant.

Common Ragweed flower spikes.

Common ragweed flowers.

Close up view of Common Ragweed flower spikes.

Common Ragweed dissected leaves.

Common Ragweed leaf shape is dissected.

We have marigolds in and around the vegetable garden and often find ourselves transplanting the volunteers that pop up from seeds to other areas. Their seedings look like the seedlings of common ragweed except for the fact that ragweed seedlings have an overall rounded shape to each leaf.

Common ragweed seedling/sprout in yard.

Common ragweed seedling or shoot sprouting up in the lawn. Notice the rounded leaf lobes.

Ragweed seedlings can be distinguished from marigold seedlings by the leaf lobe tip shape. The highly dissected leaves of common ragweed have rounded leaf lobes while marigolds have pointed ones and toothed leaflets.

Dissected leaves of marigold having pointed tips.

Marigold leaves are dissected, like common ragweed leaves, but marigold leaves are pointed at the tips and slightly toothed.

JoePye Weed Doesn’t Like it Dry or Too Shady

As I was saying…this has been a wetter year than the previous couple of years, and so, we’re eating great bunches of wild berries and getting to see a couple plants flowering that blossom in the wet conditions. All the rain sure makes for nice gardening – no extra watering needed!

Last year I had been watching this plant grow up through the summer. Taking pictures all along I was really curious what it would develop into, but there was to be no flowering. What drew my curiosity to it was the whorled leaves. I was unfamiliar with this plant and eagerly awaited its bloom time.

It turned out that the season was too dry for me to see anything. The small flower buds simply dried up and the plant stopped growing.

Non-flowering native plant.
No flower plant.

The small flower head dried up after these photos were taken on 12 July 2007. You can see the whorl of large leaves quite clearly where they attach to the main stem.

This year, being a wet one, is different. The terminal cluster of flowers is still developing. As I recall, it seems like a smaller version of a plant that I have been seeing by the roadsides along country roads of Central PA.

Pink flowers by the road.
Pink flowers roadside.

Tall pink flowers along a Pennsylvania country road.

Coming home from town this morning I pulled over near a patch of these very tall pinkish flowers. Right away I could see the large lance-shaped leaves in whorls. Indeed, the leaves can be seen from the road, as can the cluster of pink-to-white flowers. These plants towered over my head as they stood 8-10 feet tall, but a few were reaching only about 4 feet high.

JoePye Weed.

The flower parts are indistinguishable, which helps to identify this plant as being a Eupatorium species.

JoePye weed flowers.

A close-up photo shows a couple of white stamens, but that’s about all you can see.

To further identify this plant, you’ll need to look closely at the main stem. Are there purple spots or is the stem green with a white, waxy appearance? Is it a hollow stem? The different Joe-Pye weeds are distinguished like so:

  1. Sweet Joe-Pye Weed, Eupatorium purpureum, – green stem, purple at leaf joints vanilla odor of crushed leaves.
  2. Spotted Joe-Pye Weed, Eupatorium maculatum, – purple or purple-spotted stems, flat flower cluster.
  3. Hollow Joe-Pye Weed, Eupatorium fistulosum, – stem may have a tinge of purple, hollow stem, domed flower cluster.

Our plants are the Hollow Joe-Pye Weed, sometimes called Trumpetweed, due to the dome-shaped flower cluster, hollow stem, and no odor of vanilla. Areas that get lots of sun have the Joe-Pye weeds in full bloom and they’re very tall, too. Our smaller plants are in part shade all day long.

Interestingly enough, I found the same cohorts growing by the JoePye weed about 7 miles away, in full sun. I easily spotted Boneset, White Snakeroot, Spotted Touch-Me-Not and Blackberries – the same troupe that’s growing along our lane.

Delicious blackberries.

Don’t these blackberries look delicious? They’re quite large from all the rain and now they’re in my belly!

Boneset, Snakeroot, Touch-Me-Not and Blackberries

Who’s your neighbor, Boneset?

A fault, I find, of many field guides is that the neighboring plants of the one you’re reading about are not usually mentioned. OK, maybe it’s not a fault, but it sure would make a nice addition to list some of the ‘cohorts’ or associates that may be found with a particular plant.

I suppose the lists of associated plants would become too long to be useful. The plants growing alongside Boneset here may not be in the locations where you see it. Still, I can see that if you recognize the habitat where your plant is growing, you can learn about other inhabitants of that ecosystem. Then it would be easier to recognize individuals in that community of plants in the future.

Take our perennial Boneset, for example. At three to four feet tall the clusters of white blooms really stand out. Even more recognizable are the opposite pairs of perfoliate leaves that appear to be joined at the base. Once you see those leaves as the plant is growing, there’s no mistaking it. Boneset grows up in July and flowers in August to September.


Three perennial boneset plants starting to flower.

Boneset no flower.
No flower in dry year for boneset.

Flowers starting to open on the Boneset.
(Photos taken 2 August 2008.)

Growing along the lane our Boneset is growing in a wet area, often near running water as rain water and runoff is funneled off of the dirt road in that location. We’ve had a relatively wet year as the spring at the lower section of the lane has not totally dried up as it often does by this time of the year. Not such an excess of rain, but often we’ve had night-time downpours.

Growing around Boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum, we have White Snakeroot, Jewelweed or Spotted Touch-Me-Not, and Blackberries. White Snakeroot, Eupatorium rugosum, and Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis, are described in the Peterson Field Guide on Eastern-Central Medicinal Plants as growing near running water.

The last two years were much drier and I don’t recall seeing Boneset flowering at all. Snakeroot did, but not with as much gusto as I’m seeing this year.

The blackberries are more aggressive and will grow in drier locations in the woods as long as they can get the sunshine they need. Plants that might be called generalists, those that can live in many places, like the berries, are not good cohort indicators. Although you have to take caution here as this wetter year has produced an abundance of huge, sweet berries in the locations near the Boneset. We’ve enjoyed the blackberries thoroughly!

WildeBerry Ice Cream, anyone?