Beauty and Utility of the Ubiquitous Dandelion

The lowly dandelion. It all depends on your viewpoint whether this ubiquitous flowering plant is pretty or something to be poisoned or ripped out by the roots. Yeah, good luck with that last one!

If you’re “trained” to think that the only lawn is a manicured mono-culture of grass, then you’re stuck to the pages of a slick magazine and not rooted in reality.

Reality says that you’re spending too much time trying to get rid of these things and wasting money on chemicals that really shouldn’t be polluting our world. Why do you do this? Don’t you realize that our groundwater is down there?

Haven’t you read that RoundUp(TM) is killing pets and sickening people where it is sprayed willy-nilly on the grass for the purpose of getting rid of “weeds” like the dandelion? Don’t you want your grandkids to be safe playing in the yard? Of course you do, so read on!

Try looking at the dandelion a little closer. It really is a beautiful flower! The color is an amazingly bright yellow, reflecting the golden rays of the sun.

Sunny Dandelions in the Yard
Sunny Dandelions in the Yard

Did you know that dandelion blooms close up at night? The blooms don’t open very much if at all during a cloudy or rainy day. I don’t know about you, but I just think that is a cool thing. The photo below shows the same bunch of dandelions as in the image above in the early morning before the sunlight totally woke them up.

Closed Dandelions First Thing in the Morning
Closed Dandelions First Thing in the Morning

Not all flowers will open up only when the sun is shining. It’s like the sun is really reflected in the happy faces of the dandelion.

Dandelions Are Edible

Who knew the leaves and blooms are edible?

In Pennsylvania Ham and Dandelion dinners are common events around Easter time in early Spring. I saw one being advertised just the other day. Baked ham is a tradition meal for Easter in many places. So, serve it with a salad!

In early Spring dandelion leaves are collected and eaten as salad greens. Once the flowers appear the leaves become too bitter to eat, but the blossoms are edible, too. I came across a recipe for dandelion fritters and it promises that they’re delicious as either a savory dish or sweet treat.

Health nuts who are into juicing know that dandelion leaves can be a great addition to their liquid meals so dandelion leaves are actually available for purchase in bulk.

Seems so silly to pay for food that could easily be gathered for free. I know we have enough dandelion leaves in our yard to make quite a number of salads. Why not employ your kids to pick the leaves with you? When you get a lot, store them in a refrigerator crisper until needed.

Wouldn’t it be much nicer to use the plant than to pollute the earth seeking to get rid of it?

Wine is even made from the dandelion, so why not use this plant to our advantage?

Lil Standup Fern A Spleenwort

One of the ferns that stays with us through winter is my Lil’ Stand Up Fern. This one I found across the pond down the lane.

Without access to all the characteristics that would definitely identify this little fern, my initial ID is that it’s Ebony Spleenwort, Asplenium platyneuron.

Lil Standup Fern Survives Winter
Lil Standup Fern Survives Winter

Characters gleaned from the photo above include the following:

  • pinnae alternate
  • pinnae auricled
  • pinnae slightly lobed
  • blade less than 2 inches wide
  • indusia elongate
  • blade pinnate
  • blade once-divided

If you’re not familiar with the terms used to describe ferns, a $5 guide book would help immensely. Fern Finder by Ann and Barbara Hallowell is small enough to fit in a hip pocket, so it’s easy to take with you.

The way I came to ID this plant is the exact opposite of how you’re supposed to use a dichotomous key, which is how the Fern Finder and many other field guides are presented.

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Skunk Cabbage First Flowers of Spring

The First Flower of Spring Award goes to… Skunk Cabbage!

Looking back on my old posts here at wildeherb, it seems I’m so excited for Spring to arrive that every year I just have to get out and see the skunk cabbage.

Yellow Mottled Maroon Spathes of Eastern Skunk Cabbage
Yellow Mottled Maroon Spathes of Eastern Skunk Cabbage

That may be because it’s our first flower of spring, but also it’s an oddity. I favor the ends of the diversity rainbow and the skunk cabbage is a special one.

It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the Eastern or Western Skunk Cabbage, they are both strange and beautiful at the same time.

Their growth habit isn’t like a typical flower you might think of where some green leaves develop first and a bit later flowers with pretty petals appear near the top of the plant or the tips of the branches. Skunk cabbage forms the flowering structure first, then the leaves appear.

Skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, is in the Arum Family, Araceae. Other family members are odd in their growth habit too, like the Jack-in-the-Pulpit that we find in similar habitats as the skunk cabbage.

The general form of the skunk cabbage flowering structure has two parts known as the spadix and spathe. To save a thousand words, here’s a close-up picture of the plant shown above with a few leaves cleared away.

Skunk Cabbage Flowers Hidden in Its Spathe
Skunk Cabbage Flowers Hidden in Its Spathe

The spadix is the flowering structure that holds the actual flowers. The spathe is a hood-like structure that at least partially envelopes the spadix. Here, the spathe is maroon flecked with yellow.

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What Ferns Stay Green Through Winter

Ferns have a way of holding onto bits of their color during even the coldest months. Not that the plants are actively growing then, but a lot of their aerial parts don’t totally die back in the winter.

In the Northeastern United States we experience four seasons and right now it’s still officially Winter. Yeah, it looks kind of bleak out there in nature, at least when you’re looking at the big picture.

A lot of the grass, and weeds!, in lawns and near roadways appeared light green to tan or brown before the big snow arrived. The green parts will reappear when the weather gets sunnier and warmer and that’s actually not too far away now that it’s March, which came in like a lamb here in Central PA.

Greens polka-dot the landscape where the pine trees and hemlocks and other evergreen trees grow, but zoom in a little bit and you can find more splotches of color.

Big Frond Fern In The Oak Forest
Big Frond Fern In The Oak Forest

Taking a walk in the woods you can find ferns holding on to their leaves from the past growing season.

At least three kinds of ferns share our piece of land with us. At this point I can only call them as I see them:

  1. Large fern found singly. Long arching leaves with rounded leaflets.
  2. Small upright fern. Few leaves in vertical arrangement. Leaflets twist up the stems.
  3. Medium size light green fern often found in mass groupings. Erect leaves with etched leaflets.

So, how do we tell what fern it is?

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Don’t Miss Shenk’s Ferry This Spring

As cabin fever hits we’re mapping out the places we’d like to go and see this Spring.

Blizzard Dropped 17 Inches of Snow
Blizzard Dropped 17 Inches of Snow

At the top of the list is Shenk’s Ferry Wildflower Preserve in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This is one awesome place that’s just so beautiful with many spring bloomers.

During April this forested glen becomes alive with color. The hillsides turn a bright green with new vegetation and flowers in bloom everywhere you look.

It can’t be overemphasized how beautiful Shenk’s Ferry Wildflower Preserve is! You just have to see it for yourself.

Download my copy of the Shenk’s Ferry Wildflowers Brochure — which is no longer available from PPL online as far as I can tell.

The Shenk’s Ferry Brochure shows directions to the site and names of the wildflowers that live there.

There is no parking area — people just park along the road near the entrance. Be prepared for some rough road as the gravel/muddy roadway isn’t maintained very well by PPL. Just go slow!

Trailhead Sign at Shenk's Ferry
Trailhead Sign at Shenk’s Ferry

Two years ago near the end of April we saw a group of students from a nearby college on the path. Their instructor was sharing her knowledge of the different flowering plants.

Walking on the path and drinking in the abundance of spring-blooming flowers is truly worth the trip to Shenk’s Ferry. If you go, let us know what your experience was like!

Witch Hazels Left Over Blooms

So, the witch hazel has me a little confused. Is it gonna make those nutlets this Spring?

Old Flowers of Witch Hazel
Old Flowers of Witch Hazel

I thought for the plenty of flowers I saw this fall that the dwarf trees would have lots of nuts on them before Spring.

Witch Hazel Flowers From Last Fall
Witch Hazel Flowers From Last Fall

I was surprised seeing the remnants of flowers at this late date in January.

(Photos taken 31 Jan 2016.)

The nuts that I saw in the fall must have lasted a whole year on the plant. Does that tell us that no animals really want to eat them? They should have been easy enough to find as the witch hazel trees are right on a lane that acts like a corridor connecting the agricultural field at the top of the ridge and the pond near the valley.

Can anybody clarify when witch hazels develop their fruit? In the meantime I’ll check out what the trees are doing as the weather warms up.

Your Skunk Cabbage Isn’t My Skunk Cabbage

The different flavors of The Discovery Channel or The History Channel are the TV channels most likely to be left on all day in my house. I was going about a few chores just this week when I overhead a familiar name and so I turned my attention to the big screen.

Somebody was talking about skunk cabbage as something bears like to eat and when I looked up at the TV I saw a plant that was not what I know to be skunk cabbage. The H2 channel was running some silly program — yeah I’m not convinced — about Bigfoot.

The people researching the big-hairy-man-ape legend were in Washington State about to set up some trail cameras in hope of capturing an image of Sasquatch passing though the forest. Deer, a cougar and a bear were actually photographed in the baited location. Sorry, no Bigfoot!

Anyway, the location was the Western United States and the mountain habitat was forested. Snow was on the ground and the skunk cabbage leaves were already growing so it had to be late winter or early spring.

Note the stream in the image below from a History Channel program as it’s near the habitat of skunk cabbage.

Forested Riverine Habitat of Western Skunk Cabbage
Forested Riverine Habitat of Western Skunk Cabbage

Skunk cabbage grows in lowlands for the moisture. It may be surprising to know it can grow right in the middle of creeks and in standing water.

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Wild Chives Free For The Picking

Every year when most of the scenery is trimmed down to bare trees and the colors are browns and greys, the chives come out of hiding. Green is really noticeable in the woods when you see it in January or February.

Wild Chive Patch Near a Large Fern in the Woods
Wild Chive Patch Near a Large Fern in the Woods

Wild chives grow in the forested mountains of Central Pennsylvania. The first time I realized these plants were the same chives that we eat, it stumped me. I guess I had never given any thought about, “Where do chives come from?

Well, they looked like chives, but fakes and look-a-likes abound in nature, so we need to take precautions and err on the side of safety. I know of a guy who died after eating a wild mushroom, so I take heed to all warnings!

Crushing one of the long, rolled leaves gave out a scent of chives. That’s how you know they’re ok to eat.

We’ve grown chives in the herb garden so it was easy to recognize the ‘clump of grass in the middle of the woods’ as wild chives.

The way to know you’re safe with your wild-picked chives is to note the smell. If your “chives” don’t have an onion or chive-like scent, then it’s not the right plant. Besides, in Eastern North America there isn’t another plant that looks quite like chives.

Chives, Allium schoenoprasum, grows in clumps that are taller than grass in your yard. These clumps rise above the leaf litter on the forest floor.

Wild Chive Plants Grow In The Appalachian Forest
Wild Chive Plants Grow In The Appalachian Forest

The dark green leaves are hollow cylinders that taper to a point at the tip. The longest leaves, maybe up to a foot long, bend to the sides. When crushed, they release a mild onion-like scent.

If you were to dig up the plant, you’d find small 1/2-inch white bulbs from which the leaves sprout.

Garlic, onion and chives are all members of the Lily Family, Liliaceae, and one thing they have in common are the odoriferous compounds that make them tasty. Other family members are quite poisonous, such as irises and gladiolas, but they have no onion-like smell. Also, all these related plants are much larger than chives and the leaves tend to be flat, not rolled like the chives leaves.

Flowering occurs in mid- to late-Spring as a cluster of pink/lavender flowerettes on a round flower head. We’ll be looking for chives to flower in May or June at our location.