Honey locust adventure

In my last post, I showed a Kentucky coffee tree and mentioned that it is considered an evolutionary anachronism. These anachronisms are trees whose seed dispersers are thought to have been one of the many Pleistocene mega-fauna that are now extinct - mammoths, mastodons or giant sloths, for example. They have fruit that is too large for our native animals to serve as dispersers. Another species that falls into this category is the Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos). A native to north America, you can find lots of honey locust all around our city, it is a common street tree and park tree.

In this first photo, I wanted to give you a sense of the size of the fruit.  Here is a collection of legumes (fruit of the Fabaceae) that I used for one of my Plants and People labs.   The honey locust pods are the two large ones in front.  You may have seen these around.  Some trees produce large quantities of these fruits and you can find them on the streets and parks they inhabit.  The pods are edible by horses and cattle, so in effect, they can act as substitute dispersers.

Collection of fruit from the bean family, Fabaceae

I took a walk to Grant's Tomb on Riverside Drive to look at one particular individual. This individual has a spectacular display of another character of the Honey locust - its thorns. Imagine trying to defend yourself from enormous animals like Giant sloths and such. You would need formidable armament. Honey locust has just such a weapon - thorns on its trunk.

Cousin Matt and the honey locust (Riverside Church in the background)

A close-up shows just how large these thorns are!

Formidable armament

Different individuals have different numbers of thorns on their trunks.  This one, a few blocks north has fewer.

There is a thornless variety (G. triacanthos var. inerma) that is used for parks, since this can be a bit of a hazard.  Being thornless is a natural variation among a small percentage of wild honey locust.  It is from this sub-group that the thornless variety has been cultivated.

Fewer thorns

The bark is distinctive on older trees, breaking up into ridges with raised, often curled edges. This photo below shows a particularly nice example. 

Honey locust bark

This stretch of Riverside Drive just west of Grant's Tomb has many beautiful honey locust for anyone wishing to explore.

Riverside Drive

Honey locust habit

Botany adventures are most fun when you share them with people you love.  My cousins Fred and Matt and my little doggie Dior joined me for this one and we had a great time!

Fred, Matt and Dior

Fern Society Adventure

I belong to the New York Fern Society, a group that meets monthly at the New York Botanical Garden.  it's a wonderful group of very nice, very knowledgeable people - and not just about ferns, but about many topics in botany.  

For the months of January and February, we don't have regular meetings.  Instead, some of us go on informal walks through the grounds of the Botanical Garden.  We met on January 3 and strolled through the forest  and the Conservatory. 

New York Fern Society members

In the winter, plants are dormant and the above-ground parts of herbaceous plants have died back, so one might think there isn't much to see.  But trees give us plenty to see in the winter months!  Silhouettes show us  the growing habit of different species. You can look closely at bark, it is different for each species, and often different for the same species depending on how old the tree is.  Some species, such as American beech (Fagus grandifolia, Fagaceae, seen in the background of the next photo), hold on to their dead leaves through the winter months. This makes them easily recognizable in the winter.

My cousin Fred Martinez, an enthusiastic tree hugger!

Some species even flower in the cold weather. The witch hazels were blooming beautifully.  This is the Asian species, Hamamelis mollis.  If the sun is out and the flowers warm up a bit, they are very fragrant. There are several cultivars and hybrids that vary in size and color of flowers. All are beautiful, in my opinion.

Hamamelis mollis Hamamelidaceae Chinese witch hazel

One of the only fern species still in leaf in the winter is the marginal wood fern, Dryopteris marginalis.  Always remember to turn a fern frond over to see if its reproductive structures (the sori) are present, this way you can make a positive identification of the species.

Dryopteris marginalis Dryopteridaceae, marginal wood fern

In my New Year's day post, we saw the bark of the Kentucky coffeetree.  Here is a view of a mature specimen chock-full of fruits.  I tried collecting the bean pods for teaching my botany class, but could find very few on the ground. This species holds on to its fruit until the end of the winter.  I will have to revisit the tree in the spring to get some good fruit samples.

This is one of several species that is considered to be an evolutionary anachronism.  The tough large fruit are not edible by any species that live in North America now.  It is believed that the seed dispersers were one of the many Pleistocene mega-fauna that are now extinct - mammoths, mastodons or giant sloths, for example. Other trees that fall into this category are honey locust and Osage orange.

Gymnocladus dioicus Fabaceae Kentucky Coffeetree

Before the snow began, we finished our forest walk and went into the Conservatory. The Conservatory was built in 1902 and is a New York City landmark.  The collections are grouped into biomes, such as tropical rainforest and deserts. The Conservatory also has special collections, including palms, aquatics and carnivorous plants.  

The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory

As you walk from room to room in the Conservatory, you get a good sampling of the species of each biome.  At different times of year of course, different species will be in flower or fruit.

Calliandra haematocephala 'Alba' Fabaceae White powder puff Photo by Fred Martinez

Thunbergia mysorensis Acanthaceae Mysore clockvine

Carica papaya Caricaceae Papaya Photo by Fred Martinez

Ceiba speciosa Malvaceae Floss-silktree

Cinchona is a genus from which we get a very effect drug against malaria - quinine.

Cinchona sp. Rubiaceae Quina

Theobroma cacao is known for giving us chocolate.  But I find it interesting for a botanical character that is not common in the temperate biome.  The flowers and fruit of chocolate demonstrate a characteristic called caulifory - they grow directly from stems and trunks. This is common in the tropics. In our temperate biome, one of the only species that has this characteristic is the Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).  It is likely an adaptation to make the flowers and fruit accessible to pollinators and seed dispersers, and it occurs in many plant families.  I am not sure why cauliflower has the same root word, it does not seem to me to be a good example of cauliflory.  

Theobroma cacao Sterculiaceae Cacao

Theobroma cacao Sterculiaceae Cacao

It is tempting to stay home in the warmth on a snowy day, but you miss out on some real beauty if you do that! Make sure to venture out this winter and see the beauty of our plants while they are dormant.  And if you need to warm up, pop into the Conservatory and take a mid-winter visit to the tropics.

New Year's Day 2015 Adventure

I started the New Year with a wonderful walk in Inwood Hill Park on January 1st. I co-led the walk with David Burg. David runs Wild Metro (www.wildmetro.org), a non-profit that works to preserve and enhance natural areas around the city. We were 19 in the group, a nice mix of interests and levels of knowledge, including a few amazing birders.

Entrance to Inwood on Isham and Seaman Ave. Photo by David Burg

Inwood is a 196 acre park located at the northern tip of Manhattan, part of the city park system.  Unlike Central Park, it was not landscaped and it has a good deal more woodlands. The trails bring you to higher elevations and there are some wonderful views of the surrounding areas.

Are we still in Manhattan?

Doing a walk in the winter let's you focus on characters other than leaves and flowers.  Some of our trees have very interesting and distinctive bark.  Kentucky Coffeetree is one, Gymnocladus dioicus in the pea family, Fabaceae. The bark flakes the way it does on our Black cherry (Prunus serotina), but it is much lighter in color, an ash-gray.  

Gymnocladus dioicus Kentucky Coffeetree, Fabaceae

Cherries and birches have distinctive lenticels on their trunks. Lenticels occur on the trunks of trees and act as pores, a place where gas exchange takes place between the air and the tree's internal tissues.  Black birch (Betula lenta) has smooth silvery-gray bark with strong horizontal lenticels.  If you scrape the twigs, you get a strong wintergreen smell.  The fruit (not shown), an erect catkin, was still clinging to the tree.

Betula lenta, Black birch, Betulaceae

Inwood has a large population of Tuliptrees (Liriodendron tulipifera). This species is one of the tallest in our area and it grows with a very straight trunk. In the photo below you can see the fruit still clinging to the tree.   

Liriodendron tuplipifera, Tuliptree, Magnoliaceae

As you walk along the trail, you get peeks of different views surrounding the Park.  

Hudson River and the Palisades

Henry Hudson Bridge

Henry Hudson Bridge

The image below shows the Broadway Bridge, but look at the "C" on the cliff.  Columbia University's rowing team can often be seen practicing in the ship canal and if I have my history correct, a former coxswain on the team got permission to paint the C on the cliff wall.  I'm not sure that would be allowed these days.  It would be wonderful to see it removed and be able to see the cliff-face unmarred.

Broadway Bridge

The final photo I'd like to leave you with is an Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis).  Hemlock is an evergreen that is shade tolerant and it used to grow more readily in our forests.  Their numbers have dwindled from forest fragmentation, of course, but also due, in large part, to the wooly adelgid (Adelges tsugae)The adelgid is a sap-sucking insect accidentally introduced from Asia.  With no natural predators, the adelgid spread rapidly and devastated our stands of hemlocks.  It was lovely to see this survivor.  

This was towards the end of our walk when the sun was starting to set and we were enjoying the shapes of the trees in shadow.  Make sure to get out there this winter and do some walks, the silhouettes of the bare trees and evergreen trees are a thing of beauty not to be missed.

Tsuga canadensis, Eastern hemlock, Pinaceae

Wind Adventure

I should label this post as another Classroom Adventure, I did this demonstration with my students on a field trip to Alley Pond last week.  But we were so caught up in the fun, I forgot to take pictures!  So my friend Hubert took me to a spot with a nice stand of cattails to recreate the exercise. (All photos in this post, except one indicated, are by Hubert Urruttia)

We all know that plants are sessile organisms, they don't move around the way animals do.  Because of this, plants rely on a variety of methods to ensure that their seeds find a good place to germinate. If seeds just fell from the plants right where they are, the seedlings would crowd around the parent plant and they would all compete for water, nutrients, light and space.  None would survive very well.  So the parent plant needs the seedling to germinate a distance away.  This movement of the seed away from the parent plant is called seed dispersal and plants have evolved several mechanisms for achieving this.

Gravity works, only if the seed can then roll away some distance.  We are familiar with animal dispersal, for example, a bird eats a cherry and then poops the seed out far from the parent tree. Some seeds have barbs on them so they stick to animals' fur (or clothing in our case) and then fall off sometime later. Jewelweed and others have spring-loaded seed coats which fling the seeds mechanically (a video for a later post).

These photos are of wind dispersal.  The most common example used is the dandelion.  Even we city kids grew up picking dandelions and blowing on the seed heads to watch the fluff float away.  Each little piece of fluff (called a pappus) carries a seed that will hopefully find a good place to germinate.  It is a random process and lots of seeds land in places that are not suitable, so the plant makes many many seeds to guarantee that some will germinate.

My favorite example of wind germination is the cattail. Besides the fact that you end up with tiny seeds attached to fluff floating away, take a look below at just how many seeds are packed into a cattail fruit! 

Cattails (Typha spp.) are monoecious, that is, both flower sexes are on the same plant.  But the flowers are unisexual, male and female are separate. In the first photo, the brown sausage-shaped spike is the collection of female flowers that have formed seeds.  The stick above it used to hold the male flowers. Once the male flowers shed their pollen, they wither and fall away. The second photo is one that I took in Central Park back in June and it shows the male and female flowers.


Typha seed head

Male flowers on the left, female flowers on the right

In the next images, you see how tightly packed are the seeds and just how many there are!  Scratch at the surface and they will billow out.  This is the part that is fun for kids (of all ages!). Birds use the fluff to line their nests and I would bet that as they perch on the stalk and pull out the fluff, they get the other seeds to start floating away, just as I am doing in these photos. So next time you see a ripe stand of cattails, scratch at one and have some wind dispersal fun!

Typha seeds are each up to 1.5mm long (USDA Forest Service database)

There are over 200,000 seeds in each stalk (US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Kathryn Gorman Ponds Park in Montebello, Rockland County, New York.

Classroom adventure - plant cells and pollen

Learning how to use the compound microscope can be awkward at first.  Trying to get your specimen in the field of view, focusing, changing objective lenses, losing your specimen and having to find it all over again. But students eventually get it and I love seeing the excitement on their faces when they finally figure it out and see cells for the first time.  

Elodea, an aquatic plant species, is useful to look at plant cells under the microscope.  The leaves are thin so you can see cells.  There are two features that are easily seen that distinguish plant cells from animal cells - the rigid cell walls and chlorophyll - the pigment that allows plants to absorb and use energy from sunlight and gives plants their green color.

This set up is also a good way to demonstrate the process of osmosis.  Cells are surrounded by a semi- permeable membrane, that is, the membrane is very picky about what it lets in and out of the cell.  Water inside and outside a plant cell have different concentrations of solutes in it.  Solutes are the "stuff" diluted into the water, such as sugar or salt.  Water will move either into or out of the cell to equalize the concentrations on both sides of the membrane.  The movement of water for this purpose is called osmosis.

In this first slide, we used distilled water, water that has had most of its solutes removed.  In this case, there are more solutes inside the cell than outside, so water enters the cell to equalize the concentrations.  You can see the vacuole (the structure that holds the water inside the cell) is expanded.  The vacuoles are so full, they squish the chlorophyll all the way to the edges of the cell.

Elodea cells in distilled water

In this second slide, we added salt water, so in this case, there are more solutes outside the cells.  Water then rushes out of the cell to try to equalize the concentrations.  In many cases, so much water has left the cell, the cell membrane, which is located just inside the cell wall, has collapsed.  Osmosis is the reason plants suffer damage when salt is used to de-ice roads and then washes into the soil.  Too much salt in the soil makes water leave the plant roots instead of entering and the plants wilt and often die. 

Elodea cells in salt water

Plants with hairs on their leaves or stems are also useful for looking at individual cells.  Hairs on plants are called trichomes.  In the slide below you see the trichomes from a sunflower stem.  Each hair shows the individual cells that make it up.  And if you look closely, you can see the individual cells on the stem tissue as well.

Trichomes on sunflower stem

For some of us, pollen is just a nuisance that gives us allergies.  But for plants, it is vital for reproduction. Pollen grains, made in the anthers, carry the male sex cells of plants.  Their only concern is to get to the female organ of the plant (the carpel, or pistil) and fertilize the egg.  Some plants use animals to transfer the pollen from the male to female organs - think bees, butterflies, birds, but also bats and other animals. Animal pollinated plants do not give us allergies since their pollen never gets airborne.  Some plants use wind to transfer their pollen.  They produce an abundance of pollen which they release into the air and let the wind carry it off to other plants.  These wind pollinated plants are the ones that give us our allergies.  

Pollen grains are different for each species, like a plant fingerprint.  A palynologist is a scientist who studies pollen (and other microscopic particles) and he or she can tell you what plant produced the pollen you are looking at.  Some pollen grains are plain, some have complex structures.  We looked at two samples in class.  Both of these are animal pollinated plants, so neither are responsible for your allergy.

Gladiola pollen

Sunflower pollen

Classroom adventure - herbs and spices

The fall semester has begun and I am looking forward to my Plants and People class at Queensborough Community College.  This is a course for non-science majors and teaches about all the ways we use plants and why plants are so important in our lives.  We cover many topics and the labs are a lot of fun.  

One of the main themes throughout the semester is that plants make chemicals we call secondary metabolites.  Plants cannot run away from danger, so they protect themselves using chemicals.  In some of the images below you can see oil glands. These glands are filled with these metabolites.  Imagine a small insect feeding on these leaves and getting a mouthful of some distasteful or poisonous chemical!

The plant makes these chemicals for its own protection, but we take advantage of them for various purposes such as making medicines, perfumes and flavoring our food.

The main difference between herbs and spices is that herbs come from the leaves of plants and spices come from other parts of the plant (seeds, fruit, flowers, roots). Here are a few samples we put under the microscopes. 


Oil glands in a mint leaf (Mentha sp.)

Saffron is the stigma (female organ) of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativa)

Oil glands and trichomes (hairs) on the underside of a rosemary leaf (Rosmarinus sp.)

Cloves are the dried unopened flower bud of Syzygium aromaticum

Anise seed with the stigma (female organ) still persisting (Pimpinella anisum)

Oil glands on the leaf of Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

Animal adventures

I am a plant biologist, but when I am out studying plants I am easily distracted by other organisms.  There is just so much cool stuff in nature, how can you not get distracted!  Here are some organisms from the Animal Kingdom that I have been lucky enough to see.  All of these were taken in New York, many right in our public parks.  If you have never seen these creatures in our City, you are in for a treat.  There is a lot of interesting biodiversity all around us, you just have to take the time to look.

When I was still a student,  I took a few ecology classes at Queens College with Prof. Jon "Doc" Sperling. They were among my favorite classes because he took us on many wonderful field trips.  In a Wetland Ecology course with him, one of the trips took us to the Long Island Science Museum (http://www.smli.org/). We did an activity called seining.  We all held on to a long net, walked out into the water, swept it over an area and pulled it on shore to see what species we caught.  We examined the species and quickly returned them to the water. Some species we found just by walking along the shoreline.  Here are some highlights.

The Atlantic blue crab (Callinectes sapidus).  This large crab has blue pigment in its shell making it a particularly handsome crab, in my opinion.  It is an omnivore (it eats both plants and animals), feeding on all sorts of fish, bivalves, plants and even carrion (dead and decaying animal flesh).  It is also eaten by various species of fish, eel, shark and by humans (it is of significant commercial important to that last species).  The specific epithet "sapidus" means savory.

Atlantic blue crab Callinectes sapidus

I got a bit of a startle when I found this insect on my friend Ciro.  At first glance it looked like a scorpion.  It is a species from a group of arachnids (the class of animals to which spiders and scorpions belong), an order called pseudoscorpions.  This group is generally beneficial to humans as they prey on insects that we might consider pests.  They are usually very small, so I consider myself lucky to have seen this one.  


The American soft-shell clam (Mya arenaria) is a filter-feeder.  It lives just under the mud or wet sand and sends up its siphon to draw in water.  It filters food out of the water and then expels the water back into the environment around it.  When the tide is low, you can see the holes in the sand where they are located.  If you disturb the environment immediately around it, it sends up a spray of water, a behavior that gives rise to its other common name, "piss clam".  These clams are commonly eaten by humans and are also called "steamers".

American soft-shell clam Mya arenaria

The Atlantic horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus) is not a crab at all.  They belong to the same phylum as crabs, Arthropoda, the phylum that includes insects, arachnids and crustaceans (crabs, lobsters, shrimp, etc.). This group of animals all have exoskeletons, segmented bodies and jointed appendages.  But horseshoe crabs are more closely related to arachnids (spiders, ticks, mites and scorpions).

Horseshoe crabs come to shore in great numbers in the spring to mate and lay eggs.  It is an amazing event that can be seen right in our area at Jamaica Bay.  Aside from continuing the existence of horseshoe crabs, the eggs are an important source of food for migrating bird species.  The Audubon Society and the Littoral Society have walks each spring to see these organisms.  (http://www.littoralsociety.org/ and www.nycaudubon.org).

Horseshoe crab juvenile Limulus polyphemus

The fiddler crab (Uca sp.) is easily recognized by it's oversized chela (claw).  However, only the males have this characteristic.  They use this chela in a ritualized combat (no one actually gets hurt) to court a female. Fiddler crabs are detritovores (they eat decomposing plant and animal matter as well as fecal matter).

Fiddler crab Uca sp.

Not all the organisms we found are local residents.  This puffer fish must have gotten lost in a storm.


The spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) is a common salamander species in our area.  Not all parks have them, they need a specific habitat that is not found in all areas.  They breed in woodlands that have vernal pools (temporary pools that form usually in spring and dry up by summertime).  This one I found at the Cranberry Park Preserve out on Long Island.  Even though the adult does not live in water, it still prefers damp environments.  As you walk through the woodlands, occasionally turn over a log and you will find a whole host of organisms living under there in the damp soil.  If you are lucky, you might find one of these beauties.

Spotted salamander Ambystoma maculatum

But you don't have to go out to Long Island to see interesting organisms.  There are plenty of animals in the five boroughs.

Great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) nest fairly regularly in our parks.  This young one was born in Alley Pond Park in Queens in 2011.  There were siblings in that tree stump with him/her, but they were secretive and I only managed to get the one in the photo.  Other owl species migrate to our area in the winter from up north.  The harsher the winter, the more owl migrants we get due to limitations in their food supply.  They sleep during the day, so once you find where they are, you can generally look at your leisure.

Great horned owl Bubo virginianus

The Fowler's toad (Bufo fowleri) can also be found at Alley Pond Park.  This toad has a distinctive stripe along its back (not visible in this photo).  It uses camouflage to protect itself from predators (snakes, birds and small mammals).  

Fowler's toad Bubo fowleri

In the Bronx, you can head up to Orchard Beach, which is part of Pelham Park, to find a salt marsh with organism like the ones I found at the Long Island Science Museum.  A few others you can find include the following:

Ribbed mussels (Geukensia demissa) live in the intertidal zone, also called the littoral zone.  This is the area that is above water at low tide and below water at high tide.  Only well-adapted species can survive this daily fluctuation of being submerged in water part of the day, exposed to air part of the day.  When they are exposed to air, they have to protect themselves from drying out, from intense heat in the summer and from extreme cold in the winter.  Despite these difficulties, there are species of plants and animals that thrive in these locations.  Sometimes species have mutualistic relationships (they help each other).  This photo shows the ribbed mussels growing within a stand of Spartina alterniflora a perennial grass found in salt marshes. The mussels attach themselves to the basal (located at the base) parts of the stems of the Spartina.  The mussels help the grass by binding soil particles and preventing erosion of soil as well as increasing soil nitrogen, thus fertilizing the plants.

Ribbed mussels (Geukensia demissa) and Spartina alterniflora

Barnacles are another organism superbly adapted to the drastic environmental changes that are part of living in the intertidal zone of a salt marsh.  Barnacles are a sessile organism, that is, they live in a fixed location, they are immobile.  So it cannot swim to deeper water when the tide comes in.  When the organism is exposed to air, the operculum (lid) closes tightly to prevent desiccation and it patiently waits for the tide to come back in.  When the tide is in and the barnacles are covered with water, the operculum opens and it extends feathery appendages that filter food from the surrounding water.  There are many species of barnacles and I am not certain which this is, but I think it might be Semibalanus balanoides.

Barnacles Semibalanus balanoides 

Most people don't like insects.  They use words such as ugly, creepy, scary and all sorts of other negative terms when they talk about insects.  Insects are the largest group in the animal kingdom and they live in just about every environment on earth.  A few are pests to humans but many more are beneficial.  Some of our food crops are pollinated exclusively by insects.   Many of the bird species we love to see depend on insects for food. 

If you have ever seen what looks like heavy spider webbing on trees, you may have been looking at tent caterpillars.  Caterpillars are the larval (juvenile) stage of butterflies and moths.  In the case of the tent caterpillar, we are talking about moths.  The photo below shows the Eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americana).  I found this in Alley Pond Park.  The female moth lays eggs generally on trees in the rose family, such as the Black cherry, a common tree in our parks.  When the eggs hatch, the larvae build the tent out of a silk they spin.  The tent is how they protect themselves.  When they are not out feeding, they are inside the tent protected from predators.  They feed on the leaves of the tree on which they have built their tent.  Many insects are specific about the species, genus or family of plant they can eat.  In this case, they prefer the rose family, but other species will do as well.  When they are out feeding and when they leave the tent to pupate (transform from larvae to adult), they are vulnerable to predators such as birds and turtles.  But this is part of the food web.  There are large numbers of these caterpillars, some become food for predators, others survive to become moths and continue the species.

Eastern tent caterpillar Malacosoma americana

Now, some of you might find the tent caterpillars ugly or creepy, but I can't imagine many of you would find this next insect anything but beautiful.

In Pelham Park, there is a wonderful meadow that I have visited on many occasions with my friend David Burg.  On one such occasion we were treated to a beautiful dragonfly that was kind enough to pose for me. The ruby meadowhawk, Sympetrum rubicundulum.  Dragonfly adults spend their time flying around looking for mates.  They are impressive aerial acrobats flying forward, backward, changing directions in mid-flight and hovering with ease.  They don't sting or bother humans in any way.  Their larvae are voracious predators feeding on large quantities of mosquito larvae.  If you didn't already love dragonflies for their beauty, love them for that.

Ruby meadowhawk Sympetrum rubicundulum

The Cemetery Adventure

A few weeks ago my cousin Vivian came to visit my mom for the weekend.  It was a great weekend and it made my mom super happy to have her niece here for a few days.  Vivian accompanied me on a nice walk through Trinity Cemetery on 155th Street between Broadway and Riverside Drive.  Besides being the final resting place for several famous people such as John James Audubon and John Jacob Astor, it is a beautiful natural area overlooking the Hudson.  We enjoyed some wonderful old trees and a few choice herbaceous species.  

View of the George Washington Bridge

I'll start with the American beech (Fagus grandifolia), since it is my mother's favorite tree.  It's smooth grey bark is a helpful characteristic when trying to identify it, but unfortunately it also a blank canvas for people with no regard for trees to carve their names.  This beauty looks like it's been around a while.

Fagus grandifolia Fagaceae

This property is dotted with many large tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera), one of my favorite species. This species grows to be one of the tallest in our Northeastern forests.  In the woodlands the tulip tree "self-prunes" and drops lower branches as they get shaded out, so the trunks are straight and branches are found high above the ground.  In more open areas such as this cemetery, the lower branches remain, which is a treat since it lets you see the characteristic shape of the leaves and in spring, the beautiful yellow flowers.

Liriodendron tulipifera Magnoliaceae

American elm (Ulmus americana) was once a common tree throughout the United States.  It was planted for it's beautiful growth habit and lined many streets across the country.  Unfortunately, an introduced fungus (three species of Ophiostoma) has wiped out many of them.  The fungus is carried from tree to tree by one of the elm bark beetle species.  They pick up the spores of the fungus as they crawl around inside the bark of the tree and carry it to the next tree when they move on to mate and lay eggs.  Some places such as Central Park have programs to manage the disease, pruning out infected branches and removing badly infected trees to prevent the spread.  I don't know if this cemetery has such a program, but this is a very impressive specimen of an American elm.

Ulmus americana Ulmaceae

Oaks are always magnificent trees when they get older.   When they grow out in the open, such as the one in the photo below, they develop strong branches spreading out from a massive trunk.  Red oaks can be recognized by shiny stripes along the center of ridges in the bark and leaves that are not deeply lobed like some other oak species.  The fruit of the oak is of course the acorn, one of the favorite foods of the squirrel. They collect and bury lots of acorns to have a stash of food in the winter.  However, they never eat all of them and the forgotten ones germinate into new trees.  But oaks struggle to germinate in soil that has been compacted by too many people walking on it.  I observed in Central Park that areas with compacted soil has little to no regeneration of oaks.  Once we restored an area, tilling the soil, adding organic matter and protecting the area from trampling, oak seedlings began popping up.  In natural areas you often don't have to plant new trees.  Protect the soil from erosion, trampling and invasive species and the native species will return.

Quercus rubra Fagaceae

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a good native plant that many people are afraid of.  I can understand it, around half the population is allergic to it, and a percentage of those are severely allergic to it.  Urushiol, the oil that causes the skin rash is found on all parts of the plant (except the pollen) and is active all year long.  But this plant is native to this area and its fruit are a good source of nutrition for migrating birds.  So it is unfortunate that this large stand growing up a tree was destroyed.  With education and proper management, we can coexist with this wonderful plant.  After all, mangoes and cashews are from the same family with similar toxins in their leaves and we cultivate those plants extensively.

Toxicodendron radicans Anacardiaceae

Pennylvania pellitory (Parietaria pensylvanica) is a species I learned last August while doing the BioBlitz with Daniel in Central Park.  It is a native annual herbaceous plant that grows in disturbed sites and on walls.  The inflorescence is not very showy and grows from the leaf axil.  It seems to be having a good year as we have found lots of it growing in Central Park and there is a large stand of it here at the cemetery. Or maybe I am just noticing it more since I learned what it is.  I will have to pay attention and see how it does next year.  

Parietaria pensylvanica Urticaceae

Parietaria pensylvanica Urticaceae

The Mullein Adventure

I hung out with my friend Hubert today up in Suffern, in Rockland County.  He is helping me learn to better manage my data for my projects and he is also helping me learn how to build this website. After a couple of hours of working, we went for a walk.  He said he found a cool spot he thought I would like to see.  So he took me to the 711 on route 59.  OK.  Interesting.  What could possibly be here?

There is a small woodlot behind the 711.  A typical suburban woodlot - a few trees, herbaceous plants, rubble, trash.  But walk in a short ways and it opens to a sunny field that has the biggest stand of mullein I have ever encountered.  Not just the number of mullein plants (which was a lot!), but also the size of each plant.  Some were over 6 feet tall!

Field of mullein

Photo by Hubert Urruttia

One could get lost in there 

Photo by Hubert Urruttia

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a biennial - a plant that completes its life cycle in two years. The first year it is a rosette of leaves growing close to the ground.  It spends that first year photosynthesizing and producing starches and sugars.  It stores those carbohydrates in a tap root.  The second year it uses the energy it has stored up and grows tall with larger leaves towards the base and a flowering stalk (inflorescence) with many small 5 petaled yellow flowers.


Verbascum thapsus Scrophulariaceae

The pattern the leaves make as they clasp the stem is quite striking.  And they make a cozy home for a harvestman (daddy-long-legs).

Photo by Hubert Urruttia

Mullein is a European native that was introduced to the U.S. in the 1700s, originally as a piscicide (fish poison).  It is generally just a weedy plant, but is considered by some to be an invasive and it poses a threat to our native meadows and forest clearings.  You can see in the image below, as  soon as you enter the shady areas, there is no mullein.  I am lover and champion of native plants, but I always appreciate the beauty of all plants.  After all, it's our fault, not theirs, that the ecosystems are out of balance.


As with most disturbed sites such as this, most of the plants found are not native.  We saw St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum), wisteria vine (Wisteria sp.), garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis).  But we did see a very few natives including sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and pokeweed (Phytolocca americana). 

Triodanis perfoliata (clasping Venus' looking glass) Campanulaceae

Photo by Hubert Urruttia

Lobelia spicata (pale-spike lobelia) Campanulaceae

So the next time you have a craving for a slurpee, make sure to check out the woodlots where you are shopping, you never know what cool plants you might find.