Monday, November 14, 2011

Pike County Park

Today I had this sweetheart, my good ol' dog, Doobie, along with me for my stroll. Doobs loves hiking as much as I do, however with his older age, I now reserve our hikes to meandering plant walks along easy graded, not-so-rocky trails. But with spring in his step today, I watched as he lept over fallen trees and sloshed through murky streams without a second's hesitation, perhaps it was the return of warmer temps and crisp autumn weather. You're only as old as you feel- Doobie is panting, barking, romping proof of just that.

Pike County Park is a little known public park that is bordered on all sides by undeveloped forest land. It is complete with hiking trails that wander far into the woods and a dirt road that winds further than I know.  Although I have explored these woods all my life, I have spent little to no time in this particular patch. While out for a particularly long run the other day, I ran directly into the park and cresting a small hill, found myself peering out over this expansive, rippling pond. All this, right down the road from my house, backpacking and camping permitted....what a gem.

And so after dreaming about exploring this place further for the last few days and nights, early this morning, I had to return. Doobie and I walked just a ways down the dirt road and turned left onto the Foundation Trail.  The trees have finally released their leaves covering the usually grassy, rocky woods with a pallet of warm colors. The sky was a muted pale blue, washed with white clouds, making the tree limbs appear even more starkly bare. This is late autumn in northeast Pennsylvania.

However with all these dark branches straggling towards the sky, I couldn't help but notice the star-like sprays of yellow popping at eye-level.

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) flower
 Meet Witch Hazel. This is a small many-branching tree or large shrub. It seems to like moist places, often found residing near streams or seep places, along embankements and in depressions. Flowers appear in late autumn to early winter at the same time as last year's fruits -  woody capsules - ripen, forcibly expelling two smooth seeds.
Witch Hazel empty 2-parted seed capsule
Buds are wooly and flattened, and although appear to have scales, are actually two "scalelike stipules"(Swanson). Leaves are alternate and toothed. Bark is smooth except for tiny raised dots, resembling braille, I've also heard them likened to warts, which if you choose to make the whole witch / wart association , could be a helpful way to remember this characteristic.

Witch Hazel bud
Witch Hazel bark
 The twigs, bark, and leaves can all be used medicinally and make for a particularly effective astringent and anti-inflammatory. When the leaves are just beginning to unfurl in spring, finding a good sized branch on one tree, harvest and peel bark using a sharp knife, shredding down to the woody core. This bark along with any small twigs (cut up small) can be tinctured fresh in alcohol or vinegar, or decocted (simmered for 20 minutes) making an astringent tea. Leaves can be dried, steeped and drank as a tea as well. This medicine can be helpful when taken internally to ease diarrhea or gastrointestinal inflammation. Be wary of constipation and decrease dosage accordingly as this plant does have a drying and tightening effect upon tissues. Teas can be drank or gargled for sore throat. A tincture or tea can also be used for inflamed gums by swishing it around affected area.

A wee bit of lore...if you're out in the woods and looking for a safe place to sleep, simply seek out a Witch Hazel tree as they are revered for their protective properties.

Foam Flower (Tiarella cordifolia)
Above is another tannin rich plant, Foam Flower. This is the small leaf now changing color, soon to die back. These can be found growing from the base of the plant (basal leaves), and in early spring will shoot up a spike with tiny white flowers arranged spirally. I have never used this plant for medicine, but according to Peterson's Field Guide has traditionally been used as a leaf tea for mouth sores and eye ailments. The root is also reportedly a diuretic. I found it growing on a mossy mound in the middle of a small stream, very characteristic of this moisture-loving plant.

Common Milkweed (Asclepia syriaca) seeds

Look at these seeds! This is Common Milkweed ( Asclepias syriaca), which bears edible young shoots, leaves, unopened flowerbuds,  and young pods after a couple of changes of water. The flowers can be dipped in batter and fried as fritters too. It is past its season of edibility at this point, however at this stage, I think their cottony achenes still provide an asethetic medicine. These pods can be spotted from afar when their white tufts abundantly blot the edges of ponds and lakes. Do not confuse this plant with Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), although in the same genus, is a poisonous plant.

Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

Do you see what I see? I apparantly wasn't the only one appreciating the bark of this Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis). Notice the fine black hairs hanging on the edge of the curling bark...I think this tree had made for a nice scratching post for a resident black bear. I looked around for any other clues, such as scat, but found none. Perhaps he simply stopped for a moment to get that one "hard to reach" spot and mosied on his way. Yellow Birch can be used the same as Black Birch- the leaves are diuretic and the inner bark contains salicylates, excellent for relieving muscular pain. Oh, and the twigs are delicious chew sticks.

Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)

Lastly, another view of Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), it's "evergreen" leaves actually turning a deep purple. These berries will very likely hang on throughout the winter. I'll have to keep my eyes open after the next snow. This plant practically carpeted the Foundation Trail.

Pike County Park, I'll be back soon.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Autumn Snow

Sawkill stream and one-lane bridge

This past weekend, the Milford woods saw its first snow of the cold weather season, the clouds dropping almost a foot in about 12 hours time. The trees still holding onto leaves, displaying their color show of red, yellow, and orange, were suddenly laden with a heavy blanket of icy wetness, some of which bowed easy and limber, while many cracked and snapped, dropping limbs on roads, power lines and across trails.

It was a perfect opportunity to venture out, seeing in real time the abrupt change of seasons. Now it may still be a lengthy 7 weeks until winter, but to me, this time of year always symbolizes the end of one cycle and the quiet slumber that must preceed the flourishing of the new marked by the lengthening of days after the Winter Solstice. The snow offered silence and weight and stillness, while at the same time, in all its bright whiteness, a hint of the light that will come out of the dark.

Unknown shrub - opposite leaves with very pointed tips (acuminate apexes) and true berries (many seeds).

If anyone knows what this shrub might be, please comment at the end of this post! I have checked all my guides on local trees and can find nothing matching the description. It is not Dogwood which though it has opposite leaves bears drupes (a single stone seed) not berries nor is it Holly which has alternate spiny toothed leaves. I am leaning towards a non-native naturalized honeysuckle, as it lines the road along with other once cultivated and now escaped non-natives such as Autumn Olive.

Unknown fern about 1' tall, northeast PA.
Come on fern people! This appears to be a very common fern in these parts, growing roadside along the embankments. If you know your ferns, please do comment at the end of this post - I'm just beginning to get to know this community of ancient greenies.
White Pine (Pinus strobus)
 Gives a whole new meaning to "White"Pine, eh? White Pine can be identified by its fascicles of  5 needles, each with a  white stripe along one edge. The needles are also actually toothed or scaled which can be seen with the aid of a hand lens. See the characteristic bark on the tree just behind the snowy needles - deeply and coarsely furrowed. To determine the age of a White Pine, simply count the whorls of branches, each whorl equals one year. These trees grow very large very  quickly. See my previous post: for info on White Pine's medicinal properties. Pine needle tea makes for an excellent winter Vitamin C supplement as well as a stimulating expectorant for stubborn mucus in the lungs!

This coming winter, my first in the northeast in 10 years, will no doubt, provide some challenges to plant viewing and investigation. However, even if I must make homemade snowshoes, strapping garbage pail lids to my feet with bungee cords (then again...I could just make a trip to the outfitters and buy some- but what fun would that be?) I will be continuing my hiking ventures. And when most all of the plants have finally settled in for slumber, the pouring over of plant books will begin.  

During this time of early morning fog and crisp night-time starry skies, drying leaves, and chill air, thank you for the opportunity for contemplation, quiet, and the building of reserves.