Know Your Native, Winter Edition

Believe it or not, staff at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy do not hibernate during the winter.

Angela, Jaci, and Jake taking care of a tree in Highland Park

While some of us cozy up in the office with woolly sweaters and Big Gulp-sized mugs of coffee and tea, there are those of us that are out in the parks in any weather. Two such dauntlessly awesome staffers are our horticulturist Angela and our gardener Jaci. Regularly spotted outside in ultra heavy duty winter wear, they recently visited the office clad in all-weather work boots carrying a box of treasures — seeds and buds and clippings from plants around the parks. These finds, hidden in the drab colors of winter, were an unusual learning experience and a fun way to study the parks in winter.

If you’re a regular reader of our blog/social media, you might have caught our Know Your Native or What’s In Bloom segments. During the growing seasons, Angela compiles pictures of blossoms and buds from the park gardens for her monthly What’s in Bloom series. Our more sporadic Know Your Native highlights local plants that staffers find and photograph around the parks.

This week, we’re meshing the two. And adding a fun mnemonic twist. We’re also bending the rules; technically, none of these finds are currently in bloom. And a couple of them aren’t natives, but we’re throwing them in, too. Let’s get started! (Note: Information about these plants came from the great Missouri Botanical Garden.)

Tulip (Liriodendron tulipifera)

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A large deciduous tree native of eastern North America, the tulip tree, otherwise known as the yellow poplar, is easily identified by its tulip-shaped flowers seen here. The flowers can be tough to spot in spring since they bloom after the tree’s leaves pop open. Its genus name comes from Greek leirion (lily) and dendron (tree). Tulipifera means tulip bearing.

Fun fact: Native Americans made dugout canoes from tuliptree trunks. Source.

Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)

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Tripping over the large spiked fruits that we think look like boot spurs is an easy way to identify the invasive horse chestnut, or conker tree. When the skin of the fruit breaks, you can find one or two dark brown horsechestnuts, a relative of the buckeye (but not the chestnut), inside. Check back with these trees in the spring when they show off white, red and yellow flowers.

Fun fact: The alternate name for this tree, conker tree, comes from a British-Irish children’s game that dates back to the 1800s. For this “game,” children would tie strings to the spiked fruits and bop each other over the head until the fruit broke. We’re not sure if you win when the fruit breaks…? Don’t try that at home.

Goldenrain (Tree Sapindaceae)

In the winter, you can identify the invasive goldenrain tree by the papery seed capsules that are a bit reminiscent of Chinese lanterns. The tree blossoms in early summer with flowers of varying shades of yellow, which make a golden yellow carpet under the tree. This tree is air pollution resistant, helping it thrive in urban areas.

Eastern beech (Fagus sylvatica)

The European beech has been a popular ornamental tree in the United States since the mid-1700s. The trunk has a distinctive smooth, gray texture that seems to fold and melt around branches. Leaves of the beech tree aren’t abscissed in fall, meaning they hold on to their leaves all winter. Female flowers give way to two triangular nuts held in spiny capsules, seen here:

Sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

A native to eastern North america, no doubt you’ve noticed the sweet gum’s signature ‘gumballs’ spread out at the base of these trees. These spiky globular fruiting clusters are the product of female flower. The name of this tree comes from the sweet-smelling ‘gum’ that the tree exudes when cut.

Fun fact: The tree’s gum has indeed been used for chewing gum. It’s also been used to make incense, perfumes, folk medicines and flavorings.

Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina)

Identifying this native tree is a bit of a gimme. Shown here are the nut-like fruits that cluster like bells. Watch in April when the trees flowers start to bloom in even more obvious bell shapes. Like a bell rung for dinner, these gorgeous flowers seem to bring in warmer weather.

Like to learn more about what makes up our park flora? Follow us on Twitter or Facebook to catch our Know Your Native features, or subscribe to our blog at the bottom right corner. And if you haven’t picked up a copy of our gorgeous Invasive Plants of Pittsburgh guidebook, order one today! 

Lauryn Stalter for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

We just have to throw in one more, because we can’t resist. We’ll leave you with Staphylea trifolia, otherwise known as bladdernut. While not the most attractive name, this native does show some pretty flowers in spring!

This blog was originally posted in February 2014.

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If a Tree Falls: Human Impacts on Forest and Park Trees

Forests are natural, wild places. Trees burn, blow down, mature, and regenerate on their own.

At the same time, forests have fingerprints of Homo sapiens all over them. If you know how to look, a stroll through Frick Park’s shady paths can highlight just how human actions have molded one very visible part of the park forests: the trees.

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An eastern hemlock attacked by hemlock woolly adelgid.

Dude, where’s my hemlock?

You could scour Frick Park and never come across white pine (Pinus strobus) or our state tree, the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Until the 19th century both species were common throughout the state, but as the region industrialized, lumber companies prized these trees for their uses in tanning and construction and they disappeared from much of their former ranges. The result? The number of places in Pennsylvania where massive old-growth stands of white pine persist can be counted on your two hands. Afterwards, when forests began to regenerate, conditions did not always favor the return of these former giants.

If you do see a white pine or eastern hemlock in Frick (and there are a few of each), it was likely planted relatively recently by Parks Conservancy staff and volunteers. Much like logging these species, reforesting requires human labor.

A century later: Cherries

Though white pine and eastern hemlock have fared poorly in our forests over the last 200 years, the forests that regenerated after logging actually benefited other trees. Black cherry (Prunus serotina) is one of these. North of Pittsburgh, in the Allegheny Plateau, it is estimated that black cherry trees made up less than 1% of the pre-logging forest. After extensive clear-cutting in the late 19th century, however, black cherry became a common part of the new forest that regrew there thanks to preference for sunny conditions and fast growth.

The same is true in Frick Park. Easily identifiable by their dark bark that looks like burnt potato chips or corn flakes, black cherries are common these days. You can find a large number of them where there once was a country club (now in the area where Riverview and Bench trails run). After the club’s annexation to Frick in the 1920s, forests regrew on these lands with black cherries. Some of these trees are actually now dying, as the species’ mortality typically increases after 80-100 years.

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Phil Gruszka, Parks Management and Maintenance Director, tagging a dead ash tree.

Invasive species, world travelers

Dead trees can also illustrate how humans have shaped our forests. Since 2007 when it was first detected in Pennsylvania, emerald ash borer (EAB), a tiny green invasive insect, has left a path of destruction across Allegheny County, killing nearly all area ash trees (Fraxinus var.) in just a few years. The evidence is all over Frick Park, with standing and fallen dead ash trees exhibiting the tell-tale scars where EAB larva chewed through the trees’ energy-rich cambium, girdling them.

Globalization not only redistributes products, money, and people around the world, but also non-native plants, animals, and fungi, sometimes in ways that reshape our parks. EAB, for example, likely arrived in the U.S. in a shipping pallet from Asia. This pest, however, is not the first invasive species to change our forests. In the early 20th century, chestnut blight, a fungus accidentally introduced from Asia, killed virtually all American chestnut trees, a species then common throughout the eastern U.S.

Trees on the move (and we’re not talking Ents)

Frick Park’s forests will keep changing as a result of human influence. In addition to the risk of future invasive species, anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change promises big shifts for park trees. Just walk Rollercoaster Trail on the hills between Fern Hollow and Falls Ravine and look out on the sea of young sugar maples (Acer saccharum) that dominate the forest understory.

According to the U.S. Forest Service’s Climate Change Atlas, sugar maples will likely become significantly less important across Pennsylvania as the climate warms and stresses this species, eliminating it from the southerly parts of its range. More heat-tolerant trees may ultimately replace sugar maples in Frick Park and elsewhere in the state.

Learning from the past

Recognizing human fingerprints on our forests gives us opportunity to learn from the mistakes and successes of past generations. How can we leave fingerprints that will improve forest health? Parks are planned spaces, cared for by the people that use them. The team at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is constantly on the watch for invasives like the Asian longhorned beetle and oak wilt and replanting diverse, resilient species of trees to create strong forests that will be around for generations to come.

Kevin C. Brown is an educator with the Parks Conservancy, and a researcher-writer of a National Park Service-funded history of the Devils Hole pupfish, an endangered desert fish that lives in Death Valley National Park. You can read more about his work here.

From Fires to Phenology: Meet Our New SCA Fellow!

One year ago, I left the land of cheese, beer, and badgers in search of new experiences and meaningful work.

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Parks Conservancy’s new SCA Green Cities Fellow Ryan, whose last stint was cuddling sea turtles in Florida.

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Ryan leading fearless volunteers into Jurassic Valley in South Side Park.

Thanks to the Student Conservation Association and AmeriCorps, I’ve lived, worked, and played in four different states. My most recent stint has landed me in the Steel City. After spending months in New York and Florida, Pittsburgh has the comforting feeling that I remember from Midwestern cities closer to home. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has welcomed me with open arms, and I’m already knee deep in a series of projects to be completed by Fall.

Japanese barberry (invasive)

Invasive Japanese barberry.

My primary project involves invasive species and their phenology. Phenology is the study of the significant stages in life cycles of plants and animals, e.g. the times of the year when garlic mustard leafs, flowers, seeds, and dies.  My goal with the Parks Conservancy is to research when and where invasive plants grow in the parks to aid in strategic restoration of those areas.

Already I’ve spent a significant amount of time hiking and crawling around Pittsburgh’s parks documenting the activity of plants. It wasn’t surprising to find that weeks of hot weather and reliable spring rainfall triggered quick, early growth for many plant species, including invasive plants. Garlic mustard was ready to begin seeding in early May. Poison hemlock started flowering a few weeks later. Usually, those plants’ life stages occur one month later than we’re seeing, but seasonal and inter-annual climate patterns have drastic effects on plant phenology. Cool and extremely wet springs can cause delayed growth. Warm temperatures and moderate precipitation — which Pittsburgh experienced this year — caused early growth.

The effects of climate change can already be seen and will continue to influence the timing of plant and animal life cycles.

Jetbead (invasive)

Invasive Jetbead.

The general pattern of plant phenology will keep leaning towards earlier growth as global average temperatures rise. My research will be used by the Park Management and Maintenance team at the Parks Conservancy as they work to control invasive plants. Invasives have the potential to drastically change the parks as they out-compete local plants. I’ll be making an interactive map showcasing when, where, and which species need to be managed, giving staff the tools to better fight invasives.

Using similar strategies, I will be looking at species diversity in the parks and discovering methods to prioritize and improve restoration sites. I will be keeping an eye out for the Asian Longhorned Beetle and predicting the potential impact it could have on our park trees. I will also be the volunteer crew leader for invasive sweeps at Highland Park on the second Thursday of each month (you can register for these here).

The next time you’re out in the parks, be sure to keep an eye out. There’s a tall, blond Wisconsinite roaming a park near you!

Ryan Klausch is from Wisconsin, but his name is not Yon Yonson. He’s serving as an SCA Green Cities Sustainability Corps Fellow through the rest of this year.

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Only you can prevent forest fires! (Unless Ryan is starting them as part of a controlled burn team with SCA in Florida.)

Learn how to remove invasive plants like the ones Ryan is studying at the upcoming Urban EcoSteward training on June 9th. It’s free and open to the public. Register here!