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)


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)


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.

Paints and Plants: What Ten High School Students See for Pittsburgh’s Future

The following post is from an area high school student, Lucy Newman, who worked with The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy to lead a group of high school students in learning about the local environment.

Sketching out mural ideas

Last summer, I led a group of ten Pittsburgh high schoolers to paint a mural to answer an important question: What would Pittsburgh’s landscapes and communities look like if they were part of a healthy ecosystem?

The idea to paint a mural came to me while I was working at Sylvania Natives, a nursery that sells plants native to Pittsburgh. Kathy McGregor, the owner of the nursery, told me that I could create an internship project for myself. 

I like art, so I challenged myself to think of an artistic project about native plants. As I was walking home, I passed the five blank garage doors that are part of the nursery’s property. The idea struck me — I could paint them!

Two problems came to mind: it takes a long time to paint that much area (I’m a slow worker), and the cost of paint was too much for our small budget. I came up with the perfect solution to make this happen.

Why not turn this into a community effort and apply for a grant?

With lots of help from Kathy and Ms. Hetrick, my art teacher, the project evolved into a workshop. During the workshop, high school students learned about ecology and infrastructure and worked on designing the mural.

Sketching out mural ideas

“What would Pittsburgh’s landscapes and communities look like if they were part of a healthy, functioning ecosystem?” 

The question led the project. We talked to various environmental organizations, including The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Tree Pittsburgh, the Clean River Campaign, Sierra Club Allegheny Group, and Sylvania Natives about our project. They gave us their take on the most important components of a healthy ecosystem. We discussed biodiversity, green infrastructure, and energy sources, among other topics. We assessed issues from multiple perspectives — the community, politics, and economic issues as well as the environment.

Pairing off to paint the mural

Next, we used these ideas to create sketches. We split off into pairs, with each pair tackling one of the five garage doors. Working together on this was really fun, and each group had a good deal of artistic talent. Talented local artists, like Silvija Singh, Karen Coyne, and Maria Harrington, also lent a hand. They helped us think about color, lines, unity and continuity. I was amazed that by the end of the second day each group had come up with great designs. Everyone had a unique take on the question, and was able portray their ideas in a way that looked awesome.

The last three days of the week, we painted. Supplies were donated through The Sprout Fund’s Hive Fund for Connected Learning. After outlining, we began filling in details, adding swirls of white in the blue water of a river, drawing veins onto leaves.

A week later, the mural was finished and we had all become great friends. And before we knew it, we were done! We had analyzed the question considering environmental, social, political, and economic aspects, and we had created a finished mural that depicted our answers. We had just designed a healthier, more sustainable future. And it was so fun, too!

Rock on, eco artists!

Top 15 Trees in the Parks – Part 5

It’s time for the last installment of our Top 15 Trees in the Parks series.  The final four trees include some natives you may not be familiar with, as well as the brightest star in the winter landscape.

12. Eastern hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana)

Hophornbeam fruit
Photo by Steven Katovich

This is a small tree in the birch family with an extremely durable wood (which explains another of its common names, “ironwood”).  It grows well in many types of soils and can tolerate living under the shade of taller trees.  When it matures, its bark appears shredded because it forms narrow strips that are loose at the edges.  Leaves are simple, shaped similarly to elms, and doubly toothed at the edges.  The fruit, which resembles hops, is a cluster of papery oval sacs each containing a tiny nut. 

Like the northern pin oak, this tree has both male and female flowers.  Its male flowers are brown “pre-formed” catkins, in clusters of three like birds’ toes, that are visible throughout the winter and open in spring.  Female catkins are light green and only appear in the spring.  This is a good way to distinguish this species from the American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), whose catkins all appear in the spring. 

Phil Says: These trees are often confused with elms because they look very similar with bark characteristics, form, and the nature of the twigs.  But upon close inspection, you’ll see subtle differences in leaf shape and seed set.  Hophornbeam is a great native that is definitely underutilized in both landscape and urban woodlands.  It performs very well as a street tree if planted.

13. Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)

Hackberry bark
Photo by Paul Wray

The hackberry tree is a member of the elm family.  It has a distinctive bark—it’s mostly smooth, light brown or gray, but wart-like knobs disrupt the surface.  It’s well-suited to the urban environment, tolerant of air pollution and many different temperatures and soil types.  It can also be planted near waterways to help reduce the risk of flooding. 

The hackberry is a fantastic tree for wildlife, hosting bees, birds, and butterflies.  The birds love its sweet fruit, and butterflies (like the hackberry emperor) drink its sap.  Humans can eat the berries too, and although they’re fairly thin and dry, they have a taste similar to dates.  Another good quality for wildlife is that the hackberry has fairly weak wood, so late in its lifespan it begins to split and form cavities that provide shelter. 

Phil Says: Another great native.  Definitely underutilized in our landscape and streetscape.  They are beneficial in both those settings, and it’s a great woodland tree as well.  It has an interesting bark that grows in bumpy ridges.  I liken it to the Velcro tree—if you were to run and jump and grab onto it, it would be difficult to slide down the tree because the ridges are so rough they’d hold you there. 

14. Yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava)

Yellow buckeye
Photo by William Ciesla

The yellow buckeye is a close relative of the Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra), but can be distinguished by its flowers.  In the yellow buckeye, the stamens are shorter than the petals, and in Ohio buckeye they are longer.  Both trees have an unpleasant odor, but the Ohio buckeye’s is much stronger, which has led to the yellow buckeye sometimes being termed “sweet buckeye.”  The yellow buckeye is also a larger tree. 

Its leaf is distinctive, usually having five leaflets.  It’s similar to the horse chestnut, which is in the same family of trees.   (The leaf buds of the horse chestnut are very sticky, which is a helpful way to distinguish them.)  The yellow buckeye’s flowers are yellow and form upright clusters.  The fruit, a smooth nut enclosed in a thick husk, is poisonous to humans but beloved by squirrels. 

Phil Says: There are native and non-native buckeyes here; there are probably a half-dozen non-natives that have been hybridized in horticulture and brought to this area.  They do grow in the parks as well.  I don’t plant them in the landscape because there’s a pretty common leaf blight that affects them, so often they get pretty brown by July.  But they’re part of the ecosystem, so they’re appropriate for growing in the woods. 

15. Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Witch hazelUnlike most other trees, the witch hazel is easiest to identify in the winter months.  It begins showing its small, thread-like yellow flowers in late fall and retains them throughout the winter.  In very cold weather the petals might curl up close, but they usually last until spring, when everything else begins to bloom.  Then the small buttons that contain the seed pods burst and shoot out the seeds that have been ripening over the past year.  

The witch hazel is a small, shrubby tree, well-suited to the understory.  Its scientific name Hamamelis means “together with fruit,” which refers to the fact that its fruit, flowers, and leaf buds all appear at the same time (making it unique among trees native to North America).  

Phil Says: That is a great native plant that blooms during the winter when nothing else blooms.  It does best in wet, riparian areas, but it is adaptable.  It’s a smaller tree, usually multi-stemmed.

We hope you enjoyed this peek into the composition of our forests.  Any other trees you’d like to see spotlighted here on the blog?

Spring’s green treasures

As the Parks Conservancy’s grant writer, I don’t get out into the parks as much as I like.  But on a recent evening I joined Erin Copeland and two other Urban EcoStewards, Sarah and Mike, under the tent at Schenley Plaza.  The three of us have volunteered to be crew leaders for the upcoming Panther Hollow Volunteer Extravaganza on April 24th.  After Erin reviewed the schedule for the day, we headed off to look at our sites.  It was spring chilly, but after a rainy morning, we enjoyed the sunshine.

May apples

May apples in the Panther Hollow woodlands

We stopped outside the Schenley Park Café and Visitor Center and Erin explained how our tools for the day will be laid out.  Then we headed down the steps behind the Center to the area where Sarah’s team will be working. The tightly packed flowers on the branches of young redbud trees formed deep pink streaks through the green.  At the turn of the stairs, we spied the two umbrella-like green leaves of may-apples close to the ground.  They had not been there last year. Erin gently lifted the leaves of one plant, but it was not blooming yet.

A “Trail Closed” sign alerted us to construction work, and I was happy to get to see some of the work in progress made possible with our federal funds from the U.S. Department of Transportation.  (Your highway dollars at work in a good place.) At Sarah’s site, Erin gasped and pointed to the newly rebuilt wall above us.  A massive stone wall once again buttresses the hillside, and the workmanship is beautiful.

Tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse

After pointing out the work that Sarah’s volunteer crew will do, we headed down the next set of steps to the Phipps Run Trail.  As we walked along the path, I spotted a tufted titmouse – a distinctive pale grey songbird with a blush of apricot under its wings.  Another delight!  Crossing the stone bridges by Panther Hollow Lake, we headed up Lower Panther Hollow trail where my team of volunteers will be working.  Our assigned task is to pull garlic mustard, one of the most common invasive plants (boo, hiss!) in the City’s parks.  (Click here to get a .pdf copy of Invasive Plants of Pittsburgh.)

Foam flower

Foam flower

But as we walked up the trail, we were hard pressed to find much of the invasive nemesis.  It seems that garlic mustard “sweeps” over the past 6 years have indeed won back areas of the woods for native plants.  (Phil later reminded me that we need to be ever vigilant.)  We saw more may-apples, pockets of foam flowers, and even a swath of white trillium dotting a hillside.  I imagined all these native wildflowers waiting in the soil for years, waiting for someone to tear out the non-native plants that were smothering them, waiting to emerge with their distinctive flowers and leaves.  What treasures!

As excited as I was to see these wildflowers, I was beginning to wonder what the volunteers would do.  With the four of us searching, we did occasionally spot isolated garlic mustard plants, but one or two people could easily handle them, and my co-crew leader and I were targeted to have 30.  What we did see was loads of goutweed.  It appeared as large swaths of verdant green along the slopes, but almost nothing else grew in its path.  I thought that this was a fitting challenge for a large group of volunteers, but Erin said that goutweed was too tough for us to tackle.  Unlike garlic mustard, which spreads by its seeds, goutweed spreads by its rhisomes, creating a thick tangled mass that is hard to penetrate.  For now, given the resources we have, the Conservancy’s approach is just to contain the further spread of this predator.

Garlic mustard

An ant traverses a garlic mustard plant.

But success at last.  Further up the trail where Lower Panther Hollow Trail connects with the Steve Faloon Trail, we found large stands of garlic mustard.  Satisfied that this would be a place the volunteers could make a real difference and feel a sense of accomplishment, we then scrambled up an inner trail to connect with the Upper Panther Hollow Trail and walked to Anderson Playground where Mike’s team will begin their work.  Along the way, Erin pointed out the leaves of dutchman’s-breeches and toothwort.

I’m excited about the upcoming Volunteer Day and the chance to be in the woods, get dirty, and share some time outdoors with other folks.  The morning after this walk, Phil explained to me that sometimes invasive species overrun an area to the extent that native plants can’t rebound, and we need to help out mother nature by planting new ones.  But he also said that in many cases, native wildflowers will return on their own.  I like to think that on the 24th we’ll maybe help some more sleeping beauties awake to grace the woods next spring.

If you’d like to sign up for the Panther Hollow Extravaganza: An Earth Day Volunteer Event at Schenley Park, click here.

A natural resolution

Now that 2010 is here, it’s time to make a New Year’s resolution you might actually keep! Stay away from the overcrowded gyms and resolve to spend more time in the parks–particularly in learning about how their ecosystems work. From the smallest ant to the tallest sycamore tree, there is so much to see in the parks and so much to learn about how it all works together.

Tree ID

At the 2009 Tree ID training, Phil showed us some amazing umbrella magnolias growing in Riverview Park.

We’ll help you jump-start your year of park education with this just-announced calendar of Urban EcoSteward trainings for 2010.  You can learn everything from how to be a great volunteer to crew leader to the best way to stop invasive plants from spreading their seeds, and along the way there will even be s’mores!  It’s hard to ask for much more than that.

All of these trainings are absolutely free and open to anyone who’s interested, whether you’re an active Urban EcoSteward or not.  All you have to do is RSVP, which you can do anytime by using the form beneath the list of trainings.

And here’s a little bonus for you: every year at the Native Seed Collection training, Kathy McGregor of Sylvania Natives hands out a list of some of her favorite books on the subject.  If you’re interested in learning more about why native plants are so important to preserving the biodiversity and ecological harmony of our parks (or any landscapes), this is a great place to start.

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Douglas Tallamy

Wildflowers: A Guide to Growing and Propagating Native Flowers of North America, William Cullina

Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines: A Guide to Using, Growing, and Propagating North American Woody Plants, William Cullina

Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers, Harry Phillips

Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards, Sara Stein

Planting Noah’s Garden: Further Adventures in Backyard Ecology, Sarah Stein

American Plants for American Gardens, Edith Roberts & Elsa Rehmann

Gardening with Native Wild Flowers, Samuel B. Jones Jr. & Leonard E. Foote

The Natural Habitat Garden, Ken Druse