Let’s Talk About Parks

Let’s Talk About Parks

When my brothers and I were kids, the first person to reach the morning news would claw their way to the cartoons section, grab a bowl of cereal, and post up on the corner of the couch. Tough luck to the next one of us that tried to pry them away from their comics; might as well grab another bowl of sugary cereal and wait for your turn in line. (Which could take quite a while; there are seven of us.)

Starting last month, there’s another section of the newspaper that kids can squabble over (or share, if they’re a little more civil than my family). Every other Tuesday, we have a special section for our younger park pals: Let’s Talk About Parks. In it are tips to identify park life, explore trails, play and learn in the natural world. (Don’t tell the young ones, but adults can also read this section, too.) Here’s a bit of what we’ve shared so far:


Taiji with bullfrog

Taiji Nelson, Naturalist Educator/professional frog catcher.


The wetlands and ponds in the parks (we recommend the seasonal pools in Highland Park) create excellent habitat for frogs. Here are some commons ones that you can see and hear:

  • Spring peepers. You can hear for their raucous nocturnal singing after spring and summer storms.
  • American bullfrogs. Spot these big hoppers during the day, Chances are, they’ll see you before you see them and dive into any nearby water.
  • American toads. Found in damp, cool areas of the woodland floor where their coloring — brown to gray accented by spots and warts — provides excellent camouflage. Find these amphibians deeper in the parks.

Salmanders are always looking for the best rock or downed tree to hide under. Students in our Young Naturalists program this year studied salamander habitat by laying out wooden boards in the woods, turning them over once a week to see what had started living there.


Do not touch the salamanders! Sincerely, the Young Naturalists.

When looking for salamanders, carefully turn rocks and logs over, being sure to put them gently back in place when you’re done. If you find a salamander, don’t touch it! Salamander skin is sensitive, even a small amount of handling can harm or kill them. Northern dusky and red back salamanders are especially common species in our area.

With winter approaching, amphibians will soon go into hibernation. Green frogs will stay at the bottom of ponds or streams, while wood frogs, distinguishable by a black mask around their eyes, hide in the leaf-litter before entering a semi-frozen state until spring. If you find one of these “frogsicles” in the winter, they will appear to be dead. But don’t be fooled; their bodies manufacture an anti-freeze to protect their internal organs until warm weather returns.


Young Naturalists flipping over boards in Frick Park to observe what creatures live there. Boards were purposely set up over five weeks to survey forest floor habitat.

Fall flowers


Goldenrod in Highland Park. Photo by Melissa McMasters.

While we’ve had to bid a fond farewell to summer wildflowers, fall has its own impressive display of flowery color and texture. Here are some that you can spot on just a short walk through Schenley Park:

  • Goldenrod. Growing extra tall in the meadow at the Bartlett Street Playground, this hardy yellow flower is often confused with ragweed, a common cause of pollen allergies.
  • White wood asters and purple New England asters. Sprinkled among the meadow grasses, these plants produce clouds of delicately fringed flowers atop thin dark stems. Asters provide nectar for butterflies and other pollinators, as well as seeds for songbirds after their bloom is completed.
Purple aster plus pollinator. Photo by Melissa McMasters

Purple aster plus pollinator. Photo by Melissa McMasters

  • Obedient plant. This spikey plant is distinguished by clusters of pink tube-shaped flowers and named because its individual flowers can be bent in any direction and will stay in that position “obediently.”
  • Snakeroot. Found in the shade of the woodland on the Panther Hollow Trail, Snakeroot’s dark green leaves are contrasted by puffy white flowers that are fuzzy to the touch.
  • Pokeweed. This plant can reach heights of 10 feet and is adorned with clusters of reddish-purple berries.
  • White Baneberry or Doll’s Eyes. Identify this plant by its white berries with a black center.
porcelain berry

Pokeweed in Schenley Park

Learn more about exploring and discovering your parks through the bi-weekly “Let’s Talk About Parks” segment in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The next feature, set to print September 23rd, features biking in Frick Park!

Lauryn Stalter for the Pittsburgh Park Conservancy

Walking on the Wild Side: Wildflowers in the Parks

“Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”
Lady Bird Johnson

Have you noticed the parks’ coltsfoot, twinleaf, and Dutchman’s breeches looking especially radiant this week? Don’t think that it’s just the rain that we’ve been enjoying lately. They’re looking extra fine because it’s National Wildflower Week!


Violets doing what they do best.

Our region’s natural landscape is quite unique, you know. Down to the smallest Heartleaf foamflowers, we’re able to enjoy everything that grows here thanks to our region’s particular climate (hypothermic winter temperatures included).

Right this very moment, spring ephemerals (plants that bloom only for a short time, usually when they have the advantage of full light before tree leaves start to open) are in their full glory. And out to appreciate this tiny rainbow of colors this week were community members at the annual Urban EcoSteward Wildflower Walk in Frick Park.

Couldn’t make it? Read on for the highlights and join us for another wildflower show this month!

Wild walks

What do you notice as you walk through the parks? The trees? The pathway? The thousands of little blooms now peppered between the trees?

Just a stone’s throw from the water fountain on the trails by the old Frick Environmental Center, we were amazed to find a dozen or more different flower varieties — some of them completely hidden by overhanging leaves — right in front of us. The 40 or so adults and children split up into three groups with Parks Conservancy naturalist educators and Urban EcoSteward walk leaders. Together, they all played a huge game of “Where’s Waldo?”, spotting the colorful wildflowers along and between the path.


Christmas ferns starting to unfurl.


Bluebells just starting to flare out, a bit past their prime.


Kids and adults walking the trails to find wildflowers.


Two kids with Naturalist Educator Mike spot some squaw root aka bear corn.


Squawroot, otherwise known as bear corn.

Digging in

After becoming experts on bellwort, woodland phlox, and trillium, everyone grabbed some gloves and shovels and went to work. In anticipation of the brand new Frick Environmental Center, wildflowers and trees in the vicinity of the new building have been flagged. These flags aren’t marking what will be removed — they’re marking what will be preserved.

Everyone — kids and adults alike — helped to move marked wildflowers from the building areas to a safe spot further up the trail. Families and neighbors worked together to carry burlap bags with the flowers on top to safe ground before being watered.


Bellwort, bluebells, and an orange preservation marker.


Working together to replant some bluebells.


Moving some wildflowers to their new home.


Nobody works alone!


Watering the newly planted wildflowers.


Happily replanted Heartland foamflowers.

New to wildflower spotting? You can pick up a very helpful Newcomb or Audubon guide from your local library! These handy books are broken up into flower shapes, sizes, and colors, making identification easy.

While a good number of plants were relocated at the Wildflower Walk, we need help moving the rest of the bunch before Frick Environmental Center construction gets underway. Register here to volunteer to replant wildflowers this month with us!

Programming like the annual Wildflower Walk is free and open to the public. And did we mention… fun!? Don’t miss our next outing, the Urban EcoSteward Summer Gathering. Click here to sign up.


Lauryn Stalter for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

A walk on the wild side

During last week’s wildflower walk and campfire at the Frick Environmental Center, we learned to identify the many spring flowers in the park by both sight and smell.  And amid the bluebells and may apples, we even managed to vanquish a little garlic mustard that tries to crowd out the natives.

Check out a slideshow below courtesy of John Altdorfer.

The wildflower walk was just the latest in our series of Urban EcoSteward trainings, which are open to everyone.  You can sign up for the next Urban EcoSteward event–next Thursday’s Early Season Invasive Plants training at Frick Park–by clicking this link.  We’ll learn more about the non-native side of what’s flowering this spring, and how to limit the spread of these invasive plants.

[Presentation]: Emerald Ash Borer / Native Wildflowers

David SchmitPennsylvania’s resident emerald ash borer expert, David Schmit, is a Forest Health Specialist with the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.  He can spot an EAB-infested ash tree from a mile away thanks to his familiarity with how their bark looks after woodpeckers have discovered the larvae.  In today’s presentation from “Preserving Pittsburgh’s Trees: Action and Recovery,” he shows you all the life stages of emerald ash borer and explains why it’s a much bigger threat than, say, the forest tent caterpillars that periodically defoliate our trees.

He also picks up on a theme from Dr. Carson’s presentation yesterday about deer, and that’s the idea that “deer are the deciders” when it comes to what wildflowers you’re going to see in the parks.  He paints a picture of what the forest would look like if we could isolate an area from deer and begin reintroducing the plants that grew there before their populations were decimated by the overabundance of deer. 

Given our distaste here at the Parks Conservancy for garlic mustard, it’s interesting to think of this plant in terms of deer.  Basically, if the deer liked to eat it, it wouldn’t be invasive–in fact, you’d hardly ever see it.  The main key to being invasive is having no natural predators in a particular location.  It makes sense that native deer love to eat native plants–it’s just unfortunate that the deer population has climbed so high that they’re the ONLY ones who get to enjoy those plants.

Without further ado, check out some of these lovely and little-seen wildflowers (as well as the lifespan of the emerald ash borer) below, or download the slides here.

Nine Mile Run, close-up

Last Friday I had the privilege of accompanying naturalists Chris Tracey and Pete Woods on one of their periodic surveys of the Nine Mile Run wetland restoration area.  Every now and then, they head down to the stream and record whatever species they find there–from grasses to wildflowers to the tiniest insects.  It’s a great way to keep up with the increasing biodiversity that’s present since the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association’s restoration of the site was completed several years back.  It’s also an important way to monitor whether invasive species are beginning to take over any parts of the landscape.

I’m not great with scientific names or identification, but I do love taking photos that make nature’s tiniest residents seem larger than life.  With the exception of the first photo, all these were taken with a macro lens.  Thanks to Chris and Pete for the species IDs!

A wide view of the stream, with lots of purple chicory in bloom.


An up-close look at the chicory and its blue stamens.  What a gorgeous flower.


We guessed that this one was a member of the extended tomato family, eventually settling on horsenettle.


A lovely slender spreadwing damselfly with perfectly translucent wings.


On the left is a dense blazing star, which Chris speculated might have been introduced by someone.  It was the only one we saw in the whole area, so it hadn’t been part of the planting mix.  On the right is common teasel, which blooms in a unique way: flowers initially form in a ring around the head.  The ring grows for a few days, but the flowers don’t last long so the ring may die, giving way to a second ring, which seems to be what happened here.

Blazing star and teasel

A red marsh hawk dragonfly:

Red dragonfly

A large milkweed bug on swamp milkweed:

Milkweed bug

Now a bee on swamp milkweed (how do they ever choose what to forage?):

Bee on milkweed

A close-up look at Queen Anne’s Lace:

Queen Anne's Lace

A purple damselfly (called a variable dancer–Argia fumipennis) and his mate.  I love how in nature the males are the ones who have to be all attractive to impress the females; I sometimes think our culture could learn a little from that!

Purple damselflies

And the shot of the day: the purple damselfly was an incredibly cooperative photo subject.  I wish the ebony jewelwings I’m forever chasing around would show the same willingness to be still!

Closeup damselfly