Barberry a brilliant sight to see


Barberry, that common thorny shrub that forms impenetrable thickets, is a gift to us from the Japanese…and the Europeans, along with our homegrown variety.

Japanese barberry, pictured here, has an interesting history. It was originally promoted as an alternative to common barberry. Common barberry, a native plant, was used by settlers as hedgerows and to make dye and jam, but carried black stem grain rust, which caused millions of dollars in damage to cereal crops early in the 20th century.

That problem was solved but Japanese barberry is such an aggressive invader that is forms dense stands that shade out native vegetation. And it spreads rapidly since birds, especially turkey and grouse, eat the fruit, spreading the seeds.  It raises soil pH and reduces the amount of leaf litter on the ground.  It is particularly dangerous to open and second-growth forests.   White-tail deer avoid browsing the shrub, giving the plant an advantage over native species.

But it has its good points.  Along with the fact that you’ll see it fronting the sidewalks of many houses in the area, it has a long and storied medical history.

Barberries have been used as a medicine since before the birth of Christ. It was used in ancient Egypt. Pharaohs and their queens are said to have taken it along with Fennel seeds to ward off plague. It is still used in the country as a cure for fevers arising from pestilence.

Barberry contains several active substances like Isoquinoline which are quite effective in fighting off bacterial attacks nd infection. It is also used to cure problems ranging from diarrhea to skin infections, inflammatory diseases, liver ailments and even cardiovasculara problems by widening the blood vessels of the body and reducing high blood pressure.

It is easy to grow, in fact, far too easy.

This shrub was photographed at Frances Walter State Dam.barberry

Mountain Winterberry a bright red winter delight


The sparkling red berries of mountain winterberry, a fairly common deciduous holly, shine like a thousand tiny bright cherries, cherring up the most omber winter landscape.  Its bright, showy berries make it a popular component of winter displays. It has a host of other names, including — mysteriously, since they share no attributes– black and brook alder, inkberry, Michigan holly, Possumhaw and Swamp Holly.

And while I have to pity whomever was stuck with this task, according to the Encyclopedia of life, “The berry-like fruit is about 1/4 inch in diameter, each containin small nutlets. There are an average of 92,000 seeds per pound.”

The attractive red berries are eaten by mammals and 48 species of birds.  The leaves and stems are browsed by moose, rabbits, white tailed deer and snowshoe hares.

Native Americans drank a bark tea as an “emetic for craziness,” a tonic, and a remedy for diarrhea, according to Mother Earth Living.  They used a root preparation to ease hay fever symptoms, the origin of yet another name, Fever Bush.

The leaves, when dried and crumbled, may be used to make a beverage tea, with no caffeine.

It is a tough plant which is easy to grow, with very few diseases or pests. Although wet acidic soils are optimal, the winterberry will grow well in the average garden.

This Mountain Winterberry was photographed in the Seven Tubs Natural Area.winterberry use (800x533)

Winter beauty of coralberry

“Always maintain a kind of summer even in the middle of winter,” Henry David Thoreau said, and there are some local plants that are happy to oblige, by brightening  the monochromatic landscape of winter with their brilliant color and zfinery. Here’s a look at a few.

CORAL BERRY:  Also known as Indian Currant, this beauty turns brilliant red when other plants are losing their leaves, and it brightens the understory with its cluster of pinkish purple fruit all winter long. Cut branches make wonderful displays in the house during winter.

The berries are eaten primarily by overwintering robins and it is a favorite food plant of white-tailed deer.

And as every wild plant I’ve ever run across, it has medicianal uses. A decoction (boiling in water  to extract the flavor or active component) of the inner bark or leaves has been used as a wash in the treatment of weak, inflamed or sore eyes. A cold decoction of the root bark has been used as an eye wash to treat sore eyes.

Coral berry can be grown as a hedge or informal screen. It is very tolerant of trimming. Plants have an extensive root system and, since they also sucker freely, they can be used for soil stabilization.

This coral berry was found at the Bear Creek Recreation Area.coralberry

Christmas fern a bright treat


Polystichum acrostichoides is called “Christmas fern” because some parts of the plant remain green throughout the year and are thus used in decorations at Christmas time.

One of the most common ferns in the eastern United States, Christmas fern is useful the year round. Because it forms a dense covering over the soil surface, even a small cluster of two or three can help stabilize the soil and provide excellent erosion control.

And if you want the Christmas spirit close to you, it is easy to grow and can be used in almost any setting or soil. It’s an excellent choice for shaded gardens as it happily thrives under trees and rocky areas.

it is also resistant to pests and diseases. Even deer tend to stay away from it when grazingchristmas cv

Lively “Shades of Death” trail

number two



By Bob Quarteroni

When you hear the phrase “Shades of Death,” happy thoughts are not likely to be the first to pop into your mind.

Which is a shame because here we have an example of a spooky name that masks a wonderful natural experience.

We are speaking of the Shades of Death Trail at Hickory Run State Park, a short but complicated little trek that is a wonder, one the park map itself describes as …” probably the most picturesque trail in the park.”

Believe me, it is.

Hickory Run State Park is approximately 100 miles west of New York City, easily reached by taking I-80 west and taking exit 274 and following Pa 534 about six miles to the park. The trail can be reached starting at the Park Office parking lot.

But to answer the inevitable question first: How did the trail get its name?

You can get as many answers as sources you consult but the Department of Conservation & Natural Resources provides a good answer in its park map: Its “gruesome name (is) attributed to the thick forests and rough terrain experienced by the early settlers.”

In a smaller map, DCNR says “Before the Civil War, the (entire) area was known as the ‘Shades of Death’ because the entire region was covered with a dense growth of virgin white pine, hemlock, and secondary species of oak and maple.”

Despite its name, it’s a delight, and although it’s a short 1.1 miles it provides an intense hiking experience because it is definitely not a hike for flip flops or not paying attention, which is why the park lists it as a “most difficult” trail.

That’s because the rocky trail that follows Sand Springs Run goes through a roller coaster of jumbled, jagged rocks, exposed roots, muddy spots and fairly steep up-and-down sections.

So care must be exercised. It’s not that it’s especially difficult, but it does demand that you pay attention to where you are and where you are stepping. And it absolutely requires good hiking footwear.

That being said, you’ll be charmed by the wealth of natural beauty as you wander through rhododendron thickets and unique rock formations, one of which – a steep set of stairs cut right in the rock – look as if they could have been carved by aliens.

There are the remains of old logging mills and dams dating back to the 1800s. The dams, as beautiful as any picture postcard you’ve ever seen, are the stars of the trail.

All three are highly explorable and trout fishermen flock there. On the day I walked the trail, a trio of anglers was steadily hauling in trout.

The hike itself could have been an inspiration for Robert Frost’s “For the woods are lovely, dark and deep.” It’s a dappled delight, all scudding shadows amid flashes of sunlight, playing over a lovely green canvas.

Flowers and plants abound, from an enchanting stand of maidenhair fern to a colorful fungus identified as hemlock varnish shelf by Dave Wasilewski, president of the Wyoming Valley Mushroom Club, who noted that they “have a long history of being used as a health-promoting tonic.”

And birds abound, making it an “excellent place to spot Blackburnian and black-throated green warblers in the spring and summer,” according to the Hickory Run map.

But what I enjoy most about this hike is lying back on many of the large smooth boulders that line Sand Springs, listening to the gentle burble of the stream and watching the clouds through the leafy trees.

The trail is out-and-back so if you don’t want to double back you can leave one vehicle at the trailhead at the Hickory Run Park Office on Rt. 534, just past Hickory Run, and another at the Amphitheater, almost exactly a mile from the park office on 534, and the other hike trailhead.

I prefer to walk it from the Amphitheater because I often get so caught up in looking at things and taking side trips that I don’t finish the entire trail and the best scenery is at this end of the trail.

While you’re at Hickory Run you might want to see the park’s premiere attraction, Boulder Field. This rocky landscape is a National Natural Landmark. It’s striking because it’s a massive plain of boulders, without vegetation, over an area 400 by 1,800 foot. Some of the Boulders are 26 feet long. It has remained virtually unchanged for more than 20,000 years.

Additional information on Hickory Run is available by calling 570-443-0400 or visiting















Bright magic of wintercreeper


Winter isn’t all black and white and slushy gray. Not three blocks from my Swoyersville home this Euonymus Wintercreeper is eye catching with its shiny green foliage and colorful fruit.

Wintercreeper is native to China and was introduced to North America as an ornamental ground cover in 1907. It has escaped cultivation and, as pretty as it is, it’s considered invasive, since as a climbing woody vine it forms a very dense cover, blocking out native vegetation. It can grow to astounding 70 feet, climbing by means of small rootlets on the stems, like ivy.

Wintercreeper colonizes by vine growth and its pink-capsulated seeds spread by birds, small mammals, and water. If allowed to grow out of hand, the vine will spread over anything in its way, even overtopping trees

My little chickadee indeed

Feeding chickadees by hand at Frances Slocum State Park today. I love these little guys, less than an ounce but with the heart of lions.

A long time ago, when I lived in a one-room cabin at Whipple’s Dam State Park near State College, I had a little tray feeder outside the window. I used to put mixed seedi in it.

The chickadees, being chickadees, would actually start pecking at the window when all the sunflower seeds were gone and only the other seeds remained. Always made me laugh — and always made me refill the feeders.  chickadee