A blog focused on nature, science, environmental topics, and happenings at the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC).

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

Nobody names a child Mugwort. “Where the Mugwort Grows” is no state’s official song because it is a terribly invasive and homely weed that grows everywhere. Nobody wonders that it might be a flower. 

It is historically one of the most widely used medicinal plants all over the world. One can purchase many preparations of mugwort from capsules to essential oil to dried leaves, both online and in drug stores. 

It is of the genus Artemisia vulgaris, which contains hundreds of species, from the intoxicating and toxic wormwood from which absinthe, the favored inspiration beverage of European artists of the Victorian age is made, to the homely sagebrush. One might name a child Artemisia, after the Greek godess of the moon, the hunt, and women’s health. Artemesia II was a Greek queen of the fourth century B.C., a botanist and medical researcher. “Mug” derives from its use in flavoring beverages, which are held in mugs. “Wort” is an old word for plant. 

Mugwort is sometimes offered as a cure for hangovers, nightmares and as a bringer of sweet dreams. It repels insects, aids stomach distress, anxiety, high blood pressure and is second only to Vicks VapoRub as a versatile comforter. All agree that it is bitter and toxic in large or prolonged doses. 

Mugwort continues to be a valued component of herbal healers and various shamans. Because of its use in women’s health, it has often been the special province of women practitioners. These practitioners were sometimes called witches and were treated by authorities in the familiar fashion. 

Unlike digitalis, aspirin, quinine and countless other helpful medicines found in plants, mugwort still stands outside the door of scientific acceptance, despite many controlled experiments. It is hard to find a control group or placebo to test if a substance cures nightmares and brings sweet dreams. 

Those who swear by mugwort may some day get a scientific validation. I can’t use the cliché “time will tell” however, because time, in the form of centuries of folk medicine across many cultures, has long ago made up its mind. 

** Please do not pick & eat any forest plant without the advice of an expert.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident

 Near our back door among a variety of unwelcome and uncultivated weeds I saw these beautiful buds on long, thin stems. “Is that a flower or a weed? It sure looks like a flower to me.” 

“It’s columbine,” my wife said. 

I recoiled from the buds I had admired a moment before. “Columbine” still carries a terrible association with the Colorado high school of that name, which suffered a mass shooting in 1999. 

The school shares the name of the Colorado state flower, but remains such a morbid tourist attraction the superintendent has considered closing it and razing the building. 

 Columbine derives from the Latin word for dove. The five buds, like those in the photo, are said to resemble five doves. The flower is also called Granny’s Bonnet, while the name of the species is based on the Latin for eagle’s claw. Clearly the flower allows for widely divergent interpretations of its shape. 

The appearance of these plants on the other side of the house from where the seeds were originally placed shows that columbine is self-seeding or self-sowing. 

Because of its beauty and because it travels but doesn’t endlessly multiply and drive out other plants, it is a flower, not a weed and is not invasive. 

It can be found in many colors, is deer-resistant and a popular pollinator for bees and butterflies. One might add a flower or two to a salad for color and sweetness, but don’t add any seeds or roots. These are very toxic and also carcinogenic. 

“Where the Columbine Grows” was written by Arthur Flynn and adopted as the Colorado official state song in 1915. It is difficult to believe it was written over a century ago. Here is its third verse: 

“The bison is gone from the upland,
The deer from the canyon has fled,
The home of the wolf is deserted,
The antelope moans for his dead,
The war whoop re-echoes no longer,
The Indian's only a name,
And the nymphs of the grove in their loneliness rove,
But the columbine blooms just the same.”

** Please do not pick & eat any forest plant without the advice of an expert.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

This moth spent an afternoon near our door. She seemed completely unshaken as I moved closer to take her photo. By the evening she was gone. 

I went online to identify her. I searched “large brown moth with lighter stripes.” There are a lot of brown moths. None like this one. I varied the search. No luck. I posted the photo on social media asking for help and an hour later I received a comment: female io moth. I searched “female io moth” and there she was! 

I did an earlier column about an io moth that I helped recover after he had smashed against our window. He was battled but unbowed and with my help, lived to fly another day. I even wrote that the female is much larger and brown or rust colored. When wings of either gender are unfurled, dark blue eyespots appear to scare predators. 

When I searched “io moth,” only photos of males appeared. One has specifically to search “female io moth,” to find the female. I searched “cardinal” and about three-quarters of the photos were of the male. Same with the Baltimore oriole.  A search of “human” and “homo sapiens” yielded a terrifying variety of pre-historic folks and future mutants, with few photos of how any of us look today. I guess if you are human enough to search, you don’t need a current photo. The female human was represented about as frequently as the female cardinal.

 The systematic difference in form between individuals of different sex in the same species is “sexual dimorphism.” Female insects are often much larger than the male, due to carrying large numbers of eggs. Female birds are often less colorful than the males to protect them from predators. The more colorful the males, the more attractive to both mates and predators. 

I think the female io moth and other species have been shortchanged by internet searches. The human is also considered to have a degree of sexual dimorphism, but less than many other species. Whether this persists and what it means is yet to be determined.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

When we created a garden on top of the shale near our house, we arranged several shelves of large, stacked rock to hold the soil. The shelves, with numerous cracks, crevices and seams, have become a series of homes for frogs, lizards, chipmunks, mice and snakes. 

The combination of mild winter and long, wet spring enhanced the living conditions for all. They are more numerous, and bigger.  For instance, we usually saw one or two garter snakes per year, about a foot long. Last week we saw this one.

He didn’t look that big when he stuck his head out, but he just kept coming. One, two, three, probably four feet, about as big as garter snakes get. The bulge in his middle indicted a recent meal. He was on his way to bask in the sun. 

I admit it. I’m afraid of snakes. Like many fears, mine is driven by ignorance. I know just enough about snakes to be afraid. Only because it was moving slowly away from me did I linger to snap the photo. 

The garter snake gets its name from the obsolete article of clothing which, when properly affixed to keep stockings in place, resembles the indentifying vertical stripes of these snakes. Calling them “garden snakes” is incorrect, even if gardens are currently more prevalent than garters. 

Garter snakes hibernate and thus appreciate our walls’ many crevices, also conveniently inhabited by a variety of their prey. Yet they do not live without peril. Raptors, foxes, coyotes and even large toads are a danger to them, though I doubt this specimen is threatened by toads. 

Garters make friends with others of their species, and when separated, return to their original cohort. Flicking their tongues to sense pheromones is the primary way they sense their environment. This is very important for males in detecting the scent of females. 

As we walk through our gardens, we tend the flowers and veggies, almost oblivious to the life teaming and competing in every crevice of our shale walls. That is, until a four foot snake appears to remind us.



A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

Last year we seeded wine cap mushroom spores into wood chips near our shed. We hoped they would yield something by now, but no luck. We have learned to be patient, as the shiitake spores we implanted into logs took years, but eventually gave us a bounty. 

During a spring weed pulling, I noticed a tight bouquet of mushrooms in the middle of our mulch pile. Interesting, I thought, but continued weeding. The next day there were dozens and the day after that the entire mulch pile was covered with hundreds of mushrooms! It was a good example of something that had spread exponentially. 

We thought the wine cap spores might have migrated from chips to mulch, though they were some distance from each other. Also, the mulch mushrooms were neither wine-colored nor were they caps. They were flat or nearly so, and tended toward various shades of beige. Kathleen contacted our mushroom guy, as guessing wrong about mushrooms can be deadly. 

He said, yes, they were wine caps. The test is not color nor shape, but a toothed ring around the stem that looks like a very small, spiked dog collar. Wine caps often grow in mulch. Their spores were not borrowed from our wood chips; they were already in the mulch when delivered. They begin the color of merlot, but fade to beige as they mature. Wine caps that grow in the sunlight are unlikely to ever attain the wine color of those found in shade. 

When I searched “wine cap” on line I found photographs of a wide variety of shapes and colors. It was hard to understand what, if anything, other than the dog collar, made them of the same family. They vary greatly in size. Some are called Godzilla mushrooms or Garden Giants. These can weigh over a pound, with a diameter of over a foot. 

The day after we discovered our mulched bounty, we found two wine-colored wine caps emerging from our wood chips, perhaps embarrassed to have been beaten to the punch by the lowly mulch pile. 

* Warning: Please do not pick & eat mushrooms, or any other forest plant, without the advice of an expert.


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