The Saga of the Shinleaf

Having spent years roaming these woods, there are some plants I can identify, a lot more plants I recognize but can’t identify, and every once in a while, there is the sheer, delightful beauty of stumbling across a plant I’ve never even seen before.



I took a picture (there was only one, so I wasn’t about to pick the plant). And, in this heat, frequently a “real” specimen is a droopy, crumpled mess by the time I get it home, whereas digital photos can be easily shared, magnified and examined. The flower shape and size looked a bit like the non-native lily of the valley, but the leaves and growth patterns were all wrong. There is a false/wild lily of the valley, but that was definitely not it either.

I shared the picture around the office. Sharing is typically, in my opinion, way more fun than keying plants out (which is always Plan B, and a good skill to have!).  A day later, a colleague at Indian Creek Nature Center told me what it was-the shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica).  She had seen it before backpacking up north, where it is far more common. Like orchids, the shinleaf has strong micorrhizal associations, making it difficult to transplant or spread. So this little beauty has been hanging on in the woods here for a long time, and hopefully, as we continue to remove invasive species, it will spread on its own.

The shin leaf takes its name from its traditional medicinal value. Historically it was used as a poultice for bruised shins and other small skin problems, or gargled for sore throats. But, as it is rare here, its value is far greater as a keystone species for the woodlands.

30 Days Wild

Pet sitting, the wild way

I pet sit frequently, because, on a temporary basis, what’s one more fuzzy thing to feed? And because I truly love animals. People usually ask me to tend things like dogs, chickens, rabbits, turtles, kittens that need to be bottle fed. But this time…

Prometheus moth, female

…I got moths. This prometheus moth promptly crawled out of the paper sack I had her “secured” in and started laying her eggs on the window screen. The great thing about the prometheus moth as a pet is that as adults, they don’t need to feed. It was a marvelous opportunity to study the tiny feathers and bright colors up close. I’d never even seen one before, because, lets face it, I do not spend a lot of time in the tops of cherry trees at night. Black cherry leaves are what the caterpillars feed on, and night time is when the adults fly.

Polyphemus moth caterpillars, only 3/16 of an inch long

Today, these little ones arrived in the mail. Eggs and freshly hatched Cecropia and Polyphemus. Unlike the adults, they are voracious eaters, so I went on a nice foraging mission on their behalf for red oak leaves (Polyphemus) and Black Cherry leaves (Cecropia).


Cecropia moth caterpillars, hatching
Cecropia moth caterpillars, hatching. They actually refused the black cherry leaves, but have started munching on crabapple leaves.


Right now, they are the size of a grain of rice. But the silk cocoons I’m watching from an earlier laying are not small! The cacoons range in size from a tube of lip balm to a mouse, which means I have a lot of leaf collecting in my near future…

If you’re in the area, stop by Indian Creek Nature Center to see a variety of caterpillars (in the sunroom) and adult moths and butterflies (in the hoop house).

TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_15


A woodland treasure hunt

Random acts of wildness are not something I’m really good at. Oh, I’m all about being in the wild, and my attention is easily diverted by any random thing when outside. Mushroom! Snake! Bat! But my forays beyond my yard tend to be…planned. Dog. Leash. Water for me. Water for dog. Destination selection. Coordinating friends, who all love the idea of wilding away, but, but, but something else is almost always going on. Meanwhile, nature carries on, heedless of my attention or lack thereof. Which is good…

The bloodroot leaves are bigger than my hand.

…because their are treasures to be found. The bloodroot leaves have grown bigger than my hand, and the verdant green provides a backdrop for some of Iowa’s rare treasures.

When I was a kid, I loved the smooth, perfect swells of the orchid blossoms, the way they could grow in the air, and the way they needed perpetual heat and humidity year round. Despite sweltering Midwestern summers, the frigid winters made the landscape inhospitable. I would repeatedly buy ones that “could” live indoors, and I would take them home, where they would never flower and gradually die.

But I was oh-so-wrong about one thing. There are actually 32 species of orchid that live in Iowa, and a woodland treasure hunt this month at the Indian Creek Nature Center revealed two.

Showy orchis
Showy orchis
This is the more rare yellow lady slipper. Because of its beauty, people are tempted to dig them and take them home. Because of their strong underground mycorrhizal associations, they seldom survive transplant-leaving a hole in the woods they came from, as well as a hole in the receiving garden.
Yellow lady slipper

The yellow lady slipper is far more rare than the showy orchis. Because of their beauty, people are tempted to dig them and take them home. Because of their strong underground mycorrhizal associations, they seldom survive transplant-leaving a hole in the woods they came from, as well as a hole in the receiving garden. Not quite The Orchid Thief, but I only found one lady slipper on my walk.  The beautiful rare delicacy of these flowers reminds me that if I just go outside, nature will provide the random wildness.

TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_02
30 Days Wild


Crus-galli Grove

Forests in the not-too distant-past once provided primary sustenance for people, not just the other mammals and the birds. Today, agriculture and urbanization have made that relationship more challenging. The felling of many trees has reduced both the size and species composition of the woods. Forests are increasingly unhealthy, and lack many of the sustenance-providing species they once held. Among the foods we do eat regularly, it is a crop’s harvestability and transportability that have become valued over many other traits. Foods are increasingly single-sourced, and bear little resemblance-including nutritional value-to the myriad of plants on which we once depended.


This spring, we planted six cockspur hawthorn¹ (Crataegus crus-galli) trees at Indian Creek Nature Center, as part of a woodland restoration project. For restoration purposes, the hawthorns are native trees that only grow about 25 feet tall, easy to overlook when we discuss the grandeur of the mighty oaks and hickories. Yet they provide a lot of ecological benefits, with their thicket-like tendencies that protect young nestlings, blossoms for pollinators, and edible berries for wildlife.

For human guests, the hawthorns² are the latest addition to the native edible forest at the Nature Center. Both the blossoms and berries are good to eat. The trees were planted in a wide circle, forming a grove around one of the maturing oaks. In the not-too-distant future, guests will be able to come, spread a picnic blanket in the semiprivate shade of the grove, listen to the birds all around them, and harvest a handful of berries³ for tea later that evening.

A few notes:

1. The hawthorns serve as a host plant for Cedar Apple Rust, which is hard on apple trees.

2. To find out if a species is native to your state, visit

3. Consuming hawthorns can help lower blood pressure. To learn more about the medicinal benefits, check out an herbal book, such as the Woman’s Book of Healing Herbs. If you’re under the care of a doctor for a blood pressure condition, talk to your doctor first.

Poison Ivy :(

My challenge in loving nature  isn’t usually the “getting outside” part, its avoiding the poison ivy that thrives in the woods. Poison ivy is beautiful, especially in the spring and fall, but the oil causes my skin to break out in open, weeping, ever-expanding, never-healing sores, which causes me to go to the doctor for prednisone, which wreaks havoc on my immune system. Last summer, I  avoided the doctor/prednisone, and I am going to do my best again this summer.

Step 1. Identify.

I nearly walked into this poison ivy branch, hanging face-high from a tree.
The fine hairs on the main vine gave it away.
The fine hairs on the main vine gave it away.

Step 2. Avoid.

The young leaves in the spring are a deep red.
The young leaves in the spring are a deep red.
Step 3. Wash thoroughly, assuming avoidance wasn’t good enough. Always a good idea after playing outside, because it provides an opportunity for a thorough tick check.
If I was in the general vicinity of poison ivy, I just use soap and water. If Im fairly sure I actually contacted the plant, I use Goop first, which binds with the oil.
If I was in the general vicinity of poison ivy, I just use soap and water. If I’m fairly sure I actually contacted the plant, I use Goop first, which binds with the oil.
Step 4. At the first sign of breakout, start drinking copious amounts of tea made from reishi mushrooms, stinging nettle leaves, and budding goldenrod flowers. The challenge is on-we’ll see how this season goes!
The stinging nettle leaves that emerged mid-April are getting too big too harvest, but there are young plants still coming up around the edges of the nettle patches.

Mushroom Trees

For National Arbor Day, I decided to plant some “mushroom trees.” I have healthy, mature oaks. I have young northern pecans, Kentucky coffeetrees, and Ohio buckeyes. I also have, typical of Iowa’s woodlands, forest areas so overgrown that trees need to be removed, not planted. And, while I continue to work on improving the diversity of the woodlands, planting a typical tree for National Arbor Day seemed counter-productive this year.
Shiitake “plug spawn”. Dowels inoculated with mycelium

Dying trees are critical for the health of a forest. They provide habitat for cavity nesting birds, screech owls, bluebirds, and wood ducks. They serve as roosts for bats and feeding stations for insect-eating birds. A dead snag hosts a tremendous variety of decomposers, from fungi to ants, which gradually break down the hard wood into soft, rich organic matter in which new life can grow.

Mycelium rapidly expanding around the dowel
I thought deliberately turning a dead log into a mushroom tree would be a fun way to celebrate the spirit of National Arbor Day, without adding a tree where it shouldn’t belong. It will celebrate that the value of a tree extends far beyond the life span of the tree. As a benefit, I will
1) expand my knowledge of mushrooms, and give me a close up, regular look at the decomposition process
2) provide me with something healthy and tasty to eat
3) provide organic material, when the tree is completely broken down.
Drilling the holes in the oak limb, a casualty of a recent wind storm

In the past, I’ve grown portabella mushrooms in a box in the house, and thought this would not be too much more difficult. And then, when I got my shiitake, maitake, and reishi mushrooms from Fungi Perfecti…I realized that it may not be more difficult, but it is certainly a bit more specific and detailed.

Tapping the plug snugly into the tree.

I’ll be sharing pictures as the mushrooms grow!  Have you ever grown your own mushrooms?

Sealing the plug into the tree with a bit of melted beeswax. There are definitely more efficient means of melting beeswax than a torch (the directions recommend melting the wax in a pot, and painting it on the plug). Now, we wait!

Think Nature is Boring?

Do you think nature is boring?  Do your kids?  Just another walk in the woods?  Same nameless green trees, same nameless green plants, same —

Another boring nature walk? I think not.

What would you do if you came across an orange tentacled blob in a cedar tree?  And not just one?  But another, and another, and one with even more tentacles?

a) Run screaming?

b) Call the police?

c) Email the county’s pest control department?

d) Pluck to one to dissect in the name of science?

e) Call…whoever would be interested in an alien sitings?

After coming home and finding some of these bizarre apparitions on the cedar trees in both my neighbor’s and my yard, I chose answer C.

And the calm, kind urban forester who replied to my email assured me that this was fairly common in my county and not of concern unless I had an orchard.  Which now I’m glad I don’t have an orchard because this is Cedar Apple Rust (not an alien invasion).

Doesn't it look alien?
Doesn’t it look alien?

These are Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae galls with spore horns (not orange tentacled blobs): a complex pathogen that requires both the apple tree and the cedar tree (with other species such as hawthorn and juniper standing in), adequate moisture, including a rain, and has a two year life cycle.  You can read all about these fascinating galls on Cornell University’s Integrated Pest Management Fact Sheet.

So, the next time you think just another boring nature walk, think again.  And carry a camera — might just find something incredible for your Earth Day Celebration rainbow walk!

Earth Day Adventures: rainbows and wildflowers

This is a magical season in the forest, as the spring ephemerals are just beginning to bloom. When we think of forest, our minds immediately go to the trees. Right now, with the trees in various stages of budding out, there is not a leaf to be seen. But there is a whole rainbow of color to be found.

Cottonwood tree inflorescence, brought down in a windstorm (Red).
OK, I havent seen any orange butterflies yet, but these fun chairs are sitting outside ICNCs Butterfly Hoop House, beckoning a visit. If you want to see flying orange, try setting out a half an orange on a tray feeder or deck railing to attract Baltimore Orioles.
OK, I haven’t seen any orange butterflies yet, but these fun chairs are sitting outside Indian Creek Nature Center’s Butterfly Hoop House, beckoning a visit. Or…
...set 1/2 an orange out on a tray feeder or deck railing to attract the Baltimore Oriole. This one, created by artist Brenna OHara, is a permanent resident along ICNCs woodland trail orange).
…set 1/2 an orange out on a tray feeder or deck railing to attract the Baltimore Oriole. This one, painted by artist Brenna O’Hara, is a permanent resident along ICNC’s woodland trail (Orange).

Lots of life is beginning to emerge from the ground.  Wildflowers of Iowa Woodlands by Sylvan Runkel and Alvin Bull is a great resource to put in your backpack before setting out. If that’s too big, try the laminated Woodland in Your Pocket pamphlet. Finding flowers is fun: knowing what you’re looking at is thrilling.

Bloodroots are one of the first spring ephemerals to explode in the spring (Yellow).

Delicate, small forbs take advantage of all of that sunlight streaming through the bare branches to send up their own leaves, flower, and reproduce.

Wild Ginger is just beginning to peek out, with soft folded leaves (Green). Open your copy of Hunting Red to preview the ginger in bloom.
A blue jay was here. As the feathers of most birds are protected, take pictures, not the feathers (Blue).

To help identify feathers you find, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s free online Feather Atlas.

These bluebells have not fully opened, but show some of the great diversity of color the species has Indigo)
These bluebell flowers have not fully opened, but show some of the great diversity of color within the species (Indigo).
The petals of the wild violet are edible, and are a beautiful edition to any salad Violet).
The petals of the wild violet are edible, and are a beautiful edition to any salad (Violet).

Spend Earth Day outside, exploring what is happening with the earth as spring surrounds us in a rainbow of color. What colors will you find?



Earth Day Adventures: forage

Pick nettles that are approximately 8″ tall, taking the top 6″.

By mid summer, moist woodlands are thick with stinging nettles. Long pants and long sleeve cotton t-shirts are a must, to keep waist-high plants from assaulting skin with trichomes. But right now, the stinging nettles are just beginning to emerge. Celebrate Earth Day by enjoying hunting for, gathering, and eating this delicious plant.


The leaves are tender and full of iron, vitamin A and vitamin C. The tiny hairs are just beginning to produce trichomes, so they aren’t nearly as painful if you break them off into your skin. Grasp the plant gently at the base and break the stem cleanly off. It won’t hurt the plant. If you can’t seem to get the knack of it without getting stung, wear a pair of gardening gloves or use a pair of clippers. As the nettles are a ubiquitous invader throughout the woods, stick a paper sack in your pocket to collect them in.

Once home, rinse them off and boil them for about five minutes. The boiling breaks down the toxins, making them safe to eat. Treat the leaves like spinach, adding a little bit of butter, salt, or lemon juice before serving. IMG_20150409_154827535




Dry the rest. The trichomes also break down as the plant dries. Add a teaspoon of dried nettle leaf to the teapot whenever you make a cup of tea, to take advantage of the nutrients in the plant long after the plants leaves are large and tough, and the trichomes are vigorous about defending it.

This book is older than I am, but the information in it is still a great foundation for foraging  for food in nature.
This book is older than I am, but the information in it is still a great foundation for foraging for food in nature.

When a Walk in Nature Goes Wrong

When a Walk in Nature Goes Wrong -- pocketmousepublishing.comHow do you handle it when a walk in nature goes wrong? I don’t mean “Drama in Real Life” wrong. Breathe easy — no cougars attacks, rock slides, or poisonous mushrooms will be featured in this account.

This is about the small frustrations that occur when you’re trying to get yourself and your family away from “the electronic paradise” as the S’More Outdoor podcast so succinctly describes it. This is the red crayon in the dryer, the burned dinner, the waiting in line at the library with a whining toddler to pay the (huge) fine – so you can check out your fifty book stack.

We’ve all had these types of frustrations in our daily lives. And they aren’t absent just because we want to take our children out to experience the joys of nature.

Earlier this week we headed out for a walk with the dog to the woods. I was in high spirits because two of my older children were able to come along – between working and their college/highschool classes, they do not get the same quantity of outdoor time the rest of us do! Off we went, the little didn’t even where a jacket because it was such a spring-like day.

First, I slipped on the wooden walkway leading across a drainage ditch. Initially my knee hurt dreadfully. But after standing up and testing it, I realized it didn’t hurt to walk (much). So on we went, with me and my oldest chatting about the importance of soil and the neat collection of monthly soil activities I found (more on this in a future post!).

We finally arrived at the creek. The 9yo had gone on ahead and was out of sight, but I wasn’t worried, we had a meeting place.

With all the melting snow our little creek was running fast and quite cold, so big brother offered to carry 5yo across.

You know what is coming, right?

When a Nature Walk Goes Wrong - Creek

He slipped and into the icy water she went.

Was she hurt? Not at all.

Did she cry? Not at all.

Was she cold and wet and needing to go home right then? YES! I took off my coat and wrapped her in it, picked her up, instructed the other three to locate 9yo and come home. So much for family time out in glories of nature.

Then I headed home with a bum knee, a shivering 5yo in my arms, and a very unhappy dog who didn’t like her family heading in different directions.

Halfway home, coming down a rather steep hill, the dog stopped and looked back. She wouldn’t budge. Then over the hill came the dejected 9yo. My initial (horrified) thought was he had discovered no one was following him and came back to look for us, somehow missing his siblings…who were now wandering the woods looking for him!

But no, they had found him and were not far behind. He was unhappy because he hadn’t gotten his nature walk.

We all finally arrive home. And swore off walking in the woods forever.

No, actually, we didn’t. Think about those small frustrations. After the crayon in the dryer incident, did you take ALL your family’s dirty clothes to the dry cleaners henceforward? After the burned dinner, did you only eat in restaurants? And have you never returned to the library simply because you were embarrassed by a fine? Of course not!

We move on, we overcome, and maybe we can even laugh about such incidents in the years to come. When the immense bruise on my knee fades, I may laugh.

In the meantime, we’re still walking in the woods and on the paths and to the park…anything to get our daily dose of nature, no matter the weather. It has been 33 days since we started. I think we’re on the way to a habit!

Don’t give up on getting out into nature just because it isn’t idyllic every time you venture out!  Check out this encouraging National Wildlife Federations Health Benefits page and get back out there with your kids!

Do you find getting out into nature with your kids frustrating?  Have you ever had a nature walk go wrong?