Spring Plants along Pine Creek’s Rail Trail

PHOTO PROVIDED Spicebush flowers are fragrant and emerge before the foliage.

(Editor’s Note: This article is the sixth of a series exploring plants and horticulture within driving distance of central Pennsylvania.)

New Jersey was given the nickname Garden State back in the late 1800s. Before it gave way to suburban development, it was mostly farmland that provided ornamentals and foods to neighboring states such as Pennsylvania and New York.

While Pennsylvania can’t lay claim to that title, our state’s biggest city declared itself America’s Garden Capital. I am not sure anyone could dispute that claim as Philadelphia has over 30 public gardens, arboreta, and historic landscapes. Truly worth several visits.

There is a smattering of public gardens in central Pennsylvania but none the size, scope, and history of our southeast neighbors. But I believe we have something in our backyard that rivals those gardens and is truly unique; the Pine Creek Rail Trail. I like to think of this as Pennsylvania’s longest botanical garden.

The trail runs from Jersey Shore north to just north of Wellsboro, a journey of 62 miles. And plants line almost the whole length of the gravel pathway. The next couple of columns will explore plant life along the trail throughout the seasons.

PHOTO PROVIDED Seeps provide an area for grasses, sedges, and moss to proliferate.

It is going to be a rough slog this winter with the long nights, cold temperatures, and overcast days. Add in the pandemic issues and we’ll all be itching to get out this spring. The rail trail provides an excellent place to not only recreate but to observe plant life emerging from its winter slumber.

An early bloomer on the trail is the native perennial flower, bloodroot. The flowers are white with 8 to 10 petals and yellow stamens in the center. Very attractive with the brown leaf litter background. The blooms only last for several days so it may require several trips on the trail to catch it. This can be found in areas that remain moist and don’t catch the summer heat. The red connotation comes from sap that emerges from the roots when cut open.

Another ground hugging spring perennial native is the mayapple. Its beauty is not the flower but its large colonies of umbrella-like leaves that cover the area. It does flower, but they are hidden underneath the foliage and very difficult to see from above. These give way to a lemon shaped fruit. Look for areas along the trail in open shade and moist soil with abundant organic matter.

The shrub that always brightens my spring travels on the trail is spicebush (Lindera benzoin). Cluster of small yellow flowers bloom the length of the branches before leaves appear. In its native setting, it can be a bit thin and open. But placed in our managed landscapes, with a little more sun, it is broader and more rounded. spicebush swallowtail butterfly (the larval stage0 feeds on the leaves. Those same leaves also show an attractive yellow.

In a typical spring, there is usually a lot of water running off the mountainside forming small intermittent waterfalls or seeps. Some plant life, such as grasses, sedges, and moss dominate these areas and can provide ideas for rock, waterfall, and ponds gardens for the residential landscapes. But once the summer heat arrives, many of them dry up and plant life is not as robust.

PHOTO PROVIDED Bloodroot is one of the earliest native wildflowers to bloom. Catch it while you can as they only last for a few days.

This column is just a glimpse of the spring plant life along Pine Creek’s Rail Trail. Get out of the house once winter breaks and start exploring. The next column will be a sample of what can be found in summer walks along the trail.


Tom Butzler is a horticulture educator with the Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension Service and may be reached at 570-726-0022.


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