Summer days on the trail or patches of plants
(Editor’s Note: This article is the seventh of a series exploring plants and horticulture within driving distance of central Pennsylvania.)
This column continues our journey on Pine Creek Rail Trail through the seasons as we move into summer.
Plant exploration can be a family affair during these months. Even though the kids might not be that excited to view the local flora, a bike ride in warm weather can be easily complemented with leisurely dips in the creek.
Rhododendrons are one of the workhouses of our landscapes as they come in a variety of shapes and sizes and a range of flower colors. Because of this, you can find a rhododendron to fit into any yard. But seeing this plant in its native habitat puts it into a different light.
Along Pine Creek and feeding tributaries, rhododendrons (Rhododendron maximum) form thickets with twisted and gnarled branches. That alone is a sight against the backdrop of the towering trees with their large straight trunks. Catch a summer ride at the right time and you will be rewarded to the large bell-shaped white to light pinkish flowers. Look for areas along the trail that have plenty of shade (we consider it an understory plant) and have good soil moisture throughout the summer months.
A more sun loving plant to see on the trail is our native perennial bee balm, Monarda didyma. However, it too needs moist soils where it will form clumps and crowd out all surrounding vegetation. It reaches a height of 3-4 feet and blooms in July and August with red showy flowers that look like mopheads. You have time to catch this one as it can bloom for up to eight weeks. It can be fun to watch also as a wide variety of bees and butterflies visit the flowers. If you are lucky a hummingbird or two may visit the bee balm clump.
Native purple-flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus) may seem out of place along the trail as we see its close relative in our gardens, grown for desserts and jellies. The native is often used in landscapes such as shade gardens, shrub borders, and naturalized areas. You can see an example of how these are used in design with a visit to Penn State’s Arboretum. With its profuse suckering habit, it can form large colonies in an area and out-compete the weeds.
It typically reaches heights of 4-6 feet tall and covered with maple-like leaves. The fragrant, pale purple flowers appear early summer but continue on throughout the season. It provides a nectar source for butterflies and bees. Like our cultivated garden raspberries, it will produce edible clusters of fruit (although not as tasty) in late summer. This attracts many types of birds and small mammals for a summer treat.
Many of the plants observed in our Pennsylvania woods can easily be incorporated in our landscapes. A summer along the trail can inspire some ideas for your yard. The next column will look into the sights along Pine Creek Trail during autumn. And yes, we will talk plants.
Tom Butzler is a horticulture educator with the Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension Service and may be reached at 570-726-0022.