Just past the second bend on the trail, another small clump of butterfly milkweed comes into view. This one delivers on the promise of the name, with two great-spangled fritillaries and a pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos) nectaring in close proximity.
This is also one of the best places to gather mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) — and I must admit, I’m unable to resist picking the half-dozen plants I encounter on this walk. It’s one of the strongest of our mints, so you don’t need very much of it to flavor a pitcher of iced tea. I’d describe the taste as half-way between spearmint and peppermint.
The common wood nymph (Cercyonis pegala), also known as goggle-eyes, is a skulker, frequenting meadow flowers but seeking out the shade whenever possible. I follow one with my camera at the ready only to have it dive down into the shade of the goldenrods to perch. It’s only when the trail passes into the shade of a locust grove that I’m able to find wood nymphs willing to pose for photos.
The shade is thin thanks to locust leafminers, which can make whole groves of locusts look like hell year after year without killing hardly any of them. Black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia) are very tough and persistent trees. Our meadows would’ve ceased to exist decades ago if we hadn’t kept them cut back. Dad used to accomplish this with a tractor and mower, but found that mowing suppressed goldenrod and other forbs and gave the advantage to the non-native grasses, which have much less wildlife value. Hand-pruning is more labor-intensive, but also a more effective way of maintaining this kind of old-field habitat. And by allowing some locusts to grow for a while before cutting them down, we perpetuate the brushy-edged type of meadow preferred by species such as American woodcock, field sparrow and indigo bunting.
Between the locust grove and the edge of the woods, I spot a patch of milkweed I hadn’t noticed before. On closer examination, all the flowers in the patch turn out to be white. I want to think that this is Asclepius variagata, white or redring milkweed, which is an endangered species in Pennsylvania, but it looks more like a color variant of common milkweed to me.
Here’s another plant I only became aware of this year: yellow goat’s beard (Tragopogon pratensis). Did we always have it and I just noticed it, or did one seed blow in a few years ago and it’s been slowly spreading ever since? Goat’s beard is a close relative of purple salsify or oyster plant, Tragopogon porrifolius, and the roots of the first-year plant are said to be just as delicious. I’m not sure I’d recognize a rosette of the leaves without a flower stalk, however.
A small patch of deer-tongue grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum) appears among the brome. Deer-tongue is a native, perennial panic grass which, despite its name, seems rather unappetizing to the local white-tailed deer. It’s rare to see it out in the field like this. It prefers open woods and clearings, where its main competitor on our mountain is hay-scented fern. It’s one of the few things that can hold its own against the fern, in part because it’s equally tolerant of high concentrations of aluminum — one of the effects of sulfuric acid deposition from long-term exposure to acid rain. Deer-tongue is sometimes used to revegetate old strip mines and spoil heaps, of which Pennsylvania has more than its fair share.
Continue to Butterfly Loop 4.