It started with wild edible plants.
Upon learning that free food grew naturally in my backyard, along the trails, and in the forests, I developed a strong desire to seek out these wild edible plants.
But I soon discovered that this was not enough.
I wanted to learn more. Beyond edible plants, I wanted to learn all the plants in my ecosystem. Edible, medicinal, benign, slightly toxic, poisonous, native, invasive, and so on. They all piqued my interest.
The same went for mushrooms — I set out to learn them all.
And to expedite this process of learning the wild species of Pennsylvania, I knew I needed the help of experts.
Throughout the years, I’ve attended countless events, walks, meetings, and forays… all in the pursuit of knowledge. The Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club and Pennsylvania State Parks are just two organizations (among many!) that have been instrumental in this learning process (and two that continue to be!).
While connecting with naturalists to help build Learn Your Land, I came across the work of the Westmoreland Bird and Nature Club (WBNC). Formed in 1981 with a mission to promote an interest in birds, it has since evolved to include other subjects of nature, including wildflowers, snakes, salamanders, and butterflies.
WBNC recently hosted a general data collection of Skena Kellman Nature Reserve. Nestled quietly within the lively borough of Murrysville, Pennsylvania, this natural area comprises two distinct properties — the Peter and Victoria Skena Nature Reserve (22 acres) and the Lillian Kellman Nature Reserve (56 acres). The WBNC’s goal this particular day was to collect data for the club book regarding the plants and fungi inhabiting the combined lands.
Knowing that this would be a great chance to connect with local naturalists, learn new species, and brush up on familiar species, I decided to join the group this particular day and assist in the data collecting process.
Dick Byers, club president and naturalist extraordinaire (left), led four of us through various trails, past old foundations, and across several streams as we identified as many plants — both native and introduced — as time would allow.
Some were quite easy to identify, even from a distance: Deptford pink (Dianthus armeria) with its beautiful 5-petaled pink flower; broadleaf arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia) occupying the northern corner of the pond; and spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) with its distinctly striped leaves and drooping fruits.
Other species presented a bit of a challenge. The much sought-after (by Dick Byers) Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus), though large in stature, was easily confused from a distance for the dozens of black walnut trees dotting the landscape. Eventually it was spotted, and a celebratory cheer surfaced from the group. Then there was the mysterious species of wood fern which, despite 15 minutes of poring through field guides, remained unidentified as the group parted.
In the end, over 100 species of plants were identified and collected (in name only) for the book. Several species of mushrooms were identified as well, owing their fruitful appearances to the abundance of rain Pennsylvania recently experienced. These included the violet toothed polypore (Trichaptum biforme), Caesar’s mushroom (Amanita caesarea), the platterful mushroom (Megacollybia rodmani), the pinwheel mushroom (Marasmius rotula), and several species of Russula.
The group covered a lot of ground during the 3.5 hour trek through the Skena Kellman Nature Reserve. Plans to continue the collection in the fall of 2015 remain tentative, as the southeast portion of the area has yet to be documented.
I was happy to be part of the data collecting process this particular morning with the club. While I certainly developed new skills in identifying unfamiliar plants, perhaps the greater benefit was in gaining genuine camaraderie with fellow naturalists in my area.
If you live in Southwestern Pennsylvania and are interested in learning more about the flora, fauna, and mushrooms of your area, consider joining the Westmoreland Bird and Nature Club — a local organization truly dedicated to the enjoyment, study, and preservation of nature.
And as Dick Byers reminded me, “It’s only $7 for a membership!”
For more information, check out wbnc.net