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It’s in your nature: Hydrophilic and xerophilic

My sister Jamie visited for a long weekend recently. She seems to enjoy “tagging along” on my nature trips around Carbon County. I often follow a route that our father would use on our Sunday after church rides.

While in the Wild Creek area she asked me how to distinguish a mountain laurel from a rhododendron. They aren’t blooming now so I had to use some other characteristics to explain that to her. Of course, rhododendrons are usually much larger plants with much larger leaves. But I gave her what I thought were some other identifiers.

Rhododendrons are hydrophilic plants. Hydrophilic plants have a preference or even a requirement, in some instances, to live in or near water or wetter areas. As we drove past a few different small streams flowing from the mountainside there, I pointed out dense rhododendron thickets.

We drove by four or five different beautiful small streams or springs, and each one was lined with these plants. Some of you, I’m sure, on a drive from Jim Thorpe to Nesquehoning or descending the Mansion House Hill have probably noticed an abundance of rhododendrons.

I haven’t been there in about 30 years but the mountainside along Drakes Creek was smothered in these plants as well.

As we drove farther up Reservoir Road ascending the mountain, the south-facing hillsides were “covered” in mountain laurels. Mountain laurels prefer a drier habitat and grow best often on the south side of mountains or on mountain tops often very far from a water source.

Mountain laurels would be considered xerophilic plants. Those are plants that grow best in dryer or even desert type habitats. That doesn’t mean you won’t find “laurels” in a hollow near a stream, but they don’t have the greater moisture requirements of the rhododendrons. Cacti, yuccas and mesquite are the best examples of xerophilic plants.

Hemlocks, our state tree, grow best on the north side of mountains which retain more moisture. The north side of Pohopoco Mountain (below Beltzville Dam) was dominated by hemlock trees. Many unfortunately have succumbed to the woolly adelgid but their skeleton trunks still remain.

The hillside south of route 443 in Lehighton is another spot the hydrophilic hemlocks love.

White pines, the other big conifer in the Times News coverage area, prefers the mountain tops or drier south facing hillsides. They too can grow in damper areas but survive better than hemlocks in the drier habitats.

Mosses, liverworts and most ferns are hydrophilic plants common in our area. And of course, yellow pond lilies, cattails and arrow weed grow only in ponds or marshy areas and are hydrophilic.

On one of your drives, hikes, bike rides or nature outings, take notice to growing preferences of these plants to which I referred in this week’s column. No matter, get out there and enjoy.

Test your outdoor knowledge: Very shortly, some of our secondary roads will be lined with one of the earliest blooming yellow flowers called ____. A. chicory, B. tick trefoil, C. coltsfoot, D. multiflora rose, E. dandelions (refer to the photo).

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: When the leather tanning industry was in its heyday, millions and millions of hemlock trees were cut just so they could use the tannin in their bark for tanning leather. Most often the wood was never used, just the bark.

Contact Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

Mosses, hydrophilic plants, live best in damp or moist areas. BARRY REED/SPECIALTO THE TIMES NEWS
These early bloomers referenced in the trivia question will soon line secondary roads.
Rhododendrons and hemlocks often line the edges of mountain streams taking advantage of the wetter conditions.