Noisy Natives

The Pacific Chorus Frogs already laid eggs in the kiddy pools; an occasional tardy frog sings now. The Juncos have paired up; one is busy building a nest in the nursery. The Varied Thrushes and Robins sing through the raindrops. Hummingbirds buzz the Salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis), and a Sapsucker uses a telephone pole for a tapping post. The pole is right next to the wood-chip pile. The Sapsucker clings to the pole and taps on a piece of metal that is about a foot below the top. Then he hops up to the top of the pole and looks around before jumping down to tap some more.

Wouldn’t it be fun if we humans could hear PLANTS? Just imagine the satisfaction of hearing them grow…

I’m walking through the nursery, minding my own business, when I hear a series of exploding pops! I turn around to notice that a Snowberry’s (Symphoricarpos albus) tiny leaves are suddenly bigger. Overhead, I hear a series of sticky -sounding smacks that turn into soft bubbling noises as the big Cottonwood’s (Populus trichocarpa) buds open and begin to release their leaves. I walk over toward the big Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) trees which, for all their size, are only emitting tiny low-frequency grunts from their branch tips. Under the trees, the Lady Fern’s (Athyrium filix-femina) fronds are creeeak-creeaking as they unfurl. Isn’t that cute? I think, when a shrill squeal accosts my ears – the Wild Lily-of-the-Valley’s (Maianthemum dilatatum) newly emerged shoots are unscrewing themselves, beginning to open their shiny leaves. I have to stop for a minute, take off my work gloves, and clean out my ears, open my jaw and shift it back and forth a couple of times to get my eardrums back to normal.

I think things have calmed down, when from my left a deafening roar sends me to my knees! Beside me, the False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosa) is rocketing up from the soil!

Well, I’ve heard (from better smell-ers than I) that False Solomon’s Seal’s long white flower clusters emit a beautiful fragrance; I know that their juicy red berries appeal to birds and look pretty; I knew that they are a showy perennial for shady spots, even somewhat dry shady places; and that they often hang out with Cascade Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa). But I had no idea they could raise such a ruckus!

NOT Owners

I drove across the Snoqualmie Valley this morning – early – in a foolish attempt to beat the traffic, all funneled onto Woodinville-Duvall Road because of Snoqualmie River flooding.  The road was a causeway across “Lake Snoqualmie” which flowed and roiled near the shoulders of the road.  The flooding always reminds me of my place in nature.  Of course, humans build dams to control rivers, but locally, our experience with the Howard Hansen Dam and the Green River should remind us of our tenuous grip on the reins of power when it comes to driving nature.

We can change nature deliberately to our liking, and we do change nature unintentionally through lack of attention and care.  But nature always has the last word.  We are part of nature, not masters, NOT owners in the larger sense.  Earth owns US. 

One of my favorite movies, Out of Africa, evokes early 20th Century Kenya, when colonization was dramatically changing the landscape.  “We are not owners here,” cautions Dennis, the Robert Redford character, responding to the Baroness’s casual possessiveness of “her” farm, “her” stream, “her” Kikuyu people who lived there.  “It WILL go wild,” he says.  Humility – a recognition that we are not really in control – helps us choose a healthier, more cooperative way along our own temporary sojourn here on earth.  We are not owners here.

This has EVERYTHING to do with native plants.  No fooling, I could take any number of angles to link these thoughts to native plants!  But I will focus on two plants, one which lets us jokers know who’s really in charge, Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) and a second, Twinflower (Linnaea borealis), which allows a needy human ego to carry on with the illusion of control.

Salmonberry forms thickets by sending out underground rhizomes that send shoots up around the mother plant.  The shoots eventually form their own root system and rhizomes and turn into more 6-8-foot bushes.  They are “edge” plants – you’ll see them along the edge of forests or wetlands.  The shade of trees can keep Salmonberry under control; it needs light.  Very dry or very wet soil will act as a brake on its spread.  Or an active gardener willing to dedicate time each year to tug up the new rhizomes before they get too solidly rooted can, conceivably, keep Salmonberry corralled in a corner of the backyard.

Don’t get me wrong – I LIKE Salmonberry.  It provides much more than an exercise in humility.  Thickets of Salmonberry and other spreading shrubs like Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), Nootka Rose (Rosa nutkana) and Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), are VERY important to small creatures.  The tangle of branches and foliage shelter animals and birds from predators.  The big orange berries feed birds and all sorts of mammals, including humans.  I find them quite tasty when ripe.  Their flowers are a wonderful bright magenta, about 1½” across, and attract hummingbirds and bumblebees.  Do you have an appropriate place for a Salmonberry thicket?

On the other end of the spectrum lies Twinflower (Linnaea borealis), my favorite plant.  An evergreen groundcover, Twinflower has read all the plant etiquette books and behaves nicely.  But that’s not why I love it.  I love it because it forms a dark green carpet of shiny round leaves which max out about the size of a dime.  I love it because the tiny pairs of fragrant pink flowers are exquisite, old-fashioned street lamps in miniature.  I love it because it is sexy, in a demurely sensuous ground-hugging four-inch-tall way.  Twinflower takes a couple of years to establish before it begins to spread at a moderate pace.  It needs shade, but not deep shade.  It does fine with morning sun or dappled sunlight.  It needs moderate amounts of moisture in the soil.  Read more about Twinflower in my COOL PLANTS post from March 2010.