Habitat Heroes

Happy summer!

Summertime is baby time. We have been having fun watching babies around the nursery. We have chickadee chicks in the birdhouse on the office, bunnies in a little burrow at the base of the lightning tree, goslings on the pond. And those are just the ones we can see; most forest babies are hidden away, well protected by vegetation, decaying logs, snags and underground warrens.

The elements of a functional habitat include water, shelter and food. Native plants are crucial in the shelter and food departments. Two important habitat workhorses are often overlooked when people are planning a backyard habitat, perhaps because these two plants are kind of “Plain Janes”. But Russell Link, author of Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, gives these two plants high marks for wildlife habitat: Indian Plum (Osoberry, Oemlaria cerasiformis) and Cascara (Rhamnus purshiana).

Cascara is a small tree, quickly growing 12 to 30 feet high. In the forest where it has to compete for light with other trees, it tends to grow tall and have a single trunk. Along the edges of the forest or out in the open, it forms an attractive spreading canopy and doesn’t get as tall. It has lovely shiny leaves that nurture butterfly larvae. It’s flowers are barely noticeable to humans, but hummingbirds recognize them as a good nectar source. The berries and the bark are well-known for their laxative properties – haven’t tried it myself, but I hear just a couple of berries are quite effective. The berries are forming now, little hard green nubs that will ripen to red, then shiny, juicy, almost round black berries that many species of birds (including grosbeaks and band-tailed pigeons) love (bears also love them!). Cascara trees are common in forested wetlands, but they can grow in much drier conditions as well.

Indian Plum is a slow-spreading rhizomatous shrub that grows 5-15’ high. It is the first flower to bloom in the forest in late winter. Its pale green-gold blossoms light up the winter woods like candles in a dark room. They are an early nectar source for Anna’s Hummingbirds and bumblebees. It also fruits fairly early, just after the Salmonberries. Right now, in late June, the Salmonberries are waning in number and the Indian Plums are ripening from peach to purple. Only female plants bear fruit. The miniature plums are so popular with mammals and birds, including Cedar Waxwings and robins, that often they will be devoured before they can fully ripen–which is frustrating for me, because I want to gather the seeds to propagate more plants. The birds always beat me to the punch! Indian Plum shrubs do best in fairly dry-to-moist shade. When they are surrounded by trees, they will get quite tall and send up individual stems from the ground. If they get a little more light, and have a little more space, they will grow bushier. Because they flower and fruit early, they also get their fall color relatively early–I guess they figure their job is done for the year. So in August you will see the leaves beginning to turn yellow, nothing too showy.

Ravishing beauties they are not, but the ornamental qualities of these two plants are pleasingly modest. They are honest, hard-working habitat providers, unsung heroes of the forest.