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.

Family (Saxifrage, that is) Jewels

A couple of weeks ago, I bragged about researching Henderson’s Checkermallow (Sidalcea hendersonii). If I had really done “research”, I would have questioned what I already “knew” about that plant. A friend gently mentioned that it is in the Mallow family (Malvaceae), NOT the Saxifrage family. This may not seem a big deal to non-plant-addicts, but this information is supposed to be deeply embedded in my brain. Once again, I am humbled by the voluminous, towering mass of Stuff I Should Know.

Stuff I Do Know: We do have some very nice members of the Saxifrage family abiding at Tadpole Haven.

Several like hanging out in the shade. Leafy Mitrewort (Mitella caulescens), Fringecup (Tellima grandiflora), Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata) and Piggy-back Plant (Tolmiea menziesii) fit in that category. Fringecup and Piggy-back can even handle quite wet soil. They both have tall (~3’) flowers: Fringecup’s small but numerous flowers are yellow tinged with red; Piggy-back’s are rather plain—its main claim to fame is its lush foliage with new leaves sprouting from the older leaves. Leafy Mitrewort’s foliage hugs the ground. It sends out short runners, forming a lovely carpet from which emerge miniature-periscope-like flower stalks towering an awesome six inches above the forest floor. The green (!) blossoms are exquisite and can inspire perfectly normal people to get down on their hands and knees to enjoy them! Foamflower, even in bloom, only gets about 1 ½ feet tall. The frothy white–sometimes pale pink—flowers appear en masse in spring, but continue to bloom, though less profusely, all summer and into the fall.

IMGP5121Mitella caulescens cropped

Delicate Flowers of Leafy Mitrewort (Mitella caulescens)


Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata)

Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata)




Piggy-back Plant (Tolmiea menziesii)

Facts are a Wonderful Alternative

We recently got Cable TV. For years, we have been blissfully out of touch with fear-inducing TV news stories of deadly car wrecks and mini-mart stickups. Seeking to soothe my jangled nerves, I discovered that botanical research calms me and expands my mind and horizons in a chemical-and stress-free manner.

Yesterday I decided to learn more about Henderson’s Checkermallow (Sidalcea hendersonii), also known as Marsh Hollyhock. I like to think that I know something about this perennial member of the Mallow family (Malvaceae). The flower stalks reach much higher than its basal leaves. The bright columns of pink blossoms can be over four feet tall. I know that it does well in moist to wet sunny conditions, but can also thrive in partial shade or in relatively dry soil. Full afternoon sun and sandy soil cause it to suffer – I know — I’m guilty of Checkermallow abuse—lock me up!). It seeds itself prolifically (sometimes you may have too much of a good thing). But I did not know what plants are its natural companions in the wild; I have never seen it in nature!

Though it thrives in a cultivated garden, Henderson’s Checkermallow is surprisingly rare throughout its range (SE Alaska south to Oregon’s coast). In fact , it is classed as rare in British Columbia and Oregon. Perhaps it used to be more common, before human-caused habitat destruction. It grows in a smattering of coastal locations, including at least one site on Whidbey Island, in tidal marshes and estuaries, ditches and meadows near salt water. I learned that researchers had found it growing with bulrushes and grasses, including Tufted Hairgrass (Deschampsia caespitosa). Also with the yellow-flowering groundcover, Pacific Silverweed (Argentina egedii), the Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) shrub and Hooker’s Willow (Salix hookeriana).


So there you have it! Don’t you feel better? I’ll bet you have momentarily forgotten the increasIng nuclear capabilities of North Korea, the composition of the three-drug death penalty cocktail and the danger of falling prey to a texting driver! Facts are a wonderful alternative!

Mother Nature tries to get our attention

Another week of mud. And recuperating from last week’s windstorm. Mother Nature sure knows how to get my attention – three Cedar trees fell down in the field! So we are still huddling in the greenhouse, where the Camas is beginning to bloom their lovely blue spikes of star-shaped flowers.  They are in an unnatural condition, under cover and in pots..  In nature, you might find some near and around Garry Oak (Quercus garryana) trees in prairie areas (e.g. south of Olympia). They may have as companions the shrub Ocean Spray (Holodiscus discolor), the native perennial Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa) or fellow bulbs Tiger Lily (Lilium columbianum) or Broad-leaved Shootingstar (Dodecatheon hendersonii).

The Great Camas (Cammassia leichtlinii) is taller than the Common Camas (Cammassia quamash): its grass-like leaves up to 2’ tall, with flower stalks up to 4’ (Common Camas is half that size).  I am anxious to watch them side-by-side to compare how they bloom; I know that the Great Camas flowers open a few at a time, and I want to see for myself whether all the flowers on a Common Camas flower spike really open all at once. I haven’t paid enough attention in the past.

The weather should start to improve (according to the weatherman), so we should respond by getting out into Mother Nature’s realm and paying attention to her small beauties as well as her fiercer glories!


March 25

Finally, the Pacific Chorus Frogs are chirping. The swallows are back– which means the insects are back. The swallows dip and swoop in big loops over the lake surface. The Northwestern Salamanders have laid their eggs along the lakeshore. I haven’t actually seen any salamanders yet this year, though I have found a few sluggish newts hunkered down underneath flats of Fringecup (Tellima grandiflora).


The Lily-family plants are poking above the ground: Western Trillium (Trillium ovatum), Large-Flower Fairy Bells (Prosartes smithii),Star-Flowered False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum stellata) , Tiger (or Columbia) Lilies (Lilium columbianum) AND White Fawn Lilies (Erythronium oregonum)! Many of the White Fawn Lilies will be blooming shortly. These diminutive showoffs have nodding flowers with pointed petals that curve back. They will be in their full glory shortly, and after their blooms wither and they set seed (and they will probably seed themselves in your garden) their foliage will also die back to nothing by summer. White Fawn Lilies thrive in bright shade, although we have a patch doing well in deep shade under a spruce tree in our yard.

Fern fronds are unfurling as the days lengthen and the temperature creeps up. The Deer Ferns (Blechnum spicant) in the greenhouse are just beginning to develop new fronds. They still have their evergreen foliage from last year, but aren’t quite mature enough to have developed the vertical spore-bearing fronds that makes Deer Fern such a striking plant. They like moist shady areas best.

Spring, Wet or Dry

Hummingbirds are back in full force and big furry baby bees are bumbling about. If you go for a hike, you’ll see Trilliums (Trillium ovatum) in their full glory. Spring must be here! But why are we still slip-sliding through mud? Enough already!


So we head for the greenhouse, where we can work in the dry. The Deer Ferns (Blechnum spicant) unfurl their fiddleheads, the Broad-leaved Shootingstars (Dodecatheon hendersonii) tease us with lots of foliage — but are they going to bloom? The Douglas and Pacific Coast Hybrid Irises (Iris douglasiana, Iris sp.) sprout new leaves and several mystery pots declare themselves Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanum)! And good news for bees and hummers (birds not mini-tanks), Western Columbine (pictured) (Aquilegia formosa) is ready to par-tay! No blossoms yet, but healthy blue-green foliage.

Native Plants & Treefrogs: Everything Works Together

Native plants are beautiful and interesting, but they are not an end in themselves. They cooperate with other biological or ecological factors such as climate and geology to create resilient habitat. Everything works together!

Any day now, the Pacific Chorus Frogs (a.k.a. Pacific Treefrog) will start raising a ruckus in the wetlands around Tadpole Haven. So far, the weather has been too cold for them. They have already begun calling in warmer parts of the Puget Sound region, such as Seattle.

This time of year, they migrate toward water to find mates. The males are the noisy ones! Once they breed, the females lay their brown-and-cream colored eggs in golf-ball-sized clumps of clear jelly on plants and twigs along  sunny, well-vegetated shorelines. They seem to prefer to lay their eggs on thin twigs and stems; sedges, rushes, Marsh Cinquefoil (Comarum palustre), and stems of Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea) that have draped into the water are some common choices.

The ideal pond for Chorus Frog breeding dries up in late summer, making it an unattractive place for the predatory, invasive Bullfrog, which needs year-round water.

But mating season is only part of the story. After the lovefest is over, the adults go back into the forest (or your frog-friendly backyard). And after the tadpoles hatch, grow and metamorphose into tiny frogs, they also hop into the woods. If you can stand in your own yard and are able to hear them calling from a nearby pond, you can provide them somewhere to go during the rest of the year. They will need the native plants and trees growing in your yard in order to thrive. During a Western Washington winter, they don’t hibernate in the classic sense; they’ll seek shelter from the extremes, only going dormant or inactive when it’s really cold out. Throughout the winter, you may hear an occasional low cri-i-i-i-k of a Pacific Chorus Frog in the forest or hospitable garden.*

The Department of Fish and Wildlife has a very informative pdf you can print out at http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/frogs.pdf

Wikipedia has a good entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacific_tree_frog

*Thank you to Brian Bodenbach of Biosphere Landscape, brian@biospherecompany.com