Black Cottonwood: balm or bomb?

Black Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa)

Is the silent juggernaut over? Is the Cottonwood bombing at an end? Can we get back to tending our fields and flocks again? For days now we have been under attack by the annual Cottonwood blizzard. The Cottonwood trees have unleashed wisps of snow-flake-like fluff by the tens of thousands on our poor nursery plants. Trapped in their little pots, nowhere to go, surrounded by bare soil, our chlorophyll-babies are defenseless against the relentless germinating power of a pioneer species seeking new horizons, new places to plant itself. Though we do grow some to be planted in restoration projects, we don’t really appreciate 30 extra trees in every pot in the nursery!*

Black Cottonwood is one of those native plants that doesn’t get much respect. “Junk tree” is what loggers call it. It isn’t even any good as firewood; the water content is so high that it barely cures enough to provide a few BTUs on a winter’s day. It is widely known as a “hazard tree” because of the huge branches that it occasionally sheds. It is not a tree that you’d want close to a house; it gets huge, and when it falls, its great weight can slice a house in two. So we should respect THAT if nothing else!

At the beginning of its life cycle, Cottonwood fluff released by full-grown trees – each snowflake-like poof carrying a tiny ivory seed – lands everywhere and immediately sprouts little cottonwood trees. As a tree matures, it regularly sheds branches, which often stab into the ground, sprout roots and grow new trees.

A few words on its behalf: Cottonwood grows in moist to wet conditions. It stabilizes shorelines and shades streams to the benefit of the creatures that live in them. It is a pioneer species, which means that after some kind of disturbance, say forest fire, clearing, or logging, its seeds are one of the first species to grow on the exposed soil. And they grow quickly, covering up the scars that the disturbance caused . Cottonwood consists of a great amount of biomass – leaves, constantly shed twigs and branches. Eventually the huge bulk of the whole  100-150’ tall tree – enriches the soil beneath, feeding the next plants in the line of succession. Cottonwoods that fall into streams create eddies and backwaters and shelter for fish. While it is standing, its branches provide great habitat for birds. Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles and owls sit on branches near the top of the tree, surveying the countryside in search of dinner. Its crown is a favorite place for Red-tailed Hawks to nest. Deteriorating old trees and snags provide nesting cavities for birds and small mammals such as Douglas Squirrels.

In the spring, the air near Cottonwoods smells wonderful from the sticky, fragrant resin on the orange leaf buds. The resin has an antiseptic quality that Native Americans discovered. I know someone who in early spring painstakingly gathers the buds after they pop off the tree’s newly expanding leaves and makes a sweet-smelling hand lotion.

Black cottonwoods are strikingly beautiful – dark trunks and branches contrast with the brilliant green of spring leaves. The leathery, nearly heart-shaped leaves have pale, silvery undersides. In the fall the leaves turn yellow-gold on the top surface, so they really are silver and gold.

One of the most beautiful spring or fall sights which I get a chance to see on a semi-regular basis: Golden late afternoon sun sets the Cottonwoods aglow against a backdrop of dark storm clouds. The breeze from coming rain flutters the leaves making them shimmer and flash.

Next to the nursery is a field where an old Cottonwood stands. My father once told me that his mother planted it as a seedling (it probably sprouted in her flower garden!). She called it a Balm-of-Gilead Tree.




*We do not use “pre-emergent” herbicide, which many nurseries apply to prevent weed seeds from germinating.

Devil’s Club – worthy of primal contemplation

This morning, Tyrannosaurus Gus (the dog) and his people (Brian and I) enact our usual morning ritual. For me, this requires oatmeal. The ritual for Brian includes coffee in the yard at the crack of dawn. The ceremony for Gus involves supplicating in fetal position, waiting for the food dish to appear in its proper place. As the rite advances, the dog rings a bell on the back door. The proper response is for either human to clip his leash on and take him outside to do his business. Gus graces the cooperating human with a walk around the yard, the dog on alert for night-deposited goodies from neighbor cats or raccoons. It’s my turn today and I use this tour to admire Brian’s handiwork: a gorgeous habitat for birds, insects, gray squirrels (booooo) and people. I am very fortunate to live with a landscape designer/contractor who loves his work! (Brian Bodenbach, Biosphere Company)

His design philosophy calls for a foundation of native plants, augmented by a select assortment of compatible non-natives. When we bought our house 13 years ago, the large yard was mostly lawn. An ever-evolving work in progress, it now includes beautiful combinations of native and non-native plants.

While the dog takes me around the yard, we pause at my favorite station – under the apple tree facing our “forest”, where about five years ago, Brian planted a small – less than one foot tall – Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus). It is now taller than me, with several side branches. He planted Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum) at its base, with Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum), Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris), a purple-flowered variety of Hellebore (non-native) and a Hosta (Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ – non-native) with big, blue-gray leaves beside it, creating a pleasing yet primal scene.

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Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus) with Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum) and Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum)

Devil’s Club was a mythic shrub to be feared in my childhood – I was warned to watch out for its piercing prickles. And the name alone was scary. But now, I love its prehistorically huge leaves and thorny fierceness. The large red seeds that replace its creamy-white flowers are stunning. Though I think most Northwesterners associate it with swampy forests, it grows other places as well; I see it on shady hillsides, perhaps where water seeps just under the surface. It does well in the heavy, silty soil in our yard, which tends to hold moisture. Its roots are valued by herbalists for their therapeutic qualities. It is rhizomatous, over time forming a loose grove of often-lanky plants. It loses its leaves in the winter, leaving a knob on the top of the stem where the next spring’s leaves will emerge. With its tall, stickery stems, it stands with its comrades like sentinels, guarding the entrance to … what? The Garden of Eden? A time-travel portal to the Mesozoic Era?

I ponder these possibilities while keeping a tight grip on Gus’ leash, lest he satisfy his primal appetite for cat poop. Then we turn back toward the house to prepare for the rest of this day’s journey.

Bloomers for Dear Mamά!

A few perennials that are now in bloom:

Great Camas (Camassia leichtlinii)

Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)

Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana)

Inside-out Flower (Vancouveria hexandra)

Great Camas (Camassia leichtlinii)

  • Blue or purple star-shaped flowers.
  • Grows from an edible bulb.
  • Bright shade to full sun.
  • Can handle soggy soil in winter as long as it dries out in the summer.
  • A recent customer declared the flowers of Great Camas “other-worldly”!

Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

  • Red-and-yellow flowers.
  • Blossoms stand higher than the foliage, up to 3 ½’ high.
  • Full sun to partial shade; moist soil.

 Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)

  • Flowers are light to dark pink, fern-like foliage
  • Attractive deciduous groundcover 1-2 feet tall.
  • Bright shade, moist to fairly dry.

 Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana)

  • Flowers white to light pink, clover-like foliage approximately one foot tall.
  • Very moist to very dry, but happily, rampantly spreads in moist conditions.
  • Full shade.

 Inside-out Flower, Duck’s Foot (Vancouveria hexandra)

  • Woodland groundcover about 1’ tall.
  • Slightly taller small nodding white flowers whose curved petals are folded backwards.
  • Irregularly rounded small leaves (shaped like a duck’s foot) — delicate, interesting texture.
  • Moist to dry conditions; partial to full shade


Breaking Open?

The other day, my granddaughter excitedly pointed out a flitting butterfly. In her fourth year, she has many, many years ahead of her and hopefully many, many butterflies. I look forward to showing her the butterflies that flock to the fragrant blossoms of the native Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii) by the nursery. I want hers to be a butterfly-rich world.

Butterflies demonstrate transformed Life. As a result of the waiting process and the breaking open of the chrysalis, something new and beautiful emerges. The butterfly is a symbol of Easter. Easter, coming up on Sunday, commemorates the breaking of Christ’s body and then the breaking open of the tomb—the triumph of Life over Death.

Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii)

Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii) with Swallowtail

It’s easy to look around in our world and see Brokenness everywhere. Earlier this week, I heard two authors speak. Climate change activist Bill McKibben spoke about his book, Falter. Like an Old Testament prophet, he seeks to jolt us into action on climate change despite mourning our losses. David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, has also written a new book, The Second Mountain. In it he says, when hard times come, you are either broken, or you are broken open. Either you become embittered or you become a better person, focused less on yourself and more on serving others.

Can the Brokenness in our world break us open so that we value butterflies and small children enough to creatively and lovingly protect each other and our precious planet? A butterfly is a symbol of hope, New Life. What effects can gentle wing beats have on the universe?

I don’t know what far-reaching effect a small act like planting a native shrub for the sake of the butterflies (and my grandchildren) will have, but it makes me a better human.

And now the shameless commercial for a natural product I believe in: Support our butterflies (and maybe support a local nursery) by providing food in the form of their favorite native plants. Fragrant native Mock Orange flowers provide nectar; they grow on a large deciduous shrub—10-12 feet tall–and nearly that wide! They bloom in early to mid-summer. Drought-tolerant Mock Orange loves the sun and thrives in the most exposed locations, with very well-drained sandy soils. Our summers are very dry (and getting drier!), despite western Washington’s reputation for rain. Most of our natives, unless they are strictly wetland plants, are drought-tolerant to a certain extent, but Mock Orange is a standout in the drought-tolerant category. But it will also do fine with some moisture in the soil or in partial shade. Its fantastic-smelling white flowers are enjoyed by Swallowtails and other butterflies. Birds eat the seeds.  It grows quickly; its vigorous root system will help stabilize soil on a slope.

Love among the Oemlaria

I’ve been as busy as the birds and the bees, sexing Indian Plums (Oemlaria cerasiformis). Eew! You say! What kind of twisted mind does this woman have? Really, it’s not what it sounds like! There is a practical reason for this behavior. You see, Indian Plum is dioecious; male and female flowers are found on separate plants. I am marking blooming Indian Plums in the nursery with tags noting which sex each is, so we can send them out two by two, enabling passionate plum production. Birds love the fruit and distribute the seeds.

The Indian Plums have been waiting; always one of the early bloomers, they were already beginning to unfold their flower clusters at the end of January, preparing to light up the woods like chandeliers, before Mother Nature wrecked the fun with six weeks of serious winter. 17 inches of ice and snow set back love among the Oemlaria. But the last few weeks, they have been strutting their stuff.

Both male and female plants have graceful, dangly greenish-white flower clusters. At the base of each flower in the cluster is a roundish “receptacle”. The male receptacle is empty; the female receptacle holds ovaries resembling future berries. Pollination between the two sexes enables fruit to form. Pollination only happens when the twosome becomes a threesome; an insect (moth, butterfly, bee) or hummingbird joins in the fun. Par-tay!

The easiest way to determine the gender of a blooming Indian Plum: Tweak off one of the tiny open blossoms. Using your thumbnails, vertically divide the flower in half so you can see it in cross-section. Is the “receptacle” at the base of the flower hollow? Then it’s a male plant.

Is the “receptacle” full of five tightly packed, teardrop-shaped pistils (the round part of the pistil is the ovary)? Yes? Female! Tah-dah! Now you, too, can impress friends, relatives and future mates with your arcane blossom-sexing skills!

Once you have shredded enough blossoms, you literally “get a feel” for which flowers are male (squishier) and which are female (fatter, firmer, lumpier). Destruction is no longer necessary; a gentle squeeze at the base of the flower suffices.

After learning what to look for, you can look into the depths of a flower and recognize the male features – showy yellow balls of pollen above deep-green space (this is a male flower pictured)– and female attributes – just-discernible, waxy, light green ovaries at the base of the pistils.

Read more about Indian Plum on our blog: Habitat Heroes

Need Green

Almost St. Patrick’s Day, and our plants are not dressed properly. They will have to be pinched for not wearing green! Until a week and a half ago, everything was cloaked in white. Snow is still piled here and there. The long Winter still has its icy hold on us.

I comfort myself with the evergreen plants, green all winter. Slough Sedge (Carex obnupta), Pacific Coast Hybrid Iris (Iris sp) and Deer Fern (Blechnum spicant) are lovely, though slightly flattened from snow load. Some plants, sheltered by trees or the greenhouse, have kept their green going: Small-flowered Alumroot (Heuchera micrantha), Fringecup (Tellima grandiflora), Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium). Most of Red Huckleberry’s leaves have turned a deep maroon, but some near the base of the plants are still bright green. And though it will be a while before it buds out, the Red-Twig Dogwood’s (Cornus sericea) winter color is gorgeous.

I have to look close to see the optimistic little green buds along the branches of deciduous shrubs such as Black Twinberry (Lonicera involucrata). The Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) has been waiting in a state of suspended animation, its flower buds in mid-uncurl since the end of January; soon I will be able to tell which plants are males and which are berry-bearing females.

Bulbs affirm Earth’s faith in Spring: Crown Brodiaea (Brodiaea coronaria), Great Camas (Cammassia leichtlinii) and Common Camas (Cammassia quamash) are trusting the future to bring longer days; they were trying to poke through the snow a few weeks ago, testing the temperature. A few White Fawn Lilies (Erythronium oregonum) in the greenhouse are showing off their pretty, mottled leaves, but it is too early to say if they are going to flower this year. Broad-leaved Shootingstar (Dodecatheon hendersonii) tentatively spreads its rosettes of round leaves, carefully hugging the ground.

The forecast (sun and 60 degrees) and the plants tell me Green Spring is almost here. But we got more snow yesterday morning! We have been so immersed in White Winter that it feels like an unending, recurring dream. How will I ever get my green on? Help! Somebody pinch me!

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Valentine’s Day Message from the Forest

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) flowers were trying to bloom more than two weeks ago – January was ridiculously warm – and NOW, on Valentine’s Day, we are (literally) digging out after the Snowpocalypse. The Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa) is patiently waiting for hints of spring – it may be a while! Meanwhile, I hereby declare it the Tadpole Haven Valentine’s Day Poster Plant!

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)

There are several garden perennials with heart-shaped flowers commonly called Bleeding Heart. The blossoms generally range from red to pink. Our native Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa) flowers are light to dark pink, sometimes white. The ferny-textured foliage can have a slightly bluish tinge, They seed themselves fairly easily and spread via rhizomes to form an attractive deciduous groundcover 1-2 feet tall. They thrive in bright, moist to fairly dry shade. In very dry conditions, in the hottest part of summer, they tend to go dormant and die back, but revive in September before going into winter dormancy.


Historically, the term “bleeding heart” referred to Christ-like compassion and empathy. The wounded heart of Jesus Christ – the Sacred Heart – has been a common Christian symbol since the 1600s.* In the 1930s, an American columnist, Westbrook Pegler, coined the derogatory term “bleeding heart” to refer to those who supported a bill in Congress that aimed to more strongly punish lynching (!).**

That epithet (usually “bleeding heart liberal”) became commonly used in the 1960s to imply unrealistic, excessive—perhaps even hypocritical—sympathy (but many accused of being in that category happily accept the insult as an honorable title—so there!).

One area in which liberals are accused of unrealistic emotional overreaching is caring for the environment. Those accusations tend to be rooted in fear that gains for environmental protection or restoration will add up to losses for humans. But cooperation and mutuality are the answer; humans are not separate from nature.

We can look to nature for guidance; forests and gardens demonstrate mutuality in the way their various elements (plants, mycorrhizal fungi, soil nutrients, invertebrates, birds, amphibians) interact. Certain plants are natural companions: Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and Bleeding Heart, Bleeding Heart and Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum), Star-Flowered False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum stellata) and Bleeding Heart, Bleeding Heart and Inside-out Flower (Vancouveria hexandra), Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata) and Bleeding Heart…

Wild woodlands and cultivated yards also make good settings for fostering mutuality between humans with differing needs and concerns. Getting out in nature is therapeutic for fostering good relationships. Work in the garden, go for a hike. Together.

Let’s Make America Grateful Again

The bitter election season is behind us and the Holiday Season is before us. Thanksgiving is a national day to “count your blessings”, a phrase that conjures in my mind an old-fashioned Grandma telling her grandchildren to stop complaining. But as I look around the nursery, there is so much that needs to be done! It’s hard work. It doesn’t pay that great. It’s rainy and cold outside. And it feels like no matter how many native plants I grow, whole ecosystems are being destroyed faster than I can shake a live stake at!

“Come on”, says Grandma, “a smile is just a frown turned upside down! Turn your attitude into gratitude!”

So I take another look at the nursery. I get to participate in this lovely little business, which gets me outside, gives me plenty of exercise and supports environmental healing. I can be thankful for the plants that I don’t see in front of me, that now are part of that healing. They have become (however briefly) Money-in-the-Bank, preparing to become part of the local economy. I’m thankful for my customers and suppliers, the other growers that do this good work and for the growing public appreciation of native plants and natural areas.

“Good! Good!!” coaxes the Grandma-voice. “But can you think bigger? Remember, Gratitude becomes Kindness!”

Can I expand my gratitude beyond my own personal world? Can I expand my gratitude to include not only the obvious blessings I enjoy as an inhabitant of the USA but also the national-character-building challenges we face? Why not?

So Happy Thanksgiving from this Douglas Fir-hugging, Huckleberry-munching Libtard Eco-freak Grandma to all the inhabitants of these amazing united states of America! Let’s make America grateful again!

Bear Poop Follow-up!

Exactly one year ago, I planted some seed-laced bear poop: Well, the verdict is in: that bear had been eating blackberries. Not our delicious native berries, Trailing Blackberry (Rubus ursinus), but two species of non-natives, the invasive Evergreen and Himalayan Blackberries. Sheesh. So much for that experiment. But, ever the optimist, I got hold of another gob of ursine excrement and I’m trying again. I am pretty sure the seeds in this scat-pile are seeds of Cascade Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa). I really should be seeking scat before the Evergreen and Himalayan Blackberries ripen. I would probably find more diversity of plant seeds represented in a batch of early-July leavings.

All this talk of berries (and it’s been a great year for wild berries) is making me hungry. Smoothies anyone?

Robust Natives at Home

“Is it invasive?” — a common question gardeners ask me while plant-shopping. The word “invasive” gets bandied about a little too freely, in my opinion. I save the “I” word for non-native plants that have invaded our wild landscapes and pose a danger to the ecosystem’s balance. English Ivy suffocates trees and forest-floor plants alike; Purple Loosestrife gradually infests wetlands; Yellow Archangel smothers the forest floor: those are the evil genies that have escaped from their native habitats and flung off the constraints of their natural predators and ailments.*

Of course, some native plants are greedy for territory while some are fairly sedentary, content with their assigned space in the garden. Every plant in any native ecosystem has a niche to occupy that benefits the rest of the system. As gardeners, we do our best to provide a space for each plant that replicates, to some degree, the natural conditions each species has evolved to prefer.

Some plants have evolved to spread quickly, covering ground that has been disturbed by natural forces (fire, windstorm) or human forces (bulldozer, plow). Quick-spreading thicket-forming shrubs such as Nootka Rose (Rosa nutkana) and Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) prevent erosion and ready the land for trees such as Red Alder (Alnus rubra) and Black Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa). Where winter storms have scoured the beaches, Coastal Strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) recovers quickly, sending out rapidly-growing runners several inches at a pop, while the more mature plants anchor their roots deep in the sand. The rapid spread and evergreen leaves give cover to vulnerable dunes and limit erosion. Meanwhile, in the mature forest where the shade is too dark for many species, Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana) happily thrives, its brittle white-and-pink rhizomes rampantly occupying territory until finding equilibrium with fellow native groundcovers. Even in dry areas of the forest, Redwood Sorrel has it made in the shade. The foliage efficiently photosynthesizes limited sunlight. The more moisture it has available, the happier it is, spreading its lush clover-like leaves flat to gather in as much light as possible, folding them down to protect them from rain damage.

These native plants act honestly according to their nature. They are not invaders in their own home territory; they are just doing their job, thriving in their natural niche. If someone plants them, expecting them to remain within artificial boundaries when it is obvious to the plant in question that more territory with favorable conditions is available, the personalities of the human gardener and the active native plant may clash. Understanding is called for on the part of the human (we are supposed to be the smart ones J). I prefer acknowledging the energy of these particular natives by describing them as vigorous, robust, rampant or perhaps even aggressive. Please don’t call them invasive – they are at home!

*Some good resources on TRULY invasive species:

Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board,

King County Noxious Weed List,

Snohomish County Noxious Weeds,