Breathe, Love

Last week, we attempted a 3-day hiatus from reality to the Methow Valley, beyond the jagged peaks of the North Cascades. As we left home, smoke was moving into Western Washington from wildfires blazing east and south of the Methow Valley, which was surprisingly clear until Friday, when we returned home. By Friday, the wind had changed. It was smoky in the Methow, but ever so much smokier once we crested Rainy Pass and began to descend into the lowlands of Western Washington. Breathing would have been easier had we stayed in Eastern Washington.

Breathing has been a theme of 2020. We began the year with much awareness of planetary climate change. Then Covid-19 took our breath away with its sudden onslaught. The “I can‘t breathe”/Black Lives Matter movement swept over us. And now, wildfires and smoke in our region have brought us back to climate change.

Wendell Berry in 1989 wrote that we cannot solve problems on a planetary or global scale:

“The adjective ‘planetary’ describes a problem in such a way that it cannot be solved … The problems, if we describe them accurately, are all private and small. Or they are so initially … The question that must be addressed, therefore, is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others.”

Then he delivers a shockingly simple declaration:

“…Only love can do it. … Love is never abstract. It does not adhere to the universe or the planet or the nation or the institution or the profession, but to the singular sparrows of the street, the lilies of the field, ‘the least of these my brethren.’”*

Can we do it? Can we fall in love again with Planet Earth? Plant a seedling – can you fall in love again with the lump of soil you hold in your hands?

Recoupin’ with the lupine

Feeling weary? Down? Angry? Imitate the leapin’ lupines (Big-Leaf Lupine/Lupinus polyphyllus). That will cheer you up, or at least give you a good stretch.

The Big-leaf Lupine by the office got ferociously battered by the rain last weekend. Some of it was knocked over cIMG_0285lupin recoupinompletely (I don’t recall this ever happening before–the Lupine is pretty sturdy). But this picture, taken on Tuesday, shows resilience in action. The spires of blossoms bent up 90 degrees to vertical.

Makes me want to do some yoga moves!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sound of Hope

We look to nature for hope: The constancy of the seasons, the firmness of the earth, the resilience of a forest after fire.

A frog has returned this spring to the pools in the nursery. Up until two or three years ago, we had at least a few Pacific Chorus Frogs peeping, mating and laying eggs in our blue kiddy pools which were unglamorously scattered around. Dozens of tadpoles would hatch out and some would successfully metamorphose into adult frogs by fall.

Pacific Chorus Frog-BrianBodenbach

Pacific Chorus Frog (Hyla Regilla) by Brian Bodenbach

But then we had a couple of summers when the water in the kiddy pools heated up too much. The tadpoles died quietly; we humans only realized the tragedy as a disappearance.

So we put in a fancy little pool just for the frogs, much deeper to keep it cooled by the earth. At the same time, we attempted to reduce weeds throughout much of the nursery by laying down synthetic ground cloth over the woodchips in our plant zones. I thought the switch to ground cloth discouraged the frogs. Brian, who knows much more about amphibians than I, feared something more dire: some kind of disease. He had noticed a reduction in the spring mating calls in other places as well.

We can debate up the ying-yang about what causes the decline of species: is it “a natural cycle” or “human-caused”? In an area that has such a great amount of human incursion into formerly natural areas, is there still such a thing as “a natural cycle”?

It is sometimes difficult to notice that something is gone if there is nothing to call attention to it.

Humans look to nature for hope, yes. And the sounds and sights of spring are reassuring in this stressful pandemic-time. But it goes the other way, too. Nature looks to humanity for hope.

A frog calls every evening from the fancy pool. If that’s not the sound of hope, what is?

March 4, 2020 DELECTABILITY (Vote for Huckleberries!)

If you have been following the Presidential Primary news, you keep hearing the term “electability”. Well, at Tadpole Haven Native Plants, we’ve been thinking about “delectability”!

Many of our natives are quite edible, though some are appreciated more by wildlife than for people. The native Huckleberries are quite delectable. We currently have lots of lovely Evergreen Huckleberry plants in stock.* Though not as sweet or juicy as the cultivated blueberries, these small purply-black berries are very good!

VAOV IMGP4846Evergreens

Evergreen Huckleberries are top-notch landscape plants with small, shiny leaves. New growth in the spring is red and turns bronze before it changes to green. They thrive in a fairly wide range of conditions: full shade to mostly sun, as long as some shade protects them during the hottest part of a summer’s day (hard to imagine right now!). They do well in pretty dry shade, though they may grow more slowly. Soil that drains, whether clay-ey or sandy, is a major requirement. More of their cute, pink, heather-like flowers — which then produce clusters of fruit – will form if they get a lot of sun. Helpful hint: harvest berries after the first fall frost. The cold weather sets the sugars, making them sweeter – more detectably delectable!

Many other edible plants are in stock right now:

Plants with edible berries or berry-like fruit:

Fragaria chiloensis/Coastal Strawberry, Gaultheria shallon/Salal, Mahonia aquifolium/Tall Oregon Grape, Mahonia repens/Creeping Oregon Grape, Ribes sanguineum/Red-Flowering Currant, Rubus parviflorus/Thimbleberry, Rubus spectabilis/Salmonberry, Malus fusca/Pacific Crabapple, Oemleria cerasiformis/Indian Plum, Amelanchier alnifolia/Saskatoon

Rose “hips” for tea:

Rosa gymnocarpa/Bald-hip Rose, Rosa nutkana/Nootka Rose, Rosa pisocarpa/Cluster Rose

The new, unfurling fiddleheads:

Adiantum pedatum/Maidenhair Fern, Athyrium filix-femina/Lady Fern, Dryopteris expansa/Wood Fern, Polystichum munitum/Sword Fern

With edible leaves:

Claytonia sibirica /Siberian Miner’s Lettuce, Mahonia aquifolium/Tall Oregon Grape, Mahonia repens/Creeping Oregon Grape, Oxalis oregana/Redwood Sorrel, Urtica dioica/Stinging Nettle

With edible flowers:

Claytonia sibirica /Siberian Miner’s Lettuce, Acer macrophyllum/Big-Leaf Maple, Mahonia aquifolium/Tall Oregon Grape, Mahonia repens/Creeping Oregon Grape

Edible bulbs:

Cammassia leichtlinii/Great Camas, Sagittaria latifolia/Wapato

Nuts:

Corylus cornuta/Western Hazelnut

Medicinal berries:

Crataegus douglasii/Douglas Hawthorn, Rhamnus purshiana/Cascara

Medicinal roots:

Oplopanax horridus/Devil’s Club

 

*It will be a few years before these plants will produce notable quantities of fruit.

February 20, 2020 The Pool Table

The glorious sunshine we are experiencing has almost made me forget how wet it was two weeks ago, but I am still puzzling over an odd vision I saw at the height of high water. In the green field against a backdrop of dripping Cedar, Spruce and Red-twig Dogwood*, stood a pool table surrounded by six-inch deep, clear floodwater from the nearby pond.

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As our rainy, rainy January sloshed into February, I kind of wanted to hop a plane to somewhere south of the Equator. That’s where my co-worker, Lisa, has been! Checking out the native plants of Uganda and tracking gorillas. And my son and new daughter-in-law have been on their honeymoon in South America, befriending llamas, exploring ancient civilizations and enjoying summer. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the ground was squishy, full to capacity with water. Between mudslides, flooding and resulting traffic jams, I wasn’t sure if I would make it home at night!

Last July (it seems a decade ago), my son and his bride celebrated their marriage on the family homestead adjacent to the nursery. It was an “epic” (my son’s descriptor) party: three days of camping, live music, s’mores around campfires, people shooting pool on the pool table (yes, THE pool table) brought in for the occasion, wonderful food, drinking games and an Epic Float which filled the pond with colorful air mattresses, inflatable unicorns, splashing and laughter. The epic weekend culminated in a beautiful outdoor wedding. Approximately19 gorgeous bridesmaids flowed in waves of peach and coral, and — less conspicuous – a contingent of groomsmen wore Hawaiian shirts. The congregation of friends, family and wedding party focused on the action at the rustic wedding arbor, which my son had built from Hemlock** poles. A friend had harvested roses from her garden and decorated the arbor. Blooming pink, white and mauve hydrangeas from Paradise Lake Nursery down the road flanked the arbor, mingled with many native plants recruited from Tadpole Haven Native Plants: Paper birches, Vine Maples, Twinflower, Deer Ferns, Sword Ferns, Maidenhair Ferns, Salal.***

Fast forward to post-Groundhog Day, post-Super Bowl, post-post-wedding. Post-inches-of-rain. The dog and I trudged down the path. I trudged in my rubber boots; Tyrannosaurus Gus raced to and fro, smelling rabbits, moles, ducks. The pond lay ahead, rippling with raindrops and expanded well beyond the usual shoreline. To my right stood the wedding arbor, bare of décor, but still beautiful. Closer to the pond, I saw a marshmallow-toasting firepit immersed in the flood; several pieces of floating firewood slowly processed toward open water. Threatening to follow, a collection of canoe paddles and the cache of deflated floaties, green and smeary with algae. The picnic tables were engulfed to their benchtops.

But it was the pool table up to its ankles in water that stopped me in my tracks. This vision still confuses me. It demands attention. It is an assault on common sense –don’t ask me why it is still out here six months later, I have no idea. Is it in the wrong place or the right place? Is it a joke? A sacrifice to the rain gods? Maybe it is a simple invitation to play pool in a pond. Pull off the puddled tarp, chalk up your cue stick, squint through the rain and take your shot. Out-of-doors, where you belong.

Not sure what this has to do with selling native plants, but I guess our lives belong in nature. We are part of nature – rain or shine – alongside granite rocks, giant orcas, musty humus and Cascara berries.

*Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata), Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis), Red-twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea)

**Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla)

*** Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera), Vine Maple (Acer circinatum), Twinflower (Linnea borealis), Deer Fern (Blechnum spicant), Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum), Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum), Salal (Gaultheria shallon)

Nov. 7, 2019: Prayers and Princesses

Last Saturday I visited Snoqualmie Falls with my daughter’s family. The day before our visit, the Snoqualmie Tribe announced their purchase of the land around the Falls, including the Lodge, ending the threat of extensive additional development. Good news for this beautiful place! I was delighted. And good news for the Tribe which considers sacred the falls and the surrounding land; the billowing mists are prayers.

I tried to keep that in mind as we sought gaps in the crowd along the cliffside railing through which to look at the always-spectacular waterfall and as we hiked down to the river below the falls with a thousand other families.

My two little granddaughters (2½ and 4½) are enamored of princesses, which is both adorable and annoying in this age of supposed equality. But their parents have brilliantly harnessed this princess-obsession: both girls have hiking dresses that slip on over their playclothes and fleece jackets, transforming them into Disney princesses. One is Belle from Beauty and the Beast and the other is Elsa of Frozen fame. They are only allowed to wear these special dresses when they are hiking. Should they decide not to hike (“Daddy, carry me!”), the dress is removed and stuffed in the backpack.

Down by the river, the two princesses climbed on boulders, managing to avoid tripping on their elegant gowns, and the grown-ups spared a tiny moment to imagine what this place was like before the power plant, before the Lodge, before the highway noise, before the crowds, when the only sounds were birdsong and falling water.

Time to hike back up. The littlest princess whimpered at the endless steep hill and began to beg to be carried. “Okay,” says Dad, “but first we have to put your dress in the backpack.” Reminded of the rule, the teeny princess became a hiking machine! On the way back up, the girls were moving slowly enough that I could encourage some appreciation of the mist-dampened native plants along the trail: “Look! See the Piggy-back Plant [I spared them the Latin – Tolmiea menziesii – I’m not that weird]. The baby plants are riding on the Mama-leaf!” I tried to call attention to a big old Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), but they were more interested in clambering on a log and trying out a natural Vine Maple (Acer circinatum) jungle-gym.

It’s been a positive week. Good news plus plucky princesses lift my spirit. And November’s mists and fog fill the air with hope.

Oh, summer! How we miss you!

Sog-time again. Raining, even flooding, and the wind has stripped the gold off the maples. As I work in the nursery, I can see Michaela across the field deflating air mattresses and other floaties left over from July’s “Epic Float”, celebrating the wedding of Michaela and my son, Erik. Now the brightly colored plastic remnants of that summer-day celebration are slimy and dirty and limp . Oh, summer! How we miss you!

But all around me is evidence of summer’s energy still at work. We have had several frosts, yet the bright green leaves of Oregon Stonecrop (Sedum oreganum) are still fat little rosettes . I know this will change soon; they will redden and disappear.

After the drought of summer, cooler September weather stimulated the Ocean Spray (Holodiscus discolor) to sprout some new shoots and scalloped leaves. Although most of the older leaves have fallen off, these new leaves are persisting, for now.

Both Oregon Stonecrop and Ocean Spray are summer-lovers like myself. They will welcome the sun again in in April and May. They are considered “drought-tolerant” plants , and thrive in hot sunny locations. But from now until late spring , there are no hot sunny locations in Western Washington! Luckily , these are native plants which can stand the wet, wet winters here.

Low-growing (3-6 inches) Oregon Stonecrop easily finds space to creep. It is a succulent groundcover with plump round leaves that turn from bright green to bronze late in the summer. Its yellow umbrella-like clusters of flowers provide nectar for bees and butterflies.

A lovely big deciduous shrub (9-12 feet tall), Ocean Spray loves full, blasting-hot sun in the summer, but also does well in partial shade. Blooming in June, its graceful long clumps of tiny creamy-white flowers make it look like it’s covered in bridal bouquets. They attract tiny pollinators which in turn attracts birds. The flower clusters, holding thousands of tiny seeds, dry and hang on through the winter, sheltering many insects, attracting protein-hungry small birds and offering humans esthetically pleasing “winter interest”.

The Amazing Sword Fern

The Amazing Sword Fern

by Brian Bodenbach

One day in the early 1990s, I was checking out a recently completed stream restoration with a fisheries biologist who had participated in the project. At the time, large-scale restoration projects were just becoming common in our region. He asked for my opinion on which native understory plant is best for erosion and runoff control.

Sword fern 2 (003)

“On a watershed scale–hands down–the Sword Fern!” I emphatically replied. He looked a bit perplexed. I think that he expected me to name any of a number of deciduous shrubs–Red-osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea), Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilus) , Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), etcetera–that had quickly become popular among restoration designers. Deciduous shrubs like these made up the majority (and often still do) of plantings in restoration projects. On one hand, this makes sense; many of these native shrubs grow and establish quickly, and some spread to form dense thickets. This has big advantages in the short term as a large area can quickly become re-vegetated. But in the long run I think this actually becomes detrimental to the goal of many restoration projects: bringing the land back to being a coniferous-dominated forest–one of the planet’s most biologically rich landscapes. And in our region, beneath that canopy of big conifer trees –Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)–there is often a shrub and groundcover layer built on a foundation of Sword Fern.

As in many design fields, Landscape Design observes a rule of thumb: Form Follows Function. Whether I am designing/installing a backyard landscape or large restoration project, or maintaining an existing landscape, the same questions always come to mind: How can I take the water falling from the sky and the building downspouts and a) use it to nourish the plants and b) put the rest into the ground to slowly feed into the local stream and benefit the salmon? How to maximize the habitat potential of a little corner of a small yard to provide cover and food for birds, pollinators and other wildlife? How to delineate a large restoration area into zones: one for wildlife that prefer deep forest, one for open-land dwellers, and additional zones for streamside and wetland areas? And how to accomplish all this in a way that feels natural and looks beautiful? Anchoring all of this is my personal palette of plants that serve multiple functions to meet those objectives. Sword Fern occupies an important place on that palette.

Sword fern 1

Why is the Sword Fern so important? For starters, the Sword Fern is evergreen; it retains its foliage year-round. This is a big deal. In a part of the country where eighty percent of annual precipitation comes in the form of rain falling during the “winter months”—from October into May, having evergreen foliage means there is something to break the force of rain before it hits the ground. Especially when one looks at an entire hillside covered with Sword Ferns, it’s easy to see that this goes a long way towards preventing erosion and controlling runoff. Also, the foliage of evergreen plants tends to take longer to decompose. I have read that Sword Ferns fronds can take up to seven years to totally decompose (although my own observations around greater Seattle seem more like three or four). Contrast this with deciduous plants, the ground under which can go from a layer of leaves in fall to almost bare dirt by the end of the following summer. Again, big implications for erosion and runoff.

Sword Fern creates habitat. The buildup of fronds in varying stages of decay forms a ‘skirt’ around its base which creates cover for wildlife. I find more amphibians (frogs, salamanders etc.) hunkered down in the dense duff surrounding Sword Ferns than anywhere else. State biologist Marc Hayes tells me there is a correlation between the presence of native amphibians in Sword Fern duff (e.g. the Northern Red-legged Frog, in steep decline around here) and mollusks (slugs and snails), some of their favorite food. I suspect this dense duff also helps with thermoregulation (the ability to avoid the extremes of winter cold and summer heat).

And those roots! Sword Fern roots grow into a dense fibrous mass that can extend down as deep as two feet. This root mass does a great job of locking up the critical life-giving humus/high organic soil layer that feeds the landscape and to which the Sword Fern contributes with its accumulation of slowly decomposing fronds. The so-called “gardeners gold” in my world. Early in my landscape career, when given the opportunity to rescue Sword Ferns from an impending development site, I would always try to get as large a root ball as possible when digging mature plants from the ground to lessen transplant shock. This sometimes meant muscling 150-pound plants out of the ground and into the truck. And I knew that I hadn’t even gotten the entire root ball. It didn’t take long for my body to let me know this wasn’t that great an idea! From a business perspective, the amount of time and effort it took convinced that young knuckle-headed landscaper that purchasing nursery-grown potted ferns was the better way to go.

Early this year, Shirley and I attended a Native Plant Society meeting on a mysterious Sword Fern die-off* that has been noticed in several areas including Seward Park in Seattle. One of the things we learned is that there is some evidence that Sword Ferns can have a very long lifespan; one fern expert said they may live as long as 1,000 years! I was not surprised to hear this. I believe this is true of many understory plants in a stable, forested landscape. The die-offs are something that really concern me since I recognized long ago the critical role this one plant species plays in maintaining a healthy coastal northwest ecosystem. The cause of the die-offs has not been discovered, but some think climate change may play a role. Fortunately, some of the areas experiencing die-offs have been replanted with some success. What the future holds in a world with a rapidly changing climate, no one knows for sure.

What follows may seem a little romanticized, but for me this is true. To many, the Sword Fern is so ubiquitous on the northwest landscape as to almost escape notice. What I see though is the workhorse of the watershed. When I look at forested hillsides carpeted with Sword Ferns, or pay attention to the here-and-there patches I have planted in our yard over the years, I see red legged frogs. I see stable slopes. At the foot of a slope, I see spawning salmon thrashing in their natal stream. I see a winter wren hopping on a log and scooting among the fern fronds, its beautiful song in counterpoint with the soft pitter-patter of winter rain falling on fern fronds. I hear an unseen Swainson’s Thrush calling under the canopy of the cathedral forest. Form follows function.

*3 web links to info on mysterious Sword Fern die-off: Seattle Times, a blog about Seward Park’s Sword Ferns, Tim Billo presentation


Brian Bodenbach (Biosphere Landscaping) has been an important contributor in many ways to Tadpole Haven’s success. His practical skills are very handy, but his knowledge of native plants, ecosystems and restorative landscaping is invaluable.

A more collaborative approach to Salal

IMGP3499SalalFlowersWBeeYears ago, a new neighbor moved in next door. Her home was pleasantly set among Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) trees. She confessed (though not very contritely) to a Sin-Against-Creation: she had taken a sample of the rangy, woody evergreen plant that grew at the base of the tall trees to a local nursery and demanded: “What is this? And how do I get rid of it?” With a look of horror, the nursery employee had informed her that the plant was our precious native Salal (Gaultheria shallon).

A Swedish relative came to visit my cousin’s family, who lived on 5 mostly-wooded acres east of Seattle. The Swede noted that, in many ways, the Puget Sound area reminded him of the Swedish landscape, green and verdant and largely forested, except… and he waved his hands at the underbrush growing among the sturdy trunks of tall Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata), Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and Douglas Fir, and said, rather scornfully, “but what is all this, this [he couldn’t find an English word for it] stuff?”

Apparently, there is something in the human psyche that wants clear sight lines through the forest (the better to see large predators?). Or maybe it is just human nature to neaten things up, to control it, to tame it.

Here in the forests of maritime Cascadia–the Garden of Eden where we have been placed–we are blessed with brush, brush and more brush! Depending on the stage of growth a particular patch of woods is in, it will have a certain amount of “understory shrubs” (a more PC phrase than “brush”). For example, the edge of a forest or in a forest with still-small trees will be infested/thick/lush with Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), Salal, Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum), Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) and/or any of a long list of view-blocking bushes. But a stand of old growth trees is much more open, because the canopies of the trees overlap, making the forest floor very shady.

Back to my new neighbor’s Salal. Growing near the front door in dense shade, it was rather sparse, with tufts of round leaves nodding at the top of tall stems. Okay, it was homely. But instead of adopting a warlike attitude (“How do I get rid of it?”), let’s imagine that she pursued educating herself (“What is this?” was a good starting point). She learned that Salal has many benefits: shelter for birds, small mammals and amphibians, nectar for bees from its pink, heather-like flowers (Salal is in the Ericaceae/Heath family), soil-anchoring power in its spreading rhizomes and raindrop-deflecting evergreen foliage, and berries for everyone! She quelled her post-Edenfruit-gnoshing-gardener-run-amok tendencies a bit and took a more collaborative approach: How can I nudge this scraggly specimen toward lush beauty? And then she discovered that pruning the woody stems down to 3-6” (or so) every few years in early spring rejuvenates the plant so it bushes out. And pruning up some tree limbs above it let more light reach the ground, giving her entire woodland garden a new lease on life.

She learned that Salal thrives in the very dry, shady conditions directly under her large Douglas Firs. She added some Sword Fern, Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), groundcovers–Inside-out Flower (Vancouveria hexandra), Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana), Twinflower (Linnaea borealis)—and the dainty blooms of Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata), and … Hallelujah, she was back in the Garden again!

Salal grows slowly and doesn’t transplant easily, so it makes sense to buy it from a nursery (hint, hint). Its roots will be well-established and ready for a home.

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.

 

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