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Attitude Adjustment

The holidays are long gone. The New Year’s resolutions are already in a shambles. It’s dumping rain.  I’ve already changed my wet clothes once today. I’m trying to muster up a modicum of enthusiasm for venturing outside again to engage with nature. I need an attitude adjustment, maybe a positive affirmation. A feeble thought emerges from my rain-soaked brain: The winter woods have gifts to offer.

I try repeating this to my ungrateful self and it engenders protest, then a slight progression toward positivity. 1) Are you kidding me? It’s nasty out there!  2) What’s to see right now? It’s dark and the shrubs have no leaves–just a bunch of ugly sticks. 3)  Then I hear my father’s voice: “Get your raingear on, get out there and conquer the elements!”

I make myself repeat: “The winter woods have gifts to offer. The winter woods have gifts to offer.”  What the heck. The dog needs a walk anyway.

I squish across the field in my rubber boots. Anyone in their right mind with any kind of a bank account is currently heading for Mexico or at least southern California. But despite my bad attitude, the slender leafless twigs of native shrubs catch my attention. I get a smug, warm feeling when I am able to identify native plants just from the look of their bare twigs. Saskatoon’s (Amelanchier alnifolia) reddish-orange twigs almost fool me into thinking that it is Pacific Crabapple (Malus fusca). Black Twinberry (Lonicera involucrata) is easy to identify, with its convincingly dead-looking beige-gray stems and opposite nodes. I should dig out my copy of Winter Twigs (Gilkey & Packard, 1962 Oregon State University Press).

The two species grow across the field from one another. Black Twinberry is keeping company with Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata), Deer Fern (Blechnum spicant), Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis). They are happy in the sopping winter wet.   Saskatoon grows beside Salal (Gaultheria shallon), Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum), Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) and Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) on somewhat higher ground.

  • Saskatoon is also known as Serviceberry or Juneberry. It thrives in a variety of conditions, from moist, mostly shady conditions to dry, exposed locations. Here by the nursery, it grows wild on the edge of the forest (moist, shady) and its form (easy to see in mid-winter!) is that of a small tree, with a single trunk and horizontal spreading branches. But in an open, sunny spot it is shrubby, with multiple stems. Though it can grow over 20’ tall, it is usually 6-10’ tall. It has small, oval leaves that are serrated at the tips. The leaves tend to be a pleasing blue-green, turning nice shades of yellow to red in the fall. It has very attractive clusters of white-petaled flowers in spring and small, edible purple berries in summer. A wide variety of birds eat the berries.
  • Black Twinberry likes moist to wet soils. Mature height is generally about 9’. In the sun, it grows full and fat; in the shade, tall and lanky. Both hummingbirds and butterflies appreciate the late spring blooms. The small paired yellow flowers look like little trumpets, and give way to two shiny black berries. As the berries ripen, the bracts (petal-like leaves) which hold them turn a striking scarlet-purple. Birds love the berries, but the fruit is inedible for humans. Beside a stream or on a wet hillside, Twinberry’s roots do a good job of anchoring the soil against erosion.

What gift came from the woods today? Besides a warm smugness when I was able to identify a “bunch of ugly sticks”, looking carefully at these dormant native shrubs helped me recognize their uniqueness in the ecosystem. Focusing on nature gave proper perspective of my place in the circle of life. And best of all, the call of the winter woods reminded me of my dad. “Get your raingear on, get out there and conquer the elements!”


Future Cloud-reachers

Fall is a terrific time to plant trees in the Puget Sound region. They will have all winter to get their roots established before the dry summer comes again. Planting in the fall is especially beneficial if summer watering won’t be possible.

Tadpole Haven carries a full range of lowland native plants, from forest-floor creepers to trees that someday, many years in the future, will have their tops in the clouds. Native trees join heaven and earth! What a legacy to leave!

Tall, cloud-touching evergreen conifer trees here in lowland Western Washington are very important participants in the water cycle. In the summer, they shade streams and lakes, keeping the water cool for trout, salmon and other freshwater creatures. In the winter, a large percentage of the water that falls on them from the sky stays in the canopy formed by their branches, never reaching the ground. This protects precious soil from being washed away by our copious rainfall and slows the flow of surface water, giving time for rain to percolate into the soil rather than washing toxins and nutrients into our streams and rivers. The trees then slowly release moisture back into the atmosphere. Tall evergreens are extremely important in creating a diverse ecology, whether in a small patch of woodland or in a large forest. They provide habitat for birds and animals that thrive high in the forest canopy. In recent years, scientists have identified temperate rain forests, dominated by conifers such as Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis), as important carbon sinks which keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, thus slowing climate change.

Our state tree, the Western Hemlock, dominates the old second-growth forest near Tadpole Haven. You can see that, over time, the upper branches are creating a dense canopy. Though it is not the tallest evergreen tree west of the Cascades, this graceful fine-needled conifer grows nearly 200 feet tall. You can tell the Western Hemlock from the other conifers in the forest by looking at the top of the tree; if the tip of the leader bends over, it is a Hemlock. In the lifecycle of the forest, Western Hemlock is a bit of a latecomer, getting established once there is shade available to protect its seedlings. It will grow in wet to fairly dry sites, and thrives in moist woods. It is a good tree to plant in an area you are trying to restore to a naturally diverse, healthy habitat. It is best to plant it away from buildings, since it is more easily toppled by wind than our other native conifers.

Sitka Spruce is another tall conifer that tops out at about 200 feet; it can become quite a massive tree. My favorite way to identify Sitka Spruce is to gently grab a branch (gently!) to see if the needles are sharp. If they are, it is probably a Spruce. Sitka Spruce grows in moist to fairly wet soils, does fine in the sun, and can survive with little rainfall as long as there is fog to moisten its needles (it literally needs to touch the clouds!). It thrives in the forested wetland adjacent to the nursery, growing next to wet muck on hummocks that probably started out as Western Hemlock (!) nurse logs.

Rain! Bears! Seeds! Colors!

It is refreshing to have the nip of Fall in the air now, to be free of the smoke that swallowed the Seattle area for so long this summer. We got ½” of rain in mid-September. Yay! That was enough to perk up the Sword Ferns (Polystichum munitum) a little bit and damp down the trail dust. I’m not sure if that first rain was enough to trigger the “first flush” phenomenon; the first rains of Autumn are a mixed blessing. They wash contaminants—chemicals and hydrocarbons—off pavements and lawns and into lakes and streams. Those of us in cities and suburbs (with lots of ‘impervious surfaces’) will have to get past this before the water clears. That is one excellent reason to keep as much water-filtering natural vegetation as possible.

More rain is in the forecast. It will take a while before the creeks start to fill their beds and the rivers rise enough to welcome the spawning salmon home to their natal beds. Aptly named Bear Creek, which flows past Tadpole Haven, hosts a relatively healthy salmon population. I don’t know if there are still enough returning salmon for their spawned-out carcasses to nourish our bears, but I’m sure the bears will appreciate whatever they can find.

Speaking of bears, you will be thrilled to know that I found more bear poop! Two mornings in a row, in the same spot: in the middle of the driveway, right in front of God, the Pope and everybody. NOT in the woods. Handy, for me, the intrepid bear-poop hunter-gatherer.  More seeds to plant!*

I still haven’t gathered seeds from the Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata). It has produced a lot of seeds, but it just keeps on blooming! It’s been blooming since April, I think. A perennial plant, whose constellations of petite white-to-pinkish flowers reach a modest 15” height, Foamflower looks terrific when planted in multiples. A nice patch of Foamflower gives the illusion of sea foam on the waves of green. The 3-leaflet leaves usually don’t die back completely in the winter—they just flatten to the earth and wait for spring.


Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata)

Foamflower is often found in the same habitat as Vine Maple (Acer circinatum): shade (at least partial) with good drainage. They are both often under an open canopy of large evergreen trees like Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). Foamflower is part of the forest floor layer of vegetation, helping provide shelter for insects, amphibians and essential decomposers. Vine Maple, which can reach 20’ or so, fills a mid-level niche in the forest, providing cover and food for birds and small mammals.

Vine Maple in full shade tends to bow over at a certain height, creating dramatic, graceful arches. Thus the name, VINE Maple. In open areas, such as roadsides, it grows more erect, and exposure to the sun helps it develop stunning Fall color. Already, I’m seeing some beautiful colors on them: peach to orange to coral and crimson.

You can observe those gorgeous colors along Paradise Lake Road on your way to Tadpole Haven Native Plants!

Bears About!

The forest is VERY dry.

Our native plants are adapted to our wet winters and droughty summers, but 2017 has been extreme. That staunchest of natives, the Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum), is suffering in multitudes. Its proud fronds that three weeks ago were standing four feet tall off the forest floor have collapsed and their little frondlets are twisted and crunchy. Devil’s Club’s (Oplopanax horridus) huge spiky leaves are wilted and soft-looking and evergreen tree branches have sagged as their cells have lost moisture. When will we be delivered from all this foliar suffering?

The wild animals found a partial answer; the nursery is an oasis. Everything is so juicy. The deer have pruned the Red-twig Dogwoods (Cornus sericea), one of their favorites. The rabbits, too, partake. They like the small plants, especially Tadpole Haven’s young huckleberry crops, wild strawberry plants, and Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana). Most of these plants, when grown in abundance, only suffer around the edges—the rest of the patch does fine. The deer also love to neatly trim off Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) leaves one at a time. Luckily, Thimbleberry is a resilient plant and this will not set them back one whit.

The bears have also been visiting the nursery and the surrounding woods. Two different bears, one young and one old, trek through the woods on a regular basis, often choosing to nap in the woods between the nursery and the mailbox on the road. I know, because Gus the Brittany tells me exactly where the bear is. Lisa and I saw the small one TODAY, thanks to Gus’ alertness! It ran into the swampy woods on the far end of the lower field. Exciting, but a little scary!Screenshot_20170726bearatpottingbench

Not only did the bears provide summer thrills more wholesome than any creepy summer movie clown, they answered one of life’s persistent questions: Does a bear s**t in the woods? (Yes–with ample solid proof)

I had been planning to harvest some Cascade Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa) berries for seed. So I walked up the mailbox trail, where I knew I could find a lot. But they were all gone—the bears beat me to them, I bet. I ventured off into the woods, searching for the little “grapes” and realized I was on a wildlife trail. It became obvious that this was the trail the bears traverse past the nursery; I found three piles of bear scat. Full of seeds! Eureka! The mother lode! Some of the seeds must be Oregon Grape, I thought. I ran back to the nursery shed for a bucket and trowel.

That’s been 10 days ago, easy. I’ve been in possession of a moldering lump of bear poop since then. Today is the day.

Okay, so I snapped on a pair of latex gloves and chunked up the bear poop with the sticks, fir needles and moss that had come with it. Once semi-spreadable, I plopped it into two propagation flats. Voila! Now I just have to wait 1-2 years…

What other kinds of seeds are in there? Devil’s Club? Cherries? Salal (Gaultheria shallon)? Pacific Crabapple (Malus fusca)? Cascara (Rhamnus purshiana)? What’s your guess?

A cheery note about Weather!

I promise, next time I will write about bear poop.

After the wondrous strange beauty of the eclipse, now the sun shines blood red in a sky full of smoke, ashfall dulling every leaf, every shiny surface. The days feel heavy. Our native forests burn.

Tuesday, the sun glowed red-orange all day. The dog lay listless, a flat slab in the dust that used to be a green field. Even morning was muggy and hot. My shirt stuck to my back as we spread wood chips for a new crop of Sword Ferns (Polystichum munitum). Every so often I found myself not thinking entirely clearly; I forgot what I had planned to do just a moment before, or I said something that didn’t make sense, garbling my words.

What to make of this portentous weather? Climate change? The evidence is piling up. Here, right now: a record-breakingly wet winter followed by a record dry summer.  Elsewhere — in the southeastern part of the USA and South Asia — storms, hurricanes, floods. If not quite apocalyptic, at least akin to science fiction. Climate change models predict that here in the maritime parts of the Northwest we will get wetter winters and drier summers.

But it could be that this year is just an exaggeration of the weather pattern in which native plants and Seattleites have evolved to thrive: rainy winters and summer drought. Just a one-time anomaly. Don’t you think?

I would prefer climate change stay in the realm of science fiction. In fact, I really don’t want to know about climate change. I don’t want to hear about it. I don’t want to deal with it. I just want to live my life and go back to the genteel days when weather was a light topic for everyday chitchat, especially useful when socializing with those of opposite political viewpoints: everyone can agree to complain about the rain in the winter or joke about the summers in Seattle being three days long.

This is how I really feel. But the wildfire smoke, the oppressive wraparound smoke: I wake in the wee hours with a sore throat. The smoke reminds me of my place, a creature enveloped in creation. No attempt to hold myself apart from or above nature will succeed. My every breath confirms that something is wrong in the world of nature; it is wrong in our very depths. Any power we have should not be wasted on escape attempts, but wielded creatively and helpfully to craft solutions. What can we come up with?

If we can’t talk about weather for fun anymore, maybe we can enjoy our native plants together. We can admire the changing colors on Vine Maple (Acer circinatum) leaves. We can talk about which is cuter, purple-flowered Early Blue Violet (Viola adunca)  or the four-foot tall pink flower clusters of Henderson’s Checkermallow (Sidalcea hendersonii). We can agree that Twinflower (Linnaea borealis) is one of the most exquisite groundcovers on the planet (and even though it only grows four or five inches high, it is classified as a woody shrub).

Never-ceasing Wonders

We have returned from “The Zone of Totality”, witnesses to Monday’s Great American Eclipse. Everyone in our group wore those funny glasses, watching the sun shrink to an orange sliver through the lens. But the daylight only turned to star-specked darkness as the last rays of the sun slipped behind the moon’s black disk. We pulled off our glasses and whooped, cheered and howled at the beauty of the sun’s corona, a thin silver ring emanating delicate wisps of fiery starlight. Two minutes later, still bare-eyed, totality ended with a burst of welding-flame-bright sunlight (the awesome “diamond ring effect”) and forced us mere mortals to cover our eyes against the glory of the universe once again. As the shadow slowly slid off the sun, we resumed the more mundane eclipse-watching entertainments like taking pictures of dogs wearing eclipse glasses and admiring the tiny eclipse shadows cast by the foliage of trees and shrubs.

Back at work in the nursery, attending to everyday watering of trees and shrubs, Gus the Brittany Spaniel (Tyrannosaurus gus), announced with happy barking the discovery of another natural wonder (which he was hoping to eat, of course). A tiny owl alternated between fiercely peeping while jumping at Gus’ face and taking short (10-15’) flights to get away. After I got my pet predator under control, I managed to get a good look at the extremely cute owl. It rested against a little four-inch pot of Fringecup (Tellima grandiflora) until I got too close and it flew again, landing among Evergreen Violets (Viola sempervirens). I was trying to get a photo of it, but I decided to stop terrorizing it after it flew into a bed of Vanilla Leaf (Achlys triphylla). After some research, I believe Gus’ discovery was a fledgling Northern Pygmy Owl. I have never seen one before. It was beautiful! I failed to get a good picture of it, but here is a link to a picture of one.

Native plants and trees are not as Awesome as a Total Eclipse and generally not as Totally Cute as a Baby Owl, but they give life, receiving and distributing the energy of the Sun to all creatures great and small, feeding us, sheltering us, soothing us with gentle beauty and casting eclipse shadows through their leaves.

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.