Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Pacific Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa var. racemosa)

Sambus racemosa

Respect your elders! Words of wisdom to be sure, and I can’t help but apply them to elderberry shrubs as well. Long regarded as weedy, native elderberry approval ratings are inching up due to their ecological, medicinal, and ornamental charms.

Besides having good looks and high wildlife value, the botanical name given to this deciduous shrub attests to centuries of use by humans. The genus name, Sambucus, comes from Latin (sambūcus), from Ancient Greek σαμβύκη (sambúkē, “sambuca”), and ultimately from Aramaic ܣܐܒܒܥܚܐ‎ (sabbekha). It originates from the plant’s association with an ancient musical wind instrument of Asian origin, known as the sambuca, made from the branches of a species of elderberry. According to Wiccan lore, it was used to summon spirits. The epithet of the Pacific Northwest’s red elderberry — racemosa — refers to its unbranched inflorescence (a raceme) with multiple short-stalked flowers. The common name, elder or elderberry, is thought to come from the the Anglo-saxon aeld, meaning fire, since the hollow stems were used as bellows to blow air into the center of a fire (but don’t you dare place elder wood, also called “Witch-wood,” in the fire or it will cause it to die out, according to The Wicca Garden by Gerina Dunwich).

Most elderberry species are native to the northern hemisphere, but no matter where they grow, they’ve been used in cooking, in the making of dye or ink, and as medicine. According to folklore, elder is said to ward off and cure disease and offer protection from lightening, saddle sores and all forms of evil. As far as consuming elderberries, they are reportedly highly nutritious and not toxic when fully ripe. However, I suggest erring on the side of caution and cooking them first since unripe, bitter-tasting fruit may cause stomach upset. Cooked berries (with seeds strained out) are tart but can be made into wine, jelly, preserves, syrups, or sauces. Seeds, roots, flowers, green fruit pulp, and leaves create cyanide-producing glycosides. 

Classification
There’s been quite a bit of bickering and confusion in the literature over the classification of Sambucus species. Historically, Sambucus racemosa (native to Europe and Asia) was commonly called European red elder, while the very similar North American native Sambucus pubens (syn S. racemosa var. pubens), native to eastern North America, was known colloquially as American red elder. Some authorities have now grouped both of these red elders together under the name of Sambucus racemosa, while others have included several former species, S. callicarpa and S. pubens, as part of the subspecies Sambucus racemosa var. racemosa, which is native to the Pacific coast states. The genus Sambucus was previously placed in the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae) but recently was reclassified as a member of the small Adoxaceae family, which includes Viburnum.

Sambucus racemoca
How it grows
A large, handsome, deciduous, upright perennial shrub, Pacific red elderberry rises from several tightly clustered basal stems. Pinnately compound, lance-shaped leaves with downy undersides that may grow to six inches long are striking in themselves but take a back seat when lacy, conical to egg-shaped panicles of small creamy-white fragrant flowers steal the show in late spring to early summer. A few months later, the pea-sized, berrylike fruits, known as drupes, ripen to a brilliant red.

In the wild, it may grow up to 18 feet in height and about 8 to 10 feet in width, but may stay smaller in garden situations. Though it shows a preference for partial shade, it will tolerate full sun or full shade, though the latter will cause it to look straggly as its branches reach for more light. It is moderately long-lived; upright branches become more arched with age. 

In the Pacific Northwest, red elderberry naturally occurs in moist to mesic meadows, grasslands, riparian areas, forests, canyons, ditches, and disturbed places at low to middle elevations from southern Alaska into California. In Washington and Oregon it mainly occurs west of the Cascades. 

Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea Blue elderberry Wallowas

Fruits of the blue elderberry, Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea. “Caerulea” means blue.

Another elderberry, blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea), typically grows larger (up to 30 feet tall) and develops bluish-purple fruits, often with a whitish coating, that are immensely important for wildlife during late summer and fall. It occurs widely within most western states in open forests and riparian areas and may be found on slopes where it helps control erosion. Plants subjected to drought may develop interesting gnarly branches and stockier trunks with age. 

Wildlife value
Elderberry shrubs provide food, cover, and nesting provisions for many wildlife species. Flowers provide nectar and pollen for butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators. Fruits (when fully ripe) are eaten by many mammals and birds; red elderberries are the main ingredient of band-tailed pigeons’ summer diet. Some native birds and bee species use the plants for nest structure and the leaves may be used for nest material. Both red and blue elderberry are hosts for the caterpillars of the echo azure butterfly (and possibly other lepidoptera). 

Try it at home
Since elderberry plants are typically fast growing, they’re perfect for young gardens, where they can provide screening and structure overnight (well, almost). Although pruning them back can usually be done without killing them, they’re best left to do what nature intended, so be sure you give them enough space! (If you find yourself with saw in hand, remember this superstition: You must apologize three times to an elder when pruning it or cutting it down; otherwise bad luck will befall you.) 

With ample space, elderberry shrubs make stunning focal points, living screens, shrub borders or wide hedges, and provide connectivity between low perennials and tall trees, as well as erosion control along the edges of streams and ponds. Plant several to encourage more flowers and fruit.

They’re easy to grow when a few guidelines are followed. Sun: Partial shade to full sun; the more sun, the greater the flower and fruit production. Soil: Though the perfect conditions would be moist (but well-drained) rich soil near a babbling brook, elderberries can handle dryer conditions and clay soil (not sandy soil). Though they thrive in regularly irrigated areas, once fully established they are drought tolerant, but appreciate an occasional deep drink prior to and during the Pacific Northwest’s dry summers.

Grab a partner
Growing native plants with the associated species they evolved with is best, so in the Pacific Northwest consider growing red elderberry with species such as Douglas-fir, vine maple, red-twig dogwood, osoberry, thimbleberry, orange honeysuckle, goat’s beard,  fairybells, and sword and deer ferns.

Finally, there are numerous elderberry cultivars that have been developed by plant breeders looking for certain characteristics that can be maintained through propagation, such as plant size or flower or leaf characteristics. Cultivars are not natural varieties found in nature, and although some do provide well for wildlife, studies show that many aren’t as attractive and useful; their pollen, nectar and/or fruits may be deficient in nutrients, which is especially problematic for migrating birds who need high quality nutrients that provide lots of energy. And some cultivars may actually lack nectar, or their flowers may be so complex that pollinators can’t even use them. A recent study on pollinators found that the more manipulated the cultivars became, the less attractive they were to pollinators. Moreover, genetic diversity is the foundation of biodiversity, which is the foundation for healthy ecosystems. True native species provide genetic diversity; native cultivars do not.


NOTE:
An unknown species of elderberry borer has been found on elderberry plants in Washington State. Although it’s not clear from this article whether it could be a native species or an imported one, it offers information on how to monitor and manage if necessary. If the insect turns out to be non-native, here is yet another reason to buy native, locally grown plants, rather than purchasing natives or cultivars from who-knows-where that could bring in unwanted and problematic insects. 

© 2018 Eileen M. Stark 

The Best Mulch is Green

Inside-out flower and star-flowered false Solomon's seal mingle in a mostly shady site.

Inside-out flower and star-flowered false solomon’s seal, both PNW natives, mingle in a mostly shady site.


In an intact ecosystem, nature protects bare soil
with native plants (or decaying plant matter) that offer a protective umbrella aboveground and keep soil in place with their roots. In disturbed areas, nature can’t count on the indigenous plants that fell under the plow 200 years ago or were destroyed more recently, so it works with what’s left: Weedy plants brought in, intentionally or not, from other ecosystems or other continents, some of which are so invasive that they destroy wildlife habitat. That’s not a good thing, so we either pull the weeds and leave the soil bare (which can cause soil degradation and exposes more weed seeds to light), or spend many hours every year spreading wood chips, bark dust, rocks, or — heaven forbid — nondecomposable plastic sheeting or rubber mulch to try to keep them at bay. But there’s a much better way that’s good for biodiversity and your back.

Before I get to that, keep in mind that some mulch applications can be beneficial—as in compost applied to veggie gardens that need lots of nutrient-rich organic matter and help retaining moisture, or a couple of inches of aged wood chips to help new trees and shrubs get established. Although a layer of wood chips won’t control erosion on slopes or provide wildlife habitat, it also won’t destroy your soil if it’s not tilled in, so it has its place. Let’s say you’ve planted some new trees. Wood chips spread circumferentially around the trees a little past the drip line will suppress weeds, allow water infiltration, minimize water loss (when applied while the soil is still moist), and encourage microbial soil life (but be sure to keep all mulches at least six inches away from trunks or main stems to prevent rot). However, applying additional mulch in the following years in the same place provides no benefits since the trees’ feeder roots will have grown way past the circle of mulch, in some cases eventually reaching double the diameter of the tree’s canopy (the majority of trees don’t have tap roots). As your plants become established and if they’ve been spaced appropriately and leaf litter is allowed to accumulate, there won’t be a need for any kind of trucked-in or bagged mulch. And, you won’t have to worry about whether your mulch application entombs bees and other insects that nest in the ground.

A low-nitrogen compost, such as leaf compost, ought to be used in place of wood chips, especially in areas where soil is degraded, such as soil that was once trapped under concrete. But remember that thick applications of compost can smother beneficial insects and get in the way of ground cover plants on-the-go, so using whole, unchopped leaves is best for eco-functional, “real” gardens.

The worst offenders
Fine wood chips or bark “dust” tend to compress into a dense, impermeable mat that prevents rainwater from soaking in and may even blow away soon after application. Rock or gravel mulch is devoid of life, adds absolutely nothing to the soil, makes it impossible to add organic matter later on, and in sunny spots will either reflect or absorb heat (depending on the lightness or darkness of the rocks)—not a good thing to do to plants, most of which can’t take the heat. Rock or gravel mulch also make it harder to get rid of weeds and while it might be okay in rock gardens, it is not beneficial for most other plantings and does not prevent weeds. Lastly, any thoughts of using plastic “weed liners” or “landscape fabric” should be quickly consigned to oblivion since they prevent moisture from reaching plants’ roots and soil life, and contribute to the enormous glut of extremely problematic plastic on this planet.

What do wood chips, rocks and plastic have in common? They’re unnatural. Sure, they may keep weeds down temporarily, but they also smother beneficial arthropods that live in or on the soil and make it impossible for ground feeding birds, who instinctively rummage through fallen leaves, to find food. They can never create habitat that plants and animals need. When in doubt, ask “What would Nature do?” Her answer certainly wouldn’t be to finely grind up trees or roll out the plastic.  

A living mulch
To add wildlife habitat and connectivity, increase diversity, protect the soil, sequester carbon, mitigate storm water, keep weeds down, and possibly control erosion (depending on the plant species), think green—that is, living, growing plants. What may first come to mind are low, ground-hugging plants, but taller plants also contribute benefits as well. A densely layered, fully planted garden — from ground cover and small shrubs, to tall shrubs and trees — will shade out weed seedlings and minimize the soil nutrients they need, weakening their chances at prospering. It will also be much better at carbon sequestration than lawn or garden beds made up mostly of mulch.

Arrange big trees and the understory — shrubs and perennials — in a layered effect, to create connections and conditions that help to cover the soil. When plants touch one another and overlap a bit, or — in the case of ground covers — cling to the ground and spread (a lot or a little, depending on your needs and the size of your yard) we mimic nature and lessen maintenance tasks. A living mulch looks much better, too. And simply allowing leaves and other dead plant material to stay on bare soil will add nutrients and organic matter to the soil as they decompose.

Placement is important 
Plants are often placed too far apart or are placed appropriately but then sheared into odd shapes, leaving the soil bare. Or they’re placed so that when they reach mature size they grow into walkways or houses and the blame is placed on the plant: The “it’s overgrown” quip often results in plants butchered beyond recognition and loss of habitat. The best placement allows plants to assume their natural shapes and habits and lets them touch and overlap a little, both above and below ground. When we arrange plants so that their roots occupy most of the soil, it becomes more difficult for new weeds to take hold. One caveat! Do leave some soil bare, particularly in open areas, because 70 percent of native bees nest in the ground — they burrow into bare earth like ants do — and they cannot nest in thick layers of loose mulch or thick, lush ground cover. So, don’t cover every square inch of your property; everything in moderation.

Planning for change
When planning your garden and before you draw up a planting plan, it helps to do a birds-eye-view sketch, drawn to scale, with just general plant material or plant groupings. One example: A large tree to shade the southwest side of your house, shrubs that can handle partly shady conditions beneath the tree, and woodland perennials/ground cover plants to blanket the soil. Then choose the plant species that fit the conditions and size constraints. It’s essential to research mature widths as you choose plants (especially shrubs), so that their placement won’t be too close or too far apart. Check at least two sources to be sure and don’t always rely on plant tags, which may or may not be correct (I find that most shrubs get bigger than tags say). For continuous cover, place them a little closer than their mature width apart, giving shrubs and trees enough space so that they don’t infringe on walkways and neighboring properties and such. Try to choose plants that occur in natural communities within your area so that they will be able to communicate through the soil, as well as air, to trade nutrients and secrets that helped them survive together for thousands of years. And while sun-loving plants should be arranged so that they don’t shade each other out, it’s okay to let plants compete a little. For ground cover plants that need shade, allow your larger plants (that will eventually supply shade) to grow a few years before adding the ground cover. Or, start with ground cover that likes some sun, and then replace it later on when you’ve got enough shade. The latter approach works best with slow growing trees like Oregon white oak; the former with speedy growers such as Douglas-fir.  

Sedum spathulifolium meanders along a stone stairway.

Sedum spathulifolium meanders along a stone stairway.

Gardens are ever-changing, just as Nature is, so it should be no surprise when they reject the status quo and slowly transform and shift over time: There may be early successional plants (“pioneer species”) that establish quickly and help to create a quick green mulch that competes with early weeds. After a few years they may give way to the next succession of plants that come later. Plants that move, either by self-sowing or via underground roots, are usually trekking to a place that suits them, and we can learn from their relocations. For example, if you’ve planted a sun-loving perennial in a partly shady spot, you won’t need to think too hard about why it’s sown itself in a sunny pathway. Of course, there will be times when you’ll need to do some editing so that your design continues to please and function well.

Native ground cover to consider
Below are a few low ground cover type plants (those that will spread or self-sow in the right conditions) for the Pacific Northwest (west of the Cascades) in sunny to partly sunny spots and shadier areas. Besides light needs, aways check moisture requirements and find out whether it is native to your specific area. Consider growing several species in the same area so that they mingle into a tapestry that creates texture and prolongs bloom time. Some (*) are quite assertive in certain conditions, so may not be best for small properties. Also keep in mind that most smaller plants will self sow and fill in spaces eventually, such as columbine (Aquilegia formosa) and fringe cup (Tellima grandiflora). Finally, don’t forget about moss in mostly shady places—it’s great on compacted soil and rocks, provides wildlife habitat and nesting material for some birds, sequesters carbon, helps control erosion, and doesn’t need mowing like lawn does. 

For mostly sunny sites:

Arctostaphylos uva ursi (kinnikinnick)
Campanula rotundifolia (common harebell) *
Carex obnupta (slough sedge)
Ceanothus prostratus (prostrate ceanothus)
Erigeron glaucus (seaside daisy)
Penstemon cardwellii (Cardwell’s penstemon)
Sedum oreganum or S. spathulifolium (sedum)
Sisyrinchium idahoense (blue-eyed grass)
Viola adunca (early blue violet)

For shadier, woodland sites:

Achlys triphylla (vanilla leaf)
Asarum caudatum (western wild ginger)
Dicentra formosa (western bleeding heart) *
Mahonia nervosa (Cascade Oregon grape)
Maianthemum stellatum (starry false Solomon’s seal)
Maianthemum dilatatum (false lily of the valley) *
Oxalis oregana (wood sorrel) *
Vancouveria hexandra (inside-out flower)
Viola glabella (stream violet)

Early blue violet (Viola adunca) , a host plant for fritillary butterflies (three of which are listed federally as endangered species), gently self sows.

Early blue violet (Viola adunca), a host plant for fritillary butterflies (three of which are listed federally as endangered species), gently self sows in my back yard.


© 2018 Eileen M. Stark

Pacific Northwest Plant Profile: California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica)

Corylus cornuta var. california catkins

Flowers in January? You bet. Although they’re not showy blossoms that attract most people desperately searching for signs of spring, the flowers of California hazelnut are a truly welcome sight in mid-winter to spring. Hazelnuts are monoecious plants, having both soft-yellow male catkins that dangle off the tips of leafless branches, and tiny feathery clusters of red stigmas—decidedly female—that are few and often difficult to see. Due to their timing and structure, they are pollinated by wind, not insects.

California hazelnut is a deciduous, multi-stemmed woodland shrub (or small tree), beautifully textured with soft-green, saw-toothed, velvety leaves that adorn arching branches. In autumn it turns a glowing yellow or gold. Corylus cornuta var. california (leaves)Besides seasonal aesthetic interest, it offers hard-shelled edible nuts, which typically mature in late summer to early fall.

A member of the birch family, California hazelnut’s botanical name originates from both Greek and Latin. The genus name, Corylus, comes from the Greek korulos, which means “helmet” and refers to the nearly impenetrable husk on the top of the nut. The epithet, cornuta, means “horned” in Latin and refers to a beaklike point formed by the bracts, or husk, that enclose the developing fruit.

Corylus cornuta var. californica

How it grows
California hazelnut typically can be found on moist, rocky slopes or riparian areas in the understory or at the edge of mixed forests at low to mid-elevations. The variety californica naturally occurs in southern B.C., within most counties of Washington and Oregon west of the Cascades (as well as Wallowa County in NE Oregon), and in northern to central California. Another variety,  Corylus cornuta var. cornuta, commonly known as beaked hazelnut, makes its home east of the Cascades and throughout a large portion of the U.S. According to the US Forest Service, although California hazelnut doesn’t naturally grow with other native hazelnut species, “hybridization is possible in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and other locations where it grows adjacent to European filbert (cultivars of C. avellana) orchards.” Corylus americana (American hazelnut) grows in the central and eastern U.S.

Wildlife value
Many wild species eat and disperse the nuts. Rabbits and deer eat leaves and sprouts. Cover is provided for many species of birds, as well as mammals.

Try it at home
California hazelnut doesCorylus cornuta var. california hazelnut well in sun to shade, and prefers moist but well-drained, somewhat acidic soil with a good amount of organic matter. While tolerant of clay soils, it doesn’t do well on poorly drained sites. Useful for erosion control on slopes, it will eventually form a thicket. Suckers may be removed in winter (during dormancy) to create more of a treelike form, but the habitat created by thickets favors many wild animals, especially birds seeking cover, so consider just leaving this shrub to its natural form.

Mature size varies from 10 feet to 20 feet tall, possibly more with advanced age. Spread is typically 10 to 20 feet, but usually on the lower end in garden situations. Since chipmunks, jays and squirrels love the nuts, I suggest you grow as many of these charming shrubs as possible (especially if you want to have the chance to taste them yourself!). Growing more than one shrub also increases pollination, which leads to more nuts per plant. Space them 10 to 20 feet apart (on the low end if you want some density). Though this shrub is quite drought tolerant when established (2 to 5 years), water it deeply but infrequently in the hot summer months thereafter, especially if your site receives a lot of sun or reflected heat.

Squirrel watchingTo grow this plant from seed, collect nuts in late summer or early fall while the husks are still a bit green. To make sure they’re viable, place them in a bowl of water for 15 minutes or so, and use only those that sink. Plant them outdoors, an inch or two deep (but make sure a little squirrel isn’t watching you do it!). Mature plants can also be ground layered or propagated by semi-hardwood cuttings in the fall, or suckers may be divided in early spring.

California hazelnut is a good substitute for European hazelnut or English hawthorn.

Grab a partner
Because California hazelnut grows in a variety of plant communities, it gets along well with many other species. Choose partners that would have likely grown in your area. In the Douglas-fir/western hemlock ecoregion, consider red alder (Alnus rubra), vine maple (Acer circinatum), salal (Gaultheria shallon), thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), sword fern (Polystichum munitum), deer fern (Blechnum spicant), and woodland strawberry (Frageria virginiana or F. vesca), among others. In the grassland and oak woodland areas of the Willamette Valley, Puget Trough, and Georgia Basin, grow it with Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia), cascara (Rhamnus purshiana), red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), inside-out flower (Vancounveria hexandra) and others. In the southern Coast Range and mountainous areas of southwest Oregon, include tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), and serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia).

As always, buy plants propagated from source material that originated as close as possible to your site. Using such “local genotypes”  helps ensure that you get plants that are well adapted to your area and preserves the genetic diversity that helps plants (and animals) adapt to changing conditions. Ask growers and nurseries about their sources if you’re unsure.

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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After a Storm: Dead Wood Gives Life

snaggy-stump

Following a particularly nasty ice and wind storm that damaged or took the life of many mature trees in Northwest Oregon, it’s time to clean up nature’s ragged pruning job and literally pick up the pieces. Or is it?

Clean up sparingly
If there are damaged limbs on a street tree or yard tree close to your house, hire a certified arborist to remove any dangling branches and clean-cut any ragged wounds and stubs left by breakage, particularly if you have a tree that is prone to disease, such elm-damage-ice-stormas an elm. Sharp cuts that don’t leave stubs (partially amputated branches not cut back to the branch collar that look like you could hang a hat on it) will allow for faster healing and may prolong the life of the tree. But if safety is not an issue, consider that natural, important habitat is created when damaged limbs are simply left on the tree. As I wrote in my book, “interactions between wildlife and decaying wood are fundamental to ecosystem functions and processes in forests, aquatic habitats,” and your garden, whether they be wooded or more open.

We’re usually far too eager to remove anything and everything that’s fallen to the ground to keep our yards neat and orderly. Unfortunately, this sort of maintenance can be harmful not only to our backs, but also to dwindling
dead woodwild species that need natural, woody “litter” and some disarray, not homogenous expanses of bare soil, bark mulch, or clipped lawn. In fact, “cleaned up” landscapes are usually outright harmful to wild species, including pollinators and recently fledged birds who need low cover to stay safe. Like fallen leaves, “dead wood” or “downed wood” is so essential that many creatures (and plants) cannot survive without it. So, instead of hauling away branches, logs, bark debris, stumps, twigs and such, be compassionate and leave it (or move it to an appropriate, out-of-the-way part of your yard) so that it can decompose naturally and begin to provide food, shelter, nesting material, or places to raise young. Decomposing dead wood has many other unnoticeable yet complex eco-functions, like supporting fungi that live in symbiotic relationships with plant roots. Eventually, the stuff that may look messy to us turns into fertile soil which supports plants which support insects which support birds, and so on.

Snags are a good thing snag at Smith & Bybee lakes

What about dead or dying trees? Known as snags, with their hollow cavities, broken branches, and loose bark, they actually may provide more varied habitat for all sorts of creatures than living trees do! In addition to providing essential housing for many types of insects (including pollinators), cavity-nesting birds, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals (including bats), they provide food, open perches and double as storage lockers. Woodpeckers also use them to communicate during breeding season.

Snags are in very short supply as forests are increasingly decimated, and they’re extremely rare in urban areas. Removing them not only steals crucial habitat; it’s expensive. Leave snags in low activity areas that won’t pose a problem if they fall apart; when they do fall they’ll continue to give back in the understory. If safety is a concern but you want to retain a dead tree’s benefits, consult with an arborist to shorten its trunk to snag with female flicker feeding youngroughly 15 feet tall and cut back branches. If that’s not possible and you must cut it down, leave the trunk on the ground where it won’t get in your way and leave the stump. If you already have a snag, retain or add native shrubs near its base. They will help keep it protected from weather extremes and provide connectivity, leafy cover, and additional forage for wildlife.

The Washington Department of Wildlife has more detailed info on these “wildlife trees” and the Cavity Conservation Initiative has an enchanting video that documents, up close, the lives that they support.

 

Designing with dead wood
Although some people view snags and other dead wood as unattractive, more and more of us see them as aesthetically pleasing natural sculptures, issued gratis to the landscape and priceless for wildlife. Keep them, work around them, and incorporatesnag "sculpture" them into your landscape, and the wild ones will thank you.

Consider grouping logs and branches in layered piles, with the largest at the base, in quiet places under trees where they can provide shelter from predators and roosting sites for little ones. Fallen trunks or massive logs can recline individually on the ground, where they might act as lovely focal points that will change over time, displaying dead wood (stump)the quiet beauty that unfolds during all stages of natural decomposition and regeneration. Imagine a “nurse log” in your own yard that will increase biodiversity by providing decades of nutrients and moisture to other plants and soil organisms. While natural, moss-furred nurse logs (fallen forest trunks and limbs) provide complex substrates for regeneration of trees in intact forests, there’s no reason you can’t foster similar function in your yard (but never remove nurse logs from a forest). Surround a fallen giant with native ferns and other shade lovers to blend and complement, and the mystery and magic begins. It rots slowly at first, then begins to crumble away, providing more sustenance for other species. After a few decades, the log will be reduced to nothing but fragments, but the soil—nurtured, enriched, and full of life—will pass on its riches.

A few plant species do best when growing on or next to downed wood. In the Pacific Northwest, Vaccinium parviflorum (red huckleberry), that deliciously berried shrub that hikers know and love, is almost always found growing on a stump, nurse log or other decomposing wood in forests. When I planted red huckleberry shrubs in my yard a few years ago, I buried some rotting wood in the planting hole and added dead branches and conifer cones on top of the soil. So far they seem to like it.

Nest boxes and more trees to the rescue
If you’re like most people and don’t have a snag or a mature tree with decay on your property, consider adding a species-appropriate nest box for cavity nesters like chickadees, chickadee nest boxnuthatches, woodpeckers, swallows, or owls that is sited correctly and is accessible for annual cleaning. Though not as good as natural nest sites due to their inability to insulate as real tree cavities do, boxes are better than nothing.

Lastly, if you’ve lost a tree or have the space for one more, consider planting a regional native replacement (or two or three) that will thrive in the site’s conditions. It’s crucial that we keep planting and protecting, so the cycle can continue.


© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Deer Fern (Blechnum spicant)

Blechnum spicant

Since winter is well on its way, this seems like a good time to give a nod to a distinctive evergreen fern that brings elegance and function to moist, west coast coniferous forests, as well as shady gardens. Deer fern, known botanically as Blechnum spicant, comes from a large, extended family known as Blechnaceae (the chain fern family). The genus Blechnum actually has fewer members north of the equator than south (most of which live in the steamy tropics), and a few of the Ecuadorian cousins have managed to graduate to tree fern status, topping out at an impressive 10 feet tall! But our sweet little deer fern pays no mind to their staid accomplishments and remains forever a trim forest gem with many friends and admirers.

The Latin Blechnum comes from the Greek Blechnon, an ancient name for ferns, while spicant means “spikelike.” Its spikes are fertile fronds (which can be seen in the top photo) that rise vertically above the more earthly sterile fronds that produce no spores. Leaves on both types of fronds have oppositely arranged, shiny leaflets; the fertile ones are much narrower and have two rows of sori on their undersides. Deer fern looks attractive year round and its leaves often develop a coppery-red color in early spring.

Blechnum spicant

How it grows
This long-lived fern naturally occurs in southern Alaska, coastal British Columbia, Washington and Oregon (west of the Cascades), northern Idaho where it is classified as imperiled, and coastal California, as far south as Santa Cruz county, as well as the Sierra Nevada. It also occurs in parts of Europe. In western Oregon and Washington it grows from sea level up to montane zones and dominates the understory of what little remains of moist, old-growth forests, as well as second-growth forests.

Wildlife value
As you might expect, deer fern satisfies the winter hunger of deer, but also elk, caribou, moose, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep, especially in winter. It also provides year-round cover for small birds and mammals, insects, and other little creatures. Some birds may use the leaves as nesting material.

Try it at home
Deer ferns spread by thick, short, creeping rhizomes, and the key word here is short—as in stubby—which means they don’t spread nearly as fast as I would like. They prefer the misty air created by mature forest giants, the soft, moist, crumbly soil that comes from centuries of fallen detritus, and the symbiotic support of a real forest, not the drastically altered state of rectangular urban patches with hard, compacted soil and blistering heat. But don’t let that discourage you if you have close to the conditions deer ferns need: Shaded, relatively moist, somewhat rich soil beneath the protective canopy of (preferably native) conifers. A little dappled sun is fine if you can provide some supplemental water (especially when they’re young), but don’t try to grow them in bright, fairly sunny places where sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) would do better. Allowing for a nice thick layer of compost or other organic matter (such as fallen leaves that break down by fungus and microscopic organisms) will help maintain moisture around their roots and add nutrients to the soil over time.

Although deer ferns are handsome close-up as focal plants, they are at their loveliest when grown en masse as a ground cover. Since they eventually grow to about two feet tall and wide, space them about two feet apart. Or, consider placing them a bit further apart and add the companionship of other native ground cover species that can nestle in between the ferns (but not crowd them out)—this looks the most natural and will help keep down weeds and protect the soil.

Deer fern is a good sub for nonnative invasive plants such as English ivy (Hedera helix) and bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara).

deer fern & friends

In my backyard, deer fern mingles with maidenhair fern, piggy-back plant, and red-twig dogwood, all under the watchful eye of a youthful western redcedar.

Grab a partner
Deer fern does best with many other species that grow together within native plant communities. It thrives with native conifers, and in the Pacific Northwest they may include western redcedar (Thuja plicata), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), grand fir (Abies grandis), noble fir (Abies procera), Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), and coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), depending on the location. Deciduous trees like red alder (Alnus rubra) and vine maple (Acer circinatum) also make the cut. Understory species often found growing with deer fern include red huckleberry (Vaccinum parviflorum), thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), salal (Gaultheria shallon), devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus), queen-cup (Clintonia uniflora), false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa), Hooker’s fairy bells (Disporum hookeri), foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata), stream violet (Viola glabella), wild ginger (Asarum caudatum), piggy-back plant (Tolmiea menziesii), bunchberry (Cornus unalaschkensis), various mosses, and other ferns such as western sword fern (Polystichum munitum), ladyfern (Athyrium filix-femina), and oakfern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris).

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Gifts of the Oregon White Oak (Quercus garryana) aka Garry Oak

Quercus garryana at Ridgefield NWR


Spring still seems out of reach
, so while we’re awaiting balmier days, let’s take a moment to appreciate some of nature’s subtle, yet generous gifts. We owe everything to the natural world and even modest contact with it refreshes and offers solace. While contemplating the obvious things that nature provides—food, water, clean air—it’s easy to overlook the little (and not so little) things.

Plants, the primary producers on this planet, belong to irreplaceable, intricate, ancient ecosystems, within which they support and depend on other species—both flora and fauna— to survive. I like to think of it as everlasting give and take. This post honors one of my favorite Pacific Northwest natives whose gifts are mammoth. Quercus garryana, commonly called Oregon white oak (or “Garry oak” by those in British Columbia and Washington), is a slow-growing, very long-lived, majestic, deciduous tree that, with time, grows beautifully gnarly. As a keystone species, oak trees are vibrant communities in themselves, and support more life-forms than any other trees in North America.

Wildlife hotspot
Late last fall, while strolling along a trail at Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve (just west of Portland), I was awestruck by the amount of life attracted to the broad canopy of just a single mature Oregon white oak: Visible and audible were multiple white-breasted nuthatches, black-capped chickadees, downy woodpeckers, and red-breasted sapsuckers, all busily going about their foraging business with such enthusiasm that all I could do was look upwards, my mouth agape. The birds weren’t seeking the tree’s highly nutritious acorns, which sustain many other birds, as well as insects, mammals, and reptiles—they were consuming a tasty assortment of insect herbivores, which oak trees are particularly adept at generating. Studies show that the genus Quercus hosts more caterpillars and other insect life than any other genus in the northern hemisphere. This proficiency is especially important during breeding season, when the vast majority of landbirds consume and feed their young highly nutritious insects or their larvae, and other arthropods such as spiders—not seeds or fruit. Other studies show a higher diversity of bird species in oak forests than in nearby conifer forests (although pine forests are quite exceptional as well).

Like other native keystone tree species, Oregon white oak peacefully regulates ecosystem processes like nutrient cycling and energy flow, which provides benefits to wildlife (and the rest of us) that seem endless. Besides the obvious shade, beauty, and exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that these trees offer (trees really are the best carbon sink), inconspicuous flowers—which typically bloom in late spring—provide for pollinators like native bees, while the buds of forthcoming rounded, deeply lobed leaves play host to the larvae of gray hairstreak, Lorquin’s admiral, echo blue, California sister, and propertius duskywing butterflies. Speaking of leaves, it typically retains dead leaves on its branches until spring, a process known as marcescense. (It’s believed that marcescense, which is more common on young trees, may serve to protect new buds on branches by discouraging browsing animals from grazing. There’s also speculation that marcescent leaves help oaks create a nutrient-rich mulch when the trees need it most —in springtime. But no one knows for sure.)

In addition, cover, perches, and nesting habitat go to birds such as woodpeckers and vireos, as well as native squirrels. Oaks’ acorns sustain squirrels and other mammals, as well as many bird species. Fallen leaves, which might provide habitat for arthropods, amphibians and reptiles, slowly break down into a rich leaf mold that supports soil-dwelling invertebrates and numerous fungi that allow neighboring plants to thrive. Sugars and carbon are provided for mycorrhizal fungi, which reciprocate with nutrients for growing plants and contribute to the soil carbon pool. Intact bark creates microhabitat for mosses, as well as lichens that supply food, shelter, and nesting material, while loose bark and twigs contribute to nest building as well as browse for deer, which in turn feed carnivores like cougars.

And as oaks deteriorate with advanced age (which can be 500 years), they continue to deliver. Dead trees can last many years as snags, which provide food, nesting material, and housing to cavity nesters like owls, kestrels, woodpeckers and chickadees, as well as bats who may roost in old holes or under loose bark.

How it grows
Elevation, climate, soil, and water persuade Oregon white oak to vary immensely in habit and size. While it thrives in cool, coastal areas and near the edges of streams and wetlands where it tolerates seasonal flooding, it also flourishes in droughty inland sites where it may grow both individually and in groves on low hills surrounded by grasslands. When it occurs on gravelly sites or rocky slopes with thin soils, it often has a shrub-like or scrubby habit. Along the blustery Columbia River Gorge, where it grows with little rainfall and atop hundreds of feet of layered basalt, harshly battered trees grow gnarled but hang on thanks to a very extensive and strong root system. As seedlings, this oak’s root mass may be ten times as large as the aboveground growth.

Within the richer, deeper, riparian soils amongst tapestries of dazzling wildflowers and grasses in the Georgia Basin-Puget Trough-Willamette Valley ecoregion of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, it acts as a keystone structure, typically growing a very broad canopy, and reaching heights 100+ feet over hundreds of years. Gigantic root systems may grow two or three times wider than the canopy. The ecoregion includes savannas (grassland with trees scattered at least 100 feet apart), upland prairies (another type of grassland), wet prairies, and shady oak woodlands with a continuous or semi-open canopy. I’ll call them, collectively, prairie-oak ecosystems.

Endangered ecosystems
To really appreciate an oak, it’s helpful to know something about its unique ecosystems that once provided some of the richest habitat in the world. The historic range of Q. garryana stretches from low elevations of southwestern British Columbia (including Vancouver Island and nearby smaller islands) to California. In Washington, it occurs mainly west of the Cascades on Puget Sound islands and in the Puget Trough, and east along the Columbia River. In Oregon, it is indigenous to the Willamette, Rogue River and Umpqua Valleys, and within the Klamath Mountains.  

When pioneers and naturalists encountered prairie-oak ecosystems, they found a breathtakingly beautiful and rich mosaic of plant and animal life. Journals of early Oregonians described massive prairies with five-mile-wide dense forests of ash, alder, willow, and cottonwood that skirted meandering rivers within floodplains. Marshes and sloughs developed during high water periods but often dried out by late summer. At higher elevations within these forest corridors were oak and associated trees. Above the floodplains were upland prairies, filled with herbaceous plants and grasses that could tolerate the parched soil of summer, as well as winter wet. Oak woodlands stood on low hills above the valley floors, surrounded by grasslands, also known as savanna.

But the landscape was not untouched or pristine. Aboriginal peoples managed parts of the ecosystems following the last glacial period, frequently using prescribed burning to boost edible plant productivity, aid the hunting of wildlife, limit the growth of conifers, and facilitate travel, particularly in the northern parts of the oak’s range. Harvesting of plants such as camas (Camassia spp.) and chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis) also caused soil disturbance, but their eco-cultural manipulations pale greatly compared to what came later.

Since Euro-American settlement, as much as 99 percent of the original prairie-oak communities that were present in parts of the Pacific Northwest have been lost and many rare species dependent on them are at risk of extinction. Extensive destruction and fragmentation began with settlement in the 1850s, with clearing, plowing, livestock grazing, wildfire suppression, and cutting of trees for firewood and manufacturing. Prairie wetlands bejeweled with wildflowers were drained and ditched. Later, subsidies to ranchers encouraged more destructive grazing, while urban sprawl and agricultural use—fueled by human population increase—intensified. Invasion of nonnative species, and the encroachment of shade tolerant and faster growing species—that proliferate with fire suppression—outcompeted oaks and decimated additional native flora and fauna. Prairie-oak ecosystems and associated systems still continue to disappear at human hands, and isolation of the tiny remaining fragments prevents the migration of wildlife and healthy genetic material from one area to another. Other detrimental factors include diseases and parasites, climate change, and the loss of wildlife that cache acorns and perform other essential functions.  

Conservation
Despite continual destruction, there is a renewed and growing appreciation for the diversity and beauty of these habitats, motivated by recognition that we are responsible for what’s been destroyed, an admiration for the interconnected wild species the habitat supports, and a reverence for an iconic, magnificent tree. Intervention has become intensive, and collaborations and partnerships—along with private landowners, who are key partners—are working to reverse the downward trend with preservation, restoration, and management tools, although “a major restoration challenge is restoring wet prairie habitat to a level at which it can maintain resistance to invasive species,” according to the Institute for Applied Ecology.

Regeneration of oak seedlings is essential, but is often difficult. Acorns look tough, but they are viable for only about a year and may be subject to parasitism, weather extremes, and genetic isolation. Consequently, just a small percentage become trees. Two independent studies determined that oak seedlings do best when caged, but protection from other deterrents—drought, competing plants, and rodents—is important, depending on location.

Regional conservation groups include the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team and the Cascadia Prairie-Oak Partnership.

Try it at home
While the maintenance of only fragments of a past ecosystem is a poor alternative to former richness, if you live in the ecoregion (or other impoverished oak-dominated ecosystem) and want to help, choose this native tree. Even a single isolated tree can be a critical habitat structure on the landscape. It’s the only oak native to Washington and western Canada, and the dominant one in Oregon (black oak—Quercus kelloggii—is another beautiful and valuable large tree that occurs from Lane County, Oregon, south to Baja, at low to high elevations).

An Oregon white oak tree needs a mostly sunny, well-drained site that can accommodate its eventual size aboveground (25-50 feet wide, depending on spacing) and enormous root systems described above. Those grown on poor, dry, rocky sites will grow quite a bit smaller and have a shrubby habit. When planting more than one, space trees 20 to 60 feet apart, using the closest spacing only in dry, rocky terrain. It may be most helpful to visit a nearby natural area and then try to mimic nature’s arrangement.

To maintain genetic integrity, always choose trees or seeds that originated from trees close to your location and from similar terrain. For best results, plant dormant saplings in late fall after rains begin. After watering, apply about three inches of an organic mulch to reduce evaporation and keep weeds (that can steal water and nutrients) down. I prefer low-nitrogen leaf compost, spread out to the tree’s drip line and kept at least a foot from the trunk to prevent rot. Oaks do not need rich soil, so don’t apply synthetic or organic fertilizer because most North American trees don’t need fertilizer and may even respond adversely to it. And don’t use those watering bags that only water at the base of the trunk and may promote rot

Though this species is drought tolerant, provide ample summer water, deeply and infrequently until established. During the first summer I like to water roughly every five days with about 10 gallons of water that’s applied so that it sinks in slowly. During the second and third summers, water once a week, 10-15 gallons, being sure to water out to the root zone (drip line) and beyond—root spread can be more than twice that of the crown. If severe heat and prolonged droughts appear to be stressing a young tree, provide more water. After the first few years it may do fine on its own, but do water it (deeply) if it appears to be drought stressed. Keep the area well weeded and don’t stake trees unless they are in very windy areas—they’ll grow much stronger if left unsupported. Keep in mind that soil compaction, hardscape, lawns and irrigation systems around water-sensitive oaks are a major cause of their decline in residential areasHere is more info on how to plant Oregon white oak.

Grab a partner
As with other native species, oaks will function best when grown within a habitat and community type that consists of plants that evolved together and need the same conditions. Figuring out which community occurs in your area requires a walk in a nearby natural area where species, as well as nature’s organization, can be learned. Some associate trees that might thrive with your oak include Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia) on moist sites, and madrone (Arbutus menziesii) on drier sites, and Pacific ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa subsp. Benthamiana). For shrubs, consider california hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), osoberry (Oemleria Aquilegia formosacerasiformis), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), and tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), depending on your location. Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum), orange or pink honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa or L. hispidula), fescues (Festuca spp.), and many wildflowers, including allium (Allium cernuum), camas (Camassia spp.), meadow checker mallow (Sidalcea campestris), western columbine (Aquilegia formosa, pictured right), and shooting star (Dodecathon spp.) associate in different parts of its range.

To find out which habitat type and plant communities would likely have grown in your area, check out this Ecoregional Assessment, or query your county’s soil and water conservation district or native plant society chapter. The following publications may also be helpful:
~ Georgia Basin: Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team
~ Puget Trough: Prairie Landowner Guide for Western Washington 
~ Willamette Valley: A Landowner’s Guide for Restoring and Managing Oregon White Oak Habitats

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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What Makes Leaves Change Color?

Populus tremuloides (quaking aspen)

I’ve written quite a bit about the importance of leaf “litter” on the ground, so here’s a little info on how it gets there and what conditions make for the most vibrant leaves. While it’s understandable to think that it is the cooler temperatures of the fall season that bring about color change, there are several other factors. Besides temperature, sunlight and soil moisture influence the quality of autumn leaf color. But the process that instigates the show is actually more of a chemical process brought on by less daylight.

Darkness rules

Most plants are quite sensitive to each day’s length of darkness. In early fall, when nights begin to lengthen, the cells near the joint of the leaf and stem in deciduous trees and shrubs are triggered to divide quickly. This corky layer of cells (the abscission zone) begin to block transport of essentials such as carbohydrates from the leaf to the branch, as well as the flow of minerals from roots upward to leaves.

When plants are actively growing, green chlorophyll is constantly produced in the leaves. But in autumn, when the connection between the leaf and the rest of the plant gets more and more obstructed, chlorophyll replacement slows and then stops completely. This is when autumn colors are revealed: Normally masked by chlorophyll, yellow pigments called xanthophylls and orange pigments known as carotenoids become visible when chlorophyll shuts down. Red and purple pigments come from anthocyanins which are created (in some species) from sugars within the leaf and it’s speculated that they are a defense mechanism that helps some plants fight herbivores like aphids.

Spiraea betulifolia var. lucidaAs fall moves forward, the cells in the abscission layer become drier and weaker and leaves eventually part company with the plant. Many trees and shrubs lose their leaves when they are still colorful (making for some gorgeous mulch!), while some retain the majority of their foliage through much of winter, though their leaves lose color fairly quickly. Like chlorophyll, the other pigments eventually break down in light or when frozen. The final pigments are tannins, which look brown. An example is the Oregon white oak (or Garry oak), which appears golden for just a few days before turning brown.

Recipe for color

Low temps (but above freezing) and ample sunlight following formation of the abscission layer cause quick destruction of chlorophyll and promote the formation of bright colors in some species. Stress from drought during the growing season can sometimes trigger early formation of the abscission layer, resulting in leaf drop before they have a chance to develop fall coloration, so a growing season with ample moisture that is followed by somewhat dry, warm, sunny, calm fall days with cool, frost-free nights provides the best recipe for bright fall colors.

Plant natives!

Besides offering the most ecological benefits, some native species grown in their native ground offer wonderful fall color that rivals that of nonnative plants. Here in the Pacific Northwest, some of the most vibrantly colored leaves occur on natives such as paper birch, black hawthorn, Oregon ash, quaking aspen (pictured, top), golden currant, vine maple, serviceberry, and red-twig dogwood. Enjoy!

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Anatomy of a Functional Garden

Garry oak (Oregon white oak)

Get out your pencils and notebooks, class. It’s time for Anatomy Lesson One: Structure of a Functional Garden.

Just as our bodies’ structure relies on interconnected units like bone and muscle, so do ecosystems and the little parts of them we call gardens. The main framework of a garden (above the soil line) is made up of the obvious counterpart to bone—woody plants, like trees and shrubs, as well as manmade elements like buildings, fencing, and pergolas. A site’s location and topographical features, such as steep slopes or rocky outcrops, can also have a substantial effect on its structure.

There’s quite a bit of similarity between bone and wood; both have the ability to provide function as well as beauty (as revealed in this quip by the saucy Miss Trixie Delight, played by Madeline Kahn in Paper Moon: “When I was your age, I didn’t have no bone structure. Took me years to get bone structure. And don’t think bone structure’s not important!”). It’s beyond important, Trixie—a strong skeletal system is crucial. And, yes, it does take years to arrive; so the sooner you get a start on structure, the better.

When ecologists speak of structure they’re concerned with the entire community of species existing in a particular area, as well as nonliving components like rock and water. This post focuses mainly on living structure that provides a garden’s framework, as well as habitat for wild ones.

Seasonal interest
A garden should be a place we want to go to no matter the time of year, and structure provides the invitation. It’s helpful for creating gradual transitions, for dictating chickadee on aspen treehow our eyes travel through a space, for providing unity, balance, and crucial wildlife habitat. And structure can rev up “curb appeal”: A house looks best when it softly blends into a landscape and one way to do that is by nestling it within or framing it with medium to large trees (size being dependent on the dimension of your house and yard), but not completely hiding it. Trees should be planted a minimum of ten feet from buildings, preferably more. They offer myriad other benefits, like shade on sultry summer days (particularly when placed to the southwest of a house), protection of the soil, mitigation against climate disaster, and improved drainage for other plants tucked underneath. Besides structure, native trees and shrubs provide essential food and shelter for both flora and fauna.

Life does not occur in isolation
Other interconnected elements contribute to landscape structure, just as tendons, ligaments, and fascia contribute to ours. A single tree in a sea of lawn will not attract and support nearly the number of species that a grouping of trees, shrubs, and smaller plants will, nor will it create the same amount of interest for us. Beneath trees (but not too close to trunks) grow shrubs and perennials—in a layered effect—that will provide vertical and horizontal connections. This creates a natural look and provides safe cover for feeding, resting, or wandering wildlife. Nature likes to get all tangled up so that order looks a bit chaotic, so don’t be afraid to grow plants fairly close together as you’d see in the natural world; I recommend slightly closer than mature width apart to facilitate a bit of overlap.

Non-living elements, like arbors, trellises, water features, snags, nest boxes and even spider webs can add to the skeletal framework of the garden and provide ecological function, such as by supporting vines. I’m currently training a lovely pink-flowered, fuzzy-leaved native honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula) on a large trellis that obscures the compost bins under our deck, and I have big plans for its orange cousin, Lonicera ciliosa, to clamber up a native rose. No doubt structure in the gardenthe bees and hummingbirds will be very pleased with their flowers. Keep manmade elements to a minimum and keep them simple to achieve a sense of flow and to complement—not overpower—the plants.

If there’s a garden (or natural area) that you are particularly fond of, chances are it’s because it has a pleasing framework to which other landscape elements are connected. Like the myriad connections in our bodies, structure helps bring cohesion to a landscape.

 

© Eileen M. Stark 2015

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Winter Light, Winter Life

Tualatin NWR

Do you long for spring? Fantasize about those warm summer evenings when the sun stays up past nine o’clock? Deny that winter has yet to officially start? Realize you’re eating dinner and curling under the bed covers earlier than just a month ago?

I’ve got it bad. Yesterday I found myself inspecting shrub and tree branches for next year’s growth and scanning the ground for the first spring bulbs. But here’s some good news: The days are beginning to lengthen again. Sure, we’re talking just minutes gained each day following the solstice, but it’s a start and I’ll gladly take every extra moment of daylight!

Winter is often thought of as a time of slumber—not just for us to catch a few extra winks, but also for the garden. While the cold, short days do tend to reduce some of the obvious vivacity of nature (especially in far northern, frozen latitudes), even in midwinter and beneath snow scientists have found that the soil thrives with living, breathing, developing microbes, some of which can freeze without harm. In the Pacific Northwest, our gardens are anything but sleepy. Amidst the amazing hubbub of microbial activity that helps provide a growth surge in springtime, plants’ roots are slowly developing in preparation for the demands of next year.

But since most people lack a keen interest in soil science, it’s the above ground doings that grab our attention. The “architectural” plants and other elements that remain standing all winter create the “bones” of the landscape, although texture, color, and movement enhance the view as well. I especially like to add such interest to areas that are frequently viewed, such as near an entryway or outside a cozy window seat. Wildlife appeal is also vital.

Native coniferous trees like cedar, fir, and pine are popular because they’re always green and provide framework and privacy, but what may be most captivating is the texture of their foliage—especially lovely holding onto snow, however fleeting that may be in our neck o’ the woods. Broadleaf evergreen trees like Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii) and shrubs, including the glossy-leaved Gaultheria shallon (salal)evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.), and salal (Gautheria shallon, pictured right), along with winter-blooming silk tassel bush (Garrya elliptica and G. fremontii), provide interest in all seasons. In sunny ground level situations, kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) carpets the soil and cascades over rock walls with its attractive evergreen leaves and red fruits that persist into fall and beyond. In shade, the heart-shaped and often evergreen leaves of ground-hugging wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) usually inspire smiles.

Blechnum spicant (deer fern)Intricately divided fronds of the lovely deer fern (Blechnum spicant) hang around all winter, while  licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza), a charming summer-deciduous type, is often found growing lushly amongst mosses and dead wood or rocks. Speaking of deciduous, some shrubs just can’t wait until spring to bloom—like the wind-pollinated California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica) that flowers in January. Others—osoberry (Oemleria cerasiformis) and red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) in particular—bloom at the cusp of spring.

Plants with colorful twigs or bark can steal attention, too, especially when planted en masse. Cornus sericea and other “red twig” dogwoods have an almost fiery bark that stands out, particularly against pale or very dark backgrounds, and the gorgeous burnt-orange bark of madrone trees (Arbutus menzeisii) peels to reveal smooth, olive-colored trunks and branches, and not just in winter. Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) gleams with its white, berrylike drupes, and wild roses, including Rosa pisocarpa and R. nutkana, produce strikingly red rosehips.Arbutus menziesii (madrone)

Elements of movement can be an enjoyable part of the winter landscape, too. Popular plants that provide a rustling motion as winter winds blow include grasses, such as Festuca idahoensis and Deschampsia cespitosa, which look best planted in swathes, and western sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) with their tall, tough fronds. While they are great accents any time of the year, grasses and evergreen ferns might be most impressive during the humdrum days of winter when they also provide structure and intriguing texture.

Needless to say, the best way to liven up the landscape is to encourage the presence of birds and other wildlife in the garden, and the best way to do that is with native plants that naturally occur in your region. To supply food and shelter from rain and cold, think evergreen trees such as western red cedar, western or mountain hemlock, Douglas-fir, or wax-myrtle. Allow seed heads to remain on perennials to provide food for birds (unless self-sowing poses a problem). Be sure to check plants’ needs before incorporating them into your yard or plan. And be sure to let fallen leaves stay on bare soil and downed wood stay put in order to protect the soil, supply cover for overwintering little creatures and food for ground-feeding birds.

_MG_2133 sRGBWhoever said that winter landscapes are drab and lifeless didn’t consider the possibilities. With a little ingenuity and planning, your garden can be a winter wonderland—in spite of short days.

Happy winter solstice!

© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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