Stop the Poisons: Safe Alternatives to Rodenticides


They’re being called a “modern day DDT”. Like DDT (outlawed in 1972), anticoagulant rodenticides are weapons of destruction. They kill brutally, slowly and indiscriminately, accumulate in fatty tissue, and persist a long time in the environment. Used by homeowners, farmers and exterminators, they are a serious threat to any living being that accidentally ingests them—wildlife, companion animals, and humans (especially children), alike.

Movement through the food chain
Both “second-generation” and “first-generation” anticoagulant rodenticides, the most common rodenticides, were designed to silently block the vitamin K cycle, which is essential for blood clotting. Although the “first-generation” are just as deadly if consumed often, the “second-generation” products have greater potency and build to higher concentrations in rodents, so are more lethal. These “super-toxic” poisons, which have long half-lives, cause rodents to uncontrollably hemorrhage to death—but only if they’re not preyed upon first. Because they’re so slow-acting, rodents may ingest poisons multiple times, which causes residues to accumulate in their bodies to levels many times greater than the minimum lethal dose, which exposes rodent-eating scavengers and predators to large amounts of poison. A poisoned animal can and does lead to indirect secondary (and sometimes tertiary) poisoning of other animals.

Victims do not die quickly; as the poison takes hold, rodents who ingest it continue to move about for days, but more lethargically, so that they become easy prey for dogs, cats, birds, and native mammals like the little raccoon I found on a sidewalk in my neighborhood who apparently had died a slow and excruciatingly painful death by excessive bleeding. Besides other carnivorous or omnivorous mammals such as bobcats, coyotes, foxes, skunks, cougars, bears, and companion animals, these dangerous poisons have spread throughout the food web and inhumanely kill reptiles like snakes and raptors such as owls and hawks—the very animals who can and should be preying on (healthy) rodents. Tertiary poisoning happens when a predator eats another predatory species that’s been poisoned secondarily, such as an owl who eats a poisoned snake who ate a poisoned mouse. And secondary injuries, such as lacerations, can become deadly because victims’ blood has no ability to clot. Even insects, such as bumble bees that often use abandoned rodent nests, can be killed.



Anticoagulants can quickly move through the food chain—in California’s Santa Monica Mountains, the majority of cougars, bobcats and coyotes reportedly have tested positive for exposure and many have died due to poisoning or secondary disease brought on by a weakened immune system. In Africa, raptors are disappearing at a “shocking” rate, partially due to poisons. A 2020 study at Tufts Wildlife Clinic found that 100 percent of hospitalized red-tailed hawks had rodenticides in their livers, and all but one contained brodifacoum, especially deadly to birds. None of the hawks survived.

Another study in 2023 at Tufts revealed the horrors of another rodenticide, a neurotoxin called Bromethalin that can bioaccumulate in raptors. It had already been the cause of severe illness in San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill parrots and “works by interfering with a metabolic process called oxidative phosphorylation, or how an individual cell creates energy. When that process is disrupted, the cells can’t produce the fuel to keep their normal processes functioning correctly, such as regulating fluid balance, or the amount of fluid inside the cell versus outside of the cell. When the cell can’t regulate that fluid balance anymore, it causes accumulation of fluid in abnormal spaces.”

In addition to wildlife, the use of these rodenticides can expose companion animals, such as dogs, who can be poisoned directly when they eat bait from boxes or get into unsecured packaging in their homes. Homeless or feral cats, as well as those allowed to roam and hunt freely also can become poisoned. Victims — no matter the species — suffer horribly, and for many, many days.

Regardless of how any type of rodenticide is distributed — by homeowners, professional exterminators, or HOAs — we, our companion animals, and local wildlife are at risk of exposure. Poisons are no less dangerous when packaged in tamper-proof, sealed bait boxes. The harm they cause far exceeds their limited, alleged benefits.

Room for improvement
Although we’re slowly seeing some positive strides, we still have a long way to go in eradicating these dangerous substances. Late last year, a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency biological evaluation found that rodenticides harm more than 130 endangered species — including Florida panthers, black-footed ferrets and California condors — and are driving toward extinction at least 73 other species. Because of this, the EPA has proposed new measures to reduce unintentional wildlife poisonings and increase protections for endangered species. However, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, data from past rodenticide restrictions indicates that the new protections fall far short and will continue to leave many wildlife species at risk because, as mentioned above, predators and scavengers consume poisoned animals. Certainly any reduction of harm from these poisons is a good thing, but we need to push for much stricter regulations to ensure that both wildlife and people are safe from them. Learn more at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The good news: There are many things we can do to prevent even the thought of using poisons.
If you do have a serious problem, humane prevention is crucial:

  • Learn where rodent are coming in and plug up holes (if you need to put rodents outside, use a live trap).
  • Eliminate sources of food, water, shelter.
  • Cover or enclose veggie gardens with wire.
  • Remove ivy from buildings.
  • Clean up/seal up any outdoor food for dogs, chickens, horses, etc.
  • Remove bird feeders.
  • Clean up/seal up trash. 
  • Clean barbecues following use.
  • Prevent or remove rodents’ access to fruit and nut trees by trimming branches away from fences, roofs, and other accessible places; attach tree guards on tree trunks to prevent climbers.
  • Speak with neighbors who may be contributing to the problem.
  • Install rodent birth control, the future of humane, non-toxic coexistence!
  • Nurture a native plant garden, to attract natural predators like raptors and snakes.

And just because we see a rat or mouse doesn’t necessarily mean that our yard is infested: In the 22 years I’ve lived in my house, I’ve seen perhaps a couple of mice and four or five rats, all of which arouse my curiosity and interest, not revulsion or contempt. I’ve also noticed a few snakes and many raptors who need such food. Several rats had also been seen this past year at the community garden where I grow food, but raptors in the vicinity apparently did what they do best and there’s been no sign of the rats since. Raptors and other predators are the answer, and there is no such thing as a safe rodenticide. For more information, please visit Raptors Are The Solution (RATS).

© 2024 Eileen M. Stark

Study Confirms Neonic’s Deadly Harm to Birds as EPA Ignores Facts

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) recently released an updated, piercing report that confirms the continual decline of wild birds — as well as beneficial insects and many other animals — due to the uncontrolled use of highly toxic neonicotinoid pesticides. It’s a lengthy read, so I thought I’d offer a fairly brief synopsis to those who appreciate and support biodiversity.

Back in 2013, the ABC produced its ground-breaking paper, “The Impact of the Nation’s Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds” (Mineau and Palmer 2013), which warned of the catastrophic risks that these ambulant and persistent insecticides create for both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, as well as the likely repercussions on wildlife who depend on those ecosystems.

Fast forward ten years, and “Neonicotinoid insecticides: Failing to come to grips with a predictable environmental disaster” (Mineau and Kern 2023) reveals that little has changed, except that the quantity used is hidden from us. The report examines the recent science that echos earlier alarm calls and describes the completely inadequate regulatory response by the EPA and other regulators. According to Hardy Kern, one of the study’s authors, “Some states and agencies have taken minimal actions, but we have a long way to go before these chemicals are no longer a threat to birds, native pollinators and aquatic systems.” A recent comprehensive study in Europe found pesticide and fertilizer use to be “more dramatic than forest alterations, urbanization, and climate change”.

Developed by Bayer and Shell and introduced in the early 1990s, neonicotinoids (“neonics”) have been touted as safe and more benign than any previous pesticide groups. They quickly became popular in pesticide markets worldwide and today they are the most commonly used insecticides (where they haven’t been banned). The neonics group is a synthetic neurotoxin chemically similar to nicotine and includes acetamiprid, thiacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin, imidacloprid and others. They are widely used in agriculture (more than 140 types of crops, including rice, wheat, corn, sunflowers, cotton, nuts, soybeans, fruits and vegetables), in commercial nurseries, and in urban areas on golf courses, parks, gardens and lawns, in insect sprays, and flea and tick veterinary products. (Last month, in response to a Center for Biological Diversity legal petition asking that Seresto flea collars — which have been linked to more than 100,000 reports of harm or death — be pulled from the market, the EPA responded by only requiring that warning labels be placed on the collars.)

Neonics are applied as a soil injection (“soil drenching”) and tree injection, as a foliar spray, and as a seed coating (the most common application). As a plant grows, the systemic pesticide permeates all cells within roots, stems, leaves, pollen, nectar, sap, fruit, and honeydew. In addition to killing what are considered pest insects, neonics indiscriminately poison non-target beneficial species like bees, butterflies and other pollinators, including hummingbirds. An estimated 96 percent of land birds are insectivorous and must feed their young insects (which may be poisoned), and seed-eating birds commonly consume spilled seeds loaded with neonic residue. They can also encounter neonics by inhalation of vapors, skin contact, and in their drinking water. Dust generated from pneumatic seed planting machinery can also kill flying insects directly, and it can disperse off-site at seeding time (making additional plants acutely toxic), and contaminate soil. In the soil, neonics persist for months to years, with drift, irrigation or runoff carrying them long distances, eventually contaminating new soil, plant life and water supplies. Only two to five percent of most seeds coated with neonics make it into a target plant, leaving roughly 95 percent in the soil, where it can contaminate the nests of native ground-nesting bees (70 percent of native bees nest in the ground).

When consumed in lethal doses, neonics permanently bind to nerve cells, which typically causes uncontrollable twitching and shaking followed by paralysis and eventually death. But even small, nonlethal doses can cause severe debilitation to victims’ immune, reproductive, navigation, and nervous systems. Birds may become so incapacitated that they don’t eat, migrate, reproduce, and become paralyzed or experience seizures. Researchers have found destructive reproductive effects at concentrations much lower than the thresholds set by regulators: The ABC found that ingesting just one-tenth of a contaminated corn kernel (with any of the neonics) per day during egg-laying season can negatively affect bird reproduction. Appallingly, “A single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird. Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with the oldest neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, can poison a bird.” The ABC authors expressed, “Based on recent studies, we have increasing concerns over reproductive and sub-lethal effects resulting from low exposures in farm fields … Given that exposure is often season-long, this raises the specter of significant effects on a large number of bird species.”

Due to widespread use, neonics have caused and continue to cause extensive ecosystem contamination, including watersheds, groundwater, and irrigation water. Neonics’ water solubility means that they travel easily in surface runoff, contaminating aquifers and other aquatic environments—residues have even been found in seabirds’ feathers and raptors, and there is proof that they kill fish and other aquatic animals. A U.S. Geological Survey study found that neonics polluted more than half of the streams in the U.S. In addition, bats are directly and indirectly harmed, and birth defects have been found in white-tailed deer. If you’re wondering about harm to humans, the NRDC’s “Potential Risks to Brain and Sperm” article details the health impacts, including the possibility of creating even more toxic compounds when neonics are mixed with things like chlorine at water treatment plants. The good news is that organically-grown foods are mostly neonic-free.

Unwillingness of regulators
Regulation of these chemicals is extremely inadequate. The ABC authors say, “The U.S. is far behind the European Union and a few Canadian provinces in responsible regulation and mitigation. The main uses of neonicotinoid insecticides go against fundamental principles of integrated pest management. Alternatives to these chemicals do exist … We believe they have failed in the execution of their mandate and in preventing the ongoing environmental tragedy that neonics represent.”

Possibly the worst debacle of regulators is that seeds coated with neonics are not regulated at all; they’re included in the “Treated Item Exemption” of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which, according to the ABC authors, means that most neonic applications are not counted in usage estimates. In 2017 a number of NGOs petitioned the EPA to remove seed treatments from the exemption. It took the EPA, which ignores the advice of its own scientists, five years to deny it. Earlier this summer the groups sued the EPA.

The U.S. government has also lessened the amount of data available about pesticide use and proliferation to scientists and the public. Earlier this year the U.S. Geological Survey cut the amount of data it collects in its National Pesticide Use Map, and beginning in 2024 its report will be released only every five years, instead of yearly. It’s also shrunken the number of pesticides it monitors from 400 to 72, partly because the USGS purchases data from a private company, which stopped including seed treatments in usage stats around 2015. The USGS says that “seed coatings are too difficult to reliably source information on and, therefore, are not included in national pesticide-use estimates.” They’re also left out of National Water Quality Assessment maps.

So, no one knows how much neonics are used on seeds. A USGS graph of clothianidin usage in the 2023 ABC report shows that over 3.5 million pounds were used in 2014 (mostly on corn), and in 2015 the usage was slightly more than 500,000 pounds. Of course this doesn’t mean that less clothianidin was used; only that seed treatments were dropped from estimated use.

A 2019 study found that U.S. agriculture is nearly 50 times more toxic to insects than it was 25 years earlier and neonics are responsible for a whopping 92 percent of that atrocity—this is especially heinous considering the “insect apocalypse” that experts predict. Despite their rampant use, neonics can actually make pest problems worse because not only do they kill beneficial wildlife; they also kill soil microbes that improve plants’ health, durability, and crop yields. And, there is even evidence that neonics reduce crop production. In the U.S., there is no law that requires manufacturers prove that their product works. Speaking with National Geographic, Kendra Klein, study co-author and senior staff scientist at Friends of the Earth U.S., said, “We have four decades of research and evidence that agroecological farming methods can grow our food without decimating pollinators.”

Are neonics the new “Silent Spring”?
North America lost more than three billion birds (even species once considered common) between 1970 and 2018 — 29% of 1970 abundance — due in part to the ubiquitous use of neonics. Even the EPA confirmed that the use of imidicloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam) harm roughly 75 percent of all endangered plants and animals. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, there’s been horrendous harm to imperiled species by all three insecticides, such as “all 39 species of endangered amphibians, including the California red-legged frog, as well as rusty patched bumblebees, whooping cranes, chinook salmon, northern long-eared bats and orcas.” The American bumblebee, once the most commonly observed bumblebee species in the U.S., has declined by an estimated 89 percent in just the past 20 years. Clearly, neonicotinoids are one of the most dangerous, toxic classes of pesticides that pose atrocious longterm threats to biodiversity. We’re in the midst of a harrowing extinction crisis with beneficial insects, birds, aquatic life, and mammals dying off in appalling numbers and neonics are a major, reckless threat that the earth does not need. “Neonics may not bioaccumulate in organisms and biomagnify in food webs as did DDT and other organochlorine pesticides of old, but they appear to be as widely distributed in the broader terrestrial and aquatic environments,” according to the ABC report’s authors.

Neonics are mostly banned in the EU (even “emergency” uses have been overturned in court) and parts of Canada (Ontario and Quebec require a prescription to use neonics to coat seeds, which has drastically reduced their use). Although a few states in the U.S. have passed legislation that restricts the use of neonics (but doesn’t eliminate them), and other states are beginning to take action, only severe restrictions by the EPA will protect ecosystems, biodiversity and human health from these noxious, unnecessary chemicals before it’s too late.

In July of this year, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the Pollinator-Friendly Plant Labeling Act, which would require the Department of Agriculture to create a certification program for plant producers to certify that their plants are not treated with pesticides or substance not approved for use in organically-grown products that are harmful to pollinators. Producers who choose to participate in the program would be able to use a “USDA pollinator-friendly” label on their plants and products. It’s a minor action, but is a step in the right direction.

In the home garden
The Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides states, “Neonicotinoids are found in hundreds of products sold over the counter under various trade names. Many of these are designed for individual home and garden use. One of the most toxic neonicotinoids to our native bees — imidacloprid — is commonly applied to gardens, flowerbeds, shrubs, and trees in urban and residential areas.” According to the Xerces Society, “even when used according to printed instructions, garden products containing neonicotinoids can be applied to plants in concentrations dozens of times greater than on farm crops [sometimes at concentrations of as much as 120 times]. This means that bees can be exposed to lethal doses of neonicotinoids in gardens. Even if bees are not killed outright, smaller (non-lethal) doses can impact their health.” Remember that labels do not indicate that they are harmful to pollinators, so it’s important to either not buy such products or be sure to read ingredient lists (Imidacloprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam are all neonics found in garden products). This Xerces Society brochure explains how to protect pollinators from neonics.

What you can do:

  • Buy organically-grown foods, seeds, bird-friendly coffee, and other products whenever possible (they’re not always much more expensive). If feasible, grow some organic produce at home. Find a list organic seed companies here.
  • Shop at plant nurseries that don’t use neonics (always ask if you’re unsure).
  • Don’t buy/use products that contain neonics (be sure to read labels).
  • Create pesticide-free, safe outdoor spaces using regional native plants that will encourage wildlife such as native bees, butterflies, birds, and other beneficials.
  • Ask your state and federal legislators to advance laws that eliminate (or at least severely restrict) pesticide use.
  • Email the EPA to voice your concerns about the lack of regulations on pesticide-coated seeds: pesticidequestions@epa.gov
  • Watch Beyond Pesticides’ short video for more info on toxic seeds and check out ABC’s fact sheet.

© 2023 Eileen M. Stark

Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium)


Graceful, open, and vibrantly green, red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) is a quintessential Pacific Northwest native shrub. It’s not often used in garden situations, but it ought to be, considering its beauty and wildlife appeal. And unlike other native huckleberries that ripen in late summer or fall, red huckleberry typically offers dazzlingly red (and tasty) fruit in mid to late summer.

Part of the appeal of this deciduous huckleberry is its bright green, twiggy, angled branches that support smooth, oval, and equally green leaves. Flowers are small, urn-shaped and greenish-yellow, but often have a lovely pink hue. Fruit is a spherical berry high in vitamin C, which ripens to a brilliant red. At maturity, it typically reaches five to ten feet tall and nearly as wide, although it can grow larger in optimal conditions. 

Wildlife value
In late spring to early summer (depending on elevation and latitude) blossoms attract hummingbirds, native bees, and other insects. Berries are attractive to both humans and wildlife: Birds such as flickers, jays, thrushes, chickadees, towhees and bluebirds, and mammals, including deer mice, white-footed mice, raccoons, pika, ground squirrels, chipmunks, and foxes. Reportedly, the fruit is a big part of black and grizzly bears’ late summer and autumn diet. With time, this shrub may form a thicket, which provides shelter or nesting sites for small birds and mammals.

How it grows
The key to a healthy eco-garden is the choice of plants that fit your conditions and are locally native. Of course we don’t always have the exact conditions a plant requires, especially in urban situations where natural conditions have been drastically changed. Red huckleberry is a plant that will probably need some extra encouragement, but I think it’s worth the added effort. When selecting which plants will join your garden, always check on the circumstances in which it’s found in the natural world, where it’s found, and choose accordingly. 

Red huckleberry occurs naturally in the understory of moist coniferous or mixed evergreen forests, sometimes in the transition zone of wetlands or at forest edges, at low to middle elevations from southeastern Alaska and British Columbia, southward through western Washington and Oregon to central California. While it’s quite tolerant of shade (and usually grows larger in shade), it can do well in a woodland garden with some sun if it’s not drought stricken or in hot afternoon sun. Plants that get some sun, including those found in forest openings, generally appear lusher and produce more fruit if other requirements are met. It’s usually found in humus-rich soil growing on some rotting wood — often a fallen log or an old stump — so be sure to include some in very close proximity to your new plant. In a nutshell, it needs mostly shady sites (with perhaps some morning sun or dappled sunlight) and moist — but somewhat well drained — acidic soil (pH 4.5 – 6) that has plenty of organic matter, as well as some rotting wood to grow on.

Try it at home
A few autumns ago, I added a gallon-sized individual to a backyard bed situated to the north of some large native conifers, which provide some shade. My slightly acidic soil had been amended with organic matter over the years and allowed to accumulate natural plant debris, and I added what will really help its survival: Rotting downed wood to latch onto. I finished off my planting with a layer of leaf compost, topped by a few handfuls of conifer needles and cones blown down from nearby trees, all of which help retain moisture and keep pH on the acidic side. I water it deeply but infrequently during dry periods. One last tip: Vaccinium species don’t do well with root disturbance, so don’t dig in the soil near its roots or attempt to move it after it’s been in the ground for more than a year or so.

At planting time, provide red huckleberry with a growing medium of decaying stumps or logs to mimic natural conditions.

Grab a partner
In coastal forests, red huckleberry is commonly associated with plants such as mature western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), black huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum), oval leaf huckleberry (V. ovalifolium), salmonberry (Rubus spectablis), thimbleberry (R. parviflorus), trailing blackberry (R. ursinus), strawberry bramble (R. pedatus), salal (Gaultheria shallon), Cascade Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), bunchberry (Cornus unalaschkensis), lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), oak fern (Gymnocarpium spp.), and woodland strawberry (Frageria vesca). In southwestern Oregon and northern California, Pinemat manzanita (Arctostaphylos nevadensis), California coffeeberry (Rhamnus california), baldhip rose (Rosa gymnocarpa), California laurel (Umbellularia californica), boxleaf silktassel (Garrya buxifolia), and huckleberry oak (Quercus vaccinifolia) are often associated. In the western Cascades below 5,000 feet, it’s found with mature western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), western redcedar (Thuja plicata) and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), as well as vine maple (Acer circinatum), salal (Gaultheria shallon), salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), Cascade Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), sword fern (Polystichum munitum), deer fern (Blechnum spicant), fairy bells (Prosartes spp.), bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata), and many others.

 © 2023 Eileen M. Stark

When Death Supports Life: Trees, Woodpeckers, and Biodiversity


As sad and full of dread as I am about the impending loss of a giant 90-year-old American elm street tree next door, the life that the dying tree supports makes its demise seem much less calamitous. In early March we noticed the familiar tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker on a nearly vertical limb about 40 feet above ground. There, perched on thick, rough bark, was a male downy woodpecker in the process of crafting a perfectly round hole. Since it appeared to be at least two inches deep at that time, I figured that he and his mate had begun excavating the cavity at least a week earlier. The following week the pair ambitiously began work on a second hole, a quarter way around on the same limb, but facing north. Another few weeks passed and we observed them chiseling out yet another hole, this time just below the first one, facing eastward. The branch is angled slightly downward, which keeps out rain and may be less obvious to predators.

What’s with all the holes? Woodpeckers—expert woodworkers of the avian world—including the downy, hairy, pileated, flicker, and many others, hollow out separate chambers for nesting and roosting and, as you’ll read further on, are considered “keystone species” for their crucial role in creating habitat for other woodland species who depend on dead and dying trees in the landscape.

Late in April, it became clear that the third chamber — its depth now at least as long as the birds themselves — would become their little nursery. Excavation of the gourd-shaped cavity continued, but there appeared to be little activity as the month progressed, at least to our eyes and ears, grounded 40 feet below during a very wet, cool spring that kept us indoors more than usual. It wasn’t until the second week of June, when our neighbor told us of baby bird sounds coming from the cavity, that we realized what they’d been up to.

Why snags are essential habitat
With their rotting wood, hollow cavities, broken branches and loose bark, dead and dying trees — known as snags — may actually provide more varied habitat for all sorts of creatures than when they were alive. In addition to providing vital housing for many types of insects (including some pollinators), cavity-nesting birds (around 80 species in North America), amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals (including bats), they provide food and open perches, and double as storage lockers. Woodpeckers also use snags to communicate during breeding season. For species that must roost in cavities during winter, insulated roosting cavities within trees are essential for them to be able to escape frigid temperatures; it can mean the difference between life and death.

But they can’t use just any old tree. A study in Washington’s eastern Cascades found that cavity-excavating birds preferred trees with significantly soft interior wood. “The researchers also found that at-risk species were nesting within burned areas where up to 96 percent of the trees had unsuitably hard wood. This suggests that many trees and snags previously considered suitable for cavity-excavating birds actually may not be.”

The availability of snags falls far short of the need as forests are increasingly decimated and development runs amok; they’re especially rare in urban areas. Removing them steals critical habitat, even if their wood is unsuitably hard. Whenever possible, allow snags to remain in low activity areas that won’t be a problem should they fall apart; when they do 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 an arborist to shorten the trunk and any branches that might pose a problem (but retain at least 15 feet of height). If you already have a snag, retain or add native shrubs near its base—they will help keep it stable and protected from weather extremes and provide connectivity, leafy cover, and additional food 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.

Back to the downy nursery story
After we learned of the nestlings, my husband began photographing the adorable babies and their parents, who worked tirelessly to provide them with insects to eat. The nestlings’ voices were loud and strong and photos revealed that they were all male (with little red caps!), and nearly old enough to fledge. Some sources say it may occur at 18-21 days after hatching, although Audubon says 20-25 days; regardless, we knew it would be soon, so we arose very early for several days, in the hopes of witnessing the fledging event. It wasn’t early enough though, because on our third day of morning observation, the loud chirping and queeking heard earlier in the week had dwindled to just one voice: In other words, we missed the main event. Disappointed, we reminded ourselves that the remaining baby’s voice offered hope that we’d at least be able to watch him leave the nest. Why the delay? Many birds, including the downy, begin incubation when the last or second to last egg is laid. Judging by his resistance to leave when the others left, this remaining nestling was likely a day younger, so incubation probably began the day before Mom laid his egg.

We decided that the next day was the day that he’d fledge and since we didn’t want to miss it, we got up at just after five o’clock. For nearly four hours we took turns watching, waiting and photographing while his parents occasionally fed him. They also had their other young to feed, but I imagine he wasn’t much trouble since he stayed put, unlike his brothers who were out in other trees, far enough away that we rarely heard them.

But like the previous day, Junior stayed put. Perhaps he was just too scared to venture out into the world, so we certainly couldn’t blame the little guy. Surely he would leave the next day! We arose early and found he was still at the nest entrance. We checked on him periodically as we fed the cats, made coffee, and had a little breakfast. At 8:05 I checked and he was still at the entrance, so I selfishly went inside for a snack. When I checked ten minutes later I found he had taken to his wings for the first time — and I missed it!! But a little later I heard him in our backyard’s Douglas-fir tree and saw Mom or Dad fly to feed him. In all likelihood, they’re still in the area, staying hidden with their parents busily feeding them, and will remain so for several weeks until they are able to secure food on their own.


Woodpeckers’ crucial connection to others
I gaze up at the holes that lead to the cavities, now silent and empty, and wonder about other species that might benefit from them. Woodpeckers are primary cavity excavators and reportedly do not use nests more than once (although they may nest in a new cavity in the same tree in subsequent years). [UPDATE, June 2023: The sources that state that Downy woodpeckers don’t reuse nest cavities are incorrect, because this year another pair (or perhaps the same parent or parents) are using the exact same cavity.] But their power-drilling labor facilitates unintentional links to other species known as secondary cavity nesters who cannot excavate their own nest sites or roost sites or may have trouble locating other natural cavities (created by broken branches or decayed wood) or artificial nest boxes. Chickadees and nuthatches also may excavate nesting cavities themselves, but they are not considered strong excavators.

Secondary cavity-nesting birds — including bluebirds, tree swallows, kestrels, some wrens, and many owl species — as well as small mammals such as bats and flying squirrels, may utilize abandoned woodpeckers’ cavities. Studies show that areas with a rich diversity of tree-cavity excavators, in conjunction with snags and other forest elements, maintain a high biodiversity of secondary cavity nesters, as well as other forest birds. In a nutshell, woodpeckers play essential keystone roles, are indicators of ecosystem health, and help other species survive.


© 2022 Eileen M. Stark

Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Western maidenhair fern (Adiantum aleuticum)


It’s a drizzly Sunday in June, one that requires a couple of sweaters to keep me warm. But I can’t complain when I see so many native plants thriving, obviously in their element during this cool, damp spring—ferns, wild ginger, fairy bells, goat’s beard, vanilla leaf, and many others. Western maidenhair fern (Adiantum aleuticum), in particular, which can be found in nature basking in the mist of waterfalls, appears stunningly luxuriant right now. I watch the lush fronds of a plant in my front yard, now 20 years old and nearly three feet tall and four feet wide, move silently with the slightest breeze. “Tender and delicate, but perfect in all their details, far more than any lace work—the most elaborate leaf we have,” was the way Thoreau described ferns.

If you’re wondering about Adiantum aleuticum’s genus name, it comes from the Greek adiantos, meaning unwetted, in reference to its water repellent foliage. The species name refers to the Aleut indigenous peoples of the Aleutian Islands. Although this fern was previously known as a subspecies of Adiantum pedatum, subtle morphologic differences led to its reclassification as a separate species in the early 1990s. Also known as “five-finger fern”, the common name “maidenhair” may refer to either its glossy, dark, smooth stalks or the finely textured dark root hairs that grow from a short, stout rhizome.

How it grows
A highly textured perennial with an airy, delicate-looking structure and fine-textured deciduous foliage, Western maidenhair fern grows mainly at low to middle elevations in the shady understory of moist forests and ravines, along stream banks, in rock fissures near flowing water, and even on talus slopes. It can be found in southern Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, as well as parts of California, the Rocky Mountains, and a few disjunct populations in northeastern states and Canada.


Each dark brown or purplish-black stalk (aka petiole or stipe) grows up to 30 inches in length and forks at the top into two, from which several others emerge in a fanlike pattern. Feathery pinnae (leaflets) are made up of 15-35 fan-shaped or oblong segments (pinnules), each 10-25 mm long with jagged apical margins. Like other ferns, it reproduces via spores as light as fairy dust. Spores are produced by crescent-shaped sori on the underside of pinnules, covered by in-rolled leaf margins. They can be produced during most of the growing season, but mostly in summer. For detailed info on how ferns reproduce sexually, wander over here.

Wildlife value
Lively green foliage provides microhabitat, shelter and resting places for arthropods, amphibians, birds and other small creatures who frequent the forest floor and may in turn supply food for others. Maidenhair fern may even provide perching spots for little birds who have just left the safety of their nest and are figuring out what to do next (pictured, right)! As winter approaches, the plant deteriorates, covers the soil and eventually adds nutrients following decomposition.

Try it at home
Native ferns deserve space in our landscapes. Besides being important elements of habitat for native wildlife, they might be the best choice for shady, damp spaces that are difficult to fill. Maidenhair fern is easily grown in shaded, moist areas with soil that’s somewhat acidic, high in organic matter and drains well, so consider it in beds, borders and woodland gardens with dappled shade to full shade. In hot areas, be sure to provide enough moisture, especially before and during excessively hot periods; hot afternoon sun will scorch leaves. Space plants two to three feet apart, or intermingle them with other plants that have similar needs, allowing for a mature width of about three feet. Don’t plant crowns too deep. Reportedly, maidenhair fern is deer resistant.

Grab a partner
In the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades, this lovely fern will do well in the company of others in the Western hemlock/Douglas-fir plant community, including western redcedar, vine maple, trillium, sword fern, deer fern, false solomon’s seal, stream violet, western meadowrue, goat’s beard, oxalis, piggy-back plant, foam flower, wild ginger, and many others.

© 2022 Eileen M. Stark

Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Pine (Pinus species)


Well over one hundred species of pine help support our planet, which makes the genus Pinus the largest within the conifer phylum known as Pinophyta, the woody cone-bearing plants. Found across the Northern Hemisphere, Pinus is of ancient origin, having appeared around 180 million years ago. In addition to the rich wildlife habitat, beauty, shade, fragrance, rain interception and carbon sequestration they provide, the majority of pines are drought tolerant, fire resistant and most can be extremely long-lived, with some species surviving 1,000+ years when undisturbed.

How they grow
Evergreen and resinous, pines generally grow 50–150 ft tall, although some, like ponderosa pine, can grow over 200 feet (one in southern Oregon’s Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest towers to more than 268 feet tall!).

On adult pine trees, needle-like leaves are green and bundled in clusters called fascicles, unlike other conifers. Each fascicle can have one to seven needles, depending on the species, and assist in identification. In the Pacific Northwest west of the Cascades, there are five native pine species, a few of which can also be found at fairly high elevations east of the Cascades summit. They have either two, three, or five needles per fascicle, which stay on the plant for anywhere from two to forty years, again depending on the species.

Seed cones (female) are hard and woody, with tough scales that serve to protect the developing seeds until dispersal time comes. In some species, maturity of the cone causes scales to open and free the winged seeds. In others, scales need to be broken or pecked open by a hungry animal in order for the seeds to be released. And then there are the species that have scales sealed shut with resin: Known as “serotinous” cones, they need a trigger to release their seeds. Although serotiny can be caused in some plants by excessively moist or dry conditions, high solar heat, or death of a branch or the plant, most pines that are native to regions where wildfire naturally occurs depend on the high temperatures from periodic fire to soften the resin and expose the seeds. Fire has been a part of various natural ecosystems for millennia; having a canopy full of seeds ready to go following a fire ensures dispersal for a new generation without competition. But it can take decades for that to happen and on many sites currently, such fire regimes no longer exist. When natural fire is suppressed, species that need fire to regenerate will slowly die without ever releasing their seeds, and species dependent on those pines are consequently affected.

Pines do best in open areas and are not shade-tolerant. Generally, they don’t need rich soil and do best if it drains fairly quickly. Some can survive in harsh environments such as cold, exposed ridges at high elevations or latitudes, or even the wet and windy Pacific coast.

Wildlife value
Pines are one of the most valuable food plants for wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, particularly for small mammals like chipmunks and squirrels, as well as birds such as grosbeaks, jays, chickadees, and nuthatches who forage on the highly nutritious seeds and help distribute them. Larger birds, including woodpeckers, also use pine trees as food sources, particularly dead and dying pines. Pine needles may be eaten by some Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) species (such as the larvae of western pine elfin that use lodgepole and ponderosa pine for food), as well as by pine sawfly, deer, and mountain goats; needles are also used in nest building. Large pines provide excellent roost and nest sites, while smaller pines offer crucial cover for many animals. Fallen needles may serve as bedding for larger mammals such as deer.

Native pines west of the Cascades
Below is info on the five native pine species that occur in the PNW west of the Cascades, plus one honorable mention; they are noted according to the number of needles per fascicle. If you want to identify a particular tree, count the needles per fascicle, evaluate the appearance of the cones, and check the natural range.

Fast-growing Pinus contorta evolved into four varieties, each of which adapted to its geography. Despite their large ecological and morphological variability, all varieties of P. contorta have two stiff, one to three-inch long needles per fascicle, which are often twisted and are mostly found toward the ends of twigs. The seed cones are small (typically one to three inches long), hard, prickled toward the top of the cone, and found near branch tips. The varieties are inter fertile in areas where their ranges overlap.

Pinus contorta var. contorta

Three varieties are found in the PNW. It was shore pine (a.k.a. beach pine or twisted pine), Pinus contorta var. contorta, that led David Douglas to offer the species’ epithet contorta when he first laid eyes on one in 1826: Reportedly, he found some relatively short trees growing in contorted and gnarly outlines near the mouth of the Columbia River on wind-swept, rocky sites with the added insult of oceanic salt spray. Bark is thick, deeply grooved, and a deep red-brown in color. Small brown cones are often asymmetrical and release seeds at maturity. Adapted to poor and rocky soils, shore pine’s range includes the San Juan islands, the outer coasts of British Columbia, Oregon, Washington and northern California, bogs of Alaska and Washington, and only occasionally the Puget-Willamette Trough. On more sheltered sites, this coastal species will grow taller and more erect (up to about 50 feet tall), and slightly resembles the appearance of Pinus contorta var. latifolia (lodgepole pine), which naturally occurs further inland, mainly in the Washington Cascades east of the Puget Trough and at higher elevations (up to 11,500 feet).

Lodgepole pine grows taller (up to ~100 feet) and more slender (especially when growing close together) with thin bark and a narrow crown. Adapted to stand-destroying fire, it is one of the first trees to come back after a natural periodic fire; its cones, which vary in shape and may be solitary or paired, are considered fire-dependent. However, this cone characteristic varies with tree age and local fire history, with older trees and those growing in areas with frequent fires able to produce serotinous cones. Remarkably, some lodgepole pine trees are even more variable, having both serotinous and nonserotinous cones, which may enable future trees to adapt to change.

Pinus contorta var. murrayana, Sierra-Cascade lodgepole pine, grows in the eastern Cascades of southern Washington, Oregon and the mountains of California. Its cones usually open on the tree when mature, before a fire. Both lodgepole pines will grow in situations that other conifers cannot tolerate.

Another tall, handsome pine is Pinus ponderosa, or ponderosa pine (aka western yellow pine), a fairly fast-growing tree to 100 feet by 25 feet in cultivation, larger in natural areas. With bundles of three long, pointed bright green needles that fall off after several years, ponderosa pine has a straight, robust trunk and a wide, open, cylindrical crown when mature. Bark is furrowed and dark on young trees; on older trees the thick, fire-resistant bark typically turns a golden brown or cinnamon color, flakes off into scaly plates separated by deep fissures, and has a vanilla scent in heat. Tan to reddish-brown, conical or egg-shaped female cones have stiff prickles that curve outward. The root system spreads widely and has a deep taproot. Although best grown in full sun with well drained, deep, somewhat moist soil when young, ponderosa pine is reportedly adaptable to a variety of elevations, soil and humidity, and is drought tolerant when established. Damage may occur due to late frosts.

Lustrous needles of Pinus ponderosa subsp. Benthamiana.

Ponderosa pine is subdivided into five subspecies; P. ponderosa subsp. ponderosa is most commonly found in cold, dry environments east of the Cascade summit, throughout the Rocky Mountains and southward. Pinus ponderosa subsp. Benthamiana (aka Pacific ponderosa) is endemic to the Willamette Valley (where it is sometimes called Willamette Valley pine or Pinus ponderosa var. willamettensis), as well as the mountains of southwestern Oregon, parts of California and a few sites in western Washington. Genetically different from ponderosa subspecies in other ecoregions, it usually has longer needles (up to nine inches) and is suited to higher rainfall in valley bottoms, as well as drier slopes. Prior to 1850, it thrived in oak savanna, riparian forest and upland prairie dispersed among other species (particularly Oregon white oak, Quercus garryana). Logged extensively by settlers as they cleared the land for lumber, agriculture and other development, until recently the only remaining native stock in the Willamette Valley survived in small scattered stands. Wildlife who needed the trees for food and nesting habitat suffered from the loss, including the rapidly dwindling Lewis’s woodpecker (now extirpated; there have been no breeding records in the Puget Lowlands since 1980; the last known nest in the Willamette Valley was near Scapoose in 1970; they have not been seen in the Rogue and Umpqua Valleys since the early 1990s). While this pine does best in full sun and moist but well-draining soil, it also tolerates somewhat dry conditions and lean soils. Choose associate species from Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana) ecosystems in this post.

Another three-needled pine that possesses similarities to ponderosa pine is Jeffrey pine, Pinus jeffreyi, named by Scottish botanist John Jeffrey. A major difference is its range: In the PNW it occurs only in southwestern Oregon at 4800 to 9600 feet in elevation, often in windswept outcroppings or on serpentine and other nutrient-poor soils where it grows slowly but outcompetes other trees. In addition, its needles are a duller bluish-gray and thicker than ponderosa pine’s, and they are typically held longer (five to eight years). Cones become much larger (up to 12 inches long), with prickles that curve inward. Older bark tends to be darker and more narrowly grooved than that of ponderosa’s.

Pinus attenuata (knobcone pine) also has fascicles of three yellow-green needles, which are typically three to seven inches in length and twisted. Buff colored, three to six inch, serotinous cones — that let go of seeds only after fire melts the resin — have knobby bumps on one side, and grow in bristly, dense clusters. Bark is dark with loose, scaly plates on this very long-lived, relatively small (30 to 50 foot) tree with a conical crown; it may be shrubby on poor sites. In the PNW west of the Cascades it’s found mainly in southwestern Oregon on rocky slopes at high elevations that are prone to fire (often on serpentine soils), as well as further south into parts of California and Baja.

Pinus lambertiana (sugar pine) is a very large tree (120 to 200 feet tall) that has fascicles of five pointed needles that are two to four inches in length and striped with white on all three sides. Woody cones are straight and grow very large (up to 19 inches), with straight, thick scales. Bark is reddish-brown to purplish and furrowed; on young trees it’s broken into narrow plates and on mature trees broken into long plates. It’s found at mid to high elevations in the mountains of southern Oregon (from Linn County, southward), as well as southern California, the Sierra Nevada range and northern Baja. David Douglas named the species lambertiana in honor of the English botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert in 1826.

You may be familiar with Pinus monticola, Western white pine, since it is fairly common and easy to grow (despite its susceptibility to white pine blister-rust). A large, symmetrical tree (to 130 feet but smaller in cultivation), it also has fascicles of five needles, but white pine’s thin bluish-green needles have (surprise!) white lines on two sides of each 3-sided needle. Slender, curved woody cones are four to ten inches long, with scales that are thin and may be curved but without prickles. Bark is gray, thin, and broken into small rectangular or hexagonal scaly plates on mature trees. Range includes southern British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California’s Sierra Nevada, from sea level to about 2500 feet in elevation in moist valleys and open slopes.

The very slow-growing, often shrub-like or gnarled Pinus albicaulis (whitebark pine) also has short needles in bundles of five, thin grayish bark, and small roundish cones without prickles that remain closed on the tree at any age. Since it naturally occurs only at high elevations (near timberline) in southern B.C, the Olympics, the Cascades, east-central California and the Rocky Mountains, you won’t be tempted to grow it in your low elevation yard, but I’ll mention it as it certainly deserves our attention and concern.

Data from USFS Forest Inventory and Analysis surveys report that “as of 2016, 51% of all standing whitebark pine trees in the US were dead” and over half of that amount occurred approximately within the last two decades. Due to severe population decline, the USFWS determined that it “warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), but … adding the species to the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants is precluded by the need to address other listing actions of a higher priority.” The severe decline is attributed to multiple stressors, especially white pine blister rust (introduced into western North America through the horticulture trade in 1910), but also outbreaks of mountain pine beetle (made worse by a warming climate), fire suppression and catastrophic fire, poor management, and, of course, climate chaos. UPDATE: In December 2022, this species was listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Whitebark pine is very long-lived, with some surviving 1,000 years. Considered a keystone species, it regulates runoff by slowing down snowmelt, controls soil erosion due to its ability to grow quickly after disturbances such as fires, and provides a rich source of food for birds like Clark’s nutcracker and mammals such as grizzly bears. It depends almost exclusively on Clark’s nutcracker for seed dispersal, but there needs to be sufficient density and seed abundance to attract the birds.

Try pines at home
If you want to add pines to your landscape, remember that it’s best to grow native trees and other plants that truly belong in your neck o’ the woods. Obtain plants propagated from source material that originated as close as possible to your site and with similar habitat features. 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.

Provide good drainage and enough sun and space (both above and below ground) for these beauties. Whenever possible, grow them with their natural associate species, which have similar needs, to recreate a native plant community that is able to impart the most benefits to the ecosystem and result in more habitat for wildlife. And if you have the space, plant a grove!

© 2022 Eileen M. Stark

Green Corridors Begin at Home

“Is the deer crossing the road, or is the road crossing the forest?” 

To survive, most wild fauna must be on the move—to find food, water, safe shelter and breeding sites, mates, and, for some species, to migrate. But wildlife habitat is increasingly destroyed, degraded, or fragmented into small, isolated patches—by human-made barriers such as buildings, fences, lawns, and roads—which intensify their struggle to survive.

Habitat loss is one of the main threats to wildlife. More people and development mean less natural habitat, while inaction on the climate crisis forces animals to relocate. Today, more than ever, habitat connectivity needs to be restored and wild ones’ daily and seasonal movements or migrations protected.

Habitat connectivity is defined as the degree to which the landscape helps or hinders animals’ movements, as well as other ecological processes, such as seed dispersal. Whether they’re called conservation corridors, green corridors, habitat corridors, or wildlife pathways, their purpose is identical: To provide native habitat as seamlessly as possible, so that wildlife populations may be connected instead of separated. Even in deteriorated landscapes, such corridors boost biodiversity, allow genetic exchange between populations, and may even help ease the reestablishment of populations that have been decimated, isolated, or previously extirpated.

Recognizing that every front, back and side yard—even those within urban areas—is part of an intricate ecosystem that could support a great number of species is the first step toward encouraging rich, natural diversity. When “real” or “naturescaped” yards link directly to others like them, they help mitigate some of the effects of fragmentation, a huge threat to biodiversity. In general, urban and suburban areas are highly fragmented. Wildlife corridors are essential, especially for animals with large ranges.

You might be wondering, “Aren’t large-scale habitat connectivity projects happening?” or “Isn’t my yard too small to help much?” Yes, and no: The big projects are vital and projects such as underpasses and overpasses that help wildlife cross busy roads (that kill or injure many millions of animals each year) are multiplying, thanks to recent legislation in some states, as well as the federal Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program that provides funding. But also crucial are all the little spaces that—even if they’re not in the path of pronghorn or monarch butterflies—when added up, create interconnected networks. As I wrote in my book, “To be most beneficial, gardens need to connect—to each other and to the larger world—to provide continuous passage for wildlife and allow each garden to work and blend harmoniously with others nearby. A single naturalistic garden has benefits, but when in proximity to others like it, its worth multiplies.” Studies show that “the role of corridors is crucial for enhancing biodiversity in green spaces such as domestic gardens … results clarify the effectiveness of corridors in urban landscapes and have direct implications for the ecological management of cities.”

What to do? Whether you’re an avid gardener or someone who cares about dwindling wildlife, you can take positive action to help your property, balcony, or communal green spaces act as safe stepping stones within a green corridor that supports wildlife. It’s something that we can do despite (or perhaps because of) the heinous weakening of environmental protections by certain politicians over the past few years. And, it’s effective, rewarding, and usually fairly easy if you plan ahead.

Some basic tips:
Grow a diversity of locally native plants, and be sure to remove exotic invasive plants as much as possible beforehand (incrementally if they are used by wildlife). Your yard doesn’t have to be exclusively native, but when planted appropriately, the trees and shrubs that evolved in your area are especially important for supplying food, shelter, and possibly nesting sites.

Don’t fence them out (or in). When we moved into our house, one of the first things we did outdoors was remove two gates to our backyard. They served no purpose and I wanted to make it easy for four-legged fauna to come and go. While there are situations where fencing is helpful (for a dog run, to protect a veggie garden, or to prevent a little one from wandering off), many urban and suburban back yards are separated by tall, unattractive fencing that does nothing useful except provide some privacy.

Instead of impassible fencing (that also greatly diminishes air circulation around plants and, in the case of wooden fencing, wastes trees), think living, breathing native shrubs—either in an unpruned hedgerow or more naturalistic plantings—to provide privacy. Besides being much more aesthetically pleasing, shrubs alone provide food and shelter for wildlife, shade and carbon sequestration, and contribute greatly to green corridors. Unlike fencing, shrubs provide privacy but allow small animals to pass under, through, or along, from garden to garden. If your yard is tiny and you must add a narrow barrier, consider wooden lattice fencing with large openings, upon which (noninvasive) vines could grow (but don’t do this if you live where megafauna could get caught in it).

Some types of fencing can brutally kill or ensnare wildlife (and even people), often at nighttime. Avoid metal rail fencing, any spiked fencing, and all plastic netting. When not in use, take down volleyball and soccer netting.

Rethink manicured yards. Highly pruned, overly tidy, leafless, lawn-centric yards sustain very little life and are high-maintenance. Instead, create a chemical-free native wildlife garden that is more relaxed (some might say “messy”) and has the ability to support much more life. If you’re worried about what the neighbors will say, add some signs of human intention in the front: (a) Create interesting structure by varying the heights of plants so there is a connection from tall trees to ground cover—this not only looks nice, it’s great for wildlife; (b) Choose shrubs that can grow to their full potential without crowding each other out, hiding your doors or windows, or encroaching into pathways—all of which will eventually require harsh pruning; (c) Instead of one plant here, one plant there, plan for a rhythm by growing perennials in drifts or uneven clusters, and then repeat them elsewhere in your yard (this is also highly beneficial to wildlife like pollinators who need multiple plants to feed on); (d) Consider adding step stone paths, bird baths, strategically placed half-buried rocks, sculpture, or nest boxes (if appropriate), but don’t overdo it—few “focal points” are better than many. Don’t add landscape lighting, which is deleterious to living things.

Avoid “ecological traps” and minimize danger. When we grow native plants, minimize lighting, leave the leaves, add a water source and other positive elements to our yards, one of the wonderful outcomes is the increase in wild visitors. But no matter how well-meaning our actions are, “ecological traps” may be created when we make our yards welcoming to wildlife but don’t address the human-induced hazards that lurk nearby. When we design for biodiversity we must consider not just adding habitat, but also what we might inadvertently set them up for, such as being preyed upon by cats or dogs, or injured or killed by windows or some other hazard in our yard. Of course we don’t want to eliminate windows or companion animals, so we have to embrace adaptations that allow us to keep them and protect wild ones at the same time.

In other posts I’ve addressed the disastrous effect that reflective windows have on birds as well as the consequences of light pollution. Another lethal issue is free-roaming cats. Certainly not all cats are avid hunters, but many are, and it’s up to us to take responsibility for their actions. If you already have a kitty who’s been spending a lot of time outdoors, it’s going to be difficult—or even cruel—to suddenly lock him up and throw away the key. Cats are obligate carnivores, so it’s not their fault that they hunt, or want to. For those with unbreakable habits, consider limiting outdoor adventures during baby bird season (late spring to mid-summer) and at those times of the day when birds are actively feeding (typically early morning and late afternoon), and use hanging birdbaths instead of grounded ones. The next time you adopt a new cat, keep them safely indoors but offer a place to get fresh air, like a catio. Dogs, of course, may also be problematic, especially in areas where sensitive wildlife live or nest on the ground, such as fragile amphibians and reptiles.

Minimize hardscape. Unnatural hardscape does nothing for wildlife. Every time we remove hardscape and replace it with, say, regional native plants, dead wood, a water source and other beneficial elements, we help wildlife thrive. Minimizing it in your yard also helps reduce stormwater pollution, improve water quality, and mitigate the impacts of climate chaos.

Urge urban planners and park space advocates to plant native species. Despite native plants’ benefit to ecosystems and humans, they aren’t often added. A typical city park, for example, contains large expanses of lawn and some isolated trees (often non-native). Ecosystems are much more complex and may include tall trees, smaller trees, large and small shrubs, perennials and grasses, dead wood and fallen leaves, which support a large number of species. Creating native beds surrounding single trees, or at least within designated areas, will add complex layers without eliminating picnic space.

Finally, talk with your neighbors. Imagine if everyone’s yard was connected—botanically speaking—to the one next door, preferably without fences and gates. Then imagine that these connections continue from neighborhood to neighborhood and go on for miles, finally reaching a large natural area that’s even more supportive. Some neighbors may find your ideology beyond their grasp, but others may surprise you. Some people simply may not know about the deadly hazards of development and exotic plants, and speaking with them—or at least setting an example—may help to open their eyes and hearts.

 

© 2020 Eileen M. Stark

Just the Thicket … For Wildlife Habitat


If you’re looking for ways to counteract — in a small but significant way — the relentless destruction of the natural world and want to turn your yard into a place that supports the wildlife community, or you already garden for biodiversity, you probably know that appropriate habitat — food, water, space, cover — is essential. Food is best supplied by regional native plants that produce insects, nectar, pollen, fruit, and/or seeds, while water comes either from natural sources or human-made birdbaths or ponds. Adequate space is important to prevent competition for food, cover, and nesting sites. Cover, or shelter, is as crucial as the others because wild fauna need places that not only shield them from inclement weather, but also hide them from predators (and people). Predatory animals themselves often need cover to successfully obtain prey. A lack of cover is a limiting factor for many wildlife populations.

Increased biodiversity comes with careful planning and placement of cover habitat supplied both vertically and horizontally with small and large native shrubs and trees. Those with particularly dense foliage may also provide valuable nesting habitat, as well as privacy for you, or even a windbreak if strategically placed.

Thickets are a great way to provide cover for relatively small animals, due to their tendency to be impenetrable to large species. They may be dense groups of trees or shrubs, usually dominated by one or a few species that tend to be multi-stemmed and often densely twiggy, or they may be formed by a single species that either enlarges via underground suckering stems or sheds large numbers of seeds that have the ability to grow beneath or close to the parent plant. Thickets of the latter type may also be spread by human disturbance. 

Even when leafless, red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) attracts birds.


Because thickets tend to fill quite a bit of space, they usually are not suitable for very small gardens, since they will tend to “take over” a small space, either fairly quickly or over many years, depending on the species. But if you have a fairly large yard or an acreage, native thickets create mini-ecosystems within which essential food and cover are supplied for a large number of beneficiaries, from insects and birds to reptiles, amphibians and mammals, depending on the location. They’ll also conserve soil moisture and may slow — or even prevent — erosion on slopes. And, when well established, thickets keep out many invasive weeds (note: always remove weeds well before planting any type of native plants). Many of these plants also can provide food for us, but I suggest you share with wild visitors.

Thickets often get a bad rap because they don’t look particularly neat and orderly, but if you garden for wildlife you know that messy and naturalistic is much better for the wild ones. To tidy up shrubs that tend to develop into thickets, gardeners often clip out suckers and sprouts for appearance’s sake, but that’s to the disadvantage of wild visitors.

Pollinators love thickets!

Although thickets (especially thorny ones) may not be suitable for most front yards, in back yards or other areas, they can be wonderful wildlife magnets. And when located as far from human activity as possible, they also lend tranquility in an urban environment. Though my yard is just one sixth of an acre, I have several thickets—one that’s composed of snowberry and clustered rose, several of tall Oregon grape, and a large clump of thimbleberry. It seems there’s almost always something going on: A little bird or two flitting around branches looking for food, a ground feeding bird foraging within fallen leaves, pollinators hard at work, or — during nesting season — a bird vocally establishing his territory. Flowers’ pollen and nectar attract a variety of native pollinators in springtime, fruits or seeds become available later in the year, and the rose offers a place for mourning cloak butterfly larvae to develop.

Choosing thicket species
In nature, thicket-developing plants grow in forested areas, as well as open areas such as historic savannas (a grassland with trees scattered at least 100 feet apart), upland prairies (another type of grassland) or wet prairies. Needless to say, savanna/prairie plants require more sunlight than forest thicket species. Since humans have converted most savanna and prairie habitat to agriculture and livestock grazing, those thicket species aren’t having an easy time; they’re mostly forced to live on forest edges and fence rows and are threatened by invasive species.

Prairie or savanna thickets naturally would be surrounded and complemented by native herbaceous plants and grasses that are members of a plant community, which together would create a highly supportive ecosystem. Forest species also would naturally occur with ‘associates’ that interact and flourish together.

Thorny native thickets, such as this Rosa pisocarpa, offer a place for birds to rest as well as forage.


Here are some plants that typically will form thickets in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades (but it’s not an exhaustive list). Choose species that would naturally occur in your area; check native status to county level here.

For sun to part sun: Douglas hawthorn (Cragateus douglasii), Red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), Western crabapple (Malus fusca), Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), Ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus), Tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata var. mollis), willows such as Salix scouleriana, S. lucida, S. hookeriana, and S. sitchensis, red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), wild roses (Rosa nutkana, R. pisocarpa), Douglas spiraea (Spiraea douglasii*), white spiraea (Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida), Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus*), Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis*).

For part shade to shade: Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), Osoberry (Oemleria cerasiformis), Salal (Gautheria shallon).

* may spread rapidly.

Fox sparrow foraging beneath a thicket stays safe.



© 2020 Eileen M. Stark

Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Western wallflower (Erysimum capitatum)


Unlike the proverbial human wallflower, the Pacific Northwest’s native wallflower plant (Erysimum capitatum) isn’t shy or modest. Instead, it is bright, showy, sweetly fragrant, and attractive to pollinators like butterflies and bees. Although it didn’t make it into my book, it is definitely worthy of praise and recommendation.

The genus Erysimum, a member of the cabbage (Brassicacaeae) family, contains about 150 species found throughout much of the northern hemisphere. Growth habits may be annual, short-lived perennial, or woody perennial. Carl Linnaeus named the genus after the Greek word eryomai, which means “to help or save” in reference to the medicinal qualities of several species. European folk medicine practitioners used poultices of wallflower for bronchial congestion, while Native Americans made tea with the dried leaves or seeds of wallflower to relieve stomach cramps.

In the U.S., western wallflower (aka prairie rocket, Douglas wallflower and sand dune wallflower) occurs in many different habitats throughout the west, including parts of Washington, Oregon, California, and southern British Columbia (usually below 4,000 feet). In Washington, Erysimum capitatum var. capitatum is found both east and west of the Cascades and in the Olympic Range; in Oregon it is found on both sides of the Cascades as well as westward through the Columbia River Gorge and into the Willamette Valley, and in the Siskiyous. See range map here. Several other varieties or subspecies are endemic to California; at least one (E. c. var. angustatum) is listed as endangered due to development, mining, agriculture, and invasive plants.

How it grows
Although western wallflower is technically a perennial plant, it’s often considered a biennial due to its short lifespan (rarely does it live past its second year). Like other short-lived perennials, it has a strong tendency to self-sow and is quite easy to grow from seed in pots or outdoor beds (but seeds reportedly have a short shelf life even when properly stored, so try to use them within a year or two).

Although wallflowers’ growth form and appearance vary (depending on location, light, soil, and moisture), here’s a general description: Deep green leaves — numerous, usually hairy, long and narrow — grow in a basal rosette, as well as along erect stems. Clusters of four-petalled, fragrant flowers are bright yellow to deep orange and appear at stem tips in a raceme. Bloom time is late April to July (depending on conditions and location); the resulting fruit is a one to four inch, upright, slender, flat seed pod called a ‘silique‘. In bloom, plants may reach one to three feet tall, with a spread of one-half to two feet.


Wildlife value
Western wallflower plants are important food sources for wildlife, including the caterpillars of some lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) species, such as Sara’s Orangetip butterfly (Anthrocharis sara). Nocturnal moths and other butterflies, such as Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), Anise swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon), Pale Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon), and Persius Duskywing (Erynnis persius) are a few that may use the plant for nectar, as do some native bee and ant species. Mature seeds turn a deep orange and are eaten by — you guessed it — insects and birds who eat seeds.


Try it at home
Easy to grow and with a lengthy bloom period, western wallflower will brighten up any spot in full sun to light shade and looks particularly dazzling with a dark backdrop. Tolerant of drought since it typically occurs in dry, rocky, clay, or sandy locations, it needs well-drained soil to thrive, but will take artificial irrigation if drainage is adequate; additional moisture during dry months may even prolong its bloom time. Growing plants en masse, in clumps or drifts, will provide the most visual impact and support for wild ones, but they also look lovely interspersed with plants such as penstemon. Space plants about one to two feet apart.

As always, buy plants or seed 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.


© 2020 Eileen M. Stark

Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Red-flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum)


Although red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) is a deciduous shrub, it offers year round appeal and habitat, making it a favorite among Pacific Northwest gardeners and wildlife, alike. Not one December goes by that I don’t marvel at its ability to hold onto many of its seasonally colorful leaves until the solstice or beyond, and this year was no exception. Just a short while later — following barely two months of downtime in the new year — strikingly gorgeous flower clusters burst forth prolifically at the same time that fresh leaves emerge. No wonder another of its common names is “winter currant.” Fast forward a few more months, and dark dusty-blue berries, a favorite of many bird species, will adorn this multi-stemmed shrub. 

The sole genus in the Grossulariaceae family, Ribes means ‘currant’ in medieval Latin. One of about 30 currant and gooseberry species in the Northwest, sanguineum refers to the reddish color of the flowers. It’s one of those native plants that had to be chaperoned by Scottish botanist David Douglas to Britain—where it was introduced into cultivation in the 1820s—before it acquired a return transatlantic ticket to popularity with gardeners on its home turf. Not too small or huge, it can usually find a home in places that offer well-drained soil and at least a quarter day of sun.

How it grows
Red-flowering currant naturally occurs at the edge of forests as well as open, rocky slopes and disturbed sites, at low to middle elevations from southwest British Columbia into Washington and Oregon between the Pacific coast and the Cascades, and as far south as central California.

Wildlife value
Pendulous flower clusters, which consist of numerous lightly fragrant, pink to reddish tubular flowers, bloom in profusion along this shrub’s many stems. They offer nectar and pollen at a time when early-emerging pollinators—such as queen bumble bees who must secure a nest and provide for offspring all by themselves—have little else to eat. The early blossoms are also attractive to birds, especially hummingbirds, but also bushtits, making this species a hub of wildlife activity for well over a month. Later on, when berries ripen as summer wanes, birds such as American robins and cedar waxwings (pictured, below) feast; we can also eat them but they are rather tasteless. The small, lobed leaves may provide food for zephyr (Polygonia gracilis zephyrus), Ceanothus silkmoth (Hyalophora euryalus), and other butterfly and moth larvae, which in turn supply food for insectivorous birds. 


Try it at home
Red-flowering currant prefers sun to part sun, and well-drained soil. While tolerant of clay soils, it doesn’t do well on poorly drained sites. Useful for erosion control on slopes, it may eventually form a thicket, which is helpful for wildlife that needs cover.

Mature size varies from around six to ten feet tall; width is typically similar, so do allow it enough space. A fast grower, it may reach four or five feet in just a few years and even produce blossoms as well. If you’re looking to use this shrub in a border, space them five to ten feet apart (on the low end if you want some density and overlap). Although this shrub is quite drought tolerant when established (after two to three years), water it deeply but infrequently in the hot summer months thereafter, especially if your site receives a lot of sun or reflected heat from buildings or fencing, or if drainage is quick. Plant in fall for best results.

The only downside to this lovely shrub is its relatively short life: typically just 20 to 30 years. But replacement is easy since it readily self-sows. Thus, propagation is best achieved via self-sown seed, which are easily dispersed by birds or fall to the ground below. If you want to DIY, collect seeds as soon as fruit is ripe in mid to late summer, remove the pulp and dry them in a shaded place; then sow in autumn (outdoors to allow for stratification). Seed reportedly has a long shelf life if stored in a cool/dry/dark place.


Grab a partner
Since red-flowering currant grows in a fairly wide range of habitats, there are a number of plants with which it interacts in intact ecosystems. For best ecological and gardening results, choose associated native plants that live in communities that currently grow or likely would have grown in your immediate area. In the Pacific Northwest, some of the plants that red-flowering closely associates with include Douglas-fir, bigleaf maple, madrone, bitter cherry, oceanspray, vine maple, elderberry, mock orange, serviceberry, manzanita, salal, sword fern, kinnikinnick, and others. 

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.

Although many cultivars—with a range of flower color—have been developed, it’s best to choose true species or varieties found in nature. A related species for very moist places is wild gooseberry (Ribes divaricatum), which has edible fruit.

© 2019 Eileen M. Stark

Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Oregon grape (Mahonia species)

Mahonia aquifolium (landscape)

Oregon grape plants are colorful western shrubs with year round appeal and chances are there’s a species that will fit into your Pacific Northwest landscape. Named after Bernard McMahon, an Irish-born American nurseryman, the genus Mahonia is a member of the barberry family (Berberidaceae). But you may also see Oregon grape classified as Berberis, indicative of the extensive debate among botanists on how to classify this species. Although included in the large genus Berberis (an alteration of the Medieval Latin barberis, or barberry, from Arabic barbārīs), Oregon grape is still known as Mahonia in most commercial horticulture, so either is correct (at least as far as I’m concerned!). 

Wildlife value
Like all native plants grown where they evolved, Oregon grape plants are extremely beneficial and attractive to wildlife. Flowers provide for pollinators like bees, moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds, while the fruits, which may remain on the plant into winter, are favorites among birds such as towhees, robins, and waxwings, as well as mammals. Some butterfly and moth species rely on Oregon grape plants to host their larvae, including the brown elfin butterfly. Year round cover may support arthropods, birds, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals.

Cedar waxwings feed on Cascade Oregon grape (M. nervosa). ©Eileen M Stark


Three species
You can’t go wrong with tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) for an evergreen, erosion-controlling, woody-stemmed, slightly prickly screen, barrier or woodland border, as part of an unpruned hedgerow, or as an accent plant (pictured top). Aquifolium means “water leaf,” likely named after the lustrous, wet-looking surface of the plant’s leathery leaves that Lewis and Clark first noticed near the Columbia River. Introduced to Britain in the 1820s as an expensive ornamental, its holly-like, pinnately compound leaves begin a bronzy coppery color, then mature to a deep green, with orange, red, or purple highlights in very sunny or cold conditions. Dense clusters of showy golden-yellow, lightly fragrant flowers appear in early to late spring. Ripening in late summer, the dusty-blue, round to oblong berries are slightly reminiscent of grapes, hence the name. Although they are tart and have large seeds, they are suitable for jams and jellies (with beaucoup sweetener) and have traditional medicinal properties, as do the roots. 

Tall Oregon grape’s range includes most of western Washington and Oregon, parts of Idaho and much of California, as well as northeastern Washington and southern B.C. It can handle nearly full sun to shade, but being a woodland species often found growing in somewhat open forests, it prefers some shade (although very deep shade will result in fewer flowers and fruit). Though it does best in slightly moist, acidic, well-drained soil, it’s an undemanding plant that can handle many soil types and drought when established. However, it is intolerant of poorly drained soils and high water tables. Since it will gradually spread into a thicket via tough rhizomes, place it away from pathways and allow it to eventually spread into a wildlife protective clump. If you don’t plan for its growth or it somehow gets out of hand, roots may be occasionally pruned and stems may be cut (as seldom as possible) nearly to the base for renewal. Arching stems typically reach four to eight feet in height, sometimes on the lower end in garden situations.

Try growing it with trees and shrubs such as Douglas-fir, western hemlock, ponderosa pine, vine maple, Indian plum, oceanspray, serviceberry, salal, and smaller companions like sword fern, western columbine, fleabane, delphinium, and others.    

Cascade (or long leaved) Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa) is another handsome plant, but this one grows only up to about three feet tall,Mahonia nervosa often lacks shiny leaves, and very slowly spreads into a lovely, evergreen, soil-stabilizing ground cover over many years. Nervosa means “having distinct veins or nerves” and refers to the leaf venation. Showy, fragrant, erect, pale to bright yellow flowering stalks, which put on their show in early to mid spring, are trailed by the familiar deep blue berries in late summer to fall. 

This species naturally occurs in moist to dry forests, at low to mid elevations mainly west of the Cascades including Vancouver Island, often with oceanspray, osoberry, vine maple, sword fern, salal, and oxalis, but it’s also an associate of the drier Oregon white oak and madrone habitats. It prefers shade to part shade in moist, acidic soil, but can handle drought in cool areas when established. It’s a nice substitute for invasive English ivy.

Low (or creeping) Oregon grape (Mahonia repens) is an evergreen ground cover that grows one to two feet tall and four to six feet wide. It has a large range in the west; in Washington and Oregon it is mainly found east of the Cascades growing in conifer forests, so it does well in dry, shady conditions but can take some sun. Its leaves (pictured below) may be glossy or dull, tend to be rounder and—though toothed—feel less prickly than tall Oregon grape. In nature, where its range sometimes overlaps with tall Oregon grape (and in garden situations where we often place plants that Mahonia repensdon’t belong together), it may hybridize with its cousin and produce plants that are a bit taller than the true species. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Propagation 
All Oregon grape species are best grown from seed (without drying them), with at least three months of cold stratification outdoors (wet, pre-chilled seed may also be planted in spring). Seed germination is reportedly erratic and unpredictable. If you have established plants you may find their progeny beneath them or elsewhere, as seeds are dispersed by birds and mammals; anything but very small transplants may not survive. Cuttings may also be tried in late fall. 

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 that genetic diversity—which helps plants (and animals) adapt to changing conditions—is preserved. Ask growers and nurseries about their sources if you’re unsure.

Do you have Oregon grape but aren’t sure which species you have? This page has a handy leaf comparison (see photo on lower right column).
 
 
© 2019 Eileen M. Stark

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Welcome Little-Known Moths to Your Garden

Smerinthus jamaicensis


The little sphinx moth caterpillar
 was on a mission: To find a safe, secure spot where she could transform herself and stay alive during the cold, wet winter months ahead. On a warm September day last year I watched as she inched her way across half the length of my back yard, occasionally meandering around roadblocks like plant stems and small rocks that must have seemed like insurmountable boulders to her (although at one point she nimbly climbed up and over a small log in her path). A couple of times she burrowed down into loose leaf cover, but then moved on, perhaps surmising that a better place would come along. After I walked away for a few moments I lost track of her. Since my yard is a leafy nirvana for butterflies and moths such as her species (Smerinthus jamaicensis or twin-spotted sphinx) that need to nestle themselves in soil under fallen leaves so they can pupate over the winter months, she probably found a suitable place that would hold her until a warm spring day allowed her to emerge and take to her wings.  

We’re nearing the end of National Moth Week, a short stretch of time set aside to appreciate these gentle, humble, and nimble flyers who tirelessly supplement the daytime work of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, as well as offer food for other animals. They get a fraction of the attention that butterflies do and are often vilified, despite their close relationship, beauty, and rich diversity. Within their hidden world are unusual, intriguing, and dramatic behaviors. Moth species outnumber butterflies by around ten to one; there are more than 11,000 species in the U.S., with another 160,000 globally. 

Gardens are very important places for moths since development and agriculture severely limit their habitat. There might be dozens of moth species inhabiting an ordinary urban or suburban garden, and the way you manage yours can affect the conservation of their populations, which are, as you might expect, seriously in decline, like most insects. Here are some tips:

Protect them from light pollution. For nocturnal and crepuscular moths, as well as other insects and migratory birds who use celestial navigation, unnatural lighting can cause disorientation and confusion, leading to exhaustion and death. The best way to help restore their natural behavior is to turn off all exterior lights, using motion sensors when necessary. If you must have lights on, use only dim bulbs in warm tones, which are less likely to attract moths. Draw shades and draperies indoors as well, to prevent light trespass.

Ease up on “clean-ups”. Adult moths and their caterpillars, as well as some butterfly species including the mourning cloak, need fallen leaves, stems, twigs and other plant debris to help them hide from predators and to provide suitable places to pupate and spend the winter. Let fallen leaves stay on soil and delay cutting back spent plants until well into spring (the later the better), rather than doing it in autumn or winter (and always check branches that may hold a chrysalis). If you must neaten up a portion of your garden in the spring/summer, leave collected plant material elsewhere in your yard.

Forget about herbicides and other pesticides, which can kill moths and other insects. This will also benefit your garden by increasing the number of predatory insects that help control the pesky ones. There needs to be a supply of prey in order to feed the predators—it’s a natural cycle that needs to be supported.

Limit hardscaping (concrete, gravel, decking) and increase the amount of area given to plants other than lawn, since moths and other wildlife can’t use hardscape for habitat.

Grow a wide variety of plants (preferably native species local to your area) to appeal to a diversity of moth species—everything from grasses and flowering perennials to shrubs and trees. Gardening for moths is similar to gardening for butterflies and other pollinators, although moths generally tend to feed on a greater variety of foods than butterflies. 

As adults, most moths need a sugar source and they may feed on plant nectar, rotting fruit, or tree sap. Moth-pollinated flowers tend to be fragrant and pale or white, such as western mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), and snow brush (Ceanothus velutinus), which allow nocturnal moths to easily find nectar after dark, so think “moonlight garden”. Moths that pollinate by day typically feed at flowers that native butterflies do, since they usually have long tongues. Some moths, like the twin-spotted sphinx, have reduced mouthparts and digestive tracts so don’t eat at all in their adult stage; they exist briefly only to mate and lay eggs, which in turn may provide food for predators like birds.

Almost all moth species need a host plant on which to feed during their larval stage. Many moth caterpillars eat leaves like most butterflies do, but some species may eat seeds, woody stems, or roots. The most important native host plants for moths and butterflies in the Pacific Northwest — considering the abundance of species they host — include Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), and species in the following genera: Acer (maple), Alnus (alder), Arctostaphylos (manzanitas and bearberries), Ceanothus (wild lilac), Populus (aspen and cottonwood), Ribes (currants and gooseberries), and Salix (willows). 


© 2019 Eileen M. Stark

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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 

Plants Are a Matter of Life or Death for Birds

Chcikadee feeding

Finding enough food to feed a family can be difficult or impossible when plants are mostly non-native.


I always recommend that we grow
as many native plants as we can to sustain wildlife, but to avoid overwhelming apprehensive gardeners I also mention that our yards don’t have to be exclusively native to be beneficial. Well, now there’s a number to aspire to: 70 percent native, minimum. That’s what a group of researchers have found is necessary for insectivorous birds to raise healthy young and keep their populations steady in human-dominated landscapes, the most swiftly growing ecosystem on the planet.

Their study, the first to examine the effect of non-native plants on an insectivore, looked at the connection between plants, the arthropods (insects, spiders and others) that eat and hang out on those plants, and the breeding success of one insectivorous bird species that, along with most other terrestrial birds, cannot survive without consuming arthropods. Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was conducted in the Washington D.C. area by the usual suspects, University of Delaware researchers Doug Tallamy and Desirée Narango, along with Peter Marra, director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. They sought to determine how exotic plants affect songbirds’ reproductive success in urban and suburban landscapes.

Data was collected from about 150 citizen-scientist homeowners whose properties were provided with artificial nest boxes to attract paired Carolina chickadees*. Once their nests were complete, the researchers recorded life on plants within a 50-meter radius where nesting chickadees search almost incessantly for the most nutritious food they can find. During breeding season, arthropods make up more than 90 percent of their diet, which is composed primarily of moth and butterfly larvae, spiders, and Hemipterans (such as aphids and leafhoppers). During non-breeding season, chickadees will consume some plant material, but more than half of their diet is still animal-based, which may have important implications for annual survival. Throughout the year, caterpillars—rich in fat, protein and carotenoids—are an extremely important food item and essential to nestlings’ fast growth.larvae on aspen leaf

Unsurprisingly, native plants were teeming with “bird food,” while non-natives were nearly devoid of life. The reason? Most native insects need native plants because they are specialists—they co-evolved with certain plants and can feed only on them due to their chemical compositions; they cannot survive where those native plants don’t exist. 

Nest boxes were also monitored, as was the survival of parents and fledglings. Analysis of data revealed rapid declines in populations of Carolina chickadees when yards supported mostly non-native trees and shrubs. As soon as the percentage of natives falls below 70, the probability of sustaining the species drops to zero. In other words, when there is little native plant biomass, the parents either do not establish nests or they cannot locate enough food and their babies starve to death. But at 70 percent or higher, the birds can thrive and sustain their populations. The number is a baseline: The more insectivorous a bird, the higher percentage of native plants needed to support them.

Developers and property owners typically convert native plant communities into habitats composed of mostly non-native plant species. Usually chosen for some aesthetic effect or because they’re so commonly available, they are extremely poor at supporting native invertebrates at the base of the food chain and those—such as songbirds—who cannot survive without such highly nutritious prey. Non-native plants—invasive or not—appear harmless, but substantially influence ecosystems in dangerous ways. Effects that begin at the bottom of the food chain go straight up, creating so-called ‘food deserts’ for birds, which _MG_7373 sRGBmay lead to starvation and possibly local extinction. Sadly, that is the case with most yards. If we really want to help birds, we need to realize that their lives are in our hands. Small changes for us will be colossal for them.

 

 

 

Though the study focused on just one insectivorous bird species in the mid-Atlantic region, the results are applicable to migratory birds who need high quality food at stopover sites as they undertake their arduous, exhausting semiannual journeys, as well as 431 other insectivorous species (in the U.S.) that need similar support in habitats far away. Because I live in an urban area where natural cavities for cavity-nesting birds (such as black-capped chickadees and woodpeckers) are scarce, each spring our clean chickadee nest box is dutifully placed in our back yard. We have photographed mom and dad chickadees feeding their young both spiders and insects or their larvae, and for the past five years every chickadee nestling has fledged (and, as far as I know, lived to adulthood). Nonetheless, the study mentions that when spiders are a sizable part of insectivorous birds’ diets, it’s due to non-native vegetation. I can’t do much about the non-natives in my neighbors’ yards, but I can replace exotics in mine. 

Spider Treat

How we can help
Reading about shocking, dramatic declines in insects and insectivorous birds, as well as countless other creatures in trouble due to human actions can be disheartening, but this study proves that when we (and our neighbors) prioritize  regional native plants at home that have great capacity for supporting biodiversity, we can make positive change for them and ourselves as well, since supporting wildlife can be very rewarding. Clearly, countless lives depend on how we garden and which plants we choose. And the little invertebrates themselves—part of the intricate web of life—have value in and of themselves.

Quercus (oak), Prunus (wild cherry), Salix (willow), Betula (birch), Populus (aspen & cottonwood), and Acer (maple) were among the top performers on Tallamy’s list pf plants found to host lepidoptera (moth and butterfly larvae) in the mid-Atlantic states. So instead of a ginkgo tree, opt for a native oak tree. Instead of a flowering cherry hybrid, choose a native cherry (in the Pacific Northwest: Prunus emarginata). Instead of Japanese maple, plant native maple (in the PNW: Acer macrophyllum, A. circinatum or A. glabrum). Some woody PNW trees and shrubs known to host lepidoptera include native dogwood (Cornus spp.), western red cedar (Thuja plicata), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), elderberry (Sambucus spp.), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), western mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii), honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), and herbaceous plants like checker mallow (Sidalcea spp.), monkey flower (Mimulus spp.), and milkweed (Asclepias spp.). Choose species that would have historically grown in your locale, whenever possible, and add associated species—those that would grow with them naturally—as well. The 30 percent leeway allows us to grow some non-natives that we love and/or food for the kitchen table.

Chickadee hungry

Regional native plants are critical for supporting wildlife like insectivores, including chickadees.

 

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* Carolina chickadees, which are very similar in appearance to black-capped chickadees, are almost entirely insectivorous during breeding. Although they are fairly common across their range, their populations declined by 16% between 1966 and 2019, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

 

© 2018 Eileen M. Stark

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Flip the Switch to Save the Dark!

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                        To Know the Dark
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
And is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
                                                  —Wendell Berry

 

If you live in or near a city, chances are you don’t see many twinkling little stars at night because light pollution — the fastest growing form of human-caused pollution — is making the night sky glow brighter each year. In fact, night skies across roughly half of the U.S. are polluted by artificial light. A fairly recent study from the University of Exeter found that observable light emissions increased globally by at least 49 percent from 1992 to 2017. But that figure only includes light visible via satellites, and scientists estimate the actual increase may be much higher — as much as 270 to 400 percent, depending on  the region.

Excessive, poorly designed lighting that spills skyward changes the predictable day/night cycle that life evolved in. Even tucked into bed, our glaring human footprint trespasses into the nocturnal world to mess up biological rhythms and health, consume and waste energy, steal the beauty and wonder of the nighttime sky, contribute to climate change, and disrupt beings within complex ecosystems. 

As I wrote in a Portland Monthly article a few years ago, myriad wildlife species that work the dusk and dawn or graveyard shifts depend on uninterrupted darkness to provide exquisitely timed cues that direct communication, reproduction, protection, sleep, foraging behavior, and orientation. For long-distance migratory birds who travel at night during spring and fall using celestial navigation, artificial light can disrupt or kill them in several ways. The timing of migration (when wildlife leave their summer or winter grounds) is controlled by several factors, one of which is photoperiod (the duration of light and dark), a predicable indicator of time of year. When the haze of artificial lighting conceals this cue, birds may leave too early or too late, which may cause them to miss optimal nesting conditions. And when lured into a maze of city lights, migrants become confused and disoriented and often collide with unnecessarily illuminated buildings, or drop from exhaustion. It’s estimated that as much as a billion birds are killed this way each year in North America, but it’s not only birds that are affected.

Nocturnal moth (Cyclophora pendulinaria), awaiting the dark.

All animals—reptiles (including sea turtles), amphibians, mammals (including humans)—are negatively impacted. Arthropods, like nocturnal moths — their fate seamlessly interconnected with other ecosystem members — perish rather than pollinating, breeding, and supplying food for birds. And the seasonal cycle of plants, including trees — particularly those with the misfortune of being planted beneath streetlights or in the path of landscape lighting — is threatened. Researchers believe that early bud break caused by incessant light will have a cascade effect on other organisms whose life cycles work in tandem with such plants, as well as the plants themselves. A recent study suggests that intensified light at night may have serious far-reaching consequences in disruption of key ecosystem functions and services.

Plants need to “sleep” in darkness, just as we do, and sleep deprivation is as harmful to trees as it is to animals. Trees that are sensitive to day length tend to be more affected by artificial light, and changes to day length can cause disruptions in flowering patterns, growth of larger leaves (which can cause them to be more susceptible to air pollution or water stress), and even prevent trees — particularly young ones — from entering dormancy in autumn. Longer growing seasons are not a good thing! Tree species most affected by artificial light include dogwood, maple, birch, aspen and cottonwood.

The bright side
Although nights are getting brighter each year since continual development and sprawl amplify light pollution
, there is a bright side: It’s reversible. Organizations such as the International Dark-Sky Association and many smaller groups, like Audubon of Portland’s Lights Out campaign, are working to preserve and protect the night skies, and there are Dark Sky communities, parks, and preserves. While it will take urban planners, designers of fixtures and buildings, and elected local officials to create standards for outdoor lighting that minimizes light pollution, glare and trespass overall, those of us who are homeowners can each do our part—and it takes very little effort. 

Hello darkness, my old friend
→ Switch it off:
Turn off unnecessary outdoor lights or, better yet, install motion-sensors that are designed to turn on only when needed and turn off after a short period of time.
→ Shield it: Use fixtures that aim light downward and that are shielded to prevent glare and “trespass” on habitat and neighbors. Those that have a solid cap above the bulb that prevents light from traveling skyward are best; you can also buy shades to fit existing fixtures. Lowering fixtures sometimes can also help.
→ Warm it up: Select warm-colored LEDs (under a 3,000 Kelvin rating) that supply only the amount of light needed. Those that emit short cool or blue wavelengths are brighter, scatter light more, and are worse for wildlife.
→ Remember indoor lights: Close draperies, especially during peak migration seasons (April through June and August through November) to stop rays from straying outdoors.
→ Request shields: Shields on streetlights may be possible. Inquire with your local department of transportation.
→ Buck the trend of landscape lighting: Most “decorative” outdoor lighting is pointless, detrimental to wildlife and plants, and wasteful, particularly fixtures that point light upwards and sideways.
→ Close all blinds, shades and/or shutters to reduce nighttime light that attracts and confuses wildlife.

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Safety concerns?
Most home burglaries occur in broad daylight, not in the middle of the night, and excessive lighting does not lessen crime. _MG_0166In fact, studies show that bright lights can make victims and property easier to see, as well as create much greater contrast and excessive glare, which increases the deep shadows that may actually increase crime and vandalism and make it more difficult to see potential intruders on your property. To improve security, use motion sensors that don’t give criminals a leg up. 

 

 

© 2018 Eileen M. Stark

Updated 02/2024

Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Fairy bells (Prosartes spp.)


When you notice the enchanting, pendant springtime flowers of fairy bells
, you can almost imagine a tiny fairy jingling their corollas to create a magical sound that only she can hear. An excellent choice for moist woodland gardens or shaded perennial beds, fairybells’ genus is a member of the lily family. It had previously been classified within the Asian genus Disporum, but further analysis found that North American fairybells differ in several ways and in 1995 were ushered into the Prosartes genus. “Prosartes” means “fastened” in Greek, and refers to attachments of the fruit parts.

There are six species within the Prosartes genus, and we are fortunate that three grace the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades: Prosartes hookeri, P. smithii, and P. parvifolia. The latter is a rare species endemic to part of Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains; it had always been considered a variant or hybrid of P. hookeri but recently came into its own. According to the California Native Plant Society, it is “threatened by trampling, logging and associated road usage, and road maintenance.”

Of the remaining two, the more common Prosartes hookeri (Hooker’s fairy bells, pictured above) is an upright deciduous perennial with lovely horizontally spreading branches, whose alternate leaves are arranged parallel to the ground for maximum light absorption. The upper stems and veins on the undersides of leaves are somewhat hairy. Spring blooming, bell-shaped flowers that often occur in pairs (or singly or in trios) at stem tips, are protected from rainwater by the pointed tips of leaves which channel tiny streamlets. Later in the year, oval berries, slightly tri-lobed, ripen to a bright red. They are edible, but rather bland and seedy; it’s best to leave them for wildlife or allow them to naturally propagate.

Prosartes smithii

 
Prosartes smithii (Smith’s fairy lantern, shown above) is similar, but its leaves are hairless, and its slightly larger and more cylindrical flowers (that only flare slightly at the tips) hang in clusters of two to five from the underside of stems. Their fruit is slightly tri-lobed and ripens to a golden-orange (pictured below).

How it grows
Fairy bell plants grow in moist, shaded forests or openings, from low elevations up to about 5,000 feet. Prosartes hookeri naturally occurs in British Columbia and throughout much of western Washington and Oregon, as well as northeastern Oregon and parts of eastern Washington, northern Idaho and northern and central California; in addition there is a disjunct population in Ontonagon county in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where it has been classified as endangered. Prosartes smithii has a smaller range—from southern Vancouver Island to Washington’s Olympic peninsula, in Oregon mainly west of the Cascades, and in northern California near the coast.

Prosartes hookeri fruit


Wildlife value
Flowers attract native bees and possibly other pollinators. Fruit ripens in mid to late summer or early fall and is eaten by ground-feeding birds such as robins and towhees, as well as small mammals like squirrels and chipmunks. Plants provide shelter for insects and other little ground dwelling creatures. 

Try it at home
Fairy bells are charming, easy-to-grow plants that ought to be grown more. Because their roots are rhizomatous, they will eventually create a small thicket, but they may be the shyest rhizomes I’ve ever encountered, at least in my yard (which isn’t exactly an intact forest): Velocity of spread is a reluctant crawl (so don’t worry about them “taking over”). Seeds do seem to propagate easily after a few years, but for these plants that is definitely an asset—I can’t imagine not wanting a lot of them!

Because they typically stay under 3 feet tall, they’re perfect a few feet in from pathways or in the front to middle of shaded beds, and although they benefit from a little bit of dappled sunlight, their tolerance for full shade seems to be fairly high. Place them, when possible, in the duff of mature trees. Leafy and woody debris is very important in the forest, and should be allowed to accumulate and decompose on the soil at home as well, since leaves, cones, fallen branches and twigs slow moisture loss and provide habitat as well as nutrients. If your soil is poor and lacking in organic matter, or if the top soil is shallow, add some low-nitrogen compost as mulch (leaf compost is good) after planting and allow whole leaves and such to continually accumulate on top to create more humus.

The leaves of Prosartes species are immune to the ravages of slugs and snails, which reportedly eat the fruits and dutifully disperse the seeds. They have quite deep (and delicate) roots, even when only a few leaves are present, so take care if you want to transplant seedlings. Those deep roots make me think that they may be more resilient and drought tolerant than we give them credit for. 

Grab a partner
Both Smith’s and Hooker’s fairy bells enjoy the company of others in the Western hemlock/Douglas-fir or coastal redwood plant community, including red alder, vine maple, osoberry, evergreen huckleberry, inside-out flower, oxalis, alumroot, trillium, sword fern, deer fern, salal, vanilla leaf, piggyback plant, foam flower, and many others.

Prosartes species are wonderful substitutes for non-native invasive ground covers such as Vinca and English ivy.


© 2018 Eileen M. Stark

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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

Ten New Year’s Resolutions For Your Eco-Garden

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Conjuring up some New Year’s resolutions? Don’t forget about your yard and the ecosystem of which we are a part. Promise to do something positive in your yard this coming year to help dwindling wild species whose habitats have been—and continue to be—ravaged.

You certainly don’t need to replace every plant in your yard or eliminate all of your lawn to give back to nature, although the more the better. And you don’t need to do everything all at once—baby steps are fine! In fact, incremental change is usually best, since wild species using existing plants and other elements might be harmed by a drastic, rapid change. If you don’t have a yard, think about volunteering with an organization that’s working on a restoration project—it can be satisfying and enjoyable.

Here are ten resolutions I recommend to help make your yard more humane and functional in the coming year. Some are very easy, some not quite so much. Choose one, two, or all! They are not listed in any particular order because each one is important.

Add some clean water. Birds, insects, mammals, amphibians—all creatures—need water year round to survive. Even just a shallow bird bath can help, but some maintenance is a good thing: Change the water every few Bird bath robin babydays, give it a good scrubbing every week or two, and keep it out of reach of marauding cats and dogs. Plates or shallow bowls filled with clean pebbles or gravel and water will provide for insects; butterflies will also appreciate mud puddles which they use to obtain moisture and nutrients essential for breeding. Artificial ponds should be shallow on one side and have gradually sloping sides so tiny animals can get out easily. More tips here.

Let natural systems flourish and harmonize by minimizing “clean-ups” and maintenance. Yes, this one lets you work less! Allow fallen leaves to stay on the soil to create cover for overwintering insects like bumblebees and butterflies as well as food for birds, raking or sweeping them only off areas that need to be clear (like sidewalks, driveways, or lawn). Leave dead wood such as snags (dead or dying trees that won’t crash on someone’s head) and “downed wood” —fallen branches, twigs, and bark—which is absolutely essential wildlife habitat that will protect and nurture soil, too. Create brush piles or rock piles to help provide cover and nest sites for birds pilesand other small creatures. Leave seed heads and flower stalks on perennials until spring is well under way to provide food, cover, and habitat. If/when you eventually cut them back, leave them on the ground for a month or longer in case they contain native bee larvae or other overwintering insects waiting for the chance to live out their lives.

Get rid of invasive plants that compete with natives. Depending on the plant species, this can be an easy job or one likely to give you headaches, backaches, and an urge to scream. It can take a few days or a few years. But once your task is accomplished, I guarantee that you will feel an extreme sense of satisfaction. And there will be more room to plant lovely, functional plants! If you have several invasive species in your yard, determine which may be the most invasive and start with that. Nonnatives that produce berries, like English holly trees, are particularly problematic because they spread into nearby natural areas by birds, but also via vegetative reproduction. English ivy also produces berry-like fruit and spreads by rooting on the soil surface and on tree trunks—at the very least, periodically cut it back at the base of trunks to prevent it from harming trees. There are numerous introduced plants that push out native species, so check with city, county, and/or state agencies to find lists and descriptions of invasive plants in your area; the USDA also offers information. My book offers some tips for removing invasive plants, as does Green Seattle Partnership and this post.

Remove lawn. Lawn for the sake of lawn is not beneficial and is awfully wasteful. When deciding which part(s) of your lawn will receive walking papers, start by choosing areas that you never or rarely use. Often this is the front yard. If you’re not ready to go all the way and remove a large area of turf, consider at least removing lawn under trees and in areas that are difficult to mow, such as slopes. Lawn can also be minimized by enlarging existing beds and adding ecologically beneficial native plants. The gentlest way to remove lawn is to simply cover it with about 6 sheets of overlapping newspaper (or cardboard) on a non-IMG_0403 sRGBwindy day. Dampen it, poke a some small holes, then top it with 4 or 5 inches of weed-free compost (leaf compost is good) and fallen leaves over that. Leave it to decompose for at least several months (until grass roots have died) before planting. Removing lawn via a sod cutter or spade can damage tree/shrub roots.

Grow native plants that are indigenous to your area. For this I suggest you consult a regional native gardening book like my book (if you live in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades). Choose species (preferably “true species,” not cultivars) that are native to your area and that will flourish in your site’s soil, light, and moisture conditions. Grow them with other members the same plant community to provide the most benefit.

Provide for all life stages of pollinators. Many pollinating insects, including native bees and butterflies, will have gone through several stages by the time they reach adulthood and their needs differ greatly. So, in addition to providing water and growing groups of sequentially-flowering plants (preferably native to your area) that supply pollen and nectar from early spring through fall, provide the “host plants” needed for egg laying and for the feeding of larvae (in the case of butterflies and moths: caterpillars). For insects that undergo a complete metamorphosis, protect habitat for pupa (chrysalis). The latter mainly involves simply leaving fallen leaves and other organic matter on the soil, delaying any pruning of host plants until late spring, and not using leaf blowers, which eliminate the habitat of creatures needing a place to wait out the winter, such as chrysalis held in place on a twig by a fragile silken thread.

Don’t use pesticides or poisons. Synthetic pesticides should be avoided at all costs, but even so-called organic controls can be deadly and indiscriminate, especially if used improperly. If a pest if causing enough damage in your Aphid eaterkitchen garden to warrant a control, consider hand removal, barriers and screens, companion plants, or simply sprays of water from the hose. Allow a natural balance by welcoming natural pest control such as birds (see bushtit devouring aphids, right) and predatory insects.

Protect birds from reflective glass. Up to a billion birds are killed or injured by colliding with buildings in North America each year. Though skyscrapers kill countless birds, large structures four stories or less in rural locales are responsible for the most bird deaths, according to a 2017 study. Many of those strikes can be prevented and here are some ways to help.

Keep Kitty indoors. Domesticated cats kill millions of birds each year, but it’s not their fault they’re outside. Whenever possible, keep your little predators indoors for their safety as well to protect little wild creatures. To prevent boredom and health issues: Add levels, especially around windows, widen windowsills with tables of appropriate height, or add window boxes. If you’re more ambitious, build a catio! They come in all sizes, shapes and price ranges and provide kitty with a safe outdoor experience.      

Turn on the dark. Look out your windows at night and chances are—if you live in an urban area—you won’t see the twinkle-twinkle of little stars because light pollution (any adverse effect of artificial light) is making the night sky glow brighter each year. Its most obvious effects are on migratory songbirds lured into cities where they collide with unnecessarily illuminated buildings, killing more than 100 million of them each year in North America. But lit up low-rise structures in rural locales also distract and have been found to pose greater danger than similarly-sized urban buildings, with what researchers call “the large scale beacon effect.” And for nocturnal animals, artificial light may be the most extreme change forced upon them. You can help by minimizing artificial lighting migration seasons, and anytime to prevent moths from exhausting themselves to death, to keep bats in the dark, and diurnal animals asleep. Choose fixtures that shine light downwards, not to the side or upwards, and use motion-sensors so that lights go on only when necessary. If you worry about crime, studies show that outdoor lighting does not decrease crime and may even exacerbate it; most residential crime occurs during daylight hours. In addition, cover windows with shades or draperies at night to cut down on light escaping your house. More info.


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii)

Arbutus menziesii bark

Though it looks exotic, Pacific madrone — a beautiful broadleaf evergreen tree with a captivating and distinctive presence that transforms with the seasons — is endemic to the Pacific coast. Its exquisite attributes — fragrant flower clusters, brilliant berries, glossy leaves, twisting branches, rounded crown, and rich cinnamon-red bark that peels from a satin-smooth trunk — please all of our senses. And for the wild ones attracted to this unique gem, its ecological gifts never disappoint.

Madrona (after madroño, the Spanish name for a Mediterranean “strawberry tree”) is the name admirers in Washington give this member of the Ericaceae (heath) family, while those in California and Oregon call it madrone or Pacific madrone. British Columbians simply use the Latin genus name, Arbutus. (The epitaph, menziesii, is named after the naturalist Archibald Menzies, a naturalist for the Vancouver Expedition that explored the Puget Sound region in 1792.)

How it grows
Pacific madrone is a large, long-lived tree that naturally occurs in a climate with mild, wet winters and dry summers, although rainfall varies substantially within its range, from the east coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, southward through Washington and Oregon (west of the Cascades) to San Diego County. It is often found on rocky soils and other coarse soils that retain little moisture, including the dry foothills, wooded slopes and canyons of parts of California (at low to mid-elevations); within coastal redwood and mixed-evergreen forests of California and Oregon; on dry ridge tops and slopes at low to mid-elevations along the east side of the Coast Ranges and in the Siskiyou Mountains; on warm, dry, lowland sites west of the Cascades (within Douglas-fir/western hemlock forests or Oregon white oak or tan oak woodlands); and — furthest north — near sea level on rocky bluffs and low elevation slopes. Within mixed hardwood forests — that may or may not have an overstory of conifers — its tolerance to shade varies with age. While madrone seedlings do best in partial shade and young trees can handle quite a bit of shade, tolerance decreases as trees age and for those at the northern end of this species’ range. Older trees need good light to survive and often can be found  growing at an angle, twistily and desperately reaching for the sunlight that helps ensure a long life.

Wildlife value
Wild ones are drawn like a magnet to madrone trees year round. In springtime, lovely creamy white, waxy, urn-shaped blossoms provide nectar for hummingbirds, native bees, and other pollinators.

Arbutus menziesii in flower

 

Clusters of bright red berries — that ripen in autumn and may persist into early winter — feed many bird and mammal species, including American robins, varied thrushes, band-tailed pigeons, cedar waxwings, northern flickers, quail, raccoons,  squirrels, mule deer, and bears.

Arbutus menziesii (fruit)
Habitat is provided for a variety of insects, including echo blue and brown elfin butterfly caterpillars who nibble on leaves and in turn provide dinner for insectivorous birds. Shiny, leathery leaves generally remain on branches for two years, after which they turn from vivid green to burnt orange and settle to the ground where they provide a natural mulch that protects soil microorganisms and little ground-dwelling creatures. Lofty roosting and nesting habitat is also supplied, and live trees with rotting wood offer cavities for insects as well as birds that nest in trees, such as woodpeckers and chickadees. Dead and dying trees provide even more dead wood for cavity nesters and the silent decomposers that function as nature’s recyclers.

Conservation
Unlike other trees, madrone’s fine roots have adapted to search deeply into rock fractures for stored water or “rock moisture,” making it an important plant for stabilizing slopes and cliffs and preventing landslides. In addition, it’s a valuable component of many vegetation types; for example, in mixed conifer forests like Washington’s Coast Range ecoregion (Douglas-fir/western hemlock/madrone), it provides a mid-canopy story, essential for the structural diversity of the forest.

It ought to be preserved for its own sake, for the wildlife that use it, for the ecosystems of which it’s an indelible part, and, needless to say, for those of us who revere its spectacular beauty.

Tragically, the species is currently in decline throughout most of its range, for several reasons. First, sprawling development in its native habitat has stolen many mature specimens. Though tough and drought tolerant (or more precisely, drought dependent), its roots are extremely sensitive to drainage changes, compaction, grade alteration, and other soil disturbance. Because madrone belongs and successfully grows in regional arid soil conditions that many trees cannot, landowners and developers ought to protect and save this tree at all costs.

Under natural conditions, madrone depends on intermittent fires that limit the conifer overstory (typically Douglas-fir trees). Older madrone trees can survive fire and will sprout quickly and profusely afterwards due to carbohydrate reserves within existing roots. In addition, their fruit produces many seeds, which sprout on exposed soil readily after fire. But when humans suppress and prevent natural fires, the prolonged absence of fire and consequential shade—especially on moister sites—may cause madrone trees to die.

Death or damage may be also caused by several pathogens, including a foliar fungus (Nattrassia mangiferae), commonly called “madrone canker,” that reproduces via spores and causes dieback, blackening of branches, and cankers that may spread to the trunk. A root rot, Heterobasidium annosum, can also cause serious damage. Unlike fire, “disease decreases starch accumulation in the root burl, so that declining trees are less able to resprout after the aboveground portion of the tree is killed by disease.” But prevention is possible: Susceptibility to disease is exacerbated by unnatural environmental stresses such as regular summer irrigation and the use of fungicides and fertilizers. Essentially, spores are carried by water, fungicides kill beneficial mycorrhizal fungi (symbiotic associations between the roots of most plants and fungi, which protect roots from pathogens), and studies suggest that increased soil nitrogen disrupts the mycorrhizal associations between beneficial fungi and tree roots, which in turn reduce the supply of micronutrients and water to trees, thereby increasing susceptibility to disease. Madrone trees host a large number of types of mycorrhizal fungi and have been called “a major hub of mycorrhizal fungal diversity and connectivity in mixed evergreen forests” that play a large role in forest regeneration by promoting resilience to disturbance below ground.

Madrone is also affected to a small extent by sudden oak death, a disease caused by a water-borne, fungus-like pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum, which arrived in the U.S. via live plant imports of exotic ornamentals to nurseries; it is increasingly spread by human actions, including climate chaos.

Try it at home
Despite all these threats, a madrone in the wild can live hundreds of years and may grow very large—over 100 feet tall, although in cultivation they rarely exceed 50 feet after many decades. Young trees often grow fast (up to several feet per year), while older trees typically grow at a much slower pace. In the southern, drier and warmer part of its range it grows more slowly and stays smaller.

Supplemental water after establishment is highly detrimental: Madrone cannot tolerate slow drainage, standing water, or regular irrigation during summer, which makes it susceptible to disease (as do fertilizer applications). While it has a bad reputation for being difficult to establish and isn’t for the fussy gardener, knowing what this tree needs and cannot tolerate will help ensure success. In my experience, there are seven essentials to successfully growing this tree:

1. Figure out if it historically occurred in your area. Though it’s not absolutely essential that this species likely grew in your immediate area 200+ years ago — especially since much change has occurred since then — because this tree can’t just be stuck in the ground anywhere, look to nearby natural areas to see if it might have naturally occurring relatives nearby in similar soil. In its northern range, it’s usually found growing on soils derived from glacial sands or till and gravels, while in the southern and middle parts it reportedly grows on soils derived from a variety of materials.

2. Be sure your site has the right conditions: Fast-draining, non-compacted, slightly acidic soil (pH a little less than 7), and a bright location with at least a half day of sun in northerly locations. However, seedlings need partial shade to establish, so if you have mostly sun, shield them from hot afternoon rays until well established. Site plants on a slope or area that’s elevated above the surrounding area to facilitate drainage. In my yard I tried twice to grow one-foot-tall saplings in the lowest part of my yard with sad results, despite digging in extra small rocks and gravel to increase drainage. My third attempt, which I grew myself from seed, I planted atop a short, south-facing slope, again with extra rocks and gravel. I believe that the increased drainage was what was needed; however, the seedling was also very small — only three inches tall! — so that also may have helped. Note: If you live in a very warm, dry area (such as parts of California) be sure to plant this tree on a north-facing slope, rather than in hot, direct sunlight.

3. Start with very small saplings, no more than a foot tall, as older trees do not transplant well. Once they “take,” however, young trees grow quite fast (in my yard, over a foot a year). 

4. 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.

5. Plant saplings in the fall, just as winter rains begin, since they establish best when they can establish roots first, then put on aboveground biomass. You can plant them in the spring, but you’ll end up worrying about how much or how often to water; during the moist days of autumn you can just let nature decide. Do not add large amounts of organic matter into the soil that could inhibit the moisture-seeking roots from penetrating to mineral soil, and do not add fertilizers that can disrupt the mycorrhizal associations between beneficial fungi and roots. Never apply fungicides or other pesticides.

6. Give them space. To allow them to get to their full and most beautiful form, plant them at least 20 feet apart and at least 25 feet away from tall trees, especially conifers that produce deep shade. Also try to minimize soil compaction, which can be detrimental.

7. Irrigate sparingly, and preferably only during the first summer or two. During my little tree’s first spring and summer it was unusually warm and dry, and I noticed some wilting of leaves on especially warm days. I carefully (and nervously!) watered it with tepid tap water (or rain water I had collected) in the mornings around its base and outwards a few feet, keeping the leaves and stem completely dry. I did this only a couple of times a week when heat was predicted, and by the end of the summer it was in fine shape and had grown well over a foot in height. During the second summer I left it on its own, and when no wilting of leaves occurred it became clear that the little tree was self-sufficient. After another foot of growth was added, I was able to fully exhale. Sometimes a little wilting of leaves isn’t serious: when cooler nighttime temperatures return the tree may bounce back, but you’ll have to be the judge at your particular site.

Baby madrone

Baby Madrone, just 4 months after planting as a 3-inch-tall sapling. [Update, 2023: At around 8 years of age, Ms. Madrone is now nearly 12 feet tall.]

 

 
Grab a partner
It’s best to match madrones with other species that are compatible below ground—those that have similar needs and mycorrhizal associations and that would naturally occur together in nature (if you already have some non-natives that you want to keep, be sure not to grow any that need summer irrigation nearby). Which native “associated species” you choose depends on what part of the region you live in.

Madrone most commonly rubs shoulders with mixed-hardwood tree species that often have some conifer overstory (without completely shading them).  A member of the Douglas-fir/tanoak forest, madrone makes up the secondary canopy, while Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) with tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus) typically create an overstory. Less commonly, madrone mingles with coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) along the northern California and southern Oregon coast, and with western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana var. garryana), and Pacific ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa) throughout much of its range. Washington’s San Juan Islands’ open woodlands support madrone with Douglas-fir and fescue (Festuca spp.), as well as other species such as lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), and Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum). In British Columbia, Pacific madrone grows alongside lodgepole pine. Other tree species associated with madrone include sugar pine, white fir, California black oak, giant chinquapin, bigleaf maple, bitter cherry and California laurel, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Small trees/large shrubs commonly associated include vine maple, black hawthorn, red-twig dogwood, willow, hazelnut, and red elderberry. Smaller shrub associates include manzanitas, Oregon grape, ceanothus, salal, oceanspray, poison-oak, gooseberry, wood rose, snowberry, huckleberry, and thimbleberry.

A. menziesii with oaks

Madrone mingles with Oregon white oak, aka Garry oak (Quercus garryana), in parts of its range.

 

Propagation
Pacific madrone are fairly easy to grow from seed. Collect fruit soon after it ripens, generally early to mid-fall. Because one berry can have up to 20 seeds, you won’t need more than one if you just want to grow a few trees.

Separate the seeds from the pulp of a ripe, red berry (if they have dried, soak them overnight to help release the seeds from the pulp). Place them in a small bowl of water for 15-20 minutes; discard those that float and allow those that sink to dry in a cool place out of sunlight. Dry seeds may be viable for a couple of years if stored properly in a cold, dry place. Place seeds on top of a fine seedling mix, either in a pot outdoors or in the soil where you want a tree to grow, and cover just slightly. I like to grow them in pots so I have a little more control, but I’ve had success both ways. If you choose to use pots, keep them moist but not wet, and keep them away from slugs and snails.

Madrone seeds reportedly are able to maintain dormancy for long periods (“scores of years”) in the soil, but when conditions are just right — cold but above-freezing temperatures and adequate moisture — dormancy is broken in late winter/early spring after cold stratification has weakened the seed coat. At that point pots should be moved into a somewhat warm (if possible), bright location, but with little direct sunlight—seedlings establish best in partial shade and will grow fairly slowly. Keep them moist, but not saturated. After they have developed their second or third set of true leaves they may be moved to bigger pots with fast-draining soil (I like to use a mix of sterilized potting soil and small gravel), handling them by their expendable first set of leaves, not their delicate stems. Water them when the top inch of soil is dry; I find it’s hard to overwater with fast draining soil, but do give them time to dry out slightly. Plant them out when they’re 3 to 10 inches tall, preferably in autumn, in the conditions described above. Don’t attempt to relocate them.

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Catios Keep Cats and Birds Safe

Born to a homeless mom, Swirlee and his siblings were brought to us at about 12 weeks of age to be socialized so that they could be placed in homes, rather than live difficult lives outdoors. We adopted Swirlee, now 9 years old, and as his personality emerged — from quiet, shy kitten to outspoken king of the castle — a catio proved to be indispensable.


What’s a “catio” and why would you want one?
A catio is an outdoor enclosed patio for cats (and sometimes their caregivers), where they can enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors without getting into trouble. While catios can’t provide total freedom, they prevent Kitty from getting hit by a car, being badly injured or killed by wildlife such as coyotes, acquiring fleas and all the diseases that can result from them, fighting with other cats, and upsetting neighbors who don’t like cats. They also lessen indoor-only cats’ chance of getting feline hyperthyroidism (an increasingly common feline disease caused partly by exposure to chemicals in the dust from flame retardants in bedding and electronic devices), relieve boredom, and assist in multiple-cat households when cats need their space or just a nice place to nap. Last — but definitely not least — catios help keep birds and other little wild creatures safe. Especially if you use bird feeders and/or have a “real” garden designed to attract and support wildlife, allowing your cat to roam freely creates an “ecological trap” that invites disaster, particularly when they are young or seem born to kill. New research has documented just how bad it is.

Most wild bird species — even those considered somewhat common — are in trouble and while predation by cats is certainly not the only cause of birds’ population declines, it is reportedly the leading cause of injury for wild animals treated at Audubon’s Wildlife Care Center in Portland, accounting for nearly 40 percent of intakes; numbers are likely similar at other wildlife rehabilitation facilities. Domesticated cats are predators and obligate carnivores and, despiteyellow warbler migrant their domestication, most yearn to stalk and kill prey—we can’t blame them; it’s in their DNA. Since we are ultimately responsible for our cats and their actions, it’s our responsibility to keep them indoors but also to think about their needs by offering a place to lie in the sun, breathe some fresh air, and watch a little slice of the world.

Of course, expecting a cat who has always been allowed to roam freely to suddenly agree to stay indoors may be asking too much (no matter how exciting the catio may be!). We were privileged to have had the opportunity to rescue and adopt a Katrina Kitty in 2005 who yearned to go outside (as he had at his previous home); we caved in to his demands, but only for fairly short periods mid-day when birds are least likely to be foraging, never during baby bird season, and never at night, but he did kill some birds and rodents. But young cats who are new to your household and those who have never experienced the outdoors are ideal candidates for the catio life. We have several other rescued cats and our catio is crucial for meeting their outdoor needs—they love it, especially on warm, sunny days. Even our newest rescue, Caspurr, an older gentleman who had been outdoors on his own for who-knows-how-long (probably abandoned), is very happy that we have a catio. [Update 4/2022: With great sadness, we were forced to put Caspurr to sleep last month. Fast forward a month: an unwanted, neglected, all-white kitty, now named Swan, was welcomed into our home. Swan had also been in the habit of going outdoors whenever he pleased, but he seems quite happy with just the catio.]

Many choices
There are many different types of catios, from fairly inexpensive window boxes that cost less than $100, to more expensive and elaborate designs that may include catwalks, tunnels, roofs, furniture and multi-levels (the latter is essential!). Some people design and build their custom catio themselves, as my husband, Rick, and I did, while others hire a contractor or handyman. Kits to build your own are available online. For more detailed guidance and tips, as well as links to companies that sell kits, check out this article from The Humane Society of the U.S.

Before renovation.

When we initially thought about making a catio, we considered turning half of our elevated deck into one, but it would have been very difficult and there was no way for the cats to come and go on their own—that is, no place to install a little cat door.  Our cats really love our deck, but some of them cannot be trusted not to leap eight feet to ground level. We once tried stretching some plastic netting (which I strongly frown upon) across half our deck, but it became dangerous when our little Violet got a claw caught in it and dangled in mid-air! Luckily I found her soon after it happened.

One day, it hit me: Why not turn a mostly unusable space on the east side of our house into a space for the cats? When we bought our house I thought it could be made into a little sunroom, but a catio wouldn’t require heating and insulation and such, and our house didn’t need to be any bigger.

A little history: When our house was built in 1929, there had been an exterior wooden porch, about 13 feet long by 7 feet wide, with two doors to the inside at either end. Twenty to thirty years later (in the 1950s, judging by the type of brick) someone put a concrete floor over the wooden floor and created narrow planters made with brick and mortar, and installed a huge floor-to-ceiling window and sliding glass doors. Sometime later, the space was enclosed to make it into a greenhouse of sorts, with translucent fiberglass panels for walls and roof; the planters were covered with formica (see photo above). But functionality as a greenhouse was poor: Summer temperatures soared well over 100º because ventilation was nonexistent when the exterior door was closed, and it was very cold during winter. Plus, the old fiberglass had yellowed, the carpet was filthy, and the sliding glass doors and window that covered the interior wall were single paned and very energy inefficient (and they looked awful in an older home). Renovating the space would help increase energy efficiency in our house,  provide us with a much more useable space and keep our cats happy.

The Casbah Catio
Since we did everything ourselves, it took about 5 months (of mostly weekend work) to complete, not counting the time it took to replace a window and door; during the winter months things were put on hold. Rick did the majority of the planning and work; I helped with tiling and did most of the painting (and gave moral support!). We were able to reuse some of the wood from the old structure, and some came from our local Rebuilding Center, which sells reclaimed materials (I love that place!), but we did have to buy a fair amount of new materials. Huge rocks that had been buried in the planters found better homes in the garden.

I’ve always loved the design of northwestern Africa and I was finally able to sneak some elements into this catio. The tile came from the outlet room of Pratt and Larson in SE Portland; selection varies and I think we made at least five trips there to find what would look good together. At $1 a pound, it was a great deal.

Initially, the most important task is planning. Some suggestions: (1) Try to site it where the cats will be able to see things of interest; (2) think about how the cats will be able to get in and out (it’s best to connect it to the main house because if you have to carry your cat to and fro, it may get little use after the novelty has worn off); (3) consider how you will keep it dry so it can be used year-round; and (4) be sure to give cats variety, including some elevated places to perch, cushy places to snooze, a litter box, and scratching posts. Make some sketches and draw up a basic plan. If you are going to do any demolition, be sure to figure out where you can take items (like old carpet or glass) to be recycled, rather than just throwing it in a landfill.

Here’s a basic synopsis of how we turned an unusable space into our catio: First, we removed the existing glass doors and window (and carefully smashed them up to transport to a recycler; the metal frame also was recycled). The wall was then framed in and a new, large window (that closely resembles an original window in our living room) and a door that enters our dining room were both installed. Next, the new window, door and areas below were covered and demolition began.

Demolition

Demolition Days (boyz just love to wreck things, don’t they?). Actually, we both hated this part (it was definitely the most difficult and dirtiest part—a huge mess, as you can see). Rick’s definition: “Grunt work.” We left the existing concrete foundation (beneath the brick) even though it wasn’t built well to begin with.

 

The original porch floor had never been connected to house, so that had to be fixed; we also dealt with some rot in a sill plate where a door once stood. Following that, 4x4s were added and walls were framed in. Painting was done as things progressed. Although I hate using plastic, because we wanted natural morning light to enter the catio and the house’s window and door, we chose a roof of clear, corrugated polycarbonate outdoor patio cover (lightweight, easy to install, inexpensive)._MG_8965

An outer door that leads to the back yard was then installed and we chose DIY screens to keep the cats in. Most people use a large metal mesh, but we chose recyclable aluminum screen (not nonrecyclable plastic), for several reasons: First, a few years earlier, two small immature birds had entered our house through a very small opening one morning and were immediately caught and killed by our cats; we feared this could happen with the large mesh. There is smaller mesh available, but it’s difficult to see through. Window screen, on the other hand, almost disappears from view after installation. Second, we like to have the door that connects the catio to our dining room open during nice weather and we wanted to keep insects out, and keep our cats from killing them. Of course, screen is shreddable by claws and it gets dirty, but for the most part we’re happy with it. (However, if I were to do it all over again I would opt for screens that could be removed for easy annual cleaning.) If the screens ever get completely shredded, it’s not very difficult to replace (and recycle) them. Whatever you do, don’t use plastic mesh.

Speaking of doors, we wanted a cat door so the cats could come and go as they pleased, but we were concerned about cold drafts during the winter. Rick installed a Freedom Pet Pass door, an energy efficient flap door. The only thing that’s problematic is that because our two formerly feral female cats are tiny (only about 7 or 8 pounds) and scare easily, they have trouble pushing the door outwards due to a fairly strong magnet; they usually manage by pulling it inward with their claws unless we come to their rescue. Coming inside requires less force, so that isn’t a problem for them. The door is visible at the lower left corner of the final photo, below. We usually have it propped open for the cats when the outside temperature is above 62ºF or so.

Levels are absolutely essential for felines, who often make their living by observing prey below. We placed them so they could easily hop from one to another. My cats highly recommend varied levels for bird and squirrel watching!          

Lovely Violet (now around age 15), who came to us as a 5-month-old feral kitten, loves levels …

 

Luna, too!

Luna, 13, another rescue, also loves levels, and naps in the catio on warm days.

 

We also added a bench at the far end that offers some storage space and seating.

tile backer board

Backer board was installed before tiling began.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tile B4 grout

Placing tile. It was finished with a light brown grout.

 

 

 

Tiling was actually fun because we were on the home stretch and it brought such warmth and a personal touch. The cats couldn’t care less, but we love the tile. We added a soft brown grout between tiles.

 

Finishing touches: A large log (found near a river bank) was also added, as well as final bits of woodwork and paint. Scatching post, litter box, water bowl, lantern, grass for grazing, and cushions for comfort (with washable covers) were the final touches to our Casbah Catio.

The Casbah Catio

Swirlee & Luna enjoying their Casbah Catio. We later wrapped portions of the log with sisal rope to entice climbers, but so far it’s only been used for scratching.

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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A Little Bird Tells Us About the Necessity of Native Plants

Chickadee with larva
It’s often noted that native plants and animals depend on each other
because the two evolved specialized relationships together over thousands of years, but that’s a basic explanation that doesn’t offer any details. I’ve often wondered about individual animal species and to what extent native plants are essential to them. I watch ladybugs devouring aphids on native perennial, shrub and tree leaves, warblers foraging for insects in various shrubs and trees, and black-capped chickadees bringing squirmy larvae to their hungry nestlings. But how much do birds really benefit when we choose to grow natives?

To my delight, a new study that focuses on one insectivorous bird species—the Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)—was recently released in Biological Conservation. Chickadees—whether they’re Carolina, Black-capped, or Chestnut-backed—are fairly common backyard species that, like most birds, don’t reproduce on seeds and fruit but instead eat and feed insects to their young. The study’s authors evaluated regional native plants, but also those that originated outside North America to see if they were a limiting factor for this particular species’ ability to effectively raise babies. Their results prove that non-native plants reduce the quality of habitat for Carolina chickadees by not providing enough food for their young.

Insects are crucial
It is the living environment—including insects—that sustains us and every other species. Herbivorous insects make up more than a third of the world’s animals, and their role is indispensable: By converting plant material to protein, they are nature’s only way of getting plants’ energy into animals who don’t eat plants directly, and into the animals who eat the ones who feed on insects.

Most herbivorous insect species are called specialists, meaning they can’t choose what they eat. Their menu is short; they must rely on only certain types of plants (that they evolved with) which have certain chemical compositions that support them, and can’t exist where those plants don’t exist. A well-known example is the monarch butterfly—an insect whose larvae can only feed on native milkweed plants—but there are countless others. If you already recognize the charms of regional native plants and have witnessed how growing them attracts more wildlife to your yard, all of this comes as no surprise. Native plants host and support more native herbivorous insects and, consequently, more birds and other wild ones.

Egg cluster for Baby

In addition to insect larvae, occasionally parents feed adult insects or clusters of insects eggs (shown here) that are most likely found in native plants.

The study
During the study’s two-year survey in the Washington, D.C. area, the research team correlated the birds’ diets to the plants they forage in. Using 97 suburban yards, they determined the species and origin of each tree and shrub, then checked the leaves of 16 plants at each site for caterpillars while tracking which plants received the most foraging visits from chickadees. Nest building in and near each yard was also examined through- out the chickadees’ breeding period, roughly April to early June on the east coast. Data revealed that these birds were more likely to nest in yards with native trees and shrubs than in yards with ornamentals that evolved outside North America. The native trees used the most included oaks, elms, cherries, and maples due to their ability to support the larvae of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and sawflies, which are essential for rearing young chickadees. Baby chickadees (and other birds) need a lot of food to survive: Previous research has shown that these busy parents need to collect 5,000 to 9,000 bits of food (depending on the clutch size of the brood) per nestful of chickadees, plus feed themselves!  According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “during a lodgepole needle miner [an insect that can kill trees] outbreak in Arizona, one chickadee was found with 275 of the tiny caterpillars in its stomach at one time.”

The native connection
Chickadees are generalist foragers, meaning they’ll look for food nearly everywhere, not just on certain plants. They will forage in non-native plant species but won’t find much, since few host the food they need. In my experience, black-capped chickadees may also feed their babies some adult insects and the occasional spider (which may be found almost anywhere), but in native trees such as oaks, a high diversity of larvae can be found, and large numbers of them can often be found quickly. Douglas Tallamy’s research has found that a small percentage of plant genera support the majority of Lepidoptera. Other research found that woody plants apparently support many more Lepidoptera species than herbaceous plants do. Whether that is because “woody plants in general are both longer lived and larger than most herbaceous plants and thus may be easier targets for insect herbivores to exploit,” or because “herbaceous plants are underreported as lepidopteran hosts because they are more difficult to identify and less conveniently searched by collectors,” we ought to grow more woody plant to maximize biodiversity, if only to give the benefit of the doubt (and provide birds more cover!). And, as I reported two years ago, another study confirmed that relatives of native trees (i.e. scarlet oak,

Chickadee young are fed by their parents for several weeks post-fledging.

Young chickadees need to be fed by their parents for several weeks after fledging.

a distant cousin of the west coast’s Oregon white oak) host and support fewer species of insects than the native counterpart, and that non-native trees that have no native relative in a region provide next to nothing. Yard after yard of ornamental, introduced species effectively destroys insect diversity and harms native wildlife.

So, now we have more compelling evidence that growing natives can improve the human-dominated landscape by supplying numerous ecological advantages, beauty, and the ability to support the entire life cycle of insectivorous birds. Whatever benefits the chickadees will also benefit other species, and increase biodiversity overall. The Douglas-firs in the back of my yard and the towering elms in the parking strip on my street nearly always have birds in them. Besides chickadees, I see woodpeckers, nuthatches, warblers, kinglets, bushtits, and more. The chickadees simply tell us what they all need.


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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The Best Way to Feed Hummingbirds in Warm Weather

Anna on columbine

Scorchingly hot weather is upon us in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s understandable to want to feed hummingbirds, but here’s the thing: Hummingbirds have no sense of smell and cannot tell if the sugar water in a feeder has gone bad. Deadly toxins can contaminate a sugar solution rather quickly in very warm weather—as fast as 24 hours—especially if the feeder receives some sunlight. Hummingbirds may become ill (and consequently more subject to predation) and even die from feeding at unattended feeders. And I don’t even want to think about a mother hummingbird’s nestlings who might starve to death after she’s been sickened by fermented sugar water that’s rich in mold and bacteria. So if you cannot keep your feeder fresh and clean, please don’t feed them via artificial feeders. 

Anna on Penstemon ovatusReal flowers are best
To avoid all these potential dangers, I strongly recommend growing plants (preferably native to your area so that other species benefit as well) that provide natural nectar which contains micronutrients, unlike refined sugar. Besides the nutrition and safety of real nectar, you won’t have to deal with unwelcome insects at feeders. Hummingbirds may also consume a sugary liquid from trees and often forage where woodpeckers called sapsuckers create sapwells from which hummers feed. I’ve also seen them at ripe fruit on my fig tree.

Also keep in mind that these amazing little birds do not live on nectar alone: their diet and that of their young includes a surprisingly large amount of tiny insects (and spiders) for protein, and the best way to provide it is, again, with native plants, which supply drastically more insects than non-native plants. And, needless to say, fresh water is essential for all birds and your yard should be free of any pesticides.

Feeder recommendations
If you do feel a need to feed hummers via artificial feeders, here’s a handy chart for how often to clean and refill your feeder, courtesy the Wild Bird Shop:

Daily high temp in shade / Frequency of cleaning/refilling
61-70º                                4 – 5 days
71-80º                                3 days
81-85º                                2 days
86º+                                   daily
 

♦ Refill with just the amount of sugar solution that will be consumed in the time period according to the temperature range.
♦ Keep feeders in the shade.
♦ Choose feeders that don’t have tubes or removable parts, which are very difficult to keep clean. I like the HummZinger feeders, which are VERY easy to clean. Rinse well after cleaning with hot soapy water (no bleach).
♦ Stay away from the colored, pre-mixed commercially available solutions—natural nectar is colorless, and adding red dye and preservatives is adding unnecessary, unnatural, and possibly harmful chemicals to the birds’ food. If your feeder doesn’t have red on it, simply hang a red ribbon next to the feeder.
♦ Only use white cane sugar in a ratio of 4 parts water (preferably filtered, w/o chlorine) to one part sugar. No honey, molasses, or syrups.

HummZinger

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

 
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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Cascara (Frangula purshiana)

Rhamnus purshiana drupe
Of the 35+ Frangula species worldwide,
the Northwest’s representative is a lovely medium-sized tree or tall shrub. The first thing you may notice about Cascara (Frangula purshiana, syn. Rhamnus purshiana) is its texture: Thin, silvery gray bark that’s nearly smooth but with a patchy look, and oval glossy green leaves with veins so prominent that they make the surface wavy and crinkled-looking. But Cascara’s charm doesn’t stop there: Springtime brings loose clusters of small, pale greenish-yellow flowers that later become small red fruit (a drupe, each containing 2 or 3 seeds) that ripen to the deepest purplish-blue. In autumn, its leaves turn yellow to orange and may hang on in areas with mild winters.

Frangula purshiana is a member of the Rhamnaceae family; the species name relates to frangulanin, a peptide alkaloid. The epithet, purshiana, commemorates Frederick Traugott Pursh, a remarkably well-traveled (often on foot) 18th century German-American botanist who made major contributions to North American botany.
Rhamnus purshiana

How it grows
Cascara naturally occurs along the Pacific coast from British Columbia south into northern California, as well as parts of Idaho and Montana. It’s found in moist to dry shady forests and mixed woodlands, often along streams or in moist ravines at low to middle elevations, as well as floodplains. It grows up to about 30 feet tall and roughly half as wide.

Cascara and red alder look a bit alike; you can tell them apart mainly by their fruits and leaves. Cascara produces a red to deep purple drupe, while alder’s fruit is an inch-long woody fruit that resembles a cone, known as a strobile. The leaves of Cascara are shinier and smoother than those of alder, which are tightly rolled under on the edges.

Conservation
The dried bark of Cascara has been used for hundreds of years as a laxative—first by indigenous peoples and then commercially (sold as Cascara sagrada)—and the high demand for it has led to unethical harvesting from wild trees, which deprive the plants of their protective and essential bark. It is probable that this practice has heavily reduced cascara populations.

Wildlife value
Pollinators—such as hummingbirds and native bees—come to Cascara’s late spring flowers. Birds—including band-tailed pigeons, robins, tanagers and grosbeaks—as well as mammals such as raccoons and coyotes, are attracted to the pea-sized fruit. Birds like bushtits, kinglets, warblers and chickadees forage on insects found on leaves, twigs and bark. Cascara is a host plant for the caterpillars of gray hairstreak and swallowtail butterflies and more than a dozen moth species, which feed on its leaves. Mule deer and other mammals may use it as browse.

 

Try it at home
Cascara is a great choice for small yards or places where large trees wouldn’t thrive, and I don’t know why it’s not planted more often. Besides its beauty and wildlife appeal, it’s a fast grower that can take a fair amount of sun to full shade, but it does best in partial shade. Though it is drought tolerant when established (especially in shade), it will look and do its best with somewhat moist, well-drained soil that’s rich in organic matter. In general, trees planted in hot, sunny areas will need more water. Like us, Cascara shows sensitivity to toxic gases and tiny sooty particles that are belched out of fossil fuel powered vehicles, so it may be best to keep it away from busy streets and highways. It is reportedly fire resistant.

When planting multiple trees, place them about 15 feet apart (about 10 feet apart for shrubs used as a hedgerow). Cascara shrubs are a good substitute for invasive English laurel or Portugal laurel shrubs where they can be left unpruned.

Grab a partner
Cascara grows in the understory of trees such as big leaf maple, Douglas-fir, and western hemlock, where it might live alongside vine maple, red alder, willows, and red-twig dogwood.

It’s worth noting that some Rhamnus species, such as R. cathartica (“common buckthorn,” native to parts of Europe, northwestern Africa and western Asia), are invasive outside their natural range. R. cathartica was introduced as a garden plant and is now naturalized in parts of North America, probably because it leafs out earlier than native species, often contributing to their downfall.

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Broad-leaved penstemon (Penstemon ovatus)

Anna on Penstemon ovatus
Growing penstemons usually requires a valiant effort to mimic wild conditions
by creating rock gardens complete with crevices that these beautiful plants’ roots can inch their way into. Most species will suffer without well-aerated, quick draining soil, and can’t live with frequent summer irrigation. Unless you reside where the soil is naturally rocky or gravelly, providing fast drainage in the Pacific Northwest can be a bit challenging. But wait! Penstemon ovatus likes and needs moisture and will usually let you manage with whatever soil you have, providing it drains well and contains a fair amount of organic matter.

Nicknamed ‘broad-leaved’ or ‘egg-leaf’ penstemon, it’s a great asset to a Pacific Northwest garden. Long-lived, upright, and nicely proportioned, it grows from a woody base with glossy, deep green, spade-shaped leaves. When in flower—typically May and June—the plants rise up two to three feet above ground. Speaking of flowers, they are gorgeous: Small (15 – 20 mm) but many, and arranged in whorls on fairly tall inflorescences, they are a brilliant blue that melds into violet and pink.

How it grows
Hardy to Zone 4, this perennial is native to parts  of the Northwest (west of the Cascade Mountains) at low to middle elevations, in damp, partly sunny to mostly shady places near forest edges, often in riparian areas. Its natural range is somewhat scattered and includes the western Columbia Gorge and parts of the Willamette Valley, as well as northern areas of the Olympic peninsula and southern British Columbia. 

Wildlife value
Penstemons, in general, are fantastic pollinator plants that are irresistible to hummingbirds, native bees, syrphid flies, beetles, ants, moths, and others, depending on the species. In my yard I’ve seen P. ovatus attracting syrphid flies, P. ovatus + tiny native beeants, bumble bees, and impossibly small native sweat bees (pictured, right), many of which nest in the ground (so please take care when applying mulch or digging in soil to avoid harming them!). In addition, small songbirds may eat the seeds that mature in summer, and foliage creates cover for tiny soil-dwelling creatures.

Try it at home
Broad-leaved penstemon likes rich soil, regular (but not excessive) watering, and virtually any light situation except very deep shade or full sun, although more sun tends to make the plants flower more. Since it is a fairly robust and versatile plant, placement shouldn’t be too difficult: In my Portland yard I find it does best in some morning sun, a couple of feet in from pathways due to its spread while in bloom. Placing multiple plants in groups or swaths, with each plant 12 to 24 inches apart, will make it easy for pollinators to find them and minimize the amount of bare soil that sprouts weedy plants.P.ovatus

As mentioned earlier, unless your soil is already high in organic matter and drains well, add some low-nitrogen compost before planting (well-decomposed leaf compost is good). I like to get plants in the ground in mid to late fall when forthcoming winter rains will help get their roots established before the demands of spring; if you plant in springtime be sure to keep them adequately hydrated, especially during that first summer. After plants are established (usually a couple of years), they should do fine with just occasional—but deep—watering. If you happen to plant them close to other plants that like frequent irrigation they will likely do fine, but don’t keep them consistently wet. Siting them at the edges of rain gardens should work, but not in the low, saturated parts. They will self sow, but aren’t very assertive.

Another Northwest penstemon for moist conditions and part shade is the beautiful Cascade penstemon (Penstemon serrulatus).

Grab a partner
If possible, grow broad-leaved penstemon with associated species that also naturally occurred in your area, to help provide an eco-functional space for wildlife. Since it naturally occurs within several native plants communities, shrubs and perennials in those communities are far too numerous to list here. For starters, consider serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea), and Cascade Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa). As always, buy plants that come from locally sourced material at reputable nurseries.

 

 


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Henderson’s shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii)

 

Dodecatheon hendersonii
Nicknamed “shooting star,” Dodecatheon species are delicate spring bloomers
that could find a home in nearly every garden. If yours lacks this sweet little perennial wildflower that’s a member of the Primrose family (Primulaceae), by all means get outside now to witness its unusual springtime blossoms, because the plant goes dormant fairly quickly after flowering. And then add it to your shopping list.

How it grows
Dodecatheon hendersonii naturally occurs in much of California, in Oregon and parts of Washington west of the Cascades, and southern Vancouver Island at low to mid-elevations within open woodlands, forest edges, and grasslands, typically in partial shade. In springtime, the plant emerges from dormancy as a modest little clump of soft green, oval or spoon-shaped leaves. A few weeks later, a slim leafless flower stalk grows above the rosette of foliage and, after what seems like a blink of an eye, spectacular little downturned flowers emerge with magenta to pink to white petals swept backwards, looking almost as though they’d been caught in a terrific windstorm, their stamens, stigma, and style protruding forward, collectively, like miniature colorful darts. Following pollination, the flowers turn toward the stars. The ovary essentially becomes a capsule where the seeds develop and, as they mature, any remaining anthers, stigma and petals fall off. Seeds are dispersed by wind or creatures who bump into the dry scape.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Dodecatheon-hendersonii-1-scaled.jpg

Wildlife value
Flowers, of course, aren’t just for our eyes. Dodecatheon species evolved to attract certain species of solitary bees, as well as native bumble bees who have the ability to vibrate flowers using indirect flight muscles (aka “buzz pollination”). While they’re collecting pollen for their young (Dodecatheon species offer no nectar), the bumble bees release pollen that’s securely attached to a flower’s anthers and transfer it to stamens with their legs and mandibles. They also do this for other flowers with tubular anthers (including tomato blossoms, so consider growing native pollinator plants to attract native bees to your veggie beds!).

Try it at home
While Dodecatheon hendersonii can handle the wet soils of the Pacific Northwest’s winter and spring, it needs to dry out a bit during the summer and fall, so if you grow this species, don’t irrigate often. Since it will take many years to form a colony, space plants in natural-looking drifts, about 12 inches apart and where they won’t be shaded out by any overzealous spring ephemerals you may have, such as tulips (or even native plants such as western bleeding heart, which is an avid but gorgeous traveler).

Depending on your location and your site’s conditions, you might find other Dodecatheon species to be a better fit. Of the nearly 20 species within the genus, the Pacific Northwest hosts several other species: Dodecatheon pulchellum looks similar to D. hendersonii but has longer leaves and naturally occurs in moist areas such as near streams, seeps, and in wet meadows at low to high elevations; D. dentatum subsp. dentatum (white shooting star) is also endemic to the PNW and the only species with consistently white petals; D. poeticum is found mostly in the arid Columbia Basin and eastern Columbia Gorge, where it prefers to grow in sandy soil that is rich in organic matter, as found in the Gorge; D. alpine grows only in moist meadows and near streams at high elevations. Less common is D. jeffreyi, which naturally occurs in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, and Montana; it is Critically Imperiled in Wyoming. And D. austrofrigidum can be found, tragically, only in small, scattered populations in Gray’s Harbor and Pacific counties of Washington, where it is listed as Critically Imperiled, and in Clatsop and Tillamook counties of Oregon, where it is listed as Imperiled: In lower elevation riparian sites, “threats [to populations] exist due to logging and grazing upstream, which contributes to flooding and erosion that negatively impacts populations.

To make more of these wonders, collect seed in summer and plant in fall or early spring, or very, very carefully separate bulblets in your garden (that are attached to roots) after flowering and no later than autumn. Or you can simply just let them increase their numbers naturally. More detailed propagation info here.

Grab a partner
Friends and associates of D. hendersonii include Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), camas (Camassia quamash), white fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum), and many others.

Dodecatheon hendersonii

 
 
 
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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Western trillium (Trillium ovatum)

Trillium ovatum

Although introductions are probably not necessary, this is Trillium ovatum, an unmistakable and endearing plant that softly lights up the vernal understory of moist coniferous and mixed forests from southern British Columbia, south to California, east to Idaho, Montana and small parts of Wyoming and Colorado, and north to southwestern Alberta. It’s part of a large genus, with about 50 other members that are native to temperate areas of North America and Asia.

Trillium ovatum’s common names are “western trillium” and “wake robin,” the latter due to its designation as unofficial harbinger of spring. Trillium comes from modern Latin, reportedly an alteration of the Swedish trilling, meaning “triplet,” which refers to its three leaves and three petals. Ovatum is derived from the Latin ovum meaning “egg-shaped,” which describes the leaf outline.

How it grows
A perennial that grows from rhizomes, it technically produces no true leaves or stems above ground; the stems are considered an extension of the horizontal rhizome. The part of the plant that we notice most is an upright flowering scape (stalk), and the leaf-like structures are bracts, but most people call them leaves because they photosynthesize. The smaller leaf-like structures just under the flower are sepals.Trillium ovatum

Trillium species are divided into two types: Pedicellate (those with flowers that have a short stalk called a peduncle) and sessile (those with flowers attached directly to the bracts). The flowers have six stamens and three stigmas. Trillium plants are very long lived and can take as long as 10 years to flower from seed. As the flowers age and following pollination, the white flowers change to pink or even burgundy. Trillium are known as spring ephemerals; as summer proceeds, they go into dormancy and mostly disappear from our view (although those that are well established or receive adequate summer water usually maintain their greenery above ground following the flowering period).

Wildlife value
Pollination happens thanks to native bumble bees, moths, and beetles. The resulting fruit is fleshy and berrylike; the seeds evolved to have fleshy elaiosomes whose nutritious proteins and fats attract muscular ants who carry the seeds back home to feed their young. After the food is consumed, they toss the still viable seed and, voila! Seed dispersal accomplished.

Try it at home
Although trillium plants are quintessential forest denizens, they usually do well in shaded to partly shaded, moist woodland gardens, or even just moist (but well drained) areas on the north or east side of houses, provided that the soil is rich in organic matter and slightly acidic (pH 5.0 to 6.5). Leafy and woody debris is very important in the forest, and should be allowed to accumulate and decompose on the soil at home as well, since fallen leaves, bark, twigs, cones, and branches slow moisture loss and provide habitat as well as nutrients. If your soil is poor and lacking in organic matter, or if the top soil is shallow, add some compost as mulch (leaf compost is good) right after planting and allow whole leaves to continually accumulate on top to eventually create more humus.

Trillium can withstand minor droughts, but occasional summer water will help keep them going until winter rains begin. Recent transplants should definitely be kept slightly moist during the first couple of summers. 

The plants you buy will likely be small, but in the right conditions and over many years they will slowly spread from rhizomes to a clump as wide as two feet. Grow them as nature would: In drifts with individual plants roughly several feet apart. Although I haven’t quite gotten around to growing them from seed, sources say that seed should be collected when capsules begin to open in midsummer. Sow them twice as deep as the seed’s diameter (or slightly deeper) in deep containers with coarse growing medium. Leave them outdoors in a shaded spot to mimic natural conditions. More detailed info on propagation here.

Some PNW associates to grow them with include Douglas-fir, western redcedar, western hemlock, Pacific rhododendron, vine maple, salal, sword fern, maidenhair fern, deer fern, vanilla leaf, oxalis, western wild ginger, and stream violet.

Other Pacific Northwest trillium
Trillium albidum occurs in most parts of western Oregon, as well as Thurston, Pierce and Lewis counties in Washington, and much of northern California. Trillium parviflorum grows naturally in southwestern Washington and northwestern T. kurabyashiiOregon. Trillium rivale occurs only in southwestern Oregon and the northernmost counties of California. Trillium kurabayashii (pictured, right) is naturally found only in Oregon’s Curry County, as well as Del Norte and Humboldt counties of California.

Only buy natives from reputable nurseries and never dig plants from the wild. And it’s true what they say about never picking the flowers—doing so may eliminate the only chance the leaf-like bracts have for photosynthesis, and cause the plant to weaken or possibly even die.

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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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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A Winter Treat for Wild Birds: Plant-Based Suet

Black-capped chickadees love peanut butter-coconut oil suet!

Black-capped chickadee, salivating over peanut butter-coconut oil suet.

 

Back by popular demand, here is my vegan ‘suet’ recipe for wild birds trying to make it through cold weather. While the insects, fruit, or seeds provided by native plants are the best way to feed birds (because those who eat at feeders are much more likely to get sick and spread disease), there are times when they could use some help getting through frigid days and nights. Small birds especially, with their remarkably rapid metabolism, need to find enough calories for the day but also build up fat reserves to get through their lengthy nighttime fasts—all in the course of the minimal daylight hours of winter. Young birds have it the toughest since they have to compete with mature birds who have better access to food and roosting sites. Despite their amazing abilities to get through cold, stormy winters, some do die during especially stressful times.

Yellow-rumped warbler with a mouthful

Yellow-rumped warbler with a mouthful of raisin.

This “suet” contains a lot of fat and protein and seems to be more appealing to birds than the traditional, animal-derived suet. It also lacks the probability of antibiotic and who-knows-what-else contamination, and the “yuck” factor inherent in store-bought suet (Wikipedia describes “suet” as “the raw, hard fat of beef or mutton found around the loins and kidneys.” Yumm … ). And, the fats in this recipe used in place of the dead animal lipo — especially the coconut oil — pack in the health benefits. I strongly recommend using organic ingredients whenever possible considering the deplorable loss of birds and other animals to pesticides and the harmful effects of synthetic fertilizers.

Bushtits awaiting their turn at the suet feeder

Bushtits anxiously await their turn at the feeder.

This recipe also helps you avoid participating in the sheer misery and environmental destruction associated with animal agriculture. Of course, other solid fats have their pitfalls. I passionately avoid palm oil—the cheap fat linked to climate change, tropical deforestation, habitat degradation, animal cruelty, and indigenous rights abuses—which seems to be found in almost every processed product under the sun these days. And while coconut oil, which I combine in this entree with peanut butter, is far from a perfect ingredient, it is slightly less problematic, especially if you buy organic and fair trade. And, making your own means no plastic to dispose of.

Which birds might flock to this suet? In my yard, a lone, very bossy male yellow-rumped warbler named Rumpy (pictured above) makes a point to come back every winter for his suet, but northern flickers, downy woodpeckers, bushtits, black-capped chickadees, chestnut-backed chickadees, scrub and stellar’s jays, juncos, Bewick’s wrens, nuthatches, and song sparrows are common patrons as well (with Rumpy’s permission, of course). 

 

vegan suet ingredients
Here is the recipe for one small (roughly 6 ounce) “cake.”
Double the recipe for large feeders.
Bonus points if you use organic ingredients!

¼ cup coconut oil, preferably unrefined
¼ cup unsalted peanut butter, preferably chunky
⅛ cup + 1 to 2 tablespoons raw, unsalted sunflower seeds
⅛ cup + 1 to 2 tablespoons raw coarse corn meal (aka polenta)
⅛ cup + 1 to 2 tablespoons raw millet, hulled or not
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped raisins or other dried fruit, optional
Additional chopped unsalted peanuts or nuts, optional

Directions: Gently warm coconut oil over very low heat (or in microwave under low power) just until it starts melting. Remove from heat and stir in peanut butter, then other ingredients. (Add more dry ingredients if it’s runny.) Spoon the mixture into a mold (small storage containers work well) that will fit your feeder. Cover and freeze on a flat spot for at least an hour before popping it out of the container and placing in your feeder outside.

If it’s very cold outside I store it in the refrigerator for a few hours so it’s not impenetrably frozen when placed outdoors. Likewise, when nighttime lows are predicted to go below around 30°F I bring the feeder indoors at night and keep it in a cool spot (less than 60°F) and place it outside early the following morning.

TIPS:
♦ This suet is intended only for cold weather and will begin to soften at temperatures above 60º F or so. It will become a drippy mess if subjected to sunlight in such weather.
♦ To prevent disease transmission, be sure to clean suet feeders with hot soapy water and rinse well before each refill. No bleach.
♦ Rotate bird feeder positions to reduce the likelihood of birds eating poop-contaminated food on the ground, and if you have more than one feeder, space them apart to keep birds from getting unnaturally close.
♦ To reduce the chance of window strikes, place all bird feeders either within 3 feet of your house or at least 25 feet away.
♦ To keep squirrels and other rodents at bay, hang feeder on a pole with a squirrel baffle, placed at least 8 feet from any jumping place.
♦ Suet feeders with tail props are nice for woodpeckers like flickers who normally feed with their long tails supported vertically.
♦ 
Extra cakes may be stored in your freezer for several months or in your refrigerator for a week or two.

downy female

Downy woodpeckers love this suet recipe!

 


© 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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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Red-twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea)

Cornus sericea ssp. occidentalis

Red-twig dogwood is one of those multitalented shrubs that grows in a variety of moist habitats, provides significant wildlife habitat, and keeps us enthralled year round. Also known as red osier dogwood and creek dogwood (among other common names), it is a multi-stemmed, deciduous, long-lived and fairly fast-growing shrub that develops into an open, somewhat rounded thicket. Its common name comes from signature reddish stems which become brightest in winter. Botanically speaking, it’s known as Cornus sericea (syn. Cornus stolonifera). Sericea comes from the Latin “sericatus,” which means “silky” and describes the soft texture of the leaves and young twigs. Stolonifera refers to its lower stems or branches that tend to tiptoe horizontally and grow roots when they touch the soil.

Besides its vibrant red stems, this plant has oppositely-arranged, deep green leaves that turn an array of colors as the days shorten in autumn. On this sunless late November day in my back yard, the leaves range from a soft gold and pale orange to deep red, and they’re becoming more purplish-red each day. Come spring, four-petaled creamy white flowers will appear in clusters in May to July and will be tailed several months later by soft white to pale blue fruit (shown above) that may persist into winter if the birds don’t devour them.
Cornus sericea

How it grows
Red-twig dogwood has a large range—from Alaska and northern Canada from coast to coast, and as far south as Virginia in the east and Chihuahua, Mexico in the west, at low to middle elevations. There are two subspecies: C. sericea ssp. occidentalis, which occurs in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, California and British Columbia, and C. sericea ssp. sericea, which is found much more widely. Differences are miminal, with the latter having slightly larger flower petals and fuzzier leaves and shoots. Both typically occur in moist, open sites such as meadows, bogs, floodplains, and near shorelines, but they also can be found under forest canopy as well as within more open woodlands in or near riparian areas.

Wildlife value
Red-twig dogwood is important for providing diverse structure, cover, nesting habitat, and a variety of edibles for insects, mammals, amphibians, and a large number of bird species. Bees and other pollinators, such as butterflies, use the flowers for nectar and/or pollen. Birds (including waxwings, thrushes, band-tailed pigeons, northern flickers, and grosbeaks), small mammals, and bears dine on its fruits—one or two-seeded drupes which are reportedly very high in fat—in summer and fall. According to the US Forest Service, “moose, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, beavers, and rabbits” commonly browse the stems; twigs and new shoots provide especially delectable and nutritious winter browse. Last, but not least, this shrub provides cover and important nesting habitat for songbirds, small mammals and amphibians, as well as host plants for the larvae of butterflies like the echo blue butterfly.

Cornus sericeaTry it at home
Although fairly shade tolerant, plants growing in full sun typically grow much more compactly than those in shade, usually bloom more profusely, and exhibit more stem color. Depending on the amount of sun it receives, red-twig dogwood can grow from about 6 to 16 feet tall, and nearly as wide, so it may be best to leave it out of very small gardens. If you have the space, use it in any moist area where you’d like spectacular aesthetic appeal as well as valuable wildlife habitat: At the back of a border, next to a rain garden, as a somewhat open screen, as part of a large hedgerow, or to stabilize eroding soil on slopes. Plant it in the fall to give it an easy start in life, adding some leaf compost if your soil is in poor shape. Allow future leaves to stay where they fall.

Damp soil is important, and slow-draining soil is not a problem (although this plant shouldn’t have its feet immersed in water for prolonged periods). Though its tolerance for drought isn’t terribly high, with a little shade and soil that’s rich in organic matter, infrequent summer watering during excessively hot periods should be all that is needed once it’s established (typically just a couple of years). And, allowing for a dry period at the end of summer is actually a good and natural thing (as long as the plant looks healthy), since a bit of drought prepares the plant for winter. Red-twig dogwood is often planted at restoration sites, which are rarely watered afterwards, and most usually do fine.

Grab a partner
Since red-twig dogwood grows in such a wide range of habitats, there are a number of plant friends with which it would like to live. For best ecological and gardening results, choose associated native plants that live in communities that currently grow or likely would have grown in your immediate area. In the Pacific Northwest, some of the plants that closely associate with red-twig dogwood include western redcedar (Thuja plicata), Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), vine maple (Acer circinatum), alder (Alnus spp.), willow (Salix spp.), aspen (Populus tremuloides), paper birch (Betula papyrifera), gooseberries (Ribes spp.), black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii), lupine (Lupinus spp.), aster (Symphyotrichum spp.), and many others.


© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Western Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum)

Asarum caudatum

Western wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) is an understory plant that offers wonderful texture in the form of deeply veined, evergreen, aromatic leaves that carpet the soil in shady conditions, soil protection, habitat for tiny creatures, and unusual, secretive flowers. The genus Asarum has about 17 species found in North America, China, and Europe; the name is the Latin form of the Greek asaron, of obscure origin. The species epithet, caudatum, means “tailed” and refers to the wispy, almost whimsical appendages of the sepals, which protect the flower.

And what a flower! Burgundy with a brownish tinge, and enchantingly mysterious in appearance, they typically bloom from April to July in Oregon. You may not even notice them unless you’re weeding on your hands and knees, or if you make a special point to seek out their intricate beauty at ground level. With charming little tails, a three-cornered shape, and a hairy cup that conceals the real flower, they are one of nature’s hidden little gems, observable only to soil dwellers or those two-legged creatures with a spirit of curiosity.

Asarum caudatum

How it grows
Western wild ginger is an often overlooked but ubiquitous member of various forest communities at low to middle elevations, from British Columbia south to California, and as far east as western Montana. With substantial tree cover and rich soils, these communities occur in areas with mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers, on fairly flat ground to moderate slopes. The available literature suggests that while wild ginger is not an early colonizer in the process of succession (a.k.a. “pioneer species”), it occurs in most successional communities, including stages that have some overstory canopy. In other words, they grow with established forest species that didn’t pop up overnight and won’t be found in recently disturbed areas, like clearcuts, burns, or landslides. They will do best with established native trees that offer protection and other rewards.

Wildlife value
Lustrous evergreen leaves provide protection for little arthropods and other tiny lives that frequent the forest floor, which may in turn supply food for some bird and herp species. The flowers attract beetles that (along with flies and gnats) pollinate them, as well as ants that are drawn to a fleshy appendage on its seeds that contain an oil. And it is thought that the plant may sustain native rodents in some parts of the region.

Try it at home
Wild ginger is a ground cover that creeps slowly by shallow, fleshy rhizomes; the closer you space plants, the faster they will fill in (generally, about three to four feet apart is adequate). In addition to reproduction via rhizomes, it sometimes spreads by seed, thanks to ants: After they dutifully and mightily drag an entire seed back to their nest, the oil is removed for their young and the remainder of the seed, still viable, is discarded onto the soil.

Optimal growing conditions include shade to part shade and moist, rich soil. If you already have a woodland garden complete with mature conifers, your soil will probably be adequately acidic and fertile (unless you’ve been removing leaf litter and such that should be allowed to stay!). If your soil is lacking in organic matter, or the top soil is shallow, add some compost as mulch (leaf compost is good) and allow future leaves to stay put.

Since wild ginger prefers moist soil, keep new plants adequately hydrated for at least the first couple of summers, especially if your site lacks many trees or is subjected to sunlight or heat. Plant it in the fall for best results.

This plant is a possible substitute for the invasive Bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria).

Grab a partner
Wild ginger is a choice perennial for beneath native conifers like Douglas-fir, Western hemlock, Sitka spruce, grand fir, white pine, and Western redcedar, as well as deciduous smaller trees and shrubs such as red alder, vine maple, and California hazelnut. It is exquisite growing amongst smaller associated species such as sword fern, deer fern, goatsbeard, fairybellsfoamflower, trillium, and many others.


© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata)

           Tiarella trifoliata var. trifoliata    

Tiarella trifoliata, commonly called “foamflower,” is a lovely woodland perennial within the Western hemlock/Douglas-fir plant community of the Pacific Northwest. Besides having beautiful soft green leaves that are often divided into three leaflets, its sprays of delicate flowers — of the palest pink — bloom on leafy stems for an amazingly long time: From May to as late as September. Really!

How it grows
This charming plant can be found in damp, shady forests, and near streams. It has rhizomes but doesn’t spread like typical ground cover plants; in fact, you’re more likely to find it self sowing than spreading speedily underground. There are three varieties: Tiarella trifoliata var. trifoliata, the one you’re most likely to find for sale, is found mainly west of the Cascades as well as in southern Alaska and British Columbia, at low to middle elevations. Tiarella trifoliata var. unifoliata occurs on both sides of the Cascades, west to Montana, and in B.C. and northern California, typically at higher elevations; it has more deeply lobed leaves. Tiarella trifoliata var. laciniata, has a very small range—only a few counties in Washington and Oregon and parts of B.C.; its leaves are maplelike and shallowly lobed. The other North American foamflower is T. cordifolia, native to the eastern U.S.

Tiarella close-up

Tiarella trifoliata var. trifoliata’s dainty bell-shaped flowers, very close up.

Wildlife value
Foamflower’s clusters of tiny blossoms provide pollen and nectar for native bees and syrphid (aka hover) flies. Seeds are eaten by ground-feeding birds such as sparrows. Foliage provides cover for very small creatures and protects the soil.

Try it at home
Maturing to barely a foot tall and wide, it’s best grown en masse in the shade (or partial shade) of conifers where the soil is well-drained but naturally rich (or has been amended with organic matter, like compost), as well as along shaded pathways or near ponds and streams. Plant this gem in the fall for best results. If it’s not grown in a moist area, keep it happy with supplemental water during dry periods and it will self sow, but only in the most polite way.

Grab a partner
Grow foam flower with associated species such as Douglas-fir, western hemlock, western redcedar, vine maple, serviceberry, oceanspray, thimbleberry, sword fern, salal, Cascade Oregon grape, inside-out flower, oxalis, and many others.

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Cultivate Compassion in the Garden (and Beyond)

painted turtles

Whether they’re hidden within fur farms or factory farms or other atrocious places—mistreated and maligned for profit—or in plain sight and struggling within unraveling ecosystems that disappear a little more each day, the suffering of non-human animals due to our expansion and behavior is everywhere. On an ecological level, the most devastating consequence of our ubiquitous presence is the disappearance of wild species that just need to be left alone. They want to live on, and in peace, just as we do. They have just as much right to exist without harm and suffering as we do.

Habitat destruction (including that caused by climate chaos) is not painless and is the main threat to most wild flora and faunas: Less than four percent of original U.S. forests remain; oceans are dying; waterways are heavily polluted with toxins; farmland is quickly expanding; a new study shows that in the past 20 years we’ve managed to destroy a tenth of the earth’s wild areas. Half of North American bird species are predicted to go extinct by the end of this century and some especially sensitive amphibians are already there. We’re the most invasive, destructive, and over-consuming species ever to walk the earth, and it’s costing us the earth, as well as our health and happiness.hermit thrush

Our big brains are burdensome as we thoughtlessly invent things that damage and destroy, but they’re also an asset when we realize our obligation to protect and sustain. Habits of exploitation can be broken. We can stop pretending that everything is fine or beyond our control, and realize that we are very much a part of nature. We don’t have to, for example, conform to having manicured, high maintenance, lawn-dominated landscapes that require massive chemical and fossil fuel applications just because other people have them. We can make choices based on caring what happens to those downstream, just as we wish those upstream would to do to us.

When our species was young, we weren’t separated from nature. Even now, within our bubbles that disconnect, we enter this world not with a fear of natural processes and wild creatures, but with an intense curiosity. But as kids we learn to be fearful—we’re taught to fear the proverbial “big bad wolf,” and trepidation of wildlife and natural processes continue throughout many people’s lives. Education can help change that, and even awaken us to the awe-inspiring, interconnected layers that nature has fashioned over eons of evolution.

Courtesy Predator Defense

Photo courtesy Predator Defense

Just as essential is empathy for other species (that is, looking at their world from their point of view, with compassion). It may be our most important capability and what is sorely needed to bring some balance to the earth’s members. When we allow empathy to guide our choices and practices, we act selflessly and gain empowerment along the way. Changing our ways isn’t always difficult and some changes can be very simple; it just takes some thought and a little motivation. With compassion we can defiantly say “no” to synthetic toxic chemicals crafted by mega corporations that discriminate against other species and seek to control the natural world, “no” to wasteful monoculture lawns, and “no” to merely decorative plants with zero wildlife appeal. We can say “yes” to planning gardens that not only look pretty but also benefit and sustain other species,  “yes” to keeping Fluffy and Fido away from birds and other vulnerable creatures, “yes” to keeping outdoor lights off and making windows visible to birds, and “yes” to initiatives and politicians that seek to preserve and protect natural areas. There are, of course, countless other ways to express compassion for the planet outside the garden.

It’s easy to think that the war against wildlife—from the microorganisms within degraded soil to persecuted predators trying to survive on a human-dominated planet—is happening somewhere “out there.” While a huge percentage of wild lands are dominated by livestock ranching that has “caused more damage than the chainsaw and bulldozer combined,” urban and suburban spaces—including the roughly 40 million acres of land that’s currently lawn—offer an important conservation opportunity and a way for us to personally provide for others right at home.

It’s equally easy to be pulled down by the ticking extinction clock, but once we turn our backs on conventional gardening, we become part of a conversion—or revolution, if you will—that is proactive. Learn how healthy, balanced ecosystems function; watch native plants (especially when grown with others that co-occur in the Native bumblebee on Vancouveria hexandraarea) attract and support a diversity of native insects and other creatures; recognize the  bees and the flower flies and the birds that depend directly or indirectly on those plant communities; discover their life cycle and how to keep them healthy and protected. Plant trees, let the leaves do their thing, allow the dead wood to stay, and forget about pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. If we do all that, we’ll find ourselves more connected and caring even more about what happens within the dwindling, wilder ecosystems on this beautiful planet, and wondering how even more beautiful it will be if more of us empathize with other species.

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus)

Aruncus dioicus (goatsbeard)

I finally managed to take out a very large hosta plant in my front yard. I really hate to remove healthy noninvasive plants, however non-native they may be (especially when they’re pretty), but we all know that “pretty is as pretty does,” right? Originating in northeast Asia, hostas really have no function here other than looking nice with those ultra-inflated leaves. I don’t think I’d ever seen a native pollinator on its blossoms, let alone a nonnative honeybee. Plus, it was overpowering a fern that belongs in this neck of the woods.

In its place now is a goat’s beard plant (Aruncus dioicus) that had volunteered in the back yard, courtesy its frisky goat’s beard parents. Also known as “bride’s feathers,” it is not only eye-catching while in bloom, but has local ecological function that hostas can only dream about. It also fits well into the shade-loving native spread near the north side of my house, sharing space with a surprisingly robust western maidenhair fern (Adiantum aleuticum), evergreen huckleberry shrubs (Vaccinium ovatum), Cascade Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), sword ferns (Polystichum munitum), and native ground cover that includes wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) and inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), all of which can be found growing with goat’s beard in nature.

Aruncus dioicus foliageWith compound, pointy, toothed leaves that have a lovely texture, this plant is particularly fetching in springtime when its leaves are new. The main show begins in early to mid-summer, when tall, feathery plumes composed of tiny, creamy-white flowers rise above the foliage. Male plants are more spectacular in flower than female, but regardless of gender, it offers a stunning presence in shaded to partly-shaded borders, under tall trees, or as a deciduous screen or short hedge.

Wildlife value
Goat’s beard attracts quite a few insect species, including native bees, syrphid flies, teeny tiny beetles, and — if you’re lucky — mourning cloak butterflies (your odds will increase if you already grow their host plants, which include native willow, birch, hawthorn, and wild rose). Small birds may eat the seeds, so leave the spent flowers to overwinter.

Try it at home
Found in most of western Washington, Oregon, and northern California, goat’s beard naturally occurs along streams, in wet ravines, and in moist meadows and forests, but also sometimes in disturbed areas such as roadsides. As such, it likes moist, rich soil (so add compost and allow nature’s mulch—fallen leaves—to remain on soil), but can handle some drought when fully established. Although it does best with at least a half day of shade, it can be grown in nearly full sun in cool, northerly locations. When goat’s beard is happy, it will stabilize soil and eventually form a large clump, 3 to 5 feet tall and as wide, so space plants 3 to 5 feet apart. Both male and female plants need to be planted nearby if seedlings are desired. Grow them with associates (those that naturally grow together and depend on each other), including Douglas-fir, western hemlock, western red cedar, vine maple, deer fern, maidenhair fern, western bleeding heart, inside-out flower, wild ginger, and western trillium. Enjoy!

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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An Underappreciated Insect: The Syrphid Fly

Toxomerus occidentalis, female slurping nectar on Erigeron specious (showy fleabane)

Toxomerus occidentals (female), soaking up nectar on showy fleabane (Erigeron specious)


Beneficial in many ways, syrphid flies — also called flower flies — 
are true flies in the order Diptera, family Syrphidae. Some can be recognized by their ability to dart around as well as hover in the air in one place, wings nearly invisible, as they search for flowers on which to feed—somewhat like a tiny helicopter, but with much more grace (this flair led to their other common name, hover fly). They come in various shapes and sizes (typically 1/4 to 3/4 inch in length); the tiny ones require a hand lens or macro lens to get a good look. And when you do, you’ll be amazed at the beautiful patterns and bright colors that often serve to mimic dangerous looking bees or wasps and fool predators like birds into leaving them alone (but don’t worry, they couldn’t sting you if they wanted to!).

Syrphids in the genus Spilomyia often mimic wasps, with vivid yellow and black patterns and modified antennae.

Syrphids in the genus Spilomyia often mimic wasps, with vivid yellow and black patterns and modified antennae.


Multi-functional

Not needing to carry and store pollen for their young (like most bees do) doesn’t prevent them from being extremely important pollinators. Researchers have found that although syrphid flies pollinate less effectively per flower visit, they visit flowers more often, resulting in essentially the same pollination services as bees. And, it’s thought that they may be more tolerant of the landscape changes that we humans insist on, than bees are.

But syrphid flies are not only important as pollinators in gardens, organic farms, and wild areas. During their immature stage, most species that are found in gardens and nearly half of the 6,000 syrphid fly species worldwide are voracious consumers of aphids, scale insects, and other soft-bodied pests. In coastal Central California, researchers compared romaine lettuce sprayed with an insecticide and lettuce without insecticide. They found that syrphid larvae were primarily responsible for suppressing aphids in organic romaine lettuce, and called the sprayed lettuce “unmarketable.” Other types of syrphid fly larvae are either (1) scavengers that tidy up ant, bee, and wasp nests, (2) feeders of plant material, tree sap, and fungi, or (3) decomposers that feed on decaying organic matter. To add to their achievements, larvae are reportedly more effective in cool weather (as in early spring) than most other such predators.

Myathropa florea, male. Larvae feed on bacteria at the base of trees or in decaying leaves.

Myathropa florea, male. Larvae of this species feed on bacteria at the base of trees or in decaying leaves.


Life Cycle

Females lay their tiny, elongated eggs singly on leaves—typically near aphid colonies, so food is within reach—and they hatch in a few days. The tapered, grub-like larvae are blind and legless, but the mouths of these aphid-eaters are equipped with triple-pointed darts that enable them to pierce and suck their prey dry. At maturation, the larvae are promoted to the soil to become pupa and, eventually, adult flies. Their life cycle takes several weeks; reportedly three generations per year are typical in the Northwest. Most syrphid flies overwinter as larvae in leaf litter—yet another reason to not remove fallen leaves from soil!

Close encounters
The best way to spot these helpful, colorful little insects in your garden is to move slowly and quietly, and observe carefully. Sometimes all I have to do is pause next to a group of flat-topped flowers (white or yellow ones seem to be their favorites), and within a few minutes one or two will show up to eat (and to dazzle me—in morning sunlight these exceptional little pollinators shimmer!). I’ve photographed nine different species in my small yard, and I’ve just started. Hopefully I’ll encounter many more of these fascinating little flyers in the years to come.

To avoid confusion with bees and wasps, just remember that syrphid flies have huge compound eyes (which help to determine their gender—female eyes are spaced slightly apart while males’ come together at the top of their head); their bodies are sometimes flatter than bees and wasps; their antennae are usually very short; they don’t carry pollen around like most bees do; they have one pair of wings (unlike bees and wasps that have two pairs). The second pair of wings of flies has been reduced to two little knobs called halteres, which can be seen in the photo below. Halteres function like tiny gyroscopes that allow them to stay balanced by detecting and correcting changes in rotation while flying, and enable their zippy acrobatic flights.

Although the mouth parts of syrphids vary between species, allowing different species to access nectar in differently shaped flowers, their typical mouth is basically a retractable extension with a spongelike tip that can soak up either nectar or pollen. The species that have this can only feed on open flowers that have easily accessible nectar. Some species have a modified mouth that allows them to feed at elongated, tubular flowers.

The halteres can be seen at the base of the wings.

The halteres can be seen at the base of the wings.

 

Conservation
Syrphid flies have been studied very little in the U.S., but European research has shown that species diversity has fallen in areas of intensive human activity. According to the Xerces Society, in Britain, seven of the 22 flies for which Biodiversity Action Plans have been prepared are syrphid flies. Given the substantial loss of pollinators induced by habitat loss, pesticides, nonnative species and climate chaos, and the profusion of others in danger of extinction, there is a definite need to conserve all types of wild pollinator communities.

Providing for these flies is similar to most other pollinators: A variety of flowers from spring till fall for adults, and appropriate habitat for egg laying, larval development, and overwintering. Attract and nurture syrphid flies with a diversity of native plants that provide a lot of nectar and pollen (females need pollen to produce eggs). In the Pacific Northwest, try yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis), stonecrop (Sedum spp.), goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium spp.), fleabane (Erigeron spp.), white spiraea (Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida), mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii), and aster (Symphiotrichum spp.). The flowers of chamomile, dill, parsley, and other garden herbs with flat-topped flowers are also very attractive to them, as is the pollen of grasses and sedges that’s often available early in the season. Be sure to allow leaf litter and downed wood to remain on soil to help them get through the winter and to provide food for the decomposer types.

Aphid remedy
If you have an aphid problem on some plants, remember that predatory insects that keep pests at acceptable levels need prey like aphids. Always inspect aphid colonies for syrphid fly larvae before even thinking about control, even “organic” remedies. Use only plain water to spray off aphids (that can’t climb back on), but only if necessary. Never, ever use insecticides, to which syrphid flies and other creatures are very sensitive. Usually, just turning your back is the best thing: One summer a large patch of native bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) in my backyard was absolutely infested with aphids. I decided to let nature take her course—cheering on the ladybird beetles and birds who flourished with the situation. As the leaves died back (as they do naturally when the heat of summer arrives) I forgot about the aphids. The following year there were scarcely any on the bleeding heart, but I found another species of aphid on nodding onion (Allium cernuum); again I did nothing and nature took care of it. The following year the wild onion and bleeding heart were fine, but the aspen trees were stricken. Yet again, ladybugs, lacewings, and several species of songbirds took advantage of the generous buffet. The following year there were no outbreaks in my yard, at least none that I noticed.

 

Syrphus opinator (female) on Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida

Syrphus opinator (female) on white spiraea (Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida)

 

Eristatis male on yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis

Eristalis sp. on yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis)

 

© Eileen M. Stark 2016

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Beyond Bees: The Underappreciated Pollinators

Common ringlet (Coenonympha tulle)
The majority of flowering plants evolved to take advantage of insects, and depend on them (and less commonly, other animals or wind) to fertilize their flowers, facilitate gene flow, and prevent inbreeding. Bees might be the most obvious pollinators, and on a warm summer day it seems flowers and bees were made for each other. Native bees, including the 90% of species native to the U.S. that are solitary rather than social — that is, females create nests and raise their young without the help of any other bees — are considered to be the most important pollinators (move over, European honeybees!) and are invaluable members of natural systems. But other capable pollinators—like butterflies and moths, hummingbirds, wasps, ants, herbivorous fruit bats, and even rodents—share the pollen distribution workload, and offer ecological benefits as well. Less well known are the thrips, beetles, mosquitoes (yes, you read that right), and flies that are actually quite accomplished pollinators. Distributing pollen may be a sideline for them, but they often excel because they don’t take pollen back to their nests, as most bees do.

Thrips go way back—to the Permian period, over 250 million years ago—but get a bad rap because of a few species that threaten crops. Studies show that they are strong pollinators of some plants, particularly early in the season when most other pollinators aren’t around.

The adult ornate checkered beetle (Trichodes ornatus) feeds on flowers such as wild buckwheat (Eriogonum spp.), transferring pollen from anther to stigma.

The adult ornate checkered beetle (Trichomes oranatus) feeds on flowers such as wild buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.) and helps transfer pollen from anther to stigma.

Beetles are particularly important in semi-arid parts of the world and have a highly developed sense of smell. They are expert and essential pollinators, according to the Forest Service, and also were around millions of years before bees appeared. Like many species of birds, bees, and butterflies, beetles are in danger of extinction. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists over 70 beetle species as endangered. The main threats include habitat destruction, chemical pollutants (e.g., pesticides), displacement by introduced species, and hybridization with other species due to human interference.

Although many flies (order Diptera) are recorded as flower visitors, relatively little is known about pollination by flies, compared to other more obvious pollinators. Many flies are strong pollinators, including syrphid flies (which deserve their very own special post) as well as some tachinid flies, which are the most diverse family of the order Diptera (true flies). As adults, they are flower visitors, feeding on nectar and/or pollen; in their larval stages many species help to control insects that we consider pests.

Suillia spp. attracted to bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax) receives a pollen reward.

Pollination by insects is usually mutually beneficial. Here, a fly (Suillia variegata) attracted to bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax) receives a pollen reward and the flower gets fertilized.

While I’m not advocating the nurture of mosquitoes in your garden (the females do suck blood and can carry disease, after all!), it’s noteworthy that mosquitoes, like all insects, do have a role in natural systems. Their primary source of food is flower nectar (with males eating nothing but nectar) and they buzzily and incidentally carry pollen from flower to flower. Plants like goldenrod (Solidago spp.) use mosquitoes as pollinators, as do orchids of northern latitudes, grasses, and many other types of plants. And they are a source of food for birds, fish, amphibians, spiders, bats, dragonfly larvae, and other animals.

How you can help a variety of pollinators

Within our increasingly fragmented landscapes, gardens that provide pollen and nectar-rich plants—as well as nesting and overwintering sites—can create critical habitat and connections for pollinators and other creatures. No space is too small, and when in close proximity to other larger gardens, natural areas, or greenways that sustain native plant populations appropriate to the region, their value deepens.

◊ Choose natives that occur naturally in your area, or at the very least heirloom ornamentals (rather than newer hybrids that may not provide sufficient or appropriate nutrients that native species do). Some garden herbs like cilantro, parsley, and dill attract some pollinators when allowed to flower.

◊ Avoid nonnative invasive species like “butterfly bush” (Buddleia davidii) that sound good, but aren’t.

◊ Provide structure and layering in the form of native trees and shrubs that provide food, cover and nesting sites for various pollinators.

Syrphid _ Eumerus sp.

Syrphid fly (Eumerus sp.) on Sedum spathulifolium, a west coast native.

◊ Plan for continuous flowering, spring through fall. Early spring nectar is particularly important for early-emerging queen bumble bees and other solitary bees, as well as flies and beetles.

◊ Choose a variety of plants that differ in the size, shape, and color of blossoms to attract a variety of pollinators. Arrange perennials in drifts or swaths of at least three of a kind, rather than singly here and there. And don’t forget that trees and shrubs produce flowers!

◊ Stay away from pesticides and other chemicals. Insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers are particularly harmful to sensitive pollinators. Don’t purchase plants pre-treated with neonicotinoids; if you’re unsure, ask.

◊ Don’t be too neat. Leaf litter, dead wood (tree snags or piles of branches), and other natural detritus provide essential habitat, nesting materials, and overwintering sites for adult pollinators or their eggs, larvae, or pupae. And allow some bare soil for pollinators that nest in the ground.

◊ Grow lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) host plants that provide food and habitat for their young. Find out which species frequent your area and grow the native plants that they need to breed.

◊ Provide shallow water and some moist soil. A shallow pie plate or flowerpot saucer, filled with clean gravel or small rocks allow insects to drink without drowning. Also, butterflies and moths need muddy or sandy puddles to obtain water and nutrients. Add a dash of salt to be sure male Lepidoptera get enough sodium prior to mating.

Please see this post for more detailed info on supporting pollinators in all their life stages.

© Eileen M. Stark 2016

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Attract Ladybird Beetles (“Ladybugs”) to Your Northwest Garden Humanely

_MG_2279

The Western blood-red ladybird beetle (Cycloneda polita) — one of about 90 species throughout the Pacific Northwest and about 6,000 species worldwide — is tiny (4 to 5 mm), but like most others in the Coccinellidae family, is a voracious consumer of aphids, scale insects, and mites; a few species eat fungi. Revered for centuries due to their role as a pest controller, ladybird beetles at one time were even thought to have supernatural powers. The “lady” for whom they were named was the “Virgin Mary.” Once you have these native predators in your garden you’ll want to keep them, and there’s an easy way to do that.

But first, a little about these endearing little insects, the vast majority of which are beneficial: The most obvious ladybird beetles (often called “ladybugs” in North America, although they are not true bugs) evolved a brightly colored shell to exhibit what biologists call aposematic (warning) coloration, which functions to repel and warn predators that they taste awful (due to production of toxic and unpalatable alkaloids). The “eyespots” on their pronotum (that covers the thorax) are a form of mimicry, possibly to further fool a predator by appearing dangerous, or by adding to the inedibility factor. Their actual face is the tiny black and white portion with brown antennae that you can see in the photo above. The Western blood-red ladybird beetle is plain and without spots, but some species have remarkable color patterns that vary greatly and make identification difficult. Other species lack dramatic coloration.

Life Cycle
Adults are commonly seen on plants in spring and summer, foraging for small invertebrate prey (often aphids), although they will eat nectar, water, or honeydew (the sugary secretion from insects like aphids and white flies) when food is scarce. They overwinter by hibernating in large clusters, often spending the winter under leaf litter, rocks, downed wood, or other debris. If they get into your house in autumn as temperatures plummet, please don’t kill them. Since they need cool temperatures and moisture during the winter (which our homes lack), gently place them back outside under fallen leaves. In hard to reach places (like ceilings) I suggest fastening a piece of lightweight fabric (perhaps a lightweight sock or piece of nylon stocking) onto the end of a vacuum cleaner hose with a rubber band, so that an inch or two of fabric protrudes into the hose. Then, with the power turned down as low as possible, quickly suck them into the fabric, gently remove the fabric with the beetles, and release them under a pile of leaves outdoors. To help prevent future interlopers, caulk cracks and crevices around doors and windows and repair any damaged siding that’s allowing them to get in.

Ladybird beetle larvae are long and flat and are usually covered with little spines, spots and stripes, and resemble tiny alligators. Though sometimes erroneously mistaken for pests, they are completely harmless to humans. Usually found in or near aphid colonies, they feed voraciously on insects for several weeks, then pupate on leaves. Some species produce several generations per year, while others have only one. During the summer, all stages may be seen.

How to Acquire
The best way to get these hungry predators into your garden is not to purchase them, but to provide native habitat and not use any insecticides. The food that they need comes from native plants that naturally attract insect herbivores. In my yard I notice Cycloneda polita (pictured) feeding on lupine (Lupinus spp.), western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), fleabane (Erigeron spp.), honeysuckle vines (Lonicera ciliosa and L. hispidula), and this year for the first time, aspen trees (which are also attracting birds like bushtits and kinglets who love to eat aphids).Western blood-red ladybird beetle

Don’t buy them
In the early 1900’s, literally tons of Asian beetles were collected and shipped to agricultural fields. Tragically, over half died during shipments and most of the rest quickly dispersed before the wretched experiment finally ended. Today, ladybird beetles are again popular, but beware the ramifications. According to Judy and Peter Haggard, authors of “Insects of the Pacific Northwest” (Timber Press, 2006), the commercial exploitation of ladybird beetles involves collecting them while they are hibernating, which can be devastating to their populations. “Those innocent-looking mesh bags … in the local garden shop actually represent a cruel and unconscionable practice: Ladybird beetles sold in retail stores are usually exposed to high temperatures, low humidity, and no food for weeks. Even if they survive until bought and released, they are often so weakened, they die soon after being released.” And the ones who do survive usually quickly disperse to areas other than your yard. Bottom line: Don’t purchase them.

To add to the destruction, beetles sold commercially are usually not native species and, as such, are a serious threat to native insect species, including native lady beetles. According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, “Even species native to North America but collected outside of Oregon should not be released because they may carry diseases and parasites not found in Oregon.”

 

© Eileen M. Stark 2016

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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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Killer Windows: How to Help Stop Bird Collisions

Varied thrush


When I read a recent post
from my local wildlife rehab center announcing that they’ve been caring for four varied thrushes in their facility—all injured by window collisions—it got me thinking. This winter I’ve seen just one of these gorgeous birds in our yard. Might others have been victims of window collisions? I certainly hope not, but the rehab center reportedly takes in several hundred window victims each year, and it’s not hard to imagine that countless others die out of sight, often slowly and painfully. Certain species—such as thrushes, cedar waxwings, warblers and woodpeckers—are more likely to fly into reflective glass, and migratory species are also at high risk, as well as birds like herons and owls. According to Audubon Society of Portland, “Whether the species is rare or common, young or old, resident or migratory, most birds are at risk of collision-related injury or death.”

Studies conclude that the more glass on a structure, the greater the chance of mortality, and windows that reflect vegetation create more risk.

Photo courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Photo courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

A billion deaths a year
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not unusual for birds to collide with windows. In fact, ornithologists say that bird fatality by collision with manmade structures is second only to habitat loss that’s brought on by agriculture, industrial forestry, urban development, invasive species, and climate change. The number of deaths due to window strikes is appalling: An estimated one billion birds die each year from encounters with reflective surfaces in North America! Birds who don’t die quickly from injury may suffer slow, painful deaths or become easy prey for predators. Many bird species, such as the elusive varied thrush, are already in steep decline, and deaths by collision only exacerbate the problem. And it’s getting worse—as urban areas grow, the quantity and size of obstacles increase and natural habitats degrade. Stopover habitat for migratory birds is getting smaller and smaller and more fragmented as humans encroach on what used to be grassland, wetland, shoreline, and the like.

Large urban buildings may be the most notorious killers, but any unobstructed, reflective window can kill and large rural structures are the most problematic: A study in Biological Conservation confirmed that rural buildings are worse than urban skyscrapers because they happen to be right where birds forage. The authors surveyed 40 college campuses across the continent and discovered that sites with abundant shrubs and trees in a 160-foot radius were the deadliest. Furthermore, since many birds travel along undeveloped migration routes, well lit towns and office parks they come across have a greater chance of distracting them. There is also speculation that there may be an innate behavioral difference among rural and city bird populations, with urban birds possibly having learned to avoid windows and other structures following a few non-fatal crashes. Rural birds would lack that training, which could make them more vulnerable. This would explain why thrushes and woodpeckers would be some of the most vulnerable species, since they adapted to forest environments.

What they see
Birds don’t see window glass and shiny or mirrored office buildings like we do. They see a reflection of trees, shrubs, and sky that appears to be a clear path, and consequently fly into it. tree reflection in windowMoreover, some fruit-eating species may get intoxicated by eating fermented berries and are more likely to hit windows while flying drunk.

Or, birds may see through clear glass (such as two corner windows perpendicular to each other, a solarium, or a bus shelter) and are deceived into flying right through as they try to get to vegetative cover that they see beyond the glass. Reportedly, this can also happen if indoor plants are situated right next to windows.

Some species (such as robins and bushtits) see their reflection during breeding season, view it as an intruder to their territory, and actually attack the glass—I’ve seen it happen. This territorial behavior can be intense, but they usually aren’t seriously injured (unlike the other situations). These territorial strikes can also happen at car windows.

How you can help
Because windows are everywhere, it’s easy to think that the problem is too overwhelming to do anything about. But any bird-friendly change you make to your property’s windows can help. Especially if your good intentions attract birds to your yard—with feeders and/or native plants—or you’ve noticed birds hitting your windows, it ought to be compulsory.

Bird strikes often follow a pattern, with the same windows repeatedly struck. If you have a lot of windows, take some time to identify which windows are problematic, paying attention to bird attractants like food, water, and cover. Look at your windows from a bird’s point of view. 

Most of the following remedies work either by blocking reflective glass or making it visible to birds by giving them visual cues. Sheer curtains and blinds closed part way may help cut down on reflection, but they don’t fully eliminate it, so don’t rely on interior remedies. Silhouettes placed on the inside of windows do not work because birds still see the reflection.

DIY suggestions:
♦  Locate all bird feeders and bird baths at least 30 feet from windows, a distance that allows birds to see that windows are part of a house. Or, keep them very close—within 2 feet—to reduce the chance of high impact collisions. If that doesn’t help, either add additional protections or remove the feeders or baths altogether.
♦  If any of your windows have a clear view through your house to another window, create an obstruction (such as curtains) that blocks what may appear to birds to be a flight path.
♦  Keep taut window screens on year round if you have them, or consider adding them. Screens block reflections considerably and soften any impact. Keeping your windows dirty may also help!
♦ Make your own “zen wind curtains,” which are practical and effective and don’t look the least bit odd.
♦ Apply patterns (a few inches apart) with soap on the outside of windows—use stencils found at craft stores, or make your own. The patterns can be wiped off and redone when necessary. They are very inexpensive but may may be impractical for windows that receive rain or are hard to reach.
♦ For birds who fight with their reflection, simply hang a cloth or apply some masking tape to the area for a few days to break the bird of the habit.
♦ Be sure that blinds, shades and/or shutters are in place and closed to reduce nighttime light that attracts and confuses birds.

Products for purchase:
♦ Decals that reflect ultra-violet wavelengths of light—which birds can see but we can’t—are applied to the outside of windows. Follow manufacturers instructions for adequate coverage (aim for 80%), generally a few inches apart. Some examples include Window Alert (pictured) and BirdTape,  which provide a stoplight for birds. In direct sunlight, decals will need to be replaced more often than in shade, so be sure to keep track of when you put them up. If you have a lot of windows to cover, BirdTape is more economical and may last longer. UV decals placed on outside of window
♦ Films like CollidEscape, that appear opaque to birds but transparent to you, are applied to the outside of windows.
♦ Feather Friendly adhesive dots are applied on the exterior of windows in a “frit” pattern.
♦ External awnings or sun shades help minimize both reflection and transparency.

Architectural solutions:
Planning on remodeling or building a new home? Are you an architect or developer? The Resource Guide for Bird-Friendly Building Design is a comprehensive publication that offers excellent info and workable solutions for reducing collisions in commercial areas as well as residential. Also check out the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird-Friendly Building Design and the City of Toronto’s Bird-Friendly Best Practices: Glass. All are well worth a read.

Other important recommendations:
At night, turn off lights in office buildings (all levels), especially during spring and fall migrations. At home, pull your shades or draw draperies, and install motion censors on outdoor lighting, rather than leaving lights on at night. All of this prevents disorientation of migratory birds traveling at night and cuts down on other negative effects of artificial light pollution.


If you find a bird on the ground near a window: Slowly and gently cover and catch the bird with a lightweight, soft cloth and carefully place it in a small box (such as a shoebox) that has air holes and is lined with a soft cloth or paper towels rolled into a doughnut shape to keep the bird upright. Handle the bird as little as possible and keep the box securely closed. Do not give food or water. Place the box in a quiet, dark, and pleasantly warm place, away from other animals, noise, and children. If the bird has an obvious injury like a cracked bill or dangling wing, transport it immediately (in the darkened box ) to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator—broken bones need attention quickly. If there are no obvious injuries, quietly check on the bird several times over one to two hours—outside and away from human activity and buildings in case the bird can fly—but don’t touch it. If the bird develops swollen eyes or becomes unresponsive during the hour, quickly transport it to a wildlife rehabilitator. If the bird seems alert and can stand on its own, place the box in a quiet spot and open it. Move away, remain still and out of sight, and wait. If s/he doesn’t fly away within 5 or 10 minutes, carefully and quietly take the bird to a wildlife rehabilitator. Remember that, other than transporting a bird to a rehabilitator, it is illegal to handle migratory birds without a license.


 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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A Winter Delight: Licorice Fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza)

Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza)

When many Northwest ferns have said adiós to most of their aboveground growth and have nearly left the stage, enter licorice fern. If you have it in your yard you might forget it’s there until the soft rains of autumn release it from its dormancy. Then — when you least expect it — bright green, featherlike fronds (to about 12 inches) gradually appear to help brighten the landscape all winter long. Although licorice fern may stay evergreen where it is well established, out of harsh sunlight, and receives some moisture in the form of mist or from a watering can, it is typically a summer deciduous plant. It is a primary producer for other inhabitants within the ecosystem, including insects, birds, and other animals.

Its botanical name, Polypodium glycyrrhiza, means “many footed” and “sweet root,” and refers to creeping rhizomes that taste like licorice (which I’ve yet to try). Native Americans used the rhizome to sweeten foods and unpalatable medicines, but they also used it as medicine itself, to treat sore throats and upper respiratory infections. Modern herbalists use it for similar purposes.

How it grows Licorice fern on American elm
Licorice fern is one of those multitalented plants that occurs naturally in several habitats. The next time you walk under a massive, mature deciduous native tree like big-leaf maple or even a nonnative giant, such as American elm (native to the eastern U.S.), look upwards and there’s a good chance you’ll find it growing as an epiphyte on trunk and branch bark, particularly in crotches or on horizontal limbs that usually stay wetter than vertical ones. But it’s also found hugging dead or dying wood like logs and stumps, and as a lithophyte in rocky outcrops and mossy ledges (pictured, below).

Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza)

 

 

 

Licorice fern naturally occurs in cooler parts of the Pacific Northwest (west of the Cascades) and near the California coast (as well as small sections of the Sierra Nevada), at low elevations. Disjunct populations in Idaho and Arizona are listed as imperiled.

 

 

Rescue mission
The ferns that now grace my yard were rescued from mature street trees that had the misfortune of being cut down or blown down in my neighborhood. The trees’ upper branches were nearly covered with the ferns, so when the fallen limbs were in the street awaiting transport, I peeled off bark adorned with the featherlike fronds, their roots firmly and securely attached to the bark. Sections of the leafy mats were placed under native shrubs and in shaded rocky areas in my yard, where the soil is fairly rich and slightly acidic, and where moss grows readily (and not too far from the hose, since I figured they would need to be kept moist for a couple of summers). I also placed some logs (leftover from fruit tree prunings) under or immediately next to those without the company of rocks. Now the mats have come to life again, and I think they are quite settled in, judging by a new little plant that’s appeared about 10 feet from its parents—spores are in the air!

Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza)Try it at home
If you’d like to try growing licorice fern in your yard, pick a spot that’s naturally mossy, since most areas that support moss ought to be able to support this fern. And be sure that you can get to it easily with a watering can while the plants are young; they will need to be kept moist—but not saturated—until they’re established, at which time they will become self-sufficient (except during exceptionally hot periods when dormant plants will appreciate an occasional splash of water).

If moss isn’t growing in your garden, try to nestle a plant between shaded, half-buried rocks that have been enhanced with a slightly acidic, humusy and well-draining soil amendment like leaf mold. Or, try licorice fern’s close relation, Polypodium hesperium—it can take drier conditions and grows naturally in rocky places on both sides of the Cascades. Its short stature makes it a lovely addition to nooks and crannies of stone walls, as well as a candidate for creeping through a mostly shaded rock garden. Licorice fern’s other Northwest relative, P. scouleri, is a leathery-leaved gem that grows along the foggy coastline from British Columbia, south into California. But it is reportedly difficult to cultivate so should just be left alone to bask in the ocean’s salty mist.

As always, buy all native plants from reputable nurseries and never harvest from the wild. Or, rescue them from doomed situations, preferably at a time that will benefit the transition.

© 2015 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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Best Early Spring-Flowering Shrubs for Pacific Northwest Pollinators

Ribes sanguineum

Plan ahead for hungry native pollinators who need early-flowering plants like red-flowering currant to survive.

 

April showers may bring May flowers, but what about providing forage for hungry pollinators that need food earlier in the year? To provide large amounts of nectar and pollen in late winter and early spring for emerging bees as well as hummingbirds and other pollinators, to help you endure the gray winter skies and store carbon, and to get the most bang from your buck, add early-flowering native shrubs to your garden. Get new shrubs in the ground preferably in autumn—so the plants benefit from winter rains, and to ensure that you have the early part of a continuous succession of flowers covered.

Here are five early-flowering shrubs (plus one shrubby tree that’s pollinated by wind), listed in order of size from largest to smallest, that naturally occur in large areas of the Pacific Northwest region west of the Cascades. They grow in sun to partial shade, are fairly easy to find at native plant nurseries (as well as nurseries that don’t focus on natives), and are quite easy to grow, provided they are kept adequately moist until they are established (2 to 5 years). All would do well planted in wide, unpruned hedgerows. When choosing any shrub, note its eventual width to be sure you have enough space for it to stretch its limbs and attain its natural form at maturity—and to eliminate future hack jobs by a pruner. 

Buy plants that are responsibly 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 that genetic diversity—which helps plants (and animals) adapt to changing conditions—is preserved. Ask growers and nurseries about their sources.

Salix scoulerianaScouler’s willow (Salix scouleriana): A fast-growing deciduous shrub or small tree. Flowers are soft catkins, larger than horticultural “pussy willows,” and appear in early to mid-spring. Male and female flowers are on different plants, so grow both for seeds. Scouler willow is a larval host plant for several butterfly species. Does not tolerate full shade. Prefers moist soil. 20-30 feet tall by 10-15 feet wide at maturity. 

 

Oemleria cerasiformis

 

Osoberry (Oemleria cerasiformis): A large, arching deciduous shrub or small tree that blooms prolifically in late winter as leaves emerge. Tolerates clay soil well, but does best with some shade (nature places it in the dappled shade of tall trees). Plants are either male or female, so plant several to produce the fruit that birds need. 12-18 feet by 10-14 feet at maturity.

Amelanchier alnifolia

 

 

Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): A versatile, multibranched shrub with lovely white, fragrant flowers in mid to late spring. Bluish-green leaves turn gold to reddish in autumn. Larval host plant for several butterfly species. Needs well-drained soil with adequate organic matter. Tolerates full sun in cool areas. Doesn’t like competition, so plant other shrubs and perennials at least several feet away. 8-18 feet tall by 6-10 feet wide at maturity.


Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum)
: An upright, deciduous shrub with nearly year-round appeal. Gorgeous, pendulous, lightly fragrant flower clusters (pictured, top) that bloom in early spring are followed by powder-blue berries. Leaves turn golden in late autumn. Larval host plant for butterfly larvae. Controls erosion. Can’t handle excessively wet soils, so be sure soil drains well and plant it away from rain gardens and other drainage areas.  7-10 feet tall by 6-9 feet wide at maturity. More info in this post


Mahonia aquifoliumTall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium)
: A handsome, multitalented evergreen shrub with an upright growth habit. Bursts into flower brilliantly in early to mid-spring, for a long period. Tolerates acidic soils. Has somewhat prickly evergreen leaves, so site it where it won’t be brushed against frequently. 5-9 feet tall by 3-6 feet wide. Will spread slowly. More info in this post.

 

The earliest winter bloomer is the handsome beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), a beautifully textured, large multistemmed woodland shrub or small tree that grows to 10-20 feet tall by 10-20 feet wide. It is pollinated by wind, not animals. More info here.

After planting
Add a few inches of organic matter as mulch around the shrub (but keep away from trunk) to insulate, keep weeds down, and add nutrients. Fallen leaves work well, as does weed-free compost. If you use wood chips, make sure they aren’t finely ground and/or fresh, and don’t dig them into soil—under-composted chips and bark can deplete soil of nitrogen during breakdown. Later on, simply allow fallen leaves to remain on soil to provide habitat and nutrients.

All of these shrubs are drought tolerant when established (although Scouler willow does best with supplemental summer water), but they will appreciate some irrigation in very hot situations. They should need little to no pruning if they’ve been sited to allow room for their growth.

If you already grow any of these shrubs, I’d love to hear what wild species you’ve seen attracted to them. Or how much they brighten your garden on drab winter days?


© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Autumn Leaves Benefit Your Garden in Countless Ways

 

leaves

 

Leaves offer great benefits to wildlife and your garden’s soil. Don’t throw them away!

In another post I extol the virtues of letting leaves do their thing. By that I mean allowing them to do what nature intended: Protect and enrich the soil, offer food for ground-feeding birds, provide a nursery for butterfly larvae/pupae and cover for overwintering queen bumblebees and other beneficial insects and microbes, afford animals like frogs and salamanders places to hunt and Varied thrush foraginghide, and myriad other ingenious things. Leaf litter breaks down with the help of mycorrhizal fungi that move carbon into soil, extract nutrients for plants and protect them from disease, lessen soil erosion, and play a very important role in storing the gigantic pool of carbon within soil.

I’m not sure how leaves got such a bad reputation—I constantly see and hear people blowing them and raking them not only from hardscape and lawn (which is understandable), but also from bare soil. I’m not sure what the aversion is, unless it’s another kind of “biophobia,” in this case a fear of organic materials. Another no-no is putting leaves in the trash, which ends up in landfills. The US EPA says that nationwide, 13 percent, or 33 million tons of municipal solid waste is from leaves and grass and tree/shrub trimmings. Here in Portland, as well as some other cities, there is curbside pickup for green waste for those who don’t compost, and the city picks up leaves from the streets of leafy neighborhoods every autumn to make leaf compost that residents can purchase for a modest fee. But using them in your yard is even better!

How to do it: For areas like driveways, walks, sewer grates and drainage pathways, rake them up (but please don’t use noisy, polluting leaf blowers), and use them as follows:

Mulch your beds.Take raked leaves from hardscape and lawn and place them in your planted beds, a couple of inches thick to protect the soil and provide insulation from the cold (if you live in a very cold climate, add more). Keep them off of tree and shrub trunks and perennial crowns to prevent rot. Try to do your raking on a non-windy day and consider moistening them after you apply them if it’s a dry day. Don’t shred leaves before applying—it won’t help the wildlife described above.

If you must have lawn, leave small amounts of leaves on it and mulch them in situ. Use your mower to shred leaves on grass to improve lawn health by naturally fertilizing the soil. Freshly fallen leaves are high in minerals, and don’t kill soil organisms like synthetic fertilizers do.

Make leaf compost. Collect leaves to compost separately to make leaf compost (also known as leaf mold), a great soil conditioner. If you have a lot of space, simply round them up into piles and let nature break them down with fungus and microscopic creatures. Shredding large leaves will speed up the process. If space is lacking or you want more control, create round chicken wire enclosures and fill them with leaves. You can also dig large depressions and fill them with Homemade compostleaves. Keep piles moist (but not completely saturated) and add more leaves as they sink down. During excessively rainy periods, consider covering the pile. In a year or more (depending on the type of leaves used), after the leaves have broken down, you will have some very dark, crumbly humus to add to your veggie beds and other places that need high quality soil.

Add leaves to your mixed compost bins, heaps, or cages. In your mixed compost bin, add collected leaves—which are mostly carbon—to help balance the “greens” (compost should be roughly half “greens” and half “browns”). Consider storing extra leaves and adding them to your compost bin throughout future months.

Save some for spring. If you have a large amount of leaves, put some aside—or just take some from your leaf compost heap—to use as mulch next year. Mulch applied in spring, after the soil warms, helps maintain soil moisture and protects the soil from oxidation. Be sure to leave some soil bare though, because the majority of native bees nest in the ground and cannot get through thick layers of mulch.

One word of caution: Leaf compost generally makes the soil slightly more acidic. This won’t be a problem for most Pacific Northwest native species, which evolved in slightly acidic soil. But when using leaf compost in vegetable beds, test your soil’s pH—it may need a bit of lime to keep the soil neutral or slightly alkaline, which many cultivated vegetable plants need.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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New Study: Non-native Plants Reduce Insect Diversity

Acer circinatum (vine maple)

Natives like vine maple (Acer circinatum), surpass nonnatives for restoring biodiversity


As if we need further proof
, a new study published recently in Ecology Letters demonstrates that native plants are much better at supporting local insects than nonnative species, and that nonnative plants are exacerbating biodiversity loss with their inability to support many insect herbivores.

The researchers planted test gardens with both native and nonnative tree species and collected data over a three-year period. They measured the insect herbivore species and communities that were using the plants, and compared native trees to nonnative trees of two types: Those with close native relatives in the region and those that had no close native relatives.

They found that nonnative trees with a native relative (in the PNW, think nonnative scarlet oak, which is related to the native Garry oak) host and support fewer species of insects than the native counterpart, and that few of them were unique to that species of tree. The result was even more striking with nonnative trees that had no native relative in the region (such as golden chain tree, a European species).

The study also found that young insects, which are most supportive of an ecosystem, were found on the native trees. Adult insects, on the other hand, may be found on plants, but for various reasons—to rest, to warm themselves, breed, etc.

Essentially, when the diversity of insect herbivores—which are the basis of the food web—plummet, so too do all the species that rely on them for food. If you’re not particularly fond of insects, think of them as baby food: In spring and early summer, when insect eggs are hatching and larvae are feeding, most birds are wholly dependent on insects to feed to their young, as well as to keep their own strength up. And most other wild species rely on insect herbivores in one way or another. Even predators like bobcats need native plants, since they feed on wildlife that need insects and/or native plants to survive. 

So, this is more evidence that natives are the answer for restoring biodiversity, while most nonnatives are problematic. When selecting plant material—even in an urban area—choose plants that help the environment and its community members. Go for the native oaks, pines, maples, willows, etc., with their plethora of insects. There’s almost always a native option!

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Northwest Native Pollinator Plants for Late Summer to Fall

Late season pollinator plants

Scientists know that bees are dying for a variety of reasons—pesticides, habitat destruction, drought, climate change, nutrition deficit, air pollution, and so on, which makes us the obvious perpetrator. We can help give back to them (and other pollinators) by growing flowering native plants in our gardens (as well as noninvasive exotics that step in when a native plant isn’t available or feasible), with consecutive blooms from early spring till fall. To provide for many different types of pollinators—from long and short-tongued bumblebees to syrphid flies, hummingbirds, and beetles—offer a variety of flower shapes, colors, and sizes, with smaller plants in groups of at least three of the same species (like a big, obvious “Eat Here” sign). Fragrance is also important for attracting insects to flowers and guiding them to food within the flower, and aiding an insect’s ability to efficiently learn particular food sources.

Below are some native perennials and one shrub that offer food for pollinators from mid or late summer to fall in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades. There are more candidates, but I chose these species because they naturally occur in fairly large parts of the region, are generally easy to grow, and are not too hard to find at nurseries (although you will likely have to call around for availability). I’ve listed them alphabetically with some very basic care guidelines. It’s best to plant them in the fall, just before or as the rain returns.

As always, plan ahead and choose species that fit your light, moisture, and soil conditions, but also choose those that are appropriate to the natural landscape—that is, look to nearby natural areas, and add flora that would likely have grown in your area historically, if possible. You can also check a species’ natural range (to county level) here, or check with your local native plant society chapter or county soil and water conservation district. No fertilizer is necessary and please don’t use any pesticides. Keep them adequately hydrated—by watering deeply and infrequently to promote deep roots—until they’re established (2 to 5 years). Enjoy!

Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis (Yarrow): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Not fussy about soil; moist or dry. Spreads by rhizomes or seed. Flat-topped clusters of white, fragrant flowers (pictured below) bloom through late summer. (Not to be confused with the Eurasian Achillea millefolium var. millefolium). Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis

Anaphalis margaritacea (Pearly everlasting): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Likes moist soil with good drainage, but can tolerate drought once established. Pure white flowers are often used in dried flower arrangements. Besides providing nectar, it is a host plant for painted lady and skipper butterflies.

Baccharis pilularis (Coyotebush): Evergreen or semi-evergreen shrub. 5-8 feet tall x 6-8 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Tolerates poor soils (but needs good drainage) and is drought tolerant. Flowers aren’t showy and are borne on separate male and female plants (male flowers creamy white; female pale green). Excellent wildlife habitat plant but is deer resistant.

048_Campanula rotundiflora sRGBCampanula rotundifolia (common harebell): Perennial. 1-2 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Moist to dry, well-drained soil, preferably with a good amount of organic matter. Spreads slowly by rhizomes or seed. Bell-shaped, bluish violet flowers typically bloom through late summer. (pictured left)

Gaillardia aristata (blanketflower): Perennial (short-lived). 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to light shade. Tolerates a variety of well-drained soils; drought tolerant when established. Spreads by seed. Colorful yellow and reddish orange flowers bloom well into fall, especially when dead-headed. Deer resistant.

Solidago canadensis (Goldenrod): Perennial. 2-4 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Solidago canadensisTolerates wide range of soils; prefers moisture but tolerates drought when established. Spreads by rhizomes or seed. Bright gold, fragrant inflorescences typically bloom well into fall. (pictured right)

Symphyotrichum subspicatum (Douglas aster): Perennial. 2-3 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Does best in moist soil that is rich in organic matter. Spreads slowly by rhizomes and seed. Lavender-blue daisylike flowers bloom from mid summer until mid fall. (pictured below)

 

 

Douglas aster

 

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Damselflies: Live Fast and Die Young

northern bluet

This bright and handsome damselfly, resting on a stem of a columbine plant in my garden, is a male Northern bluet (Enallagma annexum), one of 466 species of damselflies and dragonflies found in North America. They make up the two main subdivisions of a very distinctive group of insects known as Odonata (Greek for tooth), which refers to their powerful and sharply toothed jaws, adapted for biting and chewing their prey.

Damselflies can be distinguished from dragonflies by their smaller size and their position when at rest: Damselflies typically hold their bodies horizontally, with their tear drop-shaped wings neatly and elegantly folded together over their abdomen, while dragonflies generally hold their wings flatly, outstretched and perpendicular to their body.

I’ve wondered about the common names. Since “damsel” conjures up an image of a fair maiden—most likely in distress—I imagine that the damselfly was so named because it is more delicate looking than a dragonfly and isn’t as tough and strong a flyer. Plus, proverbial dragons kept damsels in their caves, didn’t they? But now we need to ask, why are dragonflies called what they are? According to a 1958 book by Eden Emanuel entitled Folklore of the Dragonfly, it’s theorized that the common name emerged due to an ancient Romanian folktale, in which the devil turned a beautiful horse ridden by a saint into a giant flying insect. The Romanians supposedly called this giant insect (when translated into English) “St. George’s Horse” or “Devil’s Horse.” Peasants probably considered the Devil’s Horse a giant fly, and it’s surmised that they started referring to it as “Devil’s Fly.” Emanuel concluded that the Romanian name for Devil’s Fly was erroneously translated into English as Dragon Fly and this then evolved into the present-day “dragonfly.”

Gradual Metamorphosis

The female Northern bluet is generally greenish-yellow or tan, with a black abdomen. She lays her eggs in submerged vegetation; upon hatching—typically late spring to early fall—the young nymphs (or naiads) are small and wingless, but fully functional, so they don’t go through larval or pupal stages like most other insects do. Nymphs spend their time (often years) underwater in bogs, lakes, ponds, or rivers, where they molt (shed their skin) about a dozen times while growing. Fierce predators of aquatic organisms, they hide in submerged vegetation and attack the larvae of smaller insects such as mosquitoes and mayflies. When they are about an inch long, they crawl out of the water onto rocks or grasses and such. After a brief sunbath, their skin splits down the back and they struggle to pull themselves out of their shabby old skin one last time. Voila! Metamorphosis complete, they are now all grown up and it’s time to inflate their new wings and abdomen and harden fresh legs, all of which likely takes a lot of energy. Adults generally live less than two weeks, breeding and feeding—just enough time to live fast and die young.

Like dragonflies, damselflies’ large, bulging eyes have thousands of honeycomb-shaped lenses that give them an ability to see in all directions and make them formidable predators of other insects. Adults are swift aerial hunters, typically preying on mosquitoes, small moths, and various flies. Fascinating research shows that Odonata don’t dive and turn in reaction to their prey’s movements—instead, they are able to predict those movements before they happen. But what goes around comes around: Both damselfly nymphs and adults are consumed by birds, frogs, fish, and, yes, dragonflies.  Northern bluet

Conservation

Dragonflies and damselflies go way back, pre-dating dinosaurs by at least 75 million years. Fossils of ancient ancestors dating roughly 300 million years ago were gigantic—the largest insects ever to live—with wingspans of about 30 inches! Northern bluets are somewhat common damselflies, often found near freshwater—streams, rivers, and other watery places (even human-made ponds)—but their dependence on it makes them very vulnerable.

All damselflies and dragonflies are good indicators of the diversity and health of aquatic ecosystems, their presence suggesting that a body of water is fairly unpolluted. Destruction or alteration of wetland habitats, pollution, and pesticides are the greatest threats to Odonata species worldwide. Without clean water they cannot breed, and without insect life they cannot eat. Needless to say, as long as humans continue to allow alteration of their habitat through climate chaos, there will likely be a severe threat to future populations.

On pleasant, sunny days I often notice dragonflies and damselflies patrolling my organic, “real” garden. Should these brainy little hunters find their way into yours, consider yourself very fortunate!

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Drought’s No Fun for Wildlife, Either

Bushtits at gradually sloping birdbath

Here in the Pacific Northwest (as well as the interior Northwest, northern Rockies and northern California) we’re experiencing a hot and early summer. Nearly everything’s been premature—most trees leafed out several weeks before they typically do and herbaceous plants popped up ahead of time; those that flower were more than punctual. My raspberries and thimbleberries were three weeks early, and I’m picking apples now that usually ripen several weeks from now. Portland set a record for a dry June and will likely break another this week for the highest number of consecutive days over 90˚.

The winter was pleasantly mild and precipitation was paltry: Snowpack in Oregon was 11% of normal and Washington’s was 16%. If the current drought and dry heat makes us thirsty, we’re not alone. Nearly all of life’s processes require water in one form or another—it’s essential for everything from small insects to birds to bobcats. Of course, areas further south are much more drought stricken, with wildlife emaciated and dehydrated. Some say it will only worsen, due to climate change.IMG_6764

Drought causes many deadly, far-reaching effects for wildlife, including less food and cover, increased vulnerability to predators and diseases, competition with others of their kind, and more conflicts with people as they desperately search for food and water outside their normal range. Although some animals obtain moisture from their prey, they still depend on water in the environment to provide for those they need to eat. Tiny creatures may find enough in dew droplets, but many species require additional water to survive. Birds, for example, need water to drink of course, but also to bathe in to help keep their feathers clean and waterproof—essential for insulation and flight.

Dehydration is dangerous for everyone. If you want to help wild visitors in your yard, below are some quick, easy options. Artificial ponds can be a wonderful addition to larger gardens, but they aren’t quick and easy, so they’re not included here.

Scrub jay takes a drinkBirdbaths: Birdbaths that slope gradually are best because all sizes of visitors can wade in to a safe and comfortable depth. If you already have one that has steep sides, place some flat rocks on one side to create a shallow area. Site birdbaths in open areas, at least 10 feet from any hiding places were domesticated predators could lurk. Use hanging birdbaths whenever possible if predation is a problem in your yard. And keep them as clean as possible: Replace the water every day or two (this will also keep mosquitoes from breeding) and give them a good scrubbing every few weeks, but don’t use bleach.

Mud puddles: Most butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera), as well as some types of insects and birds, require moist soil or sand to obtain essential nutrients. Lepidoptera, for example, “sip” earthy cocktails that contain minerals such as salts which are essential for reproduction. Just the other day I saw a Western tiger swallowtail pressing his proboscis into the recently irrigated soil in a community garden plot. Male Lepidoptera give their significant others an extra little gift of minerals while mating which ensures that the largest number of eggs develop. In nature, this “mud puddling,” as it is called, is done at the edges of streams and other moist places. You can mimic this habitat by filling a large ceramic bowl with sand and burying it part way in your garden. Mix in some salt for males and place some round rocks (for landing and basking) around the edges. And don’t be too quick to pick up moist fallen fruit (like figs, should you have them)—some Lepidoptera species can’t resist such fermenting treats. More on feeding butterflies in a future post!

Moist gravel for bugsPlates of moist gravel: Beneficial insects and other small arthropods will sometimes come to shallow birdbaths, but ground dwellers—like beetles—will appreciate a plate or pie pan filled with clean pebbles or gravel and water, and placed on the ground out of hot sunlight. Just be sure the water doesn’t rise above the gravel so that no one drowns.

It looks like we may be in for a very hot summer throughout most of the Northwest. Providing water in your garden will attract wild visitors and maybe even save lives.

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Attract Butterflies with Northwest Native Plants and More

Red admiral butterfly

It’s so delightful when a lovely butterfly (is there any other kind?) floats into our yard. Each year, as soon as June rolls around, I catch glimpses of gorgeous Western tiger swallowtails and orangey Painted ladies flitting here and there, as well as the occasional Mourning Cloak in the vicinity of our octogenarian American elm tree, one of its host plants. This summer I’ve noticed, for the first time, a Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) gliding in now and then. This species is reportedly rather territorial and will stay in one area for days or even weeks, so I hope to see her again. She’s apparently attracted to the heat radiating from the rocks on the west-facing side of our veggie garden, as well as the white trellis that supports our cucumber plants, and this morning she surprised me by landing on the white shirt I was wearing. She was near some native wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) plants growing nearby, but I’m not certain she used them.

Red admirals aren’t very fussy about habitat, but for food they prefer sap from trees, fermented fruit, and bird droppings—yes, you read that right—from which they obtain nutrients, such as amino acids and salts that are necessary physiologically, behaviorally, and ecologically. Many butterfly species and some other insects consume droppings as well, and don’t get me started on the fascinating spider that masquerades as bird poop to hide from predators. Flower nectar is actually a second choice for red admirals, who only forage at flowers—such as aster, milkweed, penstemon, fireweed and wallflower—when sap, fruit, and droppings aren’t available.

Beyond food

But as you may know, butterflies need much more than food to survive and reproduce; they need to be protected during winter and also need “host” plants on which they can lay their eggs. These can’t be just any old plants; they need to be the kind that their larvae can feed on (as their ancestors have done for millennia) as they grow into pupa (chrysalis), that awkward metamorphic stage before adulthood. Some butterflies aren’t terribly picky and may be able to lay their eggs on four or five different plant species, but others, like monarchs and red admirals, can use only one species.

My butterfly reference tells me that red admirals lay their eggs only on plants of the nettle family (Urtica spp.), something I’ve never grown. Uh-oh. As I began pondering where the heck in my yard I could grow it, I suddenly remembered a wonderful nettle soup that I had at an equally wonderful villa on the west coast of Sweden some years back. It’s not only edible; it’s one of those “super foods” that are extremely rich in nutrients and purportedly very cleansing.

So now I’m on a mission to grow some native stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)—maybe a bit for us to eat, but mostly for the butterflies. It turns out that the Satyr comma butterfly also uses only nettle as a host plant, although they are reportedly rather rare in parts of their range and it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever see one in my urban yard. I prefer to grow it myself, so that the wild stuff in wilder places can be left to the butterflies. But first I’ll have to carefully figure out where to plant it … and buy some stinger-proof gloves. Or maybe I should just stick with providing for species that don’t need such outrageously prickly plants.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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10 Great Northwest Native Pollinator Plants for Summer

Bombus vosnesenskii

In honor of National Pollinator Week, let’s zoom in on the bees and other hard-working pollinators whose lives are dictated by weather, season, and the availability of food, nesting habitat, and overwintering sites.

Nature has provided pollinators with unique ways of gathering nutritious pollen and nectar for their young, and they’re enthralling to watch. But bees and other pollinators are in terrible trouble worldwide due to our presence and actions. We can give back to them by growing flowering native plants in our gardens (as well as noninvasive exotics that are especially attractive to bees, like lavender and sunflower) with consecutive blooms from early spring till fall. But don’t forget to provide for them during all their life stages — not just their adult stage — by leaving the leaves, dead wood, and spent flower stalks to make sure they can get through the winter and have habitat to raise their young. And, no pesticides whatsoever!

If you’ve already included some native plants in your yard, you’re well on your way to providing for a wide variety of wildlife. Offering a variety of flower shapes, colors, and sizes, with smaller plants in groups of at least three of the same species (like a big, obvious “Eat” sign) will help provide for many different types of pollinators—from long and short-tongued bumblebees and syrphid flies to hummingbirdsbeetles and thrips. Below are some Pacific Northwest native herbaceous perennials and shrubs that offer food for pollinators from early to mid or late summer in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades.

The list is just a sampling (read about others in my book or within my blog’s PNW native plant profiles), and the species were chosen because they naturally occur in large parts of the region, are generally easy to grow, aren’t too hard to find at native plant nurseries (although you may need to call around for availability), and attract their fair share of native pollinators. I’ve listed them alphabetically with some basic care guidelines. Fall planting is best, as winter rains begin. (If you’re reading this in springtime, don’t worry—you can plant now, but you’ll definitely need to keep an eye on their water needs during the first couple of summers, at the very least.)

As always, plan ahead and choose plants that fit your light, moisture, and soil conditions, but also choose those that are appropriate to the natural landscape—that is, look to nearby natural areas and add flora that likely would have grown in your area historically. You can also search for a species’ natural range (to county level) here, or check with your local native plant society chapter or county soil & water conservation district. Growing them with associated species that evolved alongside them in nature will help them thrive. No fertilizer is necessary (although a one-time addition of compost such as leaf compost to the soil will add some nutrients and improve soil structure), but do keep them adequately hydrated until they’re established (2 to 5 years). Enjoy!

◊ Achillea millefollium var. occidentals (Western yarrow): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Not fussy about soil; moist or dry (will spread faster with more moisture). Spreads by rhizomes and seed. Flat-topped clusters of white, fragrant flowers bloom nearly all summer. (Not to be confused with the Eurasian Achillea millefolium var. millefolium).

Asclepias speciosa or A. fascicularis or A. cordifolia (milkweed) : Perennial. 2-3 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Moist, well-drained soil, but can handle some drought when established. Rounded clusters of soft pink, fragrant flowers. Check out the Xerces Society’s info on milkweed of Oregon and of Washington. (A. fascicularis is pictured, right)Asclepias fascicularis

Campanula rotundifolia (common harebell): Perennial. 1-2 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Well-drained, moist to dryish soil. Spreads slowly by rhizomes or seed. Bell shaped, violet-blue blossoms.

Ceanothus velutinus (snowbrush): Fast growing evergreen shrub. 6-12 feet tall x 6-12 feet wide. Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Rich or poor soil; very drought tolerant. Dense pyramidal clusters of tiny, fragrant white flowers. Occurs mainly at mid to high elevations; check natural occurrence, to county level, here.

Erigeron speciosus (showy fleabane): Perennial. 2 feet tall x 2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Well-drained, moist to dry soil. Lovely and abundant daisy-like, bluish lavender blossoms go nearly all summer. (pictured below)

Erigeron speciosus

Holodiscus discolor (oceanspray, aka cream bush): Fast growing, very attractive deciduous shrub. 8-16 feet tall x 8-12 feet wide (larger on protected sites, smaller on windy, harsh sites). Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Not fussy about soil; moist or dry. Drought tolerant when established. Lavish, feathery plumes of creamy-white flowers in early to mid-summer. Nice for hedgerows. Controls erosion.

 

Lupinus polyphyllus (large-leaved lupine): Perennial. 2-4 feet tall x 2-4 feet wide. Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Moist soil preferred but will tolerate short dry periods. Tall spikes of bluish-purple, pea-like flowers. (pictured, right) Lupinus polyphyllus

Sedum spathulifolium or S. oreganum (stonecrop): Perennial. 1-4 inches tall; spreads slowly. Sun to part sun (afternoon shade is welcome). Well-draining, gritty, lean soil. Bright yellow star-shaped flowers. Nice for rock gardens. Not a ground cover for foot traffic. (S. spathulifolium pictured below)

Symphoricarpos albus (snowberry): Deciduous shrub. 4-6 feet tall x 4-6 feet wide. Sun to mostly shade. Moist or dry soils; tolerates heavy soils. Drought tolerant when established. Tiny, paired, pink, bell-shaped flowers. Eventually forms a thicket. Controls erosion.

Tiaralla trifoliata (foam flower): Perennial. 8-14 inches tall x 1-14 inches wide. Shade to part shade. Spreads very slowly by rhizomes or seed. Needs moist, well-draining soil rich in organic matter. Panicles of white to pale pink flowers bloom from late spring to late summer. More details here.

Sedum spathulifolium with syrphid fly

 

Copyright 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Bear Grass (Xerophyllum tenax)

X. tenax up close

When I mention bear grass, people familiar with the plant usually light up as if its creamy blossoms were right in front of their face. I’m lucky to have one in full bloom right now in my backyard (yes, just one—I have more, but they’re too young to bloom). Bear grass typically takes many years to flower, so I am savoring this one as much as possible. En masse in nature they are quite a vision, and even when not in bloom they make a lovely, luminescent, soil-stabilizing ground cover. But don’t you dare even think about taking even one plant from the wild.

X. tenax on Larch MountainBear grass, a common name for Xerophyllum tenax, comes from observations that bears like to eat the young fleshy stems, and Grizzly bears reportedly have been known to use bear grass leaves in winter dens during hibernation. It’s a popular plant for many other species who use it for food or cover: from bees and beetles to rodents and elk. Though not a true grass, other common names include Indian basket grass, deer grass, elk grass, and soap grass (not sure where the latter came from!).

The botanical name comes from the Greek xero (dry) and phyllon (leaf), and the Latin tenax (tough or tenacious). It’s an evergreen member of the corn lily family (Melanthiaceae), a group of flowering perennial herbs native to the northern hemisphere. I’ve included bear grass in my book even though it’s not terribly easy to grow. When it does establish, it spreads (very slowly) by forming offsets and by seed.

Long, skinny, and rather wiry leaves arise from the rhizome in clumps. Their edges are rough and finely serrated and it’s their toughness that helps the plant minimize water loss during periods of drought, as well as insulate it from frost.Xerophyllum tenax (foliage)

Flowers open from the bottom up, so that the inflorescence, which ranges in height from two to five feet, takes on many different shapes as it matures. Flower fragrance varies; one study reported that one-fifth of bear grass flowers in their sample had a sweet smell like cultivated lilacs, while the others smelled “musty-acrid.” The one now blooming in my yard is, thankfully, the former, although not as sweet as lilacs.

After the blossoms fade away the flowering plant usually dies, but the long-lived rhizome lives on and offsets bloom when they are mature enough. Its fruits are three-lobed dry capsules, about ¼ inch in length, that contain 6 or 7 beige seeds, which may be eaten by migratory birds prior to fall flights. They may be sown in late summer, fall or winter and need at least 12 weeks of cold stratification.

How it grows
Bear grass grows naturally in a variety of conditions—in cool, moist meadows and bogs, and mixed-coniferous forest openings in most of western Washington and Oregon, coastal areas of northern and central California, northern Idaho, parts of British Columbia and Montana, and a snippet of Wyoming. I’ve come X. tenaxacross it on hikes in the Oregon Cascades near trees such as Douglas-fir, Western hemlock, or mountain ash, and among smaller species like huckleberry, bunchberry, fawn lily, star-flowered false solomon’s seal, inside-out flower, foamflower, and woodland strawberry.

It’s often found growing on slopes (in soil that’s not particularly rich) that are moist during winter and spring, but fast draining. I grow mine on a south-facing slight slope, in partial shade. The soil’s a bit rocky and has been amended with leaf compost. Large rocks nearby help keep roots cool and moist. During very warm and dry periods I give supplemental water, especially when plants are young.

Conservation

For centuries, Native Americans valued bear grass and used it sustainably for basketry and decoration, and ate the roasted roots. Today bear grass is having a very tough time surviving with our myriad modern threats: Logging and other habitat loss, introduced forest pathogens and insects that affect associated species, fire suppression, and the floral industry that recklessly collects it for lucrative commerce (much of it is exported). If you know of a florist who uses bear grass, ask them where they got it and explain the disastrous ramifications if necessary. Never take this plant (or any other native plant) from the wild.

Bear grass is a fire resistant species that is often the first plant to grow after a fire. Like many other native plants, it needs periodic burns for strong new growth. Following a light fire that increases light, growing space, and soil nutrients, bear grass sprouts from its rhizomes, which lie just under the soil’s surface. But when fires are suppressed—often due to timber industry management—the result is fewer but much more intense fires that kill rhizomes, making it impossible for the plants to come back.

X. tenax closeWildlife value
All of these perils affect not only the species directly, but also its pollinators—nearly 30 species of flies, beetles, and bees, and possibly some butterflies, moths, and wasps. Besides pollinators, bear grass also provides food for rodents, deer and elk, and even mountain goats at higher elevations, as well as other habitat components, such as nesting material for birds, mammals, and insects—all of which are essential, interconnected ecosystem members. More info on conservation here.

Beargrass’s only close relative, X. asphodeloides, grows in the southeastern part of the U.S.

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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The Beauty of Fawn Lilies (Erythronium spp.)

Erythronium oregonum

The genus Erythronium, commonly known as trout lily, fawn lily, glacier lily, or dog-tooth violet (depending on the species and your location) offers such elegance that I can say with conviction that it is my favorite spring wildflower. Single plants charm and invite close scrutiny, but when found in drifts their collective luminescence completely captivates me. Let their magic entice you, too.

About 20 species of Erythronium are found worldwide and most occur in the western U.S. The botanical name comes from the Greek Eruthros, which means red, and refers to the pink or reddish flowers of some species. The photos in this post, which I took in my garden, show the pagoda-like flowers of Erythronium oregonum (Oregon fawn lily or giant white fawn lily), which naturally occurs in moist to dry woodlands and grasslands at fairly low elevations in southwestern British Columbia and Washington and Oregon (west of the Cascades), as well as parts of northern California. No doubt the Georgia Basin, Puget Trough, and Willamette Valley were once thoroughly adorned with them.

What appear to be recurved petals are technically tepals (a term used when petals and sepals cannot be differentiated)—white to pale yellow, with a gold heart in this species. Paired leaves that hug the earth are oblong and mottled, and gorgeous on their own. The only downside of this native lily is its ephemeral nature: Like most perennial bulbs, it goes dormant in summer. But when the flowers fade away in my low elevation garden, I know I can always venture to a higher elevation and find it, or a closely related species, quietly in bloom a month or two later.    E. oregonum

How it grows
Pollinated by native bumble bees, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds, this endearing plant thrives in partial shade (but not deep shade) with well-drained, slightly acidic soil that’s rich in organic matter—imagine the dappled shade of an open forest or wooded grassland where fallen leaves and other organic matter are allowed to accumulate. That said, I have several growing where they get very little direct sunlight and they appear quite happy, blooming each year (although not prolifically). They’re also found naturally in rocky areas, so look lovely planted in partly shaded rock gardens where their bulbs can stay cool during summer.

Try it at home
Erythronium species are easy to grow and trouble-free, as long as you are aware of their needs. If your yard is lacking rich topsoil, add well composted leaf mold before planting and don’t remove light layers of fallen leaves from the top layer of soil. Bulbs should not be allowed to dry out completely, but they may rot with consistently moist conditions, so be sure they’re placed where the soil drains well. Keep soil just slightly moist during the dry summer months of the Pacific Northwest.

They look best grown en masse, as found in nature. Plant them at the same depth (or slightly deeper) that they came in their pots, or about four inches deep. The bulbs are extremely delicate, so don’t try to move them after they are planted unless you can dig up a big chunk of surrounding soil without disturbing the roots, bulb, and stem in any way.

As far as propagation goes, bulb division in your garden is possible but not recommended—if they are planted in appropriate conditions they will sow themselves. Or, you can help them along by collecting seeds from their capsules after the seed has ripened and the flower scape splits; I once shook out 50 seeds from one dried flower capsule! You can sow the seeds immediately outdoors if they are dry enough, or keep them in a cool, dry place and wait until late summer to sow them (but don’t wait much longer, as they reportedly do not keep well): Fill a deep container or pot with a well-draining soil mixture. Press the seeds onto the soil and cover with coarse grit, then leave them outdoors to expose the seeds to cold/wet of winter. In springtime they will germinate and a single cotyledon will emerge. The second year, a single leaf will grow. Carefully separate the tiny plants during the end of the second or third summer (no earlier), repot, place in a bright, cool location where the plants can be kept moist during winter and spring and just slightly moist during summer. Patience is needed, though—it can take as long as five years until first bloom. Some species will multiply vegetatively if the flowers are carefully removed soon after flowering, which prevents energy going into seed production and instead into making more bulbs underground. If you have optimal conditions, you may find that they will self sow around your garden.  (2022 UPDATE: Six years after this post was written I can say with confidence that these lovely plants have indeed sowed themselves around my mostly native back yard.)

Grab a partner
E. oregonum can be found growing with other natives such as Garry oak, (Quercus garryana), Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), snowberry (Symphoricarpos spp.), sword fern (Polystichum munitum), camas (Camassia spp.), and various native grasses. Placing them under deciduous trees that allow early spring sunshine to nourish them but provide protection later on is optimal, but be sure not to plant them where some leafy, overly zealous understory plants will cover their leaves during spring (such as western bleeding heart)—I learned that the hard way. Substitute fawn lilies for bulbs like invasive Spanish bluebells that seem to be in almost every yard in my neighborhood.

Some related species: Erythronium revolutum (pink fawn lily) occurs naturally in moist coastal forests near shaded streams and in bogs; it is a “species of concern” in Oregon. A higher elevation species is E. montanum (avalanche lily, white avalanche lily) that is native to coastal B.C. and alpine and subalpine Olympic and Cascade ranges. Erythronium grandiflorum, or glacier lily, with gorgeous yellow flowers, is also found in alpine and subalpine meadows and does best at those elevations. E. hendersonii (Henderson’s fawn lily) occurs at low to mid elevations in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon, while E. elegans (Coast Range fawn lily) is a threatened species that grows only at high elevations of Oregon’s Coast Range.

Enjoy! But please … never collect Erythronium seeds or plants from the wild.

E. oreganum

 

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Anna’s Hummingbird Babies: From Eggs to Empty Nest

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 19

As I wrote last month, we were extremely fortunate to have a little Anna’s hummingbird build her tiny nest — smaller than an espresso cup — in a rhododendron shrub, just steps from a window. In February, binoculars and camera in hand, we watched and photographed as she finished the intricately woven and structurally sound nest, anchored to a branch with strong and stretchy spider silk, and carefully and lovingly camouflaged with lichen. On February 20 it appeared that her beautiful nest was complete and incubation of two navy bean-sized eggs had begun. Mama hummingbirds typically sit on their eggs for 14 to 19 days.

About 18 days later, I saw her perched on the edge of her nest, apparently regurgitating a slurry of nectar from nearby native currant flowers and partially digested insects or spiders (high in protein) into her babies. I couldn’t actually see them at that point since the nest was about eight feet off the ground and they were so small. At this early stage she would feed both nestlings (hummingbirds almost always have two), fly off, and come back with more food within 60 seconds or so. After she and the nestlings had been fed adequately, she’d return and stay on the nest awhile since they were nearly naked and in dire need of warmth.

Later that week we saw her offspring for the first time, with their dinosauric heads and just the start of future feathers. Even at this age, still completely helpless and blind, their instincts are strong: They are able to keep their nest clean by wriggling their little bottoms toward the edge of the nest and squirting their poop outside of it.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 7

Anna's hummingbird and one of her babies, around Day 7

 

Later, about ten days after hatching and when the nestlings’ barbs began to look like feathers, Mom no longer stayed on the nest — during the day, anyway — most likely because her babies now had the ability to regulate their own body temperature. I imagine she was also not too keen on having her underside poked by pointy bills!

Ann's hummingbird and her babies, around Day 12

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 13

 

We continued to watch her feed them, first pumping food up into her throat, then aiming her long bill into their gaping orange mouths and straight down their throats. She resembled a sewing machine needle as she repetitively pushed food into them, never spilling a drop. Ouch!

Anna's hummingbird feeding her babies, around Day 18

 

References state that Anna’s hummingbirds fledge within 18 to 28 days after hatching. On the morning of what I believe was Day 23, I watched one of them sit on the edge of the nest and flap his/her wings with such gusto that I thought the time had come. A rainstorm came and went, but they remained in the nest, sitting with their bills pointed directly upwards, nearly vertical; occasionally they’d shake off raindrops but maintained their pose. Brave and undaunted, they also endured fairly heavy wind and a short, but pounding, hail storm.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 22

 

On what was probably Day 24, I saw one of them, for the first time, venture out of the nest and onto the branch right next to the nest. Even though the nest was designed to stretch as the nestlings grew, it was getting tight. Surely they are leaving now, I thought!

Anna's hummingbirds babies, around Day 23

 

They left the nest on Day 25. When they took off I was, disappointingly, in the shower at the time. Just before they left I noticed them preening their breast feathers meticulously, no doubt to make themselves more aerodynamic and ready themselves for life on the wing.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 23

 

Mom feeds them for a week or so post fledging, so they are on their own by now. I still look for them in the garden and high in the trees, but it’s hard to say who’s who—fledglings’ bills and tails are shorter than adults’ and they have no red on their throats, but they may almost resemble female adults by now. Reportedly, the siblings may stay together until autumn, and then they separate for good. Have a good life, sweet babies!

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 20

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UPDATE: March 29, 2017
It’s been two years since I wrote the above post. This year a female Anna has again built a nest in the same shrub, although the nest is harder to see as it’s a little higher up and has more leaves partially blocking our view. I’ve watched the nest as best I can, and judging by what looked like pumping (feeding) movements, I believe at least one of her babies hatched on March 6. Photographing them has been very difficult due to the nest position, as well as the plague of unusually cold, wet weather. In the early part of March I watched her as she searched for insects everywhere in the yard and she spent more time away from her nestlings than the mom two years ago did. This made me wonder if she might be having trouble finding protein (in the form of little insects and spiders), which are essential for the babies’ development, as well as her health. Sugar water or flower nectar alone is completely inadequate.

After about 10 days had passed, I could just barely make out a beak in the nest reaching skyward toward Mama, ready with food. I never saw more than one mouth at a time, which I thought to be a little odd, and wondered if both eggs had hatched. At Day 12 my husband, Rick, managed to get some photos of Anna feeding them, and there is evidence of two mouths, although one is in poor focus and looks like it may not be fully open, even though Mama looked ready to deliver. I was relieved to know that there were two hatchlings, but I continued to see her feeding only one at a time; this worried me because two years ago both of her young were highly visible during each feeding (as the photos above show).

A week later, on March 25, Rick was again photographing the nest and grew concerned when he repeatedly saw her feeding only one baby. With his cell phone taped to a stick, he held it horizontally above the nest while Mom was away and managed to get a short video of the nest. I’m very sad to report that there was only one baby present; the other must have died from lack of protein due to the shortage of insects during the non-stop cold weather. I do not know if the mother, sensing that one was weak and knowing she couldn’t feed them both adequately, chose to stop feeding the weak one so that one would survive, or if the baby was too weak to gape and receive food and eventually died. It’s also slightly possible that the baby was stunted from the beginning (possibly due to too small a yolk). It’s impossible to say for sure, but regardless, it was heartbreaking for this animal lover to realize that someone starved to death right outside her house. I do accept that nature can be harsh—especially during the winter—and I’m glad that the baby didn’t die due to direct human disturbance, but this is just another reason to grow native plants that supply drastically more insects than non-native species.

As I write this, the brave little baby that’s endured the cold still sits alone in the tiny nest that should be filled with a brother or sister. Mom no longer stays on the nest, but she still feeds him/her about every 20-30 minutes. Waiting is the hardest part … waiting for the day that s/he feels strong enough to take to the air and discover the world. I hope I get to see that flight, and I hope it’s on a warm, sunny day.

The baby fledged the very next day, which was a fairly warm, dry one. The following day, curiosity got the best of us. Using a ladder, we inspected the abandoned nest since our nosing around wouldn’t distress anyone. Sure enough, there—at the bottom of the little nursery—was the baby who had died, a dried up little body barely an inch long. Since then I’ve noticed a smallish single hummer in my yard on occasion, and once, while I was walking around the back yard with my little cat in my arms, we stopped to watch this particular bird feeding at blueberry blossoms. S/he grew very interested and circled around us, just 18 inches away from our faces! 

Anna’s hummingbirds typically have 2 or 3 broods per year, and there is another Anna’s hummingbird nest now in a neighbor’s small tree close to a stairway that leads to our back yard. I can’t be sure, but I think it is the mama who nested in our yard, doing her best to raise another couple of healthy chicks.   —ES

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ANOTHER UPDATE: February 18, 2018
New nest! Maybe I ought to just write a fresh post—this seems to be turning into a hummingbird diary!

It’s one year later and the new nest is in my neighbor’s magnolia tree just above their fence on the property line. Rick noticed it on February 10 and thought she might still be constructing it, but on closer inspection it appeared to be finished. The next day, when Mom was off feeding, he put his phone on a stick to take a short video above the nest, and there they were: Two gleaming white eggs that resemble tiny mint candies. Perhaps the mild winter weather we’d been experiencing (with daytime temperatures around 60ºF!) encouraged this early endeavor, but Anna’s often nest very early in California, their historic home.

There had been a nest in the same tree the previous summer, but it was very difficult to view as the tree was fully leafed out. This new nest is in the open due to leaflessness and proximity (near the end of a branch, just above our driveway and recycling bins), so we’ve got a good view. But the sight is bittersweet right now (Feb. 18): Though magnolia flower buds are developing, they provide absolutely no protection for Mom and her nest. Cold, wintery weather is back and I imagine she’s fairly miserable. But I have to remind myself that she’s a tough, stoic little bird, she has the ability to go into torpor at night to conserve heat, and her eggs have not yet hatched. I’m hoping they will stay inside their little life support systems until later this week, when the temperatures will be a bit higher and insects will likely be easier for Mom to find.

February 19: She made it through a cold, snowy night and she’s still on the eggs. The red-flowering currant shrubs haven’t started blooming, so my sugar water feeders are well-stocked and are put outside soon after sunrise (to prevent freezing). Since we don’t know when the eggs were laid, they could hatch anytime between now and the end of the month.

Anna snow

One snowy morning …

 

February 20: Watching from my driveway, I now see her feeding someone, so at least one has hatched. But we’re in the middle of a winter storm that’s brought snow, and temps that will dip into the 20s tonight. I worry because insects and itsy-bitsy spiders are not plentiful when it’s so cold and the most common cause of nestling mortality is lack of protein (as we painfully learned last year). Hopefully Mom will persevere and be able to get both of them fat and sassy. Will keep you posted!

February 23: The nestlings are now at Day 3, and as far as I can tell, they’re doing well. Mom is definitely away from the nest longer than the first time I watched a hummer nest (as much as 7 minutes), but she comes back every couple of minutes during her forages to make sure no predators are near the nest. Standing on a ladder, I can now partially see the babies’ heads as they are fed.
Day 3

 

 
 

March 1: Sadly, my fear has been realized: One of the babies has died. For the past couple of days I’d only been able to see her feed one nestling; yesterday we took a video with a phone taped to a stick and it’s clear that there is now just one alive. Sigh. Anna’s hummingbirds’ historical range is from Baja to San Francisco but they’ve expanded their range north reportedly due to artificial feeders and the planting of nonnatives that bloom when natives have finished. Unfortunately the expansion sometimes has deadly consequences.

The remaining baby looks okay. It’s still quite cold but will warm up a bit soon. The red-flowering currant blossoms should be opening any day now and insects should be easier to find.

March 7: It’s warmed up a bit and the baby is definitely growing. Today his/her eyes are open! Though it’s not very warm, Mom is staying off the nest during the day, but she’s on at night since it’s so cold and the little one hasn’t a sibling to snuggle with.  Day 14 or 15

 

March 8: Today is very windy and rainy but Mom is on the nest most of the time. This weekend will be much better for Baby: warmer, dry, and sunny—just what’s needed.

March 16: Major growth is happening, but I think this baby will be on the nest for another week or more. This is Day 23, a day when many hummers are able to fledge, but since this baby had such a rough start in life, s/he will likely need much more time in the nest. The nights have been quite cold but feathers are filling in.
Day 24

March 23: Baby’s feathers are really filling in and s/he looks softer, rounder. Yesterday, after preening (or perhaps biting at parasites) Baby stretched his/her wings and was almost able to lift off the nest! At nightfall, Baby had to endure a hail storm and I think it rained through most of the night … if only s/he wasn’t stuck in that nest and could find some evergreen shelter during this nasty weather, as older birds do! I keep hoping for some warm spring weather. Even though Baby is now 30 days old, the bill and feathers need to grow more and I estimate that it will be 3 to 4 days before fledging.
Day 30
Day 30

March 25: My heart is heavy with grief today. The stoic little baby who lost his sibling and tolerated so much harsh weather is dead. I believe he died on Friday night during some nasty cold rain and hail. Saturday I saw him hunkered down in the nest to keep warm, or so I thought … while taking photos today I found him in the same position and not moving. What a terrible little life he had, unable to leave the nest during what must have been a nightmare to him. It’s also possible that something happened to Mom, but I suspect the former, since nest mortality is high. We’ll never know. I buried his tiny little body with a sprig of red-flowering currant flowers, something he would have loved. R.I.P sweet little one.

[Addendum: It is two months later, and for the first time I’ve witnessed the feeding of a baby who had apparently left the nest that day. Tiny little “peeps” were heard coming from our fig tree, but I couldn’t locate the baby until Mom swooped in to feed. After Baby was fed she left, but returned about 20 minutes later when the call for food resumed. This went on for the rest of the day, with Baby in the same tree. The same peeps were heard for many days afterwards, but in different trees. Apparently this baby’s sibling also must have died (hummers typically lay two eggs), but s/he looks strong and healthy.]


© 2018 Eileen M. Stark

 
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Ban Neonicotinoids in Portland

painted lady butterfly

The most widely used pesticides in the world, neonicotinoids (often called neonics) are a highly toxic, pervasive, relatively new class of insecticide. Following massive bee die-offs from neonic applications in the U.S. and Canada, last year Eugene became the first U.S. city to ban the use of neonics from city property. Similar bans in Seattle, Sacramento, and Spokane quickly trailed, and now Portland’s City Council is considering comparable—and crucial—affirmative policy at the local level, since higher government continually fails to offer protection from this growing environmental threat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided last year to phase out neonics in its wildlife refuges, making it the first federal agency to restrict neonics, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to act.

Hundreds of studies indicate that neonics are wreaking environmental havoc: They not only disastrously kill or debilitate native bees, honeybees, and other pollinators like butterflies and moths, but also other ecosystem members such as birds, aquatic species, and mammals. Neonics are systemic, taken up through a plant’s vascular system and exuded in the pollen and nectar. Even miniscule amounts adversely affect central nervous and immune systems, cumulatively and irreversibly. If a victim such as a bumblebee isn’t killed outright, its failed immune system will succumb to ostensibly “natural” parasites and pathogens like Bombus bifarius on Aster foliaceusfungal, viral or bacterial infections. Birds—the majority of which consume and feed their young insects—may be poisoned directly or go hungry due to a lack of insect biomass; scientists predict widespread reproductive dysfunction in birds due to neonic exposure.

Since neonics are water soluble, they are very prone to runoff and groundwater infiltration where they accumulate and persist for any years. Aquatic contamination has reached toxic levels in some areas and is expected to cause serious and far-reaching impacts on aquatic food chains.

The cumulative, persistent, and irreversible nature of neonics ought to raise some serious red flags. Human children may also be at risk to this neurotoxic class of pesticides due to their developing bodies and immune systems and tendency to be exposed to problematic substances while playing outdoors.

What we can do

We can voice our support for the proposed ordinance—which also recommends that local retailers label plants, seeds, and products containing neonics—by contacting Portland’s mayor and commissioners by March 31. Personally, I’d love to see this ban go further, as would Commissioner Amanda Fritz, but a ban on city property is a good first step.

We can also take action at home by eliminating pesticides and growing beautiful wildlife-friendly gardens. Besides chemicals, another major threat to wildlife is the lack of natural foraging areas. In our own yards we can attract and feed pollinators by including a variety of nonhybridized—preferably native—plants that will collectively flower from early spring through fall. Native plants that naturally occur in our region are best for all indigenous fauna because they supply the food and shelter that wild species require to survive and they need no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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A Native “Shamrock”: Oxalis oregana

Oxalis oregana

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

The shamrock legend can be traced to the 5th century saint who used a three-leaved plant—possibly white clover (Trifolium repens)—to demonstrate the concept of the Christian trinity. Today, oxalis cultivars, or any plants with tripartite leaves labeled as shamrocks, are sold as houseplants or outdoor plants.

Our Pacific Northwest native Oxalissometimes called wood sorrel—is a beautiful ground cover for mostly shady areas (but also more open, shrubby areas) at low to middle elevations. It has edible leaves high in oxalic acid (like spinach), and forms a lush carpet in moist to dry woodlands.

Three wood sorrel species that occur naturally in the region are Oxalis oregana (wood sorrel or Oregon oxalis), O. suksdorfii (western yellow oxalis, which occurs mainly in southwestern WA and Oregon at low elevations), and O. trilliifolia (trillium-leaved oxalis). When deciding which species to grow, pick one that naturally occurs in your area (see map links in previous sentence).

Wildlife value
Oxalis is a pollinator plant, offering its charming small flowers to native bees, syrphid flies, and butterflies. Like most flowering plants that grow under low light conditions, its blossoms are white or light colored to enable pollinators to be able to easily see them. Later in the year, Oxalis seeds may be eaten by seed-eaters like sparrows and small rodents. Its leaves serve to protect and enrich the soil.

Try it at home
Grow it in the shade of tall trees like Douglas fir and with other native woodland species such as Vaccinium spp. (huckleberry), Mahonia nervosa (Cascade Oregon grape), Gautheria shallon (salal), Polystichum munitum (sword fern), Prosartes spp. (fairy bells), Trillium ovatum (western trillium), and others.

Give it moist, acidic soil (pH 5 to 6.5), preferably rich in organic matter. While morning sun is welcome, it typically won’t do well with scorching midday or afternoon sun. In full shade and once established, it is a drought tolerant plant. Be sure you like it, though, because it will spread—enthusiastically, in the right conditions—to protect the soil and soil dwellers.

Oxalis oregana

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Hummingbirds Nest in Native Gardens

Photo © Richard P. Weber 2015

As I looked through our living room window about two weeks ago, I caught sight of a female Anna’s hummingbird as she zipped by and landed on a tall rhododendron shrub ten feet away. As my eyes focused, I realized this was no ordinary perch: It was a nest, barely the size of a demitasse cup, that was apparently in the final stages of construction.

This exciting revelation reminds me of why I garden: For life! I had known, of course, judging by the number of hummingbirds feeding in our area and their relatively small territories (males defend about a quarter of an acre) that they must raise their families close by, but I had never actually seen a nest in our yard and I never went searching for one, for fear of causing disturbance.

Without delay, my husband began to document her nest building, keeping out of her flight path and with a powerful camera lens. The first photos show a nest perhaps an inch tall; less than a week later she had clearly added on more material to its height. Through binoculars and over several more days I Anna's hummingbirdoccasionally watched as she molded the nest by pinching materials — plant fibers like moss, bark, bits of leaves bud scales, and lichen, as well as feathers or fur, all held together by spider (or caterpillar) silk — between her bill, chin region, and chest while rotating her body. The interior was stomped on by her impossibly tiny feet. Nature’s silk is strong, sticky and stretchy (able to stretch up to 40 percent of its length without breaking), and helps make a nest that is flexible, expandable, and able to accommodate rapidly growing babies. The latest photos show that extra lichens were added as a finishing touch for camouflage (although I like to think that she added them as a charming decoration as well!).

One day I realized she was spending almost all of her time on the nest, leaving only for 20 to 60 seconds to grab a bite to eat. Incubation had begun! For the past 14 days she’s been patiently incubating her two eggs, which should hatch in as little as a day or two (incubation periods range from 14 to 19 days for these hummingbirds). MAJOR UPDATE: Baby pictures are here!

Hungry mouths
Anna’s hummingbirds eat nectar from many flowering plants, including native cascara and black hawthorn trees, currant, gooseberry, and manzanita shrubs, and many introduced species as well. Our little Anna’s timing was impeccable: Ribes sanguiniumShe chose to place her nest within 20 feet of two native red-flowering currant shrubs that had just begun to bloom. Besides currants, other native early bloomers important to these solitary birds include osoberry and Oregon grape. Later on they’ll be attracted to the flowers of native huckleberries, ceanothus, twinberry, serviceberry, elderberry and salal shrubs, honeysuckle vines, and perennials like camas, goatsbeard, delphinium, alumroot, penstemon, nodding onion, campanula, fawn lily, tiger lily, columbine, monkey flower, and milkweed. But Anna’s reportedly eat more protein-rich animal matter than other hummingbirds, consuming a wide array of small insects and spiders, plucked mid-air or from spider webs, crevices, or from trees and shrubs; native plants supply drastically more animal matter than non-native plants. Their young must be feed such foods; they cannot develop and grow solely on nectar. Occasionally hummers will also lap up tree sap leaking out from holes made by woodpeckers, and I’ve seen them sip the sweet juices leaking from overly ripe figs.

A Little History
Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) was named after a 19th century Italian duchess, Anna De Belle Massena, by René Primevère Lesson, a French surgeon, naturalist, ornithologist, and herpetologist. Such an appropriately aristocratic name for a sparkling little bird!

Historically a Pacific slope species that overwintered from San Francisco to Baja California, Anna’s are now fairly common year round in urban and suburban settings as far north as British Columbia, as well as wilder places such as open woodlands, chaparral, coastal scrub, and oak savannas. Since the change in range was relatively recent—only since the 1970s—and not a result of evolution, it is believed to have resulted from folks in the northern areas leaving artificial sugar water feeders up year round.

Conservation
While Anna’s hummingbirds are not considered endangered or threatened and can survive fairly comfortably in marginally developed areas, they are susceptible to many threats, including habitat loss, pesticides, predation, window collisions, harsh winter weather, and sugar feeders that have gone bad (it only takes a day or so in the right conditions!). Natural flower nectar is greatly superior to white sugar/water mixtures because it supplies micronutrients and spoilage is never a concern.

Because these birds (and other species) eat a large quantity of insects, don’t use insect traps and pesticides that lessen the amount of forage available for them. Spider webs, which hummingbirds collect food from and use as nesting material, should be left intact whenever possible.


© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Love in the Trees, Chickadee Style

Black-capped chickadee

It’s nearly Valentine’s Day, so here’s a bit about the love life of a little bird  — the black-capped chickadee — who is such a joy to have around. Let’s start late in the year, when black-capped chickadees typically spend their time in flocks.

Birds of a Feather
Flock formation typically starts in autumn, although it may begin earlier at high elevations or more northerly latitudes. Anywhere from two to eighteen birds may make up a flock in a territory of more than a dozen acres, with six to ten members most likely. Flocks contain adult birds who bred the previous season, “floaters” (those who didn’t get lucky or belong to more than one flock), and young chickadees born that year who’ve immigrated from other areas (to keep the gene pool diverse). Members feed together by day and roost together at night (but individually—chickadees don’t like to snuggle), but all is not calm and congenial.

Exceptionally complex social behavior occurs in winter chickadee flocks. Each member falls into a linear pecking order, with higher-ranking individuals surviving better than those ranked lower. Birds at the top of the hierarchy get the best of everything—the most nutritious food, the safest cover, the finest breeding sites. The order has a purpose: To ensure that the strongest birds can breed in ample territory that provides enough food for their young to survive and thrive. Flock members keep in touch with each other using various calls, so that no one’s left behind.

If you watch closely, you may see evidence of dominance relationships. Unlike many other birds, chickadees keep their distance from one another and that distance is maintained by faint threats. For example, a dominant bird may fluff out his cap feathers or all of his feathers to try to intimidate a subordinate bird. Or he may go further and utter a short but fierce call. If the subordinate bird doesn’t fly off he may lean away or quiver his feathers (like a baby bird asking for food) to ward off further offensive behavior.

Rank is determined by several factors:
◊ Gender: Males tend to rank higher than females, although this changes during breeding season.
◊ Age: Veterans usually overrule very young birds.
◊ Timing: Birds who join a flock late in the season tend to tumble to the bottom of the hierarchy.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker
Studies have found that male-female pairs within flocks are matched in their rank status—that is, a high-ranking male is paired with a high-ranking female, a not-quite-so-popular male is paired with a not-quite-so-popular female, etc. Remind you a little of high school?

But wait—pairs within flocks? Doesn’t the pairing-off begin just before breeding season (in the spring)? You’d think so, but black-capped chickadees are way ahead of us. Researchers have found that most flocks are initially made up of equal numbers of males and females, each of which spend more time associating with a certain member of the opposite sex than all the other members of the flock (in other words, they’re engaged!). Even the youngest flock members reportedly pair off, and it’s the female who decides which male will win her affection, as is the case in most of the animal kingdom. If a bird’s mate dies during the winter, however, mate selection is put off until springtime.

The Newlywed Game
Chickadee couples begin casually house hunting before the winter flock breaks up, even as early as mid-winter (depending on the weather). As spring approaches, their search becomes earnest and they compete — often fiercely — with others for a smaller spring/summer territory within the larger winter territory. Around this time the male begins to catch food and present it to his companion and their first “fee-bee” songs are sung, which helps couples claim their territory.

Photo © Richard P. Weber

Chickadees are cavity nesters: They nest in cavities like holes in dead or dying trees (snags), rotted knotholes in living trees, or previously used woodpecker holes. When natural sites are scarce they may use a hole in the ground or an artificial nest box, as they do in my backyard. Artificial nest boxes are not as good as nests in real trees because they are poorly insulated, but it they’re kept clean and are sited appropriately they may be better than nothing, especially in areas like mine that typically don’t get terribly cold or hot in springtime and don’t have many snags.

Chickadees prefer to create their own nests by digging out pieces of wood and then discarding the debris elsewhere to discourage predators who may view a pile of telltale wood chips as a ticket to a potential dinner. Both Mr. and Ms. Chickadee explore their territory for nest sites and reportedly it’s common for several to be partially excavated before a decision is made. A power struggle often follows, culminating in presentations with much fanfare and bickering.

After the site is decided on (usually by the female), both members of the pair excavate the hole and bring in nest material, but, according to my reference, it is the female who builds the actual nest and my personal observations corroborate this. Using strips of bark, moss, and other coarse material, she quietly creates a cup-shaped nest. It is then lined with soft material such as mammal fur (she uses my “fur dispenser” — a clean suet container filled with fur donated by especially soft cats — that I put out for them and other birds when I see signs of nest-building. Note: If you choose to do this, never offer fur that’s been treated with chemicals like flea treatments). At this point the dedicated male is still sweetly feeding her, but it will be during Gathering mossthe next phase of their relationship—the egg-laying period—when she will need him the most. Egg laying is immensely draining on a female’s energy reserves and her partner’s support is essential for her health, as well as that of their young. She needs to eat frequently, and during this time I sometimes see the male come near the nest and perch, singing a soft fee-bee song. She then flies to him, utters a tiny, high-pitched begging call and does a little wing-quiver. Dad then feeds her and she returns to her incubation duties in the nest. Sometimes he simply feeds her at the nest box’s entrance. If he’s not around, she may take matters into her own wings and forage briefly for herself. 

For the past seven years we’ve put up our clean, chickadee-appropropriate nest box every March and it’s been utilized every year but one (and that was due to an overzealous downy woodpecker who enlarged the entrance hole but later decided not to use it; by then the chickadee pair had found another spot). To mimic a natural nest and help attract the birds to it, we add about an inch of coarse wood shavings in the bottom of the box and watch the expectant parents excavate the box for a couple of days. Then Mom brings in loads of moss and finally cat fur to make a soft, cozy nest for her babies. The entire project takes a few days to a week.

Black-capped chickadee feeding his mate

On average, chickadees lay six eggs (we’ve had four to eight) and incubation usually begins the day before the last egg is laid, so that all but one hatch on the same day. During their 12-day incubation, Mom is fed often by Dad, either directly at the nest entrance or outside on a perch, following his soft call to her.

After the eggs hatch, the young are completely helpless, nearly naked and entirely dependent on their mother for warmth. Bringing home the food (mostly caterpillars) is Dad’s job for the first few days, and it’s intense, since each baby needs to eat several times an hour during the day. Later on, the female also forages for her babies. According to my reference, the mother begins providing food around day twelve, but this is not accurate; I’ve seen both the male and female bringing food to the nestlings at day five or six; possibly this is due to the warmer temperatures in our region (as opposed to the eastern US, where spring comes later). Both parents efficiently remove poop sacs from the nest to keep it clean and drop them away from the nest to deter predators.

Want to help these endearing couples?
Black-capped chickadees are usually found at forest edges, and they need native, mature trees—both deciduous species in which to forage for insects and build nests, and coniferous types for cover and winter food. If you don’t have mature native trees and shrubs in your area, there’s no better time to plant than now! And while natural cavities are best for nesting, consider supplying a nest box for them if you don’t have snags around. Site it in a partly sunny situation (morning sunlight is optimal) and put about an inch of coarse wood shavings in the bottom. The entrance hole diameter should be 1⅛ inches (to keep out house sparrows), without a perch, and faced away from prevailing winds. One box per acre or two is plenty, since they need a large territory in which to find adequate food, although high quality habitats will support more breeding pairs. Be sure to clean the box after each breeding season is over. I like to take it apart, scrub inside surfaces with hot soapy water, rinse well, and then set those surfaces in direct sun for a day or two. We store our box indoors during the fall and winter and put it up again in March to prolong its life and prevent mold growth.

Besides trees, provide clean water and, if your native plants are young, food during winter—chickadees are fond of unsalted peanuts, black-oiled sunflower seed, and suet, which is high in fat (they love my vegan peanut butter-coconut oil-sunflower seed concoction), but they also consume berries, insects, and spiders found on shrubs and trees. Spring through fall, though, nearly all of their diet and their babies’ diet is animal—such as insects, their larva, and spiders. It can take as much as 9,000 bits of food to successfully rear their nestlings, and native plants are best at providing it. Try to grow at least 70 percent locally native plants. 

♥♥♥

Reference: Smith, Susan M. 1997. Black-capped Chickadee. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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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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Reflecting on What Makes a Garden “Real”

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American gardens are generally a mix of styles borrowed from other countries and cultures, many of which developed over centuries. Just a few that we’ve adapted: The romantic English cottage garden, the traditional Japanese garden, and the formal French parterre. This borrowing isn’t unlike our diets—I eat mostly ethnic or ethnically influenced foods for a variety of reasons, most of which revolve around flavor, nutrition, and ingredients that are plant-based. Ethnic cuisine can be wonderful, especially when locally grown ingredients bring it all home.

But landscaping with borrowed styles and plants typically results in gardens that are decidedly unauthentic and typically do little to support life. What’s lacking is a relationship to local history, geology, ecology, and a sense of place (more on the latter in the book). When we use mainly local ingredients (that is, native plants and other elements), though, even exotic or ‘period’ designs can be ecologically functional and feel like home.

Creating gardens that are enmeshed in their native surroundings, use indigenous materials, and reflect the natural world, then, are real. They are beautiful, but not just for the sake of mere decoration, and unlike period gardens, they are designed to play a crucial role within the landscape. Their loveliness is functional, so that every species in the intricately webbed ecosystem has a good chance of being able to do what it’s supposed to do. Insects, for example, must be everywhere—to eat the foliage of plants that they share an evolutionary history with and subsequently provide for those higher on the food chain, to pollinate flowers, and to do countless other jobs.

The functional beauty that’s found in nature’s intimate connections can be in your yard, too. Even “average” backyards are host to amazing numbers of species, but when we add native plants, biodiversity skyrockets: Studies show that native species support 29 times the wildlife that exotic species do. Of course, some nonnative species do support some wildlife (in limited ways), so I don’t recommend removing all noninvasive exotics that currently support wild species or provide food for you, or furnish an emotional connection.

Whether you’re ready to create new beds, replace dead or dying plants, or make over your entire yard, choose plants that belong in your area. Instead of a maple from Asia, consider the lovely PNW native maples—vine maple (Acer circinatum), Douglas maple (Acer glabrum var. douglasii), and big-leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). Thinking about new shrubs? Look for natives that look similar to ones you admire but come from a faraway place; for example, choose Western mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) over P. coronarius or P. virginalis (my book has many other suggestions for native plants that resemble common, exotic garden plants). When adding ground cover, choose an assortment of native ground hugging plants that would be found together in nature. Essentially, choose plants that have evolved together and grow together in natural communities—known as “associated species.” If the conditions (light, soil, moisture) suit them, they are your best bet because they offer wildlife what they need, nurture each other, and increase the chance that they will thrive in your yard.

Finally, when purchasing native plants, buy those 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.

And although many cultivars—with a range of flower color, leaf attributes, size, etc.—have been developed, it’s best to choose true species or varieties found in nature. 

A garden’s propensity for diversity draws in both gardeners and visitors, generates appreciation and awe for natural processes, and furthers our collective ecological knowledge. In a hazelnut shell, “real” gardens stay true to the character, time, and culture of a place.

© 2014  Eileen M. Stark

 

A Date with a Varied Thrush

Varied thrush

Male Varied thrush perched in red-twig dogwood 


It’s unmistakably autumn
when the strikingly beautiful Varied thrush begins appearing in Pacific Northwest yards, parks, and natural areas. That’s varied, as in Ixoreus naevius, though I’ve also seen various other thrushes—Swainson’s and Hermit—feeding in residential areas from time to time. The scientific name given to this robin-sized bird comes from the Greek ixos, which means “mistletoe,” and oros for “mountain” and the Latin naevius, which translates to “spotted or varied.” If my math is correct, that adds up to “varied berry-loving mountain bird,” or some such.

Since reading the State of the Birds report I’ve felt a twinge of anxiety about whether or not I’d see them this year, as I have each fall and winter since I began creating our “real” garden. Sadly, the Varied thrush is one of dozens of species included on the list of “Common Birds in Steep Decline” that have lost more than half of their global populations within the past 40 years. But just a few days ago I spotted a female rummaging on the ground through the fallen leaves that blanket our yard’s soil, as if she had forgotten where she put her keys: She’d grab a dry leaf in her bill, toss it aside as she hopped backwards, and then search the ground. She was looking for dinner, of course, and apparently found some tasty morsels in the form of insects, slugs, or other arthropods who were hoping to get through the winter under protective leaf “litter.” Varied thrushes also eat fruit and nuts (primarily acorns) during winter and I wondered when she’d return to find the rose hips, patiently dangling off my clustered wild rose (Rosa pisocarpa), as she (or her cousin) had done last year. Apples are also reportedly a favorite food in fall.

Male varied thrush rummages through fallen leaves.

A male Varied thrush rummages through fallen leaves to find food.

Most thrushes wear earthy colors on purpose—so they can be difficult to spot—but this species can be especially tough to see since their gorgeous plumage is reminiscent of dappled sunlight or pumpkin-colored leaves on a forest floor. And they’re timid and wary of people, so you may be more likely to hear one than to see one. But hearing their call in the woods rarely helps locate one, since their ethereal, somewhat mournful voice seems to pervade a peaceful forest. Let’s honor their need to be left alone—sometimes it’s enough just to hear them to be struck by their beauty.

Birds of a feather
Fall through winter, Varied thrushes gather together in flocks, collectively known as a hermitage—a fitting description considering their obligation to be concealed. In the city they act slightly bolder than in quiet forests, coming to within about 15 feet of the house to feed, as well as perch and survey in leafless trees. Their range encompasses the boreal forests of Alaska and the Yukon, southward along the west coast to California, as well as east to Alberta, Idaho, and western Montana. National Geographic records their winter range as “coastal Alaska to southern California and parts of northern Rockies,” but judging by this enthusiastic news account, sightings in southern California may be somewhat rare.

Varied thrush female or immature

Female and immature Varied thrushes look similar.

During the remainder of the year these birds retreat to mature, misty, hushed forests that are dominated by tall conifers and lush ferns, and dine on mostly insects and other arthropods. Many migrate north as the days lengthen. In spring, the female creates her nest in streamside shrubs or conifers, typically 5 to 15 feet above ground. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the nest resembles a robin’s nest: “The female gathers nest material and weaves an outer layer of fir, hemlock, spruce, or alder twigs. She adds a middle layer with rotten wood, moss, mud, or decomposing grass, which hardens into a dense cup about 4 inches across and 2 inches deep. Finally, she lines the cup with fine grasses, soft dead leaves, and fine moss, and drapes pieces of green moss over the rim and outside of the nest.” Two to six eggs, blue with speckles, are laid and incubated by Mom but the hatchlings are tended by both (monogamous) parents; they fledge in about two weeks. They are fed arthropods, as are the majority of land birds. Two broods are produced when possible.

Since these birds thrive in old growth forests, logging is having a profoundly negative impact on their numbers, as will climate change. Window strikes are also responsible for many deaths. Want to help them and see them in your yard?

♦ During fall, winter, and early spring, don’t remove the leaves, twigs, bark, and other dead wood that have fallen from trees onto the soil.

♦ If your yard was historically forest, grow the trees that likely once grew there to provide food and roosting or nesting sites. In coastal B.C., Washington and Oregon, choose Sitka spruce (near the coast), Douglas-fir, western hemlock or western redcedar; in northwestern California choose coastal redwood, Sitka spruce, and red alder.

♦ Thrushes are mainly insectivorous, so add additional “associate” native plants that would naturally grow with the trees to supply extra helpings of native insects and other arthropods.

♦ Include native plants that produce fruits, nuts, or seeds to provide additional forage. Depending on your location, madrone, cascara, garry oak, wild rose, huckleberry, elderberry, honeysuckle, salal, thimbleberry, and dogwood might be good choices.

♦ Be sure birds can see your window glass, not a reflection of the sky. Check out these tips to help birds avoid reflective glass.


© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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Help Hummingbirds Survive the Cold

Anna's hummingbird
Baby, it’s cold out there!

Lesser goldfinches, chickadees, flickers, juncos and song sparrows frequent my feeders and let’s not forget the Anna’s hummingbirds I feed with sugar nectar. Of course it’s not nearly as nutritious as real flower nectar, but it gets them through these frigid days and nights. Eating a lot of food is absolutely essential to get them through icy cold weather, so try my plant-based suet recipe for other birds).

Although adult hummingbirds are able to go into a state of torpor when it gets really cold, lowering their body temperature and metabolic rate so that it takes less energy to keep warm, they are still vulnerable to the elements, and young are even more so. Providing nectar could make the difference between life and death for these adorable flying jewels.

TIP: Remember to take your hummingbird feeders in after nightfall and then put them back outside in the morning at first light to make sure they wake up to a liquid breakfast, not a frozen mass of crystals. When daytime temperatures get below freezing the hummers will also appreciate it if you take their feeder in occasionally during the day, too, when possible, to thaw it out. If you have an extra feeder, rotate them so there’s always some nectar available. Feeders hung next to houses tend to stay a bit warmer than those out in the open.

TIP: Use a ratio of 1 part granulated sugar to 4 parts water (do not decrease the water content more than to 3 parts—doing so could cause birds to dehydrate, possibly leading to death). Always keep feeders clean (but never use bleach) and change nectar every 4-5 days, more often when the weather warms or if the feeder is in direct sunlight.

TIP: Choose feeders that are easy to clean, without nooks and crannies that can harbor pathogens. My favorite: HummZinger feeders.

TIP: If there’s a porch light near your hummer feeder, turn it on temporarily as the light wanes in the afternoon—it could give the birds a little extra time to feed before they retire for the night. But then turn it off to cut down on light pollution.

TIP: After the weather warms, take away the feeder and supply nutritious flowering native plants instead. In the Pacific Northwest, consider cascara trees, red-flowering currant, Oregon grape, and huckleberry shrubs, native honeysuckle vines, and perennials like western columbine, penstemon, and goldenrod. And remember that Anna’s hummingbirds eat a lot of insects and must feed them to their young.

© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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Cedar Waxwing Flocks are Back!

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I had planned to write a different post today, but quickly changed my mind when I caught sight of 100 to 200 cedar waxwings in my Portland yard. Last fall a huge flock was attracted to our two fig trees that were laden with ripening fruit well out of our reach. This year only one fig tree is fruiting, but there’s still a mass of succulent food for their hungry mouths. These birds also love berries and I photographed them on a red-flowering currant shrub (Ribes sanguineum) and Cascade Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), two of many PNW native species that support these birds. Situated near our front door, the currant shrub stops people in their tracks while it’s flowering in March, and now it’s a waxwing magnet. I watched as they eagerly picked off the berries and swallowed them whole (pictured, above).

Cedar waxwings are exquisitely beautiful birds—sleek, with silky, shiny, colorful feathers that softly blend together like watercolors. Adults have a somewhat droopy, ragged crest and a debonair black mask, outlined in white, which makes them so alluring and exciting—as in, where have you been all my life? Males have black chins and throats, whereas females’ are slightly duller and juveniles’ are streaked. Tail tips are usually yellow, wider in males and narrower in females and juveniles. In my photo you can just barely make out little reddish, waxy tips on the wing feathers, hence the common name. The function of the secretion is not fully known, although it is likely important in courtship. So dashing!

The Bohemian waxwing is similar but slightly larger, and has grayish feathers on breast and belly, instead of a soft yellow. They also have white and yellow wing patches, which cedar waxwings lack. According to Seattle Audubon Society, Bohemians are a northern species that migrate down to Washington in winter. The cedar waxwings we see are likely year round residents who travel around in search of food. Both species are monogamous and breed in open, wet areas with dead or downed wood, or in woodlands with mature conifers.

Exceptionally gregarious, these birds are often seen in large flocks, especially in autumn. You may hear them before you see them, with their very high-pitched, whistle-like trills. They mainly eat sweet fruit and even feed it to their young after a few days of insectivorous cuisine (like the majority of land birds who feed their babies insects). During breeding season waxwings need more protein and show their expert insect-catching abilities in mid-air, often over water. Insects that live on plants, like scale, are also on their menu. For medium sized, fairly stocky birds (about seven inches in length), they are quite acrobatic and can even hover in place to grab a bit of fruit when a perch isn’t handy.

Waxwings aren’t suffering from habitat loss quite as much as most species, since they can eat increasingly common exotic fruits. However, they “are vulnerable to window collisions as well as being struck by cars as the birds feed on fruiting trees along roadsides,” says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. But native plants are best for the vast majority of wild species, so to attract waxwings to your Pacific Northwest yard, grow indigenous trees and shrubs that produce small fruits, including serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), dogwood (Cornus spp.), western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis), black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii), honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa and L. involucrata), mountain ash (Sorbus sitchensis and S. scopulina), and strawberries (Frageria spp.). Keep your eyes and ears open and look for them in parks, forest edges, open woodlands, and gardens—these beautiful birds could visit your yard, too!

Reference

© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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