The Orchid and the Arbutus

1. On a warm July afternoon in a shady spot by the water a budding orchid reaches for the light.

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Paying attention is work of the most rewarding kind. It connects us to the incredible intricacy of life, the indescribable beauty and mystery of the beings we share our home with, and the wonder and the heartbreak of existence. All it requires is standing still and looking, or crouching down and looking, or laying on your back and looking, or walking and looking. Just looking. There is little that is any more important right now than knowing this world, in all its beauty and brokenness.*

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2. A mature Madrone spreads its thick branches against a phalanx of Douglas fir trees. Everything but the tree was desaturated to emphasize the beautiful bark, a welcome sight on a cold, spring day.

The Arbutus, or Madrone

Four years ago, when I moved to an island in the Salish Sea, I fell in love with Madrone trees, also called Arbutus (Arbutus menziesii). The colorful peeling bark and sinewy, muscular branches of this unusual tree brighten the island’s conifer-dominated landscape. When I lived near Seattle I would see Madrones here and there. They were attractive accents in the unforgiving expanse of dark green that lines highways and trails around Puget Sound. Now they’re frequent companions; it seems the island environment suits them. It’s sunnier here than in Seattle and Madrones adapt to the undulating terrain and shallow soils. Give them a well-drained, open slope with a little shelter (there are plenty of tall conifers to provide that!) and they’re happy. They like mild winters (check), they tolerate bone-dry summers (check), and they can cope with very wet winters and springs (check). Our Madrones aren’t as big and healthy as many that grow in California and Oregon but that doesn’t diminish them to local eyes.

When Madrones grow in inhospitable, rocky places where the soil is thin and nutrient-poor, their wide-spreading roots help anchor them in place. Crucially, they associate with beneficial communities of soil fungi in networks that can transport beneficial nutrients to the trees in times of need. In fact, Madrones are like transportation hubs that facilitate different connections among trees in their “neighborhood” because they associate with diverse kinds of underground mycorrhizae (the networks of soil fungi).

The more I saw these pretty trees leaning out over the water or reaching for light in small forest clearings, the more I appreciated them. Their winding, eccentric branches carve exotic paths into the straight and narrow patterns of our wooded places. The unusual bark can bring out the artist in anyone. Colors range from pale, soft greens to deep, rusty reds with everything imaginable in between. Placing my hand against a Madrone tree on a warm summer day, I found that the bark stays as cool as a refrigerator! In spring there are creamy flowers, in fall, red-orange berries, and all year long the rich green of their leathery leaves shines bright. No wonder I fell under the Mardrone’s spell. The summer after I moved here, I put together a photo and text post about them called JUST ONE: Pacific Madrone. But the story wasn’t finished.

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The Orchid

On exploratory walks near my new home, I paid close attention to the topography and plants, which are quite different from the Seattle area and vastly different from my native northeast. The first week we lived here I photographed an odd little flower – just tiny green buds on a stalk. The photo languished amidst images of spectacular scenery that year but the following summer I noticed more of the little flowers and became curious about them. I had a hell of a time trying to identify them, getting only as far as “Rein orchids.” I couldn’t be sure which Rein orchid I was looking at, not least because the names have changed several times. A casual observer wouldn’t even guess they are orchids – you have to get up close and personal to see the characteristic orchid structure in each tiny flower.

More often than not the modest flowers grow near Madrone trees, usually in forest clearings or on grassy slopes along the island’s intricately cut shoreline. Gradually, I developed a sixth sense for them – once I understood their preferred habitat, I often knew when I was about to find one. The more I learned, the more special the plants seemed. For example, Rein orchid seeds have to connect to a mycorrhizal network in order to germinate – without that connection, there will be no plant! Even more amazing, the tiny, germinated seed still has years to go before anything appears aboveground. At first, just one pair of leaves emerges. Gathering energy from the sun, the leaves nourish the underground heart of the plant until it’s mature enough to produce a stalk with flowers. There can be several years of nothing but leaves, busily preparing the way. Finally, a flower appears and once it is pollinated, there will be seeds. The cycle can begin again.

This year I was determined to find and correctly identify all the Rein orchids I could. Obsessed? Yes. I have finally figured out that there are three species here on Fidalgo Island: Platanthera elegans, P. elongata, and P. transversa. Their common names have changed over the years but currently recognized names include (in the same order) the Elegant Rein orchid (or Hillside Rein orchid), Denseflower Rein orchid, and Flat-spurred Piperia.

The summer after I wrote about Madrones I posted JUST ONE: Rein Orchids. I was – and am – fascinated by these plants. Their scarcity, intricate life cycle, and obscurity (most people walk right past them) make them special. I look for them from late winter until autumn: first, two oval leaves rise from the ground in late winter, then modest summer blooms rise among dry July grasses, and finally, seed stalks that look like burnt sugar on a stick are left – if you can find them.

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Why Together?

Why do Madrone trees and Rein orchids grow together so often? Perhaps the answer’s hiding in the underground mycorrhizal networks that Rein orchids and Madrones rely on. Research has already shown that mycorrhizal networks can be a two-way street, transporting carbon compounds in both directions to benefit Douglas firs and birch trees. The Douglas fir is another tree that I always see near Rein orchids. Perhaps there’s a complex relationship among Madrones, Douglas fir trees, and Rein orchids facilitated by mycorrhizal networks connected to all three plants – an interdependence we can’t see directly but one that we enjoy indirectly, standing under the cool shade of Doug firs next to a colorful Madrone tree, with Rein orchids peaking through the grass.

Whatever the science does or does not tell us, I’ve come to cherish the special places where Rein orchids appear with Madrone trees. These natural gardens are almost always quiet. Often an expanse of water is within view. Two of the places I’ve found where orchids and Madrones grow are small clearings in the forest at the end of winding trails. Another spot is on a grassy hill sloping gracefully down to a mirror-quiet lake. These are settings where you can focus on all five senses and inhale the spirit of place. Where it’s safe to sense, as Georgina Reid said, “this world, in all its beauty and brokenness.”

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5. Flat-spurred Piperia in black and white. The spurs contain nectar (those long tubes). Piperia is after a botanist named Charles Piper who wrote the first guide to the plants of the northwest. Published in 1906, it came out more than two thousand years after the Historia Plantarum by Theophrastus. It was a long time before white people learned about the plants of the Pacific Northwest! Most of the extensive knowledge indigenous tribes possessed about plants wasn’t written down and much of it was lost.
6. A Rein orchid hides in the grass on a south-facing shoreline at Kukutali Preserve.
7. A Madrone leaf caught on a lichen-covered branch. (Photographed two years ago with a vintage Super Takumar 50mm lens.)

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9. The orange bark of a Madrone provides the backdrop for a Rein orchid on an August morning.
10. A gnarled Madrone leans precariously over the water. It’s July, the sun is warm, the orchids are blooming, and there’s a smile on my face.
11. Ants appear to be looking for nectar on this Flat-spurred Piperia in a small clearing next to Madrone trees.
12. The tip of a Denseflower Rein orchid stalk sports tiny buds in early July.

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15. A parade of wildflowers follows a trail to Sugarloaf, part of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands. Elegant Rein orchids mix with pink Nodding onions, white yarrow, and yellow wildflowers – I’m not sure what kind!
16. A Denseflower Rein orchid.

17. An impressionistic rendering…
18. A Madrone bark abstract.

19. Madrone bark is always sensual and cool to the touch.

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*Georgina Reid, Breathing Fire: an essay in The Planthunter.