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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14.
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.


42 comments

  1. I know exactly what you mean about the peeling bark of the Arbutus species. They fascinated me when I first saw (and photographed) them in the Royal Botanic Gardens here in Melbourne. I remember seeing them soon after in a nearby suburb.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It sounds like they’re planted in parks and elsewhere in Australia. Arbutus is what they’re called in British Columbia, too. It’s cool that you’re familiar with the tree and once you’ve seen it, that bark is unforgettable, right? Good to hear from you, Vicki.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. beauty (again!)

    and what fabulous and fascinating functions of those fungal facilitators!

    ▪◾◼◾▪▫◽◻◽▫▪◾◼◾▪▫◽◻◽▫▪◾◼◾▪
    ▫◽◻◽▫▪◾◼◾▪▫◽◻◽▫▪◾◼◾▪▫◽◻◽▫

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, I’m so glad I found your blog! These photos are magical and your text fascinating. I love the idea of these intermingled networks beneath our feet, another world to the one we see above but essential to the success of these plants. The orchids are so beautiful and the peeling bark of the madrones likewise. I really enjoyed your abstract renderings of the latter.

    Fidalgo Island rang a bell so I checked and yes, I was briefly there a few years ago, passing through Anacortes to catch the ferry to Friday Harbor 🙂 You live in a beautiful part of the world!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many people come through here on their way to the San Juans…I bet you had a good time, on the ferry as well as on the islands. We were thrilled when we were able to find a place to live up here. Not only is it beautiful, but the vibe is relaxed and folks really care about the environment here.
      Mycorrhizal networks are fascinating – thank you for your patience in reading the post. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The selective focus on #17 and #20 is outstanding, Lynn. I sometimes struggle to take this type of photo with the Oly as opposed to the Nikon, where I feel a little more in control. You’re so lucky to have Madrone trees out your way. They are so photogenic and your shots bring their beauty to all of us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I just love my Oly 60mm macro at f2.8. 😉 Do you have that lens? I think because it’s a look I had long wanted to be able to do, as soon as the possibility was there I just kept at it. The 45mm f1.8 is nice for that, too. The number of files tagged “Madrone” in LR has to be very high..(Couldn’t resist counting…906!) .I could easily do another post, maybe just on the bark. 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Ken, thanks a lot.

      Like

      • No, I don’t have that lens (yet). I’ve been doing most of the serious macro work with the D610 and 105mm macro. Results are exceptional. But I have 2 auto extension tubes for the Oly that I use with the kit lens. The whole setup (camera and lens) weighs less than the Nikon macro lens alone and the results are really very good.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Although we know that everything is related to everything and that the existing connections between different species are real, this matter is a little “underground” and goes quite beside our rationality and knowledge.
    Personally, I just stop, crouch, look and enjoy with emotion. But I really admire those who do it in a deeper way and build a story.
    You are one of those people, because you have enough knowledge and curiosity to see a little more, as this post full of information, relationships and as always, beautiful photographic details demonstrate.
    I wish you a happy day!

    Like

    • 🙂 I’m glad you enjoy with emotion. My father was a scientist and though I went to school for art, not science, some habits were instilled in me. Also a deep curiosity and maybe a little obsession. 😉 Thanks for being here, Dulce, I hope you have a wonderful weekend.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wonderful pictures! I wish we had Madrones over here on the Eastern side. I remember when we first got to WA, we went to Deception Pass and we saw these lovely trees there. They remind me of the Crepe Myrtle trees back East, which also have peeling bark but aren’t quite as lovely (or as big).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Peg, it’s good to hear from you – hope it’s not too hot over there and you’re well away from the fires and smoke. It’s really nice that you remember the Madrones from Deception Pass! Crepe myrtles – I used to see them once in a while back east but not as often as you because I spent most of my time farther north. They’re wonderful trees, too. Enjoy the weekend!

      Like

  7. Exquisite photos; beautiful and insightful writing. (I find trees are exceedingly difficult to photograph.) Like many people, Madrones are my favorite (as are mycoheterotrophic orchids). Just some of many possible things to mention – We have been very sad as several huge Madrones have come down on our property, but admit to a particular pleasure in the manner how the amazingly dense wood burns in our fireplace (efficient insert). (Reminded of Leopold’s “Good Oak”.) Recall seeing that they are the largest member of blueberry family (Ericaceae). Not saying primary reason but peeling bark certainly dissuades epiphytes. Some interesting lichens (e.g. Cresponia chloroconia) have a liking for Madrone wood though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I agree trees are hard to show in their full glory – around here, there’s just too much “other stuff” around them. Hmm, I should have put the word, “mycoheterotrophic” in there somewhere. 😉 And you reminded me of the possibility that shedding bark helps keep lichens and fungi off the tree, which I remember reading somewhere. I did read that they’re in the Ericaceae but I didn’t add that because I was worried there was already too much factual information for most people. Not for you. Your trees did double duty as inspiration and warmth, maybe we can’t ask for any more than that. BTW, I saw live Madrones with a fair amount of Usnea on them the other day, very surprising!

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    • Greetings to you, too – I hope you’re enjoying the cool weather. We have very dry conditions now but it’s still pretty, and the good thing is that it doesn’t get too hot. I’m glad you enjoyed the post – thanks for stopping by!

      Like

    • Absolutely. It certainly seems to explain why I only see Rein orchids in certain places here. As Joe and I are always joking, “There’s a lot we don’t know!” Have a good week, Howard.

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  8. When you mentioned Arbutus I was, what’s that? But when you translated it to Madrone I was, hey that’s one of my favorite trees! Especially as I had one growing in my yard for many years. Your comment about the mycorrhizal network made me wonder if it works in other ways as well. I couldn’t help but notice that when a bay laurel grew up next to the madrone, the madrone started dying off. Was it the mycorrhizal network? Did something spread in the air? (Bay laurel leaves are stinky if you crush one.) Was it something else? The madrone’s been gone a few years now, I miss it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • See Alison’s comment above? She’s in Vancouver. 😉 That’s so interesting about the laurel. I know Madrones have been having some problems but I don’t know much about it – I think there are a number of things “bothering” them in some places. But who knows why your tree began having trouble? I noticed this online…”Laurus nobilis has a widely-spreading root system, so it’s important to keep a safe distance when planting it near your home or other structures”

      Liked by 1 person


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