JUST ONE: Seaside juniper

This is a joyfully biased tribute to a particular species of tree, the Seaside juniper (Juniperus maritima). Also called the Puget Sound juniper, this rare evergreen has a very limited range, a range that happens to include one of my favorite places, Washington Park on Fidalgo Island. I wrote about the park a few weeks ago and the first photo in the post shows a Seaside juniper at sunset.

Western science recognized this tree as a separate species only twelve years ago. In December 2007 a paper was published that described why trees then known as Rocky Mountain junipers (Juniperus scopularum) growing on and around the San Juan Islands, are actually a different species of juniper. DNA, chemical compounds, plant structure and ecology were all taken into account in determining that “my” juniper differs substantially from its Rocky Mountain cousins. Exactly how the two species diverged isn’t known for sure but (if I understand correctly) it’s theorized that juniper trees may have persisted locally through the last glaciation, near the edge of the glacier, in the present-day Olympic Mountains. Some are still found on the eastern (drier) side of the Olympics. During a warmer period between 7000 and 500BC, it is thought that the trees may have spread to rocky, thin-soiled islands in the Strait of Juan de Fuca (U.S.) and the Strait of Georgia (Canada). What is now called the Seaside juniper is found mainly in these water-influenced locations, with a few outliers in the nearby mountains.

One way or another this rather odd tree has maintained its hard-scrabble existence in very tough places for millennia. Individual trees can be quite long-lived – a study found that one tree in Washington Park (#13 below) is close to 300 years old. I was drawn to these striking trees well before I learned how rare they are and naturally, learning about them makes them even more compelling.

But in the end it’s the aesthetic characteristics that keep me coming back to these junipers. And something about standing under one of these twisted old beings, dry, pungent-smelling, tough and graceful, is profoundly nourishing to the spirit. I try to honor the tree here as well as I can, knowing that I will fall short of truly understanding this tree, even as I stand under it.

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1. A grove of Seaside juniper trees on an exposed, south-facing site.

2. Nearby, the skeleton of a Seaside juniper graces the view of Burrows Pass and Burrows Bay.
3. Under this old juniper skeleton are grasses and lichens that can tolerate thin, rather poor soil. Around the tree are more junipers and Douglas firs, which also do well in less-than-perfect conditions.

4. Another old juniper skeleton, partly fire-damaged. Photo #12 below shows the sawed-off limbs on the right.
5. This tree demonstrates comfort in the precarious environment where junipers are at home. You can almost feel the wind coming off the water. Four-legged creatures (like the doe in photo #24) have no trouble navigating the steep slopes – but I have to very careful here.

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What luck that one of the most “robust populations” of Seaside junipers is in this park, where they’re protected. There are hundreds of Seaside junipers in Washington Park, but one in particular always gets the attention of visitors. It sits alone on a promontory where people typically stop and enjoy the view. Over the years countless photographs and selfies have been made here. Many initials and dates are carved in the wood and countless kids have climbed it’s branches. Mostly dead, it continues to feed itself against all odds, with one bushy green limb. The first time I visited the park I was awed by the beauty of this tree and I’ve returned again and again. One day I focused on the tree’s sinuous dead branches, creating a series of images posted here. On many occasions I’ve wandered the nearby juniper-dotted hillsides, peering at tiny blue berries, intricate gray-green lichens, tangled limbs, grand, furrowed trunks and sturdy, twisted roots. Sometimes I bring a vintage Super Takumar 50mm lens that accentuates the junipers’ gracefulness (#7,8,9,14,18). Once, I slowly lurched this way and that way as I tracked my exact coordinates with a GPS app, trying to locate a tree documented in a paper as the oldest in the park. I know the junipers have much more to reveal, and it will come slowly.

6. The one that started it all for me on a December afternoon in 2017, the first time I visited the park.

7. Sunlit leaves

8. Waves
9. Feathers

10. Sprawl and reach

11. Tangle

12. Chop

13. Venerable….this may be the oldest juniper on Fidalgo Island. It’s probably almost 300 years old, predating the arrival of white settlers on the island.

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The Seaside juniper favors warmer, drier, south-facing grassy balds with relatively thin, poor soil on the edges of islands. With their ghostly gray, twisted forms, they lend a distinctive character to the south side of Washington Park. There is something admirable about these tough trees.

Juniper’s colors are subdued, like desert colors. The wood is dry, furrowed and coarse, except after it’s been dead a long time and is weathered smooth. Tiny blue berries grace branch tips and brighten the ground under the trees when they fall. The foliage is an intricate overlapping weave of fine scales, tough and dry, but fern-like in the way it filters light. I was surprised to learn that junipers have essentially two types of leaves – younger and older. Mature leaves are compressed and somewhat smooth; new leaves are spiky and sharp-pointed. This probably discourages deer browsing – young plants are easy for deer to reach so being armed with prickly leaves protects the tree, an adaptation that reminds me of the desert, where other juniper species grow.

14. Sometimes juniper bark grows in a criss-cross pattern, a phenomenon I’ve seen on other trees, too. I wonder what causes it.

15. A branch tip in November, when water is once again plentiful.
16. Older juniper branches host a wide variety of lichens and mosses.

17. The light at the edge of the island where the junipers grow is sometimes shot through with water-drenched color.

18. On the first day of Spring, even long-dead branches appear to celebrate gentler times ahead.

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Junipers are gymnosperms – plants without flowers. They bear seeds hidden inside cones, like pines, but juniper cones are very different. The scales are fused together into a fleshy but rather hard, berry-like structure that surrounds and protects the seed. What we call berries are actually the female cones. The male, pollen-bearing cones and female, berry-like cones are born on separate trees. It takes two to tango….

Juniper berries are used to flavor gin…I think I was losing you, but now I have your attention, right?

The juniper berries used in mixed drinks come from the Common juniper (J. communis). A few species of juniper have toxic berries, but I don’t think the Seaside juniper’s berries are poisonous – at least nothing happened to me after eating a few. They were bitter, astringent, and reminiscent of gin (which originated in the Netherlands, one of many places where Common junipers grow). I appreciated the intensely pungent flavor, though I admit I spat out the seeds and pulp. Juniper berries are traditionally used for seasoning game. There are plenty of deer, rabbits and even quail around here but hunting on the island is forbidden. I doubt I’ll be sampling venison with juniper berries anytime soon. Maybe we’ll try them in another recipe, or experiment (carefully) with medicinal applications.

20. I believe these are male (pollen) cones.

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A few more juniper facts: Junipers belong to the Cypress family (Cupressaceae) which includes cedars. There are about sixty species of junipers worldwide, depending on who’s counting, with about fifteen in North America. Most of America’s junipers are in the West. They’re well adapted to dry climates and poor soils. You may have seen beautiful old junipers in the desert or the mountains, where they can be found up to 10,000 ft. above sea level. Their characteristically twisted, half-dead look is emblematic of the western landscape.

America’s western junipers aren’t always appreciated because they invade grasslands, which cattle-owners don’t like. They’re not great for lumber but are often used for fence posts or fuel. Wild birds and animals feed on the foliage and seeds and the trees can provide nesting places for rodents. I’m not sure how much our juniper is used by local animals and birds but the trees must provide a modicum of shelter, and the berries are most likely eaten by some wildlife. I know that for this human, Seaside junipers provide deeply nourishing food for the spirit.

21. Well-rooted.

22. Another venerable, well-rooted juniper, living through another dry summer.
23. An impressive, if untidy, mature juniper with sprawling, multiple trunks and crossing branches.

24. This unusual, nearly prostrate Seaside juniper grows in sand dunes at Deception Pass State Park, where a small number of these trees can be found.

25. You may spot tiny pink wildflowers in this photo taken in May. By mid-summer they’ll be almost gone. The ground will be parched until the rains return.

26. At dusk, a doe listens to a boat passing through the channel below, just out of sight. This is where juniper lives, and thrives.

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(Previous “Just One” posts include the Sword fern, the Pacific Madrone tree and the Licorice fern).

JUST ONE: Licorice Fern

Like a forest sprite, Licorice fern appears to spring magically from the rocks. Just as often, it climbs up mossy tree trunks, higher than you can see. The jaunty ferns are boon companions on many a walk: always friendly, ever-perky, enhancing every nook and cranny they get into.

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1. Licorice fern edges a rocky outcrop at Deception Pass State Park.

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Even after summer drought dries the fern fronds into a crunchy brown fringe, their tight curls still appeal. And when the rains return the ferns reappear as tiny green triangles of hope pushing into the moist, cool air.

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2. Dried Licorice fern fronds will decompose on this bed of moss. The plant is summer deciduous, i.e. it goes dormant in summer.

3. Less than an inch long, at this stage the budding fronds are easy to miss.

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Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) is a denizen of wet places in western North America, growing on mossy ground, across fallen logs and rock surfaces and even high into the trees, where it studs branches and trunks with emerald green. The Latin name breaks down as poly = many and podium = little foot, which refers to the way the rhizome looks, but usually it’s hidden from view under the damp, mossy substrate the plant prefers. A rhizome is a creeping, horizontal stem with multiple rootlets (the many little feet) to anchor the plant in place, and fronds springing up at intervals. Glycyrrhiza refers to the slightly sweet, licorice-like taste of the rhizome, which was used by indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest for throat problems and to ease the unpleasantness of other, more bitter medicine. I can attest to the sweetness of the rhizome but personally, I’d rather get my licorice flavor fix by filching seeds from a fennel plant.

This attractive fern did not go unnoticed by the nursery trade; the Royal Horticultural Society in Great Britain lists a cultivar with long frond tips as available at six nurseries. On the west coast the same form can be purchased at a Washington nursery, or you can probably find the “straight” native plant at various growers.

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4. Licorice ferns climb a moss-laden Bigleaf maple tree. On the ground, Sword fern adds more green to this late November scene at Moss Lake Natural Area, located about an hour east of Seattle.
5. Abundant winter rains keep Licorice ferns looking fresh and green. This photo was made in January at a park outside of Seattle.
6. Licorice fern grows happily on a rocky hillside in a park on Fidalgo Island.
7. Another January photo shows Licorice fern growing among clumps of Reindeer moss (Cladina sp.). The tiny round orange objects are reproductive parts of dark-colored dog lichen (Peltigera membranacea).

10. Licorice fern grows on the ground in the right conditions. Here, reindeer lichen helps retain moisture.

11. Licorice fern grows like a green beard from the rocks. Our forests in summer are so dense that they can be fairly dark during the day, though I admit I emphasized the darkness in this photograph.

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When I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2012 and began familiarizing myself with the local flora, Licorice fern was one of many new plants. It reminded me of a fern I knew from the southeast called Resurrection fern (Polypodium polypodioides). Resurrection fern is another small, bright green fern that grows like feathers on tree trunks. Its fronds can dry up and look dead, then come back to life after a good rain. As I understand it Licorice fern doesn’t “resurrect” like that – it puts out new fronds after the summer drought, when rain returns.

As interesting as the objective qualities of Licorice fern are, it’s the subjective beauty of this fern that keeps me coming back. I’ve seen subtle variations in form that delight me: sometimes the tip on a frond is very elongated, giving it a stylish, graceful aspect (this is the form that was bred to be sold as a cultivar). Fronds often cross each other and interweave as they grow, making beautiful patterns. Another feature I like is the look of the sporangium (the round dots on the underside that contain spores) when they’re raised, giving leaves a very organized aspect.

12. A Licorice fern frond with an elegantly elongated tip.

13. Cris-crossed leaflets showing single rows of sporangia and finely toothed margins, both characteristic of the species.

14. There’s something inherently satisfying about the orderliness of ferns.

15. Masses of Licorice fern on Fidalgo Island’s highest point, Mount Erie. Clouds gather around the mount even when the rest of the island is sunny, making it a good environment for ferns.
16. The order Polypodiales appeared about 100 million years ago. Genetic analysis shows that the Polypodiales order is evolutionarily more advanced than other ferns.

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A word about photographing ferns

Photography offers a double pleasure: absorption in the moment as we concentrate on framing a piece of the world that for one reason or another excites us, and later, the pleasure of finding a way to perfect that framed image so that it expresses our feelings. The more that camera and processing skills become second nature, the less we need to think about mechanics, leaving us free to enter into the moment and respond with feeling. Being absorbed in the moment often erases the endless commentary and worries that interject themselves into so much of our days. I don’t pretend to describe the experience of making photographs for others, but that’s how it is for me, on a good day.

I delight in the beauty of this little fern as I encounter it outdoors, and later I admire the attractive patterns all over again, as I process the photographs on the computer monitor. This humble little plant gives me great pleasure. Why should you care about it? No reason at all, but for me, the way it grows in the most unlikely places, the brilliant green of new plants at a time of year when others are looking old, and the happy spring of the fronds lifting towards the light make it admirable. Licorice fern makes a good photographic subject too, so as they say, what’s not to like?

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17. Bringing a frond inside for a closer look.

18. In Spring a cliff bursts with color from Licorice ferns, mosses and the small, lavender, green and pink-leaved succulents called Broad-leaved stonecrop (lower left).

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