This is the tenth entry in my “Just One” series about native Pacific Northwest plants. Like other posts in the series, this one has a little science and a little poetry: science in the text and poetry in the images.
I became aware of Vine maples after I moved to a garden apartment in a Seattle suburb. The landscapers there used native plants and a small Vine maple grew below our third story windows. I watched the little tree evolve over the seasons, enjoying its lime-green leaves in spring, puzzling over patchy fall color changes and admiring the sinuous, bare branches in winter. I found more Vine maples growing as understory trees in a local park. One November I made a series of images of ghostly pale leaves lighting up the gloom of the park’s dense, evergreen forest. I miss them now. The soil here seems to be too dry for their comfort. But they’re not far away – Vine maples are plentiful in the wet forests of the Pacific northwest.
Contrary to its name, the Vine maple isn’t a vine and it isn’t the upright, lollipop-shaped tree we usually associate with the word ‘maple.’ This maple doesn’t get very tall. It often has multiple, slender trunks, or a single trunk that twists and turns, looking for more light. The branches can get very long and droopy, sometimes rooting if they touch the ground. Confronted with a thicket of them, it’s understandable how someone decided to call them Vine maples.
Maples have been with us for 60 million years, probably originating in eastern Asia, evolving over time into about 150 different species, all native to the Northern hemisphere. The Vine maple, Acer circinatum, ranges only from the southwest corner of British Columbia to northern California, from the coast to about 200 miles inland. A small territory. And it’s nearest relative? That would be the Full moon or Amu maple (Acer japonicum), native to Japan and southern Korea. Imagine a Japanese maple rather than a Sugar maple and you’re on the right track to picturing a Vine maple.
I’m a detail person, so the first thing I noticed about Vine maples was the attractive shape of their leaves: overall they’re generously round like little moons. Indentations lend a certain grace, not unlike on their Japanese maple cousins. There are usually 7-11 serrated lobes, each ending in a delicate point. The leaves are held flat to absorb light, as if a flock of paper-thin, green saucers has come to rest on thin, wavy branches, beseeching for light deep in the forest. The Latin name, Acre circinatum, tells us it’s a maple (Acer) with something circular going on (circinatum).
As you might guess, this small tree is not considered valuable to loggers. In fact, it’s deemed a nuisance because dense thickets of the shrubby trees can impede loggers’ progress toward their goal: the big trees. But I don’t have to tell you that no plant is useless. Besides the enjoyment humans get from Vine maples as forest and landscape trees, deer and elk browse the tender shoots and leaves. The Coast Salish people sometimes used Vine maple wood for bows or for fishing net frames; other tribes used it for snowshoes and cradle frames. Coastal aboriginal people boiled the bark of the roots to make a tea for colds or burned the wood to charcoal, mixed it with water, and drank it to combat dysentery and polio. A study published in 2000 determined that nutrient levels under Douglas fir trees (valuable for lumber) are higher when Vine maples are present as an understory tree, compared to stands without Vine maples. These trees feed the forest, the wildlife, and our souls.
Why should you care about Vine maples? No reason. If you don’t, that’s OK. The larger point here is that when we get to know our surroundings, when we are curious enough to look deeper and open enough to become companions with the beings we share space with here on earth, well, it’s a good thing.
This entry in my “Just One” series about Pacific Northwest plants is actually about two wildflowers that look alike at first glance. It has taken me a long time to identify and differentiate them. They’re both Rein orchids – small, delicate wildflowers that most people have never heard of and would not notice, even if they walked right past them. But bear with me – they’re really quite beautiful.
I’ve become a bit obsessed with Rein orchids ever since discovering one in a hidden spot off a preserve trail two weeks after we moved to Fidalgo Island. I could tell it was an orchid but I’d never seen anything quite like it. A year later I found the little orchid again, this time in five different places. As I studied my photos I could see that some were different from the others, but when I tried to identify them I was met with a jumble of look-alike species and a veritable morass of names.
Learning that their leaves emerge in late winter, I reminded myself to search for the leaves where I’d seen the orchids in the summer. Sure enough, in February I found healthy, oval leaves, pressed close to the ground, gathering energy so the plant could flower in the summer. They had to be the Rein orchid plants.
This year I resolved to better understand the science of what I was seeing. I wanted to at least know the proper names of these pretty flowers, though I believe that names and science aren’t the only tools for understanding our experience of the natural world. There are less logic-based ways to understand the world which are just as important, but I value science – and I was itching to figure out which is which! A website called inaturalist has been very helpful; I can compare what other people have photographed and identified with my own sightings. I feel fairly confident now that I’ve been seeing two species of Rein orchids here on Fidalgo Island: Platanthera elegans and Platanthera transversa. There’s something tantalizingly poetic about these slender sprites that hide in plain sight.
The Rein orchids wait patiently,
gilded grasses swaying around them, faint
bay breezes rustling the dry Madrone leaves
at their feet. Spiders craft
sticky thread-worlds on their petals,
motorboats rumble in the distance,
occasional bursts of human voices
fade as quickly as they appear. The orchids
wait for the night
and the pollinators, for the arrival
of soft wings and probing tongues,
the woosh, the slurp, the brush of feet and antennae.
This is the reward of patience, or so I imagine
because our encounters, however sweet, are
never by moonlight. We soak the midsummer sun
together, the Rein orchids and I. The heat pricks my nose
with the fragrance of dry grass and cedar, and
encourages petals and roots to stretch. It relaxes
my stiff neck. Slowly the orchids’ nectar ripens
to satisfy the single species of moth that
might pollinate a tiny flower. Let it happen.
Let it happen and
let me find another fairy tale cluster
of slim white stems nestled in the warm grass
Orchids are fascinating. The pretty corsages you see at weddings evolved their colors and curves for very specific reasons, having nothing to do with humans. Evolutionarily advanced, orchids have developed thousands of distinctive ways to attract their pollinators. As Darwin said, “The contrivances for insect fertilization in Orchids are multiform & truly wonderful & beautiful.” As orchid species evolve, their pollinators evolve too, resulting in very specific, even exclusive relationships between plant and pollinator. Orchids often trick their pollinators, which can be bees, hummingbirds, moths, even birds. It’s theorized that the tricks employed by orchids to attract pollinators result in a greater fertilization success rate – as the specialist keeps visiting its favorite orchid species, the orchid pollen it collects isn’t wasted on other flower species.
The first orchid appeared on earth’s evolutionary stage some 100 million years ago; the family now comprises as many as 28,000 different species. Many grow high in trees, some thrive high in the mountains, a few live above the Arctic Circle, most grow in the tropics, and one exists entirely underground.
The Platanthera genus contains around 100 species; 45 are native to North America. At least two – P. elegans and P. transversa – grow close to my home. They are the orchids pictured here. Neither one has a fixed common name but P. elegans is sometimes called the Elegant Rein orchid. Apparently, our P. elegans is a subspecies, P. elegans elegans, the Coast Piperia. (Piperia is after Charles V. Piper, an American botanist and an authority on Pacific Northwest plants). P. transversa (pictured just above) is called the Flat-spurred Rein orchid, or sometimes the Royal Rein orchid. Flat-spurred refers to the long flower spur where the nectar is. It extends out horizontally on each little flower, clearly visible in photos #6 and 18. Another similar species (P. unalascensis) probably grows here as well but I haven’t seen it yet. These flowers are challenging!
Rein orchidson Fidalgo Island favor relatively dry, partly shady conditions. They grow near Douglas fir, and frequently under Madrone trees, which also like drier places. Clusters of Rein orchids can be seen hugging steep slopes facing the water and single flowers may be scattered near trails in open woods, where they get a little more sun than they would in a dense forest. I’ve noticed the presence of another small orchid, the Rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia), can be a clue that Rein orchids may be nearby. It surprises me that no one picks them or tramples them. Maybe that’s the cynical New Yorker in me, expecting nature to be destroyed by hordes of heedless humans. More likely, people don’t see them in the first place. Flower stalks are just a foot or two (20 – 55cm) tall and the flowers don’t sport bright colors. If I show a Rein orchid to someone the reaction is puzzlement and slight disappointment – that’s an orchid? You have to bend down and really look hard to see the graceful flowers. I think their small stature and pale colors are keeping them safe.
A deeper dive into the strange world of orchid reproduction
Rein orchids are summer bloomers whose leaves emerge in late winter. The orchids are busy photosynthesizing well before many other plants are visible. By July the stalk appears, buds begin to open, and the leaves are dry up. After pollination, the stalk is dotted with brown seed pods containing prodigious amounts of seed. Unlike most seeds, tiny orchid seeds don’t have enough nutrition on board to get going on their own. They must join with a mycorrhizal network (a web of fungal threads in the soil) to survive. Within hours of this crucial linkage, carbon will flow in both directions, benefiting the “infected” orchid and the fungus. Fungal partners also supply nitrogen and phosphorus to the orchid. This mycorrhizal association, though not well understood, is absolutely essential to all orchids.
Once a seed germinates and begins growing underground, the slow process of flowering is underway. A root will form in the soil at some point, but it can be years before a leaf emerges and photosynthesis takes place. It can also be years before the plant is robust enough to produce a flower stalk. Once the plant blooms and releases its seeds, little is left to see above ground. But a tuber is there, hiding in the soil, along with many fungal networks. When the time is right, (patience!) another Rein orchid will appear.
There is a dearth of information about these orchids. It’s not clear exactly what insects pollinate them. One source says that P. elegans is pollinated by a small brown moth not much bigger than your thumb. Its Latin name is Plusia nichollae and there is no common name – more obscurity! The little pollinator is a partly diurnal moth that lives mainly west of the Cascades, from coastal British Columbia to the Bay area in California, a narrow range not unlike that of the orchid. Sienna brown wings marked with white and gold would make the moth hard to spot among the golden grasses that often surround P. elegans. I’ll be looking for it.
A source says Flat-spurred rein orchids may be pollinated by “moths such as Thallophaga taylorata.” This moth doesn’t have a common name either. The obscurity of these lovely little plants is part of the appeal. They aren’t common, they grow in out-of-the-way places, they’re not well-studied by scientists, they aren’t known at all by the general public…and there you have a recipe for wonder. They will keep my attention for a while, I expect.
As I write this post, the flowers are fading and the plants are moving on to seed setting and dispersal. Six months from now I’ll be looking for Rein orchid leaves, nestled in moist moss. Until next year…
If I’m going to include lichens in my “Just One” series about plants that open my eyes wider (and yes, lichens must be included!) then let the first lichen be this one.
Lovely Lace lichen
who are you?
Your Latin name, Ramalina menziesii, dances
across my lips
and hovers lightly in the air,
waiting to be explained. Your
drifting, wafting, pendulous gray-green veils
take me back to the Georgia coast, where
Spanish moss hangs languorously from massive oaks
lending mystery to the humid air. But you’re different.
Instead of wavy, branching strands like Spanish moss (which isn’t a lichen anyway, but a very odd flowering plant)
instead of long bristled cords like the Methuselah’s beard lichen
your body is a strange landscape of wonder containing
endless revelations: here
a fine fishnet of connected filaments, there
a wavy-edged ribbon with knobby antennae, there
a weightless, crooked ladder, there
a neuron dancing in the air.
As the scientist says, there’s
considerable morphological variation.
And amidst this melange of forms
the swing and sway, the
drape and droop of you:
an enchantment in the woods.
Different theories have been proposed to explain the odd, net-like structure of Ramalina menziesii. One idea is that the perforations make the lichen less apt to break when stretched. I’ve pulled on them – they’re surprisingly elastic. The holey structure (you could say holy, too, as far as I’m concerned) is supposed to facilitate grabbing water out of the atmosphere and shedding excess heat. I’m not sure what the final word is on why Lace lichen is built the way it is. Let’s just look:
Experiencing Lace lichen
Lace lichen kindly requests that I leave my concepts at the door. It’s place in this world is more intricately interdependent than I can imagine. But if I can get my “knowing” brain out of the way perhaps I will see a little more of this lichen’s true nature. It’s not fixed and it can’t be grasped by human words (but it’s still worth it to try). Being with this lichen, I perceive a ghostly grace. I hear water splash in the distance, feel cool air on my face. I sense movement, a persistent swaying back and forth across space and time. There is attachment too, in the twirling strands suspended from branches and twigs. If I tug lightly, I sense the rightness of the attachment; the lichen knows its place and resists removal. When the rains come the strands are soft, almost weightless and when they dry up they feel rough, brittle even.
Those are some of my experiences; your sense of a lichen, a plant or an animal in your own world is different. It is local to you; it’s a moment that comes and goes but with open attention, can be deeply inspiring. And relaxing.
Where does Lace lichen hang its ragged gray-green hat? On Fidalgo Island it thrives in the mists that rise on cool mornings in a few places along the western shoreline. Unlike many lichens that can be found all across the globe given the right conditions, this one keeps to a relatively tight geography, settling in on America’s West coast from 25° N to 55° N latitude (southern California to southern Alaska). In California it can range 130 miles inland but it flourishes between the mountains and the sea, where the air is clean and the light is diffuse and cool. Moist winds from the West carry nutrients captured by Lace lichen’s netted contours. That open structure also collects pollution, which will kill the lichen. You won’t find it amidst the honking horns of a metropolis.
What goes on inside lichens is surprising – for one thing, they’re not plants, they are complex partnerships between a fungus, and in the case of Lace lichen, the green alga Trebouxia decolorans (when it grows on California oaks – maybe Lace lichen in other locations has different algal partners). You can think of lichens as small-scale farms or ecosystems, with the fungus providing support and the alga making food for itself and the fungus by photosynthesizing. The scientific name for Lace lichen is actually only the name of the fungal partner. In the case of many lichens, I doubt that the photosynthesizing partner has even been identified. Lichen partnerships can include cyanobacterium, non-photosynthetic bacteria, and some have single-celled yeast partners, too. Whew, it’s a party in there!
Lichens have been called “intimately interacting mutualists.” That sounds like something we should all engage in more often. The partners’ activity produces chemical compounds like proteins, amino acids, and polysaccahrides as well as secondary metabolites like antioxidants and substances that act as a sunblock. Though humans don’t get much from eating Lace lichen, elk and deer are known to browse it. Birds most likely use it for nesting material. Lace lichen was used “in a variety of ways by tribes of Native Americans along the coast, and possibly throughout the Sierra. In a compilation put together by Sylvia Sharnoff in 2003, Lace Lichen was used by the Kawaiisu because of its “magical” properties. They would use it to ward off thunder and lightning by throwing it in fire. They would also throw it in water to bring on rain.” (Journal of the Sierra College Natural History Museum, Winter 2018).
If you’re wondering about reproduction, Lace lichen (really the fungal partner) reproduces both sexually and asexually. The asexual method is simply fragmentation – pieces get torn off and if they land in the right place, they’ll keep growing. There are tiny cup-like protrusions (apothecium) on the lichen’s body that hold spores which can be blown out by the wind. How exactly the spore turns into the lichen, I do not know! The fungus would need to find that photosynthesizing partner to grow into a Lace lichen (and you thought humans had trouble finding the right partner). Life is complex!
Humans Connect with Ramalina menziesii
The Macedonian artist Kristina Zimbakova has used Lace lichens (and other species of lichen) in her mixed media work. Here is an example.
Last night and the night before I watched violence in the streets of Seattle on TV as events unfolded before the eyes of the public. Live news coverage of protests continued for hours, but it only took a few minutes for me to feel depressed, weary, exhausted, and hopeless. A reporter made the point that these protests – or was that even the right word for burning cars and looting? – looked different from Seattle’s 1999 WTO protests, when a World Trade Organization meeting was confronted with tens of thousands of protesters blocking delegates’ access and an overwhelmed, unprepared police force. That time, protestors had a clear target: globalization. In contrast, there was a randomness to these protests; as a woman expressed disappointment that her planned, peaceful demonstration had been hijacked, looters ran behind her with North Face jackets over their arms and cars went up in flames.
Underpinning it all, the driver of the current crop of violence and protests is our long history of racism, a history that, in my mind, we have not even begun to address. No wonder George Floyd is dead, no wonder Trayvon Martin lost his life. No wonder Eric Garner is dead, no wonder Ahmaud Arbery lost his life. The list goes on and on, back to the men and women who died on slave ships on their way to what – the promised land? Our country hasn’t faced what we did and keep doing, we haven’t made restitution, we have turned away. The turning away is profound and results in so much loss – loss of life, loss of dignity, loss of possibility.
I grew upin profound ignorance of this part of America’s story. Surely there were discussions of slavery in our grade school history lessons, but in our all-white classroom it wouldn’t have seemed very real. I don’t remember even seeing a person of color until I was ten, when we traveled from our quiet, upstate New York neighborhood to southern Georgia. My eyes were wide as we drove past a black woman weaving baskets for sale by the side of the road. My heart leaped at the sound of a quartet of black men singing spirituals on a sultry night. My mind puzzled over a black woman baking biscuits for her white employer’s family and my grandfather’s racist remarks. I longed to understand what seemed like a different reality. And different it was, because of the legacy of white culture’s investment in slavery.
After I left home my understanding of the other reality that was black America took shape down a rocky road of close friendships, interpersonal violence, even a drowning. I was deeply entangled in a fraught inheritance as victim, and on some level, as perpetrator. I’m far away from those times now but many incidents left deep scars on my psyche. Often it seems there’s no making sense of any of it. That’s the despair talking. That’s how I felt watching TV last night.
Retreating into a pretty world of graceful plants – and the Maidenhair fern certainly fits that bill – is tempting but I couldn’t simply proceed with this post as if nothing else was happening. Between racism, the pandemic and a changing climate, there is much to mourn today. Making sense of it seems impossible but we need to make the effort. And we need to turn away at some point, if only to breathe. Yes, I used that word “breathe” intentionally. George Floyd literally couldn’t breathe and so he died. We all need to breathe some better air. I offer this brief respite in the hope that you will come away from it breathing better, if only metaphorically. In Zen practice I learned the Three Precepts: to cease from evil, to do good, and to do good for others. In another iteration: to not create evil, to practice good and to actualize good for others. I see it as a continuum. We can at least try to place ourselves on it, somewhere, once we catch our breath.
And now to the lovely Maidenhair fern, which you may already know. It’s graceful fronds invite contemplation. They sway in the breeze on long, impossibly thin stalks, they shed rain but love wet places, they please the eye with the regularity of their patterns, like small green ladders in the woods, arrayed in circles.
The Maidenhair fern is sold as a garden plant and grows wild in many places – North America, China, the Andes, New Zealand, Europe – even Bermuda has its own Maidenhair fern. There are around 250 different species of Adiantum, a genus name that means unwetted, for the way water beads up on the leaves.
The species found in my area is called Adiantum aleuticum. Aleutian maidenhair fern ranges from Alaska to Mexico and is also found on the other side of the country, from Newfoundland to Vermont. I don’t remember where or when I saw a Maidenhair fern the first time. Maybe it was in a conservatory that I was first captivated by the graceful, delicate patterns of its leaves. Every time I find one my breath draws in sharply. Oh! A Maidenhair!!
There aren’t many colonies here on Fidalgo Island; we’re too dry for this moisture-lover. The few places I’ve found it growing here are rocky, wet cliffsides in shady locations. Further inland it can be found in rich, moist woods. Once I saw it entwined with Sword fern AND Lady fern – a trio of repeating patterns in bright green.
Fern reproduction is a complicated business. You probably know that ferns have spores rather than seeds. On many, but not all ferns, spores are carried on the undersides of the leaves and that’s the case with Maidenhair ferns. Sometime in summer, the margins of fertile leaflets curl under and spores begin to grow. Tiny, dust-like spores are piled in sori (from the Greek for ‘heaps’) also called fruitdots. The sori are covered by a thin membrane which is pushed aside once the spores are ripe. In the case of Maidenhair ferns, the membrane protecting the spores is simply the rolled edge of the leaflet. In some of these photos (e.g. #13 & 16) the rolled margins of leaflets can be seen – that’s where the Maidenhair fern hides it’s precious spores.
When they ripen, the spores will burst out of their cases and get blown around by the wind. Ferns produce prodigious amounts of spores and since there are so many, some are bound to land in just the right place. But spores don’t create ferns directly – first, there’s an intermediate stage, the gametophyte. A little hair anchors it into the soil and it grows, cell by cell, into a very small, heart-shaped body on which the sexual organs form. With a little moisture, male sperm will swim across to the female organs and eggs will be fertilized. An egg then develops a root, a stem, and finally, the first little leaf. Every time I read about fern reproduction I think, why can’t I find one of those little heart-shaped fern gametophytes? They’re just too small. My eyes are distracted by so many other things.
The fine, dark smooth stems of Maidenhair ferns have been used in basketry by North American tribes, and there was some medicinal use as well. In some European countries a sweetened syrup is made with Maidenhair fern leaves. CalledCapillaire or Capilein Portugal, it’s been used in cocktails and to treat symptoms of illnesses like sore throats and bronchitis. The medicinal uses of Adiantum in Iranian traditional medicine are discussed in a recent scientific study. Traditional Chinese Medicine uses Adiantum plant species, too. And a Seattle-based school of herbalism and foraging is called Adiantum School of Plant Medicine.
A plant with such a wide distribution has probably had many other uses through the ages. For me, it’s enough to just look at it. This fern never fails to delight, no matter how many times I might see it.
We drift in a liminal space these days, caught between a past that’s just out of reach and a future that never comes into focus. Floating in a murky emotional soup of fear, longing, resignation and hope, we grope blindly for some shred of reassurance. At a time like this the thoroughly solid presence of old trees can be a welcome comfort. Maybe you’ve been lingering under big trees, consciously or unconsciously seeking solace. In the Pacific Northwest, the Western Red-cedar is one tree whose benign, gentle presence can soothe and center frayed nerves.
My wish is that you could stand beneath this
stately tree-being, stand there quietly,
breathe along with bark, leaves,
Bend your head way back and gaze far
up into the branches until your eyes tire. Peer closely
at the russet-colored bark and discover life
hidden in the darkest fissures. Trace the wide arc
of a single branch as it dips down, then
climbs back up towards the light.
follow the sensuous twists and curves of roots until
they disappear into the thick, spongy duff.
Inhale the sharp, fresh fragrance and listen to the
soft shushing of swaying branches.
Commune. Lose yourself
in the presence of this graceful tree,
forget the news,
shake off your worries.
There are times when we suffer; there are times when the Red-cedars suffer. They fall, they burn in fires, they’re attacked by fungi and beetles, felled by loggers and stressed by climatic changes. Those that are taken from the forest may become shingles, siding, outdoor furniture, even caskets. Those that fall become new homes for fungi, plants and animals. Those that rot at the base may still stand, their hollows sheltering bears and other animals. Those that are burned nourish the soil.
The Red-cedar tree (and its relative the Alaska or Yellow-cedar) has played an outsized role in the lives of people living in the Pacific Northwest coastal areas. Regarded as the ‘tree of life’ by the Kakawaka’wakw, the species was, and still is, highly respected by all Northwest coast indigenous cultures. Ceremonial uses for the tree were not separate from other uses but were an integral part of everyday life. Nearly every part of the tree could be put to medicinal use. The bark, which was stripped off the tree in manageable quantities so the tree wasn’t harmed, was used for a wide variety of everyday objects like clothing, mats, dishes, ropes – the list goes on. Exceptionally large trees were once abundant in the forests so houses were built from Red-cedar poles, beams and planks. The straight-grained, rot-resistant, buoyant wood is not too hard to be worked with stone tools. Canoes are still made by Pacific Northwest tribes from carefully selected Red-cedar trees. Annual inter-tribal canoe journeys that keep these traditions alive, have taken place every summer since the 1980’s. In coastal forests, particularly in British Columbia, there are numerous culturally modified trees (CMT’s). These trees show evidence of being stripped of pieces bark or wood or otherwise modified for indigenous use, long ago or more recently. They are a living historical record and are respected as such.
They’re not cedars, by the way. In fact, Thuja plicata is a member of the Cypress family, along with our native junipers; true cedars are native to the Old World. American cedar chests, with their familiar, moth-repellent, aromatic fragrance, were made from Eastern red-cedar, which is a juniper tree that grows in the eastern half of the U.S. But enough confusion! There is no mistaking Western red-cedar once you’ve seen it a few times. With its distinctive, vertically patterned bark, curved branches and gracefully drooping sprays of evergreen foliage, it is a dominant tree of the moist, lowland forests within its range.
Though its cones are small and often overlooked, they tell the story of Red-cedar’s reproduction. Both male and female cones are found on each tree. After developing in the previous summer, pollen cones shed their pollen into the wind in March. Around here that means several weeks of sneezing and dusty-looking cars. Seed cones trap and funnel the drifting pollen into ovules, where fertilization takes place in May. By September, the seed cones have matured and turned brown and can begin releasing seeds, to be carried by the wind. They’ll land some distance from the parent tree. Some will sprout into seedlings but the seedlings often have a tough time surviving. Perhaps as insurance, Red-cedar trees can also reproduce vegetatively. Low-hanging and fallen branches can root and even fallen trees may develop new, viable branches.
The oldest known Western red-cedar trees are well over a thousand years old; the biggest trees include one on Vancouver Island that is about 20′ (6m) in diameter and 182′ (56m) tall, and one on the Oregon coast that measured about 17′ in diameter and 153′ tall in 2010. In the face of this kind of longevity it might be worthwhile to ponder the fate of the scores of human generations that have lived and passed away while these old giants have persisted.
My wish for you is that you can relax under an old Red-cedar tree – but any big tree near you will do. My wish for the trees themselves is that no more Red-cedars suffer damaging harm from human causes – or at the very least, that no more giants are logged.
More “Just One” posts can be found by scrolling down to the Categories section below.
Spring proceeds on its own schedule, without effort or hindrance. It may be wetter or slower or colder than we think it should be, but those notions are just concepts that we layer onto our experience. Spring doesn’t listen to that. Without considering our opinions or preferences, buds open, birds sing, frogs lay eggs, insects buzz…
…and the flowers, the flowers. Lately one in particular enchants me: the Fawn lily, Erythronium oregonum.
Clean and delicate, the elegant, six-petaled lilies appear in early to mid-spring, in moist woodlands or prairies from northwest California to British Columbia. About two dozen other species of Erythronium occur in the United States, Japan, China, Russia, Iran and the Caucasus. Like tulips, they are members of the Lily family. Generally, lilies have flower parts arranged in threes, grow from bulbs and flourish in temperate regions. Their simplicity of form is very appealing.
The Fawn lilies here on Fidalgo Island have been beautiful. Last April I was away almost all month and the April before that, I didn’t live here, so this is my first April on Fidalgo Island. It’s been a month of discoveries and finding dozens of graceful Fawn lilies in parks and preserves near home has been thrilling.
The flowers I admire today have taken years to come into bloom; they’re nothing like the sprouts you might grow at home or grass seed that greens up a lawn in a matter of days. I could begin the cycle anywhere but I’ll start with January, when the winds of winter have their way with branches, leaves, bark chunks, needles, cones and lichen scraps, sending them all raining down onto the forest floor where they slowly decompose. In March the ground is still a chaotic tangle of broken fragments holding little promise. But deep under the soil, Fawn lily seeds are busy growing. The first visible effort isn’t very dramatic – just one small leaf will emerge, probably during the wet weather of autumn. But the leaf will grow, and so will the bulb.
The next year another leaf will emerge, this time a little bigger. Below the leaf, the seed will have fattened into a small corm or bulb, which gradually pushes downward to a deeper, safer place where it’s less likely to be dug up and eaten or dry out in the summer. That downward motion is accomplished with specialized contractile roots that pull the bulb down into the soil instead of taking up water and minerals. As this cycle repeats the result is a bigger leaf, a bigger bulb, and a stronger plant each year.
Finally, the plant gathers sufficient energy to produce a flower. If the flower survives it may be pollinated, most likely by a bee. Successful pollination will lead to seed formation and dispersal and with their work done, the leaves will wither in the summer heat, releasing their nutrients back into the soil. Some of the seeds will land in just the right places to begin the cycle anew.
Spending time among the Fawn lilies, photographing them and working out different ways to process the images deepens my appreciation for them. They won’t be in flower much longer. Like many Spring ephemerals, they take advantage of the light on the forest floor that is present before many plants leaf out. They flower before the light is reduced, fading away over the summer and coming alive again in the cool, wet, early months of the year. Late next winter I’ll search for those distinctively mottled leaves in anticipation of enjoying the delicate white stars of the forest again.
In saying that spring follows its own schedule and pays no attention to what we might be thinking, I don’t mean to imply that our actions have no impact on the climate, the environment, and thus on spring itself. What we do and how we are involved with life on earth matters.
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.
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.
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.
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 berriesused 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?