LOCAL WALKS: WILDFLOWER JOY

Or should I say the joy of wildflowers, or

is it the joy of early spring?

Or maybe it’s the joy of full vaccination…

In any case, here’s a collection that reflects my deep appreciation for “Spring ephemerals,” the fleeting wildflowers of spring that appear and depart all too quickly. These photographs were made within fifteen minutes of home, over the past five weeks.

This is a long, immersive post that you may want to linger over.

ENJOY!

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1. Like spirits from another world, pure white Fawn lilies (Erythronium oregonum) rise up from the dusky litter of broken sticks and dried leaves left by last winter’s storms.
2. Sitting under the dappled shade of fir trees with my legs tucked under me, I search, focus and click. Waves of enchantment wash over me. There’s nowhere I’d rather be at this moment.
3. I get up to go but I can’t resist another photograph, this time looking down at the perfect symmetry of the flower and its richly colored, mottled leaves. Fawn lilies are perfect from every angle.

4. A single-lane loop road traces a two-mile circuit through a local park that is sprinkled with tiny wildflowers, most of them never seen by people circling the park on the road. I walk away from the road on soft, dirt trails winding through evergreen woods and emerging onto quiet meadows. I see few people on the trails.
5. Here’s one of the park’s wild inhabitants: the diminutive Calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa), just beginning to open. See how small it is in relation to the grass, leaves and sticks around it – no wonder people don’t see it!
6. Once again I sit on the forest floor – how else can I see their faces? Like twins, these two bloomed close together on separate stems. Also called Venus’ slipper or Fairy slipper, this orchid of dry, coniferous and mixed forests does not tolerate disruption. The plant sends up a single leaf from a small corm (like a bulb), then a flower stalk that will soon disappear. Calypso orchids have close relationships with certain soil fungi in order to access nutrients they can’t produce on their own. If that partnership is disturbed the plant may die. Bees typically visit the intricate flowers a few times before they realize there is no nectar at all in that enticing opening. By then, pollination has occurred – by deception.
7. The Small-flowered woodland star (or prairie star) (Lithophragma parviflora) is opening five, deeply-cut, pale pink petals. “Litho” refers to stone and this little western American native loves the open, rocky bluffs on the edge of the park.
8. In early April, a thin-soiled bluff sports a lovely smattering of wildflowers, among them the Small-flowered woodland star.
9. This year’s plentiful winter rain was kind to the moss, which in turn seems to be kind to Small-flowered blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia parviflora) and Grassland saxifrage (Micranthes integrifolia).
10. On the second Saturday in April I went up to Sugarloaf, a promontory on Fidalgo Island, and sat on a rock. Changeable weather discouraged other hikers that day; it was just me and a spectacular view of storm clouds pouring rain over the San Juan Islands. I barely made it home in time for dinner that day!
11. As I wound my way down the trail to my car that afternoon, I gazed out toward the water through an understory of budding Red huckleberry bushes and paused to take a photo while there was still light in the sky. It wasn’t quite as dark as it looks here – spot metering and choosing where to meter and focus dimmed the scene to match the moody atmosphere I felt in my bones.

12. Fiddleheads no bigger than your fingertip were uncurling among the rocks just below the top of Sugarloaf. I’m pretty sure this is Goldback fern (Pentagramma triangularis), a small Western native fern that favors rocky outcrops and tolerates summer drought.
13. The clouds I watched over the San Juan’s unloaded a surprise on Fidalgo Island on that afternoon – hail. Pockets of the little ice balls still decorated the ground when I hiked up the hill.
14. One the earliest harbingers of spring is the photogenic Skunk cabbage, or Yellow lantern (Lysichiton americanus). These bold beauties rise up from the muck of low-lying wetlands in March. To me, the odor is not bad but I’ve read that the plant’s scent can change with the temperature. Maybe I’ve been lucky to be near them at their “best.” These energetic clumps grow in a wetland inhabited by beavers, near the middle of the island.
15. These fetching fellows favor wet places around bluffs on the fringes of Washington Park. They’re called Seep monkey flowers (Eryanthe guttata). The little charmers grow in a variety of habitats including alpine slopes, desert washes and serpentine balds on Fidalgo, where heavy metals in the soil discourage many plants from taking root. Along with Larkspurs (#18-20), Stonecrops (#28), and Checker lilies (below), Monkey flowers have been hybridized for gardens and exist in many forms, both in the wild and in cultivation.

16. The nodding, oddly colored bells of Chocolate lily, also called Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) tend to disappear when they grow in grassy areas. You have to look hard to spot them! I found this nice specimen fairly well hidden near a trail in Deception Pass State Park; the one below was at the top of Goose Rock, in the same park.
17. The Fritillarias are a genus of lily with well over a hundred species growing in temperate regions of the Northern hemisphere. In China certain Fritillarias are used medicinally for lung conditions. The flower bulbs of our species have smaller bulbs that look like plump grains of rice stuck to them. Coast Salish tribes used to dig and eat the bulbs; the plant is also called “Rice root.”
18. Perched on the narrow edge of a cliff overlooking tidal waters, this attractive larkspur (Delphineum menziesii) is an ephemeral delight. The deep, blue-violet color mixes well with yellow Lomatium flowers, white chickweed, and the multi-colored leaves of native Stonecrop plants that grow around it at this location. Honestly, I get nervous looking at these Larkspurs because they grow just a step away from a popular trail in a state park. So far though, they are unmolested.
19. Larkspur buds sport warm, fuzzy coats and a jaunty attitude.
20. I can’t resist adding another photo of Menzies’ larkspur. It was taken this week when the sun was sinking down over the waters of the Salish Sea, lending a warm glow to everything. The Latin species name ‘menziesii” is after Archibald Menzies, a surgeon and naturalist on Captain George Vancouver’s H.M.S. Discovery. He was one of the first Europeans to preserve and describe many plants of the Pacific Northwest, over two hundred years ago.

21. Time out to gaze at a Canada goose (Branta canadensiss) swimming across a small lake, not far from the Skunk cabbage wetland in #14, above. Back in New York, Canada geese gathering in large numbers fouled campus lawns with excrement. I never see more than a dozen at a time here and I never have to tiptoe carefully through the you-know-what.

22. That day at the lake, after looking down at the goose I looked up into a wild, Red-flowering currant bush (Ribes sanguineum). What a pleasure to see this beauty reaching toward the light at the edge of the woods.
23. One of my favorite spring wildflowers is the petite Satin flower, or Grass widow (Olsynium douglasii). I’ve only seen them in two or three places.
24. Viewed from above, this patch of Satin flowers shows different stages of growth. The color, simple shape and scarcity of Satin flowers make them special to me. Like many of the native plants that grow here, they are found from southern British Columbia to northern California; they also grow in the interior, as far east as Utah. They favor wet springs and dry summers, like many native plants here on Fidalgo Island.
25. Here’s one place I found Satin flowers: along the edge of this path on Sugarloaf. It was a typically cloudy March day but we could still make out the Olympic Mountains, far off to the southwest, rising over a cloud bank. Since childhood I’ve been prone to switch back and forth between the close, small scale view and the expansive long view.
26. A fern unwinds after a long winter sleep. This is the (very!) common Bracken fern, aka Brake fern (Pteridium aquilinum). The tall, coarse fern thrives from Mexico to Alaska and is also native to Europe and Eastern Asia. Young shoots like this are relished in Korea and Japan. The plant contains a carcinogenic chemical that is probably safe in small quantities but cooks usually soak the shoots in water prior to steaming, which probably eliminates any risk. To me, Bracken ferns are fond friends (or should I say “frond friends?) whose shoots amuse me in spring and whose dried leaves add texture and color to the winter woods.
27. Isn’t the cool, violet-blue of Common camas (Camassia quamash), irresistible? A member of the lily family, this plant grows from a bulb that local tribes used to dig, then steam in large pits for many hours before eating. Before prairies were cleared for agriculture they grew abundantly enough to be one of the most important foods of Pacific Northwest tribes. The pretty flowers are fairly common here on the island, if you know where and when to look.
28. Nature composes pleasing rock gardens all over the island. This one is on Sugarloaf, where Broadleaf stonecrop (Sedum spathufolium) mixes with shaggy mosses and crusty lichens. After the spring ephemerals have faded. Stonecrop plants will take their turn, sending up cheerful yellow flowers in early summer.
29. Standing up like soldiers, Prairie saxifrage (Micranthes integrifolia) has grown fast after being nourished by spring rain. Along with the rain, they’ll be gone by summer. Once again, it’s worth it to get down on the ground to see them at their own level. (Also pictured above, #9, at an earlier stage of growth).
30. How else would I see this, if I didn’t sit in the grass?

31. A cooperative Barred owl (Strix varia) allowed me to point the camera straight at it from a close range one day. I was walking back from a long hike and had a 60mm macro lens on my Olympus Pen-F (about a 120mm equivalent on a DSLR). That’s not really enough reach for birds, but I managed some acceptable shots anyway. Getting out frequently to look for wildflowers brings many gifts.

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HAPPY EARTH DAY!

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WONDERS: Overhead and At My Feet

The pandemic has turned the world upside down for many of us, smashing routines to bits and making fear and anxiety our daily companions. Normally I like the unexpected – it perks me up and keeps me engaged. But a world-wide crisis in which countless people suffer isn’t what I have in mind when I consider the benefits of change. People across the globe have been forced way out of their comfort zones. We’re all doing whatever we can to cope with the consequences of a situation that would have sounded like science fiction a year ago.

For many people that means getting outdoors as much as possible, trying to gain a little distance from the news and relieve the restlessness that comes with quarantine restrictions. Unfortunately, the ability to go outdoors is only a dream for some people. I’m lucky – access to nature is not difficult where I live and I’m healthy enough to get myself out the door. Being outside has always been my salvation, so lately, I get out almost every day.

And I never know what I’m going to see next.

How about having sky overhead jam-packed with thousands of honking, flapping geese frantically flying back and forth? That was certainly an unexpected sight, and I loved it. Or how about a tiny, glittering pink gem rising out of the rough detritus of the forest floor? Finding dainty Calypso orchids in the woods made my heart pound. Startling sights above my head and at my feet – these are interruptions in the routine that I welcome.

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1. This is a fraction of the immense flock of Snow geese (Chen caerulescens) that we came upon in the fields of Skagit County, after a trip to the bakery one afternoon.

2. We reveled in the deafening noise.

3. Most Snow geese that spend winters in Skagit county breed on Russia’s Wrangel Island, far to the northwest. Many farmers leave crops (like potatoes and corn) in the ground for the geese and for Trumpeter swans, which also winter here.

4. Handsome birds!

5. Photographers like this man are thrilled to be in the midst of a whirling flock of Snow geese. I didn’t see them all winter. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time (they cover a wide area, moving from field to field). I thought they would leave before I could see them this year, but the day we saw this flock proved me wrong.

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You can experience the deafening noise of Snow geese yourself here. My own amateurish video didn’t upload but the second video in the link looks a lot like what we experienced, except it’s far louder in person. Three Bald eagles were harassing the geese that afternoon. People walking their dogs may also have disturbed them. I don’t like seeing the geese unsettled for too long (we watched for at least 20 minutes). They need their energy. But I trust they are healthy and most will make it back to their breeding grounds.

Many of you know the poem, “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. She also wrote this poem, about an encounter with Snow geese.

Snow Geese

Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!
What a task
To ask
Of anything, or anyone,
Yet it is ours,
And not by the century or the year, but by the hours.
One fall day I heard
Above me, and above the sting of the wind, a sound
I did not know, and my look shot upward; it was
A flock of snow geese, winging it
Faster than the ones we usually see,
And, being the color of snow, catching the sun
So they were, in part at least, golden. I
Held my breath
As we do
Sometimes
To stop time
When something wonderful
Has touched us
As with a match,
Which is lit, and bright,
But does not hurt
In the common way,
But delightfully,
As if delight
Were the most serious thing
You ever felt.
The geese
Flew on,
I have never seen them again.
Maybe I will, someday, somewhere.
Maybe I won’t.
It doesn’t matter.
What matters
Is that, when I saw them,
I saw them
As through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly.

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Another startling sight I experienced recently is the glorious vision of small, delicate magenta orchids growing on the forest floor. The little Calypso orchid (Calyso bulbosa) grows mainly in undisturbed northern forests, all around the globe. I saw my first Calypso last year and since then I’ve found them in three different parks here on the island. They are an astonishing sight, a real anomaly. Shaped and colored like miniature corsage orchids, you would expect to find them in a greenhouse, or growing in the luxurious warmth and humidity of a tropical country. As if someone dropped an earring made of brilliantly colored stones on the floor of a dusty old factory, the orchids push straight out of the dim forest floor, with just a single leaf pressed close to the earth. They’re a delight for anyone sharp-eyed enough to notice them – but only for a few weeks.

Wikipedia says, “The etymology of Calypso’s name is from καλύπτω (kalyptō), meaning “to cover”, “to conceal”, “to hide”, or “to deceive.” I think the name works on several levels for this plant: the flower contrasts sharply with its surroundings but is so small that it’s often hidden in the previous season’s detritus. The most intricately patterned parts of the flower are concealed below the upper petals (actually they are sepals, petals and a bract). Finally, the plant deceives potential pollinators by appearing to be source of nectar, which it is not.

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6. I was serious when I said these orchids are small and like to come up through all the branches, twigs, leaves and other detritus on the forest floor.

7. I found this younger specimen growing under a cedar log on the side of a trail in the forest.

8. I’ve read that these little gems smell sweet but the chilly, early spring air makes my nose stuffy; though I scrunched down to smell the flower I couldn’t discern any fragrance. The sight is reward enough for me.
9. The flowers look enticing to insects (and to me!) but in fact, they don’t have nectar. Bees learn there’s no reward for them after a few visits, but apparently even just a few visits to different Calypso orchids will get the pollination job done.

10.

11. Seen from above: pure elegance.

One more…

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12. A gaggle of Snow geese in black and white.

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KEEPING UP…

…with seasonal changes is a motivating force. I missed three weeks of spring while I was away. That worried me, because after observing summer, fall and winter here on Fidalgo Island, I didn’t want to miss seeing the changes spring would bring.

But it was fine – when I returned from Europe 12 days ago, tender, green growth was visible everywhere. The spring ephemerals – wildflowers that take advantage of extra light on the forest floor before the trees leaf out – were blooming. These flowers benefit from spring rain too, and it’s been unusually dry. But at least for now the morning dew, and some moisture remaining in the soil, keep the green machine chugging along.

I’ve taken a walk outside most every day, not wanting to miss a minute of this fleeting season. I’m curious to see how spring here differs from spring 70 miles south, where I used to live. Many of the major players in this ecosystem are the same – the dominant evergreen trees, the understory of salal and sword fern, the basic weather patterns – but there are striking differences. Sussing out the disparities, season by season, is fascinating.

I’ve taken walks at a community forest around a lake, at my favorite places in Deception Pass State Park, and at a local park on a peninsula. Those locations are close to home but one day we drove an hour inland to Rockport State Park, where the ecosystem is a little different. In each place wildflowers were blooming, ferns were unfurling, birds were singing, insects were buzzing, and the cool, fresh air gave me a little shiver until I warmed up from trudging up and down hills.

I brought along a favorite macro lens, a wider-angled prime lens, and once, the old Super Takumar 50mm vintage lens, which can be a challenge to use, but produces some unique images. The sun has been bright lately, which isn’t ideal for photographing tiny, delicate wildflowers. I did what I could with the conditions I found. It was fun getting back to Lightroom. I really enjoy pushing those sliders around and manipulating images, but I’m rusty after three solid weeks away from it. In any case, I think you’ll enjoy the fruits of my walks – I hope so. I’ll get back to the Europe trip later – this feels like it can’t wait!

 

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1. Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) like all ferns, is interesting to peer at up close. I love those tightly coiled little fists. Some people harvest and eat the fiddleheads, but the safety of ingesting this fern is controversial.

 

2. Bracken again. Slightly different species of this fern grow in North, Central and South America, in Europe, in Africa, in China and Southeast Asia, and in Australia. In other words, it’s everywhere! Cattle farmers don’t like it because it can poison livestock.

 

3. A Twisted stalk, probably Clasping Twisted-stalk, aka Watermelon berry (Streptopus amplexifolius), unfolding in the shady understory of the old growth forest at Rockport State Park. The small flowers hide under the stalk – you have to get down really low to see them. A very elegant plant!

 

4. I think this is a close relative, Rose Twisted-stalk (Streptopus lanceolatus, v. roseus). It’s easier to identify after the flowers open, but what a beauty it is at this stage. Rockport State Park.

 

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4. Another elegant plant, though many people may not realize it, is our native Vine maple (Acer circinatum). This small forest tree is found, like many of our native plants, from southwest British Columbia to northern California. Close relatives are the familiar Japanese and Korean maples of Asia.

 

5. The little Calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa) is found in cool forests in the US, Japan, China, Korea, Mongolia, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Baltics. The plant depends on particular soil fungi and does not transplant well.

 

6. Calypso orchid petals seen from above. The flower does not produce nectar, but the fancy digs (seen in #5) are quite attractive to insects. Though a bee may leave disappointed, just one more futile try for nectar at another flower may be enough for pollination. Orchids often use this strategy of pollination by deception.

 

7. Looking up in the deep shade of the forest at Goose Rock, Deception Pass State Park. The cheerful oval leaves are the Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium), a common understory plant of our woods. Indigenous people made good use of the small berries. Whenever I see them there are only a few left; the birds and animals always seem to beat me to the berry.

 

8. Pacific Bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), with its ferny foliage, creates a soft, pleasing picture wherever it grows. It’s a popular garden plant; the nursery trade has hybridized these flowers to produce much bigger, more deeply colored pink blooms, and pure white flowers as well. Rockport State Park.

 

9. Black and white? Color? I chose a highly desaturated look for this sweet fiddlehead unfurling it’s fronds at Cranberry Lake, on Fidalgo Island.

 

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10. The little Chocolate lily, (Fritillaria affinis) is a western lily of well-drained sites. Locally, it’s often found on bluffs and balds, the open spaces scraped clean by glaciers long ago. The small, brown and gold flowers can be hard to spot.  I had to sit down on the ground to get this angle; this plant was just a few inches tall. Taken with the vintage Super Takumar 50mm lens at f2 or f2.8.

 

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11. Another take on the Chocolate lily, seen from above and processed in sepia tones. This plant is similar to (but much smaller than) the garden plant Fritillaria meleagris, or Checkered lily, which is now rare in its native Eurasian range.

 

12. Death camas (Toxicoscordian venenosus), at Washington Park, where I saw hundreds of the pretty little plants, which are poisonous from head to toe, to both humans and livestock.

 

13. In bud here are two Common camas flowers (Cammasia quamash). Camas was an important food plant for indigenous people here in the northwest. It often grows near Death camas (above). The flowers are different, but when the flowers are gone it’s hard to tell the bulbs apart, and the bulbs are what people ate. Supposedly, tribes weeded out the Death camas plants to protect themselves against accidental poisoning. Taken with the Super Takumar 50mm lens.

 

14. Here’s an open Common camas flower, in a shadier place, where you can appreciate the delicate lavender color. Also taken with the Super Takumar.

 

15. Spring color is reflected in a fast-moving stream at Rockport State Park.

 

16. Is this a small bee? I don’t know. I was trying to photograph the impossibly tiny flowers of what’s known around here as Sugar-scoop, or Three-leaf foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata). The tiny flowers are scattered along a stem held high over three-part leaves. A delicate beauty, it rewards you if you can get close; in this case the reward doubled.

 

17. A stump of rotting wood is left in place at Rockport State Park. Downed trees are full of possibilities for many life forms, from tough lichens and luxurious mosses to the Douglas squirrels that use them as a picnic table and the Pileated woodpeckers that excavate meals from them.

 

18. Western starflower (Trientalis latifolia) sends up one or two flower stalks on delicate stems, leaving the flowers dangling over the whorl of leaves. It’s a beautiful sight when the pale stars are scattered above deep green leaves on the forest floor. Deception Pass.

 

19. The humble Starflower may have supplied indigenous people with food from its tubers. It’s slightly different from the Northern and Arctic starflower (Trientalis borealis and T. arctica), which grow in eastern North America, and Europe and Asia.

 

20. Stink currant – that’s a fine name! It describes the smell of crushed leaves, not the fruit, which is reported to be unpleasant to delicious, depending on the bush. Ribes bracteosum is the Latin name for this gooseberry relative that grows from Canada down to northern California. I found this one at Rockport State Park,

 

20. A woodland trail at Cranberry Lake, part of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands. Taken with the Super Takumar lens.

 

21. This buttercup (Ranunculas sp.) has lost its petals, but the stamens and developing achenes (the tiny fruits that hold a seed) are the same joyful yellow. Goose Rock, Deception Pass.

 

22. I couldn’t resist including this burgeoning specimen of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). It was along a roadside at Rockport State Park but of course, they are everywhere!

 

23. Meadow, or Field chickweed (Cerastium arvense) and pink Sea Blush, aka Short-spurred Pletritis (Plectritis congesta) bloom happily in a meadow. Washington Park, Fidalgo Island.

 

24. A Red huckleberry bush gathers a shaft of light angling through the thick canopy of Douglas firs, Western hemlocks, and Redcedars. Deception Pass.

 

25. Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) has come into flower recently. The mid-size bush or small tree graces our roadsides with pretty, cream-colored panicles of flowers. The compound leaves are handsome too, with their elegant tips and finely-toothed edges.

 

26. Fringecup (Tellima grandiflora) is easy to overlook but a close-up view is rewarding. This is another Spring wildflower that is available as a garden plant, with bigger, more colorful flowers. Indigenous people used the plant medicinally. According to Wikipedia, T. grandiflora contains a compound with antiviral properties. Deception Pass. 

 

27. Two Vanilla leaf (Achlys triphylla) plants rise above Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) fronds, which in turn hover over the flattened evergreen fronds of Sword fern (Polystichum munitum). Snow crushed the Sword fern plants while the others slept underground – but Sword fern is putting out new fronds. Vanilla leaf sometimes makes a delicate ground cover in the forest. The vanilla-scented leaves were used to repel insects and perfume living quarters.

 

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28. A Western trillium (Trillium ovatum) past its prime is still beautiful. As the flower slowly turns deep pink, the petals will shrivel and fall away. See the holes in the leaves? I suspect a slug or other creature chewed a big bite in the plant a while ago, when the leaves were tightly folded to the center. The unfurled leaves now reveal three holes. Rockport State Park.

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Abundance! That’s Spring for you! This is longer than my usual posts, but the flowers just keep coming! Soon the flora parade will fizzle to a frizz, as our dry summer weather takes hold.