Ten New Year’s Resolutions For Your Eco-Garden

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Conjuring up some New Year’s resolutions? Don’t forget about your yard and the ecosystem of which we are a part. Promise to do something positive in your yard this coming year to help dwindling wild species whose habitats have been—and continue to be—ravaged.

You certainly don’t need to replace every plant in your yard or eliminate all of your lawn to give back to nature. And you don’t need to do everything all at once—baby steps are fine! In fact, incremental change is usually best, since wild species using existing plants and other elements might be harmed by a drastic, rapid change. If you don’t have a yard, think about volunteering with an organization that’s working on a restoration project—it can be satisfying and enjoyable.

Here are ten resolutions I recommend to help make your yard more humane and functional in the coming year. Some are very easy, some not quite so much. Choose one, two, or all! They are not listed in any particular order because each one is important.

Add some water. Birds, insects, mammals, amphibians—all creatures—need water year round to survive. Even just a shallow bird bath can help, but some maintenance is a good thing: Change the water every few Bird bath robin babydays, give it a good scrubbing every week or two, and keep it out of reach of marauding cats and dogs. Plates or shallow bowls filled with pebbles or clean gravel and water will provide for insects; butterflies will also appreciate mud puddles which they use to obtain moisture and nutrients essential for breeding. Artificial ponds should be shallow on one side and have gradually sloping sides so tiny animals can get out easily. More tips here.

Let natural systems flourish and harmonize by minimizing “clean-ups” and maintenance. Yes, this one lets you work less! Allow fallen leaves to stay on the soil to create cover for overwintering insects like bumblebees and butterflies as well as food for birds, raking or sweeping them only off areas that need to be clear (like sidewalks, driveways, or lawn). Leave dead wood such as snags (dead or dying trees that won’t crash on someone’s head) and “downed wood” —fallen branches, twigs, and bark—which is absolutely essential wildlife habitat that will protect and nurture soil, too. Create brush piles or rock piles to help provide cover and nest sites for birds pilesand other small creatures. Leave seed heads and flower stalks on perennials until spring is well under way to provide food, cover, and habitat. If/when you eventually cut them back, leave them on the ground for a month or longer in case they contain native bee larvae or other overwintering insects waiting for the chance to live out their lives.

Get rid of invasive plants that compete with natives. Depending on the plant species, this can be an easy job or one likely to give you headaches, backaches, and an urge to scream. It can take a few days or a few years. But once your task is accomplished, I guarantee that you will feel an extreme sense of satisfaction. And there will be more room to plant lovely, functional plants! If you have several invasive species in your yard, determine which may be the most invasive and start with that. Nonnatives that produce berries, like English holly trees, are particularly problematic because they spread into nearby natural areas by birds, but also via vegetative reproduction. English ivy also produces berry-like fruit and spreads by rooting on the soil surface and on tree trucks—at the very least, periodically cut it back at the base of trunks to prevent it from harming trees. There are myriad plants that push out native species, so check with city, county, and/or state agencies to find lists and descriptions of invasive plants in your area; the USDA also offers information. My book offers some tips for removing invasive plants, as does Green Seattle Partnership and this post.

Remove lawn. Lawn for the sake of lawn is not beneficial and is simply wasteful. When deciding which part(s) of your lawn will receive walking papers, start by choosing areas that you never or rarely use. Often this is the front yard. If you’re not ready to go all the way and remove a large area of turf, consider at least removing lawn under trees and in areas that are difficult to mow, such as slopes. Lawn can also be minimized by enlarging existing beds and adding ecologically beneficial native plants. The gentlest way to remove lawn is to simply cover it with about 6 sheets of overlapping newspaper (or sheets of cardboard) on a non-IMG_0403 sRGBwindy day. Dampen it, then top it with 4 or 5 inches of weed-free compost (leaf compost is good) and fallen leaves over that. Leave it to decompose for at least several months (until grass roots have died) before planting.

Grow native plants that are indigenous to your area. For this I suggest you consult a regional native gardening book like my book (if you live in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades; another fine resource is the Encyclopedia of Northwest Native Plants, which offers more plant options but little design advice). Choose species (preferably “straight species,” not cultivars) that are native to your area and that will flourish in your site’s soil, light, and moisture conditions. Grow them with other native species of the same community to provide the most benefit.

Provide for all life stages of pollinators. Many pollinating insects, including native bees and butterflies, will have gone through several stages by the time they reach adulthood and their needs differ greatly. So in addition to providing water and growing groups of sequentially-flowering plants (preferably native to your area) that supply pollen and nectar from early spring through fall, provide the “host plants” needed for egg laying and for the feeding of larvae (in the case of butterflies and moths, caterpillars). For insects that undergo a complete metamorphosis, protect habitat for pupa (chrysalis). The latter mainly involves simply leaving leaf “litter” and other organic matter on the soil, delaying any pruning of host plants until late spring, and not using leaf blowers, which eliminate the habitat of creatures needing a place to wait out the winter, such as a chrysalis held in place on a twig only by a silken thread.

Don’t use pesticides or poisons. Synthetic pesticides should be avoided at all costs, but even so-called organic controls can be deadly and indiscriminate, especially if used improperly. If a pest if causing enough damage in your Aphid eaterkitchen garden to warrant a control, consider hand removal, barriers and screens, companion plants, or simply sprays of water from the hose. Allow a natural balance to be achieved by welcoming natural pest control such as birds and predatory insects.

Protect birds from reflective glass. Up to a billion birds are killed or injured by colliding with buildings in North America each year. Though skyscrapers kill countless birds, large structures four stories or less in rural locales are responsible for the most bird deaths, according to a 2017 study. Many of those strikes can be prevented and here are some ways to help.

Keep kitty indoors. Domesticated cats kill millions of birds each year, but it’s not their fault they’re outside. Whenever possible, keep your little predators indoors for their safety as well to protect little wild creatures. To prevent boredom and health issues: Add levels, especially around windows, widen windowsills with tables of appropriate height, or add window boxes. If you’re more ambitious, build a catio! They come in all sizes and shapes and provide kitty with a safe outdoor experience.      

Turn on the dark. Look out your windows at night and chances are—if you live in an urban area—you won’t see the twinkle-twinkle of little stars because light pollution (any adverse effect of artificial light) is making the night sky glow brighter each year. Its most obvious effects are on migratory songbirds lured into cities where they collide with unnecessarily illuminated buildings, killing more than 100 million of them each year in North America. But lit up low-rise structures in rural locales also distract and have been found to pose greater danger than similarly-sized urban buildings, with what researchers call “the large scale beacon effect.” And for nocturnal animals, artificial light may be the most extreme change forced upon them. You can help by minimizing artificial lighting migration seasons, and anytime to prevent moths from exhausting themselves to death, to keep bats in the dark, and diurnal animals asleep. Choose fixtures that shine light downwards, not to the side or upwards, and use motion-sensors so that lights go on only when necessary. If you worry about crime, studies show that outdoor lighting does not decrease crime and may even exacerbate it; most residential crime occurs during daylight hours. In addition, cover windows with shades or draperies at night to cut down on light escaping your house.


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Plant Profile: Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii)

Arbutus menziesii bark

Though it looks exotic, Pacific madrone—a beautiful broadleaf evergreen tree with a captivating and distinctive presence that transforms with the seasons—is endemic to the Pacific coast. Its exquisite characteristics of fragrant flower clusters, brilliant berries, glossy leaves, twisting branches, rounded crown, and rich cinnamon-red bark that peels from a satin-smooth trunk, please all of our senses. And for the wild ones attracted to this unique gem, its ecological gifts never disappoint.

Madrona (after madroño, the Spanish name for a Mediterranean “strawberry tree”) is the name admirers in Washington give this member of the Ericaceae (heath) family, while those in California and Oregon call it madrone or Pacific madrone. British Columbians simply use the Latin genus name, Arbutus. (The epitaph, menziesii, is named after the naturalist Archibald Menzies, a naturalist for the Vancouver Expedition that explored the Puget Sound region in 1792.)

How it grows
Pacific madrone is a long-lived tree that naturally occurs in a climate with mild, wet winters and dry summers, although rainfall varies substantially within its range, from the east coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia southward through Washington and Oregon (west of the Cascades) to San Diego County. It is often found on rocky soils and other coarse soils that retain little moisture, including the dry foothills, wooded slopes and canyons (at low to mid-elevations) of parts of California; within coastal redwood and mixed-evergreen forests; on dry ridge tops and slopes at low to moderate elevations along the east side of the Coast Ranges and in the Siskiyou Mountains; on warm, dry lowland sites west of the Cascades (within Douglas-fir and western hemlock forests); and—furthest north—near sea level on rocky bluffs and low elevation slopes. Within mixed hardwood forests—that may or may not have an overstory of conifers—its tolerance to shade varies with age. While madrone seedlings do best in partial shade and young trees can handle quite a bit of shade, tolerance decreases as trees age and for those at the northern end of this species’ range. Older trees need good light to survive and often can be found growing at an angle, twistily and desperately reaching for the sunlight that helps ensure a long life.

Wildlife value
Wild ones are drawn like a magnet to madrone trees year round. In springtime, lovely creamy white, waxy, urn-shaped blossoms provide nectar for hummingbirds, native bees, and other pollinators.

Arbutus menziesii in flower

 

Clusters of bright red berries—that ripen in autumn and may persist into early winter—feed many bird and mammal species, including American robins, varied thrushes, band-tailed pigeons, cedar waxwings, northern flickers, quail, raccoons,  squirrels, mule deer, and bears.

Arbutus menziesii (fruit)
Habitat is provided for a variety of insects, including echo blue and brown elfin butterfly caterpillars who nibble on leaves and in turn provide dinner for insectivorous birds. Shiny, leathery leaves generally remain on branches for two years, after which they turn from vivid green to burnt orange and settle to the ground where they provide a natural mulch that protects soil microorganisms and little ground-dwelling creatures. Lofty roosting and nesting habitat is also supplied, and live trees with rotting wood offer cavities for insects as well as birds that nest in trees, such as woodpeckers. Dead and dying trees provide even more dead wood for cavity nesters and the silent decomposers that function as nature’s recyclers.

Conservation
Unlike other trees, madrone’s fine roots have adapted to search deeply into rock fractures for stored water, making it an important plant for stabilizing slopes and cliffs and preventing landslides. In addition, it’s a valuable component of many vegetation types—for example, in mixed conifer forests like Washington’s Coast Range ecoregion (Douglas-fir/western hemlock/madrone), it provides a mid-canopy story, essential for the structural diversity of the forest. It ought to be preserved for its own sake, for the wildlife that use it, for the ecosystems of which it’s an indelible part, and, needless to say, for those of us who revere its spectacular beauty.

Tragically, the species is currently in decline throughout most of its range, for several reasons. First, sprawling development in its native habitat has stolen many mature specimens. Though tough and drought tolerant (or perhaps I should say drought dependent), its roots are extremely sensitive to drainage changes, compaction, grade alteration, and other soil disturbance. Because madrone belongs and successfully grows in regional arid soil conditions that many trees cannot, landowners and developers ought to protect and save these trees at all costs.

Under natural conditions, madrone depends on intermittent fires that limit the conifer overstory (typically Douglas-fir trees). Older madrone trees can survive fire and will sprout quickly and profusely afterwards due to carbohydrate reserves and existing roots. In addition, their fruit produces many seeds, which sprout on exposed soil readily after fire. But when humans suppress and prevent natural fires, the prolonged absence of fire and consequential shade—especially on moister sites—may cause madrone trees to die.

Death or damage may be also caused by several pathogens, including a foliar fungus (Nattrassia mangiferae) commonly called “madrone canker,” that reproduces via spores and causes dieback, blackening of branches, and cankers that may spread to the trunk. A root rot, Heterobasidium annosum, can also cause serious damage. Unlike fire, “disease decreases starch accumulation in the root burl, so that declining trees are less able to resprout after the aboveground portion of the tree is killed by disease.” But prevention is possible: Susceptibility to disease is exacerbated by unnatural environmental stresses such as regular summer irrigation and the use of fungicides and fertilizers. Essentially, spores are carried by water, fungicides kill beneficial mycorrhizal fungi (symbiotic associations between the roots of most plants and fungi, which protect roots from pathogens), and studies suggest that increased soil nitrogen disrupts the mycorrhizal associations between beneficial fungi and tree roots, which in turn reduce the supply of micronutrients and water to trees, thereby increasing susceptibility to disease. Madrone trees host a large number of types of mycorrhizal fungi and have been called “a major hub of mycorrhizal fungal diversity and connectivity in mixed evergreen forests” that play a large role in forest regeneration by promoting resilience to disturbance below ground.

Madrone is also affected to a small extent by sudden oak death, a disease caused by a water-borne, fungus-like pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum, which arrived in the U.S. via live plant imports of exotic ornamentals to nurseries; it is increasingly spread by human actions, including climate change.

Try it at home
Despite all these threats, a madrone in the wild can live hundreds of years and may grow very large—over 100 feet tall. In cultivation they rarely exceed 50 feet after many decades. Young trees often grow fast (up to several feet per year), while older trees typically grow at a much slower pace. In the southern, drier and warmer part of its range, it grows more slowly and stays smaller.

Supplemental water after establishment is highly detrimental: Madrone cannot tolerate slow drainage, standing water, or regular irrigation during summer, which make it susceptible to disease (as will fertilizer applications). While it has a bad reputation for being difficult to establish and isn’t for the fussy gardener, knowing what this tree needs and can’t tolerate will help ensure success. In my experience, there are five essentials to successfully growing this tree:

1. Figure out if it historically occurred in your area. Though it’s not absolutely essential that this species likely grew in your immediate area 200 years ago—especially since much change has occurred since then—because this tree can’t just be stuck in the ground anywhere, look to nearby natural areas to see if it might have naturally occurring relatives nearby in similar soil. In its northern range, it’s usually found growing on soils derived from glacial sands or till and gravels, while in the southern and middle parts it reportedly grows on soils derived from a variety of materials.

2. Be sure your site has the right conditions: Fast-draining, slightly acidic soil (pH a little less than 7), noncompacted soil, and a bright location with at least a half day of sun in northerly locations. However, seedlings need partial shade to establish; if you have mostly sun, shield them from hot afternoon sun until established. Site plants on a slope or area that’s elevated (even slightly) above the surrounding area to facilitate drainage. In my yard I tried twice to grow one-foot-tall saplings in the lowest part of my yard with sad results, despite digging in extra small rocks and gravel to increase drainage. My third attempt, which I grew myself from seed, I planted atop a short, south-facing slope, again with extra rocks and gravel. I believe that the increased drainage was what was needed; however, the seedling was also very small—only three inches tall—so that also may have helped. Note: If you live in a warm, dry area (such as parts of California) be sure to plant this tree on a north-facing slope, rather than in direct sunlight.

3. Start with very small saplings, no more than a foot tall, as older trees do not transplant well. Once they “take,” however, young trees grow quite fast—in my yard, over a foot a year.

4. Plant saplings in the fall, just as winter rains begin, since they establish best when they can establish roots first, then put on aboveground biomass. Also, you won’t need to worry about how much or how often to water—just let nature decide. Do not dig large amounts of organic matter into the soil that could inhibit the moisture-seeking roots from penetrating to mineral soil, and do not add fertilizers that can disrupt the mycorrhizal associations between beneficial fungi and roots. Never apply fungicides.

Baby madrone

Baby Madrone, just 4 months after planting as a 3-inch-tall sapling.

5. Irrigate sparingly, and preferably only during the first summer or two. During my little tree’s first spring and summer it was unusually warm and dry, and I noticed some wilting of leaves on especially warm days. I carefully (and nervously!) watered it in the mornings around its base and outwards a few feet, keeping the leaves and stem dry. I did this only a couple of times a week when heat was predicted, and by the end of the summer it was in fine shape and had grown well over a foot in height. During the second summer I left it on its own and when no wilting of leaves occurred, it became clear that the little tree was self-suffient. After another foot of growth was added, I was able to fully exhale.

Grab a partner
It’s best to match madrones with other species that are compatible below ground—those that have similar needs and mycorrhizal associations and that would naturally occur together in nature (if you already have some non-natives that you want to keep, be sure not to grow any that need summer irrigation nearby!). Which native “associated species” you choose depends on what part of the region you live in. 

Madrone most commonly rubs shoulders with mixed-hardwood tree species that often have some overstory of conifers.  A member of the Douglas-fir/tanoak forest, madrone makes up the secondary canopy, while Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) with tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus) typically create an overstory. Less commonly, madrone mingles with coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) along the northern California and southern Oregon coast, and with western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana var. garryana), and Pacific ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa) throughout much of its range. Washington’s San Juan Islands’ open woodlands support madrone with Douglas-fir and fescue (Festuca spp.), as well as other species such as lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), and Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum). In British Columbia, Pacific madrone grows alongside lodgepole pine. Other tree species associated with madrone include sugar pine, white fir, California black oak, giant chinquapin, bigleaf maple, bitter cherry and California laurel, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Small trees commonly associated include vine maple, black hawthorn, red-twig dogwood, willow, hazelnut, and red elderberry. Shrub associates include manzanitas, Oregon grape, ceanothus, salal, oceanspray, poison-oak, gooseberry, wood rose, snowberry, huckleberry, and thimbleberry.

A. menziesii with oaks

Madrone mingles with Oregon white oak, aka Garry oak (Quercus garryana), in parts of its range.

 

As always, buy plants propagated from source material that originated as close as possible to your site. Using such “local genotypes” helps ensure that you get plants that are well adapted to your area and that genetic diversity—which helps plants (and animals) adapt to changing conditions—is preserved. Ask growers and nurseries about their sources if you’re unsure.

Propagation
Pacific madrone are fairly easy to grow from seed. Collect fruit soon after it ripens, generally early to mid-fall. Because one berry can have more than a dozen seeds, you won’t need more than one or two if you just want to grow a few trees.

Separate the seeds from the pulp of a ripe (red) berry (if they have dried, soak them overnight to help release the seeds from the pulp). Place them in a small bowl of water for 15-20 minutes; discard those that float and allow those that sink to dry in a cool place out of sunlight. (Dry seeds may be viable for a couple of years if stored properly in a cold, dry place.) Place seeds on top of a fine seedling mix, either in a pot outdoors or in the spot where you want a tree to grow, and cover just slightly.  I like to grow them in pots so I have a little more control, but I’ve had success both ways. If you choose to use pots, keep them moist but don’t allow them to fully dry out, and keep them away from slugs and snails.

Madrone seeds reportedly are able to maintain dormancy for long periods (“scores of years”) in the soil, but when conditions are just right—cold but above-freezing temperatures and adequate moisture—dormancy is broken In early spring after cold stratification has weakened the seed coat. At that point they should be moved into a somewhat warm, bright location, but not direct sunlight—seedlings establish best in partial shade and grow fairly slowly. Keep them moist, but not saturated. After they have developed their second or third set of true leaves they may be moved to bigger pots with fast-draining soil (I like to use a mix of sterilized potting soil and small gravel), handling them by their expendable first set of leaves, not their delicate stems. Water them when the top inch of soil is dry; I find it’s hard to overwater with fast draining soil, but do give them time to dry out slightly. Plant them out when they’re 3 to 12 inches tall, in the conditions described above.

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Take Care During Fall (and Spring) Garden “Clean-ups”

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The last of the warm, dry fall days are upon us
and it seems like a great time to be puttering around the garden. But this time of year is actually not a good time to be “cleaning up”—that is, removing fallen leaves and woody debris from bare soil, pruning standing plants, and making your yard look somewhat like a victim of a gardening magazine makeover. Leaves and other plant material that fall to earth are part of nature’s systems that nurture wildlife and enrich and protect the soil.

Bedtime for bugs
Leaving fallen leaves on soil is one of the best (and easiest!) things you can do to support wild ones such as birds, amphibians, and small mammals in your garden, as well as myriad invertebrates, including bees, butterflies, spiders, beetles, and worms. Leaves provide food for unfathomable numbers of microbes, as well as the macroscopic consumers and recyclers that feed on decaying plant matter. Further up the food chain, many creatures—ground-feeding birds, for example—rely on nature’s soil cover to provide for those they need to eat, which they find under leaves and downed wood (fallen twigs, branches, logs, and the like).

Fox sparrow

A fox sparrow finds dinner under leafy cover.

If we zoom in a bit, we might see small organisms, such as syrphid fly larvae depending on plant debris for a sort of blanket to help them through the cold, wet winter. As things warm up in the springtime, some kinds of syrphid fly larvae will consume enormous quantities of aphids and leafhoppers that can harm our edible plants. Adult syrphid files (also called “hover flies” or “flower flies”) are important pollinators; spring through late summer there are quite a variety of them in my garden because I prescribe a healthy dose of fallen leaves on the ground in autumn.

Leaf “litter” also encourages other pollinators to get through the winter. For example, as pollination season shuts down and bumble bee workers (females) and males perish, newly crowned bumble bee queens (technically “gyne,” an impregnated queen who has not yet founded a nest but will establish a whole new generation of bumble bees next year) live on. Queens find refuge by digging a shallow tunnel in loose soil—known as a hibernaculum—that’s often tucked under leaf litter. And, many species of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) overwinter under fallen leaves as eggs, larvae, pupae, or adults. If we disturb their slumber or blow them away, they and the ecosystem will suffer. Essentially, they and their habitat need to simply be left alone if we want them to grace our gardens next year!

Pupa Western Tiger Swallowtail

Western tiger swallowtail pupa waits out the winter.

Don’t cut back
Fall pruning isn’t a good idea because it may stimulate a plant to put on new growth, which could be sensitive to low winter temperatures soon to come. Another important reason is that branches and bark—particularly of native plant species—may support butterfly pupae, or chrysalis. Swallowtail butterfly pupae pass the winter attached by thin threads to woody material—disguised as dried up leaves or old bits of wood to fool predators—until the warmer temperatures of spring stimulate their metamorphosis into adults. While some non-native fruit trees need winter pruning and it’s good to remove diseased and dying annual vegetable garden plants to prevent the spread of disease to next year’s kitchen garden, in all other parts of the yard, if you must clean up, approach it the following spring, and as late as possible.

Erigeron speciosus (showy fleabane) seed head. When viewed closely, seed heads can be fascinating in their complexity.

Moreover, although they may look dead, the seed heads of noninvasive or native perennials like coneflower, fleabane, fescue, and lupine provide food for seed-eating birds, while their stems or stalks—pithy or hollow—provide shelter and/or cavity nests for beneficial insects. And, allowing fading plants to stand during winter provides structure and form. On cold, frosty mornings they can be magically transformed into silvery jewels.

Protect and nourish the soil
Down at soil level, besides providing a haven for overwintering organisms, fallen leaves and woody debris protect the soil, which can degrade and erode fairly quickly from excessive rain, sunlight, and wind. In nature, soil is protected and mimicking the way it does that will help your soil stay healthy. And, over many years, leaves decompose into layers of organic matter that feed plants naturally and gently, improve the condition of soil, and store carbon with the help of mycorrhizal fungi. The other day I relocated a plant to a spot in my front yard that’s been collectively accumulating dozens of inches of leaves for the past 15 years. To my delight I found the result of their decomposition: A couple of inches of soft, dark, rich organic matter that wasn’t there a decade ago. 

Even when we’re being careful, though, it’s easy to cause disturbance. A few autumns ago I moved a small amount of leaf litter to another area, inadvertently uncovering an overwintering queen bumble bee. I felt terrible as I watched her stumble around, obviously weak and awoken from a sound sleep. Luckily it was a warm, dry day and eventually she flew off into the sunshine. But clearly the awakening had been a rude one, because just a little while later she returned and burrowed into some loose soil covered by leaves, just a few feet from where she had been. After she was safely underground, I gingerly placed a couple of particularly interesting rocks several inches from her tunnel’s entrance, as well as some oak leaves on top of the soil to remind myself of where she slept.

Basically, the more we clean up and work towards a neat and tidy garden, the worse off beneficial birds, bugs, and countless other life forms will be. If you tend to be a neatnik (like I am), try to catch yourself every time you start moving into manicure-mode and getting overly tidy—especially in the wilder parts of the yard where wildlife may visit or set up house. It just doesn’t make sense to risk losing them for the sake of neatness. If you have piles of leaves that have been rakes off hardscape or lawn, here are additional ways to use them in your garden.


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Catios Keep Cats and Birds Safe

Swirly, aka Cosmo, graduated from quiet, docile kitten to Crazy Cat (diagnosis: "Intermittent explosive disorder" ??). Born to a feral mom, he and his siblings came to us at 11 or 12 weeks of age to be socialized so that they could find indoor homes rather than living miserable lives outdoors. We adopted Swirly, and as his personality emerged, a "catio" proved to be indispensable.

Born to a feral mom, Swirly and his siblings came to me at 11 or 12 weeks of age to be socialized so that they could be placed in homes, rather than live difficult lives outdoors. We adopted Swirly, and as his personality emerged—from quiet, shy kitten to adorable Psycho Kitty—a our catio proved to be indispensable.


What’s a “catio” and why would you want one?
A catio is an outdoor enclosed patio for cats (and sometimes their caregivers), where they can enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors without getting into trouble. While catios can’t provide total freedom, they prevent kitty from getting hit by a car, being badly injured or killed by wildlife such as coyotes, getting fleas and all the diseases that can result from them, fighting with other cats, and upsetting neighbors who loathe cats. They also lessen cats’ chance of getting feline hyperthyroidism (an increasingly common feline disease caused by exposure to chemicals in homes), relieve boredom, and assist in multiple-cat households when a cat needs his/her space or just a place to snooze. Last—but definitely not least—catios help keep birds and other little wild creatures safe. Especially if you use bird feeders and/or have a “real” garden designed to attract and nurture wildlife, allowing your cat to roam freely is inviting disaster, particularly if they are young or seem born to kill. Domesticated cats are predators and obligate carnivores and, despiteyellow warbler migrant their domestication, most yearn to stalk and kill prey—we can’t blame them; it’s in their DNA. Since we are ultimately responsible for our cats and their actions, it behooves us to keep them indoors but also to think about their needs by offering a place to lie in the sun, breathe some fresh air, and watch a little slice of the world.

Of course, expecting a cat who has been always been allowed to roam freely to suddenly agree to stay indoors may be asking too much (no matter how exciting the catio may be!). We have a 15-year-old Katrina Kitty who still yearns to go outside. (I cave in to his demands, but only for short periods during mid-day when birds are least likely to be foraging, not during baby bird season, and never at night. Most of the time he just relaxes in the sun.) But cats who are new to your household and kittens who have never experienced the outdoors are ideal candidates for the catio life. We have several rescued cats who came to us as half-feral older kittens and our catio is indispensable for meeting their outdoor needs—they love it!

Many choices
There are many different types of catios, from fairly inexpensive window boxes that cost less than $100, to more expensive and elaborate designs that may include catwalks, tunnels, roofs, furniture and multi-levels (the latter is essential!). Some people design and build their custom catio themselves, as my husband, Rick, and I did, while others hire a contractor or handyman. Kits to build your own are available online. For more detailed guidance and tips, as well as links to companies that sell kits, check out this article from The Humane Society of the U.S.

Before renovation.

When we initially thought about making a catio, we considered turning half of our elevated backyard deck into one, but it would have been very difficult and there was no way for the cats to come and go on their own—that is, no place to install a little cat door. Our cats really love our deck, but three of the four cannot be trusted not to leap eight feet to ground level. One day, it hit me: Why not turn a mostly unusable space on the east side of our house into a space for the cats? When we bought our house I thought it could be made into a little sunroom, but a catio wouldn’t require heating, insulation, etc.

A little history: When our house was built in 1929, there had been an exterior wooden porch, about 13 feet long by 7 feet wide, with two doors to the inside at either end. Twenty to thirty years later (in the 1950s, judging by the type of brick) someone put a concrete floor over the wooden floor and created narrow planters made with brick and mortar, and installed a huge floor-to-ceiling window and sliding glass doors. Sometime later, the space was enclosed to make it into a greenhouse of sorts, with translucent fiberglass panels for walls and roof’ the planters were covered with formica. But functionality was poor: Summer temperatures climbed into the triple-digits (ventilation was poor when the exterior door was closed) and it was cold in the winter. Plus, the old fiberglass had yellowed, the carpet was filthy, and the sliding glass doors and window that covered the interior wall were single paned and energy inefficient. Renovating the space would help increase energy efficiency and provide us with a much more useable space.

The Casbah Catio
Since we did everything ourselves, it took about 5 months to complete, not counting the time it took to replace a window and door and the winter months when we put things on hold. Rick did the majority of the planning and work; I helped with tiling and did most of the painting (and gave moral support!). We were able to reuse some of the wood from the old structure, and some came from our local Rebuilding Center, which sells reclaimed materials, but we did have to buy a fair amount of new materials. Very large rocks that were found in the planters found homes in the garden.

I’ve always loved Moroccan design and finally I was able to sneak some elements into our home. The tile came from the outlet room of Pratt and Larson in Portland; selection varies and I think we made at least six trips there to find what would look good together. At $1 a pound, it was a great deal.

Initially, the most important task is planning. Some suggestions: Try to site it where the cats will be able to see things of interest; think about how the cats will be able to get in and out (it’s nice to connect it to the main house because if you have to carry your cat to and fro, it may get little use after the novelty has worn off); consider how you will keep it dry; and give cats variety, including some elevated places to perch and snooze. Make some sketches and draw up a basic plan. If you are going to do any demolition, be sure to figure out where you can take items (like old carpet or glass) to be recycled, rather than just throwing it in a landfill.

Here’s a basic synopsis of how we turned an unusable space into our catio: First, we removed the existing glass doors and window (and smashed them up to transport to a recycler). The wall was then framed in and a new, large window (that closely resembles an original window in our living room) and a door that enters our dining room were installed. Next, the demolition began.

Demolition

Demolition Days (boyz just love to wreck things, don’t they?). Actually, we both hated this part (it was definitely the most difficult and dirtiest part—a huge mess, as you can see). Rick’s definition: “Grunt work.” We left the existing concrete foundation (beneath the brick) even though it wasn’t done well to begin with.

 

The original porch floor hadn’t been connected to house, so that had to be fixed. Rick also dealt with some rot in a sill plate where a door once stood. Following that, 4x4s were added and walls were framed in. Painting was done as things progressed. Because we wanted natural light to enter the catio and window and door, we chose a roof of clear, corrugated polycarbonate outdoor patio cover (lightweight, easy to install, inexpensive)._MG_8965

An outer door that leads to the backyard was then installed and we chose DIY screens to keep the cats in. Most people use a large metal mesh, but we chose recyclable aluminum screen (over nonrecyclable plastic), for several reasons: First, a few years earlier, two young birds had entered our house through a very small opening one morning and were immediately caught and killed by our cats and we feared this could happen with the large mesh. There is smaller mesh available, but it’s difficult to see through. Once installed, screen almost disappears from view. Second, since we like to open the door that connects the catio to our dining room during nice weather, we wanted to keep insects out. Of course, screen is shreddable by claws and it gets dirty, but for the most part we’re happy with it. If it does get completely shredded, it’s not very difficult to replace (and recycle). Don’t use plastic mesh—cats can get their claws stuck in it.

Speaking of doors, we wanted a cat door so the cats could come and go on their own, but were concerned about drafts during the winter. Rick installed a Freedom Pet Pass door, an energy efficient flap door. The only thing that’s problematic is that because our two female cats are tiny (barely 7 pounds) and scare easily, they have trouble pushing the door outwards due to a fairly strong magnet; they usually manage by pulling it inward with their claws. Coming inside requires less force so isn’t a problem for them. The door is visible at the lower left corner of the final photo, below.

Levels are essential for felines, who often make their living by observing prey below. We placed them so they could easily hop from one to another. My cats highly recommend them for bird and squirrel watching!

Violet loves relaxing on her levels!

Violet loves levels!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luna, too!

Luna, too!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also added a bench at the far end that offers some storage space and seating for us.

tile backer board

Backer board was installed before tiling began.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tile B4 grout

Placing tile. It was finished with a brown grout (that won’t show stains).

 

 

 

Tiling was actually fun because we were on the home stretch and it brought such warmth and a personal touch. The cats couldn’t care less, but we love the tile.

 

 

Finishing touches: A large log (found near a river bank) was also added, as well as final bits of woodwork and paint. Scatching post, litter box, water bowl, lantern, grass for grazing, and cushions for comfort (with washable covers) were the final touches to our Casbah Catio.

The Casbah Catio

Swirly & Luna enjoying their Casbah Catio.

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Robins of Summer: Their Hidden Lives and Loves, and Letting Go

Camille, an American robin
American robins (Turdus migratorius) are familiar birds, found nearly everywhere—in urban and suburban parks and gardens, on farmland, and in wilder forests and even subalpine meadows. We enjoy hearing their cheery songs and watching them search for squirmy bits of food, but let’s face it: They’re taken for granted. Considering how closely robins live among us, it’s amazing how little we know about them. To truly appreciate and respect a bird or anyone else, we need to discover how they live and love. Here’s a glimpse into a portion of the life of a charming bird and several of her babies, whom she raised almost directly under my gaze. They taught me how little I knew.


As I puttered around my garden on the afternoon of July 4th
I savored the quiet time and hoped for a mildly noisy evening for the sake of wild birds and other animals who intensely fear our fireworks and live for peace and quiet. As I approached my front door, the sound of wings fluttering in a nearby Camellia shrub stole my attention and I glimpsed someone quickly wing their way into a small nearby tree. Whom had I disturbed? A quick scan revealed none other than a shy American robin, perched on a branch, patiently waiting for me to leave. But curiosity got the best of me, so I back tracked a few steps and hid behind a native currant shrub to learn what this beautiful bird was up to. A few minutes later she returned to the Camellia and this time I could see that her bill was full of grass. Grass? That’s right: Nesting material! As my eyes focused, I realized that she was perched on the edge of a nest, to which she was adding the finishing touches.

Like a statue I stood for a few moments longer as she arranged the bits of grass. As soon as she flew off I ran inside inside to tell my husband, Rick, the exciting news: “A robin’s building her nest right under our bedroom window!” We raced upstairs to the bay window that overlooks our front yard, and there—only 5 or 6 feet from the window—it was: A perfectly round little nursery, created with mud and grasses and such. We were astonished, elated, and honored that this nest had fallen into our proverbial laps, providing us with a rare opportunity to peek into the life of an enchanting bird. She had obviously been working on her nest for quite a few days, but we hadn’t even noticed. And that’s the way she wanted it.

Nest construction
Though I’ve discovered quite a bit about the black-capped chickadees and Anna’s hummingbirds who raise their young in our yard nearly every year, I knew little about robin family planning. To learn about their breeding habits I turned to books and websites and found that American robins are very busy birds. As the weather warms in springtime, winter flocks break up and individuals begin to claim and defend territories of about an acre, singing emphatically and almost continuously to exclude others. Males also sing to attract their mate, and once they do, a short courtship ensues. Typically, couples have 2 or 3 broods during their breeding period, and I suspect that this female was on Number Three since it was already July. I’d seen a robin collecting nesting material in our back yard in April, so two previous nests were certainly possible.

According to several accounts I read, female robins may begin a new nest soon after the previous brood has fledged. When this happens, the male takes on their care while she efficiently finds a new nest site and constructs it by herself (robins don’t reuse nests but may reuse materials or build a new nest atop an old one). After reading about Dad’s duties I went to our back yard, camera in hand. Sure enough, there was Big Daddy in the bird bath, teaching Junior how to take a proper bath. Afterwards, they both left, but Junior returned ten minutes later, eager to practice this new (and no doubt thrilling) activity on his own. (Learn how to tell male, female and juvenile robins apart here.)

Big Daddy & Junior

Reportedly, robins build their nests from the inside out, pressing dead grasses, mosses, feathers, and twigs into a bowl shape using their wing’s wrist. The nest is then strengthened with soft mud (which explains the mud I’d noticed in the bird bath!), and finally lined with fine, dry grass. For two days we observed her from the closed window as she brought more grass and pressed her breast onto the inner sides of the nest to smooth and contour it. Upon completion it measured about 6.5 inches wide by 4 inches high, with a 4.5-inch inner diameter. During the days of July 6 and 7 she sat on her nest for short periods and the suspense (as to when she’d lay her first egg) was killing us. Finally, mid-morning on July 8 I noticed the first egg, and it was a most brilliant greenish-blue—the quintessential “robin’s egg blue.”

_MG_2468

Why blue?
There have been many theories. According to Tim Birkhead, author of The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg (Bloomsbury, 2016), Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) surmised that blue eggs offer protection from predators due to cryptic coloring: When seen from below, through their “wicker nests,” the blue eggs blend into the blue sky. “This is wrong at several levels, including the fact that … [their] nests are lined with mud and impossible to see through; and that he assumed that the main predators would see the nest from below,” writes Birkhead. Three later explanations—camouflage and conspicuousness, avoiding brood parasites, and individual recognition—have been tossed around, but a more recent one, thanks to technological advances in measuring color, makes the most sense to me: According to a study published in 2016 in The American Naturalist, birds like robins who typically nest in somewhat open nests within forests or other leafy places (where light levels are moderate) evolved towards having darker eggshells because the pigment protects the egg’s interior from dangerous UV radiation, but also allows the eggs to absorb more light, causing them to heat up more quickly, leading to faster embryonic development. Shorter incubation periods mean less risk of egg predation, but will likely be disastrous if climate change, which leads to more hot days during birds’ breeding periods, is allowed to continue. The blue-green color itself comes from biliverdin, a pigment that’s applied in the shell gland (aka uterus) just before delivery.

My biologist mind was spinning with more questions that weren’t answered in Ornithology 101, such as: How is eggshell formed? What is the real purpose of turning the eggs? Do the chicks breathe the same way as mammals do inside the womb? I’ll get to those, but also about this time I decided Mama robin should have a name. “Robbie” was just too banal for such a beautifully plumed bird whose dark eyes suggest a wonderful gentleness. I settled on “Camille” (French pronunciation: kah-MEE), after the Camellia shrub, but also because the name means pure and perfect.

Making eggs
I’ve always been fascinated by the self-contained life support systems called eggs and got to wondering about the shells. I knew that creating eggs is immensely draining on a female’s energy reserves and that extra nutrients are essential. I also knew that eggshells were made of calcium carbonate, but didn’t know that calcium is the most difficult mineral for many birds to obtain and that most female birds (other than birds such as raptors who eat bone by consuming whole prey) need to actively seek extra calcium.

No one knows exactly how birds know which foods are high in calcium, but it is essential that they ingest it during the evening hours prior to laying an egg so that a chalky solution of calcium carbonate can be applied to the membrane that envelops the embryo soon after it reaches the uterus. Birkhead notes that “most small birds seem to rely on calcium-rich snail shells that they find on the ground.” Robins may also eat arthropods like millipedes (often found in decaying leaves and other dead plant matter) that have a calcium-rich exoskeleton. Whether they use shells or skeletons, this is yet another reason to leave natural materials on the soil and to not use poisons. Without adequate calcium, birds may produce fragile, thin, or otherwise defective shells—with disastrous results—or fail to produce eggs at all. In case you’re wondering, avian eggshells are hard when they are laid, not soft.

Incubation
American robins typically lay three to five eggs; most common is four. Incubation, which is done by moms only (male robins don’t have a brood patch), lasts for 12-14 days. The day after Camille’s first egg was laid, another followed, but incubation was sporadic those first two days. Full incubation usually doesn’t begin until the last or second-to-last egg is laid so that all will hatch on the same day or thereabouts. With the addition of the third egg, laid on July 10, she began devoting nearly all of her time to incubation, quietly and secretively leaving only to grab something to eat and stretch her wings. She was rarely off the nest for more than 30 minutes, much less during slightly chilly mornings. We wondered whether she’d produce a fourth egg, but July 11 brought no more, so three it would be. On that day I heard a robin’s call outside the window around 7:20 AM and saw Camille return to the nest around 8:00. About an hour later I noticed what I believe was a male robin on our neighbor’s rooftop while she was off foraging. I imagine her call had something to do with this, but I don’t know whether it occurred on a regular basis.

Whenever she returned after foraging I noticed that she would do a little dance in the nest. Contrary to sources that state that robins turn their eggs with their bills, Camille always used her feet when we watched her. Turning eggs is essential for successful hatching, but is reportedly critical only during the first few days of incubation. Turning encourages the flow of nutrients and such within the egg, promotes the development of an embryo’s external blood vessels, and ensures that the embryo is positioned correctly with respect to the yolk and albumen (so that it can make full use of the albumen). Moms also position eggs so that no obstruction will prevent hatching.

Escaping the shell
According to Birkhead, hatching is complicated: Since they can no longer depend on the oxygen that comes through tiny eggshell pores and into blood vessels that line the inner shell, embryos need to do several things before the main event: Start shutting off that blood supply at their umbilicus and take it into their body; draw what’s left of the yolk into their abdomen (to use as food for the first few hours after hatching); and puncture the membrane of the “air cell” that’s inside the egg at the blunt end. As soon as they puncture it, they can use their lungs—for the first time—to obtain the oxygen and energy needed to come into the world.

These tiny creatures imprisoned in shells are impossibly weak and equipped with only a little egg-tooth on the tip of their bill—powered by a feeble neck muscle—to crack the shell. To learn how they actually break out, I consulted my dust-covered college ornithology textbook by ornithologist Sewall Pettingill, who described how an embryo “scrapes and presses the egg-tooth against the inside of the already weakened shell until a crack results,” a process known as pipping. Zooming in on some photographs we took revealed that there were tiny cracks in the eggs many hours before hatching, so it isn’t a quick, simple operation. “From a star-shaped crack, a fissure develops, usually around the larger end [of the egg]. Muscular action of the embryo, chiefly in the legs and neck, forces the shell apart at the circular fissure,” Pettingill explained.

Day 0 First hatchling

On the 12th day of incubation (July 22), all three chicks broke free of their shells. The first one hatched very early (perhaps well before dawn; we first noticed him/her at 7 AM, already gaping for food). The second hatched sometime between 10:30 and 11:30 AM, and the third at twilight, probably between 8:40 and 8:50 PM (the eggshell was still in the nest at 8:55, and because the parents remove (or eat) broken shells quickly because they’re sharp, it must have happened just minutes earlier).

As you can see in the photos, the chicks began life utterly helpless: Blind, nearly naked, and so weak they could barely hold their heads up. Needless to say, we were completely in awe, fascinated at their wondrous and fragile beginnings. In this photo you can see the egg-tooth at the end of one’s bill on Day 1.

Day 1

Growing up
Camille, like most bird moms, was completely devoted and attentive to her young. When she wasn’t foraging for food or feeding them she would brood them—that is, cover them with her body—and this went on until toward the end of the the nesting period when their bodies filled up the nest and daytime temperatures were high. During their first few days in particular, she showed great concern. Her comings and goings were secretive (as they had been during incubation), flying or hopping incrementally for short distances rather than flying quickly to and from the nest.

Several sources state that both parents feed the young, but we never saw anyone but Camille feeding her babies. Perhaps Big Daddy had his wings full with the previous fledglings or they had an agreement, or it’s possible he helped out only at dawn while we were still asleep (although I have doubts about the latter). Rick did notice him perched atop our roof one afternoon, so he may have been assisting her by keeping an eye on the nestlings at times. But we never saw him after that, so I hope it was just their way of doing things and not that something terrible happened to him. His absence was unfortunate, as you will read below.

Nest activity was a whirlwind of frequent feeding, pooping, and incredibly fast growth. Aging the nestlings is done simply by day number, with hatching day designated as Day 0, the first full day as Day 1, and so forth. On Day 1 we filmed Camille bringing a huge earthworm to the nest, big enough to strangle a chick. When she couldn’t get it in their gaping mouths, everyone gave up and fell asleep with the mangled worm draped over and around them. And then she got on top. Adult robins may eat beetles, caterpillars, spiders and snails (as well as fruit such as serviceberries when insects and other arthropods are scarce), but Camille fed her babies mostly worms early on, although she did actually shove a huge moth down a tiny throat on the first day as well. That’s when I started watering the garden more often than usual to try to make worms more available, especially since the weather was warm and dry, which causes worms to go deeper into the soil. I also bought a cup of meal worms and placed some near the nest in the mornings. Later in the nesting period I saw her feeding them the fruit of English laurel (an invasive species), the product of an untrimmed neighboring hedge, as well as blueberries from our yard. Robins are important seed dispersers and large seeds are regurgitated.


We can’t talk about feedings without mentioning what comes afterwards. Nestlings of passerines (and some other kinds of birds) bag up their poop into a neat little receptacle called a fecal sac, which is essentially a white mucous membrane filled with poop. The young defecate at the edge of the nest and parents dutifully either carry them away or eat them to keep the nest clean and tidy. Some accounts say that robins will eat the sacs when the nestling are young, as they contain much undigested food, and then carry them away toward the end of the nesting period when the birds (and sacs) are much bigger. Not so with Camille—she ate them until the very end, even when the globs became quite large. 

On Day 3 I could clearly hear tiny vocalizations from the babies when Mom approached or perched on the nest. Also, dark pterylae (feather tracks from which their contour feathers arise) were now visible.

Day 3

And then there were two
Day 4 was uneventful, and except for some hot afternoon sun on the nest causing heat stress, everything seemed fine. One of them was a little bigger and stronger looking than the other two; no doubt the first to hatch. At the end of Day 4, Rick noticed all three gaping as usual when Camille landed on the nest. The next morning, after watching the nest for some time, I realized that I could only see two babies. After Camille left to forage, I opened the window and took photos to see if I could detect the third chick in an enlargement. After downloading them, I was devastated: One of the babies must have died during the night and apparently was carried off by Camille (no one was found beneath the nest on the ground).

Day 5

Nestling mortality is usually either due to predation or starvation, but I have doubts about a predator attack, for several reasons: More than one nestling would likely be missing; being a light sleeper I would have heard something outside the window; no predators were ever seen near the nest, and there would probably be some damage to the nest (in the case of a large predator like a raccoon). It’s impossible to know for sure, but most likely the cause was starvation of the youngest who may have been nearly a day younger than the first to hatch. Although they all looked close in size, the smallest one might not have been able to compete for food, and the afternoon heat may have weakened her further. One study showed that most starvation occurred late in the season due to reduced availability of earthworms. Plus, since only Camille—not her mate—was feeding them, there was a food shortage. If only I had known it was that dire, I would have put out more meal worms! Reportedly, only about 25 percent of nests are “successful,” defined as producing just one baby robin, so they’ve got it rough. No wonder they have more than one brood.

Brother and sister?
Their rate of growth was incredibly rapid and daily changes were obvious, especially when comparing photographs. After the fifth day we could see their individuality. One was larger and appeared about a day ahead of the other. His eyes opened a day sooner (on Day 5), his feathers grew in sooner, and he basically just looked stronger. The other was a bit scrawny-looking and we wondered about gender differences, even at this young age.

Day 6_

Day 6

 

Day 9

Day 9

 

As they matured, I began to think the larger one might be male, especially when feathers on his head appeared darker. I named him “Big Boy” and the smaller one “Lilla” (Swedish for little). Cornell Lab of Ornithology mentions that male juveniles “may have fewer pale shafts on the crown, larger and blacker spots on the breast, and upperparts may average darker than in females.” Later it appeared that perhaps my guess was correct.

The only worry now was the heat: During their first week, temperatures were in the mid-80s and on Day 2 they were showing heat stress by doing an avian version of panting called gular fluttering, in which birds rapidly flap membranes in their throats to increase evaporation. The second week, temperatures soared into the low 100s and I read that young birds are more likely to die from excessive heat that cold. Rick and I to put our heads together and created a shade barrier that we hoped would help during the hottest part of the afternoon. Up went part of an old bedsheet that we managed to hook on nearby branches as high as we could. While it didn’t create a lot of shade, it did supply some after 5 PM. I hate to think what would have happened had the heat come during incubation (eggs rarely hatch at air temperatures over 104ºF).

Gular fluttering on Day 11.

Gular fluttering on Day 11.

 

Day 12

A hot Day 12.


The empty nest
The period between hatching and fledging happens in such a frantic rush, as if it’s a matter of life and death. And so it is: A nest is a dangerous place for young robins, so they leave the nest even though they are not the least bit prepared for life on their own. Young robins typically leave the nest only 14 to 16 days after hatching. On August 4 (Day 13), Big Boy ventured to the edge of the nest and sat there, no doubt knowing that this would be one of the most perilous times of his life. I saw him perch twice, then go back to his sister, who wasn’t too keen on taking on the world just yet. The next day, in the middle of the afternoon following a fruity snack provided by Mom, Big Boy again sat on the nest’s edge. Then, all of a sudden, he bravely took to his wings for the first time. It was a short, shaky downward flight that took him into our neighbor’s yard. And then I could no longer see him.

Big Boy, an hour before he left the nest.

I knew Camille would go after him to ensure his safety and to reassure him during this terrifying time, and I assumed she’d return to Lilla in a fairly short time. I was curious how long she would spend with Big Boy out on his own, so Rick and I took turns watching the nest. When two hours had rolled by and Lilla began calling out for her mother, I began to worry. Fledglings need their parents to teach them all about dangers and how to stay out of harm’s way, and to feed them for the first few days and then teach them how to forage for themselves.

Finally, after a long three and a half hours, Lilla returned to the nest to feed Lilla. What a relief to me, but also to Lilla who had never been separated from Camille for so long! We wondered how long Lilla would stay in the nest by herself.

Lilla, alone in the nest

A heat-stressed Lilla, alone in the nest.

Early the next morning, Day 15, I was lying in bed pinned down by a sleepy cat. I heard robin voices outside the window and wondered what all the commotion was about, but didn’t want to mess with the sleeping beauty. Then, silence. When I finally managed to get to the window, she was gone. Little Lilla was now a fledgling, and the nest was silent and empty.

Though Camille was probably relieved to have her offspring finally fledge, I was a mess. Watching these selfless little birds had filled me with a sense of calm and made me temporarily forget the troubles of the world. The bond I built with them, though totally one-sided, was real and deep (and we didn’t even get to say goodbye!). Viewing the nest now was just an excuse to tear up, and it didn’t help that they were now out of sight, in the neighbor”s “pesticide marinaded yard,” as Rick describes it. But two mornings later, when I saw Big Boy perched inside our leafy fig tree, wisely trying to remain unseen, pragmatism reminded me that fledglings must turn into successful adult birds—they need to hone their foraging techniques, learn their species’ song, form social relationships, and recognize good breeding habitat when they see it—so that they too can reproduce. To help out, plates of wormy compost went into the back yard in the hopes of luring them away from pesticides.

Big Boy, Day 16

Big Boy, Day 16

 

Lilla on Day 19

Lilla, Day 19

 

Camille collects blueberry treats (Day 20).

Camille collects berry treats (Day 20).

 

The fledging period is complex and fascinating and I wish I could have witnessed more of it, but I caught glimpses of both Lilla and Big Boy a few more times as Camille fed them berries or worms. The last time I saw them with Camille was exactly three weeks after leaving the nest and they appeared to be well on their way to adulthood.

It’s now been 4.5 weeks and there are no signs of the juveniles, who are likely nearby but no longer dependent on their parents. They will wear their freckled juvenile plumage until autumn. Small groups of adults frequent our leaf litter now and then to forage together, so evidently breeding territories are now obsolete. This morning I photographed a robin who had the exact same eye ring as Camille, looking for blueberries.

Researchers say that only a quarter of young robins make it through their first year. I hope Big Boy and Lilla beat the odds.

So now you know.

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Want to help American robins?

♦ Avoid using pesticides.
♦ Provide open ground-foraging habitat that can accumulate leaf litter beneath trees.
♦ Grow fruit-bearing native trees and shrubs, such as madrone, serviceberry, and thimbleberry (in the Northwest), which are especially important for inexperienced juveniles.
♦ Allow muddy areas to remain for mud collecting and snails for females needing calcium.
♦ Install a bird bath in a quiet spot where it can easily be maintained and observed.
♦ Avoid pruning trees and shrubs in the spring and early summer when robins are building nests.
♦ Keep kitty indoors and discourage others from visiting your property.
♦ Prevent robins from being injured or killed by window collisions.

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© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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A Little Bird Tells Us About the Necessity of Native Plants

Chickadee with larva
It’s often noted that native plants and animals depend on each other
because the two evolved specialized relationships together over thousands of years, but that’s a basic explanation that doesn’t offer any details. I’ve often wondered about individual animal species and to what extent native plants are essential to them. I watch ladybugs devouring aphids on native perennials, warblers foraging for insects in various shrubs and trees, and black-capped chickadees bringing squirmy larvae to their hungry nestlings, but how much do they really benefit when we choose to grow natives?

To my delight, a new study that focuses on one insectivorous bird species—the Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)—was recently released in Biological Conservation. Chickadees—whether they’re Carolina, Black-capped, or Chestnut-backed—are fairly common backyard species that, like most birds, don’t reproduce on seeds and fruit but instead eat and feed insects to their young. The study’s authors evaluated regional native plants, but also those that originated outside North America to see if they were a limiting factor for this particular species’ ability to effectively raise young. Their results prove that non-native plants reduce the quality of habitat for Carolina chickadees by not providing food for breeding.

Insects are crucial
It is the living environment—including insects—that sustains us and every other species. Herbivorous insects make up more than a third of the world’s animals, and their role is indispensable: By converting plant material to protein, they are nature’s only way of getting plants’ energy into animals who don’t eat plants directly, and into animals who eat the ones who feed on insects.

Most herbivorous insect species are called specialists, meaning they can’t choose what they eat. Their menu is short; they must rely on only certain types of plants (that they evolved with) which have certain chemical compositions that support them, and can’t exist where those plants don’t exist. A well-known example is the monarch butterfly—an insect whose larvae can only feed on native milkweed plants—but there are countless others. If you already recognize the charms of regional native plants and have witnessed how growing them attracts more wildlife to your yard, all of this comes as no surprise. Native plants host and support more native herbivorous insects and, consequently, more birds and other wild ones.

Egg cluster for Baby

In addition to insect larvae, occasionally parents feed adult insects or clusters of insects eggs (shown here) that are most likely found in native plants.

The study
During the study’s two-year survey in the Washington, D.C. area, the research team correlated the birds’ diets to the plants they forage in. Using 97 suburban yards, they determined the species and origin of each tree and shrub, then checked the leaves of 16 plants at each site for caterpillars while tracking which plants received the most foraging visits from chickadees. Nest building in and near each yard was also examined through- out the chickadees’ breeding period, roughly April to early June on the east coast. Data revealed that these birds were more likely to nest in yards with native trees and shrubs than in yards with ornamentals that evolved outside North America. The native trees used the most included oaks, elms, cherries, and maples due to their ability to support the larvae of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and sawflies, which are essential for rearing young chickadees. Baby chickadees (and other birds) need a lot of food to survive: Previous research has shown that these busy parents need to collect 5,000 to 9,000 bits of food (depending on the clutch size of the brood) per nestful of chickadees, plus feed themselves!  According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “during a lodgepole needle miner [an insect that can kill trees] outbreak in Arizona, one chickadee was found with 275 of the tiny caterpillars in its stomach at one time.”

The native connection
Chickadees are generalist foragers, meaning they’ll look for food nearly everywhere, not just on certain plants. They will forage in non-native plant species but won’t find much, since few host the food they need. In my experience, black-capped chickadees also feed their babies a few adult insects and the occasional spider (which may be found almost anywhere), but in native trees such as oaks, a diversity of larvae can be found, and large numbers of them can often be found quickly. Douglas Tallamy’s “Lepidoptera index,” which ranks different types of plants by the diversity of caterpillars they promote, corroborates this. That same research found that woody plants apparently support many more Lepidoptera species than herbaceous plants do. Whether that is because “woody plants in general are both longer lived and larger than most herbaceous plants and thus may be easier targets for insect herbivores to exploit,” or because “herbaceous plants are underreported as lepidopteran hosts because they are more difficult to identify and less conveniently searched by collectors,” we ought to grow more woody plant to maximize biodiversity, if only to give the benefit of the doubt (and provide birds more cover!). And, as I reported two years ago, another study confirmed

Chickadee young are fed by their parents for several weeks post-fledging.

Young chickadees need to be fed by their parents for several weeks after fledging.

that relatives of native trees (i.e., scarlet oak, a distant cousin of the west coast’s Oregon white oak) host and support fewer species of insects than the native counterpart, and that non-native trees that have no native relative in a region provide next to nothing. Yard after yard of ornamental, introduced species effectively destroys insect diversity.

 

 

So, now we have more compelling evidence that growing natives can improve the human-dominated landscape by supplying numerous ecological advantages, beauty, and the ability to support the entire life cycle of insectivorous birds. Whatever benefits the chickadees will also benefit other species, and increase biodiversity overall. The Douglas-firs in the back of my yard and the towering elms in the parking strip on my street nearly always have birds in them. Besides chickadees, I see woodpeckers, nuthatches, warblers, kinglets, bushtits, and more. The chickadees simply tell us what they all need.


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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The Best Way to Feed Hummingbirds in Warm Weather

Anna on columbine

Scorchingly hot weather is upon us in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s understandable to want to feed hummingbirds, but here’s the thing: Hummingbirds have no sense of smell and cannot tell if the sugar water in a feeder has gone bad. Deadly toxins can contaminate a sugar solution rather quickly in very warm weather—as fast as 24 hours—especially if the feeder receives some sunlight. Hummingbirds may become ill (and consequently more subject to predation) and even die from feeding at unattended feeders. And I don’t even want to think about a mother hummingbird’s nestlings who might starve to death after she’s been sickened by fermented sugar water that’s rich in mold and bacteria.

Anna on Penstemon ovatusReal flowers are best
To avoid all these potential dangers, I always recommend growing plants (preferably native to your area so that other species benefit as well) that provide natural nectar which contains micronutrients, unlike refined sugar. Besides the nutrition and safety of real nectar, you won’t have to deal with unwelcome insects at feeders. Hummingbirds may also consume a sugary liquid from trees and often forage where woodpeckers called sapsuckers create sapwells from which hummers feed. Keep in mind, too, that these amazing little birds do not live on nectar alone—their diet includes a surprisingly large amount of tiny insects (and spiders) for protein, and the best way to provide that is, again, with native plants (and no pesticides, of course!). And, needless to say, fresh water is essential for all birds.

Feeder recommendations
If you do feel a need to feed hummers via artificial feeders, here’s a handy chart for how often to clean and refill your feeder, courtesy the Wild Bird Shop:

Daily high temp / Frequency of cleaning/refilling
61-70º                   4-5 days
71-80º                   3 days
81-85º                   2 days
86º+                       daily

♦ Refill with just the amount of sugar solution that will be consumed in the time period according to the temperature range.
♦ Keep feeders in the shade.
♦ Choose feeders that don’t have tubes or removable parts, which are very difficult to keep clean. I like the HummZinger feeders, which are VERY easy to clean. Rinse well after cleaning with hot soapy water (no bleach).
♦ Stay away from the colored, pre-mixed commercially available solutions—natural nectar is colorless, and adding red dye is adding an unnecessary, unnatural, and possibly harmful chemical to the birds’ food. If your feeder doesn’t have red on it, simply hang a red ribbon next to the feeder.
♦ Only use white cane sugar in a ratio of 4 parts water (preferably filtered, w/o chlorine) to one part sugar. No honey, molasses, or syrups.

HummZinger

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Cascara (Rhamnus purshiana)

Rhamnus purshiana drupe
Of the 100+ Rhamnus species worldwide,
the Northwest’s representative is a lovely small tree or tall shrub. The first thing you may notice about Cascara (Rhamnus purshiana, syn. Frangula purshiana) is its texture: Silvery gray bark that’s nearly smooth, and oval, glossy green leaves with veins so prominent that they make the surface wavy and crinkled-looking. But Cascara’s charm doesn’t stop there. Springtime brings loose clusters of small, pale greenish-yellow flowers that later become small red fruit (a drupe, each containing 2 or 3 seeds) that ripen to the deepest purplish-blue possible. In autumn its leaves turn yellow to orange and may hang on in areas with mild winters.

The genus name, Rhamnus derives from the ancient Greek “rhabdos,” which means stick, rod or twig. The epitaph, purshiana, commemorates Frederick Traugott Pursh, a remarkably well-traveled (often on foot) 18th century German-American botanist who made major contributions to North American botany.
Rhamnus purshiana

How it grows
Cascara naturally occurs along the Pacific coast from British Columbia south into northern California, as well as parts of Idaho and Montana. It’s found in moist to dry shady forests and mixed woodlands, often along streams and in moist ravines, at low to middle elevations, as well as floodplains. It grows up to 30 feet tall and about half as wide.

Conservation
The dried bark of Cascara has been used for hundreds of years as a laxative—first by indigenous peoples and then commercially (sold as Cascara sagrada)—and the high demand for it has led to unethical harvesting from wild trees, which deprive the plants of their protective and essential bark. It is probable that this practice has heavily reduced cascara populations.

Wildlife value
Pollinators—such as hummingbirds and native bees—come to Cascara’s late spring flowers. Birds, including band-tailed pigeons, robins, tanagers and grosbeaks, as well as mammals such as raccoons and coyotes, are attracted to the pea-sized fruit. Birds like bushtits, kinglets, warblers and chickadees forage on insects found on leaves, twigs and bark. Cascara is a host plant for the larvae of gray hairstreak and swallowtail butterflies, which feed on leaves. Mule deer and other mammals may use it as browse.

 

Try it at home
Cascara is a great choice for small yards or where large trees wouldn’t thrive, and I don’t know why it’s not planted more often. Besides it’s beauty and wildlife appeal, it’s a fast grower that can take full sun to full shade, but does best in partial shade. Though it is drought tolerant when established (especially in shade), it will look and do its best with somewhat moist, well-drained soil that’s fairly rich in organic matter (add leaf compost!). In general, trees planted in hot, sunny areas will need more water. Like us, Cascara shows sensitivity to toxic gases and tiny sooty particles that are belched out of fossil fuel powered vehicles, so keep it away from busy streets and highways. It is reportedly fire resistant.

When planting multiple trees, place them about 15 feet apart (about 10 feet apart for shrubs used as a hedgerow). Cascara shrubs are a good substitute for invasive English laurel or Portugal laurel shrubs where they can be left unpruned.

Grab a partner
Cascara grows in the understory of trees such as big leaf maple, Douglas-fir, and western hemlock, where it might live alongside vine maple, red alder, willows, and red-twig dogwood.

It’s worth noting that some Rhamnus species, such as R. cathartica (“common buckthorn,” native to parts of Europe, northwestern Africa and western Asia), are invasive outside their natural range. R. cathartica was introduced as a garden plant and is now naturalized in parts of North America, probably because it leafs out earlier than native species, often contributing to their downfall.

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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How to Support Pollinators in All Their Life Stages

Many pollinators are in steep decline and in dire need of protection. A black-tailed bumble bee (Bombus melanopygus) feasts on hairy honeysuckle blossom (Lonicera hispidula).

Many pollinators are in steep decline and in dire need of protection. Here, a black-tailed bumble bee (Bombus melanopygus) feasts on hairy honeysuckle blossom (Lonicera hispidula).

 

It’s that time again—National Pollinator Week—when we pay a little more attention to the hard-working animals who give so much. They help pollinate about 75% of flowering plants and nearly the same amount of our food crops. Without them, life would be very different. So let’s honor these fascinating creatures who face seemingly insurmountable threats, including habitat loss, climate change, and pesticide use. It’s tragic and overwhelming, but there is much that each of us can do as individuals, and together we can have a tremendous influence over potential habitat in everything from tiny urban lots to community gardens to large rural expanses.

Even a small garden can make a difference. For example, in my Pacific Northwest yard I offer a variety of native flowering trees, shrubs and perennials throughout, as well as a mini-meadow where locally native perennials—such as columbine, fleabane, checker mallow, blue-eyed grass and iris—grow and buzz with life. Equally important is leaving leaf “litter” and dead wood around, and not doing any “clean up” until well into spring, so as to not disturb overwintering adults, eggs, larvae, or pupa, camouflaged so well. For example, the strikingly beautiful western tiger swallowtail butterfly may overwinter as chrysalis (pupa), which looks like a little piece of wood during that time. Other things we can do for pollinators include participating in “citizen science” projects that seek input from gardeners, and advocating for an end to pesticide use in our parks and communities.

At home, here are ten things we can do to attract and support a variety of pollinators, from bees and butterflies to beetles and flies

Syrphid fly (Scavea pyrastri) on western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa).

A syrphid fly (Scavea pyrastri) on western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa).

Grow a variety of plants that are native to your area, and you won’t need to think too much about whether you will provide food for pollinators. Research suggests that native plants are four times more alluring to native bees, for example, than exotic flowers.

Got lawn? Whether you have a large or small lot, consider replacing or minimizing turf with native grasses and wildflowers, or perennials and mosses in shady areas. Add shrubs and trees to provide cover and protection, especially for bees who create nests in the ground.

Leave parts of your garden a little “wild.” Undisturbed nesting locations are absolutely essential, and gardens that aren’t too neat and provide log piles, mounds of rounded stones, exfoliating tree bark, and patches of bare, well-drained, undisturbed soil will help. From fall till spring, allow leaves to remain undisturbed on the ground so that overwintering butterfly and moth eggs/caterpillars and bees can slumber peacefully under a leafy ceiling. For the numerous species of ground-nesting bees (70% of bees nest in the ground, like ants do), avoid extensive tilling or anything that prevents access to soil, like plastic mulch or thick layers of organic mulch. Nest sites for bees that nest aboveground can be supplemented by horizontally placing hollow or pithy stems, or blocks of wood or downed wood with dead-ended, narrow holes drilled into them. Some species also utilize the vegetative parts of plants for food as well as cover or resources for nesting.

Steer clear of pesticides. Even those approved for organic gardening, such as rotenone, are harmful. Systemic insecticides like neonicotinoids (a class of insecticides such as imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam that affect insects’ central nervous systems), are absorbed by plants and produce toxic nectar and pollen. Studies show that residues may persist in woody plants for up to six years following application and may persist in soil for several years. Herbicides and fungicides can also be harmful. In a healthy, balanced system there should be no need to resort to poisons.

Turn roadsides native. Studies show that native pollinators are much more prevalent in native stretches of roadside habitat—often the only connection between patches of remnant habitat—than weedy, nonnative stretches. If you own rural land, plant natives near your roadside and mow it infrequently to prolong bloom and prevent harm to creatures who may be taking cover within it.

Small female mining bee (Andrea sp.) gathers pollen for her young on showy fleabane (Erigeron specious).

Small female mining bee (Andrena sp.) gathers pollen for her young on showy fleabane (Erigeron speciosus).

Provide nectar and pollen in variety of flower color, shape, and size for pollinators with different needs. Flower nectar, produced in glandular organs called nectaries, is high in carbs and serves to attract pollinators to distribute plants’ pollen (and in some cases, attracts protectors like parasitoids and ants—which also pollinate to a small extent—against herbivores that may be problematic). Pollen is a highly nutritious blend of proteins, lipids and carbohydrates. We’ve been taught that bees tend to prefer yellow, purple, and blue flowers—anything but red, which they can’t see—while hummingbirds can see and do use reds (although one study suggests that their preference may not be innate, but rather they choose them since bees don’t). While this is true, a 2016 research study shows that bumblebees (and probably other pollinators) choose a plant for the nutritional quality of its pollen, not only its color; they were found to need pollen with a high protein to lipid ratio (which makes sense, since the pollen is mainly used to feed their growing larvae). And new research out of UC-Davis suggests that pollinators choose among flowers based on the microbes within those flowers, such as yeasts that are”commonly found in flower nectar and … thought to hitch a ride on pollinators to travel from one flower to the next. Its scent production may help it attract pollinators, which then help the yeast disperse among flowers.” But flower shape and size also matter: butterflies need clusters of short, tubular flowers with a wide landing pad, such as yarrow (Achellia millefolium occidentalis), various native bees need different types of flowers (generally shallow), while hummingbirds like relatively large, tubular, or urn-shaped flowers.

Anna’s hummingbirds pollinate while they forage for nectar.

Keep it blooming. From spring through fall, something should always be in bloom, preferably several species at a time. In the Pacific Northwest, early spring flowers, like those of Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), willows (Salix), and red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), are particularly important to bees emerging from hibernation, while late-season nectar sources such as asters (Symphyotrichum spp. or Aster spp.) help bees that overwinter as adults get through the winter. Both early and late forage may aid in bees’ reproduction. Of course, mid-summer flowers are important, too! Many native species bloom for extended periods, such as charming foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata), which may produce flowers from spring to late summer. Learn when plants bloom to be sure you’ve got it covered, and aim for some overlap in bloom times. Remember that trees and shrubs, as well as perennials and annuals, can provide nectar and pollen. Arrange plants in clusters or drifts or swaths of at least three different plant species so that each plant is next to or within a few feet of another of its kind, to supply enough forage and to make them easy for pollinators to find.

Moisten sand or loose soil to help adult butterflies. Butterflies and moths ingest liquids like flower nectar from which they obtain sugars, minerals, and other nutrients. But they also need to “sip” from muddy or sandy puddles, sap, decaying fruit, sweaty humans, even manure piles to hydrate themselves and obtain dissolved minerals, including salt. Such minerals are vital for many physiological functions, including reproduction: Males often transfer “nuptial gifts” of sodium and amino acids to the female during mating (along with other donations). Before you say, “He shouldn’t have,” consider how evolution toward generosity might generate rewards: more gifts mean more nutrition and better egg survival. To assist, add a dash of salt to containers of moist sand or soil, to be sure they get what they need.

Butterflies and moths often obtain nutrients and moisture in mud puddles, but they’re also attracted to perspiration on skin, like this green comma butterfly.

Butterflies and moths often obtain nutrients and moisture in mud puddles, but they’re also attracted to perspiration on skin, like this green comma butterfly.

Grow butterfly host plants. To become adults, butterflies in earlier life stages—egg, larva, chrysalis—require host plants that provide habitat and food. Find out which butterflies frequent your area, and grow the plants that provide for all their stages. In the Northwest check out these handy guides: Create a Butterfly Garden (OSU) and Butterflies and How to Attract Them (WDFW).

Forgo hybridized and “double” flowers. When choosing nonnative plants, keep in mind that hybridized varieties may lack sufficient pollen nutrition—pollens vary in protein content, and bees and other pollen consuming insects need a wide variety to fulfill their protein requirement. Research also suggests that some commonly used garden plants, especially those hybridized for features valued by gardeners, like disease-resistance or flower size or color, may not provide sufficient or appropriate nutrients in nectar, needed for carbohydrates. Frilly double-flowered varieties (those with extra petals that make a flower look inflated and flouncy) are usually inaccessible to pollinators simply because they can’t get through the mass of petals to the nectaries. It’s a bit sad to watch a bumblebee, trying but unable to get inside an overly dressed flower, fly away without food.

Trichodes ornatus

This beetle (Trichomes ornatus), on wild buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.), is a member of a very diverse group of pollinators that are especially important in areas where bees aren’t common.

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

Adapted from content originally published in my book, Real Gardens Grow Natives: Design, Plant, & Enjoy a Healthy Northwest Garden.

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Broad-leaved penstemon (Penstemon ovatus)

Anna on Penstemon ovatus
Growing penstemons usually requires a valiant effort to mimic wild conditions
by creating rock gardens complete with crevices that these beautiful plants’ roots can inch their way into. Most species will suffer without well-aerated, quick draining soil, and can’t live with frequent summer irrigation. Unless you reside where the soil is naturally rocky or gravelly, providing fast drainage in the Pacific Northwest can be a bit challenging. But Penstemon ovatus likes and needs moisture and will usually let you manage with whatever soil you have, providing it drains well and contains a fair amount of organic matter.

Nicknamed broad-leaved or egg-leaf penstemon, it’s a great asset to the garden. Long-lived and upright, it grows from a woody base with glossy, deep green, spade-shaped leaves. When in flower—typically May and June—the plants rise up to two or three feet above ground. Speaking of flowers, they are gorgeous: Small (15-20 mm) but many, and arranged in whorls on fairly tall inflorescences, they are a brilliant blue that melds into violet and pink.

How it grows
Hardy to Zone 4, this perennial is native to parts of the Pacific Northwest (west of the Cascade Mountains) at low to middle elevations, in damp, partly sunny to mostly shady places near forest edges, often in riparian areas. It’s range is somewhat scattered and includes the western Columbia Gorge and parts of the Willamette Valley, as well as northern areas of the Olympic peninsula and southern British Columbia. Natural distribution to county level can be found here.

Wildlife value
Penstemons, in general, are fantastic pollinator plants that are irresistible to hummingbirds, native bees, syrphid flies, beetles, ants, moths, and others, depending on the species. In my yard I’ve seen P. ovatus attracting syrphid flies, P. ovatus + tiny native beeants, bumble bees, and impossibly small native sweat bees, many of which nest in the ground (so please take care when applying mulch or digging in soil to avoid harming them). Small songbirds may eat the seeds that mature in summer; foliage creates cover for tiny soil-dwelling creatures.

Try it at home
Broad-leaved penstemon likes rich soil, regular (but not constant) watering, and virtually any light situation except deep shade or excessive sun, although more sun tends to make the plants more floriferous. Since it is a fairly robust and versatile plant, placement shouldn’t be too difficult: In my Portland yard I find it does best in part sun, and fits well a couple of feet in from a pathway due to its height while in bloom. Placing multiple plants in groups or swaths, with each plant 12 to 18 inches apart, will make it easy for pollinators to find them and minimize the amount of bare soil that sprouts weedy plants.P.ovatus

As mentioned earlier, unless your soil is already high in organic matter and drains well, add some low-nitrogen compost before planting (leaf compost is good). I like to get plants in the ground in mid to late fall when forthcoming winter rains will help get their roots established before the demands of spring; if you plant in springtime be sure to keep them adequately hydrated during the first few summers. After plants are established (usually a couple of years), they should do fine with just occasional—but deep—watering. If you happen to plant them close to other plants that like frequent irrigation they will likely do fine, but don’t keep them consistently wet. Siting them at the edges of rain gardens should work, but not in the low, saturated parts.

Another Northwest penstemon for moist conditions is P. serrulatus.


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa)

D. formosa
We love Western (or Pacific) bleeding heart
because it’s so beautiful and delicate, especially in springtime when its leaves are fresh and flowers are bountiful. Whoever named it felt the same way, because botanically speaking it’s known as Dicentra formosa, the genus Dicentra referring to the two nectar-bearing spurs characteristic of the flowers of this genus, and the epithet formosa, which means beautiful.

How it grows
With deciduous, finely divided, bluish-green leaves and enchanting little puffy pink flowers, it blooms from early spring into summer. In warm areas with no summer irrigation it tends to disappear after its leaves die back, but fleshy roots keep the plant alive until the following spring. Should moisture reach it during the summer or fall months, it could very well forget about dormancy and even produce more flowers in the fall. It prefers cool weather to hot, and can withstand cold winters.

Western bleeding heart occurs from low to middle elevations in British Columbia and southward into Washington and Oregon (west of Cascades) and California. It thrives in part to full shade in moist forests and woodlands, in ravines, and near streams.

D. formosa + Bombus vosnesenkii

  Yellow-faced bumble bee feeding on western bleeding heart.

Yellow warbler + Dicentra formosa

  Bleeding heart provides food (aphids) for hungry yellow warblers.

Wildlife value
Wildlife seems to adore this plant as much as we do, due to a variety of attractants. The nectar-rich flowers attract hummingbirds, bumble bees, and syrphid flies, while the foliage may be consumed by the larvae of clodius parnassian butterflies in parts of its range. Aphids like it too, but don’t worry—the birds who like to eat them should keep them in check (especially if you have other natives to attract them): In late April, a small flock of yellow warblers–fresh from an arduous migration from Central America–paused in my yard to feed quite voraciously on them for nearly a week; a couple of the warblers have stayed around and may be nesting nearby. In addition to birds, unnoticeable predators, like the developing larvae of some species of syrphid flies, can eat as many as 500 aphids (each!) before they become adults. In landscapes where predators and prey are allowed to exist a naturalistic balance soon results.

Western bleeding heart mainly spreads by underground rhizomes, but it’s also figured out a way to get more mileage. The little black seeds of this plant evolved an oil-rich appendage (called an elaiosome) which ants like to feed to their young. When the ants toss the unused part of the seed that’s still viable, they assist in dispersal.

The plant’s leafiness provides cover for small creatures like amphibians and various arthropods, and protects the soil as well.

Try it at home
This plant looks wonderful in woodland gardens growing beneath native conifers or other trees, in the company of ferns like deer fern (Blechnum spicant) or western sword fern (Polystichum munitum). It does best with light, moist soil that’s rich in organic matter. Adding a top layer of leaf compost or other organic matter and allowing fallen leaves to remain on soil will help maintain moisture around its roots, improve soil structure, and add some nutrients to the soil.

Keep in mind, though, that this is not a shy plant. It likes to prance around the yard so is not best for very small sites, especially if there are delicate perennials that awaken late and could be shaded out by the early arriving bleeding heart. That said, it’s not terribly difficult to remove should you decide you’ve lost affection for it later on (but don’t put it in your home compost bins or it will spread everywhere!).

Grab a partner
Western bleeding heart thrives with native conifers, and in the Pacific Northwest they might be western red cedar (Thuja plicata), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), grand fir (Abies grandis), noble fir (Abies procera), Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), and coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). Deciduous trees like red alder (Alnus rubra) and vine maple (Acer circinatum) also like to have it around. Understory species often found growing with it include red huckleberry (Vaccinum parviflorum), evergreen huckleberry (V. ovatum), red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), salal (Gaultheria shallon), Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa), Hooker’s fairy bells (Disporum hookeri), western meadow rue (Thalictrum occidentale), Scouler’s corydalis (Corydalis scouleri), stream violet (Viola glabella), ferns—such as western sword fern (Polystichum munitum), ladyfern (Athyrium filix-femina)—and mosses.

Other Dicentra in the Northwest
The uncommon Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman’s breeches) has white to pale pink flowers with yellow tips and occurs parts of Oregon and southern Washington, mainly near the Columbia River. D. pauciflora, (shorthorn steer’s head or few-flowered bleeding-heart), is native to Josephine County, Oregon and small parts of California, only at high elevations in gravelly soils. D. uniflora (steer’s head), is a rare relation that also grows in gravelly (sometimes serpentine) soils at low to high elevations in parts of the Northwest.

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Henderson’s shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii)

 

Dodecatheon hendersonii
Nicknamed shooting starDodecatheon species are delicate spring bloomers
that could find a home in nearly every garden. If yours lacks this sweet little perennial wildflower that’s a member of the Primrose family (Primulaceae), by all means get outside now to witness its unusual blossoms, because the plant goes dormant fairly quickly after flowering. And then add it to your shopping list.

How it grows
Dodecatheon hendersonii grows west of the Cascades in Oregon, Washington, northern California, and southern Vancouver Island at low to mid-elevations within open woodlands, forest edges, and grasslands, typically in partial shade. In springtime, the plant emerges from dormancy as a modest little clump of soft green, oval or spoon-shaped leaves. A few weeks later, a slim leafless flower stalk grows above the rosette of foliage and, after what seems like a blink of an eye, spectacular little downturned flowers emerge with pink to magenta to white petals swept backward, looking almost as though they’d been caught in a terrific windstorm. It’s their stamens, stigma, and style that protrude forward, collectively, like miniature colorful darts. Following pollination, the flowers turn upwards toward the stars. The ovary essentially becomes a capsule where the seeds develop, and as they mature, any remaining anthers, stigma, and petals fall off. Seeds are dispersed by wind or creatures bumping into the dry scape.Dodecatheon hendersonii

Wildlife value
Flowers, of course, aren’t just for our eyes. Dodecatheon species evolved to attract certain species of solitary bees, as well as native bumble bees that have an ability to vibrate flowers using indirect flight muscles (aka “buzz pollination”). While they’re collecting pollen for their young (Dodecatheon species offer no nectar), the bees release pollen that’s securely attached to a flower’s anthers and transfer it to stamens with their legs and mandibles. They also do this for other flowers with tubular anthers, including tomato blossoms, so consider growing native pollinator plants to attract native bees to your veggie beds).

Try it at home
While Dodecatheon hendersonii can handle the wet soils of the Pacific Northwest’s winter and spring, it needs to dry out a bit during the summer and fall, so if you grow this species, don’t irrigate often. Since it will take many years to form a colony, space plants in natural-looking drifts, about 12 inches apart and where they won’t be shaded out by any overzealous spring ephemerals you may have, such as tulips (or even native plants such as western bleeding heart).

Depending on your location and your site’s conditions, you might find other Dodecatheon species to be a better fit. Of the nearly 20 species within the genus, the Pacific Northwest hosts several other species: Dodecatheon pulchellum looks similar to D. hendersonii but has longer leaves and naturally occurs in moist areas such as near streams, seeps, and in wet meadows at low to high elevations; D. dentatum subsp. dentatum (white shooting star) is also endemic to the PNW and the only species with consistently white petals; D. poeticum is found mostly in the arid Columbia Basin and eastern Columbia Gorge, where it prefers to grow in soil that is rich in organic matter and fine sand, as found in the Gorge; D. alpine grows only in moist meadows and near streams at high elevations. Less common is D. jeffreyi, which naturally occurs in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, and Montana; it is Critically Imperiled in Wyoming. And D. austrofrigidum can be found, sadly, only in small, scattered populations in Gray’s Harbor and Pacific counties of Washington, where it is listed as Critically Imperiled, and in Clatsop and Tillamook counties of Oregon, where it is listed as Imperiled: In lower elevation riparian sites, “threats [to populations] exist due to logging and grazing upstream, which contributes to flooding and erosion that negatively impacts populations.

To make more of these wonders, collect seed in summer and plant in fall or early spring, or very very carefully separate bulblets (that are attached to roots) just after flowering.

Grab a partner
Friends and associates of D. hendersonii include Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), camas (Camassia quamash), white fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum), and many others.

Dodecatheon hendersonii

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Western trillium (Trillium ovatum)

Trillium ovatum

Although introductions are probably not necessary, this is Trillium ovatum, an unmistakable and endearing plant that softly lights up the vernal understory of moist coniferous and mixed forests from southern British Columbia, south to California, east to Idaho, Montana and small parts of Wyoming and Colorado, and north to southwestern Alberta. It’s part of a large genus, with about 50 other members that are native to temperate areas of North American and Asia.

T. ovatum’s common names are “western trillium” and “wake robin,” the latter due to its designation as unofficial (or maybe official!) harbinger of spring. Trillium comes from modern Latin, reportedly an alteration of the Swedish trilling, meaning “triplet,” which refers to its three leaves and three petals. Ovatum is derived from the Latin ovum meaning “egg-shaped,” which describes the leaf outline.

How it grows
A perennial that grows from rhizomes, it technically produces no true leaves or stems above ground—the stems are considered an extension of the horizontal rhizome. The part of the plant that we notice most is an upright flowering scape (stalk), and the leaf-like structures are bracts, but most people call them leaves because they photosynthesize. The smaller leaf-like structures just under the flower are sepals. Probably more than you wanted to know! Trillium ovatum

Trillums are divided into two types: Pedicellate (those whose flowers have a short stalk called a peduncle) and sessile (those with flowers attached directly to the bracts). The flowers have six stamens and three stigmas. Trillium plants are very long lived and can take as long as 10 years to flower from seed. As the flowers age, and after pollination, the white flowers change to pink or even burgundy. Trillium are “spring ephemerals” and as summer proceeds, they go dormant and mostly disappear from our view (although those that are well established, or those given summer water usually maintain their greenery above ground following the flowering period).

Wildlife value
Pollination happens thanks to bumblebees, moths, and beetles. The fruit is fleshy and berrylike; the seeds evolved to have fleshy elaiosomes, whose nutritious proteins and fats attract muscular ants who carry the seeds back home to feed their young. After the food is consumed, they then toss the still viable seed and, voila! Seed dispersal accomplished.

Try it at home
Although trilliums are quintessential forest denizens, they usually do well in shaded to partly shaded woodland gardens, or even just moist (but well drained) areas on the north or east side of houses, provided that the soil is rich in organic matter and slightly acidic (pH 5.0 to 6.5). Trilliums can withstand minor droughts, but occasional summer water will help keep them going until winter rains begin.

The plants you buy will likely be small, but in the right conditions and over many years they will slowly grow to a clump as wide as two feet. Grow them as nature would, in drifts with individual plants roughly a couple of feet apart. I’ve never grown them from seed, but reportedly seed is collected when capsules begin to open in midsummer. Sow them twice as deep as the seed’s diameter (or slightly deeper) in deep containers with coarse growing medium. Leave them outdoors in a shaded spot to mimic natural conditions. More detailed info on propagation here.

Some associates to grow them with include Douglas-fir, western red cedar, western hemlock, Pacific rhododendron, vine maple, salal, sword fern, deer fern, vanilla leaf, oxalis, western wild ginger, and stream violet.

Other Pacific Northwest trillium
Trillium albidum occurs in most parts of western Oregon, as well as Thurston, Pierce and Lewis counties in Washington, and much of northern California. T. parviflorum grows naturally in southwestern Washington and northwestern T. kurabyashiiOregon. T. rivale occurs only in southwestern Oregon and the northernmost counties of California. T. kurabayashii (pictured, right) is naturally found only in Oregon’s Curry County, as well as Del Norte and Humboldt counties of California.

As always, only buy natives from reputable nurseries and never dig plants from the wild. And never pick the flowers—doing so may eliminate the only chance the leaf-like bracts have for photosynthesis, and cause the plant to weaken or even die.

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Remove Invasive Plants: It’s Good for Wildlife and Gardens

English ivy (Hedera helix)

A little neglect goes a long way (English ivy takes over).


I’m embarrassed to admit
that when I first moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1990, before I knew much about regional native plants, I thought that foxgloves were native plants. Why? Because I encountered them in natural areas. Luckily I know much better now, and—with the exception of some infrequently traveled trails in remote corners of the world—I cannot remember a hike where I haven’t encountered invasive plants (and sometimes a terribly large number of them). Areas close to urban areas are hardest hit, but even ecosystems far from the madding crowd can suffer from their effects.Digitalis purpurea

Invasive plants are nonnatives that were—and continue to be—brought here either intentionally by the nursery trade (or agriculture), or accidentally (as packing material and such). Thousands of species have been brought to North America, and many of ours have been sent abroad. All this rearranging of the earth’s flora started innocently enough centuries ago, but experts fear that it’s reached a point where biological diversity is severely threatened and essential interactions, like pollination, are damaged. Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), as lovely as a biennial can be, may not be one of the worst offenders, but it doesn’t stay put with its billions of tiny seeds, and shows up in places it doesn’t belong, basically making life miserable for the plants that do. More problematic species often reproduce in several ways: For example, Himalayan blackberry and English ivy (shown above) and its cultivars, both spread via rooting stems and by fruits eaten and dispersed by wildlife. Both suppress and exclude native vegetation to form dense monocultures, entirely unsuitable as wildlife habitat. English ivy is capable of one other feat, if left alone long enough: Taking down entire trees.

Of course, not all nonnative plants pose horrendous problems, but those that do run amok do it because whatever checks kept them in balance in their native land—soils, predators, pathogens—are lacking here. Consequently, they do so well that they’re able to spread fairly easily from yards or agricultural areas into natural areas that support native species that can’t compete; the natives have no defense, become overwhelmed by the newcomers, and die out. This is particularly devastating for uncommon or endangered plants close to extinction. In addition, the spread of invasives (plant, animals, and pathogens) has economic ramifications.

Deadly for wildlife
While habitat loss due to deforestation, urban sprawl, livestock grazing, and agriculture is the greatest threat to the variety of life on Earth, invasive plants contribute greatly to the tragic loss of biodiversity. Since native plants are essential for native fauna (especially specialist species that can only use a certain plant or plants), animals suffer from the demise of native plants that they may use for forage or other purposes. And some are actually poisonous. It’s not unusual for cedar waxwings to be poisoned by the fruit of heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica). And this past winter, many wild elk and pronghorn died horrible deaths in Idaho after foraging on Japanese yew (Taxus japonica), which is considered invasive in some states. Hungry bears also have been poisoned in Pennsylvania by English yew (Taxus baccata), and other animals—including livestock and people—can also be poisoned. Instead of nonnative yews, we can plant regional/local yews that wildlife coevolved with. The Pacific Northwest’s yew, Taxus brevifolia, which provides food and cover for many wild species, is the best choice from British Columbia to northern California and east to Montana, at mid to high elevations. Sadly, this attractive understory shrub that grows beneath conifers is in trouble due to over-harvesting for medicine, as well as the logging industry.

Hard work pays off
Recent research from the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, shows that sweat and funds invested in eradication can pay off for all sorts of pollinators (bees, butterflies, beetles, birds, reptiles), for the native plants themselves, and for the whole ecosystem. Following the removal of nearly 40,000 invasive shrubs on four mountaintops on one island, researchers monitored the remaining native plants for visits from pollinators. Eight months of observation later, “Ecosystem restoration resulted in a marked increase in pollinator species, visits to flowers and interaction diversity.” Essentially, even during the rather short test period , it was found that both the number of pollinators and their interactions with plants and each other were over 20% higher in the test areas than in control plots (where the invasive shrubs had been left alone). And, the test area native plants also produced more flowers and fruit than those in control areas. Restoration works!


WHAT YOU CAN DO

Eradicate them (go on, git!). Early detection and removal  is crucial to stopping an invasive plant in its tracks, especially if you live near a natural area. To make it feasible, and If you have a variety of invasives, pace yourself—perhaps get rid of one species a week (or one a month or season, depending on the infestation). I strongly recommend forgoing pesticides and manually digging them out whenever possible. Digging when the soil isn’t saturated is best, to prevent destroying the soil structure that results when working wet soil. And if your arch-enemies grow on a slope, be sure to replace them with native erosion controllers (Oregon white oak, madrone, oceanspray, red-twig dogwood, Nootka rose, salal, sword fern, etc.) as soon as you can.

At the very least, cut stems off at the soil level well before plants go to seed (it can happen quickly!). Some species can then be covered with a dark sheet (not plastic, which will prevent moisture from reaching the soil and kill soil life), to block out light. Left for 6 months to a year, it will prevent photosynthesis; afterwards, check to see if you need to dig out any more live roots. Persistence usually pays off. In hard to reach places, repeatedly cut down or yank out leafy stems—eventually the plant will die from the lack of energy that sunlight provides. The morning glory vines that come from under a dense shrub in my yard get weaker every year because we continually pull out what we see. I seriously think this year may be their last.

One exception to the get-it-out-as-fast-as-you-can rule: If the invasive plants are providing some habitat for wildlife (nesting sites or food or cover),
do a soft eviction and take them out incrementally, rather than all at once. This will avoid completely eliminating the habitat and causing undue stress to wildlife.

Herb robert (Geranium robertianum) an invasive plant

Stinky Bob: Pretty, but very assertive in natural areas & gardens.

Remember that some seeds can survive for many years. When I first started gardening in my yard, there were a lot of Robert’s geranium (Geranium robertianum) a.k.a. “Stinky Bob”. Dutifully I pulled all the plants before seeds had set, but the next year they were back due to the previous year’s seeds. I pulled them again and again, always before they flowered. Fifteen years later, I’m still pulling, but this year there were only two plants! Moral of the story: some seeds can stay viable a very long time, so don’t you dare let up on your weeding. But of course neglected neighboring yards can supply seeds as well, so it’s a continual process. Before planting natives, wait at least a season after the initial removal. Weed again, and then plant. It may not eliminate the seeds, but it should cut down on future seedlings and give the natives the best chance at taking control again.

Know what you’re planting. Don’t buy newly introduced plants that lack a track record, or seed mixes that may contain invasive seeds, especially ones labeled just “wildflowers.” If you want a wildflower meadow or prairie-style garden, buy only seeds that you know are native to your location and you won’t have to worry. Even though many native “pioneer species” (especially annuals) can be quite assertive, if they spread enthusiastically they won’t wreak havoc on the environment. Species from different regions of the country can be problematic, not just those from Europe or Asia, so go with only local native plants whenever possible.

Speak up if you notice plants for sale that are problematic.  I’ve seen Arum italicum and Vinca minor and many others for sale at local retail nurseries, even though they’re on my city’s “Nuisance List.” (And I’ve seen Stinky Bob, too!)  The thing is, just because plants are deemed invasive or a “nuisance” species, doesn’t mean they can’t be sold—the only plants that are illegal to sell in a particular state are those that have been officially listed as a state noxious weed. But if enough of us educate retailers, hopefully they will pull the plants from their catalog/stores.

Besides eliminating invasives in our yards, we need to be very careful about what we’re dragging into natural areas on our hiking boots or sneakers. Plant material like seeds can get stuck in the tread of shoes, and some stick like velcro to laces, like the seeds of the aptly named forget-me-not. And backpacks and pant cuffs can harbor and release seeds, as well as dogs’ paws and fur. When I encountered Stinky Bob in a beautiful natural area last year in the Columbia Gorge; it had already spread over a slope as big as my back yard. No doubt someone unknowingly carried the seed there and the plant that resulted liked it there—a lot.

Tell others about the harm that invasives pose.

Join a local invasive plant eradication effort.

♦ If you see infestations in natural areas report them to the local soil and water conservation district or to an invasives hotline like Oregon’s www.oregoninvasiveshotline.org.

Better choices
Depending on your location and conditions, what are some possible native substitutes for the overzealous travelers, once they’re removed? For English ivy (and cultivars), consider salal (Gaultheria shallon), kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), sword fern (Polystichum munitum), star-flowered false solomon’s seal (Maianthemum stellatum), inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), or Cascade Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa). Himalayan blackberry might be replaced with thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), or black-cap raspberry (Rubus leucodermis var. leucodermis). Arum could be succeeded by false solomon’s seal (Maiantheum racemosum) or vanilla leaf (Achyls triphylla). Vinca could be ousted by piggyback plant (Tolmiea menziesii), broadpetal strawberry (Frageria virginiana), or oxalis (Oxalis oregana or O. suksdorfii). And Stinky Bob might sublet his space to Western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), Oregon geranium (Geranium oreganum), or licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza).

Herb robert

This huge clump of Geranium robertianum (Stinky Bob)—that’s pushed out native species—probably started with just one seed.

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Plant Profile: California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica)


Corylus cornuta var. california (leaves)
Flowers in January?
You bet. Although they’re not showy blossoms that attract most people searching for signs of spring, the flowers of California hazelnut are a truly welcome sight in mid-winter to spring. Hazelnuts are monoecious plants, having both soft-yellow male catkins that dangle off the tips of leafless branches, and tiny feathery clusters of red stigmas—decidedly female—that are few and often difficult to see. Due to their timing and structure, they are pollinated by wind, not insects.

Corylus cornuta var. california catkins

California hazelnut is a deciduous, multi-stemmed woodland shrub (or small tree), beautifully textured with soft-green, saw-toothed, velvety leaves that adorn arching branches. In autumn they turn a glowing yellow or gold. Besides seasonal aesthetic interest, there are the hard-shelled edible nuts, which typically mature in late summer to early fall.

A member of the birch family, California hazelnut’s botanical name originates from both Greek and Latin. The genus Corylus comes from the Greek korulos, which means “helmet” and refers to the nearly impenetrable husk on the top of the nut. The epithet, cornuta, means “horned” in Latin and refers to a beaklike point formed by the bracts, or husk, that enclose the developing fruit.

Corylus cornuta var. californica

How it grows
California hazelnut typically can be found on moist, rocky slopes or riparian areas in the understory or at the edge of mixed forests at low to middle elevations.The variety californica naturally occurs in southern B.C., within most counties of Washington and Oregon west of the Cascades (as well as Wallowa County in NE Oregon), and in northern to central California. Another variety,  Corylus cornuta var. cornuta, commonly known as beaked hazelnut, makes its home east of the Cascades and throughout a large portion of the U.S. According to the US Forest Service, although California hazelnut doesn’t naturally grow with other native hazelnut species, “hybridization is possible in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and other locations where it grows adjacent to European filbert (cultivars of C. avellana) orchards.” Corylus americana (American hazelnut) grows in the central and eastern U.S.

Wildlife value
Many wild species eat and disperse the nuts. Rabbits and deer eat leaves and sprouts. Cover is provided for many species of birds, as well as mammals.

Try it at home
California hazelnut doesCorylus cornuta var. california hazelnut well in sun to shade, and prefers moist but well-drained, somewhat acidic soils with a decent amount of organic matter. While  tolerant of clay soils, it doesn’t do well on poorly drained sites. Useful for erosion control on slopes, it will eventually form a thicket. Suckers may be removed in winter (during dormancy) to form more of a treelike habit, but the habitat created by thickets favors many wild animals, especially birds seeking cover, so consider just leaving them to their natural habit.

Mature size varies from 10 feet to 20 feet tall, possibly more with advanced age. Spread is typically 10 to 20 feet, but usually on the low end in garden situations. Since chipmunks, jays and squirrels love the nuts, I suggest you grow as many of these charming shrubs as possible (especially if you want to have the chance to taste them!). Growing more than one shrub also increases pollination, which leads to more nuts per plant. Space them 10 to 20 feet apart (on the low end if you want some density). Though this shrub is quite drought tolerant when established (2 to 5 years), water it deeply but infrequently in the hot summer months thereafter, especially if your site receives a lot of sun or reflected heat.

Squirrel watchingTo grow this plant from seed, collect nuts in late summer or early fall while the husks are still a bit green. Plant them outdoors, an inch or two deep (but make sure a little squirrel isn’t watching you do it!). To make sure they’re viable, place them in a bowl of water for 15 minutes or so, and use only those that sink. Plants can also be ground layered or propagated by semihardwood cuttings in the fall, or suckers may be divided in early spring.

California hazelnut is a good substitute for European hazelnut or English hawthorn.

Grab a partner
Because California hazelnut grows in a variety of plant communities, it gets along well with many other species. Choose partners that would have likely grown in your area. In the Douglas-fir/western hemlock ecoregion, consider red alder (Alnus rubra), vine maple (Acer circinatum), salal (Gaultheria shallon), thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), sword fern (Polystichum munitum), deer fern (Blechnum spicant), and woodland strawberry (Frageria virginiana or F. vesca), among others. In the grassland and oak woodland areas of the Willamette Valley, Puget Trough, and Georgia Basin, grow it with Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia), cascara (Rhamnus purshiana), and red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), inside-out flower (Vancounveria hexandra) and others. In the southern Coast Range and mountainous areas of southwest Oregon, include tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), and serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia).

As always, buy plants propagated from source material that originated as close as possible to your site. Using such “local genotypes”  helps ensure that you get plants that are well adapted to your area and preserves genetic diversity that helps plants (and animals) adapt to changing conditions. Ask growers and nurseries about their sources if you’re unsure.

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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A Winter Treat for Wild Birds: Plant-Based Suet

Black-capped chickadees love peanut butter-coconut oil suet!

Black-capped chickadee, salivating over peanut butter-coconut oil suet.

 

Back by popular demand, here is my vegan “suet” recipe for wild birds trying to make it through cold weather. While the insects, fruit, or seeds provided by native plants are the best way to feed birds because those who eat at feeders are much more likely to get sick and spread disease, there are times when they could use some help getting through frigid days and nights. Small birds especially, with their remarkably rapid metabolism, need to find enough calories for the day but also build up fat reserves to get through their lengthy nighttime fasts—all in the course of the minimal daylight hours of winter. Young birds have it the toughest since they have to compete with mature birds who have better access to food and roosting sites. Despite their amazing abilities to get through cold stormy winters, some do die during especially stressful times.

Yellow-rumped warbler with a mouthful

This “suet” contains a lot of fat and protein and seems to be more appealing to birds than the traditional, animal-derived suet. It also lacks the probability of antibiotic and who-knows-what-else contamination, and the gross factor (Wikipedia describes “suet” as “the raw, hard fat of beef or mutton found around the loins and kidneys.” Yumm … ). And, the fats in this recipe used in place of the dead animal lipo—especially the coconut oil—pack in the health benefits. I strongly recommend using organic ingredients whenever possible considering the deplorable loss of birds to pesticides.

Bushtits awaiting their turn at the suet feeder

Bushtits anxiously awaiting their turn at the feeder.

This recipe also helps you avoid participating in the sheer misery and environmental destruction associated with animal agriculture. Of course, other solid fats have their pitfalls. I passionately avoid palm oil—the cheap fat linked to tropical deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty, and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it is produced—which seems to be found in almost every product under the sun these days. And while coconut oil, which I combine in this entree with peanut butter, is far from a perfect ingredient, it is slightly less problematic, especially if you buy organic and fair trade.

Which birds might flock to this suet? In my yard, a lone, very bossy male yellow-rumped warbler (“Rumpy,” pictured above) makes a point to come back every winter for “his” suet, but northern flickers, downy woodpeckers, bushtits, chickadees, juncos, and song sparrows are common patrons as well (with Rumpy’s permission, of course). Bewick’s wrens also occasionally drop in for lunch, as do a pair of golden-crowned sparrows.

 

vegan suet ingredients
Here is the recipe for one “cake.”
Bonus points if you use organic ingredients!

¼ cup coconut oil, preferably unrefined
¼ cup unsalted peanut butter, preferably chunky
⅛ cup + 1 tablespoon raw, unsalted sunflower seeds
⅛ cup + 1 tablespoon raw coarse corn meal (aka polenta)
⅛ cup + 1 tablespoon raw millet, hulled or not
2 tablespoons chopped raisins or other dried fruit, optional
Additional chopped unsalted peanuts or nuts, optional

Directions: Gently warm coconut oil over very low heat just until it starts melting. Remove from heat and stir in peanut butter, then other ingredients. If it’s still warm, allow it to cool, then spoon into a mold (small plastic storage containers work well) that will fit your feeder. Cover and freeze for at least an hour before popping it out of the container and placing outside.

TIPS:
♦ This suet is intended only for cold weather and will begin to soften at temperatures above 55º F or so. It will become a drippy mess if subjected to sunlight in such weather.
♦ To prevent disease transmission, be sure to scrub suet feeders with hot soapy water and rinse well before each refill.
♦ Place all bird feeders either within 2 feet of your house or at least 25 feet away, to reduce the chance of window strikes.
♦ Rotate bird feeder positions to reduce the likelihood of birds eating poop-contaminated food on the ground, and if you have more than one feeder, space them apart to keep birds from getting unnaturally close.
♦ To keep squirrels and other rodents at bay, hang feeder on a pole with a squirrel baffle.
♦ Suet feeders with tail props are nice for flickers who have long tails.
♦ Extra cakes may be stored in your freezer for several months.

downy female

Downy woodpeckers love this suet recipe!

 


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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After a Storm: Dead Wood Gives Life

snaggy-stump

Following a particularly nasty ice and wind storm that damaged or took the life of many mature trees in Northwest Oregon, it’s time to clean up nature’s ragged pruning job and literally pick up the pieces. Or is it?

Clean up sparingly
If there are damaged limbs on a street tree or yard tree close to your house, hire a certified arborist to remove any dangling branches and clean-cut any ragged wounds and stubs left by breakage, particularly if you have a tree that is prone to disease, such elm-damage-ice-stormas an elm. Sharp cuts that don’t leave stubs (partially amputated branches not cut back to the branch collar that look like you could hang a hat on it) will allow for faster healing and may prolong the life of the tree. But if safety is not an issue, consider that natural, important habitat is created when damaged limbs are simply left on the tree. As I wrote in my book, “interactions between wildlife and decaying wood are fundamental to ecosystem functions and processes in forests, aquatic habitats,” and your garden, whether they be wooded or more open.

We’re usually far too eager to clean up and remove anything and everything that’s fallen to the ground to keep our yards neat and orderly. But this sort of maintenance can be harmful not
dead woodonly to our backs, but to dwindling wild species that need natural, woody “litter” and some disarray, not homogenous expanses of bare soil, bark mulch, or clipped lawn. Like fallen leaves, “dead wood” or “downed wood” is so essential that many creatures (and plants) cannot survive without it. So, instead of hauling away branches, logs, bark debris, stumps, twigs and such, be compassionate and leave it (or move it to an appropriate, out-of-the-way part of your yard) so that it can decompose naturally and begin to provide food, shelter, nesting material, or places to raise young. Decomposing dead wood has many other unnoticeable yet complex eco-functions, like supporting fungi that live in symbiotic relationships with plant roots. Eventually, the stuff that may look messy to us turns into fertile soil which supports plants which support insects which support birds, and so on.

Snags are a good thing snag at Smith & Bybee lakes

What about dead or dying trees? Known as snags, with their hollow cavities, broken branches, and loose bark, they actually may provide more varied habitat for all sorts of creatures than living trees do! In addition to providing essential housing for many types of insects (including pollinators), cavity-nesting birds, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals (including bats), they provide food, open perches and double as storage lockers. Woodpeckers also use them to communicate during breeding season.

Snags are in very short supply as forests are increasingly decimated, and they’re extremely rare in urban areas. Removing them not only steals crucial habitat; it’s expensive. Leave snags in low activity areas that won’t pose a problem if they fall apart; when they do fall they’ll continue to give back in the understory. If safety is a concern but you want to retain a dead tree’s benefits, consult with an arborist to shorten its trunk to snag with female flicker feeding youngroughly 15 feet tall and cut back branches. If that’s not possible and you must cut it down, leave the trunk on the ground where it won’t get in your way and leave the stump. If you already have a snag, retain or add native shrubs near its base. They will help keep it protected from weather extremes and provide connectivity, leafy cover, and additional forage for wildlife.

The Washington Department of Wildlife has more detailed info on these “wildlife trees” and the Cavity Conservation Initiative has an enchanting video that documents, up close, the lives that they support.

 


Designing with dead wood
Although some people view snags and other dead wood as unattractive, more and more of us see them as aesthetically pleasing natural sculptures, issued gratis to the landscape and priceless for wildlife. Keep them, work around them, and incorporatesnag "sculpture" them into your landscape, and the wild ones will thank you.

Consider grouping logs and branches in layered piles, with the largest at the base, in quiet places under trees where they can provide shelter from predators and roosting sites for little ones. Fallen trunks or massive logs can recline individually on the ground, where they might act as lovely focal points that will change over time, displaying dead wood (stump)the quiet beauty that unfolds during all stages of natural decomposition and regeneration. Imagine a “nurse log” in your own yard that will increase biodiversity by providing decades of nutrients and moisture to other plants and soil organisms. While natural, moss-furred nurse logs (fallen forest trunks and limbs) provide complex substrates for regeneration of trees in intact forests, there’s no reason you can’t foster similar function in your yard (but never remove nurse logs from a forest). Surround a fallen giant with native ferns and other shade lovers to blend and complement, and the mystery and magic begins. It rots slowly at first, then begins to crumble away, providing more sustenance

for other species. After a few decades, the log will be reduced to nothing but fragments, but the soil—nurtured, enriched, and full of life—will pass on its riches.

A few plant species do best when growing on or next to downed wood. In the Pacific Northwest, Vaccinium parviflorum (red huckleberry), that deliciously berried shrub that hikers know and love, is almost always found growing on a stump, nurse log or other decomposing wood in forests. When I planted red huckleberry shrubs in my yard a few years ago, I buried some rotting wood in the planting hole and added dead branches and conifer cones on top of the soil. So far they seem to like it.

 

 

Nest boxes and more trees to the rescue
If you’re like most people and don’t have a snag or a mature tree with decay on your property, consider adding a species-appropriate nest box for cavity nesters like chickadees, chickadee nest boxnuthatches, woodpeckers, swallows, or owls that is sited correctly and is accessible for annual cleaning. Though not as good as natural nest sites, boxes are much better than nothing.

Lastly, if you’ve lost a tree or have the space for one more, consider planting a regional native replacement (or two or three) that will thrive in the site’s conditions. We need to keep planting and protecting, so the cycle can continue.


© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Deer Fern (Blechnum spicant)

Blechnum spicant

Since winter is well on it’s way, this seems like a good time to give a nod to a distinctive evergreen fern that brings elegance and function to moist, west coast coniferous forests, as well as shady gardens. Deer fern, known botanically as Blechnum spicant, comes from a large, extended family known as Blechnaceae (the chain fern family). The genus Blechnum actually has fewer members north of the equator than south (most of which live in the steamy tropics), and a few of the Ecuadorian cousins have managed to graduate to tree fern status, topping out at an impressive 10 feet tall! But our sweet little deer fern pays no mind to their staid accomplishments and remains forever a trim forest gem with many friends and admirers.

The Latin Blechnum comes from the Greek Blechnon, an ancient name for ferns, while spicant means “spikelike.” Its spikes are fertile fronds (which can be seen in the top photo) that rise vertically above the more earthly sterile fronds that produce no spores. Leaves on both types of fronds have oppositely arranged, shiny leaflets; the fertile ones are much narrower and have two rows of sori on their undersides. Deer fern looks attractive year round and its leaves often develop a coppery-red color in early spring.

Blechnum spicant

How it grows
This long-lived fern naturally occurs in southern Alaska, coastal British Columbia, Washington and Oregon (west of the Cascades), northern Idaho where it is classified as imperiled, and coastal California, as far south as Santa Cruz county, as well as the Sierra Nevada. It also occurs in parts of Europe. In western Oregon and Washington it grows from sea level up to montane zones and dominates the understory of what little remains of moist, old-growth forests, as well as second-growth forests.

Wildlife value
As you might expect, deer fern satisfies the winter hunger of deer, but also elk, caribou, moose, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep, especially in winter. It also provides year-round cover for small birds, mammals, insects, and other creatures. Birds may use the leaves as nesting material.

Try it at home
Deer ferns spread by thick, short, creeping rhizomes, and the key word here is short—as in stubby—which means they don’t spread nearly as fast as I would like. They prefer the misty air created by mature forest giants, the soft, moist, crumbly soil that comes from centuries of fallen detritus, and the symbiotic support of a real forest, not the drastically altered state of rectangular urban patches with hard, compacted soils and blistering heat. But don’t let that discourage you if you have close to the conditions deer ferns need: Shaded, relatively moist, somewhat rich soil beneath the protective canopy of (preferably native) conifers. A little dappled sun is fine if you can provide some supplemental water (especially when they’re young), but don’t try to grow them in bright, sunny places where sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) might do better. Allowing for a nice thick layer of compost or other organic matter (such as fallen leaves that break down by fungus and microscopic organisms) will help maintain moisture around their roots and add nutrients to the soil.

Although deer ferns are handsome close up as focal plants, they are at their loveliest when grown en masse as a ground cover. Since they grow to about two feet tall and wide, space them about two feet apart. Or, consider placing them a bit further apart and add the companionship of other native ground cover species that can nestle in between the ferns—this looks the most natural and will help keep down weeds and protect the soil.

Deer fern is a good sub for nonnative invasive plants such as English ivy (Hedera helix) and bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara).

deer fern & friends

In my backyard, deer fern mingles with maidenhair fern, piggy-back plant, and red-twig dogwood, all under the watchful eye of a youthful western redcedar.

Grab a partner
Deer fern does best with many other species that grow together within native plant communities. It thrives with native conifers, and in the Pacific Northwest they may include western redcedar (Thuja plicata), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), grand fir (Abies grandis), noble fir (Abies procera), Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), and coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), depending on the location. Deciduous trees like red alder (Alnus rubra) and vine maple (Acer circinatum) also make the cut. Understory species often found growing with deer fern include red huckleberry (Vaccinum parviflorum), thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), salal (Gaultheria shallon), devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus), queen-cup (Clintonia uniflora), false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa), Hooker’s fairy bells (Disporum hookeri), foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata), stream violet (Viola glabella), wild ginger (Asarum caudatum), piggy-back plant (Tolmiea menziesii), bunchberry (Cornus unalaschkensis), various mosses, and other ferns such as western sword fern (Polystichum munitum), ladyfern (Athyrium filix-femina), and oakfern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris).

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Red-twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea)

Cornus sericea ssp. occidentalis

Red-twig dogwood is one of those multitalented shrubs that grows in a variety of moist habitats and keeps us enthralled year round. Also known as red osier dogwood and creek dogwood (among other common names), it is a multi-stemmed, deciduous, long-lived and fairly fast-growing shrub that develops into an open, somewhat rounded thicket. Its common name comes from signature reddish stems which become brightest in winter. Botanically speaking, it’s known as Cornus sericea (syn. Cornus stolonifera). Sericea comes from the Latin “sericatus,” which means “silky” and describes the soft texture of the leaves and young twigs. Stolonifera refers to its lower stems or branches that tend to tiptoe horizontally and grow roots when they touch the soil.

Besides its vibrant red stems, this plant has oppositely-arranged, deep green leaves that turn an array of colors as the days shorten in autumn. On this sunless late November day in my back yard, the leaves range from a soft gold and pale orange to deep red, and they’re becoming more purplish-red each day. Come spring, four-petaled creamy white flowers will appear in clusters in May to July and will be tailed several months later by soft white to pale blue fruit (shown above) that may persist into winter if the birds don’t devour them.
Cornus sericea

How it grows
Red-twig dogwood has a large range—from Alaska and northern Canada from coast to coast, and as far south as Virginia in the east and Chihuahua, Mexico in the west, at low to middle elevations. There are two subspecies: C. sericea ssp. occidentalis, which occurs in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, California and British Columbia, and C. sericea ssp. sericea, which is found much more widely. Differences are miminal, with the latter having slightly larger flower petals and fuzzier leaves and shoots. Both typically occur in moist, open sites such as meadows, bogs, floodplains, and near shorelines, but they also can be found under forest canopy as well as within more open woodlands in or close to riparian areas.

Wildlife value
Red-twig dogwood is important for providing diverse structure, cover, nesting habitat, and a variety of edibles for insects, mammals, amphibians, and a large number of bird species. Bees and other pollinators, such as butterflies, use the flowers for nectar and/or pollen. Birds (including waxwings, thrushes, band-tailed pigeons, and grosbeaks), small mammals, and bears dine on its fruits—one or two-seeded drupes which are reportedly very high in fat—in summer and fall. According to the US Forest Service, “moose, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, beavers, and rabbits” commonly browse the stems; twigs and new shoots provide especially delectable and nutritious winter browse. Last, but not least, this shrub provides cover and important nesting habitat for songbirds, small mammals and amphibians, as well as host plants for the larvae of butterflies like the echo blue butterfly.

Cornus sericeaTry it at home
Although fairly shade tolerant, plants growing in full sun typically grow much more compactly than those in shade, usually bloom more profusely and exhibit more stem color. Depending on the amount of sun it receives, red-twig dogwood can grow from about 6 to 16 feet tall, and nearly as wide, so it may be best to leave it out of very small gardens. If you have the space, use it in any moist area where you’d like spectacular aesthetic appeal as well as valuable wildlife habitat: At the back of a border, next to a rain garden, as a somewhat open screen, as part of a large hedgerow, or to stabilize eroding soil on slopes. Plant it in the fall to give it an easy start in life, adding some leaf compost if your soil is in poor shape.

Damp soil is important, and slow-draining soil is not a problem (though this plant shouldn’t have its feet immersed in water for prolonged periods). Although its tolerance for drought isn’t terribly high, with a little shade and soil that’s rich in organic matter, infrequent summer watering during excessively hot periods should be all that is needed once it’s established (typically just a couple of years). And, allowing for a dry period at the end of summer is actually a good (and natural) thing (as long as the plant looks healthy), since it prepares the plant for winter. Red-twig dogwood is often planted at restoration sites, which are rarely watered afterwards, and most usually do fine.

Grab a partner
Since red-twig dogwood grows in such a wide range of habitats, there are a number of plant friends with which it would like to live. For best ecological and gardening results, choose associated native plants that live in communities that currently grow or likely would have grown in your immediate area. In the Pacific Northwest, some of the plants that closely associate with red-twig dogwood include western redcedar (Thuja plicata), Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), vine maple (Acer circinatum), alder (Alnus spp.), willow (Salix spp.), aspen (Populus tremuloides), paper birch (Betula papyrifera), gooseberries (Ribes spp.), black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii), lupine (Lupinus spp.), aster (Symphyotrichum spp.), and many others.

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Reimagining the Ecological Value of Cities for Dwindling Pollinators

Bombus vosnesenskii

A recent literature review on the ecology of urban areas published in Conservation Biology offers irrefutable evidence that cities can and ought to be havens for wildlife, specifically pollinators. In “The City as a Refuge for Insect Pollinators,” the authors, a group of multidisciplinary scientists from around the world, recommend that urban areas—particularly fast growing ones—be managed to support biodiversity.

Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, industrial farming, wildlife diseases, and widespread use of toxic pesticides have wiped out and continue to wipe out many insect pollinator species. Along with other invertebrates, we really don’t know how many are disappearing from the earth forever, although new studies show horrifying losses. Since urban sprawl is a major reason for the shocking loss of biodiversity, it’s surprising that historically, the consensus—even among conservationists—has been that cities can’t or don’t need to support wildlife. But many years of research on wild bees in urban areas proves that cities can or still do supply habitat for both pollinator abundance and diversity, and “in several cases, more diverse and abundant populations of native bees live in cities than in nearby rural landscapes.”

While we certainly need to also restore and protect rural and suburban lands, there’s a growing realization that “pollinators put high-priority and high-impact urban conservation within reach,” writes the team. “The relatively small spatial and temporal scales of insect pollinators in terms of functional ecology (habitat range, lifecycle, nesting behavior compared with larger mammals for example) offer opportunities for small actions to yield large benefits for pollinator health.” Small actions: they’re talking about you and me, as well as city planners. As the authors note, many residents understand the urgency and necessity, and are willing to help. Turning our yards into “real” Cedar waxwing in red-flowering currantgardens, complete with native plantings and other elements that support entire life cycles of local biodiversity, ought to be paramount. Priceless benefits to us (crop pollination and a chance to admire nature’s beauty), to countless other species that rely on plants or insects for food, and to plants (pollination), come with the package.

Urban conservation often aims to connect people to nature. This is, of course, a good thing, since nature education is extremely important—it’s been said many times that the more we learn about wildlife and natural processes, the more we will want to protect it. But if more effort was spent on wildlife itself and providing what it needs (large, undisturbed, interconnected areas of native flora), no doubt many species would be much better off. I always feel a need to apologize to startled birds and little mammals I encounter on walks in natural areas around the city. There’s a reason wildlife refuges often close off sections to pedestrians: many species are hypersensitive to human presence; they see us as predators and the stress harms them. It would be immensely beneficial if parts of urban areas were also simply left to the wild ones.

I can’t agree more with the authors. If we want to recover and protect pollinators and other wildlife globally, we need to tend to their needs locally. It will take policy makers, planners, and environmental managers, but also each of us, whether we work individually or engage with community organizers.

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Western Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum)

Asarum caudatum

Western wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) is an understory plant that offers both wonderful texture in the form of deeply veined, evergreen, aromatic leaves that carpet the soil in shady conditions, and unusual, secretive flowers. The genus Asarum has about 17 species found in North America, China, and Europe; the name is the Latin form of the Greek asaron, of obscure origin. The species epithet, caudatum, means “tailed” and refers to the wispy, almost whimsical appendages of the sepals, which protect the flower.

And what a flower! Burgundy with a brownish tinge, and almost otherworldly in appearance, they appear from April to July in Oregon. You may not even notice them unless you’re weeding on your hands and knees, or if you make a special point to seek out their intricate beauty. With charming little tails, a three-cornered shape, and a hairy cup that conceals the real flower, they are one of nature’s hidden little gems, observable only to soil dwellers or those two-legged creatures with a spirit of curiosity.

Asarum caudatum

How it grows
Western wild ginger is an often overlooked but ubiquitous member of various forest communities at low to middle elevations, from British Columbia south to California, and as far east as western Montana. With substantial tree cover and rich soils, these communities occur in areas with mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers, on fairly flat ground to moderate slopes. The available literature suggests that while wild ginger is not a “pioneer species,” it occurs in most successional communities, including serial stages that have some overstory canopy. In other words, they grow with other forest species that didn’t pop up overnight and won’t be found in recently disturbed areas, like clearcuts, burns, or landslides.

Wildlife value
The lustrous evergreen leaves provide protection for little arthropods and other tiny creatures that frequent the forest floor, which may in turn supply food for some bird and herp species. The flowers attract beetles which (along with flies and gnats) pollinate them, as well as ants that are drawn to a fleshy appendage on its seeds, which contain an oil. And it is thought that the plant may sustain native rodents in some parts of the region.

Try it at home
Wild ginger is a ground cover that creeps slowly by shallow, fleshy rhizomes; the closer you space plants, the faster they will fill in (generally, about three feet apart is adequate). In addition to reproduction via rhizomes, it sometimes spreads by seed, thanks to ants: After they dutifully and mightily drag an entire seed back to their nest, the oil is removed for their young and the remainder of the seed, still viable, is discarded onto the soil.

Optimal growing conditions include shade to part shade and moist, rich soil. If you already have a woodland garden complete with mature conifers, your soil will probably be adequately acidic and fertile (unless you’ve been removing leaf litter and such that should be allowed to stay!). If your soil is lacking in organic matter, or the top soil is shallow, add some compost as mulch (leaf compost is good) and allow the leaves to stay.

Since wild ginger prefers moist soil, keep new plants adequately hydrated for at least the first couple of summers, especially if your site lacks many trees or is subjected to sunlight or heat. Plant it in the fall for best results.

Wild ginger is a possible substitute for the invasive Bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria).

Grab a partner
Wild ginger is a choice perennial for beneath native conifers like Douglas-fir, western hemlock, Sitka spruce, grand fir, white pine, and western red cedar, as well as deciduous smaller trees and shrubs such as red alder, vine maple, and California hazelnut. It looks exquisite growing amongst smaller associated species such as sword fern, deer fern, goatsbeard, foamflower, trillium, and many others.

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata)

           Tiarella trifoliata var. trifoliata    

Tiarella trifoliata, commonly called “foamflower,” is a lovely woodland perennial within the Western hemlock/Douglas-fir plant community of the Pacific Northwest. Besides having beautiful, soft green leaves that are often divided into 3 leaflets, its sprays of delicate flowers—of the palest pink—bloom on leafy stems for an amazingly long time: from May to as late as September. Really!

How it grows
This charming plant can be found in damp, shady forests, and near streams. It has rhizomes but doesn’t spread like typical ground cover plants; in fact, you’re more likely to find it self sowing than spreading speedily underground. There are three varieties: Tiarella trifoliata var. trifoliata, the one you’re most likely to find for sale, is found mainly west of the Cascades as well as in southern Alaska and British Columbia, at low to middle elevations. T. trifoliata var. unifoliata occurs on both sides of the Cascades, west to Montana, and in B.C. and northern California, typically at higher elevations; it has more deeply lobed leaves. T. trifoliata var. laciniata, has a small range—only a few counties in Washington and Oregon and parts of B.C.; its leaves are maplelike and shallowly lobed. The other North American foamflower is T. cordifolia, native to the eastern U.S.

Tiarella close-up

Tiarella trifoliata var. trifoliata’s dainty bell-shaped flowers, very close up.

Wildlife value
Foamflower’s clusters of tiny blossoms provide pollen and nectar for native bees and syrphid (flower) flies. Seeds are  eaten by birds such as sparrows. Foliage provides cover for very small creatures and protects the soil.

Try it at home
Maturing to about a foot tall and wide, it’s best grown en masse in the shade (or partial shade) of conifers where the soil is well-drained but naturally rich (or has been amended with organic matter, like compost), as well as along shaded pathways or near ponds and streams. Grow it with associated species such as Douglas-fir, western hemlock, western red-cedar, vine maple, serviceberry, oceanspray, thimbleberry, sword fern, salal, Cascade Oregon grape, inside-out flower, oxalis, and many others. Plant this gem in the fall for best results. If it’s not grown in a moist area, keep it happy with supplemental water during dry periods and it will self sow, but only in the most polite way.

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: White spiraea (Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida)

Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida

Even though it’s growing and thriving in my front yard, it took an October trip to northeast Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains to remind me why I love white spiraea (AKA shiny-leaf spiraea or birch-leaf spiraea), or botanically speaking, Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida. In Latin, lucida means “bright,” or “to shine,” and shine it does.

Uncommon, small (as shrubs go, to about 3 feet tall), erect and deciduous, it’s a very attractive native plant that spreads slowly by rhizomes. Though its seeds are also perfectly capable of reproducing and may be distributed by birds, rodents, or wind, I find it’s not a strong self-sower.

Besides its small stature that allows it to fit into tight spots, it has many other attributes and I can’t imagine why it’s not planted more often in yards and gardens. It’s barely mentioned in my book, so here I give it its due.

In late spring to early summer, creamy white flowers—sometimes with a pale pink blush—show up in flat-topped clusters, from 2 to 5 inches wide. With occasional deep summer watering, it will sometimes bloom during late summer and even autumn. And as the flowers mature they offer lovely, although fairly inconspicuous, golden brown seed heads that continue to captivate.

Spiraea betulifolia var. lucidaBut the best is yet to come: Fall may be its prime season when its oval to oblong toothed leaves turn lovely shades of gold, orange, red, and burgundy. The entire little shrub lights up like a flame above the dark, moist soil and fallen leaves beneath it.

 

How it grows
White spiraea naturally occurs in parts of western Canada, Washington and Oregon, and as far east as Minnesota. It grows along streams and lakes, in mountain grasslands and on the slopes of forests (especially rocky ones) both east and west of the Cascades, from sea level up to about 4,000 feet, although it can be found at higher elevations in moist forests. Since it’s best to grow native plants that are indigenous to your area, find out whether it occurs naturally in your county with this USDA map.

Last week I was pleasantly surprised to find it in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest along the Wallowa Lake Trail and the Hurricane Creek Trail near Joseph, Oregon, in forested areas. Since these areas can get quite dry in summer, the plant’s drought tolerance is likely due to its rhizomatous ways. Often surviving in burned areas, fire kills the aboveground part of the plant, but it resprouts from “surviving root crowns, and from rhizomes positioned 2 to 5 inches (5-13 cm) below the soil surface,” according to the US Forest Service. Along the Hurricane Creek Trail, which meanders through a burned area, white spiraea was joined by “pioneer” species like western yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis), and western pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea).

Wildlife value
The flowers—often with an extended bloom time—offer pollen and/or nectar for pollinators such as native bees, syrphid (flower) flies, butterflies, wasps, and ants. Leaves and branches offer a bit of cover for small creatures, and fallen leaves protect the soil and overwintering invertebrates, which provide food for myriad other species. It’s reportedly rather unpalatable to mule deer and elk, for those of you wanting native plants that won’t disappear overnight.

Try it at home
White spiraea is a fantastic little shrub that can be used in the places that a large shrub would outgrow in a few years. It’s also quite versatile when it comes to both light and moisture conditions. It can handle quite a bit of shade to a fair amount of sun, but seems to do best in part shade. A restoration project in Montana found that the plants did much better on east or south-facing slopes, rather than west-facing slopes with hot afternoon sun. At the Portland community garden where I have a plot for growing veggies, white spiraea was planted (before I acquired my plot) in native beds that border the garden. The beds provide a little test because the sunlight that reaches them varies from just a few morning rays to about a half day of sun to nearly all-day sun. Echoing the Montana study, the spiraeas that thrive are in the partly shaded area; many of the ones planted in a narrow sunny strip along a hot concrete walkway died due to heat and drought, while those that remain in that strip just barely hang on despite my best efforts with extra water and compost. The plants in full shade survive, but don’t look their best or flower much.

Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida

Plant them about 3 feet apart and at least 3 feet from walkways, since they will eventually spread and you don’t want to be constantly pruning them back. Amending soil with some organic matter (like compost) will help them get established, although they are quite tolerant of clay soil, and they do well with rocky soil. Mulch them with a natural mulch (like leaves) and keep them well watered the first 2 to 3 years, after which they should be quite drought tolerant (unless you have them in hot afternoon sun, which I don’t advise!).

Grab a partner
Grow white spiraea with associated species that also naturally occurred in your area, to help provide an eco-functional space for wildlife. It naturally occurs within Douglas-fir, grand fir, ponderosa pine, and lodgepole pine communities. Though shrubs and perennials in those communities are far too numerous to list here, consider serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea), and Cascade Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa). As always, buy plants that come from locally-sourced material at reputable nurseries.

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Graceful cinquefoil (Potentilla gracilis)

Potentilla gracilis with sweat-bees
Nicknamed slender cinquefoil or western cinquefoil, Potentilla gracilis is a perennial wildflower. It naturally occurs over much of western and northern North America at low to high elevations, mostly in moist prairie and savanna ecosystems, but also in open forests and subalpine meadows. Growing from a woody crown, it has sharply divided, oval, deep green leaves with hairy, silver undersides and somewhat erect inflorescences with bright to pale yellow five-petaled flowers that bloom from early to late summer.

Closely related species include Potentilla glandulosa (sticky cinquefoil), with cream to pale yellow flowers, and Potentilla pulcherrima, the latter of which grows in montane regions. P. pulcherrima (common name: beautiful cinquefoil) comes from the Latin pulcherrima, which means “very beautiful” (aren’t they all?). Both occur mainly in the western U.S. and Canada. There are many other species of Potentilla, but P. gracilis and P. glandulosa are the most common west of the Cascades and are the most likely to be found for sale at nurseries.

Wildlife value
Native bees, butterflies, syrphid flies, and other beneficial insects are attracted to the flowers. Graceful cinquefoil is also a host plant for the caterpillars of butterflies such as the two-banded checkered skipper. It is not attractive to deer.

Try it at home
Graceful cinquefoil does best in moist, well-drained soil that’s rich in organic matter, in full to part sun. Since it’s not a tall plant and only grows to about 2 feet wide, site it where it won’t be heavily shaded by other plants. You can also grow native cinquefoil in a container, but be sure it gets enough moisture. Associated species include Cascara and Oregon ash trees, and perennials such as checker mallow, Oregon iris, native lupines, and other moisture loving plants. Summer water is essential until it’s established, but even afterwards it will do best with supplemental water during the hot, dry part of summer.

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Cultivating Compassion in the Garden (and Beyond)

painted turtles

Whether they’re hidden within fur farms or factory farms or other atrocious places—mistreated and maligned for profit—or in plain sight and struggling within unraveling ecosystems that disappear a little more each day, the suffering of non-human animals due to our expansion and behavior is everywhere. On an ecological level, the most devastating consequence of our ubiquitous presence is the disappearance of wild species that just need to be left alone. They want to live on, and in peace, just as we do. They have just as much right to exist without harm and suffering as we do.

Habitat destruction (including that caused by climate change) is not painless and is the main threat to most wild flora and faunas: Less than four percent of original U.S. forests remain; oceans are dying; waterways are heavily polluted with toxics; a new study shows that in the past 20 years we’ve managed to destroy a tenth of the earth’s wild areas. Half of North American bird species are predicted to go extinct by the end of this century and some especially sensitive amphibians are already there. We’re the most invasive, destructive, and over-consuming species ever to walk the earth, and it’s costing us the earth, as well as our health and happiness.hermit thrush

Our big brains are burdensome as we thoughtlessly invent things that damage and destroy, but they’re also an asset when we realize our obligation to protect and sustain. Habits of exploitation can be broken. We can stop pretending that everything is fine or beyond our control, and realize that we are very much a part of nature. We don’t have to, for example, conform to having manicured, high maintenance, lawn-dominated landscapes that require massive chemical and fossil fuel applications just because other people have them. We can make choices based on caring what happens to those downstream, just as we wish those upstream would to do to us.

When our species was young, we weren’t separated from nature. Even now, within our bubbles that disconnect, we enter this world not with a fear of natural processes and wild creatures, but with an intense curiosity. But as kids we learn to be fearful—we’re taught to fear the proverbial “big bad wolf,” and trepidation of wildlife and natural processes continue throughout many people’s lives. Education can help change that, and even awaken us to the awe-inspiring, interconnected layers that nature has fashioned over eons of evolution.

Courtesy Predator Defense

Photo courtesy Predator Defense

Just as essential is empathy for other species (that is, looking at their world from their point of view, with compassion). It may be our most important capability and what is sorely needed to bring some balance to the earth’s members. When we allow empathy to guide our choices and practices, we act selflessly and gain empowerment along the way. Changing our ways isn’t always difficult and some changes can be very simple; it just takes some thought and a little motivation. With compassion we can defiantly say “no” to synthetic toxic chemicals crafted by mega corporations that discriminate against other species and seek to control the natural world, “no” to wasteful monoculture lawns, and “no” to merely decorative plants with zero wildlife appeal. We can say “yes” to planning gardens that not only look pretty but also benefit and sustain other species,  “yes” to keeping Fluffy and Fido away from birds, “yes” to keeping outdoor lights off and making windows visible to birds, and “yes” to initiatives and politicians that seek to preserve and protect natural areas. There are, of course, countless other ways to express compassion for the planet outside the garden.

It’s easy to think that the war against wildlife—from the microorganisms within degraded soil to persecuted predators trying to survive on a human-dominated planet—is happening somewhere “out there.” While a huge percentage of wild lands are dominated by livestock ranching that has “caused more damage than the chainsaw and bulldozer combined,” urban and suburban spaces—including the roughly 40 million acres of land that’s currently lawn—offer an important conservation opportunity and a way for us to personally provide for others right at home.

It’s equally easy to be pulled down by the ticking extinction clock, but once we turn our backs on conventional gardening, we become part of a conversion—or revolution, if you will—that is proactive. Learn how healthy, balanced ecosystems function; watch native plants (especially when grown with others that co-occur in the Native bumblebee on Vancouveria hexandraarea) attract and support a diversity of native insects and other creatures; recognize the  bees and the flower flies and the birds that depend directly or indirectly on those plant communities; discover their life cycle and how to keep them healthy and protected. Plant trees, let the leaves do their thing, allow the dead wood to stay, and forget about pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. If we do all that we’ll find ourselves more connected and caring even more about what happens within the dwindling, wilder ecosystems on this beautiful planet, and wondering how even more beautiful it will be if more of us empathize with others’ lives.

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus)

Aruncus dioicus (goatsbeard)

I finally managed to take out a very large hosta plant in my front yard. I really hate removing healthy noninvasive plants, however non-native they may be (especially when they’re pretty), but we all know that “pretty is as pretty does,” right? Originating in northeast Asia, hostas really have no function here other than looking nice with those ultra-inflated leaves. I don’t think I’d ever seen a native pollinator on it’s blossoms, let alone a honeybee. Plus, it was overpowering a fern that belongs in this neck o’ the woods.

In its place now is a goat’s beard plant (Aruncus dioicus) that had volunteered in the back yard, courtesy its frisky goat’s beard parents. Also known as “bride’s feathers,” it is not only eye-catching while in bloom, but has local ecological function that hostas can only dream about. It also fits well into the shade-loving native spread near the north side of my house, sharing space with a surprisingly robust western maidenhair fern (Adiantum aleuticum), evergreen huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum), Cascade Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), sword ferns (Polystichum munitum), and native ground cover that includes wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) and inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), all of which can be found growing with goat’s beard in nature.

Aruncus dioicus foliageWith compound, pointy, toothed leaves that have a lovely  texture all their own, this plant is particularly fetching in spring when leaves are new. In early to mid-summer, the main show begins when tall, feathery plumes composed of tiny, creamy-white flowers rise above the foliage. Male plants are more spectacular in flower than female, but regardless of gender, it offers a stunning presence in shaded to partly-shaded borders, under tall trees, or as a deciduous screen or short hedge.

Wildlife value
Goat’s beard attracts quite a few insect species, including native bees, syrphid flies, teeny tiny beetles, and—if you’re lucky—mourning cloak butterflies (your odds will increase if you already grow their host plants, which include native willow, birch, hawthorn, and wild rose). Small birds may eat the seeds, so leave the spent flowers to overwinter.

Try it at home
Found in most of western Washington, Oregon, and northern California, goat’s beard naturally occurs along streams and in moist meadows and forests, but also sometimes in disturbed areas such as roadsides. As such, it likes moist, rich soil (add compost and allow nature’s mulch—fallen leaves—to remain on soil). Although it does best with at least a half day of shade, it can be grown in nearly full sun in cool, northerly locations. Goat’s beard eventually will form a large clump, 3 to 6 feet tall and as wide, so space plants four to five feet apart. Grow it with associates (those that naturally grow together and depend on each other), including Douglas-fir, western hemlock, western red cedar, vine maple, deer fern, maidenhair fern, inside-out flower, wild ginger, and western trillium. Enjoy!

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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An Underappreciated Insect: The Syrphid Fly

Toxomerus occidentalis, female slurping nectar on Erigeron specious (showy fleabane)

Toxomerus occidentals (female), soaking up nectar on showy fleabane (Erigeron specious)


Beneficial in many ways, syrphid flies, also called flower flies,
are true flies in the order Diptera, family Syrphidae. Some can be recognized by their ability to dart around and hover in the air in one place, wings nearly invisible, as they search for flowers on which to feed—somewhat like a tiny helicopter, but with much more grace (this flair led to their other common name, hover fly). They come in various shapes and sizes (typically 1/4 to 3/4 inch); the tiny ones require a hand lens or macro lens to get a good look. And when you do, you’ll be amazed at the beautiful patterns and bright colors that often serve to mimic dangerous looking bees or wasps and fool predators like birds into leaving them alone (but don’t worry, they couldn’t sting you if they wanted to!).

Syrphids in the genus Spilomyia often mimic wasps, with vivid yellow and black patterns and modified antennae.

Syrphids in the genus Spilomyia often mimic wasps, with vivid yellow and black patterns and modified antennae.


Multi-functional

Not needing to carry and store pollen for their young (like most bees do) doesn’t prevent them from being extremely important pollinators. Researchers have found that although syrphid flies pollinate less effectively per flower visit, they visit flowers more often, resulting in essentially the same pollination services as bees. And, it’s thought that they may be more tolerant of the landscape changes that we humans insist on, than bees are.

But syrphid flies are not only important as pollinators in gardens, organic farms, and wild areas. During their immature stage, most species that are found in gardens and nearly half of the 6,000 syrphid fly species worldwide are voracious consumers of aphids, scale insects, and other soft-bodied pests. In coastal Central California, researchers compared romaine lettuce sprayed with an insecticide and lettuce without insecticide. They found that syrphid larvae were primarily responsible for suppressing aphids in organic romaine lettuce, and called the sprayed lettuce “unmarketable.” Other types of syrphid fly larvae are either (1) scavengers that tidy up ant, bee, and wasp nests, (2) feeders of plant material, tree sap, and fungi, or (3) decomposers that feed on decaying organic matter. To add to their achievements, larvae are reportedly more effective in cool weather than most other such predators.

Myathropa florea, male. Larvae feed on bacteria at the base of trees or in decaying leaves.

Myathropa florea, male. Larvae of this species feed on bacteria at the base of trees or in decaying leaves.


Life Cycle

Females lay their tiny, elongated eggs singly on leaves—typically near aphid colonies, so food is within reach—and they hatch in a few days. The tapered, grub-like larvae are blind and legless, but the mouths of these aphid-eaters are equipped with triple-pointed darts that enable them to pierce and suck their prey dry. At maturation, the larvae are promoted to the soil to become pupa and, eventually, adult flies. Their life cycle takes several weeks; reportedly three generations per year are typical in the Northwest. Most syrphid flies overwinter as larvae in leaf litter—yet another reason to not remove fallen leaves from soil!

Close encounters
The best way to spot these helpful, colorful little insects in your garden is to move slowly and quietly, and observe carefully. Sometimes all I have to do is pause next to a group of flat-topped flowers (white or yellow ones seem to be their favorites), and within a few minutes one or two will show up to eat (and to dazzle me—in morning sunlight these exceptional little pollinators shimmer!). I’ve photographed eight different species in my small yard, and I’ve just started. Hopefully I’ll encounter many more of these fascinating little flyers in the years to come.

To avoid confusion with bees and wasps, just remember that syrphid flies have huge compound eyes (which help to determine their gender—female eyes are spaced slightly apart while males’ come together at the top of their head); their bodies are sometimes flatter than bees and wasps; their antennae are usually very short; they don’t carry pollen around like most bees do; they have one pair of wings (unlike bees and wasps that have two pairs). The second pair of wings of flies has been reduced to two little knobs called halteres, which can be seen in the photo below. Halteres function like tiny gyroscopes that allow them to stay balanced by detecting and correcting changes in rotation while flying, and enable their zippy acrobatic flights.

Although the mouth parts of syrphids vary between species, allowing different species to access nectar in differently shaped flowers, their typical mouth is basically a retractable extension with a spongelike tip that can soak up either nectar or pollen. The species that have this can only feed on open flowers that have easily accessible nectar. Some species have a modified mouth that allows them to feed at elongated, tubular flowers.

The halteres can be seen at the base of the wings.

The halteres can be seen at the base of the wings.

 

Conservation
Syrphid flies have been studied very little in the U.S., but European research has shown that species diversity has fallen in areas of intensive human activity. According to the Xerces Society, in Britain, seven of the 22 flies for which Biodiversity Action Plans have been prepared are syrphid flies. Given the substantial loss of pollinators induced by habitat loss, pesticides, nonnative species and climate change, and the profusion of others in danger of extinction, there is a definite need to conserve all types of wild pollinator communities.

Providing for these flies is similar to most other pollinators: A variety of flowers from spring till fall for adults, and appropriate habitat for egg laying, larval development, and overwintering. Attract and nurture syrphid flies with a diversity of native plants that provide a lot of nectar and pollen (females need pollen to produce eggs). In the Pacific Northwest, try yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis), stonecrop (Sedum spp.), goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium spp.), fleabane (Erigeron spp.), white spiraea (Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida), mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii), and aster (Symphiotrichum spp.). The flowers of chamomile, dill, parsley, and other garden herbs with flat-topped flowers are also very attractive to them, as is the pollen of grasses and sedges that’s often available early in the season. Be sure to allow leaf litter and downed wood to remain on soil to help them get through the winter and to provide food for the decomposer types.

Aphid remedy|
If you have an aphid problem on some plants, remember that predatory insects that keep pests at acceptable levels need prey like aphids. Always inspect aphid colonies for syrphid fly larvae before even thinking about control, even “organic” remedies. Use only plain water to spray off aphids (that can’t climb back on), but only if necessary. Never use insecticides, to which syrphid flies and other creatures are very sensitive. Sometimes just turning your back is the best thing: One summer a large patch of native bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) in my backyard was absolutely infested with aphids. I decided to let nature take her course—cheering on the ladybird beetles and birds who I thought might like the situation. As the leaves died back (as they do naturally when the heat of summer arrives) I forgot about the aphids. The following year there were scarcely any on the bleeding heart.

 

Syrphus opinator (female) on Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida

Syrphus opinator (female) on white spiraea (Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida)

 

Eristatis male on yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis

Eristalis sp. on yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis)

 

© Eileen M. Stark 2016

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Beyond Bees: The Underappreciated Pollinators

Common ringlet (Coenonympha tulle)
The majority of flowering plants evolved to take advantage of insects, and depend on them (and less commonly, other animals or wind) to fertilize their flowers, facilitate gene flow, and prevent inbreeding. Bees might be the most obvious pollinators, and on a warm summer day it seems flowers and bees were made for each other. Native bees are considered to be the most important pollinators (move over, honeybees!) and are invaluable members of natural systems. But other capable pollinators—like butterflies and moths, hummingbirds, wasps, ants, and herbivorous fruit bats—share the pollen distribution workload, and offer ecological benefits as well. Less well known are the thrips, beetles, mosquitoes (yes, you read that right), and flies that actually are quite accomplished pollinators. Distributing pollen may be a sideline for them, but they often excel because they don’t take pollen back to their nests, as most bees do.

Thrips go way back—to the Permian period, over 250 million years ago—but get a bad rap because of a few species that threaten crops. Studies show that they are strong pollinators of some plants, particularly early in the season when most other pollinators aren’t around.

The adult ornate checkered beetle (Trichodes ornatus) feeds on flowers such as wild buckwheat (Eriogonum spp.), transferring pollen from anther to stigma.

The adult ornate checkered beetle (Trichomes oranatus) feeds on flowers such as wild buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.) and helps transfer pollen from anther to stigma.

Beetles are particularly important in semi-arid parts of the world and have a highly developed sense of smell. They are expert and essential pollinators, according to the Forest Service, and also were around millions of years before bees appeared. Like many species of birds, bees, and butterflies, beetles are in danger of extinction. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists over 70 beetle species as endangered. The main threats include habitat destruction, chemical pollutants (e.g., pesticides), displacement by introduced species, and hybridization with other species.

Although many flies (order Diptera) are recorded as flower visitors, relatively little is known about pollination by flies, compared to others like bees, birds, and bats. Many flies are strong pollinators, including syrphid flies (which deserve their very own special post) and some of the tachinid flies, which are the most diverse family of the order Diptera (true flies). As adults, they are flower visitors, feeding on nectar and/or pollen. In their larval stages, many species help to control insects that we consider pests.

Suillia spp. attracted to bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax) receives a pollen reward.

Pollination by insects is usually mutually beneficial. Here, a fly (Suillia variegata) attracted to bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax) receives a pollen reward and the flower gets fertilized.

While I’m not advocating the nurture of mosquitoes in your garden (the females do suck blood and can carry disease, after all!), it’s noteworthy that mosquitoes, like all insects, do have a role in natural systems. Their primary source of food is flower nectar (with males eating nothing but nectar) and they buzzily and incidentally carry pollen from flower to flower. Plants like goldenrod (Solidago spp.) use mosquitoes as pollinators, as do orchids of northern latitudes, grasses, and many other types of plants. And they are a source of food for birds, fish, amphibians, spiders, bats, dragonfly larvae, and other animals.

How you can help a variety of pollinators

Within our increasingly fragmented landscapes, gardens that provide pollen and nectar-rich plants, as well as nesting and overwintering sites, can create critical habitat and connections for pollinators and other creatures. No space is too small, and when in close proximity to other larger gardens, natural areas, or greenways that sustain native plant populations appropriate to the region, their value deepens.

◊ Choose natives that occur naturally in your area, or at least heirloom ornamentals (rather than newer hybrids that may not provide sufficient or appropriate nutrients that native species do). Some garden herbs like cilantro, parsley, and dill attract some pollinators.

◊ Avoid nonnative invasive species like “butterfly bush” (Buddleia davidii) that sound good, but aren’t.

◊ Provide structure and layering in the form of native trees and shrubs that provide food, cover and nesting sites for various pollinators.

Syrphid _ Eumerus sp.

Syrphid fly (Eumerus sp.) on Sedum spathulifolium, a west coast native.

◊ Plan for continuous flowering, spring through fall. Early spring nectar is particularly important for early-emerging queen bumble bees and other solitary bees, as well as flies and beetles.

◊ Choose a variety of plants that differ in the size, shape, and color of blossoms to attract a variety of pollinators. Arrange perennials in drifts or swaths of at least three of a kind, rather than singly here and there. Don’t forget that trees and shrubs produce flowers!

◊ Stay away from pesticides and other chemicals. Insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers are particularly harmful to sensitive pollinators. Don’t purchase plants pre-treated with neonicotinoids; if you’re unsure, ask.

◊ Don’t be too neat. Leaf litter, dead wood (tree snags or piles of branches), and other natural detritus provide essential habitat, nesting materials, and overwintering sites for pollinators or their eggs or larvae. Leave some open areas of non-compacted, bare soil for ground nesters.

◊ Grow butterfly host plants that provide food and habitat for their young. Find out which species frequent your area and grow the native plants they need

◊ Provide shallow water and some moist soil. A shallow pie plate or flowerpot saucer, filled with gravel or small rocks allows insects to drink without drowning. Butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera) need muddy or sandy puddles to obtain water and nutrients. Add a dash of salt to be sure male Lepidoptera get enough sodium prior to mating.

© Eileen M. Stark 2016

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Attract Ladybird Beetles (“Ladybugs”) to Your Northwest Garden Humanely

_MG_2279

The Western blood-red ladybird beetle (Cycloneda polita)—one of about 90 species throughout the Pacific Northwest and about 6,000 species worldwide—is tiny (4 – 5 mm), but like most others in the Coccinellidae family, is a voracious consumer of aphids, scale insects, and mites (a few species eat fungi). Revered for centuries due to their role as a pest controller, ladybird beetles at one time were even thought to have supernatural powers. The “lady” for whom they were named was the “Virgin Mary.” Once you have these native predators in your garden you’ll want to keep them, and there’s an easy way to do that.

But first, a little about these endearing little insects, the vast majority of which are beneficial: The most obvious ladybird beetles (often called “ladybugs” in North America, although they are not true bugs) evolved a brightly colored shell to exhibit what biologists call aposematic (warning) coloration, which functions to repel and warn predators that they taste awful (they produce toxic and unpalatable alkaloids). The “eyespots” on their pronotum (that covers the thorax) are a form of mimicry, possibly to further fool a predator by appearing dangerous, or by adding to the inedibility factor. Their actual face is the tiny black and white portion with brown antennae that you can see in the photo above. The Western blood-red ladybird beetle is plain and without spots, but some species have remarkable color patterns that vary greatly and make identification difficult. Other species lack dramatic coloration.

Life Cycle
Adults are commonly seen on plants in spring and summer, foraging for small invertebrate prey (often aphids), although they will eat nectar, water, or honeydew (the sugary secretion from insects like aphids and white flies) when food is scarce. They overwinter by hibernating in large clusters, often spending the winter under leaf litter, rocks, downed wood, or other debris. If they get into your house in autumn as temperatures plummet, please don’t kill them. Since they need cool temperatures and moisture during the winter (which our homes lack), gently place them back outside. In hard to reach places (like ceilings) I suggest fastening a piece of lightweight fabric (perhaps a lightweight sock or piece of nylon stocking) onto the end of a vacuum cleaner hose with a rubber band, so that an inch or two of fabric protrudes into the hose. Then, with the power turned down low (if possible), quickly suck them into the fabric, gently remove the fabric and beetles, and release them under a pile of leaves outdoors. To help prevent future interlopers, caulk cracks and crevices around doors and windows and repair any damaged siding that’s allowing them to get in.

Ladybird beetle larvae are long and flat and are usually covered with little spines, spots and stripes, and resemble tiny alligators. They are sometimes mistaken for pests, but they are completely harmless to humans. Usually found in or near aphid colonies, they feed voraciously on insects for several weeks, then pupate on leaves. Some species produce several generations per year, while others have only one. During the summer, all stages may be seen.

How to Acquire
The best way to get these hungry predators into your garden is not to purchase them, but to provide native habitat and not use insecticides. The food that they need comes from native plants that naturally attract insect herbivores. In my yard I notice Cycloneda polita (pictured) feeding on lupine (Lupinus spp.), western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), fleabane (Erigeron spp.), and this year for the first time, aspen trees (which are also attracting birds like bushtits and kinglets who love aphids).Western blood-red ladybird beetle

In the early 1900’s, literally tons of Asian beetles were collected and shipped to agricultural fields. Tragically, over half died during shipments and most of the rest quickly dispersed before the wretched experiment finally ended. Today, ladybird beetles are again popular, but beware the ramifications. According to Judy and Peter Haggard, authors of “Insects of the Pacific Northwest” (Timber Press, 2006), the commercial exploitation of ladybird beetles involves collecting them while they are hibernating, which can be devastating to their populations. “Those innocent-looking mesh bags … in the local garden shop actually represent a cruel and unconscionable practice: Ladybird beetles sold in retail stores are usually exposed to high temperatures, low humidity, and no food for weeks. Even if they survive until bought and released, they are often so weakened, they die soon after being released.” And the ones who do survive usually quickly disperse to areas other than your yard. Bottom line: Don’t purchase them.

To add to the destruction, beetles sold commercially are usually not native species and, as such, are a serious threat to native insect species including native lady beetles. According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, “Even species native to North America but collected outside of Oregon should not be released because they may carry diseases and parasites not found in Oregon.”

 

© Eileen M. Stark 2016

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Fragrance in a Northwest Garden

Philadelphus lewisii

Had Carl Sandburg penned a poem about the way a captivating scent wafts through the air—prior to his famous “Fog”—he might have written that it approaches us “on little cat feet.” Like fog, scent is silent, but invisible, and adds a fresh, sensual dimension to a garden (or a walk in the woods for that matter). One of the most fragrant flowering shrubs is mock orange, and the Pacific Northwest’s native offering, Philadelphus lewisii (Western or Lewis’ mock orange), doesn’t disappoint. Plan ahead and place this medium-sized deciduous shrub where its fragrance can be noticed.

P. lewisii is named after scientist and explorer Meriwether Lewis, who collected it in 1806 during the Lewis and Clark expedition. Native Americans had numerous uses for it, including making tools, snowshoes, furniture, and even soap.

How it grows
Although there is quite a bit of individual variation within this species, the structure and growth pattern of this particular shrub goes something like this: Maturing at 5 to 10 feet tall and nearly as wide, this fairly fast grower may send out arching basal shoots as it ages. In late spring, flowering shoots appear, followed by vegetative growth. Rich green, egg-shaped leaves (roughly three inches long) grow in pairs along its stems. At the tips of branches, multiple clusters of white, four-petalled blossoms adorned with soft yellow stamens emerge in late spring or early summer, sparkling against the leafy green backdrop. Flowers measure one to two inches in diameter, and offer a lovely, fruity fragrance.

Wildlife value
Mock orange’s fragrance doesn’t just appeal to us, though—it attracts nocturnal moths and butterflies like the western tiger swallowtail. As they feed on its nectar and incidentally brush against theSyrphid fly on Philadelphus lewisii flower’s anthers, thousands of male pollen particles are released, pollinating its flowers. Other pollinators attracted to scent include bees, but also syrphid flies (aka flower flies), which particularly like white and yellow flowers. In late summer and fall, mock orange’s wildlife appeal continues as the plant’s tiny seeds are consumed by many species of birds, as well as squirrels. It also provides twiggy cover year round.

Try it at home
Mock orange is easy to grow. It tolerates both drought (after it’s established, of course) and moisture, and will do well in full to part sun or in a fair amount of shade (but not deep, dark shade). It’s also a good shrub for stabilizing soil on slopes. While it’s not fussy about soil, if your soil’s in bad shape consider incorporating and/or mulching with some organic matter (like compost) to get it off to a good start.

Philadelphus lewisii

 

Grab a partner
Though not common, western mock orange is widespread. It occurs naturally from southern B.C. to northern California and the Sierras, and east to Alberta and western Montana, at low to mid-elevations. Growing along creeks and seeps and forest edges, on hillsides, and within chaparral and pine and fir communities, it associates with species such as Douglas-fir, oceanspray, ninebark, Indian plum, baldhip rose, tall Oregon grape, and others. Try it as a member of a multi-species (unclipped) hedgerow. If pruning is necessary, do it soon after flowering, so that the next year’s blossoms aren’t affected. To stimulate flowering on older shrubs, cut back flowered growth to strong young shoots, cutting out up to 20 percent of aging stems near their base.

Other fragrant PNW plants include wallflower (Erysimum capitatum), Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) and other native roses, Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), checker mallow (Sidalcea spp.), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), and black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii). Enjoy!

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Be a Voice for Portland’s Trees!

Ponderosa pine

Portland is losing a great many valuable trees due to rampant development. After much public outrage and several committee and commission meetings/hearings later, Portland City Council will at last address the issue (temporarily) on Thursday, March 3, 2016. For more background info, please see this post.

Over the past couple of months, staff from the Bureau of Parks and Recreation and from the Bureau of Development Services developed proposals intended as tree preservation “stop-gap” measures until Portland’s entire tree code (Title 11) can be fully examined and reformed. Their proposals were then considered by the Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC) and the Urban Forestry Commission (UFC). Subsequently, the PSC and the UFC each made separate recommendations to City Council. The initial staff proposals, the recommendations by the PSC and the UFC, and a table comparing those proposals and recommendations are available here. The UFC proposal appears to be the most reasonable and fair.

More recently, Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman put together their own proposal (Fritz/Saltzman Proposal). Unfortunately, it’s possible that the council members will consider passing the Fritz/Saltzman proposal as is, even though it contains a number of weaknesses, such as exemptions for lots less than 5,000 sq. ft., exemptions for trees growing on city, commercial, and industrial properties, and a requirement that neighborhood notice be given only for trees greater than 36 inches (which are few). Their proposal essentially requires no real preservation.

Please offer testimony at the March 3 City Council meeting at 2 PM (Council Chambers at City Hall, 1221 SW 4th Ave). If that’s not possible, please email your comments (before March 3) to CCTestimony@portlandoregon.gov (or mail to 1221 SW 4th Ave., Room 130, Portland 97204).  It’s best to put the following suggested talking points into your own words.

♦ Portland’s urban forest is dwindling, with large, valuable trees being replaced by species (mostly nonnative) that are small in form and benefits. There are very few huge trees in the city, and it’s important to note that many species (even highly beneficial native ones) do not grow to a large diameter (or they are extremely slow-growing, as in the case of Oregon white oak). Removing young trees will eventually result in a lack of mature trees that are so aesthetically and ecologically appealing. The Urban Forestry Commission’s recommendations state that “… roughly no more than 2% of trees currently standing in Portland would benefit from [the Parks or BDS proposals]. The PSC proposal would affect ~4% of all trees currently being permitted for removal as tallied by BDS in August 2015.”

♦ The threshold for very large trees should be no more than 30 inches DBH (diameter at breast height).

♦ Mitigation is not preservation—it merely puts a price on trees and does not protect them. For those with enough money, it’s a weak and ineffectual disincentive. True preservation prohibits tree destruction and requires developers to protect and build around existing trees. To be most effective, mitigation should be based on size, but also species (especially native species), via inch-for-inch replacement for trees 20 inches or greater (with no cap on total fee). For smaller trees, the old fee-in-lieu of preservation should be updated with Urban Forestry’s current and actual costs of labor and materials for planting a tree and providing it with 2 years of care.

♦ Amendments should not include an exemption for lots less than 5,000 sq. ft. since valuable, healthy trees certainly do exist on small lots. The UFC considers it “a significant loophole that is likely to allow significant unregulated and unmitigated removal of significant trees during development … [and] recommends that these provisions apply to lots 3,000 sq. ft. and larger.”

♦ Amendments should apply to trees on private property, but also street trees and trees on city, commercial, and industrial land. Wildlife in need of trees to survive doesn’t care what type of land trees live on!

♦ At least 30 days notice should be given to neighbors and neighborhood associations for all trees greater than 20 inches DBH. Furthermore, Type II reviews should be implemented whenever there are plans to destroy significant trees.

♦ Amendments should only be temporary and be in effect for no more than 3 years.

♦ A complete and comprehensive overhaul of Title 11 is essential following implementation of a temporary stop-gap measure. It should be funded and undertaken ASAP.

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Gifts of the Oregon White Oak (Quercus garryana)

Quercus garryana at Ridgefield NWR


Spring still seems out of reach
, so while we’re awaiting balmier days, let’s take a moment to appreciate some of nature’s subtle, yet generous gifts. We owe everything to the natural world and even modest contact with it refreshes and offers solace. While contemplating the obvious things that nature provides—food, water, air—it’s easy to overlook the little (and not so little) things.

Plants, the primary producers on this planet, belong to irreplaceable, intricate ancient ecosystems, within which they support and depend on other species—both flora and fauna— to survive. I like to think of it as everlasting give and take. This post honors one of my favorite Pacific Northwest natives whose gifts are mammoth. Quercus garryana, commonly called Oregon white oak (or “Garry oak” by those in British Columbia and Washington), is a slow-growing, very long-lived, majestic, deciduous tree that, with time, grows beautifully gnarly.

Wildlife hotspot
Late last fall, while strolling along a trail at Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve (just west of Portland), I was awestruck by the amount of life attracted to the broad canopy of just a single mature Oregon white oak: Visible and audible were multiple white-breasted nuthatches, black-capped chickadees, downy woodpeckers, and red-breasted sapsuckers, all busily going about their foraging business with such enthusiasm that all I could do was look upwards, my mouth agape. The birds weren’t seeking the tree’s acorns, which sustain many other birds, as well as mammals—they were consuming a tasty assortment of insect herbivores, which oak trees are particularly adept at generating. Studies show that the genus Quercus hosts more caterpillars and other insect life than any other genus in the northern hemisphere. This proficiency is especially important during breeding season, when the vast majority of landbirds consume and feed their young highly nutritious insects or their larvae, and spiders—not seeds or fruit. Other studies show a higher diversity of bird species in oak forests than in nearby conifer forests.

Like other native foundation tree species, Oregon white oak peacefully regulates ecosystem processes like nutrient cycling and energy flow, creating benefits to wildlife (and the rest of us) that seem endless. Besides the obvious shade, beauty, and exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide these trees offer, inconspicuous flowers—which typically bloom in late spring—provide for pollinators like native bees, while the buds of forthcoming rounded, deeply lobed leaves play host to the larvae of gray hairstreak, California sister, and propertius duskywing butterflies.

In addition, cover, perches, and nesting habitat go to birds such as woodpeckers and vireos, as well as native squirrels. Oaks’ acorns sustain squirrels and other mammals, as well as many bird species. Fallen leaves, which might provide habitat for amphibians and reptiles, slowly break down into a rich leaf mold that supports soil-dwelling invertebrates and numerous fungi that allow neighboring plants to thrive. Sugars and carbon are provided for mycorrhizae, which reciprocate with nutrients for the trees. Intact bark creates microhabitat for mosses, as well as lichens that supply food, shelter, and nesting material, while loose bark (and twigs) contribute to nest building as well as browse for deer, which in turn feed carnivores like cougars.

And as oaks deteriorate with advanced age (which can be 500 years), they continue to deliver. Dead trees can last many years as snags, which provide food, nesting material, and housing to cavity nesters like owls, kestrels, and chickadees, as well as bats that may roost in old holes or under loose bark.

How it grows
Elevation, climate, soil, and water persuade Oregon white oak to vary immensely in habit and size. While it thrives in cool, coastal areas and near the edges of streams and wetlands where it tolerates seasonal flooding, it also flourishes in droughty inland sites where it may grow both individually and in groves on low hills surrounded by grasslands. When it occurs on gravelly sites or rocky slopes with thin soils, it often has a shrub-like or scrubby habit. Along the blustery Columbia River Gorge, where it grows with little rainfall and atop hundreds of feet of layered basalt, harshly battered trees grow gnarled and hang on thanks to an extensive and strong root system. But within the richer, deeper, riparian soils amongst tapestries of dazzling wildflowers and grasses in the Georgia Basin-Puget Trough-Willamette Valley ecoregion of British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, it may act as a keystone structure, typically growing a very broad canopy, and reaching heights up to 100 feet over hundreds of years. The ecoregion includes savannas (grassland with trees scattered at least 100 feet apart), upland prairies (another type of grassland), wet prairies, and shady oak woodlands with a continuous or semi-open canopy. I’ll call them, collectively, prairie-oak ecosystems.

Endangered ecosystems
To really appreciate an oak, it’s helpful to know something about its unique ecosystems that once provided some of the richest habitat in the world. The historic range of Q. garryana stretches from low elevations of southwestern British Columbia (including Vancouver Island and nearby smaller islands) into California. In Washington, it occurs mainly west of the Cascades on Puget Sound islands and in the Puget Trough, and east along the Columbia River. In Oregon, it’s indigenous to the Willamette, Rogue River, and Umpqua Valleys, and within the Klamath Mountains.  

When pioneers and naturalists encountered prairie-oak ecosystems, they found a breathtakingly beautiful and rich mosaic of plant and animal life. Journals of early Oregonians described massive prairies with five-mile-wide dense forests of ash, alder, willow, and cottonwood that skirted meandering rivers within floodplains. Marshes and sloughs developed during high water periods but often dried out by late summer. At higher elevations within these forest corridors were oak and associated trees. Above the floodplains were upland prairies, filled with herbaceous plants and grasses that could tolerate the parched soil of summer, as well as winter wet. Oak woodlands stood on low hills above the valley floors, surrounded by grasslands.

But the landscape was not untouched or pristine. Aboriginal peoples managed parts of the ecosystems following the last glacial period, frequently using prescribed burning to boost edible plant productivity, hunt wildlife, limit the growth of conifers, and facilitate travel, particularly in the northern parts of the oak’s range. Harvesting of plants such as camas (Camassia spp.) and chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis) also caused soil disturbance, but their eco-cultural manipulations pale greatly compared to what came later.

Since Euro-American settlement, as much as 99 percent of the original prairie-oak communities that were present in parts of the Pacific Northwest have been lost and many rare species dependent on them are at risk of extinction. Extensive destruction and fragmentation began with settlement in the 1850s, with clearing, plowing, livestock grazing, wildfire suppression, and cutting of trees for firewood and manufacturing. Prairie wetlands bejeweled with wildflowers were drained and ditched. Later, subsidies to ranchers encouraged more destructive grazing, while urban sprawl and agricultural use—fueled by human population increase—intensified. Invasion of nonnative species, and the encroachment of shade tolerant and faster growing species—that proliferate with fire suppression—outcompeted oaks and decimated additional native flora and fauna. Prairie-oak ecosystems and associated systems still continue to disappear at human hands, and isolation of the tiny remaining fragments prevents the migration of wildlife and healthy genetic material from one area to another. Other detrimental factors include diseases and parasites, climate change, and the loss of wildlife that cache acorns and perform other functions.  

Conservation
Despite continual destruction, there is a renewed and growing appreciation for the diversity and beauty of these habitats, motivated by recognition that we are responsible for what’s been destroyed, an admiration for the interconnected wild species the habitat supports, and a reverence for an iconic, magnificent tree. Intervention has become intensive, and collaborations and partnerships—along with private landowners, who are key partners—are working to reverse the downward trend with preservation, restoration, and management tools, although “a major restoration challenge is restoring wet prairie habitat to a level at which it can maintain resistance to invasive species,” according to the Institute for Applied Ecology.Oregon oak restored grassland

Regeneration of oak seedlings is essential, but is often difficult. Acorns look tough, but they are viable for only about a year and may be subject to parasitism, weather extremes, and genetic isolation. Consequently, just a small percentage become trees. Two independent studies determined that oak seedlings do best when caged, but protection from other deterrents—drought, competing plants, and rodents—is important, depending on location. Regional groups include the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team, South Puget Sound Prairie Landscape Working Group, and the Cascadia Prairie-Oak Partnership.

Try it at home
While the maintenance of only fragments of a past ecosystem is a poor alternative to former richness, if you live in the ecoregion (or other impoverished oak-dominated ecosystem) and want to help, choose this native tree. Even a single isolated tree can be a critical habitat structure on the landscape. It’s the only oak native to Washington and western Canada, and the dominant one in Oregon (black oak—Quercus kelloggii—is another beautiful and valuable large tree that occurs from Lane County, Oregon, south to Baja, at low to high elevations).

An Oregon white oak tree needs a mostly sunny, well-drained site that can accommodate its eventual size (20-50 feet wide, depending on spacing). Those grown on poor, dry, rocky sites will grow quite a bit smaller and have a shrubby habit. When planting more than one, space trees 20 to 60 feet apart, using the closest spacing only in dry, rocky terrain. It may be most helpful to visit a nearby natural area and then try to mimic nature’s arrangement.

To maintain genetic integrity, always choose trees or seeds that originated from trees close to your location and from similar terrain. For best results, plant dormant saplings in late fall after rains begin. After watering, apply about three inches of an organic mulch to reduce evaporation and keep weeds (that can steal water and nutrients) down. I prefer leaf compost, spread out to the tree’s drip line and kept at least a foot from the trunk to prevent rot.

Though this species is drought tolerant, provide ample summer water, deeply and infrequently, until established. During the first summer I like to water roughly every five days with about 10 gallons of water that’s applied so that it sinks in slowly. During the second and third summers, water once a week, 10-15 gallons, being sure to water out to the root zone and beyond—root spread can be up to twice that of the crown. If severe heat and prolonged droughts appear to be stressing a young tree, provide more water. After the first few years it may do fine on its own, but do water it (deeply) if it appears to be drought stressed. Keep the area well weeded and don’t stake trees unless they are in very windy areas—they’ll grow much stronger if left unsupported. Keep in mind that soil compaction, lawns and irrigation systems around water-sensitive oaks are a major cause of their decline in residential areas. Here is more info on how to plant Oregon white oak.

Grab a partner
As with other native species, oaks will function best when grown within a habitat and community type that consists of plants that evolved together and need the same conditions. Figuring out which community occurs in your area requires a walk in a nearby natural area where species, as well as nature’s organization, can be learned. Some associate trees that might thrive with your oak include Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia) on moist sites, and madrone (Arbutus menziesii) and ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) on drier sites. For shrubs, consider california hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), Indian plum (Oemleria Aquilegia formosacerasiformis), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), and tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), depending on your location. Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum), orange or pink honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa or L. hispidula), fescues (Festuca spp.), and many wildflowers, including allium (Allium cernuum), camas (Camassia spp.), meadow checker mallow (Sidalcea campestris), western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), and shooting star (Dodecathon hendersonii) associate in different parts of its range.

To find out which habitat type and plant communities would likely have grown in your area, check out this Ecoregional Assessment, or query your county soil and water conservation district or native plant society chapter. The following publications may also be helpful:
~ Georgia Basin: Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team
~ Willamette Valley: A Landowner’s Guide for Restoring and Managing Oregon White Oak Habitats
~ Puget Trough: Landowner guidebooks for South Puget Sound Prairies

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Improve Portland’s Tree Code to Save Important Trees


Western red cedar (Thuja plicata)

PLEASE NOTE: This post includes updates …

Portland is generally a pretty progressive city, and it’s one of the reasons that many of us choose to live here. Another reason is its natural beauty, much of which is supplied by trees. But today, no tree—even if it’s huge, healthy, native, and majestic—is safe anywhere in the city due to currently out-of-control development rules that favor developers and their bottom line. In times like these, with human-induced climate change poised to wreak havoc on the earth as we know it, tree preservation ought to be paramount.

Portland’s relatively new tree code (Title 11) has proved to be inadequate in that it currently does not require that any tree in a development situation be preserved. The code currently allows for the removal of 2/3 of a property’s trees, with just 1/3 retained. However, for a measly $1200 (maximum) “fee in lieu of preservation” per tree, a developer can destroy the third if they’re in his way, no questions asked. Moreover, properties less than 5,000 square feet and commercial/industrial zones are completely exempt from the code.

According to city records, tree removal permits for demolition and new construction during one month—August 2015—revealed that only 13 of 53 trees that were greater than 24 inches DBH (trunk diameter at breast height) were spared the chainsaw. Several of the trees destroyed during that month were greater than 42 inches DBH. Granted, one month is a small sample and not an average, but the point is that we cannot afford to lose any more quality trees. Portland’s tree canopy is shrinking: More trees are being removed than added, and the ones that are being planted are mainly those that grow to a small stature and are nonnative (read: poor ecological function).


 

(UPDATED Feb. 21, 2016) Speak up for voiceless trees and wildlife!

Two proposals—one from Urban Forestry’s office and one from the Bureau of Development Services­—were reviewed by the Planning and Sustainability Commission (January 12) and by the Urban Forestry Commission (January 21). Both proposals sought protections only for trees greater than 48 or 50 inches DBH and are lax in other ways. The two commissions made their own recommendations to City Council.

The PSC rejected both proposals and crafted their own motion. Their recommendation includes a reduction of the proposed 48 or 50-inch threshold to 36 inches, and a 30-day notice to neighbors and neighborhood associations (both steps in the right direction). Note: PSC member Mike Houck advocated for 20 inches. More details on PSC’s motion can be found here.

The Urban Forestry Commission also created their own recommendations, which stand out as the most reasonable and fair.

Commissioners Fritz and Salzman have come up with their own proposal and will present it to to City Council on March 3, 2016, at 2:00 PM (City Hall, 1221 SW 4th Ave.). Their proposal is weak in a number of ways.

Portland City Council will take public testimony on stop-gap tree preservation in development situations at the meeting noted above. If you can’t make it, please send in your comments to the council and Mayor Hales.


Trees over 48 inches DBH are extremely rare in Portland. In Wilshire Park, which is home
tree swallow nestto 346 trees (most of them mature Douglas-firs), we found that only two measured 48 inches DBH or just slightly greater. Under either proposal and if these trees were in development situations, only two of those 346 trees would be safe!

Large, mature trees are extremely important to wildlife for food and shelter, and they provide myriad other environmental benefits and, as such, ought to be protected. But we also need to recognize that we will have much fewer large trees in the future if developers are allowed to remove smaller trees that are in their way now.

Follow the Plan

The 2035 Portland Comprehensive Plan clearly states, “potential adverse impacts of development must be well understood and avoided where practicable. These policies also call for an evaluation of design alternatives to minimize negative impacts, and the use of mitigation approaches that fully mitigate unavoidable impacts.” It also recommends preserving Pacific Northwest native trees.

Title 11 does not provide incentive to keep trees, nor does it require consideration of design alternatives. A paltry “fee in lieu” cannot possibly fully mitigate the loss of ecologically and aesthetically significant trees that are part of our neighborhoods and region, and whose loss permanently impacts people and devastates wildlife. We must first seek to avoid, then minimize, and then—and only as a last resort—mitigate.

Mitigation as a last resort

When healthy, mature, life-giving trees are eliminated, it’s impossible to replicate their benefits. How can we possibly compensate for the sudden loss of something irreplaceable? What happens to dwindling, exhausted birds during their death-defying migrations who counted on certain trees as stopover habitat (places to take cover, rest, and feed)? Or those who need the trees to breed?

Planting a few sapling trees cannot supply the lost cover and food for wildlife any more than they can supply the shade, oxygen, and carbon sequestration provided by a mature tree. The graph at the end of the OAC’s recommendations shows how terribly long it takes for young replacement trees to begin to supply benefits (and some never will). Plus, the replacements are often smaller species and/or planted off site, possibly miles away, so the benefit to local wildlife is nonexistent.

All trees are not created equal

Preserving the towering, big-canopy trees that supply the most environmental and public health benefits (like cleaner air and water) makes perfect sense, but we also need to look at species as well as diameter. While large trees—especially conifers—are immensely important for wildlife, shade, and storm water mitigation, studies have concluded that certain tree types are enormously supportive of native insect herbivores, which provide essential food for wild species like birds.

But many valuable native trees do not grow large. In fact, some only grow to 20 inches DBH at maturity, at most. And others are so slow growing that even at age 50 they would not have the girth that would be considered “large.” Native oaks support the most insect herbivores (over 540 species of butterfly and moth, alone), but oaks—especially our beloved Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana)—mature at a slow rate and to reach even 30 inches DBH could take well over 100 years (depending on conditions)! Other highly productive and beautiful Willamette Valley native species, such as madrone (Arbutus menziesii), wild cherry (genus Prunus), and willow (genus Salix), do not grow to a large diameter.

We also need to consider the repercussions of removing trees that are, for example, preventing erosion on hillsides, providing a windbreak, or protecting nearby vegetation.

What do other progressive cities do?

Some cities have adopted regulations that could serve as a model for Portland. Vancouver, B.C. requires that all new houses be built on existing footprints; they do not allow a modest house to be destroyed and replaced with a 3,000 or 4,000 square foot home that no one needs and does not contribute to urban density. Lake Oswego requires  “Removal of the tree will not have a significant negative impact on erosion, soil stability, flow of surface waters, protection of adjacent trees, or existing windbreaks” and “Removal of the tree will not have a significant negative impact on the character, aesthetics, or property values of the neighborhood. The City may grant an exception to this criterion when alternatives to the tree removal have been considered and no reasonable alternative exists to allow the property to be used as permitted in the zone. In making this determination, the City may consider alternative site plans or placement of structures or alternate landscaping designs that would lessen the impact on trees, so long as the alternatives continue to comply with other provisions of the Lake Oswego Code.”

How you can help

If you believe that Title 11’s lack of protection for trees and its wholly inadequate mitigation provisions need to be changed, I encourage you to offer comments or simply show your support at either of the above mentioned meetings. I attended and testified at several of the OAC meetings this past fall and I can tell you that they do listen and consider sensible comments. My suggestion that the value of small and/or slow-growing native trees be considered in their recommendations did make it into their memorandum.

If you can’t make the meetings you may send written comments (with your name and address) via email to: trees@PortlandOregon.gov

Some suggested comments:

♦ Remove the Title 11 exemptions for small lots and commercial and industrial land

♦ Avoid destruction by requiring design alternatives to cutting

♦ Require a site review process with public involvement for trees greater than 20 inches DBH

♦ Require a mandatory posting/public notice and notification to neighborhood associations of least 30 days before any tree greater than 20 inches DBH is destroyed

♦ Consider tree species, giving special consideration to the superior ecological value of Willamette Valley native trees, no matter their eventual size

♦ Use mitigation as a last resort, adding an inch-for-inch protocol, at least $300 per inch for healthy trees greater than 20 inches DBH, and $500 per inch for native species, and changing the 1/3 preservation rule to apply to preservation of caliper inches of trees on site, not just number of trees on site.

♦ Apply these improvements to both private and public trees

♦ Instigate a thorough examination and repair of Title 11 following this emergency measure

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Killer Windows: How to Help Stop Bird Collisions

Varied thrush


When I read a recent post
from my local wildlife rehab center announcing that they’ve been caring for four varied thrushes in their facility—all injured by window collisions—it got me thinking. This winter I’ve seen just one of these gorgeous birds in our yard. Might others have been victims of window collisions? I certainly hope not, but the rehab center reportedly takes in several hundred window victims each year, and it’s not hard to imagine that countless others die out of sight. Certain species—such as thrushes, cedar waxwings, warblers, and woodpeckers—are more likely to fly into reflective glass, and migratory species are also at high risk. Studies conclude that the more glass on a structure, the greater the chance of mortality, and windows that reflect vegetation create more risk.

Photo courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Photo courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

A billion deaths a year
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not unusual for birds to collide with windows. In fact, ornithologists say that bird fatality by collision with manmade structures is second only to habitat loss that’s brought on by agriculture, industrial forestry, urban development, invasive species, and climate change. The number of deaths due to window strikes is appalling: An estimated one billion birds die each year from encounters with reflective surfaces in North America! Birds who don’t die quickly from injury may suffer slow deaths or become easy prey for predators. Many bird species, such as the elusive varied thrush, are already in steep decline, and deaths by collision only exacerbate the problem. And it’s getting worse—as urban areas grow, the quantity and size of obstacles increase and natural habitats degrade. Stopover habitat for migratory birds is getting smaller and smaller and more fragmented as humans encroach on what used to be grassland, wetland, shoreline, and the like.

Large urban buildings may be the most notorious killers, but any unobstructed, reflective window can kill and large rural structures are the most problematic: A study in Biological Conservation confirmed that rural buildings are worse than urban skyscrapers because they happen to be right where birds forage. The authors surveyed 40 college campuses across the continent and discovered that sites with abundant shrubs and trees in a 160-foot radius were the deadliest. Furthermore, since many birds travel along undeveloped migration routes, well lit towns and office parks they come across have a greater chance of distracting them. There is also speculation that there may be an innate behavioral difference among rural and city bird populations, with urban birds possibly having learned to avoid windows and other structures following a few non-fatal crashes. Rural birds would lack that training, which could make them more vulnerable. This would explain why thrushes and woodpeckers would be some of the most vulnerable species, since they adapted to forest environments.

What they see
Birds don’t see window glass and shiny or mirrored office buildings like we do. They see a reflection of trees, shrubs, and sky that appears to be a clear path, and consequently fly into it. tree reflection in windowMoreover, some fruit-eating species may get intoxicated by eating fermented berries and are more likely to hit windows while flying drunk.

Or, birds may see through clear glass (such as two corner windows perpendicular to each other, a solarium, or a bus shelter) and are deceived into flying right through as they try to get to vegetative cover that they see beyond the glass. Reportedly, this can also happen if indoor plants are situated right next to windows.

Some species (such as robins and bushtits) see their reflection during breeding season, view it as an intruder to their territory, and actually attack the glass—I’ve seen it happen. This territorial behavior can be intense, but they usually aren’t seriously injured (unlike the other situations). These territorial strikes can also happen at car windows.

How you can help
Because windows are everywhere, it’s easy to think that the problem is too overwhelming to do anything about. But any bird-friendly change you make to your property’s windows can help. Especially if your good intentions attract birds to your yard—with feeders and/or native plants—or you’ve noticed birds hitting your windows, it ought to be compulsory.

Bird strikes often follow a pattern, with the same windows repeatedly struck. If you have a lot of windows, take some time to identify which windows are problematic, paying attention to bird attractants like food, water, and cover. Look at your windows from a bird’s point of view. 

Most of the following remedies work either by blocking glass or making it visible to birds by giving them visual cues. Sheer curtains and blinds closed part way may help cut down on reflection, but they don’t fully eliminate it. Silhouettes placed on the inside of windows do not work because birds still see the reflection.

DIY suggestions:
♦  Locate all bird feeders and bird baths at least 30 feet from windows, a distance that allows birds to see that windows are part of a house. Or, keep them very close—within 2 feet—to reduce the chance of high impact collisions. If that doesn’t help, either add additional protections or remove the feeders or baths altogether.
♦  If any of your windows have a clear view through your house to another window, create an obstruction (such as curtains) that blocks what may appear to them to be a flight path.
♦  Keep taut window screens on year round if you have them, or consider adding them. Screens block reflections considerably and soften any impact. Keeping your windows dirty may also help!
♦ Make your own “zen wind curtains,” which are practical and effective and don’t look the least bit odd.
♦ Apply patterns (a few inches apart) with soap on the outside of windows—use stencils found at craft stores, or make your own. The patterns can be wiped off and redone when necessary. They are very inexpensive but may may be impractical for windows that receive rain or are hard to reach.
♦ For birds who fight with their reflection, simply hang a cloth or apply some masking tape to the area for a few days to break the bird of the habit.

Products for purchase:
♦ Decals that reflect ultra-violet wavelengths of light—which birds can see but we can’t—are applied to the outside of windows. Follow manufacturers instructions for adequate coverage (aim for 80%), generally a few inches apart. Some examples include Window Alert (pictured) and BirdTape,  which provide a stoplight for birds. In direct sunlight, decals will need to be replaced more often than in shade, so be sure to keep track of when you put them up. If you have a lot of windows to cover, BirdTape is more economical and may last longer. UV decals placed on outside of window
♦ Films like CollidEscape, that appear opaque to birds but transparent to you, are applied to the outside of windows.
♦ Feather Friendly adhesive dots are applied on the exterior of windows in a “frit” pattern.
♦ External awnings or sun shades help minimize both reflection and transparency.

Architectural solutions:
Planning on remodeling or building a new home? Are you an architect or developer? The Resource Guide for Bird-Friendly Building Design is a comprehensive publication that offers excellent info and workable solutions for reducing collisions in commercial areas as well as residential. Also check out the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird-Friendly Building Design and the City of Toronto’s Bird-Friendly Best Practices: Glass. All are well worth a read.

Other important recommendations:
At night, turn off lights in office buildings (all levels), especially during spring and fall migrations. At home, pull your shades or draw draperies, and install motion censors on outdoor lighting, rather than leaving lights on at night. All of this prevents disorientation of migratory birds traveling at night and cuts down on other negative effects of artificial light pollution.


If you find a bird on the ground near a window: Slowly and gently cover and catch the bird with a lightweight, soft cloth and carefully place it in a small box (such as a shoebox) that has air holes and is lined with a soft cloth or paper towels rolled into a doughnut shape to keep the bird upright. Handle the bird as little as possible and keep the box securely closed. Do not give food or water. Place the box in a quiet, dark, and pleasantly warm place, away from other animals and children. If the bird has an obvious injury like a cracked bill or dangling wing, transport it immediately (in the darkened box ) to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator—broken bones need attention quickly. If there are no obvious injuries, quietly check on the bird several times over one to two hours—outside and away from human activity and buildings in case the bird can fly—but don’t touch it. If the bird develops swollen eyes or becomes unresponsive during the hour, quickly transport it to a wildlife rehabilitator. If the bird seems alert and can stand on its own, place the box in a quiet spot and open it. Move away, remain still and out of sight, and wait. If s/he doesn’t fly away within 5 or 10 minutes, carefully and quietly take the bird to a wildlife rehabilitator. Remember that, other than transporting a bird to a rehabilitator, it is illegal to handle migratory birds without a license.


 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Manage Stormwater at Home for Clean Rivers and Habitat

rainwater mitigation with trees

It’s another one of those exceptionally rainy days (with more to follow) and I don’t want to do laundry or even take a bath. Why? A few days ago the city’s sewers overflowed into the river, and I’d rather not add more water to an already overtaxed system that results in raw sewage killing and polluting the habitat of wild species downstream. It’s not just the abundance of rain that’s the problem: It’s our infrastructure.

Generally, the unaltered earth is perfectly capable of soaking up or directing the moisture that nature doles out to natural waterways or floodplains (seasonal flooding is normal and natural). But our urban and suburban environments, with their ubiquitous and impermeable roads, walkways, roofs, and parking lots—as well as shortage of erosion-controlling plants—cause runoff that carries toxic pollutants like oil, fertilizers, and pesticides during heavy rains. In older parts of cities, pipes and tunnels that take away domestic and industrial waste combine with water collected from surface runoff. Under normal (not too wet) circumstances, the sewage and runoff is diverted to sewage treatment plants. But when too much storm water or snowmelt can’t soak in, it overwhelms the system, creating combined sewage overflows (CSOs) that cause raw sewage and other pollutants to spill into rivers, lakes, or coastal waters. People may be told not to have contact with the water, but wildlife suffers silently. Essentially, polluted sediments build up in waterways, increasing water temperature and turbidity and lowering oxygen levels, resulting in deaths.

In Portland, where I live, the city is investing in stormwater management projects that (sort of) mimic nature, in an attempt to mitigate stormwater at its sources. There is a plethora of work going on and CSOs are reportedly decreasing in frequency, but even one is too many.

How to help keep water clean

We can help manage and reduce stormwater pollution and overflows, starting at home. Here are some tips; some will have immediate effect, while others will take some time and effort:

Protect existing conifer trees and plant new ones (preferably those that historically grew in your area). A mature evergreen tree can intercept more than 4,000 gallons of rainwater each permeable hardscapeyear, about 80 percent more than deciduous trees. They also provide habitat, beauty, shade and cooling and help stabilize soil.

Renovate or construct new walkways, driveways, and patios with interlocking stones or other permeable paving, rather than concrete.

Disconnect your home’s downspouts when feasible and install rain gardens or swales in landscaped areas. They help prevent flooding by allowing water that falls on your roof to slowly infiltrate into the ground, lessening the burden on sewer systems when it is most important. Simply disconnecting spouts and allowing water to run down a driveway or walkway and into the street defeats the purpose. Additional rain garden guides: here and here.

swale from disconnected downspout Use only organic fertilizers when necessary (excess can be washed into waterways), and don’t use pesticides.

Grow native plants that help control erosion. Some examples (that naturally occur in many parts of the Pacific Northwest) include vine maple (Acer circinatum), madrone (Arbutus menzeisii), Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), salal (Gaultheria shallon), nootka rose (Rosa nutkana), sword fern (Polystichum  munitum), kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), and inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra).

 Employ rain barrels to collect rainwater runoff from building roofs for irrigation during dry weather (if you can’t disconnect a downspout).

Conserve water simply by taking very short showers, never letting the faucet run unnecessarily, and fixing any leaks (just as you would during droughts!).

Collect “graywater” and use it onsite to reduce sewage discharges year round. Beware: this takes some ingenuity and planning!

 Never dispose of chemicals (like anti-freeze) by pouring it on the ground or into storm drains. Even drops of oil that seem relatively contained in your driveway can easily be swept into local waterways by rain. If you get an automotive oil leak, catch the oil in a pan and get it fixed ASAP.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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A Winter Treat: Licorice Fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza)

Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza)

When many Northwest ferns have said adiós to most of their aboveground growth and have nearly left the stage, enter licorice fern. If you have it in your yard you might forget it’s there until the soft rains of autumn release it from its dormancy. Then—when you least expect it—bright green, featherlike fronds (to about 12 inches) gradually appear to help brighten the landscape all winter long. Although licorice fern may stay evergreen where it is well established, out of harsh sunlight, and receives some moisture in the form of mist or from a watering can, it is typically a summer deciduous plant. It is a primary producer for other inhabitants within the ecosystem, including insects, birds, and other animals.

Its botanical name, Polypodium glycyrrhiza, means “many footed” and “sweet root,” and refers to creeping rhizomes that taste like licorice (which I’ve yet to try). Native Americans used the rhizome to sweeten foods and unpalatable medicines, but they also used it as medicine itself, to treat sore throats and upper respiratory infections. Modern herbalists use it for similar purposes.

How it grows Licorice fern on American elm
Licorice fern is one of those multitalented plants that occurs naturally in several habitats. The next time you walk under a massive, mature deciduous native tree like big-leaf maple or even a nonnative giant, such as American elm (native to the eastern U.S.), look upwards and there’s a good chance you’ll find it growing as an epiphyte on trunk and branch bark, particularly in crotches or on horizontal limbs that usually stay wetter than vertical ones. But it’s also found growing on dead or dying wood like logs and stumps, and as a lithophyte in rocky outcrops and mossy ledges (pictured, below).

Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza)

 

 

 

Licorice fern occurs naturally in cooler parts of the Pacific Northwest (west of the Cascades) and near the California coast (as well as small sections of the Sierra Nevada), at low elevations. Disjunct populations in Idaho and Arizona are listed as imperiled.

 

Rescue mission
The ferns that now grace my yard were rescued from mature street trees that had the misfortune of being cut down or blown down in my neighborhood. The trees’ upper branches were nearly covered with the ferns, so when the fallen limbs were in the street awaiting transport, I peeled off bark adorned with the featherlike fronds, their roots firmly and securely attached to the bark. Sections of the leafy mats were placed under native shrubs and in shaded rocky areas in my yard, where the soil is fairly rich and slightly acidic, and where moss grows readily (and not too far from the hose, since I figured they would need to be kept moist for a couple of summers). I also placed some logs (leftover from fruit tree prunings) under or immediately next to those without the company of rocks. Now the mats have come to life again, and I think they are quite settled in, judging by a new little plant that’s appeared about 10 feet from its parents—spores are in the air!

Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza)Try it at home
If you’d like to try growing licorice fern in your yard, pick a spot that’s naturally mossy, since most areas that support moss ought to be able to support this fern. And be sure that you can get to it easily with a watering can while the plants are young; they will need to be kept moist—but not saturated—until they’re established, at which time they will become self-sufficient (except during exceptionally hot periods when dormant plants will appreciate an occasional splash of water).

If moss isn’t growing in your garden, try nestling a plant between shaded, half-buried rocks that have been enhanced with a slightly acidic, humusy and well-draining soil amendment like leaf mold. Or, try licorice fern’s close relation, Polypodium hesperium—it can take drier conditions and grows naturally in rocky places on both sides of the Cascades. Its short stature makes it a lovely addition to nooks and crannies of stone walls, as well as a candidate for creeping through a mostly shaded rock garden. Licorice fern’s other Northwest relative, P. scouleri, is a leathery-leaved gem that grows along the foggy coastline from British Columbia, south into California. But it is reportedly difficult to cultivate so should just be left alone to bask in the ocean’s salty mist.

As always, buy all native plants from reputable nurseries and never harvest from the wild. Or, rescue them from doomed situations, preferably at a time that will benefit the transition.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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What Makes Leaves Change Color?

Populus tremuloides (quaking aspen)

I’ve written quite a bit about the importance of leaf “litter” on the ground, so here’s a little info on how it gets there and what conditions make for the most vibrant leaves. While it’s understandable to think that it is the cooler temperatures of the fall season that bring about color change, there are several other factors. Besides temperature, sunlight and soil moisture influence the quality of autumn leaf color. But the process that instigates the show is actually more of a chemical process brought on by less daylight.

Darkness rules

Most plants are quite sensitive to each day’s length of darkness. In early fall, when nights begin to lengthen, the cells near the joint of the leaf and stem in deciduous trees and shrubs are triggered to divide quickly. This corky layer of cells (the abscission zone) begin to block transport of essentials such as carbohydrates from the leaf to the branch, as well as the flow of minerals from roots upward to leaves.

When plants are actively growing, green chlorophyll is constantly produced in the leaves. But in autumn, when the connection between the leaf and the rest of the plant gets more and more obstructed, chlorophyll replacement slows and then stops completely. This is when autumn colors are revealed: Normally masked by chlorophyll, yellow pigments called xanthophylls and orange pigments known as carotenoids become visible when chlorophyll shuts down. Red and purple pigments come from anthocyanins which are created (in some species) from sugars within the leaf and it’s speculated that they are a defense mechanism that helps some plants fight herbivores like aphids.

Spiraea betulifolia var. lucidaAs fall moves forward, the cells in the abscission layer become drier and weaker and leaves eventually part company with the plant. Many trees and shrubs lose their leaves when they are still colorful (making for some gorgeous mulch), while some retain the majority of their foliage through much of winter, though their leaves lose color fairly quickly. Like chlorophyll, the other pigments eventually break down in light or when frozen. The final pigments are tannins, which look brown.

Recipe for color

Low temps (but above freezing) and ample sunlight following formation of the abscission layer cause quick destruction of chlorophyll and promote the formation of bright colors in some species. Stress from drought during the growing season can sometimes trigger early formation of the abscission layer, resulting in leaf drop before they have a chance to develop fall coloration, so a growing season with ample moisture that is followed by somewhat dry, warm, sunny, calm fall days with cool, frost-free nights provides the best recipe for bright fall colors.

Plant natives!

Besides offering the most ecological benefits, some native species grown in their native ground offer wonderful fall color that rivals that of nonnative plants. Here in the Pacific Northwest, some of the most vibrantly colored leaves occur on natives such as paper birch, black hawthorn, Oregon ash, quaking aspen, golden currant, vine maple, serviceberry, and red-twig dogwood. Enjoy!

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Best Early Spring-Flowering Shrubs for Pacific Northwest Pollinators

Ribes sanguineum

Plan ahead for hungry native pollinators who need early-flowering plants like red-flowering currant to survive.

 

April showers may bring May flowers, but what about providing forage for hungry pollinators that need food earlier in the year? To provide large amounts of flowers in late winter and early spring for emerging bees as well as hummingbirds and other pollinators, to help you endure the gray winter skies, and to get the most bang from your buck, add early-flowering native shrubs to your garden. Get new shrubs in the ground soon—so the plants benefit from winter rains, and to ensure that you have the early part of a continuous succession of flowers covered.

Here are five early-flowering shrubs, listed in order of size from largest to smallest, that naturally occur in large areas of the Pacific Northwest region west of the Cascades. They grow in sun to partial shade, are fairly easy to find at native plant nurseries (as well as nurseries that don’t focus on natives), and are quite easy to grow, provided they are kept adequately moist until they are established (2 to 5 years). All would do well planted in unpruned hedgerows. When choosing any shrub, note its eventual width to be sure you have enough space for it to stretch its limbs and attain its natural form at maturity—and to prevent future hack jobs by a pruner.

Salix scoulerianaScouler willow (Salix scouleriana): A fast-growing deciduous shrub or small tree. Flowers are soft catkins, larger than horticultural “pussy willows,” and appear in early to mid-spring. Male and female flowers are on different plants, so grow both for seeds. Scouler willow is a larval host plant for several butterfly species. Does not tolerate full shade. Prefers moist soil. 20-30 feet tall by 10-15 feet wide at maturity. 

 

Oemleria cerasiformis

 

Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis): A large, arching deciduous shrub or small tree that blooms prolifically in late winter as leaves emerge. Tolerates clay soil well, but does best with some shade (it naturally occurs in the dappled shade of tall trees). Plants are either male or female, so plant several to produce the fruit that birds need. 12-18 feet by 10-14 feet at maturity.

Amelanchier alnifolia

 

 

Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): A versatile, multibranched shrub with lovely white, fragrant flowers in early to late spring. Bluish-green leaves turn gold to reddish in autumn. Larval host plant for several butterfly species. Needs well-drained soil with adequate organic matter. Tolerates full sun in cool areas. Doesn’t like competition, so plant other shrubs and perennials at least several feet away. 8-18 feet tall by 6-10 feet wide.


Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum)
: An upright, deciduous shrub with nearly year-round appeal. Gorgeous, pendulous flower clusters (pictured, top) that bloom in early spring are followed by powder-blue berries. Leaves turn golden in late autumn. Larval host plant for butterfly larvae. Controls erosion. Can’t handle excessively wet soils, so be sure soil drains well and plant it away from rain gardens and other drainage areas.  7-10 feet tall by 6-8 feet wide.


Mahonia aquifolium
Tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium)
: A handsome, multitalented evergreen shrub with an upright growth habit. Bursts into flower brilliantly in early to mid-spring, for a long period. Tolerates acidic soils. Has somewhat prickly evergreen leaves, so site it where it won’t be brushed against frequently. 5-8 feet tall by 3-6 feet wide.

 

The earliest winter bloomer is the handsome beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), a beautifully textured, large multistemmed woodland shrub or small tree that grows to 10-20 feet tall by 10-20 feet wide. It is pollinated by wind, not animals.

After planting
Add a few inches of organic matter as mulch around the shrub (but keep away from trunk) to insulate, keep weeds down, and add nutrients. Fallen leaves work well, as does weed-free compost. If you use wood chips, make sure they aren’t finely ground and/or fresh (undercomposed chips and bark can deplete soil of nitrogen during breakdown).

All of these shrubs are drought tolerant when established (although Scouler willow does best with supplemental summer water) but all will appreciate some irrigation in very hot situations. They should need little to no pruning if they’ve been sited to allow room for their growth.

If you already grow any of these shrubs, I’d love to hear what wild species you’ve seen attracted to them. Or how much they brighten your garden on drab winter days?


© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Five Ways Autumn Leaves Benefit Your Garden

 

leaves

 

Leaves offer great benefits to wildlife and your garden’s soil. Don’t throw them away!

In another post I extol the virtues of letting leaves do their thing. By that I mean allowing them to do what nature intended: Protect and enrich the soil, offer food for ground-feeding birds, provide a nursery for butterfly larvae/pupae and cover for overwintering queen bumblebees and other beneficial insects and microbes, afford animals like frogs and salamanders places to hunt and Varied thrush foraginghide, and myriad other ingenious things. Leaf litter breaks down with the help of mycorrhizal fungi that move carbon into soil, extract nutrients for plants and protect them from disease, lessen soil erosion, and play a very important role in storing the gigantic pool of carbon within soil.

I’m not sure how leaves got such a bad reputation—I constantly see and hear people blowing them and raking them not only from hardscape and lawn (which is understandable), but also from bare soil. I’m not sure what the aversion is, unless it’s another kind of “biophobia,” in this case a fear of organic materials. Another no-no is putting leaves in the trash, which ends up in landfills. The US EPA says that nationwide, 13 percent, or 33 million tons of municipal solid waste is from leaves and grass and tree/shrub trimmings. Here in Portland, as well as some other cities, there is curbside pickup for green waste for those who don’t compost, and the city picks up leaves from the streets of leafy neighborhoods every autumn to make leaf compost that residents can purchase for a modest fee. But using them in your yard is even better!

How to do it: For areas like driveways, walks, sewer grates and drainage pathways, rake them up (but please don’t use noisy, polluting leaf blowers), and use them as follows:

Mulch your beds.Take raked leaves from hardscape and lawn and place them in your planted beds, a couple of inches thick to protect the soil and provide insulation from the cold (if you live in a very cold climate, add more). Keep them off of tree and shrub trunks and perennial crowns to prevent rot. Try to do your raking on a non-windy day and consider moistening them after you apply them if it’s a dry day. Don’t shred leaves before applying—it won’t help the wildlife described above.

If you must have lawn, leave small amounts of leaves on it and mulch them in situ. Use your mower to shred leaves on grass to improve lawn health by naturally fertilizing the soil. Freshly fallen leaves are high in minerals, and don’t kill soil organisms like synthetic fertilizers do.

Make leaf compost. Collect leaves to compost separately to make leaf compost (also known as leaf mold), a great soil conditioner. If you have a lot of space, simply round them up into piles and let nature break them down with fungus and microscopic creatures. Shredding large leaves will speed up the process. If space is lacking or you want more control, create round chicken wire enclosures and fill them with leaves. You can also dig large depressions and fill them with Homemade compostleaves. Keep piles moist (but not completely saturated) and add more leaves as they sink down. During excessively rainy periods, consider covering the pile. In a year or more (depending on the type of leaves used), after the leaves have broken down, you will have some very dark, crumbly humus to add to your veggie beds and other places that need high quality soil.

Add leaves to your mixed compost bins, heaps, or cages. In your mixed compost bin, add collected leaves—which are mostly carbon—to help balance the “greens” (compost should be roughly half “greens” and half “browns”). Consider storing extra leaves and adding them to your compost bin throughout future months.

Save some for spring. If you have a large amount of leaves, put some aside—or just take some from your leaf compost heap—to use as mulch next year. Mulch applied in spring, after the soil warms, helps maintain soil moisture and protects the soil from oxidation. Be sure to leave some soil bare though, because the majority of native bees nest in the ground and cannot get through thick layers of mulch.

One word of caution: Leaf compost generally makes the soil slightly more acidic. This won’t be a problem for most Pacific Northwest native species, which evolved in slightly acidic soil. But when using leaf compost in vegetable beds, test your soil’s pH—it may need a bit of lime to keep the soil neutral or slightly alkaline, which many cultivated vegetable plants need.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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New Study: Non-native Plants Reduce Insect Diversity

Acer circinatum (vine maple)

Natives like vine maple (Acer circinatum), trump nonnatives for restoring biodiversity


As if we need further proof
, a new study published recently in Ecology Letters demonstrates that native plants are much better at supporting local insects than nonnative species, and that nonnative plants are exacerbating biodiversity loss with their inability to support many insect herbivores.

The authors, Douglas Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home) and Karin Burghhardt, planted test gardens with both native and nonnative tree species and collected data over a three-year period. They measured the insect herbivore species and communities that were using the plants, and compared native trees to nonnative trees of two types: Those with close native relatives in the region and those that had no close native relatives.

They found that nonnative trees with a native relative (in the PNW, think nonnative scarlet oak, which is related to the native Garry oak) host and support fewer species of insects than the native counterpart, and that few of them were unique to that species of tree. The result was even more striking with nonnative trees that had no native relative in the region (such as golden chain tree, a European species).

The study also found that young insects, which are most supportive of an ecosystem, were found on the native trees. Adult insects, on the other hand, may be found on plants, but for various reasons—to rest, to warm themselves, breed, etc.

Essentially, when the diversity of insect herbivores—which are the basis of the food web—plummet, so too do all the species that rely on them for food. If you’re not particularly fond of insects, think of them as baby food: In spring and early summer, when insect eggs are hatching and larvae are feeding, most birds are wholly dependent on insects to feed to their young, as well as to keep their own strength up. And most other wild species rely on insect herbivores in one way or another.

So, this is more evidence that natives are the answer for restoring biodiversity, while most nonnatives are problematic. When selecting plant material—even in an urban area—choose plants that help the environment and its community members. Go for the native oaks, pines, maples, willows, etc., with their plethora of insects. There’s almost always a native option!

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Northwest Native Pollinator Plants for Late Summer to Fall

Late season pollinator plants

Scientists know that bees are dying for a variety of reasons—pesticides, habitat destruction, drought, climate change, nutrition deficit, air pollution, and so on, which makes us the obvious perpetrator. We can help give back to them (and other pollinators) by growing flowering native plants in our gardens (as well as noninvasive exotics that step in when a native plant isn’t available or feasible), with consecutive blooms from early spring till fall. To provide for many different types of pollinators—from long and short-tongued bumblebees to syrphid flies, hummingbirds, and beetles—offer a variety of flower shapes, colors, and sizes, with smaller plants in groups of at least three of the same species (like a big, obvious “Eat Here” sign). Fragrance is also important for attracting insects to flowers and guiding them to food within the flower, and aiding an insect’s ability to efficiently learn particular food sources.

Below are some native perennials and one shrub that offer food for pollinators from mid or late summer to fall in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades. There are more candidates, but I chose these species because they naturally occur in fairly large parts of the region, are generally easy to grow, and are not too hard to find at nurseries (although you will likely have to call around for availability). I’ve listed them alphabetically with some very basic care guidelines. It’s best to plant them in the fall, just before or as the rain returns.

As always, plan ahead and choose species that fit your light, moisture, and soil conditions, but also choose those that are appropriate to the natural landscape—that is, look to nearby natural areas, and add flora that would likely have grown in your area historically, if possible. You can also check a species’ natural range (to county level) here, or check with your local native plant society chapter or county soil and water conservation district. No fertilizer is necessary and please don’t use any pesticides. Keep them adequately hydrated—by watering deeply and infrequently to promote deep roots—until they’re established (2 to 5 years). Enjoy!

Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis (Yarrow): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Not fussy about soil; moist or dry. Spreads by rhizomes or seed. Flat-topped clusters of white, fragrant flowers (pictured below) bloom through late summer. (Not to be confused with the Eurasian Achillea millefolium var. millefolium). Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis

Anaphalis margaritacea (Pearly everlasting): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Likes moist soil with good drainage, but can tolerate drought once established. Pure white flowers are often used in dried flower arrangements. Besides providing nectar, it is a host plant for painted lady and skipper butterflies.

Baccharis pilularis (Coyotebush): Evergreen or semi-evergreen shrub. 5-8 feet tall x 6-8 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Tolerates poor soils (but needs good drainage) and is drought tolerant. Flowers aren’t showy and are borne on separate male and female plants (male flowers creamy white; female pale green). Excellent wildlife habitat plant but is deer resistant.

048_Campanula rotundiflora sRGBCampanula rotundifolia (common harebell): Perennial. 1-2 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Moist to dry, well-drained soil, preferably with a good amount of organic matter. Spreads slowly by rhizomes or seed. Bell-shaped, bluish violet flowers typically bloom through late summer. (pictured left)

Gaillardia aristata (blanketflower): Perennial (short-lived). 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to light shade. Tolerates a variety of well-drained soils; drought tolerant when established. Spreads by seed. Colorful yellow and reddish orange flowers bloom well into fall, especially when dead-headed. Deer resistant.

Solidago canadensis (Goldenrod): Perennial. 2-4 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Solidago canadensisTolerates wide range of soils; prefers moisture but tolerates drought when established. Spreads by rhizomes or seed. Bright gold, fragrant inflorescences typically bloom well into fall. (pictured right)

Symphyotrichum subspicatum (Douglas aster): Perennial. 2-3 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Does best in moist soil that is rich in organic matter. Spreads slowly by rhizomes. Lavender-blue daisylike flowers bloom until mid fall. (pictured below)

 

 

Douglas aster

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Damselflies: Live Fast and Die Young

northern bluet

This bright and handsome damselfly, resting on a stem of a columbine plant in my garden, is a male Northern bluet (Enallagma annexum), one of 462 species of damselflies and dragonflies found in North America. They make up the two main subdivisions of a very distinctive group of insects known as Odonata (Greek for tooth), which refers to their powerful and sharply toothed jaws, adapted for biting and chewing their prey.

Damselflies can be distinguished from dragonflies by their smaller size and their position when at rest: Damselflies typically hold their bodies horizontally, with their tear drop-shaped wings neatly and elegantly folded together over their abdomen, while dragonflies generally hold their wings flatly, outstretched and perpendicular to their body.

I’ve wondered about the common names. Since “damsel” conjures up an image of a fair maiden—most likely in distress—I imagine that the damselfly was so named because it is more delicate looking than a dragonfly and isn’t as tough and strong a flyer. Plus, proverbial dragons kept damsels in their caves, didn’t they? But now we need to ask, why are dragonflies called what they are? According to a 1958 book by Eden Emanuel entitled Folklore of the Dragonfly, it’s theorized that the common name emerged due to an ancient Romanian folktale, in which the devil turned a beautiful horse ridden by a saint into a giant flying insect. The Romanians supposedly called this giant insect (when translated into English) “St. George’s Horse” or “Devil’s Horse.” Peasants probably considered the Devil’s Horse a giant fly, and it’s surmised that they started referring to it as “Devil’s Fly.” Emanuel concluded that the Romanian name for Devil’s Fly was erroneously translated into English as Dragon Fly and this then evolved into the present-day “dragonfly.”

Gradual Metamorphosis

The female Northern bluet is generally greenish-yellow or tan, with a black abdomen. She lays her eggs in submerged vegetation; upon hatching—typically late spring to early fall—the young nymphs (or naiads) are small and wingless, but fully functional, so they don’t go through larval or pupal stages like most other insects do. Nymphs spend their time (often years) underwater in bogs, lakes, ponds, or rivers, where they molt (shed their skin) about a dozen times while growing. Fierce predators of aquatic organisms, they hide in submerged vegetation and attack the larvae of smaller insects such as mosquitoes and mayflies. When they are about an inch long, they crawl out of the water onto rocks or grasses and such. After a brief sunbath, their skin splits down the back and they struggle to pull themselves out of their shabby old skin one last time. Voila! Metamorphosis complete, they are now all grown up and it’s time to inflate their new wings and abdomen and harden fresh legs, all of which likely takes a lot of energy. Adults generally live less than two weeks, breeding and feeding—just enough time to live fast and die young.

Like dragonflies, damselflies’ large, bulging eyes have thousands of honeycomb-shaped lenses that give them an ability to see in all directions and make them formidable predators of other insects. Adults are swift aerial hunters, typically preying on mosquitoes, small moths, and various flies. Fascinating research shows that Odonata don’t dive and turn in reaction to their prey’s movements—instead, they are able to predict those movements before they happen. But what goes around comes around: Both damselfly nymphs and adults are consumed by birds, frogs, fish, and, yes, dragonflies.  Northern bluet

Conservation

Dragonflies and damselflies go way back, predating dinosaurs by at least 75 million years. Fossils of ancient ancestors dating roughly 300 million years ago were gigantic—the largest insects ever to live—with wingspans of about 30 inches! Northern bluets are somewhat common damselflies, often found near freshwater—streams, rivers, and other watery places (even human-made ponds)—but their dependence on it makes them very vulnerable.

All damselflies and dragonflies are good indicators of the diversity and health of aquatic ecosystems, their presence suggesting that a body of water is fairly unpolluted. Destruction or alteration of wetland habitats, pollution, and pesticides are the greatest threats to Odonata species worldwide. Without clean water they cannot breed, and without insect life they cannot eat. Needless to say, alteration of their habitat through climate change will likely pose a severe threat to future populations.

On pleasant, sunny days I often notice dragonflies and damselflies patrolling my organic, “real” garden. Should these brainy little hunters find their way into yours, consider yourself very fortunate!

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Drought’s No Fun for Wildlife, Either

Bushtits at gradually sloping birdbath

Here in the Pacific Northwest (as well as the interior Northwest, northern Rockies and northern California) we’re experiencing a hot and early summer. Nearly everything’s been premature—most trees leafed out several weeks before they typically do and herbaceous plants popped up ahead of time; those that flower were more than punctual. My raspberries and thimbleberries were three weeks early, and I’m picking apples now that usually ripen several weeks from now. Portland set a record for a dry June and will likely break another this week for the highest number of consecutive days over 90˚.

The winter was pleasantly mild and precipitation was paltry: Snowpack in Oregon was 11% of normal and Washington’s was 16%. If the current drought and dry heat makes us thirsty, we’re not alone. Nearly all of life’s processes require water in one form or another—it’s essential for everything from small insects to birds to bobcats. Of course, areas further south are much more drought stricken, with wildlife emaciated and dehydrated. Some say it will only worsen, due to climate change.IMG_6764

Drought causes many deadly, far-reaching effects for wildlife, including less food and cover, increased vulnerability to predators and diseases, competition with others of their kind, and more conflicts with people as they desperately search for food and water outside their normal range. Although some animals obtain moisture from their prey, they still depend on water in the environment to provide for those they need to eat. Tiny creatures may find enough in dew droplets, but many species require additional water to survive. Birds, for example, need water to drink of course, but also to bathe in to help keep their feathers clean and waterproof—essential for insulation and flight.

Dehydration is dangerous for everyone. If you want to help wild visitors in your yard, below are some quick, easy options. Artificial ponds can be a wonderful addition to larger gardens, but they aren’t quick and easy, so they’re not included here.

Scrub jay takes a drinkBirdbaths: Birdbaths that slope gradually are best because all sizes of visitors can wade in to a safe and comfortable depth. If you already have one that has steep sides, place some flat rocks on one side to create a shallow area. Site birdbaths in open areas, at least 10 feet from any hiding places were domesticated predators could lurk. Use hanging birdbaths whenever possible if predation is a problem in your yard. And keep them as clean as possible: Replace the water every day or two (this will also keep mosquitoes from breeding) and give them a good scrubbing every few weeks, but don’t use bleach.

Mud puddles: Most butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera), as well as some types of insects and birds, require moist soil or sand to obtain essential nutrients. Lepidoptera, for example, “sip” earthy cocktails that contain minerals such as salts which are essential for reproduction. Just the other day I saw a Western tiger swallowtail pressing his proboscis into the recently irrigated soil in a community garden plot. Male Lepidoptera give their significant others an extra little gift of minerals while mating which ensures that the largest number of eggs develop. In nature, this “mud puddling,” as it is called, is done at the edges of streams and other moist places. You can mimic this habitat by filling a large ceramic bowl with sand and burying it part way in your garden. Mix in some salt for males and place some round rocks (for landing and basking) around the edges. And don’t be too quick to pick up moist fallen fruit (like figs, should you have them)—some Lepidoptera species can’t resist such fermenting treats. More on feeding butterflies in a future post!

Moist gravel for bugsPlates of moist gravel: Beneficial insects and other small arthropods will sometimes come to shallow birdbaths, but ground dwellers—like beetles—will appreciate a plate or pie pan filled with clean pebbles or gravel and water, and placed on the ground. Just be sure the water doesn’t rise above the gravel so that no one drowns.

It looks like we may be in for a very hot summer throughout most of the Northwest. Providing water in your garden will attract wild visitors and maybe even save lives.

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Attract Butterflies with Northwest Native Plants and More

Red admiral butterfly

It’s so delightful when a lovely butterfly (is there any other kind?) floats into our yard. Each year, as soon as June rolls around, I catch glimpses of gorgeous Western tiger swallowtails and orangey Painted ladies flitting here and there, as well as the occasional Mourning Cloak in the vicinity of our octogenarian American elm tree, one of its host plants. This summer I’ve noticed, for the first time, a Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) gliding in now and then. This species is reportedly rather territorial and will stay in one area for days or even weeks, so I hope to see her again. She’s apparently attracted to the heat radiating from the rocks on the west-facing side of our veggie garden, as well as the white trellis that supports our cucumber plants, and this morning she surprised me by landing on the white shirt I was wearing. She was near some native wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) plants growing nearby, but I’m not certain she used them.

Red admirals aren’t very fussy about habitat, but for food they prefer sap from trees, fermented fruit, and bird droppings—yes, you read that right—from which they obtain nutrients, such as amino acids and salts that are necessary physiologically, behaviorally, and ecologically. Many butterfly species and some other insects consume droppings as well, and don’t get me started on the fascinating spider that masquerades as bird poop to hide from predators. Flower nectar is actually a second choice for red admirals, who only forage at flowers—such as aster, milkweed, penstemon, fireweed and wallflower—when sap, fruit, and droppings aren’t available.

But as you may know, butterflies need much more than food to survive and reproduce; they also need plants on which they can lay their eggs. These can’t be just any old plants; they need to be the kind that their larvae can feed on (as their ancestors have done for millennia) as they grow into pupa (chrysalis), that awkward metamorphic stage before adulthood. Some butterflies aren’t terribly picky and may be able to lay their eggs on four or five different plant species, but others, like monarchs and red admirals, can use only one species.

My butterfly reference tells me that red admirals lay their eggs only on plants of the nettle family (Urtica spp.), something I’ve never grown. Uh-oh. As I began pondering where the heck in my yard I could grow it, I suddenly remembered a wonderful nettle soup that I had at an equally wonderful villa on the west coast of Sweden some years back. It’s not only edible; it’s one of those “super foods” that are extremely rich in nutrients and purportedly very cleansing.

So now I’m on a mission to grow some native stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)—a bit for us to eat, but mostly for the butterflies. It turns out that the Satyr comma butterfly also uses only nettle as a host plant, although they are reportedly rather rare in parts of their range and it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever see one in my urban yard. I prefer to grow it myself, so that the wild stuff in wilder places can be left to the butterflies. But first I’ll have to carefully figure out where to plant it … and buy some stinger-proof gloves. Or maybe I should just stick with providing for species that don’t need such outrageously prickly plants.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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10 Great Northwest Native Pollinator Plants for Summer

Bombus vosnesenskii

In honor of National Pollinator Week, let’s zoom in on the bees and other hard-working pollinators whose lives are dictated by weather, season, and the availability of food, nesting habitat, and overwintering sites.

Nature has provided pollinators with unique ways of gathering nutritious pollen and nectar for their young, and they’re enthralling to watch. But bees and other pollinators are in terrible trouble worldwide due to our presence and actions. We can give back to them by growing flowering native plants in our gardens (as well as noninvasive exotics that are especially attractive to bees, like lavender and sunflower) with consecutive blooms from early spring till fall. But don’t forget to provide for them during all their life stages—leave the leaves, dead wood, and spent flowers to make sure they can get through the winter and have habitat to raise their young!

If you’ve already included some native plants in your yard, you’re well on your way to providing for a wide variety of wildlife. Offering a variety of flower shapes, colors, and sizes, with smaller plants in groups of at least three of the same species (like a big, obvious “Eat” sign) will help provide for many different types of pollinators—from long and short-tongued bumblebees to syrphid flies to hummingbirds to beetles to thrips. Below are some Pacific Northwest native perennials and shrubs that offer food for pollinators from early to mid or late summer in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades.

The list is just a sampling, and the species were chosen because they naturally occur in large parts of the region, are generally easy to grow, aren’t too hard to find at native plant nurseries (although you may need to call around for availability), and attract their fair share of native pollinators. I’ve listed them alphabetically with some basic care guidelines. Fall planting is best, as winter rains begin. (If you’re reading this in springtime, don’t worry—you can plant now, but you’ll definitely need to keep an eye on their water needs during the first summer, at the very least.)

As always, plan ahead and choose plants that fit your light, moisture, and soil conditions, but also choose those that are appropriate to the natural landscape—that is, look to nearby natural areas and add flora that likely would have grown in your area historically. You can also search for a species’ natural range (to county level) here, or check with your local native plant society chapter or county soil & water conservation district. Growing them with associated species that evolved alongside them in nature will help them thrive. No fertilizer is necessary and please don’t use pesticides, but do keep them adequately hydrated until they’re established (2 to 5 years). Enjoy!

◊ Achillea millefollium var.  occidentals (yarrow): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Not fussy about soil; moist or dry. Spreads by rhizomes or seed. Flat-topped clusters of white, fragrant flowers bloom all summer. (not to be confused with the Eurasian Achillea millefolium var. millefolium).

Asclepias speciosa or A. fascicularis (milkweed): Perennial. 2-3 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Moist, well-drained soil, but can handle some drought when established. Rounded clusters of soft pink, fragrant flowers. (pictured, right)Asclepias fascicularis

Campanula rotundifolia (common harebell): Perennial. 1-2 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Well-drained, moist to dryish soil. Spreads slowly by rhizomes or seed. Bell shaped blue-violet flowers.

Ceanothus velutinus (snowbrush): Fast growing evergreen shrub. 6-12 feet tall x 6-12 feet wide. Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Rich or poor soil; very drought tolerant. Dense pyramidal clusters of tiny, fragrant white flowers.

Erigeron speciosus (showy fleabane): Perennial.    2 feet tall x 2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Well-drained, moist to dry soil. Abundant daisy-like, bluish lavender blossoms go all summer. (pictured below)

Erigeron speciosus

Holodiscus discolor (oceanspray): Fast growing deciduous shrub. 8-16 feet tall x 8-12 feet wide. Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Not fussy about soil; moist or dry. Drought tolerant when established. Lavish, feathery plumes of creamy-white flowers. Nice for hedgerows.  Controls erosion.

Lupinus polyphyllus (large-leaved lupine): Perennial. 2-4 feet tall x 2-4 feet wide. Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Moist soil preferred but will tolerate short dry periods. Tall spikes of bluish-purple, pea-like flowers. (pictured, right) Lupinus polyphyllus

Sedum spathulifolium or S. oreganum (stonecrop): Perennial. 1-4 inches tall; spreads slowly. Sun to part sun (afternoon shade is welcome). Well-draining, gritty, lean soil. Bright yellow star-shaped flowers. Nice for rock gardens. Not a ground cover for foot traffic. (pictured below)

Symphoricarpos albus (snowberry): Deciduous shrub. 4-6 feet tall x 4-6 feet wide. Sun to mostly shade. Moist or dry soils; tolerates heavy soils. Drought tolerant when established. Tiny, paired, pink, bell-shaped flowers. Eventually forms a thicket. Controls erosion.

Tiaralla trifoliata (foam flower): Perennial. 8-14 inches tall x 1-14 inches wide. Shade to part shade. Spreads very slowly by rhizomes or seed. Moist, well-draining soil rich in organic matter. Panicles of white to pale pink flowers bloom from late spring to late summer. More details here.

Sedum spathulifolium with syrphid fly

 

Copyright 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Growing Bear Grass (Xerophyllum tenax)

X. tenax up close

When I mention bear grass, people familiar with the plant usually light up as if its creamy blossoms were right in front of their face. I’m lucky to have one in full bloom right now in my backyard (yes, just one—I have more, but they’re too young to bloom). Bear grass typically takes many years to flower, so I am savoring this one as much as possible. En masse in nature they are quite a vision, and even when not in bloom they make a lovely, luminescent, soil-stabilizing ground cover. But don’t you dare even think about taking even one plant from the wild.

X. tenax on Larch MountainBear grass, a common name for Xerophyllum tenax, comes from observations that bears like to eat the young fleshy stems, although many other species use it for food or cover: from bees and beetles to rodents and elk. Though not a true grass, other common names include Indian basket grass, squaw grass, deer grass, elk grass, and soap grass (not sure where the latter came from!).

The botanical name comes from the Greek xero (dry) and phyllon (leaf), and the Latin tenax (tough or tenacious). It’s an evergreen member of the corn lily family, a group of flowering perennial herbs native to the northern hemisphere. I’ve included bear grass in my book even though it’s not terribly easy to grow. When it does establish, it spreads (very slowly) by forming offsets and by seed.

Long, skinny, and rather wiry leaves arise from the rhizome in clumps. Their edges are rough and finely serrated and it’s their toughness that helps the plant minimize water loss during periods of drought, as well as insulate it from frost.Xerophyllum tenax (foliage)

Flowers open from the bottom up, so that the inflorescence, which ranges in height from two to five feet, takes on many different shapes as it matures. Flower fragrance varies; one study reported that one-fifth of bear grass flowers in their sample had a sweet smell like cultivated lilacs, while the others smelled “musty-acrid.” The one now blooming in my yard is, thankfully, the former, although not as sweet as lilacs.

After the blossoms fade away the flowering plant dies, but the long-lived rhizome lives on and offsets bloom when they are mature enough. Its fruits are three-lobed dry capsules, about ¼ inch in length, that contain 6 or 7 beige seeds, which may be eaten by migratory birds prior to fall flights. They may be sown in fall or early spring and need at least 12 weeks of cold stratification.

How it grows
Bear grass grows naturally in a variety of conditions—in cool, moist meadows and bogs, and mixed-coniferous forest openings in most of western Washington and Oregon, coastal areas of northern and central California, northern Idaho, parts of British Columbia and Montana, and a snippet of Wyoming. I’ve come X. tenaxacross it on hikes in the Oregon Cascades near trees such as Douglas-fir, Western hemlock, or mountain ash, and among smaller species like huckleberry, bunchberry, fawn lily, star-flowered false solomon’s seal, inside-out flower, foamflower, and woodland strawberry.

It’s often found growing on slopes (in soil that’s not particularly rich) that are moist during winter and spring and well drained the rest of the year. I grow mine on a south-facing slight slope, in partial shade. The soil’s a bit rocky and has been amended with leaf compost. Large rocks nearby help keep roots cool and moist. During very warm and dry periods I give supplemental water, especially when they’re young.

Conservation

For centuries, Native Americans valued bear grass and used it sustainably for basketry and decoration, and ate the roasted roots. Today bear grass is having a very tough time surviving with our myriad modern threats: Logging and other habitat loss, introduced forest pathogens and insects that affect associated species, fire suppression, and the floral industry that recklessly collects it for lucrative commerce (much of it is exported). If you know of a florist who uses bear grass, ask them where they got it and explain the disastrous ramifications if necessary. Never take this plant (or any other native plant) from the wild.

Bear grass is a fire resistant species that is often the first plant to grow after a fire. Like many other native plants, it needs periodic burns for strong new growth. Following a light fire that increases light, growing space, and soil nutrients, bear grass sprouts from its rhizomes, which lie just under the soil’s surface. But when fires are suppressed—often due to timber industry management—the result is fewer but much more intense fires that kill rhizomes, making it impossible for the plants to come back.

X. tenax closeWildlife value
All these perils affect not only the species directly, but also its pollinators—nearly 30 species of flies, beetles, and bees, and possibly some butterflies, moths, and wasps. Besides pollinators, bear grass also provides food for rodents, deer and elk, and even mountain goats at higher elevations, as well as other habitat components, such as nesting material for birds, mammals, and insects—all of which are essential, interconnected ecosystem members. More info on conservation here.

Beargrass’s only close relative, X. asphodeloides, grows in the southeastern part of the U.S.

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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The Beauty of Fawn Lilies (Erythronium spp.)

Erythronium oregonum

The genus Erythronium, commonly known as trout lily, fawn lily, glacier lily, or dog-tooth violet (depending on the species and your location) offers such elegance that I can say with conviction that it is my favorite spring wildflower. Single plants charm and invite close scrutiny, but when found in drifts their collective luminescent magic completely captivates me. Let their magic enrapture you, too.

About 20 species of Erythronium are found worldwide and most occur in the western U.S. The botanical name comes from the Greek Eruthros, which means red, and refers to the pink or reddish flowers of some species. The photo above, which I took in my garden, shows the pagoda-like flower of Erythronium oregonum (Oregon fawn lily or giant white fawn lily), which occurs in nature in moist to dry woodlands and grasslands at fairly low elevations in southwestern British Columbia, Washington and Oregon (west of the Cascades), as well as parts of northern California. No doubt the Georgia Basin, Puget Trough, and Willamette Valley were once thoroughly adorned with them.

What appear to be recurved petals are technically tepals (a term used when petals and sepals cannot be differentiated)—white to pale yellow, with a gold heart in this species. Paired leaves that hug the earth are oblong and mottled, and gorgeous in their own right. The only downside of this native lily is its ephemeral nature: like most perennial bulbs, it goes dormant in summer. But when the flowers fade away in my low elevation garden, I know I can always venture to a higher elevation and find it, or a closely related species, quietly in bloom a month or two later.    E. oregonum

How it grows
Pollinated by native bees and butterflies, this endearing plant thrives in partial shade (but not deep shade) with well-drained, slightly acidic soil that’s rich in organic matter—imagine the dappled shade of an open forest or wooded grassland where fallen leaves and other organic matter are allowed to accumulate. That said, I have several growing where they get very little direct sunlight and they appear quite happy, blooming each year (although not prolifically). They’re also found naturally in rocky areas, so look lovely planted in partly shaded rock gardens where their bulbs can stay cool during summer.

Try it at home
If your yard is lacking rich topsoil, add well composted leaf mold before planting and don’t remove light layers of fallen leaves from the top layer of soil in autumn. Bulbs should not be allowed to dry out completely, but they may rot with consistently moist conditions, so be sure your soil drains well. Keep soil just slightly moist during the dry summer months of the Pacific Northwest.

Erythonium species look best grown en masse, as found in nature, roughly a foot apart. Plant them at the same depth (or slightly lower) that they came in their pots, or about four inches deep. The bulbs are extremely delicate, so don’t try to move them after they are planted. As far as propagation goes, bulb division in your garden is possible but not recommended—if they are planted in appropriate conditions they will seed themselves (or you can help them along by collecting seeds from their capsules after the seed has ripened and pot them up, but I like to let them do their own thing). Patience is needed, though—it can take many years until their first bloom. What’s that old adage? Good things come to those who wait.

Grab a partner
E. oregonum can be found growing with other natives such as Garry oak, (Quercus garryana), Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), snowberry (Symphoricarpos spp.), sword fern (Polystichum munitum), camas (Camassia spp.), and various native grasses. Placing them under deciduous trees that allow early spring sunshine to nourish them but provide protection later on is optimal, but be sure not to plant them where some leafy, overly zealous understory plants will cover their leaves during spring (such as western bleeding heart). Substitute fawn lilies for bulbs like invasive Spanish bluebells (that seem to be in almost every yard in my neighborhood!).

Some related species: Erythronium revolutum (pink fawn lily) occurs naturally in moist coastal forests near shaded streams and in bogs; it is a “species of concern” in Oregon. A higher elevation species is E. montanum (avalanche lily, white avalanche lily) that is native to coastal B.C. and alpine and subalpine Olympic and Cascade ranges. E. grandiflorum, or glacier lily, with yellow flowers, is also found in alpine and subalpine meadows and typically does best at those elevations. E. hendersonii (Henderson’s fawn lily) occurs at low to mid elevations in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon, while E. elegans (Coast Range fawn lily) is a threatened species that grows only at high elevations of Oregon’s Coast Range.

Enjoy! But please … never collect Erythronium seeds or plants from the wild.

E. oreganum

 

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Anna’s Hummingbird Babies: From Eggs to Empty Nest

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 19

As I wrote last month, we were extremely fortunate to have a little Anna’s hummingbird build her tiny espresso cup-sized nest in a rhododendron shrub in our front yard, just steps from a window. In February, binoculars and camera in hand, we watched and photographed as she finished the intricately woven and structurally sound nest, carefully and lovingly camouflaged with lichen. On February 20 it appeared that her beautiful nest was complete and egg incubation had begun.

About 18 days later (on March 8), I saw her perched on the edge of her nest, apparently regurgitating a mixture of nectar from nearby native currant flowers and partially digested insects or spiders (high in protein) into her babies. I couldn’t actually see them at that point since the nest was about eight feet off the ground and they were so small. At this early stage she would feed both nestlings (hummingbirds almost always have two), fly off, and come back with more food within 60 seconds. After she and the nestlings had been fed adequately, she’d return and stay on the nest awhile, since they were nearly naked and in dire need of warmth.

Later that week we saw her offspring for the first time, with their dinosauric heads and just the start of future feathers. Even at this age, still completely helpless and blind, their instincts are strong: They were able to wriggle their little bottoms toward the edge of the nest and squirt a little poop outside of it, keeping the nest clean.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 7

Anna's hummingbird and one of her babies, around Day 7

 

Later, about ten days after hatching and when the nestlings’ barbs began to look like feathers, Mom no longer stayed on the nest—during the day, anyway—most likely because they were rapidly filling up the tiny nest and she was not too keen on having her underside poked by pointy bills!

Ann's hummingbird and her babies, around Day 12

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 13

 

We continued to watch her feed them, first pumping food up into her throat, then aiming her long bill into their gaping orange mouths and straight down their throats. She resembled a sewing machine needle as she repetitively pushed food into them, never spilling a drop. Ouch!

Anna's hummingbird feeding her babies, around Day 18

 

References state that Anna’s hummingbirds fledge within 18 to 23 days after hatching. On the morning of what I believe was Day 23, I watched as one of them sat on the edge of the nest and flapped his/her wings with such gusto that I thought the time had come. A rainstorm came and went, but they remained in the nest, sitting with their bills pointed directly upwards, nearly vertical; occasionally they’d shake off raindrops but maintained their pose. Brave and undaunted, they also endured fairly heavy wind and a short but pounding hail storm.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 22

 

On what was probably Day 24 I saw one of them, for the first time, venture out of the nest and onto the branch right next to the nest. Surely they are leaving now, I thought!

Anna's hummingbirds babies, around Day 23

 

They left the nest on Day 25. I could be wrong about the day they hatched, or perhaps they loved Mom’s meals and enjoyed watching the world go by from their safe little nest so much that they stayed an extra day. Or the experts are wrong. When they left I was, disappointingly, in the shower at the time. Just before they left I noticed them preening their breast feathers meticulously, perhaps to make themselves more aerodynamic—notice the fluffy white down feathers in this photo, the last I took of them.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 23

 

Experts say that Mom feeds them for several days post fledging, so they are on their own by now. I still look for them in the garden and high in the trees, but it’s hard to say who’s who—fledglings are smaller than adults and have no red on their throats, but they may almost resemble adults by now. Reportedly, the siblings often stay together until autumn, and then they separate for good (they are not social birds). Have a good life, sweet babies!

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 20

UPDATE: March 29, 2017
It’s been two years since I wrote the above post. This year a mama Anna has again built a nest in the same shrub, although the nest is harder to see as it’s a little higher up and has more leaves partially blocking our view. I’ve watched the nest as best I can, and judging by what looked like pumping (feeding) movements, I believe at least one of her babies hatched on March 6. Photographing them has been very difficult due to the nest position, and the plague of unusually cold, wet weather. In the early part of March I watched her as she searched for insects everywhere in the yard and she spent more time away from her nestlings than the mom two years ago did. This made me wonder if she might be having trouble finding protein (in the form of little insects and spiders), which are essential for the babies’ development, as well as her health. Sugar water or flower nectar alone is completely inadequate.

After about 10 days had passed, I could just barely make out a beak in the nest reaching skyward toward Mama, who was ready with food. I never saw more than one mouth at a time, which I thought to be a little odd, and wondered if both eggs had hatched. At Day 12 my husband, Rick, managed to get some photos of Anna feeding them, and there is evidence of two mouths, although one is in poor focus and looks like it may not be fully open, even though Mama looked ready to deliver. I was relieved to know that there were two hatchlings, but I continued to see her feeding only one at a time; this worried me because two years ago both of her young were highly visible during each feeding (as the photos above show).

A week later, on March 25, Rick was again photographing the nest and grew concerned when he repeatedly saw her feeding only one baby. He put his cell phone on a stick and held it horizontally above the nest while Mom was away and managed to get a short video of the nest. I’m very sad to report that there was only one baby present; the other must have died from lack of protein due to the shortage of insects during the non-stop cold weather. I do not know if the mother, sensing that one was weak and knowing she couldn’t feed them both adequately, chose to stop feeding the weak one so that one would survive, or if the baby was too weak to gape and receive food and eventually died. It’s also slightly possible that the baby was stunted from the beginning (possibly due to too small a yolk). It’s impossible to say for sure, but regardless, it was heartbreaking for this animal lover to realize that someone starved to death right outside her house. I do accept that nature can be harsh—especially during the winter—and I’m glad that the baby didn’t die due to direct human disturbance, but this is just another reason to grow native plants that supply drastically more insects than non-native species.

As I write this, the brave little baby that’s endured so much cold still sits alone in the tiny nest that should be filled with a brother or sister. Mom no longer stays on the nest, but she still feeds him/her about every 20-30 minutes. Waiting is the hardest part … waiting for the day that s/he feels strong enough to take to the air and discover the world. I hope I get to see that flight, and I hope it’s on a warm, sunny day.

The baby fledged the very next day, which was a fairly warm, dry one. The following day, curiosity got the best of me and my husband. With a ladder we inspected the nest since no one would now get distressed at our nosing around. Sure enough, there—at the bottom of the little nursery—was the baby who had died, a dried up little body barely an inch long. Since then I’ve noticed a smallish single hummer in my yard on occasion, and once, while I was walking around the back yard with my little cat in my arms, I stopped to watch this particular bird feeding at blueberry blossoms. S/he grew very interested and circled around us, just 18 inches away from our faces! 

Anna’s hummingbirds typically have 2 or 3 broods per year, and there is another Anna’s hummingbird nest now in a neighbor’s small tree close to a stairway that leads to our back yard. I can’t be sure, but I think it is the mama who nested in our yard, doing her best to raise another couple of healthy chicks.   —ES


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Ban Neonicotinoids in Portland

painted lady butterfly

The most widely used pesticides in the world, neonicotinoids (often called neonics) are a highly toxic, pervasive, relatively new class of insecticide. Following massive bee die-offs from neonic applications in the U.S. and Canada, last year Eugene became the first U.S. city to ban the use of neonics from city property. Similar bans in Seattle, Sacramento, and Spokane quickly trailed, and now Portland’s City Council is considering comparable—and crucial—affirmative policy at the local level, since higher government continually fails to offer protection from this growing environmental threat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided last year to phase out neonics in its wildlife refuges, making it the first federal agency to restrict neonics, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to act.

Hundreds of studies indicate that neonics are wreaking environmental havoc: They not only disastrously kill or debilitate native bees, honeybees, and other pollinators like butterflies and moths, but also other ecosystem members such as birds, aquatic species, and mammals. Neonics are systemic, taken up through a plant’s vascular system and exuded in the pollen and nectar. Even miniscule amounts adversely affect central nervous and immune systems, cumulatively and irreversibly. If a victim such as a bumblebee isn’t killed outright, its failed immune system will succumb to ostensibly “natural” parasites and pathogens like Bombus bifarius on Aster foliaceusfungal, viral or bacterial infections. Birds—the majority of which consume and feed their young insects—may be poisoned directly or go hungry due to a lack of insect biomass; scientists predict widespread reproductive dysfunction in birds due to neonic exposure.

Since neonics are water soluble, they are very prone to runoff and groundwater infiltration where they accumulate and persist for any years. Aquatic contamination has reached toxic levels in some areas and is expected to cause serious and far-reaching impacts on aquatic food chains.

The cumulative, persistent, and irreversible nature of neonics ought to raise some serious red flags. Human children may also be at risk to this neurotoxic class of pesticides due to their developing bodies and immune systems and tendency to be exposed to problematic substances while playing outdoors.

What we can do

We can voice our support for the proposed ordinance—which also recommends that local retailers label plants, seeds, and products containing neonics—by contacting Portland’s mayor and commissioners by March 31. Personally, I’d love to see this ban go further, as would Commissioner Amanda Fritz, but a ban on city property is a good first step.

We can also take action at home by eliminating pesticides and growing beautiful wildlife-friendly gardens. Besides chemicals, another major threat to wildlife is the lack of natural foraging areas. In our own yards we can attract and feed pollinators by including a variety of nonhybridized—preferably native—plants that will collectively flower from early spring through fall. Native plants that naturally occur in our region are best for all indigenous fauna because they supply the food and shelter that wild species require to survive and they need no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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A Native “Shamrock”: Oxalis oregana

Oxalis oregana

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

The shamrock legend can be traced to the 5th century saint who used a three-leaved plant—possibly white clover (Trifolium repens)—to demonstrate the concept of the Christian trinity. Today, oxalis cultivars, or any plants with tripartite leaves labeled as shamrocks, are sold as houseplants or outdoor plants.

Our Pacific Northwest native Oxalis—sometimes called wood sorrel—is a ground cover for mostly shady areas (but also more open, shrubby areas) at low to middle elevations. It has edible leaves high in oxalic acid (like spinach), and forms a lush carpet in moist to dry woodlands.

Three wood sorrel species that occur naturally in the region are Oxalis oregana (wood sorrel or Oregon oxalis), O. suksdorfi (western yellow oxalis, which occurs only in southwestern WA and Oregon at low elevations), and O. trilliifolia (trillium-leaved oxalis).

Wildlife value
Oxalis is a pollinator plant, offering its charming small flowers to native bees, syrphid flies, and butterflies. Like most flowering plants that grow under low light conditions, its blossoms are white or light colored to enable pollinators to be able to easily see them. Later in the year, Oxalis seeds may be eaten by seed-eaters like sparrows and small rodents. Its leaves serve to protect and enrich the soil.

Try it at home
Grow it in the shade of tall trees like Douglas fir and with other native woodland species such as Vaccinium spp. (huckleberry), Mahonia nervosa (Cascade Oregon grape), Gautheria shallon (salal), Polystichum munitum (sword fern), Prosartes spp. (fairy bells), Trillium ovatum (western trillium), and others.

Give it moist, acidic soil (pH 5 to 6.5), preferably rich in organic matter. While morning sun is welcome, it typically won’t do well with scorching midday or afternoon sun. In full shade and once established, it is a drought tolerant plant. Be sure you like it, though, because it will spread—enthusiastically, in the right conditions—to protect the soil.

Oxalis oregana

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Hummingbirds Nest in Native Gardens

Photo © Richard P. Weber 2015

As I looked through our living room window about two weeks ago, I caught sight of a female Anna’s hummingbird as she zipped by and landed on a tall rhododendron shrub ten feet away. As my eyes focused, I realized this was no ordinary perch: It was a nest, barely the size of a demitasse cup, that was apparently in the final stages of construction.

This exciting revelation reminds me of why I garden: For life! I had known, of course, judging by the number of hummingbirds feeding in our area and their relatively small territories (males defend about a quarter of an acre) that they must raise their families close by, but I had never actually seen a nest in our yard and I never went searching for one, for fear of causing disturbance.

Without delay, my husband began to document her nest building, keeping out of her flight path and with a powerful lens. The first photos show a nest perhaps an inch tall; less than a week later she had clearly added on more material to its height. Through binoculars and for several more days I Anna's hummingbirdoccasionally watched as she pressed on the exterior and stomped on the interior building materials—plant fibers like moss, bits of leaves and lichen, silk from spider webs or insect cocoons, feathers, and fur—with her impossibly tiny feet. The silk is strong, sticky and stretchy, and helps make a nest that is flexible and able to accommodate rapidly growing babies. The latest photos show that extra lichens were added as a finishing touch for camouflage (although I like to think that she added them as a charming decoration as well!).

One day I realized she was spending almost all of her time on the nest, leaving only for 20 to 60 seconds to grab a bite to eat. Incubation had begun! For the past 14 days she’s been patiently incubating her two eggs, which should hatch in as little as a day or two (incubation periods range from 14 to 19 days for these hummingbirds). MAJOR UPDATE: Baby pictures are here!

Hungry mouths
Anna’s hummingbirds eat nectar from many flowering plants, including native cascara and black hawthorn trees, currant, gooseberry, and manzanita shrubs, and many introduced species as well. Our little Anna’s timing was impeccable: Ribes sanguiniumShe chose to place her nest within 20 feet of two native red-flowering currant shrubs that had just begun to bloom. Besides currants, other native early bloomers important to hummingbirds include Indian plum and Oregon grape. Later on they’ll be attracted to the flowers of native huckleberries, ceanothus, twinberry, serviceberry, elderberry and salal shrubs, honeysuckle vines, and perennials like camas, goatsbeard, delphinium,  penstemon, tiger lily, columbine, and milkweed. But these solitary birds reportedly eat more protein-rich animal matter than other hummingbirds, consuming a wide array of small insects and spiders, plucked mid-air or from spider webs, shrubs, trees, and crevices. Occasionally they’ll lap up tree sap leaking out from holes made by woodpeckers, and I’ve seen them sip the sweet juices leaking from overly ripe figs.

A Little History
Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) was named after a 19th century Italian duchess, Anna De Belle Massena, by René Primevère Lesson, a French surgeon, naturalist, ornithologist, and herpetologist. Such an appropriately aristocratic name for a sparkling little bird.

Historically a Pacific slope species from San Francisco to Baja California, Anna’s are now fairly common year round in urban and suburban settings as far north as British Columbia, as well as wilder places such as open woodlands, chaparral, coastal scrub, and oak savannas. Since the change in range was relatively recent—only since the 1970s—and not a result of evolution,  it’s believed to have resulted from folks in the northern areas leaving sugar water feeders up year round.

Conservation
While Anna’s hummingbirds are not considered endangered or threatened and can survive fairly comfortably in marginally developed areas, they are susceptible to many threats, including habitat loss, pesticides, predation, window collisions, harsh winter weather, and sugar feeders that have gone bad (it only takes a couple of days in the right conditions!). Natural flower nectar is greatly superior to white sugar/water mixtures because it supplies micronutrients and spoilage is never a concern.

Because these birds (and other species) eat a large quantity of insects, always avoid using insect traps and pesticides that lessen the amount of forage available for them. Spider webs, which hummingbirds collect food from and use as nesting material, should be left intact whenever possible.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Love in the Trees, Chickadee Style

Black-capped chickadee

It’s nearly Valentine’s Day, so here’s a bit about the love life of a little bird—the black-capped chickadee—who is such a joy to have around. Let’s start in winter, when black-capped chickadees spend their time in flocks.

Birds of a Feather
Flock formation typically starts in autumn, although it may begin earlier at higher elevations or more northerly latitudes. Anywhere from two to eighteen birds may make up a flock, with six to ten members most likely. Flocks contain adult birds who bred the previous season, “floaters” (those who didn’t get lucky or belong to more than one flock), and young chickadees born that year who’ve immigrated from other areas (to keep the gene pool diverse). Members feed together by day and roost together at night (but individually–chickadees don’t like to snuggle), but all is not calm and congenial.

Exceptionally complex social behavior occurs in winter chickadee flocks. Each member falls into a linear pecking order, with higher-ranking individuals surviving better than those ranked lower. Birds at the top of the hierarchy get the best of everything—the most nutritious food, the safest cover, the finest breeding sites. The order has a purpose: To ensure that the strongest birds can breed in ample territory that provides enough food for their young to survive and thrive.

Rank is determined by several factors:
◊ Gender: Males tend to rank higher than females, although this changes during breeding season.
◊ Age: Veterans usually overrule very young birds.
◊ Timing: Birds who join a flock late tend to tumble to the bottom of the hierarchy.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker
Studies have found that male-female pairs within flocks are matched in their rank status—that is, a high-ranking male is paired with a high-ranking female, a not-quite-so-popular male is paired with a not-quite-so-popular female, etc. Remind you a little of high school?

But wait—pairs within flocks? Doesn’t the pairing-off begin just before breeding season (in the spring)? You’d think so, but black-capped chickadees are way ahead of us. Researchers (yes, some people actually get paid to study cute little chickadees) have found that most flocks are initially made up of equal numbers of males and females, each of which spend more time associating with a certain member of the opposite sex than all the other members of the flock (in other words, they’re engaged!). Even the youngest flock members reportedly pair off, and it’s the female who decides which male will win her affection, as is the case in most of the animal kingdom. If a bird’s mate dies during the winter, however, mate selection is put off until springtime.

The Newlywed Game
Chickadee couples begin casually house hunting before the winter flock breaks up, even as early as mid-winter (depending on the weather). As spring approaches, their search becomes earnest and they compete—often fiercely—with others of their species for a territory. Around this time the male begins to catch food and present it to his companion.

Photo © Richard P. Weber

Chickadees nest in cavities like holes in dead or dying trees (snags), rotted knotholes in living trees, or previously used woodpecker holes. When natural sites are scarce they may use a hole in the ground or an artificial nest box, as they do in my backyard. Both Mr. and Mrs. Chickadee explore their territory for nest sites and usually several are partially excavated before a decision is made (they prefer to create their own nests by digging out pieces of wood and then discarding the debris elsewhere to discourage predators who may view a pile of telltale wood chips as potential dinner). A power struggle often follows, culminating in presentations with much fanfare and bickering.

After the site is decided on (usually by the female), both members of the pair excavate the hole and bring in nest material, but, according to my reference, it is the female who builds the actual nest. Using strips of bark, moss, and other coarse material, she quietly creates a cup-shaped nest. It is then lined it with soft material such as mammal fur (she uses the “fur dispenser”—a clean suet container filled with fur donated by an especially soft cat—that I put out for them when I see signs of nest-building). At this point the dedicated male is still sweetly feeding her, but it will be during Gathering mossthe next phase of their relationship—the egg-laying period—when she will need him the most. Laying eggs is immensely draining on a female’s energy reserves and her partner’s support is essential for her health, as well as that of their young. During this time I often hear her teeny-tiny voice calling to him in the trees, in what must be a request for assistance.

For the past six years we’ve put up our chickadee-appropropriate (clean) nest box every March and it’s been utilized every year but one (and that was due to an overzealous downey woodpecker to enlarged the entrance hole but then decided not to use it; by then the chickadee pair had found another spot). To mimic a natural nest we put about an inch of coarse wood shavings in the bottom of the box and watch the expectant mother “excavate” the box for a couple of days. Then she brings in loads of moss and finally the cat fur to make a soft, cozy nest for her babies. The entire project takes a few days to a week.

Black-capped chickadee feeding his mate

On average, chickadees lay seven eggs and incubation usually begins the day before the last egg is laid, so that all but one hatch on the same day. During incubation the mother is fed often by Dad, either directly at the nest entrance or outside on a perch, following his soft call to her.

After the young hatch, they are completely helpless and entirely dependent on their mother for warmth. Bringing home the food (mostly caterpillars) is Dad’s job for the first few days, and it’s intense, since each baby needs to eat several times an hour during the day. Later on, the female also forages for her babies. According to my reference, the mother begins providing food around day twelve, but I’ve seen both the male and female bringing food to the nestlings at day five or six; possibly this is due to the warmer temperatures in our region (as opposed to the eastern US, where spring comes later). Both parents efficiently remove poop sacs from the nest to keep it clean.

Want to help these endearing couples?
Black-capped chickadees are usually found at forest edges, and they need mature trees (preferably native)—both deciduous species in which to forage for insects and build nests, and coniferous types for cover and winter food. If you don’t have mature trees in your area, there’s no better time to plant than now! And while natural cavities are best for nesting, consider supplying a nest box for them if you don’t have snags around. Site it in a partly sunny situation (morning sunlight is optimal) and put about an inch of coarse wood shavings in the bottom. The entrance hole diameter should be 1 ⅛ inches (to keep out house sparrows), and face away from prevailing winds. One box per acre or two is plenty, since they need a large territory in which to find adequate food, although high quality habitats will support more breeding pairs. Be sure to clean the box after breeding season is over (I like to take it apart, scrub inside surfaces with hot soapy water, rinse well, and then set those surfaces in the sun for a day or two. We take ours indoors during the fall and winter and put it up again in early March to prolong its life and prevent mold growth.

Besides trees, provide clean water and, if your native plants are young, food during winter—chickadees are fond of unsalted peanuts, black-oiled sunflower seed, and suet, which is high in fat (they love my vegan peanut butter-coconut oil-sunflower seed concoction), but they also consume berries, insects, and spiders found on shrubs and trees. Spring through fall, though, nearly all of their diet and their babies’ diet is animal—such as insects, their larva, and spiders. It can take around 6,000 bits of food, on average, to successfully rear their nestlings, and native plants are best at providing it.

♥♥♥

Reference: Smith, Susan M. 1997. Black-capped Chickadee. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Anatomy of a Functional Garden

Garry oak (Oregon white oak)

Get out your pencils and notebooks, class. It’s time for Anatomy Lesson One: Structure of a Functional Garden.

Just as our bodies’ structure relies on interconnected units like bone and muscle, so do ecosystems and the little parts of them we call gardens. The main framework of a garden (above the soil line) is made up of the obvious counterpart to bone—woody plants, like trees and shrubs, as well as manmade elements like buildings, fencing, and pergolas. A site’s location and topographical features, such as steep slopes or rocky outcrops, can also have a substantial effect on its structure.

There’s quite a bit of similarity between bone and wood; both have the ability to provide function as well as beauty (as revealed in this quip by the saucy Miss Trixie Delight, played by Madeline Kahn in Paper Moon: “When I was your age, I didn’t have no bone structure. Took me years to get bone structure. And don’t think bone structure’s not important!”). It’s beyond important, Trixie—a strong skeletal system is crucial. And, yes, it does take years to arrive; so the sooner you get a start on structure, the better.

When ecologists speak of structure they’re concerned with the entire community of species existing in a particular area, as well as nonliving components like rock and water. This post focuses mainly on living structure that provides a garden’s framework, as well as habitat for wild ones.

Seasonal interest
A garden should be a place we want to go to no matter the time of year, and structure provides the invitation. It’s helpful for creating gradual transitions, for dictating chickadee on aspen treehow our eyes travel through a space, and for providing unity and balance. And structure can rev up “curb appeal”: A house looks best when it softly blends into a landscape and one way to do that is by nestling it within or framing it with medium to large trees (size being dependent on the dimension of your house and yard), but not completely hiding it. Trees should be planted a minimum of ten feet from buildings, preferably more. They offer myriad other benefits, like shade on sultry summer days (particularly when placed to the southwest of a house), protection of the soil, mitigation against climate change, and improved drainage for other plants tucked underneath. Their structure and foliage also provide essential food and shelter for both flora and fauna, even in winter, especially if native species are chosen.

Life does not occur in isolation
Other interconnected elements contribute to landscape structure, just as tendons, ligaments, and fascia contribute to ours. A single tree in a sea of lawn will not attract and support nearly the number of species that a grouping of trees, shrubs, and smaller plants will, nor will it create the same amount of interest for us. Beneath trees (but not too close to trunks) grow shrubs and perennials—in a layered effect—that will provide vertical connections. This creates a natural look and provides safe cover for feeding, resting, or wandering wildlife. Nature likes to get all tangled up so that order looks a bit chaotic, so don’t be afraid to grow plants fairly close together as you’d see in the natural world.

Non-living elements, like arbors, trellises, water features, snags, nest boxes and—dare I say—spider webs, can add to the skeletal framework of the garden and provide ecological function, such as by supporting vines. I’m currently training a lovely pink-flowered, fuzzy-leaved native honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula) on a trellis that obscures the compost bins under our deck, and I have big plans for its orange cousin, Lonicera ciliosa, to adorn a yet-to-be-built trellis (aka Spouse Project) outside our new “catio.”  No doubt structure in the gardenthe bees and hummingbirds will be very pleased with these vines, as will my bird-watching cats. Keep manmade elements to a minimum and keep them simple to achieve a sense of flow and to complement—not overpower—the plants.

If there’s a garden (or natural area) that you are particularly fond of, chances are it’s because it has a pleasing framework to which other landscape elements are connected. Like the myriad connections in our bodies, structure helps bring cohesion to a landscape.

 

© Eileen M. Stark 2015

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One Hundred Years: John Muir’s Legacy Lives On

Multnomah Creek, Oregon

Several days ago I intended to post a fairly comprehensive tribute to the “Apostle of the Wild,” John Muir, who died a century ago on Christmas Eve, but a cold got the better of me. Muir was enthralled with the earth and I count his writings among those that stirred my passion for nature; he was one of the great thinkers who made a prominent impression on countless others.

A Scottish immigrant, Muir studied natural sciences at the University of Wisconsin but became a naturalist, conservationist, geologist, botanist, philosopher, poet, and eventually a public figure, through what he called the “University of Wilderness” (although many actual universities, including Harvard and Yale, later granted him honorary degrees). His writings “belonged to that tradition of British naturalists whose work was so fused with the writer’s personality and so penetrated by individual feeling that their output was as much literature as science,” opined the L.A. Times the day after his death in 1914. Muir dedicated his life to the preservation of wilderness areas and national parks.

Tragically, Muir’s legacy is under attack. But in “John Muir’s Last Stand,” Tom Butler and Eileen Crist celebrate the man and the gifts he left us, while defending a wilderness movement that protects the wild, for its own sake. I could not have said it better.

 

© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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Winter Light, Winter Life

Tualatin NWR

Do you long for spring? Fantasize about those warm summer evenings when the sun stays up past nine o’clock? Deny that winter has yet to officially start? Realize you’re eating dinner and curling under the bed covers earlier than just a month ago?

I’ve got it bad. Yesterday I found myself inspecting shrub and tree branches for next year’s growth and scanning the ground for the first spring bulbs. But here’s some good news: The days are beginning to lengthen again. Sure, we’re talking just minutes gained each day following the solstice, but it’s a start and I’ll gladly take every extra moment of daylight!

Winter is often thought of as a time of slumber—not just for us to catch a few extra winks, but also for the garden. While the cold, short days do tend to reduce some of the obvious vivacity of nature (especially in far northern, frozen latitudes), even in midwinter and beneath snow scientists have found that the soil thrives with living, breathing, developing microbes, some of which can freeze without harm. In the Pacific Northwest, our gardens are anything but sleepy. Amidst the amazing hubbub of microbial activity that helps provide a growth surge in springtime, plants’ roots are slowly developing in preparation for the demands of next year.

But since most people lack a keen interest in soil science, it’s the above ground doings that grab our attention. The “architectural” plants and other elements that remain standing all winter create the “bones” of the landscape, although texture, color, and movement enhance the view as well. I especially like to add such interest to areas that are frequently viewed, such as near an entryway or outside a cozy window seat. Wildlife appeal is also vital.

Native coniferous trees like cedar, fir, and pine are popular because they’re always green and provide framework and privacy, but what may be most captivating is the texture of their foliage—especially lovely holding onto snow, however fleeting that may be in our neck o’ the woods. Broadleaf evergreen trees like Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii) and shrubs, including the glossy-leaved Gaultheria shallon (salal)evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.), and salal (Gautheria shallon), along with winter-blooming silk tassel bush (Garrya elliptica and G. fremontii), provide interest in all seasons. In sunny ground level situations, kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) carpets the soil and cascades over rock walls with its attractive evergreen leaves and red fruits that persist into fall and beyond. In shade, the heart-shaped and often evergreen leaves of ground-hugging wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) usually inspire smiles.

Blechnum spicant (deer fern)Intricately divided fronds of the lovely deer fern (Blechnum spicant) hang around all winter, while  licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza), a charming summer-deciduous type, is often found growing lushly amongst mosses and dead wood or rocks. Speaking of deciduous, some shrubs just can’t wait until spring to bloom—like the wind-pollinated California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica) that flowers in January. Others—Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) and red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) in particular—bloom at the cusp of spring.

Plants with colorful twigs or bark can steal attention, too, especially when planted en masse. Cornus sericea and other “red twig” dogwoods have an almost fiery bark that stands out, particularly against pale or very dark backgrounds, and the gorgeous burnt-orange bark of madrone trees (Arbutus menzeisii) peels to reveal smooth, olive-colored trunks and branches, and not just in winter. Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) gleams with its white, berrylike drupes, and wild roses, including Rosa pisocarpa and R. nutkana, produce strikingly red rosehips.Arbutus menziesii (madrone)

Elements of movement can be an enjoyable part of the winter landscape, too. Popular plants that provide a rustling motion as winter winds blow include grasses, such as Festuca idahoensis and Deschampsia cespitosa, which look best planted in swathes, and western sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) with their tall, tough fronds. While they are great accents any time of the year, grasses and evergreen ferns might be most impressive during the humdrum days of winter when they also provide structure and intriguing texture.

Needless to say, the best way to liven up the landscape is to encourage the presence of birds and other wildlife in the garden, and the best way to do that is with native plants that naturally occur in your region. To supply food and shelter from rain and cold, think evergreen trees such as western red cedar, western or mountain hemlock, Douglas-fir, or wax-myrtle. Allow seed heads to remain on perennials to provide food for birds (unless self-sowing poses a problem). Be sure to check plants’ needs before incorporating them into your yard or plan. And be sure to let fallen leaves stay on bare soil and downed wood stay put in order to protect the soil, supply cover for overwintering little creatures and food for ground-feeding birds.

_MG_2133 sRGBWhoever said that winter landscapes are drab and lifeless didn’t consider the possibilities. With a little ingenuity and planning, your garden can be a winter wonderland—in spite of short days.

Happy winter solstice!

© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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