Neither a Skunk Nor a Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage

Harbinger of Spring

This oddly named and odd-looking plant is one of the earliest to emerge in late winter/spring. It grows in wetlands, near streams and in wet areas in woods.

For some people, it’s a welcome sign of spring.
Henry David Thoreau saluted skunk cabbage for lifting our spirits:

“If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year… See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.”

Western skunk cabbage

But Joseph Wood Krutch saw it another way:

“There are some optimists who search eagerly for the skunk cabbage which in February sometimes pushes itself up through the ice, and who call it a sign of spring. I wish that I could feel that way about it, but I do not. The truth of the matter, to me, is simply that skunk cabbage blooms in the winter time.”

Here’s a quirky fact about skunk cabbage: it has its own internal heater, which helps it melt the snow away so it can emerge. I was once told by a teacher that if you put a thermometer inside one, you can see how warm it is. I’ve never tried this, but I have always wanted to.

The “flowers” emerge before the leaves. If you miss the flower, you might know skunk cabbage by its large green leaves. The other quirky thing about the plant is, its “foul smelling” leaves. Again, I have never smelled it, but it is said that if you crush the leaves, you will!

There are two types of skunk cabbage: the western (Lysichiton americanus), with its yellow flower, and the eastern (Symplocarpus foetidus), with a purple one.

Eastern skunk cabbage

When I lived on the east coast, I used to like to visit Great Falls National Park in Virginia, where a trail led to a low spot with a wetland full of skunk cabbage.

 

 

At Great Falls National Park

There was something reassuring about seeing it emerge every year, and I liked the way the purple flowers looked like alien pods. I liked to photograph the bright green leaves against the blue-black water.

In the Realm of Druids and Faeries

steps1This is the cool, wet time of year when moss is at its best. Its emerald plumpness proclaims, “Look at me. My hyper green greenness demands that you see me.”

Against the grayest of gray days and the most muted tones of fallen logs and decaying leaves, moss paints the landscape with exuberant signs of life.

All green was vanished save of pine and yew, That still displayed their melancholy hue; Save the green holly with its berries red, And the green moss that o’er the gravel spread.

―George Crabbe

I like moss. Moss in my yard, moss on trees, moss on concrete, moss on brick. It drapes the concrete under my fencing. I invite it to spread across my yard, replacing the useless grass at every inch. I’ve gotten rid of most of my front lawn, instead having vegetable plots, a pollinator garden and drought-tolerant shrubs and natives. My yard is a wildlife sanctuary.

There is some moss on the ground, but I’d like more. It would save me from mowing or using mulch around my plantings.

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Did ancient Romans climb these steps? (Camp Long)

Often overlooked or undervalued by the casual observer, mosses do serve important functions in nature. Classified as bryophytes, mosses help stabilize the soil, reduce evaporation of water and even provide food for some herbivores.

They take nutrients from the atmosphere and therefore can be indicators of air pollution.

One gram of moss from the forest floor, a piece about the size of a muffin, would harbour 150,000 protozoa, 132,000 tardigrades, 3,000 springtails, 800 rotifers, 500 nematodes, 400 mites, and 200 fly larvae. These numbers tell us something about the astounding quantity of life in a handful of moss.

― Robin Wall Kimmerer, author, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Bridge support, Camp Long
Bridge support, Camp Long

But most of all, moss is nature’s way of reminding us that nature wins in the end. It conquers manmade surfaces. I like the way it decorates steps and benches and bridge supports. It makes them look like remnants of ancient civilizations and transforms my walks into brief visits to the past.

Bench in Camp Long
Bench, Camp Long

It is said that faeries sleep on beds of moss. I’ve never seen one, but I keep looking.

Hardware store shelves bulge with “Moss be Gone” and “Moss Out.” I say, keep your money and let the moss run wild!

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic, Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.

―Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Hidden Treasures

When I went for a long walk recently, I didn’t expect to discover hidden treasures. I walked down to the High Point pond, just a few blocks from my house. My usual route takes me around the pond, where I check out who’s there.

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Pond, with Seattle skyline in the distance

This day there were mallards, American wigeon, a cormorant, and gulls.

But I wanted to extend my walk and explore some new areas. High Point is a huge redeveloped area, with a variety of homes and landscapes. It’s a planned community, with mixed housing for single families, low-income families, and seniors.

There are rain gardens, permeable sidewalks, community gardens and green spaces. The planners did a good job of saving many monstrous mature trees, and a few are labeled. Today I noted a Lawson cypress, which I first thought was a Western cedar, along with a grand specimen of big-leaf maple, called “Papa.”

Along the way, I found these delightful pillars celebrating the Longfellow Creek watershed.

pillars1They are composed of blocks of concrete with carved and inlaid creatures representing plants, lizards, fish, birds, a fox and a dragonfly.

lizards img_20170216_103627070I love that nature is appreciated here. There are many immigrant families and children living in this community. I think it’s important to instill knowledge and appreciation of our local natural history. Nearby is also a bee garden, complete with a small building enclosing the hive and a flower and vegetable garden to nourish them.

As I turned down a street that I’d never walked or driven before, I discovered an intriguing sight: something out of a Greek ruin, or perhaps a group of standing stones from the British Isles.

img_20170216_104232494-copyA structure, similar to a pergola, but I’m not sure exactly what to call it, stands in front of a hillside that has large stones scattered about.

stones6-copyThe structure is supported by posts with carved wood that portrays such birds as owls and herons.

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And, even more fabulous, the concrete walk between the structure and the hillside is incised with a large winged creature reminiscent of the mysterious Nazca “geoglyphs” of Peru!

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Head detail
Head detail

 

 

 

 

These things inspire ideas for my own yard!

 

Discovery Park’s Remarkable Trees

big-trunk2-copyIn a previous post, I wrote about the amazing big leaf maple trees in my local park, Camp Long. Not only are they big in height, but also in girth, with a growth habit of multiple trunks.

But I just visited another gem of a city park, much larger than Camp Long and having an unmatched range of habitats, elevations and vegetation. I’m talking about Discovery Park, located across Elliott Bay from West Seattle. Within the park’s more than 500 acres, there are trails through open meadows, trails through woods, ponds, beach access, views of  Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, and a lighthouse. It’s good bird habitat.

I went specifically to see if I could find a snow bunting that had been seen there for several days. I did not find it, but in the course of hiking all over the park, on trails I had never before taken, I encountered numerous startling large trees. Not only did they have multiple trunks, but they had more than I could count!

multi1In Camp Long, I kind of made a game of counting the number of trunks on big leaf maples. I had decided that the average number was between six and eight. But in Discovery Park, the trees were more complicated.

multi2In many instances, they had so many thin trunks reaching out that it was impossible to count them all. Why were they so different from trees growing in Camp Long? For one thing, trees in Discovery seem to have much more room to spread out and grow. They’re not as crowded. Maybe they spend more time growing out rather than up.

img_20161111_124224500Whatever the reasons, the trees are magnificent and I’m glad they have been preserved. I snapped a few photos of the more impressive specimens along my walk.

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Magical Moments in the Mundane

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Even what starts out as the most mundane neighborhood walk can turn into something more interesting. I am always checking out the trees, shrubs and flowers that I pass, and always watching for birds. Lately I’ve been taking a new route just a few blocks from my house, down the big hill to a redeveloped community known as High Point. Incidentally, it is located near the official highest point in Seattle.

pondI’ve been drawn to my particular route because it passes the large community garden, and one block beyond that lies a nice little pond.

On the way, I pass such flowers as hollyhocks, sunflowers and lupines that ring the vegetable garden. Lining the street are notable trees that are dropping large seed pods.

filbert-podI recognized the somewhat floppy-looking leaf as being in the filbert family. filbertI have never seen the seeds before, which I assume become nuts like the familiar little round filberts that I recall from mixed nut tins we sometimes had in the house in my childhood. Those nuts that seemed like cheap fillers; they were not my first choice.

Invasion of the Tribbles?

tribblesI think perhaps these trees are not the same as the commercially raised American hazelnut trees, but very similar. The large rather frilly bright green seed pods contain several chambers for nuts, and when you touch them they leave a sticky substance on your fingers! Several seed pods were strewn on the sidewalk, looking like the tribbles from Star Trek. Most were empty of their nuts. I assume the squirrels are enjoying them.

Bird Life

duck-linesLife around the pond is somewhat unpredictable. The mallards that stay there are predictable, but some days there are Canada geese.

geese2-2The number of mallards varies from day to day. I think some are this year’s young. The ducks are unknowingly artistic, making lovely patterns on the water as they paddle around. I observed them creating perfect horizontal lines, circles and Vs.

duck-veesduck-circleA couple times I’ve a seen a kingfisher, which is pretty cool. I’ve even heard a kingfisher rattling by from my bedroom window a couple times. Now I know I wasn’t imagining things, and I now know where it was going or coming from.

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Belted Kingfisher on railing
Whale fins sculpture
Whale fins sculpture

I have discovered fish in the pond! No wonder the kingfisher was fishing around there. They appear to be goldfish. There are little orange ones and a blackish one. I wondered if they had been officially stocked in the pond, or whether some neighbor had dumped them there. I decided it didn’t really matter. They probably weren’t hurting any particular ecology.

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Nightshade
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Poisonous nightshade fruits; no mystery that they’re related to tomaotes!

In fact, the pond seems to be getting choked by whatever the green plant is that grows in ponds and chokes them. The same thing is happening in the pond at the park next door, and door, and I wonder if the right thing to do is dredge some of it out.

Ornamental river birches near the pond
River birches, with lovely peeling bark, near the pond

One day I was surprised by two white-crowned sparrows in some shrubs by the pond. They’re around Seattle, but uncommon. I almost never see them in my yard.

There is a nice variety of habitat circling the pond. There are trees, shrubs for covers, grassy areas, and a rushing brook and waterfall that empties into the pond. Queen Anne’s lace, clovers and thistles grow in small clumps.

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Queen Anne’s Lace
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Later stage
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Even as it fades, it’s lovely

I’ve watched dragonflies patrol the air over the pond and I’ve seen goldfinches gliding overhead.

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A decorative carved rock, circles representing raindrops

When the sun shines, a walk around the pond is warming and happy. When there are clouds, there are magical reflections across the surface of the pond.

img_20160904_115036429img_20160904_115137703It’s a small thing, likely taken for granted, overlooked and little used by nearby residents, but for me, the pond is a fresh destination.

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The Strange Habits of Some Trees

tree5While walking in my local park, Camp Long, recently, I stopped to observe just how many multi-trunked maples there were. I had seen some before, but now I realized it seemed there were no single-trunk maples to be found. The Big-Leaf Maple is the only maple native to the Pacific Northwest. Since relocating from the east coast, I find it so easy to identify maple trees here. I simply declare them “Big Leaf,” and just double checking the leaves, reassure myself that I am brilliantly correct. The leaves, in fact, ctree19an be HUGE!

Digression I
Were I on the east coast, maple identification would be trickier. The same goes for oaks. In the Northwest, we have only one native, the Garry Oak, and it’s uncommon at that. Whenever I’m in the presence of one, I feel I must pay my respects. They need a particular ecosystem to thrive, a type of prairie that has grassy savannahs and gravelly dry soils. These meadow communities support grasses, wildflowers and oaks. According to the Washington Native Plant Society, where these prairies still exist, the Garry Oaks have stood as long as 300 years. The society notes that such ecosystems are threatened by human development and encroaching Douglas firs. It seems badly ironic that one native species can push out another.

But, to end my comments on oaks: the eastern states have a plethora of oak species that fall into either the white oaks or the red oaks. That sends me to my field guides for IDs.

Digression II
I’m grateful for some simplicity in the Northwest. However, things are not so singular and simple when it comes to conifers. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that even after taking classes, I am still stymied by the range of fir, spruce and pine trees here.

I am pretty confident in identifying western red cedars. I have one in my front yard. The tiny cones are the giveaway for me. Douglas firs, ah I have sweet memories of former Christmas trees named Doug. Doug firs have pale gray-colored trunks that rise straight as telephone poles. That’s my giveaway. And if I see small cones around the tree that have little fringes at the top, I know for sure it’s a Douglas fir.

tree1The World of Big-Leaf Maples
Big-Leaf maples, Acer macrophyllum, play a multifaceted role in the forest. Not only do they provide food and shelter for numerous birds and wildlife, they also host other plants. Moss, lichens and licorice ferns grow on the bark.

Lichen on a trunk
Lichen paints a trunk

They grow rapidly and can reach 100 feet high and 50 feet wide at the canopy. These trees live up to their name. While the trees are large, their five-lobed leaves are the largest of the maples. Every fall, when the golden leaves start to cover the ground, I like to try to find the biggest leaf.

A big find
A big find

Multiple Trunks
But the most fascinating thing to me about big-leaf maples is their habit. The original trunks diverge into several others, which I will call siblings. And then, even some of the siblings further branch off!

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I had to find out whether this was normal or just random. In some ways, they reminded me of celery, with many stalks rising from the base.

tree8tree11Upon some light research I confirmed that big-leaf maples do grow this way and it is quite normal. In fact, it would be abnormal to have a 100-foot tall big-leaf maple that had only one trunk. I doubt that ever occurs. The result is, as you walk through the woods, you experience a landscape that is richly layered, not monotonous.

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tree18There’s not a single-trunked tree here and a single-trunked tree there. There’s a maple with five massive trunks here, and one beyond with six, and for every tree, the height at which the trunks join or diverge varies. Some siblings lean far out from the others. The bases of these mature trees are also interesting to study.

tree14tree16The national champion Big-Leaf Maple is listed by American Forests as standing in Lane, Oregon, at 119 feet high, and 91 feet across the crown!

No doubt these trees dominate the forest and are vital to the ecosystem. Other big companions include conifers, madrones, buckeyes (horsechestnuts), alders and poplars.

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I’m grateful that even though my park is heavily used by humans, it has a good variety of native plants and provides habitat for wildlife.

A baby Big-leaf Maple
A baby Big-leaf Maple

A Peek at a Chickadee Nest

The baby chickadees have fledged. I suddenly realized I should probably clean out the nest box.

This is my first experience hosting a bird nest! I watched the Black-Capped Chickadees build their nest in my birdhouse. I watched as the adults flew to the box with something in their mouths. I assumed they were nest building. I left mounds of cat fur for them and apparently, they used it.

Weeks went by, as I watched the adults flying to and fro. After a while, I realized I hadn’t seen any activity coming and going from the birdhouse and wondered whether I had missed the young fledge. I watched and listened in my yard for baby birds. Sure enough, I began to hear what sounded like baby chickadees begging. It’s not hard to distinguish the sounds of the young from adults. They were still close to home!

It was then that I wondered whether the pair would have a second clutch. I did a little research and learned that it was possible, but not certain, and that if they were to start another nest, it could be pretty soon. So I decided to clean out the birdhouse.

I was eager to see the nest. I carefully removed the back door and peered inside. It was not what I was expecting. For some reason, I was expecting to find the standard round nest, a perfect circle. But instead, there was a thick bed of moss, lined with bits of fluff and fur. This is typical chickadee nest material. What a plush, comforting, supportive bed for eggs and chicks!

I lifted the nest out and took some photos.

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