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.

chhick nestDSC_0427chick nestDSC_0429chicknestchick nestDSC_0430

The Spotless Ladybug and Other Garden Insects

ladybug2I’d been wearing my ladybug earrings recently, in honor of spring, and it seems it was a prescient act. Recently I saw a bazillion ladybugs in my yard! OK, not a bazillion, but I saw one, then another, and another, and finally realized there were a lot on my rose bushes! Not that there were any aphids or other pests that I could see, but I was glad to have the little red ladies.

From what I could see, these ladybugs were all small, spotless girls.

ladybug3I grew up with the image of a deep red ladybug, usually sporting two black spots. But my visitors were much smaller and had no spots.

Some people call them ladybirds.

Ladybug, ladybug fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children will burn.

ladybug4Despite their gentle name and lovable reputation among children and gardeners, ladybugs are feisty little beetles. Their scientific family of Coccinellidae includes ladies of various shades of red, orange or even yellow, and many variations of spots.

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They are found worldwide. From my research on the web, I’m thinking my species is Harmonia axyridis, which varies greatly from red and orange to black, with no spots, a few spots, or lots of spots! This is the one that came from Asia and is now widely established in North America, South America, Europe and South Africa.

Lady beetles are ladybug7valued as predators of garden pests, including aphids and scale, but scientists have learned that they also eat such plant materials as fungi, pollen, and nectar. They’ve even been known to become cannibalistic, eating eggs and larvae of other ladybugs when food is scarce.

Ladybugs to the rescue

ladybug roseLast year an invasion of aphids attacked my honeysuckle, leaving it looking pretty sad, with its deformed, unopened flowers. Once I realized the shrub was not dying for water and that there were aphids all over, I went to work.

I discovered that aphids cause the flowers to look like “witches brooms,” aptly named as the flower buds look like curved broom heads.

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They just stay that way and never fully open, so my honeysuckle looked like all the flowers had died.

 

DSC_0123I have learned that this is an issue with certain honeysuckle species, so I’ll have to live with it. Advice on the web is to cut off much of the plant during winter, before the larvae can hatch. Also, spraying with a solution of dish soap and water can get rid of some.

DSC_0119So far, my plant is looking OK, though there is a lot of evidence of aphids again. I got out my spray bottle again. I then saw a few ladybugs on the plant. “Do your thing, do your thing,” I told them.

DSC_0113 Several states have named the ladybug as the state insect, including Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, Tennessee and New York. New York went further by specifically designating the native North American species, Coccinella novemnotata, the nine-spotted ladybug. This species has declined as the European seven-spotted ladybeetle and the Asian species I mentioned above have spread.

Ornate Hoppers

While I was scouting out ladybugs on my plants, I noticed a bunch of leaf hoppers. Hoppers are tiny, narrow insects, generally regarded as pests because they suck juices from vegetation. But I always recall macro photos of them in field guides that spotlight their beautiful colors. My leaf hoppers were a blue-green, with dark blue or black stripes on its wings.

leafhoppersIt might be a “sharpshooter” leaf hopper. As with the beetle family, leaf hoppers can come in psychedelic colors. Some have red and turquoise stripes, or bright orange with green and blue; even a most artistic pattern of blue and yellow streaks.

leafhoppers3What is the function of such color in the insect world? It certainly isn’t camouflage.

Blending In

But an insect that blends right in with its environment is the lacewing, another beneficial garden bug. I happened to see a few around my house. Only about an inch long, they have bodies of delicate green, and as the name implies, wings that are translucent and lacy looking. They are common to North America and Europe, and similar to ladybugs in lifestyle. They eat aphids, caterpillars, mites and other insect larvae and eggs. Garden plants that are said to attract lacewings include coreopsis, cosmos, dandelions, sunflowers and dill. In that case, lacewings should be pretty common! I’ve got enough dandelions to support a town of lacewings! And I’ve planted cosmos and sunflowers.

Apple Blossom Country

apple1Gala, Pink Lady, Jonagold, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Honey Crisp, Granny Smith, Fuji, Braeburn, Cripps Pink. Can you taste the sweetness and feel the crunch?

Washington state is the apple-growing leader nationwide. You’ll see proof of this if you drive around Yakima Valley or Wenatchee, where the orchards are concentrated. The other top regions are the Columbia Basin, Lake Chelan and Okanogan.

I wanted to photograph orchards in bloom for a while. I thought, rightly so, that huge stands of trees covered in white blossoms must be a sight to see. Not just apple trees bloom in the spring, but also pear and cherry. I had written off finding cherry orchards and focused on apples. Pears, if I found some, would be the ice cream on the apple pie, so to speak.

I had driven around Wenatchee once, soDSC_0993 I knew there were many orchards there. In fact, the town has an apple visitor center, where you can learn all about the state’s sweet crop. But Wentachee was a longer drive from Seattle than Yakima, so I scouted out some areas near Yakima last fall, and found an ideal spot in Zillah.

My gut told me this could be the time, but in order not to miss the blossoms, I needed to go have a look. To Zillah I headed. It’s about a two-hour drive through shrub-steppe country. There‘s a nice rest area near Selah with a view of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams where I usually stop for lunch. There was a clear view of both peaks.

After my break I headed on to Zillah. But before I got there, I began to see orchards in bloom, and whitish blobs covering the hillsides in the distance. It took a minute to realize I was seeing apple orchards in peak bloom!

apple17I made a quick decision to take the next exit and find the road that was closest to the orchards. I was just ahead of Zillah, but I knew I didn’t need to continue on. I wouldn’t find anything better.

Past Remains

It turned out I had arrived in the little town of Buena, and buena it was! This is not a ritzy area and the homes are very modest, but it seemed that even the smallest papple9lot of land had a mini orchard on it. Apples are lifeblood here, or at least, a sideline.

I found a main road that stretched north to south, with orchards in view. I turned off to a side road to get closer to the trees. Along the way I found a big old abandoned house and just had to stop to photograph it. Large trees cast soft shadows on the grass in the bright sun. A hundred years ago it was a grand house, surrounded by farm land. Now its windows were gone and the inside all graffitied up. I wondered how such a once-grand house could get to this state.

house1house2house3house4house5That the house was left to stand was evidence of someone’s respect for the past, or a simple lack of money either to fix it up or tear it down. What happened? Who now owns the property? Perhaps the last owner died without family who could take over. Perhaps someone tried to sell it and gave up. Why had no one rescued it before it fell to vandals? The locals must have a name for it, maybe “the haunted house,” or “the Smith house,” or “the big house.”

Peak Bloom

But I had to move on and find my orchards! I scanned the landscape as I drove, and spied an orchard up a side road that looked promising. I turned around and headed up the hill. Beautiful orchards on either side of the road came into view. I pulled onto a dirt drive and got out of the car.

apple6apple10apple2As I was admiring the landscape, I could hear what sounded like a hawk nearby. I looked around and finally looked up. Overhead were four red-tailed hawks, perhaps two pairs, wheeling around and squawking. What a treat!DSC_1347DSC_1346

 

 

 

 

Across the road and along the irrigation canal was another orchard. Mt. Adams loomed to the west.

apple12apple3apple31apple15Upon close inspection of some blossoms, I noted that bees were happily buzzing from flower to flower. I wondered if the orchard owner had rented bees. I didn’t notice any hives, but I guessed that bees must be rented every year to apple18polliapple25nate all the trees.

 

 

 

 

 

Harvesting

When apples are harvested, they’re loaded into traditional wooden boxes, which hold 40 lbs. of fruit each. You can see these in big stacks here and there.apple11 On average, the state harvests 125 million boxes every year. Washington grows 6 out of every 10 apples eaten in the United States, and its apples are enjoyed in some 60 different countries.

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Though the varieties that we export are a paltry drop in the apple crate when you learn there are 7,500 varieties of apples grown around the world. Apples arrived in the new North American world with the colonists.

Apple History and Lore

Archeologists have determined that apples have been eaten as long ago as 8,500 years, according to the Washington Apple Commission. Apples are said to have originated in Central Asia millions of years ago. So Adam and Eve might not have been the first to indulge.

Various notions and legends about apples have been passed down through generations. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” We also say, “as American as apple pie.” Putting apples in a pie may be American, but now we know apples themselves are hardly American.

DSC_0986 - CopyWe have our folk hero, John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, whom we imagine lived humbly, dressed shabbily and went barefoot, casting apple seeds everywhere he went. In fact, he was a nurseryman who collected seeds and raised trees.

apple30Crunchy, sweet and juicy.  Red, pink or yellow. The next time you bite into one of nature’s wonders, think of the growers who nurture their trees and the countless laborers who hand pick the fruit every year so you can enjoy it!

February

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Fog

Fog can form when cold air moves over warmer ground. Gray foggy mornings have been with us now and then in Seattle.  Despite popular belief, it’s not foggy or rainy all the time here, especially in winter. But this is our wet season. No snow so far, only intermittent light rain. We go back and forth between rain and sun breaks, foggy mornings and sunny afternoons. Days average in the 50s, with some near 60.  There’s been a real dearth of snow in the mountains this year and skiing is not good or nonexistent. I frequently go out  in a sweatshirt. This  is winter?

The plants have taken notice of the warm winter too.  I see leaf buds greening on the Spirea, which seems early to me. The winter bloomers — Hellebores, Daphne and Sarcococca have been out on cue, but the Brunnera seems outright crazy to be putting out tiny flowers already. That’s about two months early.  Maybe it’s a sign that I can start my vegetable garden earlier this year!

DSC_0458 Winter afternoon

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DSC_0440 - CopyOrange-crowned Warbler