Last night the breeze began to build. Tree branches danced to and fro. It rained overnight. This last summer morning, the warm season is letting us know she is not happy to have to step aside. Her winds tell us so.
This evening fall will officially arrive. The equinox is said to yield equal number of daylight and dark hours.
But as daylight hours dwindle, we have something pleasant to witness. The earth brings out her colors.
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.
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.
They are composed of blocks of concrete with carved and inlaid creatures representing plants, lizards, fish, birds, a fox and a dragonfly.
I 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.
A 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.
The structure is supported by posts with carved wood that portrays such birds as owls and herons.
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!
In 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!
In 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.
In 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.
Whatever 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.
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.
I’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.
I recognized the somewhat floppy-looking leaf as being in the filbert family. I 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?
I 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.
Life around the pond is somewhat unpredictable. The mallards that stay there are predictable, but some days there are Canada geese.
The 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.
A 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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve watched dragonflies patrol the air over the pond and I’ve seen goldfinches gliding overhead.
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.
It’s a small thing, likely taken for granted, overlooked and little used by nearby residents, but for me, the pond is a fresh destination.
While 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, can be HUGE!
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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!
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.
Upon 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.
There’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.
The 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.
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.
Fall is here, though some days still have a surface feel of summer. Leaves are beginning to fall. Beautiful shades of maroon, gold, orange and yellow line some roads. Spiders and spider webs are everywhere, or maybe they’re just more visible now.
Fruits, meaning seeds, of various trees can be seen on the ground here and there.
I found some fruits of the Chinese chestnut at Me Kwa Mooks Park, near Puget Sound in West Seattle. I recognized them instantly because there was a similar tree where I worked in Maryland.
Years ago when I found the seed pod, I thought it looked like a chestnut – all spiky. I couldn’t believe the huge tree was an American chestnut because the trees don’t live that long. American Chestnuts do still grow here, but because of the chestnut blight, a fungus that made its way to this country in 1904, the species doesn’t survive past a few years. They were a mainstay of the Appalachian forest ecosystem.
I researched the Maryland seed pod back then and finally discovered it was from a Chinese chestnut. Someone had planted the ornamental tree at the old homestead that predated our office building. It’s a good substitute for our American species, but it would be nice to have our old trees back. In fact, people are working hard to bring the American chestnut back. The American Chestnut Foundation is dedicated to restoring the species to our eastern forests. Researchers are breeding blight-resistant trees. It so happens that the Chinese chestnut is resistant to the blight, which originated in Asia, and the species makes an excellent donor of resistant genetic material.
However, the Chinese tree does not have all the desirable characteristics of the American tree, such as a tall, straight growth habit. American chestnut is strong wood. It was popularly used for fences.
Cross-breeding is tremendously complex and takes years and years. The Foundation’s goal is to breed for resistance, while preserving the desired native traits of the American species. Inbreeding is even a problem for trees. Researchers are using genetic material from American chestnuts throughout their native range, from Maine to the Carolinas. It will take years of testing before they may finally be able to start replanting American chestnuts across the region. There is hope!
Gems in the soil
I was laying borders for a new flower garden in my front yard. I wanted to use long pieces of wood as the borders, but I ran into a lot of cedar tree roots on one side. I was not going to have to change my garden plan, and gave much thought to a solution. I finally decided to use bricks, which I could fit in between the roots, if I was lucky.
As I was digging the trench for the bricks, I spotted a mass of gelatinous beads, like crystal-colored caviar, in the dirt where a brick had covered it. I pulled it out for closer examination, and realized it must be eggs.
I wondered, whose eggs are these? They couldn’t be from salamanders or fish. They couldn’t be frog eggs. Hmmm, I had also seen two fat slugs when I lifted a brick. Could the eggs be slug eggs? It seemed like a good hypothesis. I couldn’t wait to look up slugs online. Bingo! Sure enough, there was a photograph of exactly the same kind of eggs. I had indeed found slug eggs. They take from 10 days to about a month to hatch. I do not care for slugs, but I must say, the eggs were rather lovely. (I pulled them out of the dirt to photograph them and then put them back, though I’m not entirely sure why. We have enough slugs. It just seemed the ethical thing to do.)
I should note that I’m talking about our common dark-colored, non-native slugs, not our native banana slugs, which live in the woods and are not garden pests.
As I write this, a light bulb just went on in my head. Back in the spring, when I was preparing my vegetable garden, I had found some tiny orange balls on the soil. They reminded me of caviar. Something told me they could be eggs. There were singular ones scattered here and there. I couldn’t imagine what creature could have laid them there. I squished them and they popped. Now, after discovering the slug eggs, I am thinking the tiny orange ones were snail eggs! I have seen snails around, so I will assume they were snail eggs.
You never imagine the tiny things that live around us, until you start discovering them. I once found tiny toads in the grass, no bigger than my fingernail, in a park in Virginia. The tiniest things in the grass, far from any water, so I assume they were toads. How I spotted them, I don’t know. More reason to walk softly on the earth.
Back in my back yard, I noticed a blob of white beneath one of my mock oranges. At first, I thought it was a dropped tissue. But when I knelt down I found it was a mushroom! And then I saw that there were bunches of them ringing my shrub.
In all my years at the house, I have never seen these mushrooms. They are low white orbs, in small clusters here and there.
I touched one; it was very soft. I found a couple small ones connected together lying on top of the soil, so I picked them up and inspected them.
They felt like marshmallows! Soft, fluffy and light as air. After some research, I identified them as gem-studded puffballs! They sprout from July-October. They are supposed to be edible, but I dare not try them. The mushrooms are the ‘fruits’ of the web of fungus on and beneath the soil. The mycelium can extend a long way through the soil, so no telling where the puffballs might appear.
Puffballs have the habit of releasing their spores in a puff of dust from a hole in the top. Now that they’re in the soil, I will keep an eye out to see whether they reappear next year.