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May 23rd, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

You know when you’re waiting and waiting for your meal to be served at a restaurant so you finally get up to go to the restroom, knowing your hot plate of deliciousness will likely have been brought to the table when you come back three minutes later?

I recently pulled that trick, only with my ecosystem.

Having persevered through a winter of twigs and more twigs, the promise enclosed in leaf and flower buds has been an exciting tease for the past month or so, little green gifts wrapped up tight, tender morsels for herbivorous deer and my appreciative eyes alike. But, save for Ribes, most were taking forever to crack, much less unfurl wantonly in their photosynthetic glory. So I left for ten days of spring break at the end of April, confident that the forest from which I drove away would look nothing like the lush kingdom to which I’d return.

It worked! At this point, I can’t even hope to keep up with the explosive profusion of photosynthetic beauty, and this is just fine. Here’s a sampling of new growth in full force all over the Environmental Learning Center campus:

IMG_8040Vine maple (Acer circinatum) buds. Note the bright, licorice-red branches. These will turn green over time, an adaptation allowing the understory tree species to photosynthesize to its maximum potential even in low-light conditions or in the winter after it’s lost its leaves. Young green branches are flexible, and are used in making items such as snowshoe frames and drum hoops.
vine maple buds k. renzStill crumpled like damp, newly-born birds’ wings, fresh vine maple leaves frame dangling flower buds, all covered in fine, shimmering hairs.
vine maple flowers k. renzVine maple leaves, seven-to-nine-pointed peridot stars catching sunlight in the mid-canopy. The half-inch wide flowers will, if successfully fertilized, develop into winged fruits called samaras, commonly know as “helicopter seeds.”
IMG_8149There are a few black swamp gooseberry (Ribes lacustre) scattered around the wetter parts of campus. These small shrubs were propagated by the National Park Service from seeds gathered just yards away near Deer Creek and were planted as part of a successful restoration effort after the Environmental Learning Center was built in 2005. The detailed flowers are only about one-quarter inch big, and you can see the bulge at the base of the petals where the hairy fruit, purportedly very juicy and tart, will eventually form.
fresh mahonia k. renzOregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium): This year’s recently emerged, pliable, scarlet-tinged new growth on the left contrasts with the tough, leathery leaves from last year on the right.
alder buds k. renzRed alder (Alnus rubra) buds form on the young saplings that are growing at the edge of almost every road or significant path at the Environmental Learning Center. Why the profusion? Alder trees love disturbed sites, and are some of the first “pioneer” species that come into an ecosystem after land has been cleared. Since the buildings are less than a year old, this species is thriving.
4 beetles k. renz Beetle-mania! Iridescent cyan insects congregate on an alder leaf, munching away on the new growth. Several of the leaves in this grove between the parking lot and the office were the site of such six-legged shenanigans.
devil's club budRecognize these spines? New growth of devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus), an exceptionally important plant to indigenous tribes along the Pacific Northwest coast. This species can be used for everything from perfume and deodorant (pulverized bark) to treating lice (berries) and rheumatism (roots and stems). A Mountain School student from the Swinomish tribe in La Conner said his mom makes paint from this versatile plant.
devil's club leaves k. renzPhyto-palms stretched upward toward the light, the devil’s club buds have burst into leaves that will eventually grow up to over a foot across. Mention of another local use for this plant was gleaned from John Suiter’s book, Poets on the Peaks (Counterpoint, 2002): To flog accused communists in the Skagit Valley during the Red Scare of the 1930s.
salal bud k. renzThe  tough, oval leaves of the ubiquitous salal (Gautheria shallon) frame the soft, blushy red buds that will later develop into smaller stems.
fiddlehead k. renz
Leading photo: Only three inches above the mossy floor, two gracefully coiled fiddleheads of lady ferns appear to confer: To grow or not to grow? (Apologies for the pterido-pomorphizing….)


All photos by author.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She readily admits she has a problem, an addiction to snapping photos of all things botanical, a pathological attraction to leafy supermodels.




Institute Celebrations of Spring

May 7th, 2012 | Posted by in Institute News

I think it may be safe to say that life is coming back to the North Cascades as of today, and yesterday, and even a few weeks ago! At first the change was so subtle it was barely recognizable, and we here at the North Cascades Institute were still clinging to the warmth of our down jackets even as the first shoots of palmate coltsfoot were pushing their way stubbornly through the matted duff of winter. Then the first familiar calls and presence of returning migratory birds were heard – the throngs of robins, the vibrant rush and resonate tapping of the red-breasted sapsuckers, the two-toned trill of the varied thrush, yellow warblers, and most recently the whir and brilliance of the rufous hummingbird. And now, with the warming and lengthening days, spring has truly taken off. Life is bursting everywhere from canopy to forest floor and an expanding color palette hints at more to come. Emergent alder leaves catch the growing sunlight and reflect it at new angles throughout the understory, delicate yellow violets line the edges of pathways, a few brave lady slipper orchids hide behind rocks, fiddleheads unfurl their fronds, and a solitary patch of bleeding hearts open their petals.

Each day, new anticipations. Each day, burgeoning new colors. Each day, returning signs of life to marvel at and explore.

Here at the Institute we each notice and experience these springtime harbingers in different ways. For some, spring’s arrival is primarily an auditory sensation captured in birdsong and flowing creeks, for others a visual experience of color, and for others still a feeling that sneaks up on them slowly or startles them into wonder at a particular moment – a waterfall swelling with snowmelt, sulfur butterflies basking in the sun on muddy trails, or the first black bear spotted as it munches feverishly on new shoots of grass and greens. Together, our collective celebrations paint a rich narrative of springtime in this place where we live, work, and play.

The dappled hues of green cast by sunlight on emerging alder leaves. Photo by Katie Tozier.

» Continue reading Institute Celebrations of Spring

Lady fern fiddle head-single

Fairy slippers, lady fern and trailing yellow violet

April 26th, 2009 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Unbelievable!  So many plants are pushing their way out of the ground.  Just a quick glimpse at what is rapidly unfurling and flowering around the learning center.

Lady fern fiddle head-trioTop two photos: Lady fern fiddleheads
Fragile fern fiddleheadFragile fern fiddlehead

Bracken fern fiddlehead

Bracken fern fiddlehead

» Continue reading Fairy slippers, lady fern and trailing yellow violet

willow blossom

Spring explodes at the Learning Center

April 16th, 2009 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

All around the learning center spring is in the air. Birds are chirping, blossoms blooming, mosquitoes buzzing. It’s a glorious change from the blanket of snow that has been on the ground throughout the last few months. Two weeks ago many of us grad students packed up some bags and left for a week of “spring break.” It felt odd at the time calling it such because the roads still had piles of snow on the sides, many trails were still covered, the air was still crisp with a touch of frost, and very few creatures were venturing out.

We returned to the learning center this week to find that our porches, which had been buried in snow from winter roofalanches, now had barely any remnants of snow. The trails no longer required waterproof shoes to keep your feet dry from the heaps of slush covering the paths. Birds have begun to sings and twitter about catching bugs and nesting. The most exciting part of it all however, is that the plants are beginning to blossom.

» Continue reading Spring explodes at the Learning Center

Snow on branches

Twig tracking: a sport for the impatient

March 15th, 2009 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

A winter weather advisory is currently in effect for the west slopes of the Cascades, the trails around the learning center are covered with deep, crusty snow and still the buds on trees and shrubs around the learning center are hinting that they will soon open. There are too many reasons to list for loving this season; among them are the anticipation of spring, the splendor it prompts, a plethora of opportunities for questioning, observing and marveling, and astonishment at the resilience of nature.

I’m getting ahead of myself. I should start this post with a warning. I’m impatient. This is a fact that is recognized by many people in my life. I often joke that my twin sister got all of the patience. All of it. This character trait prompted me to explore the learning center a few days ago.  I was in search of the first spring buds.

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Colonial with hazelnut foreground

Twig tracking

January 31st, 2009 | Posted by in Field Excursions

I’ve recently taken up a new hobby, I like to call it twig tracking.
I started twig tracking to feel more connected, to feel at home in all seasons. Twig tracking is just a fancy name for native plant identification through the cold winter months. It sounds a lot more exciting if you call it twig tracking.

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