From North Cascades Institute

Search Chattermarks

North Cascades on Instagram


Jack and Crater Mountain with flowers

Subalpine and Alpine Wildflowers and Pollinators of the North Cascades: Part 2

February 4th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Lauren Ridder, graduate student in the institute’s 14th cohort. This is part two of Lauren’s natural history project. Find part one here.

The Biome: Subalpine to Alpine
The alpine lifezone or biome is most often described as the area above or near treeline on mountaintops. In the North Cascades, the elevation range of the alpine zone is from about 6,400ft to about 8,530ft (Douglas & Bliss, 1977). The subalpine biome often shares many characteristics with alpine plant and animal communities as the boundaries between the two lifezones are rather indistinct (Billings, 1974). The varying topography blends these two biomes, making the assignment of plant communities highly subjective. Among the main features that designate an area as subalpine are the discontinuation of the forest and the formation of “scattered tree clumps in a meadow mosaic” (Taylor & Douglas, 1995, p.4). Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
These tree clumps are pioneers in harsh soil and growth conditions and “are normally short, with spreading branches, but [they still] retain definite crowns and do not develop the dense, low, thicketlike growth form known as krummholz” (Taylor & Douglas, 1995, p. 5-6). Krummholz is generally found on higher slopes and marks the beginning of the alpine zone (Taylor & Douglas, 1995). It would be much easier to assign general characteristics to these biomes if the mountain were flat ground with consistent weather patterns. However, nature provides large doses of interest and variety in vegetation patterns through vastly different slope aspects, substrate conditions, and extreme daily ranges in temperature, wind speeds, solar radiation, and water availability.

The combination of these abiotic factors creates many different habitats with microclimates and vegetation stripe communities occurring within those habitats. Fellfields are most common in the alpine biome, and are “characterized by rocky ground and dry soil, and are typically less than half covered by vegetation…Plants that grow here must be short in stature or they will be desiccated by freezing wind in winter and blasted by wind-driven sand in summer” (Visalli, 2014b, p.3). The constant frost action and avalanche potential acting on the slopes causes the soil to be unstable, poorly developed, and easily eroded as well, and pioneering plants must act quickly to establish roots when possible (Douglas & Bliss, 1977). Vegetation stripes can occur in the talus and scree slopes of fell- and boulder-fields, where soil and moisture has found a path of least resistance to percolate through or flow down and created a pocket of nutrients for plants to capitalize on (Douglas & Bliss, 1977).

» Continue reading Subalpine and Alpine Wildflowers and Pollinators of the North Cascades: Part 2

sunrise flowers

Subalpine and Alpine Wildflowers and Pollinators of the North Cascades: Part 1

January 28th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Lauren Ridder, graduate student in the institute’s 14th cohort.

Nothing can quite prepare the hiker for the beauty of a subalpine meadow in full bloom. The contrast of the delicate flowers’ vibrant colors splashed across a backdrop of jagged peaks provides a moment for reflection and appreciation for the stark beauty of Cascadia. As the other senses kick in and notice is taken of fragrance on the breeze and a buzzing at the feet, the connections between plant, animal, insect, soil, water, and air become all too clear. Those relationships observed between plant and pollinator have been shaped by innumerable abiotic factors over millions of years. Wandering through a high mountain meadow provides a brief glimpse into the fascinating evolutionary history of wildflowers and their pollinators.

A Brief History of Plant Evolution
While observing the beautiful complexity of a wildflower, it can be hard to imagine the selection process that led from a single-celled photosynthetic organism living in a vast, watery world to a flower living high on the flanks of a mountain. Constantly changing environments guided the expansion of the plant kingdom and resulted in the development of vascular systems, seeds, and flowers (Visalli, 2014b). The green algal common ancestor found success over time in the colonization of land through embryo protection and the growth of a more solid tissue system.
This tissue system, or vascular system, transports water and nutrients throughout a plant, and is a more recent evolutionary development that allows for survival in harsher, drier environments.

History of plants

This cladogram of plant evolution shows the development of plant systems and the diversification of the plant kingdom over time (Guertin et al., 2015).

» Continue reading Subalpine and Alpine Wildflowers and Pollinators of the North Cascades: Part 1

SWW 2015 Looking

The Practice of Presence: Responding to Inner & Outer Landscapes Field Notes and Poems (Part One)

December 23rd, 2015 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

North Cascades Institute hosted a class called Sit, Walk, Write: Nature and the Practice of Presence. Participants began their days with a sitting meditation, followed by writing and sharing poetry and short nature essays, walking meditation, and exploring the woods around the Learning Center. Here are some participant poems that came out of this unique weekend in the North Cascades.

Falls Musings

By Barbara Retelle

Look up
Kaleidoscope of colored leaves
Of a tree

Look down
Multi layered years of leaves
Sink into the sponge beneath
Musky mass

Look all around
Mossy covered branches
Crisp tickling chill in the air
Dew drops fall to tongue from leaves
Sparkling fresh

Look again
Titter of Wren
Chatter of Douglas Squirrel
Ripple of Deer Creek
Whispering breeze fluttering Maple leaves
It is Fall


By Sara Battin

Remnant of past windstorms
High wire acrobat held by spidery pallbearers
Adorned in their golden goodness.
Yours a mystery to hold my passing by ­‐
Wondering how you came to be so strung.

» Continue reading The Practice of Presence: Responding to Inner & Outer Landscapes Field Notes and Poems (Part One)


Hey Bud

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.




Ribes K. Renz

But To Carry On: Ribes has Arrived!

April 29th, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

The anticipation was torture for an amateur botanist from southern climes. It took three weeks for the tight buds to finally crack and unfurl into star-shaped flowers. Three weeks, after months of the bare twigs and snow-smothered ground cover of winter. But, one by one, the red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) that is planted around the landscaped areas at the Environmental Learning Center began to claim its seasonal distinction as the first blooming plant of spring. Its species name — sanguineum — is appropriate, derived from the Latin sanguineus, or bloody. This early color lends a flushed optimism to the sunny edges of the forest, full of life amidst the still withered and brown remnants of the stubborn oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), another tall and lanky flowering shrub characteristic of these parts. Ribes’ tubular flowers attract hummingbirds, which are also set to arrive in the upper Skagit Valley after a winter vacation in Mexico and Central America. Anyone with one of those plastic hummingbird feeders, full of red #40-dyed sugar water, knows that these winged pollinators best see colors in the long-wave light spectrum — reds, oranges, and violet-reds.

hummingbird K. RenzYou’re right: This feeding of wildlife did not occur in North Cascades National Park but was taken on a trip to the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica. A hanging row of plastic feeders was attended by dozens of colorful hummingbird species, sucking down enough artificial nectar in order to obtain their requirement of half their weight in food daily. Photo by author.

The white petals surrounded by the flashy pink sepals (aka “bud covers”) are like a neon sign throbbing around an otherwise inconspicuous target, alerting potential pollinators that this is where the goods are. Since hummingbirds have almost no sense of smell, flowers pollinated by the buzzing birds have no need to waste energy on manufacturing fragrance. Ribes are no exception. The individual flowers are small, only about half-an-inch wide. This lack of girth is compensated by their arrangement in a larger cluster, known in botanical circles as an “inflorescence”, which hangs down like a handful of succulent grapes, offering an easy one-stop buffet for hungry pollinators and a clear area for the assertive approach of a determined hummingbird.

Ribes with naturalists K. RenzTa da! Bow down to the first blooming plant of spring! From L to R: Seasonal naturalist Oliver Wood, graduate student and staff Tyler Chisholm, and seasonal naturalist Allison Andrews. Photo by author.

Though perhaps not as tasty as the hummingbird’s nectar, uses of this species have been found by humans, as well. According to Daniel Matthews in his comprehensive field guide, Cascade-Olympic Natural History, Ribes is the Arabic term for “rhubarb”, which makes sense considering its hot pink hue. In their Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Pojar and MacKinnon call the bluish-black, round berries “unpalatable” and “insipid” (author’s note: As a gardener who is always excited to nibble straight from the source, I would argue otherwise.). Various Coast Salish groups eat them fresh if necessary, but they are not preferred. No big deal, though, for now: Spring is the time not for berries, insipid or no, but for flowers. Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice! Happy Spring, everyone!

Ribes 2 K. Renz
Leading photo: A Ribes inflorescence. The individual flowers take a couple of weeks to open from the base to the tip, an adaptation allowing the plant to be available to pollinators for as long as possible, thus increasing its chances of reproductive success. Photo by author.
Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Had she had any foresight, she would have joyously written the book, Sex in the Garden, before author Angela Overy did. Are you similarly obsessed with flowers and pollination? It’s a must-read!

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


The colors of spring

May 31st, 2009 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

I am always amazed at the difference a few days makes.  I leave the learning center for five days and come home to gentians, lilies and orchids!  Just wanted to share a few pictures and keep everyone up to date on what’s blooming in the North Cascades.

» Continue reading The colors of spring