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Plight of the Pollinators

September 18th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Kay Gallagher, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

Imagine yourself walking down to the local summer farmer’s market down by the town square. It’s the first warm day and you cannot wait to make a large juicy bowl of fruit salad for lunch. Summer time in the valley is your favorite, all winter you have eagerly anticipated the first fruits of the season. With your list in hand that you scribbled down this morning, juicy red tomatoes, green zucchini, bright yellow summer squash, perfectly round peaches, you set off.


Produce from the local Twisp Farmers Market. Photo courtesy of Kay Gallagher

After a short walk, you arrive at the farmers’ market, ready to fill your basket to the brim. You walk around and notice the usual vendors. The local bakery selling loaves of freshly made artisan bread, the various craftsmen selling their woolen blankets and knit scarves, the goat farmers selling their savory cheeses and assorted dairy products. Then you notice there are no fruit stands. No vegetable stands. There isn’t so much as a rogue berry in sight. Where are the fruits of summer you have been dreaming about since that first warm day of spring? It’s almost as if they have vanished overnight. They’re not there.


The colorful mosaic landscape of Patterson Mountain. Photo courtesy of Kay Gallagher

You leave the farmer’s market quite perplexed, and decide to hike your favorite summer trail instead. On your drive to the trailhead you can picture the lush mountain sides and vast fields full of a colorful array of wildflowers from last summer, you can visualize the river coursing its way through the landscape in the valley below, with animal life whirring and scattered about. You arrive at the trailhead, and hop out of the car, eager for your adventure in the colorful mosaic. As you begin to hike, you notice that things aren’t as colorful as they used to be. There aren’t nearly as many wildflowers, the earth seems dry and crumbly with serious signs of erosion along the river bank below. The landscape is made up of various shades of brown. The air is noticeably quieter, without the hums and whizzing of winged insects flying about. The chatter of birds is absent, and the silence seems a little eerie. It’s a little too quiet. Something is missing, and then you realize …” Where have all the pollinators gone?”

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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