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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

Autumn Title Photo

Why leaves change colors in autumn

October 26th, 2009 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Why do leaves change colors in autumn? While some cultures found the answers in the stars, Mountain School students can find the answer on their breakfast plate.

Native Americans believed that a long time ago, as the air was getting colder and the days shorter, three great hunters were pursuing game in vain. With cold weather settling in, the hunters desperately tried to find food for their tribe. They searched for days and days, climbed mountains, crossed rivers, and fought through dense thickets but still could not find any food. Eventually, the hunters found themselves in the celestial realm. One of the hunters spotted the Great Bear and quickly shot him with his bow and arrow. The blood of the bear dripped onto the leaves of the earth down below. In joyous celebration, another hunter pulled out a pot in which to cook the bear meat, while the other hunter lit the firewood he had been carrying. As the pot boiled over, the yellow fat of the bear painted the other leaves on the trees. In the night sky, you can still see these three hunters as the “handle” of the Big Dipper in the Ursa Major constellation.

Red Vine Maple
Red vine maple shows its colors at the Environmental Learning Center

Mountain School students just have to peer at their breakfast plate to find a piece of the autumn colors mystery. During the winter, deciduous trees cannot receive enough sunlight or water for photosynthesis. Additionally, their leaves are too fragile to withstand the chill of winter. Instead, these trees will live off the glucose produced and stored during the summer. As autumn daylight continues to dwindle, the production of green chlorophyll halts, resulting in pigments underneath being revealed. Leaves covered by shade display a yellow pigment, xanthophyll, which can also be found in bananas and egg yolks. Leaves that change orange share a common pigmentation with carrots called carotenoid. Red and purple shades are caused by anthocyanins, a pigmentation found in grapes, beets, and red apples. Formed by glucose trapped in the leaves of some trees, the red pigment thrives during autumn seasons with bright sunlight during the day and cool nights.

Vine Maple
Sunlight dances among vine maples

Visits to the North Cascades flaunt this fall’s great conditions for vibrant leaf colors. Pockets of gold and streaks of red, surrounded by green evergreens, paint the landscape. Hearty enough to last the winter, the leaves of evergreens do not seasonally lose their leaves. Evergreen leaves are resistant to cold and water loss, containing a special fluid resistant to freezing.

Highlighted in the New York Times, the North Cascades is home to a deciduous conifer, the subalpine larch, which loses its needles seasonally. The yellow needles are displayed before dropping for the winter. Great hikes for viewing this stunning display include Cutthroat Pass, Blue Lake, and Maple Pass, all trailheads easily accessible from Highway 20. So pack some food containing your favorite fall pigments, and enjoy the stunning season in the North Cascades!

Yellow Larch
A larch’s vibrant yellow needles against a blue sky backdrop at Cutthroat Pass
Photos courtesy of Rebecca Ryan and Kelsi Franzen.