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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.

 

 

 

lichen close up Katherine

A-Hunting for the Details

January 22nd, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Today I went on a hike looking for wildflowers. I failed, miserably. But this was accounted for in the strategic plan, a given before I’d even cinched my shoelaces or threw on a daypack.

You see, it’s the middle of winter in the North Cascades. What else would one expect? But as an amateur naturalist with a penchant for all things botanical, the landscape can be a little — dare I say it? — boring. Emerald is pretty, and serves a photosynthetic purpose, and brown ground holds the nutrients to support the whole thing. But recollections of the summer’s subalpine petal-rainbow are haunting. Perhaps this admits a shallowness on my part, a doltish attraction to the obvious, a stubborn attachment to the reproductive parts and advertising wiles of plants, commonly known as flowers.

monkshood with bee KatherineMonkshood (Aconitum spp) and pollinator engaged in nature’s busy dance as seen on the Rainbow Lake Trail last August. This genus contains some of the most poisonous plants known to humans, containing an alkaloid that paralyzes the nerves and can fatally lower body and blood temperatures.

Last season was hardly so harsh: the fall brought mushrooms, which, though of a different kingdom, were close enough. But this new year, even the characteristic mega-fungi have melted back from whence they sprung. Twig ID, a tradition around these parts, is just not gonna cut it; lichen and moss are fascinating, but only do it for so long. Does anyone really want to read a blog post musing on the dozen different shades of Oregon grape?

cranberry scone fungiFall offered all sorts of intriguing decomposers, like this toasted marshmallow mass of mushroom, commonly called “bleeding tooth fungus” (Hydnellum peckii), which smelled like Juicy Fruit gum. Seriously.

The problem is the solution, as permaculturalists say, so what’s the remedy? Not too long ago while living in a dynamic though often ridiculous city, I grew into an expert at glimpsing the tiny things ignored by most: the swollen poppy growing solo next to a street tree near the 101 overpass, October’s spiders weaving webs in the monster trumpet vines, the aloe vera growing, appropriately, outside the tattoo shop. I needed to return to the details, big and small, of the North Cascades. I decided to stroll up the familiar trail to Sourdough’s waterfall.

It worked. An afternoon of re-kindled love, demonstrated by bounding back to the Environmental Learning Center with camera in hand, all smiles, as though returning home from a successful hunt on the savannah. Some samplings:

cedar reflection KatherineReflections on the seasonal cedar swamp near the Pi Shelter. Notice the animal signs on the trunk on the right.
lichen "roots" KatherineMembranous dog-lichen (Peltigera membranacea). Check out the orange apothecia, which are the fruiting bodies from the lichen’s fungal partner and will eventually release spores. Also of note, the quarter inch rhizines, which do not help in water or nutrient absorption like plant roots do, but do serve to anchor the lichen to its substrate. It’s a fascinating little world, eh?
fungi on fungi KatherineFungi on fungi! I’d been paying attention to this shelf fungi on an old snag since coming to the Environmental Learning Center in late August: It always looked and felt very solid and unchanging. Add enough rain and time, and even the toughest decomposers start to get decomposed, too.
hanging roots KatherineLike a sleeping sloth of the Pacific Northwest, dangling roots and dirt clods invite the imagine against a backdrop of Doug fir forest.
Oregon grape KatherineOne of several manifestations of Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), with a pale strand of fructose lichen caught in its spiky leaves. The primary understory species in the forest on the way to the waterfall, Mahonia provides most of the non-green hue in the wintertime forest up to the waterfall. The leaves can burst a crimson hue, spontaneously and randomly, after the plant is a couple years old.
lichen rock fall KatherineA miniature world of lichen and moss tumbled down with some mini-boulders from the perennial rock fall along the trail. Linger at your own risk.
de-barked KatherineAnother animal sign? A strip of bark harvested to make a traditional Salish basket? A weather-induced injury?
"lake"reflection KatherineYes, that is blue sky! As seen from the surface of the seasonal puddle-pond at the junction of the Sourdough Creek and East Diablo trails.
cedar disintegration Katherine Even giants disintegrate: The vermillion spire-snag of an old cedar crumbles slowly but surely onto the trail.
rattlesnake plantain KatherineEvidence of flowers — hallelujah! The bright green, basal rosettes of rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia ) on the banks of Fawn Creek offer a rare instance of soft, living leaves in January. Come late spring, stems of small, cream-colored flowers that look like tiny orchids will grow on a tall spike emerging from the center. Early settlers believed that this plant could be used to treat rattlesnake bites because the markings on the leaves resemble that species’ scaly skin.
witches butter KatherineA candidate for the “Brightest Organism in the Winter Forest”, witches’ butter glows like fungal gold. Note its neighbor on this alder twig, a species of avocado-green crustose lichen — a combination reminiscent of 1970’s kitchen appliances.
ELC with sun KatherineA small piece of Sourdough Ridge gets illuminated beyond a lodge at the Environmental Learning Center.
Leading photo: False pixie cup (Cladonia chlorophaea), a type of club lichen found on open sites, grows its upright “clubs” for reproductive purposes — notice the powdery, pale green grains (aka soredia) on the cup’s edge, awaiting to be dispersed by rain or wind. This one was found on that dry and rocky south-facing slope as one starts the immediate climb to the waterfall.
 

All photos by Katherine Renz

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. This is her official call to all fellow botanizing freaks to the North Cascades this coming spring. Maybe we can start a club?