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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.

 

 

 

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Red red

October 7th, 2013 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Simultaneously crispy and cozy, the first days of autumn belong to the poet.

All the seasons are lovable in their own way, and each claims my favorite when that quarter’s beginning day of solstice or equinox finally spins around. Yet there’s something about fall, its fading light and muted yet still burning colors, that is especially good at invocation. Symbolically, it’s that last call before the witching hour of death—bare branches, brisk, dark, truncated days–the one guarantee we get besides birth, one our modern industrial culture is predictably loath to appreciate. If winter is the cold end, spring the new beginnings, and summer just carefree fun, fall is the reflective calm. Books could be written devoted to the beauty of maple leaves coasting whimsically to the ground, Crayola palettes inspired by the browns and ambers and goldenrods and crimsons of October. Both are probably out there.

A few nights ago, during the first big storm since graduate Cohort 13 arrived at the Environmental Learning Center, a new meaning of the season struck me with a boom. The lightness of falling leaves may be a quintessential image, but what about the heaviness of falling trees?

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Fellow grad, Tyler, and educator extraordinaire Kevin followed the sound of the crash and discovered a red alder lying prone and broken across the Sourdough Creek Trail, not far from campus. Later, out with our first week of Mountain School, we all had to cross a tangle of more alders sacrificed to the storm just past the Fawn Creek Shelter. Though my non-ecological mind immediately sentimentalizes, “Oh, poor trees,” I soon remember this North Cascades forest community is composed of at least as many horizontal, decaying logs as it is healthy standing ones. The cycle is complete: easy to see and obvious to teach.

The inside of the tree, now splinted, is easy to see as well. This is a benefit, as it offers a visual on why this species was named as it is. Red alder, or Alnus rubra, translates to “red red.” According to Pojar and Mackinnon’s trusty Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, ‘Alder’ seems to be a variation of Old English or Old High German words for ‘reddish-yellow;’ ‘rubra’ is red in Latin. Redundant or emphatic? It matters little, for now I have in situ evidence when I tell students the bark is used to make a red or orange dye. My other favorite regional field guide, Daniel Mathews’ Cascades-Olympic Natural History, says the Salish have techniques to boil, chew, or urinate on cut bark to make and fix the color. This potent bark is also medicinal, used against tuberculosis and as an anti-biotic wash for skin wounds. The wood is reputed for being among the best for smoking salmon.

It is hard to ascertain this vermillion-ness from the standing trees, though, for on the surface their trunk is a mottled combination of white and grey, and moss. The trees’ thin layer of outer bark is greyish-brown, and the patchy effect is from the white crustose lichens using the alder as a reliable host. These lichens are also easy to check out, eye to apothecia, when having to negotiate the fallen trunks. Nature explodes in details.

IMG_5905The sage green is a foliose lichen (think, “foliage” aka “like a leaf”), and the white is the crustose lichen (think, “like a crust”) that forms the patchy texture of red alder bark. Notice the apothecia, the tiny circular reproductive structures of the fungal partner of the lichen. Photo by author.

It really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that the species causing the midnight raucous was red alder. They grow fast and aggressively, but they die young, considered an old tree at 50 years. In their short time, though, they offer an invaluable natural service, partnering up with bacteria that live on their roots and “fix” atmospheric nitrogen that is normally unavailable to plants. In many ecosystems, including the Pacific Northwest, nitrogen is one of the biggest factors limiting plant growth. Not only do the bacteria thus provide some nitrogen for the soil and the host alder, but the alder leaf litter is nitrogen-rich, fertilizing the forest floor and preparing the system for later successional species, such as Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock, as it decomposes.

The Red red tree: a pioneer, a friend of the lichen and bacteria, an important plant resource for human cultures. And for the poets among the alders, stepping over all this on the trail, another pleasant reminder of a favorite season.

Leading photo: A bigleaf maple leaf (Acer macrophyllum) rests in the fresh break of a fallen red alder. Photo by author.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is currently one of two editors of Chattermarks. Until March 21, autumn is usually her preferred seasoning.