Peat Bogs: A Bit of Tundra in Our Backyard

I’ve been out of town a fair bit recently, so this is a photo that was neither taken on Bainbridge Island nor even does it show a plant that grows here, for the plant depicted above is the Cloudberry, Rubus chamaemorus.

Seeing this flower for the first time was a highlight of my recent trip to BC. The one in the picture is one of the southernmost wild-growing Cloudberry plants in the world, as this plant’s range stops at the bogs of the Fraser River Delta, just north of the 49th parallel. It’s mostly a plant of the arctic tundra, but some populations do wander well south of the arctic in bogs.

Burns Bog has long been a forgotten and neglected part of the Vancouver metro area. There’s now efforts to preserve the parts of it that haven’t been drained and converted to other uses, but facilities for visitors are still very limited and not easy to find. Those interested in visiting a part of it that’s open to the public on their next trip to Vancouver can find the driving directions here.

Why do we see plants of the arctic tundra in peat bogs? It turns out that bogs mimic many of the soil conditions that form in the arctic. Like the arctic tundra, whose soil is prevented from draining by permafrost, bogs contain highly acidic waterlogged soil.

Why is Cloudberry found in these bogs, but not in ones just slightly further south, which have almost identical soil and environmental conditions? My best theory so far is that it has to do with migrating birds: before it was urbanized, the Fraser Delta was a huge complex of freshwater and tidal wetlands that served as a major wintering area for waterfowl, and at least one bird over the millennia arrived with a Cloudberry seed riding somewhere on it or inside its gut. Smaller peat bogs to the south failed to serve as major attractors of wintering waterfowl and thus never had this plant introduced to them.

The bog at IslandWood here on the island has no Cloudberry, but it does have a lot of Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandicum), a plant whose common name references one northerly region and whose scientific one references another (Greenland), thus revealing its status as an arctic tundra plant.

Vanilla Leaf

Vanilla Leaf (Achlys triphylla) is now in full bloom. This distinctive forest-floor plant has leaves with three leaflets that arise directly from underground stems. Its tiny, white flowers arise in dense spikes from those same underground stems.

As its name implies, the leaves of this plant have a faint scent vaguely resembling vanilla. The odor becomes stronger if you gather a bunch of leaves and let them hang upside down to dry. In fact, I personally am not able to discern any vanilla odor from this plant unless its leaves are dried. For many years, it was a mystery to me why this plant has the common name it does.

Bundles of such dried leaves can be hung near doors and windows as an insect repellent; they have been used as such since pre-contact days by Native Americans. I have not personally tried it yet, but it is also reported that rubbing the fresh leaves on exposed skin can also act as an insect repellent.

You may be surprised to learn that this plant is a close relative the Oregon-Grape (Mahonia spp.). Both are in the barbarry family, Berberidaceae.

This Is Not a Buttercup

The Large-Leaved Avens (Geum macrophyllum) is mistaken as some sort of buttercup (Ranunculus sp.) by many. It’s an understandable mistake, as buttercups tend to have the same five yellow petals (albeit far glossier) as this avens does. The foliage of this plant also somewhat resembles the foliage of many buttercup species. Completing the deception, the Large-Leaved Avens typically grows in the same sort of moist, wooded areas that is favored by both a native and an invasive buttercup.

Of those two buttercups, the one that starts blooming at the same time as this avens has much smaller flowers. The other buttercup starts blooming later, and although its flowers are larger, it has a spreading habit that this avens lacks, and moreover is not typically as tall as the Large-Leaved Avens, either.

Despite appearances, this plant is not even closely related to the buttercups. The latter are in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae); the Large-Leaved Avens belongs to the rose family (Rosaceae). This plant and our woodland buttercups have evolved to have a similar form because they grow in similar environments, and are thus subject to similar pressures of natural selection, a process is known as convergent evolution.

By late summer, this avens’ fruits will have ripened into burs that stick to clothing and fur.

Red Elderberry

The Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) bushes are in bloom. The warm days we are having are really making things go fast. I took this picture just a week ago when it seemed the blossoms were just opening, and already they seem more than half-done.

Elderberry flowers tend to get ignored by many, or at least not much talked about. That’s always been a mystery to me, as they are quite ornamental. The flowers occur in pyramidal (not flat) clusters and ripen into shiny red fruit.

This is our native elderberry. It has a reputation for being poisonous, which is mostly true. The exception is that the ripe fruits can be eaten provided they are cooked thoroughly first. I have yet to try them, so cannot offer my opinion as to how good (or otherwise) they taste. Birds relish the fruit and in so doing disperse the seeds of this shrub.

Those who travel to the east slopes of the Cascades (or to select areas of the east slopes of the Olympics) might be familiar with the related Blue Elderberry (Sambucus mexicana or Sambucus cerulea), a shrub or small tree that bears choice fruit. The Blue Elderberry’s flowers resemble those of the Red Elderberry, but occur in large flat (never pyramidal) clusters. As its name implies, the ripe fruit is covered with a bluish waxy bloom.

The Blue Elderberry is a close relative of the European Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra); and like that elderberry its fruits are edible and its flowers can be used to make syrups or tea.

Pacific Dogwood

On the UW Campus in Seattle last month.

In Winslow this month.

I’m late writing this post; I should have written it a week or two ago. Our native dogwoods (Cornus nuttallii) are just about finished with their spring bloom, so be sure and enjoy it while it lasts.

It might surprise many to learn that the flowers of this tree are tiny, greenish, and inconspicuous. “But they are obviously large and white!” one may be tempted to object. What appears at first glance to be a single flower with four to six large petals is in fact a cluster of tiny, greenish flowers surrounded by white bracts (modified leaves).

For much of the year, the Pacific Dogwood is an easy-to-overlook understory tree in our forests, but when in bloom they can be spectacular. This species is similar to the eastern Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), but in all respects (leaves, flowers, overall size) is larger. The flowers ripen into tightly-packed clusters of red to orange berries by autumn.

The main blooming season is in April, sometimes with a secondary lesser blooming in August or September. As if the flowers and colorful fruit weren’t enough, this tree ends the growing season with beautiful display of pink to red foliage.

All the above characteristics might have one thinking this would be a popular and prized ornamental, but the Pacific Dogwood does not transplant well and tends to be fussy about growing conditions. If you are lucky enough to have one on your lot, leave it alone and treasure it!

There are now fewer Pacific Dogwoods than there used to be, due to dogwood anthracnose, an introduced fungal parasite, having reduced this tree’s numbers. The same disease attacks the more commonly cultivated Flowering Dogwood, and to a lesser degree the also-cultivated Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa). The latter two species bloom later in the spring than our Pacific Dogwood.

Roses Are Red, Violets Are… Yellow?

It doesn’t jibe with the traditional poem, but in this part of the world, violets are commonly neither blue nor violet in color. Our two most common species have yellow flowers.

Evergreen Violet, Viola sempervirens

The Evergreen Violet, Viola sempervirens, lives up to its name by having evergreen foliage; its rounded leaves persist through the winter months. It is a short plant, seldom more than 10 cm (4″) tall. All of its leaves and flowers are borne singly on stems arising from underground rhizomes; it has no above-ground stems that bear both leaves and flowers. It is commonly found on the floor of coniferous forests.

Stream Violet, Viola glabella

The Stream Violet, Viola glabella, is often found along streams and in other areas wetter than the Evergreen Violet prefers. It is usually more than 20 cm (8″) tall, bearing both flowers and leaves from above-ground stems. All above-ground parts of this violet die back in winter. This violet’s leaves are thinner and brighter green than the Evergreen Violet’s, and they come to a point at the end. The Stream Violet is most common in deciduous forests.

Like all violets, both of the above have edible flowers and young leaves. Of the two, I prefer the Evergreen Violet, because its flowers often taste delightfully of wintergreen.

The flowers being the reproductive part of a plant, one should not attempt to make a harvest of edible flowers of any sort unless a) the flowers are numerous, and b) the area they are being harvested from is lightly-used. Item (b) means that I do not snack on violets here on the Island much, because most of our wild areas simply get too many visitors to support the ethical harvesting of flowers. I concentrate my snacking on violet blossoms to the times when I take hikes in less used areas on the Olympic Peninsula.

Garden pansies and Johnny-jump-ups are also in genus Viola and are also edible.

Nature Posts

I’ve been making these to a another blog that I own, because part of my reason for making them is to sort of toot my own horn as to my knowledge of things natural, in the hopes of someday making a living sharing that knowledge.

I often make political posts here, and I prefer to keep business and politics at least somewhat separate, which is why I’ve started putting my nature posts somewhere else specifically devoted to them.

However, I’m something of a cheapskate, and have been unwilling to pay for hosting that second blog, which means it contains ads. I’m not terribly happy about that latter point, and wish to provide a way for people to read my nature posts without being subjected to advertising.

This site is ad-free, because I’m paying to host it, so I’ve decided to post nature stuff on both blogs, thus giving folks a way to read those posts ad-free here.

If you only want to read the nature posts, and you wish to read them ad-free, you can bookmark this link.

That I’ve linked the two blogs here (and may even link them from the other site, as well) makes it possible for a prospective customer to learn my politics and possibly discriminate against me for being politically radical. So be it. I’m not interested in living in the closet; moreover, anyone small-minded enough to so discriminate probably is small-minded enough to not be the best person to deal with, anyhow.

Marine Push

Here comes the marine layer.

I’ve been out of town camping the past several days, taking advantage of the warm, dry weather while it lasts. I just got back home before noon today.

Of course, the warm weather didn’t last. It never does, particularly this early in the season. I awoke in the early morning hours and could tell that the humidity had risen. When the sun rose, there was a damp chill to the air, and the morning sunshine did not quickly warm things like it had the past few days, particularly on Thursday.

In fact, I was lucky this morning, having camped in one of the few areas that stayed clear overnight. While leaving, I could see that tatters of clouds were clinging to some of the ridges. A few miles later, I was met by the sight of a wall of low marine overcast, which had not yet totally pervaded the area where I had been, but which was evidently fated to soon do so. Most of the remaining drive back home was in overcast conditions.

This is a common pattern during our warmer months. A surface low offshore interferes with the normal onshore flow: typically, heating inland will cause lower air pressure (warm air being less dense than cold) which in turn serves to draw the cool air inland, moderating our temperatures. When there’s a surface low offshore, it keeps the air pressure there lower than inland, even though it’s often really starting to warm up under clear skies. Our natural air conditioning turns off for a few days.

If the same pattern happens during the winter months, we typically don’t get so extraordinarily warm, because there’s simply not enough hours of sunlight to heat things up at low levels. Instead, the clear skies overnight help things cool down on the long winter nights (by enabling the radiation of long-wave infrared, which clouds tend to reflect, out to space). It may be getting warmer and warmer aloft, but at the surface it stays quite cool. This inverts the normal order of things, which is that temperatures get cooler as one gets higher, and so is called a temperature inversion.

If the pattern starts when the ground is wet (as it often is, in the winter), the air at the surface tends to quickly become saturated, and we get a prolonged period of fog, low clouds, and cool to cold temperatures at the surface. We also get poor air quality, since the cold, stagnant air at the surface doesn’t let pollutants dissipate easily.

But back to the warmer months. The warm, dry weather is enabled, to reiterate, by a surface low offshore. When that low moves east over land, its effect is reversed: the low pressure area is over the area of warm air, and the tendency for warmer air to be less dense is amplified. Not only that, it’s usually abnormally warm inland, further amplifying the onshore trend. Marine air assertively floods inland, sometimes vigorously enough to prompt small craft advisories in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

With the cool, moist air comes low clouds and sometimes fog and drizzle. This is the marine push. The heat wave is over.

A Bright, Sparkling Morning

First light hits the trees.

Morning light.

As expected, it snowed last night. Not as expected, it snowed a little more than the light dusting that was forecast. A small low-pressure system unexpectedly formed over the northeastern Olympic Peninsula and Whidbey Island then moved south. End result was a little over 2″ of accumulation in many areas on the west side of the Salish Sea. Not a big blizzard by any measure, but still a big deal in a climate that simply doesn’t see a whole lot of snow.

Then the storm promptly departed, leaving clear skies in its wake. It’s been years since that’s happened after a snowfall here, so I really enjoyed the treat of watching it gradually get bright this morning, going through various shades of first purplish then bluish light, followed by the trees being hit by first light. This sort of thing happens routinely in the Rockies, where I lived in my teens and twenties, and it brings back memories of winters there.

White Rock Canyon

In the canyon. See link at end of post for more images.

Once in his life, a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it.
— N. Scott Momaday

There is a great good in returning to a landscape that has had extraordinary meaning in one’s life. It happens that we return to such places in our minds irresistibly. There are certain villages and towns, mountains and plains that, having seen them walked in them lived in them even for a day, we keep forever in the mind’s eye. They become indispensable to our well-being; they define us, and we say, I am who I am because I have been there, or there.
— Ibid.

One of my goals on my most recent trip to New Mexico to visit my parents had been to revisit White Rock Canyon, a landscape I bonded with in my youth. It was not even a half-mile from the house I lived in during my teens. Initially, like most, I concentrated my visits in the colder months, because the canyon becomes an inferno in the summer; its black basalt walls collect and concentrate the heat of the already intense Southwestern sun.

Then one June curiosity got the best of me: what would the canyon be like now? What would the hottest and driest spot in the county be like during the hottest and driest part of the year (as June is, in New Mexico)? There was only one way to find out, so one fine scorching afternoon I loaded a day pack with several canteens and descended into nature’s oven.

The cacti were in their typical June defiance. As the most drought-tolerant of plants, they could afford to bloom despite the conditions, and they did. As such, they were richly reaping the rewards of their monopoly on the supply of pollen and nectar; each cactus blossom was teeming with pollinators.

As expected, it was hot. Clouds of powdery, dessicated dust rose with every footfall. It was a challenge to exercise discipline and ration my water so I would still have some on the trip up. The further I descended, the hotter it got. The grasses and forbs were withered and brittle brown amongst the angular black boulders and parched soil. The branchlets of the junipers and even the blooming cacti looked wizened and water-deprived.

Then I turn a corner of the trail and see a view of vibrant, lush, defiant green appear. It seems like a hallucination, so out of place in this dry land in its driest season. It’s the sort of green one might see in Ohio or Louisiana or the Pacific Northwest, a green born of plant life exuberating in a water surplus.

I’ve been here before, so know it is no hallucination. The same descent that brought me into ever hotter conditions brought me ever closer to the water table. At the rim, it was nearly 1,000 feet below the surface. Here, near the bottom, the surface meets it. Multiple springs burst forth and merge into a clear stream.

I enter into the deep shade and rest by the first spring. It is mercifully cooler here among the verdure and abundant water. After a few minutes I glance upstream. Orchids!

Hundreds of orchids, in fact. In full bloom. More wild orchids than I have ever seen in one place. It turns out that these springs are one of the few places in New Mexico where the stream orchid grows, and they bloom in June. Because nobody I know enters the canyon in June, nobody I know knows about them.

That decided it; from then on I regularly visited the canyon, year-round, even though people thought I was nuts for going there in the summer when it was so hot. In August, the area around the springs was more magical yet. Cardinal flowers bloomed in a profusion as great as the orchids did earlier.

I had been wanting to see these rare flowers ever since hearing about them as a younger child in Illinois. I had given up hope of seeing them when we moved west, thinking they were a strictly Eastern/Midwestern plant. The tall spikes of scarlet humming with hummingbirds looked like a scene that belonged more in the jungles of Central America than the high deserts of New Mexico. Yet I could lift my eyes and see that beyond the narrow strip watered by the stream and springs, the austere landscape remained.

Some days I paused on the rim before I enter the canyon, surveying the landscape and choosing an off-trail destination that looks interesting from above. Other discoveries followed: a rock wall covered in dozens of petroglyphs, benches untouched by sheep and cattle where the grasses grew as tall and thick as they did everywhere centuries ago, ancient irrigation works, piles of giant boulders that left one feeling as if an ant amongst grains of coarse sand, unusual ferns (yes, desert ferns), and others I can’t recall at the moment.

Naturally, I had to go back someday, but my parents moved, first to Texas, then back to New Mexico but 100 miles from the canyon. It’s never been convenient to work in a side trip, but I kept saying to myself that someday I’d rent a car and make a day trip there.

Someday was Monday. It being in a town I had lived in for eight years, I drove directly to the trailhead with no missteps. There is now a fancy sign with an elevation profile and rules. I did not read the rules. Other than that, there were not any big changes. No new enlarged parking lot, no big crowds at the trailhead; it was basically the same as I had remembered. From the rim, the familiar landscape of river, semi-desert vegetation and Toreva blocks came into view.

It was winter, so no sightings of wildflowers this time (though the ferns are evergreen and were still there). There was still the unique fragrance of the canyon, a mix of sagebrush, basalt, and dust. It was still surprisingly free from human sights and sounds for a place right on the edge of a town: canyons lie below the surrounding land, frustrating the ability for sounds to enter them. It’s the converse of how you can see and hear signs of distant civilization from a otherwise remote mountaintop.

I found and climbed the boulder pile (easy to find, it’s close to the trail) and visited the petroglyph wall (less easy, it’s a detour off-trail of at least a half mile through terrain that is in places quite rugged). The latter spot was no longer completely my own, as others were obviously visiting and admiring the ancient artwork, as evidenced by the faint trail, marked by cairns, and trampled vegetation at the site itself.

Overall, however, the canyon has changed far less in the intervening 35-odd years since I last saw it than many attractions in that state have. Part of it is it’s not really a tourist attraction: it’s a county park, not a state or national one, and the county really doesn’t publicize it much (there’s no signs directing one to the canyon from the nearest major highway). Mostly, it’s a spot for the locals.

Halfway through my visit I realize how much that place is still part of me today, how its lessons in harsh beauty have influenced my own outlooks. I just can’t get on board with so much New Age stuff because it strikes me as all soft and mushy and friendly and cute; the world isn’t all soft and mushy and friendly and cute, sorry. Ditto for a good chunk of politically liberal beliefs that think all problems can simply be loved away; sometimes things must be fought for. I care even less for right-wingers and their cheering on of capitalism and its subjugation and domestication of the wild.

The natural world exists on its own terms, and it’s not simply good and bad according to our own metrics (nor should it be). The canyon can outright kill (and has killed) the unprepared, the foolish, and sometimes the simply unlucky. Hazards abound: extremes of temperature, a disorienting terrain, rattlesnakes, and sheer cliffs among them.

Would those orchids have been the experience they were if it was easy and pleasant to get to them, if I had expected them because I had heard of them from somebody else first and gone to see them, if there had been crowds and paved trails and a gift shop there? If there had been signs and rules and regulations and profit-making capitalists charging money everywhere, instead of the freedom to explore and wander that I had then? If the weather had been comfortable and temperate?

No, I don’t want a world engineered to be nice and safe, or a world engineered to be efficient and profitable. I want a wild world, a free world.

More photos here.