Three Days in Hell

Published at 10:49 on 1 July 2021

I knew a heat wave of the sort the Pacific Northwest just experienced was going to happen eventually, I just thought eventually would take a lot longer than the year 2021 to arrive. Yet here we are.

It started about a week out, when one of the weather forecasting models started predicting simply insane temperatures. Instead of being a blip, an outlier, the other main accurate model quickly came on board, and then both models stuck with that forecast as the time approached. It was both surreal and frightening. By the time the forecast was within three days, it was clear that it was going to happen, for the simple reason that I have never seen a time when the forecasting models were this consistent, both from model to model and run to run, and not seen the modeled forecast come true at that time frame.

And come true it did, with absolutely surreal high temperatures. Portland came close to reaching the all-time record high for Las Vegas, and Seattle got hotter than Atlanta ever has. Beyond the immediate human cost is the ecosystem cost: our forests simply were not evolved to deal with such conditions, and already there are many reports of widespread tree injury of death. At this early stage, it is difficult to tell injury from death, but even if it is the former, the latter probably will not be that far behind, because the summers here are already warmer and drier than long-term norms, so even less-dramatic conditions can logically be expected to continue stressing trees until many succumb.

I do not see much evidence of this in my immediate area, but this area had both higher dew points and lower temperatures than most parts of this region during the heat wave, so it is to be expected that the immediately observable effects would be less here. There are plenty of reports of more dramatic and noticeable tree damage in other parts of the region out there, and I have no real reason to doubt them.

There is little, if anything, that I love more than the native forests of this region, and the realization of their impending demise fills me with both grief and rage simultaneously. May the future have mercy on our souls.

This Is Not a Buttercup

Published at 23:00 on 3 May 2021

Large-Leaved Avens (Geum macrophyllum)

Don’t let those five yellow petals fool you: the Large-Leaved Avens is not even in the buttercup family (it is in the rose family). It is part of a somewhat obscure (to non-botanists) genus of about 50 species which are widespread throughout the world, with species native to all continents except Australia and Antarctica.

This is a plant that many may be more familiar with in seed than in flower, as those yellow flowers ripen into burs that are often found attached to clothing or fur later in the season. Indigenous peoples used its leaves to brew a diuretic tea.

There are several native and several introduced buttercup (Ranunculus) species found in this region, including a very common weedy one. More on some of those later.

Seeing an Old Friend Again

Published at 11:04 on 8 June 2019

As part of my investigation of less-expensive places to move to, I recently took an overnight trip to Olympia. I spent the night camped in the nearby Capitol State Forest. It was there that I noticed a ground cover which I hadn’t seen since I moved away from Portland (where it is very common in Forest Park):

Inside-Out Flower (Vancouveria hexandra) dominates the lower part of the frame.

Inside-Out Flower (Vancouveria hexandra), close-up of flower.

Inside-Out Flower gets its common name from how strongly reflexed its petals are. It is one of a number of woodland flowers which are quite common in western Oregon and the southern half of western Washington, but almost completely absent from the northern half of western Washington. I suspect Ice Age glaciation might have something to do with that distribution.

Olympia is about as far north as you normally see it, though I have received a report of it being seen here on Bainbridge Island, in an apparently natural setting, this spring.

Why Gardening Is Not for Me

Published at 09:53 on 10 May 2019

There’s basically two kinds of plants you can grow: annuals and perennials.

Annuals come up fast but require a lot of tending during the growing season. But the growing season is also the outdoor recreation season, and I’d much rather be communing with native plants someplace wild than stuck at home trying to repeatedly assert control over a tiny plot of urban land. Yard work sucks.

Perennials are not nearly so high-maintenance, but they are slow to settle in. I, by contrast, just don’t settle in. It’s never happened in my life, and given that I’m well into my fifties, that means the odds are it’s never going to happen.

I tried to settle in to the home I am sitting in right now, but it didn’t work: I had overlooked how ageist and cultish the high tech world would become, and how much this would adversely impact my employabality in it. And if I can’t have a high-paying, high-tech job, it’s very hard to justify the expense of living in a region as costly as the Seattle metro area.

So this year I’m leaving. The year my native cacti in the window boxes are finally going to put on a huge bloom. The year my thimbleberries (after years of getting settled in) have flower buds on them. The year the dewberries finally flowered (female flowers, we’ll see if there’s a nearby male and I get fruit). The serviceberry is still a little thing, a decade or more from looking settled in.

Someone else is going to enjoy the results of the work I did. Not me. Or, someone else won’t appreciate all those “weird plants” that are not the ornamentals everyone else grows, rip them out, and replace them. Either way, I am going to get little benefit for the work I did.

It would be nice if my life were more compatible with gardening, but it’s just not.

Cactus in Spots You Might Not Expect

Published at 20:49 on 8 June 2018

Brittle Prickly Pear, Opuntia fragilis, in bloom.
Brittle Prickly Pear, Opuntia fragilis

The above picture was taken by me last week in Lillooet, BC. There were several large patches of yellow flowers by the road, easily enough to get my attention as a passenger. Their size and color indicated they were probably cactus flowers. I alerted the driver so we could go back, stop, and admire them.

Many are surprised to learn there is wild cactus growing in Canada; my fellow companions on that trip were amongst the surprised. Many are equally or more surprised to learn that the same species also grows wild in western Washington, in the most rain-shadowed areas of the Olympic Mountains. Here is a patch I saw near Sequim earlier this spring:

Opuntia fragilis growing near Sequim.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that cacti are found in either Lillooet or Sequim, as both locations are rain-shadowed. Lillooet in particular is known for being a dry spot, and being well inland often has just the sort of hot, dry summer conditions that cacti love. Plants don’t care about our preconceived biases or political boundaries; they grow wherever the environment is suitable for them.

The winters aren’t hot or dry, but this species is one of the hardiest and most northerly of cacti. It grows as far north as the Peace River Valley in northeastern BC, a region that can see temperatures colder than -40˚ in the winter.

Its common and scientific names point to how its pads easily become detached from the mother plant, their thorns embedding themselves in the fur, clothing, or skin of unwitting creatures that brush against them. When removed and discarded, they root and create new plants. In this trait, this prickly pear acts more like a cholla. That’s not a huge surprise, as the chollas (genus Cylindropuntia) and prickly pears are very closely related; for many years both were even lumped into the same genus.

Some of my own Opuntia fragilis are getting ready to bloom. I may be interested in plants, but unlike most who are, I’m not very good at gardening. This cactus was the answer to my question: “What could I plant in those window boxes (preferably a native plant) that I wouldn’t kill by forgetting to water or being away and not able to water?”

Those window boxes in question face south and are beneath eaves that serve to keep most rainfall out of them, the perfect micro-habitat for a sun-loving rain shadow plant like this. It felt a little odd dumping the nice potting soil out of them and replacing it with the gravely glacial till (of which I have plenty in my yard) that our local populations of this cactus prefer.

There Is No Shortage of High-Tech Workers

Published at 18:47 on 21 March 2018

There is a shortage of decency in the high-tech industry.

I base both these assertions on my experiences at the symposium today, where I met not one but two other individuals in basically the same situation as I am. As long as the high-tech industry considers the following non-qualifications to be job requirements:,

  • Male,
  • Between the ages of twenty-five and fifty,
  • Thinks coding is the most fun thing in the universe,
  • Thinks coding is about the only truly fun thing in the universe, really, and
  • Outside of role-playing games, martial arts, and science fiction and fantasy fandom, thinks there’s basically little else of interest besides computers.

Then, yes, that industry will continue to suffer a “shortage” of “qualified” people.

Red Huckleberry Jam

Published at 08:07 on 12 July 2016

I had planned on picking dewberries and blackcaps on the Toandos Peninsula last weekend. I know of a good spot for both there.

But fate intervened and ruled that option out, so I went to a revegetating clear cut where I have noticed a lot of berry plants before in the Green Mountain State Forest instead. That resulted in a different harvest, as most of the berries I found there were red huckleberries instead.

They’re a new one for me. Oh, I’ve snacked on them many times, but never set out to harvest them and bring a quantity home with me. The jam turned out great: I followed the “low sugar” recipe, using a tad more than the recommended amount of sugar because the berries are naturally tart. For the same reason, I opted not to add any lemon juice to the recipe, figuring there was plenty of natural acidity to set the pectin.

The result was tangy and flavorful, just like the berries it was made from.

Eating a Philodendron

Published at 21:49 on 14 June 2014

Let me say, they are very tasty indeed. Best described as a mix of baobab and pineapple.

“What?!?” You say? “Philodendrons are poisonous house plants and are most certainly neither edible nor tasty, you moron!”

Not so fast. The common “cut-leaved philodendron” sold as a house plant, also called the “Swiss cheese plant” for the perforations in the large leaves of mature specimens, has the botanical name Monstera deliciosa. That name is a clue.

All parts of the plant are in fact poisonous and highly irritating… with the exception of the fully ripe fruit (unripe, even slightly unripe, fruit is poisonous). They’re also tropical and actually barely survive as a house plant, and need to thrive to bear flowers and fruit. That typically never happens unless they are planted outdoors, which would normally rule out Seattle as a place to ever get a fruit for one.

Enter the Volunteer Park Conservatory, which has a large mature one. Twenty-odd years ago, it was the first time I saw one ever in bloom. It’s still one of the few places I’ve ever seen flowers or fruits on one. Today I noticed one flower open, a bud or two, and lots of developing, unripe fruits. The latter got me thinking if anyone who worked at the Conservatory ever ate them.

And lo, there in the gift shop, sitting on a plate, was a ripe Monstera fruit giving off a most appetizing fragrance. So I helped myself to a few small bits, and it certainly does deserve the deliciosa moniker.

Visiting Roxhill “Bog”

Published at 20:03 on 9 January 2012

At the headwaters of Longfellow Creek in West Seattle is what used to be an extensive peat bog. It was then partially mined for peat, filled, and turned into a park. Except that much of the park never was very successful, because it was still in a low area and its lawns tended to be mushy and squishy. Worse, there was still peat under all that fill, meaning the land had a tendency to subside.

So about 10 years ago, it was decided to try and bring the bog back, at least in the lower part of the park. Except that it’s no longer a coniferous forest in the surrounding area; it’s mostly lawns. Lawns that get a fair amount of lime and fertilizer dumped on them in order to keep them healthy.

Alas, what keeps a lawn healthy is the same thing that kills a bog. Bog plants can cope with extreme acidity and low nutrient levels just fine. What they cannot generally cope with is non-bog plants, because the latter grow faster and out-compete bog plants in non-bog environments.

And so it is that, ten years on, the “bog” is not really bog at all; it’s an open, marshy wetland in the process of evolving into a forested, swampy one.

Wetland (as opposed to bog-specific) plants were in general doing just fine. Swamp roses were growing in great profusion, and black cottonwoods and willows were volunteering everywhere. The Sitka spruces which had been planted generally looked very healthy.

However, most of the specific bog species plantings I found were sickly and barely surviving. There were a fair number of stunted bog laurel bushes, and an even smaller number of very sickly-looking Labrador tea shrubs. Hardly any of the bog sedges remained; invasive grasses had pretty much universally displaced them. Sweet gale was an exception to this rule; I saw a number of vigorously-growing, very healthy specimens, which had obviously spread significantly to form large clumps since they were planted.

It was, in total, less of a complete weed patch than I had expected. Perhaps there’s enough remaining bog acidity in the soil there to keep a damper on the worst of the weed overgrowth.

Sorry, but I don’t have any photos to accompany this article. I did have a camera with me, but I spaced and forgot to use it.