There aren’t a lot of native shrubs that bloom in the winter. One that does is Fremont’s Silk Tassel, also known as Bearbrush, Garrya fremontii. This species has the northernmost range of any of the Garryas as far as I can determine. Even so, it doesn’t get very close to where I live in Bellingham.
So yesterday I took a road trip down to the Columbia Gorge in search of this shrub. I was armed with location data from the University of Washington Herbarium, so I wasn’t wandering around aimlessly. Even so, it was a bit of a long trip essentially for a single species. By the time I got home I’d put 670 miles on my truck and was gone from 7 am to 11:30 pm. Just a day trip.
The lowest elevation herbarium record said I might find the shrub near the bottom of the southwest slope of Wind Mountain, which is just east of Home Valley along Washington Route 14. I parked, walked around a gate and across a meadow choked with weedy Scotch Broom to the base of the talus and looked up. There, about 30 or 40 feet up the loose rock was a single shrub that looked like it might be the Garrya. I scrambled up and determined that it was indeed what I’d come to find.
This specimen was a female, with its red pistals sticking out all around the dangling tassel that gives the plants its name. I looked around some more but didn’t find any other specimens nearby. It was growing adjacent to a Vine Maple and near Douglas-firs, all somewhat stunted on this loose south-facing talus.
I returned to my truck to get my camera gear and scrambled back up the loose rock. It seemed that every time I planted my foot I knocked rocks loose. I was glad no one was below. Since I’d come so far I spent quite a lot of time photographing the plant. Ultimately I pruned one small stem and carried it to the base of the talus to shoot details in a more controlled environment. One of those is what you’re seeing here.
Bearbrush Silktassel is the only member of the genus native to Washington state, although Coast Silktassel, Garrya elliptica, is cultivated in gardens and there’s a hybrid of the two, Garrya x issaquahensis that is also cultivated. The male plants are grown more often because their tassels are showier.
Here’s the male Bearbrush Silktassel catkin. I found this specimen at the top of a road cut near the junction of Willard Road and Cook-Underwood Road. I was on my way to Willard and beyond where another herbarium specimen had been collected. This plant was at about 1000′ elevation and the male flowers had not yet completely opened. I believe that when they’re fully open the stamens will be showing. I made lots of images of the male plant and then continued up the road.
At around 2200′ elevation, 5.5 miles above Willard on Forest Service Road 66 at the edge of Big Lava Bed, there were many specimens of Garrya fremontii at the edge of the road and in the open woodlands. It was still cold up there, with patches of snow on the ground, so none of the plants were in bloom. I didn’t even see much evidence of buds, but perhaps they’re just small and not very showy.
Big Lava Bed is an interesting geological area, about 20 square miles of lava that oozed from the earth’s crust some 9000 years ago. Most of it is forested with stunted trees and shrubs growing from among the cracks in the lava. The ground is covered in a dense carpet of mosses and lichens. It shows prominently on the DeLorme Washington Atlas if you’re inclined to visit.
Photographic tools used for the Fremont’s Silk Tassel included my 70-200mm, 24-105mm, and 100mm macro lenses. I used a polarizer to cut the glare on the foliage in most of the full plant shots. For some of the male plant foliage photos I bounced fill light in with a big silver reflector (those photos aren’t in this post) and for the closeups I softened the light with my big diffuser. I carry a lot of stuff in my pack and I used much of it on this trip.
After I finished with the Garrya I headed a few miles further east to Catherine Creek, between Bingen and Lyle. It’s one of the best early season wildflower spots in the Gorge and I wasn’t disappointed. The Grass Widows were going strong, along with Piper’s Desert Parsley and Western Saxifrage. As the sun dipped below the ridge I headed for home.