Visit the high country of the North Cascades and other mountainous regions of the west during the summer and you’re likely to come across masses of pink mountain-heather, Phyllodoce empetriformis. It’s one of our very common low-growing woody plants, lighting up the hillsides for a short period of time with nodding bell-shaped brilliant pink blossoms. Some people call it pink mountain-heath. Continue reading →
When you think “Christmas tree” you’re probably conjuring up a conifer. They’re those trees with (generally) evergreen needle-like leaves that bear their seeds in woody cones. Those cones are where the name conifer comes from.
Here in the Pacific Northwest conifers are the backdrop for most of our landscape, whether in the wild or the garden. In fact, if you throw a rock anywhere on the west side of the Cascades and hit a tree you’ve probably found a Douglas-fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii. It’s our most common conifer and is native from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. There are three varieties, but we’ll not bother with that detail today. Continue reading →
As I sit at my office computer I can look out the door to the large and majestic Pacific willow (Salix lasiandra var. lasiandra) in our backyard. It’s one of 38 species of willows found in Washington state and one of the easier ones to identify (willows in general are notoriously difficult to key out).
Our Pacific willow is one of the last trees on our property to lose its leaves in autumn. Today it’s still covered, although there are lots of fallen leaves on the ground, too. Continue reading →
Every year we northwest lowlanders make pilgrimages to the mountains to savor Vaccinium deliciosum, Cascade blueberries (aka blueleaf huckleberry, Cascade bilberry, or Rainier blueberry). This low-growing and widespread blueberry lives up to its Latin name, for the fruit is truly delicious. When you find a patch loaded with fruit you can feast for a long time on sweet tastiness.
In this low-snow, warm-summer year the blueberries have ripened earlier than usual. Last weekend Natalie and I hiked out to Low Pass and High Pass, above Twin Lakes and just south of Mount Larrabee. In many places the trail is cut into a steep slope and we could graze on blueberries at waist level without even having to bend over. It can’t get much better than that! Continue reading →
Redwood sorrel, Oxalis oregana, gets that common name because it grows prolifically under the giant redwoods in northern California. But you don’t have to have redwoods to grow this attractive groundcover. Other common names for this plant are wood sorrel and Oregon oxalis. In the wild its also common in the understory of low-elevation Douglas-fir forests. It is native from British Columbia to California. Continue reading →
Sometimes a native species looks just like a non-native. One example, blooming now in the Pacific Northwest, is the hazelnut or filbert.
Corylus cornuta, beaked hazelnut, is our native species. On the west coast, it’s variety californica and in the rest of the continent you’ll find variety cornuta. It usually grows as a mid-sized multi-stemmed shrub but occasionally becomes a small tree.
Almost indistinguishable, Corylus avellana or European filbert, grows in the same habitats and except when it has nuts in late summer and early autumn you’ll be hard pressed to tell them apart. It’s grown commercially in Washington and Oregon for its very tasty nuts. In orchards this species is a medium-sized tree, but escaped to the wild it usually takes the same shrub form as our native hazelnut. There are also garden cultivars of Corylus avellana, particularly the very popular contorted filbet, var. contorta that’s been blooming for a while this winter. Continue reading →
Feathery tendrils of gold envelop rich red-purple centers, brightening a corner of the garden on dreary winter days and sending a heady sweet aroma wafting across the lawn. That’s what witchhazels (Hamamelis) will do for you. They’re one of my favorite shrubs for year-around interest in the garden, but especially in February as they come into bloom.
Witchhazels (sometimes written as two words, witch hazel) are shrubs or small trees that will ultimately reach about 15 feet tall and wide. They grow best in slightly acid to neutral, well-drained but moist soil. Plant them in full sun for the best growth form, although they’ll accept partial shade. Like many other plants, the more shade the more straggly and leggy the growth. Continue reading →
I have a lot of respect for mountain hemlocks (Tsuga mertensiana).
They’re tough, living at high elevation in the mountains where they get hammered with wave after wave of winter storms. Young trees may get buried completely by snow, hidden for months by a deep white blanket. Old trees take on a grizzled appearance, encrusted by rime ice after nearly every storm.
If you ski at any of Washington’s west-side ski areas you’ve seen mountain hemlocks, together with subalpine firs. You can easily recognize younger hemlocks by the characteristic nodding top, bent over whether under snow or not. Old trees may have their tops broken off. When you stop to catch your breath at the side of a ski run, look for the furrowed brown bark of the hemlock, in contrast to the smoother silvery bark of the firs. Upon even closer examination, notice that the hemlock needles are short, just a half-inch or so long, and arranged all around the twigs, with a somewhat ragged appearance. Continue reading →
As I look out the window to our garden the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is beginning to turn brilliant orange, almost glowing in the soft morning light. Erect pyramidal clusters of fuzzy red seeds form soft spires against the foliage.
This large shrub is native to most of eastern North America east of the Mississippi River. It is widely planted, and thrives, in much of the rest of the continent. A mature sumac can reach 25 feet tall and equally broad. It’s often a multi-stemmed shrub, spreading by suckers arising from the roots. Staghorn sumac is often found in the wild on disturbed sites and woodland edges. Continue reading →
Spiny wood fern (Dryopteris expansa), is one of our woodland plants that has continued to look good through the dry days of August while some of the other perennials have gone into summer dormancy or looked tired and droopy. We have quite a lot of wood fern growing in our woods, almost always on decaying conifer logs or stumps.
This deciduous fern is easy to recognize, although with just a quick glance you could confuse it with lady fern or male fern. Spiny wood fern has fronds that are broader at the base than at the tip, with a triangular shape that tapers to a point. It gets the spiny part of its name from the chaffy brown scales along the lower part of the leaf stems. Continue reading →