Groundcover = Weed?

I got a phone call this morning from a lady down around Olympia who had come across my wildflowers website. She hadn’t found a plant on the site that she’d found in the backyard of her home and asked if she could send me a JPEG to identify it for her before she took a weed eater to it. I get these requests pretty frequently, but usually by e-mail, so I said “yes” and she sent a file while we were still on the phone.

It only took a glance to know that her mystery plant was the very common garden groundcover, Vinca minor. The common name is periwinkle. It’s a plant I learned as a small child because my dad had it in our garden. It’s native to southern Switzerland and south to the Mediterranean. Continue reading

Tasty Weed

Dish of BlackberriesI don’t often think of weeds as providing tasty food, but in the case of our nasty and invasive Himalayan Blackberries, formerly Rubus discolor and now Rubus armeniacus, an environmental scourge of the Northwest provides mighty delicious eating. That makes sense, since the species was originally introduced to North America as a garden plant and food crop.

Blackberries are ripe right now, and they’re incredibly easy to locate. Just find a patch of disturbed ground, often along a road or trail anywhere in the Puget lowlands and you’re likely to discover a blackberry patch. Be prepared to battle the stout and thorny canes to reach the tasty morsels. Since the best tasting berries are those that are at their soft and juicy peak of ripeness, you’ll also come home with hands stained purple with their sweet juice.

Natalie and I spent about an hour a couple of days ago picking enough berries to make two turns of jam. The recipe couldn’t be simpler: smash 9 cups of berries, get them hot, run them through the Foley food mill to remove the seeds, then bring to a boil with 6 cups of sugar. Cook rapidly just to the jelly state and then pour into hot sterilized jars. Makes about 4 pints. We added an extra couple of cups of berries to compensate for the seeds we strained out. Modern practice is to process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes, but my grandmother just poured hot paraffin on her jams and jellies. We processed ours just to be safe.

Ripe Blackberries

Ripe and juicy blackberries are remarkably soft and tender. Here the moist surface reflects an overcast sky and makes the berries look almost metallic. I simply shook my bucket of berries gently to get some nice looking ones on top of the pile and a random arrangement. With the camera on a tripod and pointing straight down I shot with a 100mm macro lens. This was the closest version, but I shot several other variations as well.

The opening photo was made on my dining room table, again with the 100mm lens. I used the overhead incandescent lights for soft top light, and a little bit of late evening north window light from the right. The blue glass in the background is part of an antique glass collection I inherited from my folks.

If you’re interested in more info on blackberries as an invasive weed, the King County Noxious Weed Board has a good information page, which also discusses the equally tasty evergreen blackberry.

I like to think of our roadside blackberry harvesting as an exercise in controlling the spread of noxious weeds through seed dispersal. If we eat them then birds won’t spread the seeds. Bringing the berries to a boil before straining the seeds out should kill them so they don’t sprout in my compost pile.


Spartina anglica

Common Cordgrass, Spartina anglica, is one of the aquatic scourges of Puget Sound. One of three species of Spartina that have been introduced to the west coast, it aggressively alters its habitat by trapping sediment and raising the shoreline. As a result, productive mudflats disappear, invertebrates die, and the birds that depend on them have no food source.

Fortunately, there is a major program underway in Washington to wipe out the Spartina invasion. There has been major progress in the past four or five years, primarily through a combination of herbicide spraying and mowing. Spartina spreads both by floating seeds that can travel long distances and rhizomatous roots.

Last Saturday a group of us that had sup board packages, joined in a shoreline survey along Deadman and Little Deadman Islands in Skagit Bay south of Snee-oosh Point looking for Spartina. We really hoped we wouldn’t find any, but our group located several small clumps. Each one was only about a meter across and they were widely dispersed. We recorded the locations with GPS coordinates, which will be passed along to an erdication crew that will come in and spray. We surveyed by kayak on a rising tide so we could get close to the shore, travel slowly, and make careful observations. In a couple of cases we thought we saw clumps of Spartina that turned out upon closer observation to be good native plants.

For further information about Spartina visit Common Cordgrass on the Washington Noxious Weed Control Board website.

Roadside Weeds

I’ve been out bicycling a lot of miles around Whatcom County this year. While it’s mostly a speed thing challenging myself to see how fast I can go, I’m also observing what’s in bloom along the side of the road. It changes every few weeks, although there are few flowers, like Queen Ann’s Lace, that stay in bloom for a long time.

Japanese KnotweedRight now the showiest plant in bloom is one of our nasty invasive weeds, Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum). There’s some question about the taxonomy, so what we have may well be Bohemian Knotweed (Polygonum × bohemicum), a hybrid species. Regardless, it’s a tall showy plant with drooping panicles of white flowers that forms large masses at the side of the road.  It prefers moist places like ditches and streambanks and spreads by underground rhizomes. It’s very difficult to eradicate as any tiny bit of root will start a new plant and spraying common herbicides seem to only slow it down. The preferred method of attack is to inject herbicide directly into the stems, which is very labor intensive.

I’ve noticed that along some of the county roads it has been mown down, which might help keep it in check. At least seeds won’t set and spread the plant that way. Last winter the plants that hadn’t been cut drooped over onto the shoulder and partially blocked the way along one of the busier parts of one of my regular routes.

Japanese Knotweed is an example of a plant that was originally introduced as a garden specimen and got away. For more information about it and the other big knotweeds see this page from the Whatcom County Noxious Weed Board.

Common ToadflaxAnother pretty roadside weed, not nearly as widespread around here, is Common Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris). It’s only a foot or so tall and covered with attractive yellow flowers. I saw a patch of it along Slater Road near the railroad tracks yesterday. It’s not on the Washington noxious weed list, but its cousin Dalmatian Toadflax is.

Of course, not everything blooming along the road is a weed. I also saw quite a bit of the fall-blooming Pacific Asters on my rides this past weekend. My long ride was a loop out Mt. Baker Highway, down Mosquito Lake Road to Acme, down to Park Road and over to Lake Whatcom, then south past Cain Lake to Alger, and home by way of Lake Samish and Lake Padden. You can see the route on Map My Ride.

Searching for Elusive Plants

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Back in 2003 and 2004 I spent the entire growing season searching for wildflowers to include in Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest. By the time the season ended, there were about 40 plants that Phyllis and I thought ought to be included in the book that I was never in the right place at the right time to find. Now that some time has passed, I’ve decided to try to find and photograph all those I missed, as well as the handful that I messed up the ID.

Black Lily blossoms
The first really showy plant I’ve found this spring is the Black Lily, Fritillaria camschatcensis, also known as Kamchatka fritillary. It’s widespread in British Columbia, but on the state sensitive list in Washington where it is found in only a few places. I connected with someone who knows where it grows near the mouth of the Fraser River at the edge of Richmond, BC and made a trip to see and photograph it this week. See more photos on the Finn Slough page of Pacific Northwest Wildflowers, my newest website.

Large Mouse Ear Chickweed
Not nearly as much fun, but also missing from the first go-round, is one that turned out to be a common weed in my front lawn. I don’t know how I missed Cerastium fontanum ssp. vulgare, large mouse ear chickweed. I photographed it in the parking strip along Cornwall Avenue just down the street from our house during 5 o’clock traffic while construction was going on in the street. I shot more weeds that afternoon. Those photos are at Bellingham Weeds on the Pacific Northwest Wildflowers site.

I have about 40 plants on my list. One that we decided not to include in the book (because it is a tree) is Pacific crabapple, Malus fusca. I put out the word and several people told me where to find it locally. Some of the plants turned out to be escaped cultivated apples (they have 5 pistals) instead of native crabapples (with 3 pistals). The cultivated apples are in bloom now, but the crabapples are still in bud. I’ve found several specimens, and tore open a bud this afternoon to confirm the pistal count. At least I haven’t missed the bloom, and I’ve enjoyed getting out and looking for plants.

One of the places I looked for the crabapple was in the Connelly Creek Nature Area on Bellingham’s south side. It’s a mixed woodland and wetland area, with a lot of non-natives as well as native species.

Garden Cleanup

Some of us on the mild side of the Northwest joke that spring begins on New Year’s Day.  That’s really only a slight stretch, as we have several winter-blooming plants.  Our Viburnum bodnantense is in full fragrant bloom and I’ve seen a few blossoms on winter jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum, in other gardens.

Today was mild, so after sitting at my computer and captioning photos much of the day I took time to do a bit of much-needed garden cleanup. I’d left last season’s lavender seedheads for a bit of winter interest, but they were getting ratty looking. With a fresh haircut they’re now ready for growth in two or three months. I also pulled off the remains of the hardy geranium foliage, clipped off the asters, pulled out the annual alyssum, and generally did a quick tidying of the two beds in front of the house.  They look much better now.

There’s more work to be done, particularly getting a head start on the winter annual weeds like creeping buttercup, Ranunculus repens. That’s a real nasty plant that grows and spreads all winter long. I’ll get to it on another day soon.