Acer circinatum

One often hears transplants from the East coast complain about the lack of fall color here in the Pacific Northwest. They are in need of a vine maple, which can turn any color from yellow, through orange, to dark red, providing an autumn focal point to a garden or forest understory.
In my opinion, vine maple is a perfect tree for a small garden, with its delicate palmate leaves, elegantly curved limbs, and red and white flowers in the spring. Vine maple is part of the palmatum group of maples – closely related to Japanese and Korean maples. Like them, it has several named cultivars, including a few dwarf forms.
Vine maple seeds should be sown fresh. Even then, germination can be slow and finicky. However, vine maple is easy to propagate by layering. In the wild, the curved branches often loop down and root where they touch the ground, forming shrubby thickets.
Although vine maples do not grow large enough to provide commercial lumber, their wood is hard and dense, useful for tool handles. Traditionally, it was used to make bows, arrows, snowshoe frames, and dipnets. Pliable young shoots can be used in basketry. According to the Thompson Ethnobotany, the wood was burned into charcoal and mixed with brown sugar to treat dysentary and polio. As with other maples, the sap can be used as a sweeetener.
Its native range is from Southern Alaska through Northern California, keeping within about 300 kilometers of the coast. Vine maple is a favorite summer browse for black tailed deer and elk, and is favored by livestock as well. Vine maple thickets often contain high populations of mountain beaver. The seeds are eaten by many birds and small animals.
Although I haven’t heard of any changes to the name Acer circinatum, according to the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group, the plant family Acaraceae no longer exists. The genus Acer is now part of the Sapindaceae.

Turner, Nancy et al.
Thompson Ethnobotany
Royal British Columbia Museum, 1990

Uchytil, Ronald J. 1989. Acer circinatum. In: Fire Effects Information System

Fertig, Walter
“Farewell to Aceraceae: Changes in the Angiosperm Family Tree”
Sego Lily (Newsletter of the Utah Native Plant Society) September 2010

Click to access Sego2010SepOct.pdf


Late Night Encounters

Spokane, WA Riverwalk

The rocks under the bridge resolve themselves into five furry faces,
Twitching noses under masked eyes.
A guy on a bike stops to warn me, “those things are mean.”
I assure him I won’t try to touch one, and he rides off.
The mamma raccoon waits patiently for her kits to get a noseful of human, then scuttles off into the bushes, followed by one, two, and three.
A good ten seconds later, the runt, half the size of its siblings,
looks up from where it was slubbing in the mud.
“They went that way,” I point.
After a second’s thought, it scuttles after them.
I am relieved to see one of the quicker siblings greet it at the edge of the thicket,
Licking its face and chivviyng it off into the darkness.

Symphyotricum subspicatum Aka Aster subspicatus

Douglas aster is a rhizomatous perennial 1-3 feet tall. The one in my yard is currently in bloom (August), one of the few Puget lowland natives that puts on a show in late summer. Though it is a bit too exuberant for a small formal border, Douglas aster is a cheerful addition to a naturalized meadow or forest edge. It tolerates salt spray, and is a good source of nectar for bees and butterflies. Mine is tucked into a corner between some hardscaping, a large shrub, and the lawn, where overenthusiastic shoots meet the mower.

It’s not only plants that don’t stay put. In 1994 there was a worldwide study on the big, variable genus Aster, which concluded that North American Asters were not very closely related to the Eurasian type species. (Both the chromosomes and the achenes of the Eurasian species are larger and more symmetrical). So, someone went through the published literature to find the earliest alternate genus names. The largest group of North American species ended up in Symphyotricum.

In the Washington Flora Checklist, David Giblin writes “Symphyotrichum subspicatum is a weedy, highly polyploid species, probably of allopolyploid derivation from different combinations of species including S. chilense, S. eatonii, S. foliaceum, S. laeve, and S. spathulatum. Hybrids with S. hallii are known from western Oregon. The species passes into S. foliaceum in Southeastern Alaska.” The Jepson manual states that S.subspicatum is “highly variable; grades into S.chilense.”

In other words, once you get used to all the name changes, you can continue to amuse yourself by trying to define the plant.

Bibliography: subspicatum

The Jepson Manual, 2nd Ed. University Of California Press, 2012

Rubus spectabilis

Another edible early spring bloomer is Rubus spectabilis, or salmonberry. It is native to the west coast (East into Idaho, though mostly from the Cascades West) from Alaska through Northern California, a perrenial, thicket-forming shrub 1-4 meters tall. Though salmonberries have some prickles on their young growth, they are less armored than most other members of the genus Rubus.
Salmonberry shrubs can be identified by their tripartate leaves. If you fold the middle leaf back, the two remaining ones have the shape of a butterfly’s wings. In winter, the orangey-tan color of the stems is diagnostic.
The leaves and magenta flowers appear early in the spring, sometimes while there is still snow on the ground. Rufus hummingbirds time their spring return to the flowering of salmonberry. (Keep your eyes open. See if you can find a rufus hummingbird before you’ve noticed salmonberry in bloom. As soon as you see a blooming salmonberry, keep your eyes open for a rufous hummingbird.)
Ripe salmonberry fruit varies in color from yellow to orange to red. According to one study, birds prefer the red ones, but for humans, the flavor varies more between salmonberry patches than among colors of fruit, which can vary even on individual shrubs. It is also possible that individual people have different reactions to salmonberry flavinoids, as reports on the flavor of the berries vary widely. Native peoples ate the early spring shoots as well as the berries, often serving salmonberries with salmon or roe. Some sources claim that is the reason it’s called salmonberry. It is also supposed to help with digestion – especially if one has overindulged in its namesake fish. Modern recipes use the berries in pie, jellies and wine. The berries have too much water in them to dry easily.
Salmonberries are found mostly along streamsides and in damp woods, often under stands of alder. They establish best in disturbed soils, but patches can exist almost indefinitely, “moving” by sending out runners as parts of the patch are shaded out. Salmonberry can be propagated by seed, live staking, layering stems, or transplanting runners. It is deep-rooted enough to be useful in fighting erosion, and is a valuable wildlife plant both for food and shelter. In some areas, it is sought out as sheep forage.

A Tale of Three Ribes

M and I were camped in a clearcut in Loomis Forest (Okonogan county) in June, and found three different Ribes (R. cereum, R. lacustre, and R. viscosissimum) in full bloom within a ten foot radius. Despite being in members of the same genus, the flowers of these three species look very different. R. lacustre is bowl-shaped and brown; R. cereum is tubular and pink; R. viscosissimum is also pink, but has a showy ring of flared sepals around the tube.
My first thought was that these three similar shrubs must have different pollinators. How else to explain their floral diversity? The idea that pollinators drive the evolution of flower structure (The Grant-Stebbins model) is neither new nor edgy.
Just like with Darwin’s orchid, whose pollinating moth was not discovered until years after Mr. Darwin predicted its existence, there must be a creature that prefers each of these shapes, right?
North American Ribes are moneceous, with perfect flowers. Research on domesticated Ribes has shown that most Ribes are bee-pollinated; exclusion of pollinators significantly reduces Though the stamens and anthers are positioned to discourage self pollination, it is known to occur. However, self-pollinated fruits often drop before ripening.
A study in California ( found that despite floral differences, the 14 species tested were all visited mostly by bees, though gnats, beetles and hummingbirds also stopped by. “Visitor assemblages varied as much between sites for individual species as they did between different species.”
Hybrid Ribes are unusual in the wild, though they are used in agriculture. An experiment In Latvia successfully crossed our Ribes sanguineum with their commercial black current (R. nigrum). Hybrids successfully bore fruit, and exhibited increased fungal resistance.
So, what have I learned from looking at these three shrubs growing and flowering together? They share at least some pollinators. Something other than pollinators is keeping them distinct. I’m not the first person to ask these questions. Maybe searches at a mollecular level will discover the answers. Maybe they will just raise more questions.

Oxalis oregana

Wood sorrel (also called Oregon sorrel or redwood sorrel) is another Pacific coast native, a plant of the coast ranges from central California through Washington. It is common from the wet side of the Olympic Peninsula south. The WTU Herbarium lists it as occurring in King County, but I could only find one non-garden-origin specimen in the database, from a Mercer Island address.
Neither WTU herbarium nor the USDA Plants database show it as occurring on the mainland North of King County. It is listed as a “species of special concern” in British Columbia.
The name Oxalis comes from the Latin word for sour. The plant contains oxalic acid, which can be toxic in large quantities. It can combine with calcium or other metals in the body to form kidney stones. Oxalic acid is also the component of rhubarb leaves that makes them toxic.
The US EPA classes oxalic acid as a pesticide, mostly because it is used as a disinfectant in some bathroom cleansers and swimming pool treatment systems. Exposure to concentrated oxalic acid can cause skin irritation and eye damage, but it degrades quickly, and is not considered a threat to wildlife.
In Ethnobotany of Western Washington, Erna Gunther states that the Cowlitz and Makah tribes use the juice of Oxalis as an eye wash. Other tribal uses are as a wash to counteract skin irritations and rheumatism, and as a trail snack.
In the garden, Oxalis oregana is an appealing groundcover with shamrock leaves and pink-tinged white flowers. It tolerates deep shade, exhibiting nyctinasty (folding its leaves in response) when subjected to bright sunlight. It is also rhizomatous, and will spread to cover whatever area it can. (This is a beautiful thing if you want to fill in bare ground between the sword ferns under your rhododendrons; not so much if you have planted it with delicates in your formal border.)
So. The sour leaves and flowers of O.oregana make a wonderful trailside snack or addition to a salad; just don’t overdo it. Plant it somewhere where you won’t be battling its exuberant nature. And, if you find it growing wild (not as a garden escapee) north of Olympia, please tell me!

Oemlaria Cerasiformis

A good plant to think of in January. Also, the first Plant of the Month column I ever wrote.

Around the time this newsletter comes out, some of you will probably be looking for the first signs of spring. A good place to start is the shrub Oemlaria cerasiformis, also called osoberry or Indian plum. Native to the west slope of the Cascades from BC to California, it is one of the earliest low altitude spring bloomers. Here in the Puget Sound lowlands, it can occasionally be found in flower as early as late January. O. cerasiformis is dioeceous, with male plants being more common than females, and also sporting more flowers and a longer blooming time. Male and female flowers are superficially similar, but if you look inside (use a hand lens), the flower will either have developed stamens or ovaries. You can also “cheat” by looking for the remaining stems from last year’s fruit on the female plants.
In the landscape, osoberry tends to blend in with the other shrubs in the forest edge or riparian area, an inconspicuous wall of green when it is not dressed in sprays of delicate white flowers. In my yard, at least, the leaves start to yellow and fall by late August, making it both early to bed and early to rise.
The fruits are drupes, like plums or cherries, (also members of the rose family), and ripen as early as May or June, first blushing orange, then red, then nearly black when they are ripe. They are edible, if you can get to them before the birds and critters do – everyone from cedar waxwings and grosbeaks to racoons and coyotes enjoys an osoberry. Try to find one from a sunny branch. It will have a higher sugar content. If you can collect enough, they make an excellent jam.
So, put on your boots and raingear, and take yourself for a walk along a lowland forest edge, looking for the first signs of spring. See if you can find a female osoberry, and keep checking back in early summer. Maybe you’ll get lucky and find enough plums to make jam.

Reptillian Overthrow

Global warming is an alligator conspiracy.
The largest of them take jobs at wrestling venues throughout the South
And insist on heated pools and being paid in vast quantities of hamburger,
Leading directly to an increase in cow farts and emissions from coal-fired power plants.

They don’t understand the connection between arsenic released by mountaintop removal,
And deformed eggs.
Hatchlings born with fur, oversized brains, and glow-in-the-dark scales, usually get eaten,
But not always.

They eagerly await the promised expansion of their swampland territories brought on by rising sea levels.

The mosquitoes concur.

The cockroaches, who have been diligently evolving a greater resistance to the cold, calculate that their investments are well enough diversified to withstand a fifteen degree climate shift in either direction.
They are also developing aquatic options.

Only the mangroves, caught between deep water and new, nearshore expressways, are concerned.

But, who ever listens to a tree?

A Visit to the SAM Peru Exhibit

On Friday, M and I finally made it into town to see the Peru exhibit at SAM, the day before it closed. I wanted to see it partly because I spent a summer in Peru when I was eleven, and can still remember lots of the things I saw then. I was not disappointed. There were a few items in the exhibit, borrowed from the Museo de Oro in Lima, that I remembered seeing on our visit there. (If you ever get a chance, go. The upstairs is a collection of arms and armor from around the world. The downstairs is a house-sized walk in vault full of amazing golden objects.)

I thought the exhibit was well laid out – separate rooms for several pre-Inca cultures, then Inca Empire objects, followed by a room full of artwork from the Catholic sledgehammer of the Spanish invasion.

One of the paintings in the colonial period room was a depiction, by a native artist, of a Corpus Christi procession, one of the colonial answers to the traditional feast of Inti-Raymi, the return of the sun, which marks the (Southern hemisphere) winter solstice. In the center of the painting are several important-looking personages in the garb of Inca nobility.

My parents and I visited Cuzco about a week after the main Inti-Raymi celebrations, but the day we arrived, there was a procession from an outlying town, bringing their statue of the Virgin Mary to be blessed at the Cathedral.  The statue, more than life sized, was dressed in jewel-encrusted red velvet over many years worth of handmade lace.  She was supported on two beams, carried by a dozen(?) men, barefoot, and dressed in traditional campesino pants and ponchos.

The parade also included dancers, horsemen, floats, and clowns made up to look like conquistadors. The people seemed to have embraced the religion, without having forgotten the way it was brought.


M said he was disappointed that the exhibit didn’t have more history to it; that much of it was a display of ruling class burial practices.

That, and some architecture, is what has come down to us. The Incas, (also an empire full of disparate peoples), didn’t have a written language. The art of reading their knotted quipu ledgers has been lost. The Spanish did what they could to melt down and destroy the rest. If people hadn’t buried these amazing objects, they wouldn’t have survived. Insert your own comment about unexpected afterlives here.