Amelanchier alnifolia

Serviceberry, Saskatoon, Juneberry, shadblow, (among many common names) is a widespread and variable shrub or small tree. A. alnifolia, the species found in the Puget Lowlands, ranges in a widening triangle from Southern California through the West, and over most of Canada. Because of its variability, some authors have split A. alnifolia into several species. Hitchcock and Cronquist list five varieties, but note that “features vary independently rather than in tandem.” A. alnifolia var. semiintegrifolia is the subspecies
found here in the Central Puget Sound region.
Saskatoon berries are grown commercially in Canada and in some parts of the US, and their nutritional properties are similar to blueberries, leading some people to advertise them as a “superfood.” In addition to eating the berries (fresh or dried,) Native Americans used them as a sweetener and preservative for other foods. The twigs were made into medicinal tea, and the wood was used for combs and arrows, or whenever a hard, straight wood was needed.
Many varieties of wildlife partake of the fruit of the serviceberry. Ungulates (especially elk) browse the twigs, though their high cyanide content can be deadly if no other food is available. Butterflies, bees and hummingbirds nectar on the flowers, and it is a caterpillar host plant to pale tiger swallowtails, lorquin’s admirals, hairstreaks and elfins.
With white flowers in the spring, delicate bluish-green foliage, colorful berries, and yellow to orange fall color, A. alnifolia may be used as a specimen in a small garden, and it is a welcome addition to a naturalized border. It tolerates some shade, but full sun will maximize fruit production. It can be propagated by transplanting suckers, layering, softwood cuttings or seed, though seed viability is reported to be low. It is widely used in restoration sites because of its value to wildlife, drought tolerance, and soil-binding capabilities.

Sisyrinchium californicum

This month I have a flower request from the folks at the plant sale. Yellow-eyed grass is one of the two common species of Sisyrinchium native to Western Washington. It ranges mostly along the western slope of the Cascades from BC South through California. A lover of damp places, it can be found at the edges of wetlands, along seeps, and in wet meadows.
Sisyrinchiums are members of the iris family. The name comes from Theophrastus, although the modern usage applies to a New World genus. Sisyrinchium have their center of diversity in Argentina, and genetic evidence seems to point to two separate waves of expansion into North America. Sisyrinchium idahoense (blue-eyed grass), our other common Sisyrinchium here in Western Washington, comes from a different branch of the genus than californicum does. There are also a couple of endemic Sisyrinchiums in the state that may have speciated from the more common varieties during an ice age.
In the garden, it is a short-lived perennial that re-seeds in damp spots (like the well-watered beds in the nursery). Usually less than a foot tall, the symmetrical yellow flowers that peek out between the strap-shaped leaves open on sunny mornings and often close by afternoon. When not in bloom, it forms pleasing clumps of pale green mini-iris. The dry leaves turn a purplish black, providing a nice contrast.
Lisa Karst, Ph.D. Phylogeny, Character Evolution, and Biogeography of Sisyrinchium (Iridaceae)

Pseudotsuga menziesii var menziesii

The Coast Douglas fir is one of the tallest trees in the world. The Mineral tree, near Mineral, in Lewis County, was measured at 120 meters (393 feet) in 1924. There is a 1901 report of logging a douglas fir 411 feet tall. However, the tallest living Douglas fir today is only 326 feet, easily eclipsed by the largest Coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) at 379 feet tall. The tallest tree ever measured was an Australian mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans), 435 feet tall. That tree was also promptly logged.

Douglas fir is still economically important here in Wastern Washington. In 2010, 46,052 thousand board feet of Douglas fir were harvested in King County alone. Douglas fir wood has a very high strength-to-weight ratio, so is used extensively for structural timbers and plywood. Douglas fir also accounts for more than half the Christmas trees produced in Washington State.

Douglas fir is an early seral species. After a disturbance such as fire or logging, the forest can regrow into an almost pure Douglas fir stand, though most timberlands are now planted with seedlings to give them a jump on the red alders (Alnus rubra) which can otherwise shade them out. Since a Douglas fir can live over 750 years, they remain an important species in older forests as well.

Douglas firs begin to produce strobili (cones) at about 12-15 years of age. It takes about 17 months from the start of bud development to cone maturation. The seeds are wind dispersed, and usually fall within 150 meters of the parent tree, though they can travel for over a kilometer. Seed production varies by year, with a heavy crop every seven years or so. Trees 200-300 years old produce the most seeds.

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.