I spent Wednesday through Friday of last week canoeing the Willamette River over on the coastal side of the state (for work – yes, be jealous). Marked on the map of one of the state parks we camped at, Willamette Mission, was the nation’s largest black cottonwood tree. Who could possibly resist?
This is the “Willamette Mission Cottonwood,” which is 155 feet tall, has a circumference of over 26 feet, and is approximately 270 years old. For scale, here’s a poorly-lit shot with a couple people standing next to the trunk:
I wish I’d had more time to take better pictures and enjoy it properly, but alas, we were only passing by. Still, it’s always fun to encounter a giant.
Back in Wisconsin, aspen suckers grew like weeds after an area was logged. It came as a surprise to learn, when I moved out West, that here aspens are in serious decline and the focus of conservation efforts. Above is a stand that we’re going to be building a fence around soon at work, to protect it from damage from cattle, deer, and elk.
It’s doubtful that elk actually spend much time in this pasture anymore (though they’re definitely around in the hills), but the dark scars on the trunks of the trees come from elk scraping at the bark with their teeth to get at the nutritious, photosynthetic layer of bark under the white outer layer.
While aspen trees do produce flowers, most of their reproduction is vegetative, in the form of new shoots or “suckers” growing from existing root systems. Young, tender suckers are super tasty food for deer – the ones in the photo above, growing in the shelter of a fallen adult, have been heavily browsed. Fencing the deer out of the stand will help young trees get established.
The way suckering works is actually pretty interesting – the crown of the tree produces a hormone called auxin that inhibits the production of suckers. When the tree falls and auxin is no longer produced, the growth of new suckers increases in response to keep the stand going. An aspen stand is really one big organism, interconnected by the root system that keeps on living even as individual trees die and are replaced. One particular aspen clone in Utah is a candidate for the world’s largest, oldest organism.
There are multiple reasons for aspen decline in the West, including the removal of top predators from ecosystems (no wolves -> more elk and deer -> more browsing of aspen) and the suppression of natural wildfires, which allows other trees like junipers to become established and crowd out aspen. Climate change is almost certainly playing a role, as well. More information:
The forests of the Cascades are pretty different from ours out here in the arid east – I saw lots of hemlocks and cedars while at Mount Hood, which was a nice change of pace. I also made the acquaintance of some interesting understory plants. First, Pacific Rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum):
Earlier in the season these shiny green leaves would have been complemented by clusters of big, showy pink flowers, but by this time of year all that remained of those was the developing fruits.
Second, ripe huckleberries of both the blue and red varieties – yum! These are two different species in the genus Vaccinium, which also includes blueberries and cranberries.
Nothing beats being able to stuff your face as you walk down a trail, amiright?
This is what the “forest” I was in for work yesterday looked like. One of the teenagers I was with asked me why someone didn’t just cut down all the standing dead trees, and I explained that snags like this are actually important habitat for wildlife such as woodpeckers. It does look pretty bleak, but even on a hot, dry, dusty August day, there were splashes of color.
That layer of purple is the aptly-named Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium). It’s a “weed” because it’s a pioneer species, quickly colonizing disturbed habitat – especially (as in this case) burned-over forest, but I also saw it growing along roadsides back in Wisconsin. However, unlike a lot of weedy, fast-growing roadside plants, this is a native species. This is one beautiful, welcome weed.
In the natural order of things, the trees that re-grow after a fire (you can see plenty of baby trees in the first two photos if you look) will soon out-compete the sun-loving pioneer weeds. Everything has its place and time, and even a bleak-looking forest of charred tree trunks is full of life.
Juniper trees are the nemesis of many ranchers around here. As a result of the region’s altered fire regime – no more wildfires sweeping through and keeping trees from establishing themselves – Western Junipers (Juniperus occidentalis – I like literal Latin names like this) are encroaching more and more onto rangeland, sucking up water with their taproots and outcompeting understory plants.
But the truth is, I kind of like ‘em, these tough, scrubby little trees. They’re survivors. And they’re not an exotic invasive species – they were always here, it’s just that now there are even more of them, in more places.
The female cones don’t look like cones at all, but like fleshy little silvery-blue berries. They’re an important food source for fruit-eating birds like robins and waxwings. They’re also where the flavoring in gin comes from. Someone I met at a conference recently told a story about mistaking a bag of juniper berries her boyfriend had left in their freezer for blueberries and baking them into a pie, but I wouldn’t recommend trying that at home.
The rugged individuals of the tree world. Really, they fit right in around here. And since me secretly liking them won’t actually change whether efforts to eradicate them from rangeland are successful, I’m going to go right on doing it.
Across large areas of the American West, one tree is the undisputed king of dry montane forests: the Ponderosa Pine, Pinus ponderosa. “Ponderosa” is literally Spanish for “ponderous,” a name which reflects the size and majesty of these trees. However, it isn’t only their beauty (or their value as timber) that makes me fond of Ponderosas. It’s their scent.
Two photos to start out your week, both taken at Bridge Creek Wildlife Area last Thursday. First, Clarkia pulchella, a wildflower first discovered by Lewis and Clark. It has several common names, but my favorite one, which comes from the branching petals, is deerhorn.
Second, a deer with horns.
Here, have some wildflower photos that I like too much not to post somewhere but that aren’t ever going to get individual blog posts of their own. I particularly like the one of the Mariposa Lily, for which I contorted myself into a knot on the ground to get a good angle.
Don’t know the name of this one
Bead Lily (but not quite the same as the bead lily I knew in Wisconsin)
Last Thursday I found myself in a section of the Umatilla National Forest a couple hours’ drive north of where I’m living now, much closer to the border with Washington. It was beautiful – endless ridges covered with Ponderosa Pine, Western Larch, Grand Fir, and other majestic western conifers. However, I kept getting distracted from the trees by other, much smaller plants.
Mountain Lady’s Slipper orchids (Cypripedium montamum)! They were all over the place, and the people I was with stepped right past them like they were no big deal, but as a newcomer to the ecosystem I was flabbergasted.
I love lady’s slippers – I wrote about my first encounter with Pink Lady’s Slippers in a bog in Wisconsin last summer. Obviously the shape of the big petal pouch reminded some historical botanist of a woman’s shoe. Bumblebees crawl inside the pouch, attracted by colors and scents, only to discover that no reward of nectar awaits them. Then they bump up against the flower’s reproductive parts on their way out past the lip and hopefully carry the pollen to another orchid in bloom, where they’ll be duped all over again. (They do figure it out pretty quickly, though.) Fact of the day: the word “orchid” comes from the Greek word for testicle!
Mountain Lady’s Slippers grow in high elevation forests in western North America. If you ever come across an orchid in the woods, please, please leave it alone – one of the major threats to these showy flowers is overzealous collecting by plant lovers.
Northern Starflower, Trientalis borealis. Normally they have seven petals (an unusual number). I didn’t notice while I was taking the photo that this one has eight.
Packing, cleaning, wrapping things up – it’s been two years since the last time I moved across the country, and I’d forgotten how involved it is. The plan is to get at least one more Northwoods post up before I leave on Wednesday. Said post will probably consist of me walking out to Inkpot Lake one last time and getting all sentimental about it. In any case, just trust me that normal blogging will resume… eventually.