Friday, March 3, 2017

My Native Flora

Exotics and natives at Flora Farm

The fields and gardens at Flora Farm are filled with exotics, but the perimeters consist of Oregon's native flora, the trees and brush that house bugs and birds and mammalian critters. Some will lament that I didn't devote all of my land to natives, but I could never have made a living that way, and besides none of my exotics are invasive or have in any way harmed the native fauna.

Afternoon light at Flora Farm

Afternoon rainbow

We set an all-time record for rain this past February, and not only that but it averaged 10 degrees colder than normal. The fog pierced into our bones, and on some days the gray hell didn't lift and we never warmed. But not always. Today, February 28th I have returned home from the nursery and my lands are awash with 5:30 PM light. Two chicken hawks sit at the top of the pie-cherry tree and further to the east arcs a worthy rainbow, not quite as brilliant as I sometimes see, but still I feel like I'm getting my money's worth.

Accipiter cooperi

I think our raptors are the Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperi), sometimes called the quail hawk because of their rounded torsos. I don't know how long they live, but every February-March for the past 14 years they conduct their business in my backyard; sadly I have never seen where they nest. Oddly the males are smaller than the females and they have a higher-pitched voice. As with humans – though human men are usually larger – the chicken hawk males are said to be submissive to females and will listen for reassuring call notes when the females are willing to be approached.

Quercus garryana

Annual Tualatin flood

Lichen species

Anyway let's get past the amorous hawks and go down to the brushy banks of the Tualatin River to see what is growing. There are many scrubby oaks (Quercus garryana) that line the river, none of them nearly as stupendous as my prize a quarter-mile uphill from the river near my house. Nearly every year our bottom lands flood and the oaks can stay submerged for three to four weeks without harm. I sometimes wonder if the weight of the biomass of lichens, moss and ferns is greater than the pure wood itself. Scientists say that the gray lichen does not harm the trees, that oaks are strong due to dense, entwined wood cells. After all, the two natives have evolved together for several million years so they apparently don't mind each other's company. Further away from the river in my Upper Gardens the lichen has begun to cling to my Japanese maples as well. I wished it wasn't present for I prefer the clean look on maple branches, but lichens are said to be an indicator of good air quality and they are used as food, shelter and nesting material for squirrels, birds, deer, bats, wasps and butterflies etc.

Toxicodendron diversilobum

OK then, everyone loves the oaks – so go hug an oak. But be sure you know what you're getting into, because frequently the presence of the Quercus implies that you could be stepping into poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum). Since they are so often found growing with each other one wonders if they share a symbiotic relationship, or if the birds just eat the ripe fruits and then shit them out while sitting in the old oak tree. Poison oak is nasty stuff and a huge percentage of country children wander into it. Their bodies will rash horribly – and I mean everywhere – and they will miss school for at least a week but without any fun. I know as I have been a victim, with my last outbreak when I was a teenager on a fishing trip. I suppose that most sufferers eventually develop an immunity to the poison – the urushiol – but it affects everyone differently. Office manager Eric Lucas' mother, a tough country gal, was burning brush on her property and threw the poison oak branches onto the fire. Eric's father warned her that what she was doing was not safe, but it turned out that the poison from the smoke didn't bother her at all but it disabled him. My children are smarter than I was at their age for they have learned to identify poison oak, and the dog is kept on a leash when they're down by the river so that the kids don't unwittingly pet him and get infected.

Symphoricarpos albus

Another plant that occurs in the same vicinity is the “snowberry,” also known as “waxberry” or “ghostberry” due to the white glossy fruit. Its botanic name Symphoricarpos is derived from the Greek word symphorein meaning “to bear together” and karpos for “fruit,” referring to the closely packed berries. The species on my property is albus for obvious reason. The genus is in the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae) and is native to western North America. Birds can disperse the seeds – two per drupe – but the plant also sprouts anew from its spreading rhizomes, and I have one particularly large thicket near my river pump. Native Americans used the plant as a medicine and a soap, and sometimes for food. I've never eaten a fruit, probably because of a story I read twenty years ago when a group of Japanese children were visiting Oregon and went hiking in the Columbia River Gorge. One girl took a fancy to the snowberries and popped one after another into her mouth. She became horribly ill and had to be rushed to the hospital to be induced to vomit. Basically I have taught my children to eat nothing from the woods if I am not around...not that the box grocery store is necessarily a great source for food either.

Arbutus menziesii

Arbutus menziesii 

Arctostaphylos nevadensis 'Ponchito'

There are a couple of madrones at the wood's edge, and they lean out from the Douglas firs and stretch southerly for the sun. I entered Arctostaphylos menziesii into our website to see which photo I would use. I didn't understand why nothing came up so I entered menziesii. Up popped Arbutus menziesii, and of course that is what I was after. I was momentarily confused because they're both in the Ericaceae family and both feature white urn-like flowers. Arctostaphylos is not native to my property, but we have successful plantings of A. nevadensis and A. uva-ursi. Arbutus was introduced to England by David Douglas in 1827, and hopefully his first sighting of the reddish-brown bark wasn't marred by some lover carving his initials into the trunk to impress his girlfriend. The name Arbutus is Latin for “strawberry tree,” for Arbutus unedo, a Mediterranean species. The Arctostaphylos name was given to the genus for the circumboreal A. uva-ursi for plants found in Europe. The name is from Greek arktos meaning “bear” and staphyle meaning “grapes” in reference to bears eating the fruits, and indeed the common name of the genus is “bearberry.”

Acer circinatum

Acer macrophyllum

Of the three Acer species native to Oregon – A. circinatum, A. macrophyllum and A. glabrum – only the former two grow on my property as natives. I did plant one specimen of A. glabrum next to the woods so I could claim to grow all three, but the closest native stand of A. glabrum (ssp. douglasii) that I know of is at Wahkeena Falls in the Columbia River Gorge forty miles away. Neither my “vine maple” nor “big-leaved maple” species form attractive trees, and there are hundreds of the latter, and I guess that it's from too much floral competition, or perhaps from the annual flooding. I have been tempted in the past to plant some A. circinatum cultivars, such as 'Burgundy Jewel' down at the river, and maybe also an A. macrophyllum 'Mocha Rose', and then I could admire them from my deck a thousand feet away. But that would be a project for a younger man with more energy and time, and I doubt that Flora would in any way be impressed.

Fraxinus latifolia

Fraxinus latifolia

I suppose my least favorite tree at the river is the “Oregon ash,” Fraxinus latifolia. It leafs out early, and that will be only six weeks from now, but the foliage color is an unimpressive light gray-green. The trees' structure is rather scrappy, usually with a lot of broken limbs, although a few do soar to about eighty feet tall. Even as firewood the ash is decidedly secondary to that of oak. I know they serve a purpose for wildlife and to stabilize the river banks, but under them too will be found the dreaded poison oak. The ash always look stressed, and by August's end the foliage turns to a dirty yellow, but in the right afternoon light it's not so bad. F. latifolia is the only ash species native to the Pacific Northwest, one of sixteen species in the United States, and the genus is a member of the olive family (Oleaceae). The flowers are dioecious (with male and female flowers on separate trees), and the fruit is a single samara which hangs in dense clusters. The specific name latifolia means “with broad leaves” – not a name I would have chosen – but the botanist Nuttall originally named it Fraxinus oregona. The generic name Fraxinus is Latin for “ash,” and derived names include fresno* in Spanish, frene in French, fassino in Italian and fraxos in Greek.

*Fresno is the largest city in California's Central Valley, a hell-hole where days exceed 100 degrees F seemingly all summer. It was named for the abundance of ash trees lining the San Joaquin River and an ash leaf is featured on the city's flag.

Cirsium arvense

“Canada thistle,” Cirsium arvense, is also a bane to my lowlands, and it has been present throughout my ownership. It is a plant in the Asteraceae family, but since it is not native to Canada no one knows how the common name came about. The generic name Cirsium is derived from Greek kirsos which means “swollen vein,” and related plants from this genus were used as an herbal remedy to relax swollen veins. The specific name arvense means “of cultivated fields,” and the thistle shares it with other weeds such as “bindweed,” Convolvulus arvensis. Seeds are attached to a cotton-like pappus as photographed above, and the system is perfect for wind dispersal. Why the thistle is so problematic is that its seed can survive in soil for up to twenty years, and also that a single plant can develop a lateral root system with a twenty-foot spread in a single season. Besides, root pieces can break off in cultivation so the infestation can grow worse. The local farmer used to grow corn in this area and the presence of thistles posed him no problem, but he has been away for five years and I notice the invasion is getting worse.

Cornus sericea

Cornus sericea 'Hedgerows Gold'

Cornus sericea 'Hedgerows Gold'

Cornus sericea (syn. C. stolonifera), our native “red osier* dogwood” has developed into impenetrable patches of red stems up to 12' tall in my soggy eastern woods. Certain cultivars, with red or yellow stems are used in horticulture, and we also used to grow the rambunctious 'Hedgerows Gold', but it required a lot of space or constant pruning. The flowers of the species are quite boring, small and dull white, and the fruit is also small and rather unornamental. The specific epithet sericea means “silky” due to the texture of the leaves. I don't have a problem with this native since it stays in place and away from my exotics, and of course it's part of the greater ecosystem that has evolved along the Tualatin River. And if I ever take up smoking I know I can copy Native Americans who smoked the inner bark in a mixture with the bearberry to improve the taste.

*The name “osier” is from Latin ausaria for “willow bed.”

Salix species

I really don't know much about “willows,” botanically identified as Salix, except that at least one species (or hybrid) grows on my property. Today its catkins are noticeable because they appear before the leaves, and cut stems can be brought indoors now and they are described as “pussy willows.” At Flora Farm an emptied maple field was neglected without any cultivation, and after three years I had willow bushes at least 10' tall. We pruned them to the ground last fall and we'll try to eliminate them this year, but I regret that money and effort is required to keep farmland free of scrub when there is no profit to be made. Nature certainly has an urge to dominate my lands, and who knows, maybe she'll eventually get the best of me.

Pseudotsuga menziesii

At higher elevation on the northwestern banks of my property are a number of impressive specimens of Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, where I would guess that each tree is 150 years old. They are far out west from my home and the thought has occurred to me that logging them would provide a nice retirement income. I would hate to cut them though, and would prefer to sell the property intact one day. Besides, the government would suddenly appear with hands out for a “timber tax.” Oregon's leeching liberals have never helped me with anything and so I resent that my life's efforts and achievements are something for them to pocket. They have also proposed to meter and tax me on the water from my well, as if they had anything to do with installing and maintaining it. It used to be that a man “owned” his property if he held the deed, but now the state has decided that we're only “renting” it from them, for after all where else would their pensions come from?

Maybe I should look at it their way too, since the White Man didn't consult, and just took away the Natives' lands before I entered the scene, so it never really has been “mine.” The resident coyotes yip and holler at night beneath my house, a chilling reminder that they are weighing in too.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Talon, Those are American Kestrels. Falco sparverius, the smallest of the falcons in North America. They are also called sparrow hawks.