Sprinklers and other strange sights

Our unseasonably hot spring has turned into unseasonably hot summer. What a year for the mainline water pipe that controls irrigation to sections B and C, all surrounding borders and other areas beyond the Medicinal Herb Garden, to break. And it’s not going to be fixed any time soon. Why? I couldn’t tell you. I’ve learned not to ask questions about budget priorities at a large institution. I just take care of the garden, come hell or high water, or in this case, drought and heat. For a couple weeks, I watered by hand with a watering wand and it took a very long time. When certain soils get too dry, they become hydrophobic, meaning they repel rather than absorb water. Watering wands put out a lot of volume and that overwhelmed the ability of the soil to soak it up. Oh, the frustration!

So I turned to sprinklers. They use up almost as much time because they need to be repositioned often. But they soak the soil more gradually than the watering wands and that means no more runoff. They also soak the gravel and everything else in the area and waste a lot of water through evaporation. Oh well…

 

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It’s not the best sprinkler for garden beds but it will do in an emergency and this is a year of sustained emergency.

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This overhead sprinkler, like the kind we used to run through as children, works quite well but it needs to be moved a lot to cover the vast area that is without irrigation this year. I’ll do what I must to keep the plants alive.

 

Last week, someone passing through the garden mentioned that there were thousands of bees massing along the Burke-Gilman Trail, close to the greenhouse. That got my attention so off I ran to investigate. Bees! This is what I saw.

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Honey bee (Apis mellifera) swarm on the artichoke plants (Cynara scolymus) near the southeast corner of the greenhouse.

 

I called our resident entomologist and beekeeping instructor, Evan Sugden. Luckily he answered his phone and agreed to come right over. I didn’t get a chance to see him wave his magic wand, but he somehow coaxed the bees into this bee box. Good work, Evan.

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New home for the honeybees.

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Bees slowly settling into their new space. Once they had set up house, Evan moved them to the bee village where the rest of the bee boxes are placed. Protected from extreme weather by nearby woods and surrounded by a wide variety of flowering plants, the bee boxes are in an excellent spot but will have to move soon to make room for construction of a new building. Hopefully, their new home, wherever it is, will be as well situated. Good luck, bees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During the warm, dry days of summer, many birds take dust baths, presumably to clean their feathers and remove parasites. I often find smooth, rounded, shallow indentations in  the garden beds where there is bare soil. I used to wonder what mysterious force acted upon the soil to create these strange circles of various sizes. Hmmm… And then one day I saw this behavior.

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A Steller’s jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) had to do a little work to get to the dry soil beneath the forest litter. I’ve seen lots of different birds take dust baths in the garden, but most often jays, robins and crows. Sometimes the indentation is etched deeply enough that the bird appears as though it’s been flattened by a steamroller or has flown up from the netherworld and is assessing the situation before disappearing again below the surface, like a whale coming up for air and a view of the sky.

 

I’d rather bathe in water than dust but to each his own. Wherever the sprinkler is watering there are birds taking water baths and drinking. Maybe that’s their reward after taking a dust bath. Speaking of birds, look who wandered into the woods north of section D today.

 

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Fledgeling great blue heron (Ardea herodias) who wandered into the woods after failing to get back to the nest on its maiden voyage. Some concerned citizens who work on campus were looking on when I took this photograph. We agreed to give it our best shot to see if there’s a sanctuary that will accept this beautiful bird. Otherwise, the raccoons will be getting a fresh meal soon. The heron rookery, under which the bird stands, seems to be thriving this year after the herons nearly deserted the area last year.

 

The flowers are opening from the bottom to the top of the inflorescence on this glorious Agave xylonacantha outside the west end of the Botany Greenhouse. It’s listing to the south so I had to lie on the ground to get its picture. Please stop by to see it if you get the chance.

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Agave xylonacantha, a native of Mexico, flowering between the greenhouse and Kincaid Hall. The inflorescence is about 18 feet long.

It’s blazing hot and humid from yesterday morning’s brief thundershower. The ground is parched, fires are starting on the east side of the state and even on the Olympic Peninsula, in the rain forest of the Queets River valley. More than a million acres of Alaska are burning with hundreds of forest fires as I write. It’s going to be a long summer.

 

 

keep near the water

oh, harsh law of the desert

echoing onward

 

 

See you in the garden.

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Trimming hedges, transforming weeds and eating a tamarillo…finally

Evey year, just before graduation, it’s time to trim the hedge that runs along Stevens Way from the west side of section D to the east side of section E. It’s a mixed hedge of privet (Ligustrum japonicum) holly (Ilex aquifolium) and bay laurel (Laurus nobilis). They’re all still there, but the root suckers from the many species of hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) which grow adjacent to the hedge on the north side, have made their way into the privet section along with tall Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium). It’s hedge trimmer’s choice, how to deal with these uninvited guests. My only absolute rule is to leave no gaping holes. As long as everything is more or less green, who cares? My battery powered hedge trimmer with a 24 inch blade makes the work such a pleasure compared to the manual hedge shears which I used for far too long.

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My shoulders are so much happier now. This is truly a labor saving device.

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The hedge gets a haircut.

Last Friday, the UW Society of Ethnobiology, of which I’m a proud member, hosted a workshop in Cascara Circle, entitled Weaving with Invasives, taught by local master weaver Melinda West. Using reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), English ivy (Hedera helix) and yellow flag (Iris pseudoacorus) harvested from around campus, participants in the workshop wove baskets and made cords from these three invasive species.

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The beginnings of an ivy basket.

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A little further along with some reed canary grass woven in.

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Reed canary grass and yellow flag, ready for cordage and baskets. First they were dried and then soaked to make them supple.

Watching people make baskets is like watching people planting, winnowing seeds, throwing nets for fishing, stalking animals or gathering berries in the forest. These basic, fundamental human activities haven’t changed that much in thousands of years.

 

 

 

And what a brilliant way to transform the overabundance of certain plants into a bountiful source of raw material for crafters. There’s a lot of reed canary grass and ivy in this state.

 

 

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Progression of raw materials to finished product.

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Basket weavers quietly at work in Cascara Circle on a warm spring afternoon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A great, meditative way to spend time and slow down in our crazy, fast-paced world. Perhaps there will be more events like this one soon…

 

Meanwhile, the garden is beginning to bloom.

 

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Mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) in Cascara Circle. There are three of them blooming right now.

Mock orange and wood rose (Rosa gymnocarpa) in Cascara Circle.

Mock orange and wood rose (Rosa gymnocarpa) in Cascara Circle.

Flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum) along Okanogan Lane.

Flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum) along Okanogan Lane.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A closeup of flannel bush flowers. They last a long time.

A closeup of flannel bush flowers. They last a long time.

And finally, the moment we’ve all been waiting for (at least I have): one of the tamarillos was barely ripe enough to sample, so, rather than wait, I tried it. Best thing ever. Why don’t they sell them here? Somebody should start importing them (or growing them down south) soon.

Tamarillo (Solanum betacea) not absolutely ripe but really good. It's tart, with an exotic, tropical fruit taste that I cannot describe. I'll need to eat about a dozen more.

Tamarillo (Solanum betacea), not absolutely ripe but really good. It’s tart, with an exotic, tropical fruit taste that is vaguely familiar, like kiwi crossed with papaya and honeydew melon, but not quite. It’s hard to pin it down…I’ll need to eat about a dozen more before I have the answer.

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That was so, so good.

 

 

like all the best things

so hard to describe the taste

first tamarillo

 

 

See you in the garden.

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Random notes

We’ve finally gotten some rain again. It hasn’t amounted to much but it has helped, especially since the irrigation system in two sections of the garden is temporarily broken. That means I’m shuttling watering cans from the cistern in Cascara Circle to sections B and C as well as adjacent borders. When it’s warm and sunny, that’s a lot of shuttling. It’s a bit like CrossFit except I get paid to do it (and usually don’t get injured).

Most of the beds are planted, at least minimally. There are still more plants to go in but I’m waiting for the smallest seedlings to get a bit larger. The garden shed, where I leave my flats and empty pots after planting, is a bit disorganized at the moment. I’ll wait until everything is planted and then do a thorough cleanup. No, really. If you pass by and look in, don’t worry, everything is going to be fine.

Crime scene? No, just a working garden shed in May.

Crime scene? No, just a working garden shed in May.

Another view of the chaos.

Another view of the chaos.

If you view last year’s posts from around this time, you’ll get a good idea of what is flowering, but here’s some new bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) in section E, donated by a friend of the Medicinal Herb Garden who lives on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Thanks, Dawn!

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), an understory plant of the forests east of the Mississippi.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), an understory plant of the forests from eastern and central Canada and the USA.

The herons are holding their own in the rookery, north of section D. That said, the eagles are around and causing a ruckus when they fly low over campus. They have a taste for young herons.

Believe it or not, the tamarillos are still not quite ripe, though they are ripening. They’re redder on the south and east sides of the fruit than on the north and west. I swear I’m going to eat one soon.

View of tamarillos (Solanum betacea) from the east.

View of tamarillos (Solanum betacea) from the east.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where ever you are, if you’re in the northern hemisphere, it is spring and you should get outside if you can. Though I sometimes whine about going to work, spring reminds me of how lucky I am to work in a garden. Here are some recent photographs.

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Steps between sections A and B, ensconced in an unruly border of mostly perennials. Those are English yews (Taxus baccata) at the top of the steps.

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Peonies (Paeonia lactiflora) and French roses (Rosa gallica) in the foreground.

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Purple smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria ‘Purpureus’) with an understory of garden sage (Salvia officinalis) north of section B.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Xeriscape bed with flowering snowbush (Ceanothus cordulatus). Soon, in another month or so, the prickly pears (Opuntia spp.) will be flowering.

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Mixed border between sections A and B.

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Welsh onions (Allium fistulosum) in section A.

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Maralroot (Leuzea carthamoides) displaying its first flower of the year. I can’t shake the image of Siberian reindeer munching on these spring flowers as they emerge, with snow still on the ground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mountain bistort (Polygonum bistorta), a close cousin of our own mountain bistort (Polygonum bistortoides) whose Latin name tells us it was discovered by Westerners after P. bistorta. The suffix, oides, means ‘like or resembling’.

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Western wallflower (Erysimum asperum). Can’t have too many of these.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Orange honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa) slowly encircling Cascara Circle. Fine with me.

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Salal (Gaultheria shalon) berries are good eating but the flowers are also worth a visit. Now is the time.

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A few feet from the salal in Cascara Circle is the Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana). They have the largest hips of the Washington native roses. And their flowers are fragrant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s the news. I hope you can make it by the herb garden, but if not, I hope you can get outside. It’s amazing what a springtime walk in the fresh air can do for your spirit.

 

 

too much, not enough

that’s the way that rain comes down

the wise laugh it off

 

 

See you in the garden.

 

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Lomatium etc.

There are more than 70 species of Lomatium growing in western North America. Surely there are people who can recognize each and all, but I’m not one of them. However, I’m currently growing six species in the Medicinal Herb Garden. Some, like Lomatium nudicaule, californicum, dissectum and martindalei are distinctive enough, each in their own way, that I can pick them out of a lineup, though I recently discovered that the flowers of Lomatium martindalei are usually white or ochroleucous (look it up; I did), rarely yellow except in populations from the Olympic Peninsula and nearby coastal islands. Ours at the Medicinal Herb Garden are yellow and I’d assumed that was the norm.

Lomatium martindalei

Lomatium martindalei (Cascade desert parsley, Coast Range lomatium) in section D with yellow flowers, apparently from Olympic Peninsula or coastal island seeds.

Lomatium californicum looks like a lovage plant (Levisticum officinale) and the leaves have a similar taste, like celery leaves. It does well in average, well drained soil around here and drops enough seeds that some germinate every year. It’s the only species of Lomatium in the Medicinal Herb Garden that reliably produces enough viable seeds which actually germinate outside under ‘natural’ conditions.

Lomatium californicum

Lomatium californicum (California lomatium) in section C

Lomatium dissectum also produces a lot of seeds but they have, so far, stubbornly refused to germinate outside in the garden. I’m not sure why. Maybe they need more cold stratification than they get in Seattle. Or maybe they rot in our heavy rains. It’s hard to reproduce the conditions in which they normally grow on the east side of the Cascades.

Lomatium dissectum

Lomatium dissectum (fernleaf biscuitroot)  flowering in section D. This is the species usually found in herbal tinctures. Though it is considered a powerful antiviral, antibacterial medicine plant, there has been surprisingly little published on it by medical researchers in the USA. If Lomatium were from Eurasia, I suspect much more medical testing/clinical trials would have been done on it by now. Maybe some day soon, a student at our very own University of Washington will begin researching the medicinal properties of Lomatium dissectum and other species.

When I start seeds of any of the six Lomatium species that I grow, I sow them in flats, water them and commit them to the refrigerator, encased in a plastic bag for 90-120 days, then remove the bags and put them out in an unheated cold frame to face the oscillating temperatures of late winter to early spring. It has worked for me. Timing seems important in my efforts to start plants from seeds. For many species, it’s good to have their cold stratification in the refrigerator ending as temperatures are slowly starting to warm up outside. Some seeds can come out of the refrigerator and go directly into the heated greenhouse to germinate, but others are cool-soil germinators, meaning they will start to germinate after a certain (mysterious) period of cold, sometimes in complete darkness in the refrigerator, before the soil warms up. If they go directly into warm temperatures before the mysterious trigger point occurs, they are unlikely to come up. Truly. This has been my hard experience. That said, I don’t discard difficult seeds until they have passed through at least two winters and two spring/summers. Yes, some seeds need to go through more than one period of cold stratification. Even then, before discarding anything, I sift through the soil to be sure the seeds have rotted. If they still look solid, I don’t give up. Some seeds can last for decades or even centuries in the soil. And some need to be abraded (scarified) or subjected to fire or smoke or hot water or who knows what..maybe a little fist shaking or benedictions….or maledictions for that matter. I’d hop around on one leg in my birthday suit, singing the theme song from Sesame Street if it would help get the seeds of certain stubborn plants to germinate. And that’s not the half of it. Starting seeds can become an obsession that leads to a very deep, dark rabbit hole. I went down that rabbit hole long ago and haven’t found my way out yet and don’t expect to until I breathe my last. We all need a quest of some kind.

While there is some information on the web about how to propagate wild plants from seeds, much of it appears, in my humble opinion, to be pure hokum, often third party hokum at that, and the number of variables involved is…variable…and mysterious. It helps to imagine the place where the plant grows, the weather, flowering time etc. and think about the conditions the seeds are subject to, leading up to the point when they germinate. How can we replicate those conditions? We can’t, but we can approximate them to the best of our abilities…and keep trying…and keep good notes. Spend enough years starting wild plants from seeds and you will enter a place of paradox: a robust and well earned confidence born of experimentation and empirical validation mingles with a vague but dawning realization that much of the phenomenal world we experience is, functionally, beyond our feeble powers of reckoning. We don’t live nearly long enough to run all the trials it would take to gain an understanding of the complexities of seed germination.  Getting some of the seeds started most of the time is likely about as good as it will get for many of us. And that’s alright with me.

Lomatium macrocarpum

Lomatium macrocarpum in section D. Yes, I grow three species of Lomatium in the same section of the garden, but it’s ok, they don’t all flower at the same time.

The similar, ferny foliage of many Lomatium species on the east side of the Cascades makes for difficulty identifying them. If they all flowered at the same time and we could  see them together at that moment, with our taxonomy books and our thinking caps and some strong coffee, we might work our way through them more easily. Luckily, many are endemics with tiny ranges, so, knowing the precise location of a Lomatium species you’re trying to identify will probably eliminate some lookalike contenders.

It’s Lomatium flowering time in the lowlands. Get out to the east side if you can. April in the lower elevations, with the phlox and balsamroot, phacelia and serviceberry, anemones and so much more, what a treat before the sun dries them up until next year.

 

Lomatium cous

Lomatium cous (cous biscuitroot) in section C has taken several years to flower. Maybe it will produce some viable seed this summer. Or maybe not. The root is a traditional food of many western Native Americans.

 

 

 on rocky scrublands

soaking up the desert sun

biscuitroot flowers

 

 

 

See you in the garden.

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Tamarillos, aphids and IPM

As you probably know, in addition to medicinal plants, there are fiber, dye, ceremonial and food plants in the Medicinal Herb Garden. In recent years I’ve been growing a bed of South American food plants, including oca (Oxalis tuberosa), yacon (Polymnia sonchifolia), jaborosa (Jaborosa sativa), tarwi (Lupinus mutabilis), anyu (Tropaeolum tuberosum), and most recently, tamarillo (Solanum betacea). Early last year, I started some tamarillos from seeds. Only one survived but it was a keeper. It grew to 4 feet in the garden before the cold weather set in, so I potted it up and put it on a bench in the greenhouse. It soon grew another 2 feet and started putting out flowers…then the aphids (I’m not sure which of the many genera of aphids, let alone what species we have) hit. Not just a few aphids but thousands. Every leaf was covered top and bottom. Even the flowers were covered.

But just as I was considering jetting them off with a high pressure water hose, I started to notice the aphids were turning silver and when I looked closely, I could see little holes on top of them. Some creatures were parasitizing them. They were taking care of the problem quietly and efficiently and doing a much better job than I could have with my hose.

In the Botany Greenhouse, we have at least two aphid predators. One is a species of gall-midge known as Aphidoletes aphidimyza. The larvae of these gall-midges inject poison into aphids that dissolves their insides. They then suck the aphids dry, leaving empty aphid mummies. I didn’t look closely enough to get a good idea of what percentage of aphids had been killed by gall-midges.

What I first noticed were the holes on the backs of the dead aphids and the change in color from green to silvery, obviously the work of different predators, larvae of a tiny wasp.  The adult wasps, a species of Aphidius, probably either matricariae or colemani or both, are so small  that you have to look very closely to see them. By the way, you have nothing to fear from them…unless you’re an aphid. If you’ve seen the movie, Alien, you know that a human was the host for the alien. Pretty gross. That’s the way that aphids are hosts for Aphidius larvae. Better them than us!

Look closely at the aphid mummies. The holes on their backs are the escape hatches for the wasp that has eaten its way out of the aphid. It started its life cycle as an egg laid by its mother on the back of an aphid. After the egg hatches, the larva feeds inside the aphid, ultimately killing it. Then it chews its way out and flies away to deal more death and destruction to aphids.

Look at the aphid mummies. The holes on their backs are the escape hatches for the wasp that has eaten its way out of the aphid. It started its life cycle as an egg laid by its mother on the back of an aphid. After the egg hatches, the larva feeds inside the aphid, ultimately killing it. Then it chews its way out and flies away to deal more death and destruction to aphids. If you click on the image and look closely, you can see a larva of either a gall-midge or a lacewing (Chrysoperia rufrilabris).

 

It’s a tribute to the efforts of Doug Ewing, the former Botany Greenhouse manager, and his amazing staff, that so many counterbalancing predators have been introduced to the greenhouse to keep the vast array of plant pests in check. This strategy of using biological controls is part of an overall system known as Integrated Pest Management or IPM. Everyone employing IPM has a different threshold for acceptable levels of herbivory. In the greenhouse where research is conducted, the threshold is often quite low, so it’s also sometimes necessary to spray insecticides in the research rooms when pest populations get out of control. It’s difficult to keep a state of  perfectly balanced equilibrium at all times. In fact, it’s impossible.

In the Medicinal Herb Garden I have a lot more leeway to let things go. I use no pesticides except, rarely, in spring, when seedlings are first transplanted into the garden, an organically certified pyrethrum product to kill destructive ants. My tolerance for pests is high and populations are low due to the wide variety of plants that attract beneficial insects and the open air that allows freedom of travel for all sorts of organisms. The constant warmth, closed environment and close spacing in the greenhouse is much more conducive to sudden explosions of pests. In the garden, it isn’t long after the aphids find their favorite plants that lady beetles (Coccinella spp.) arrive. The larvae of lady beetles are voracious predators of aphids. They look a little like miniature, crinkly gila monsters with extra legs. But very small birds, known as bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus), are also quite effective at aphid control, and they often come through the garden in flocks. They love to take water baths when the irrigation sprinklers are turned on and are, in all ways, a joyous presence in the garden. Thank you, bushtits.

Other than aphids and pavement ants (Tetramorium caespitum) that will girdle the stems and kill certain seedlings, and slugs (usually Arion hortensis) that can be a problem, especially in cool weather when young plants are growing slowly, the Medicinal Herb Garden is largely free of noticeable pests. If they’re not noticeable, who cares? I can usually hand pick anything that is causing serious problems, at least until the beneficial predators show up. The wider the variety of plant families, the more diverse the fauna, and diverse ecosystems, managed or natural, have, in my limited observations, proven to be the most resilient and balanced.

Thanks to a nearly invisible wasp, we will be able to finally try the fruit of the tamarillo at the Botany Greenhouse. When we do, I’ll let you know how they taste.

 

Stuck in the southeast corner of the greenhouse, it's doing well.

Stuck in the southeast corner of the greenhouse, the tamarillo is doing well.

Immature tamarillos that better ripen if they know what's good for them. I want to try a tamarillo.

Immature tamarillos that better ripen if they know what’s good for them. I want to try a tamarillo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still green, two weeks later but they will ripen...they must ripen.

Still green, two weeks later but they will ripen…they must ripen.

 

 

keeping a balance

not as easy as it sounds

but it all works out

 

 

 

 

 

See you in the garden.

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The flow of spring

April air around the Medicinal Herb Garden and Botany Greenhouse is rich with the scent of cottonwoods (Populus spp.) whose fragrant, sticky buds  smell like beeswax infused with jasmine flowers.  On these warming days, the hum of bees, the bird songs, the brilliant green of new foliage and the sudden opening of flowers all make for dreamy times. It’s hard not to contemplate the possibility of putting down the tools and going for a long, long journey. Spring has that effect on some of us.

A couple weeks ago, when many honeybees in the area were swarming and lighting out for the territory to find new homes, some of the UW Beekeepers’ bees got into the act. Losing your bees can be a blow, but after a small swarm of ours left, a swarm from somewhere else arrived to take their place. It doesn’t always happen like this but sometimes the stars are aligned. Evan Sugden, entomologist, beekeeper and teacher of the UW  scientific beekeeping classes, has the calm demeanor we expect of beekeepers. He seemed unsurprised that the bees had swarmed away and unsurprised that a new swarm had arrived. Usually only about half of the colony leaves with the old queen and the remaining bees produce a new queen, so, while swarming is not ideal, neither is it the end of the world. Bees leave because they’re feeling overcrowded. May they find the space they need.

Swarm taking over a newly empty hive. Ina perfect world, our swarm would wind up in the hive these bees left behind.

Swarm of new bees waiting patiently on the side of an occupied hive. They didn’t have to wait long for Evan to coax them into an empty hive, their new home. Hopefully, the bees that left here in a swarm have found a good home.

 

In spring the energy rises up and suddenly takes flight, like a tornado, to do what it has to do, create or destroy or just move on, or all of the above. Seems like that’s pretty much life in a nutshell.

In March and April I take stock of the winter’s wreckage in the garden, often unnoticeable, without looking closely, until plants fail to produce new growth. In addition to seeds recently gathered in trade and the usual annuals and biennials, I start more seeds of plants that didn’t make it through the winter. In the natural world, seeds dropped by plants each year would form a seed bank that would germinate over time, maybe after a disturbance like a wildfire or a landslide, a flood or an animal digging in the soil. But in a public garden, it’s up to the gardener to keep the beds filled with plants, otherwise it starts to look shabby.

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Seed flats, potted seedlings, tropical perennials etc. awaiting the proper time for resettlement in the Medicinal Herb Garden.

 

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The far end of the growing bench. Growing plants is a pleasure, an obsession and sometimes an addiction, though a fairly benign one (so far…I think). Last week, I collected seeds of fragrant, spiny Ceanothus fendleri in the Chiricahua Mountains and I will grow them if I can. I also collected seeds from a species of Vitex (not a species I’m familiar with) growing in a planter outside a coffee house in Bisbee, Arizona. Why? Because they were there! Look for both in the garden, this year or next.

 

That’s one reason I go to the mountains. I’ve never seen a garden designed and created by a human that can rival the random perfection of a subalpine meadow in the Cascades or Olympics, certainly not a formal arrangement like the Medicinal Herb Garden with its wooden borders and gravel pathways. If I had permission, I’d rip the whole thing out and start over with a more natural setting, following some basic principals of permaculture.

Still, the same forces are at work, even in the most domesticated landscape: birth, death, entropy, all leading to another season of renewal in spring. This is a good time to visit the garden. Look closely and you’ll see the sun’s energy, stored from last year in roots and branches, as it transforms into new growth, rising up to draw sustenance from this year’s rays and nutrients from past autumns’ decayed leaves; the cycle continues, on and on and on.

Last year it appeared that the blue herons had abandoned their rookery but they’re back. Before the leaves fill in the deciduous trees, wander over to the woods north of the giant sequoia in section D and look up. You’ll probably hear them before you see them, but their nests are hard to miss. Let’s hope they can fend off the eagles without the loss of too many chicks this year. The first awkward flight of the fledgelings is a nail biter, as the crows and seagulls try to force them down to the ground. It’s not for the faint of heart but it’s pretty exciting when they make it back to the nest.

 

 

 

 tumult of springtime

whirlwind spinning life and death

tightly into one

 

 

See you in the garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Greens etc.

From the remote trailsides and meadows of national forests and parks to suburban lawns and abandoned lots in temperate regions here and around the world,  dandelions (generally Taraxacum officinale in this country)  make themselves at home.

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They appear to be almost everywhere. For some who are compelled by their occupation as gardeners to weed dandelions, this is a challenge we accept. There is no other choice. But a slight shift in consciousness allows us to see these excellent plants not as an encroaching enemy but as our helpful friends. It feels a lot better to be surrounded by allies than invading enemies. Dandelions provide us with food, medicine and dye. And they begin flowering early, offering bees a source of nectar and pollen before a lot of other plants are blooming.

Dandelion reproduction…not so straight forward. Apparently, they’re more likely to reproduce sexually back home in certain parts of Eurasia (though asexually in other parts). Here in North America, they generally, but not always, reproduce asexually. I am not a geneticist, not even close, so I won’t embarrass myself trying to explain what I don’t fully understand.

Here you have it succinctly and clearly by Dr. T. Ombrello  of the Union County College (NJ) Biology Department in the Plant of the Week column:

Most dandelions produce seeds by apomixis, where unfertilized egg cells in the ovaries produce viable seeds that will germinate to become clones of the parent plant. The plants reproducing by apomixis are polyploids (mostly triploids) with an irregular number of chromosomes in their cells. A population of dandelions can contain plants reproducing by both methods. This flexibility in seed production, with both asexually and sexually reproducing individuals in a population, allows for some diversity within each generation, while permitting adapted asexually reproducing individuals to clone themselves. This is just another little feature of this amazing species that makes it so successful.

Agreed, it is an amazing species. It treats our livers and gall bladders, contains beta- carotene, calcium, manganese, zinc, iron and potassium, vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K and more. How strange, the effort we put into growing less nutritionally robust, domesticated greens that are plagued with pests, require large amounts of supplemental water, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides (organic or conventional), soil that has been tilled or otherwise loosened, and much of our time and energy.

Maybe more of us should be growing dandelions in our vegetable gardens alongside the beets and spinach instead of weeding them out of our lawns. Or, better yet, we should be harvesting what we weed. They get bitter when they flower, so pick the greens before the plant flowers (unless you like really bitter greens, as some of us do) and the root between fall and early spring, when the previous year’s energy is stored before moving upward to create new spring foliage and flowers.  Fresh or dried, the roots can be used to make a tea/tisane/infusion/decoction or whatever you choose to call the liquid you get when you steep or simmer fresh or dried herbs in hot water. When roasted, dandelion roots can be steeped or simmered in hot water to make dandelion ‘coffee’.

To prepare  a batch, harvest as many dandelion roots as you need, wash and chop them  into small pieces, then run them through a food processor until they are ground up. How you roast them is up to you. You could pan roast them as the Japanese do with hojicha green tea, or put them in a thin layer, up to half an inch deep, on a baking sheet in the oven with the door cracked at 250 degrees (or higher or lower, depending on how light or dark a roast you want your ‘coffee’ to be) for a couple of hours, stirring every 15 minutes or so. Once cool, store them in a tightly sealed glass jar in a cool, dark place. They last for a long, long time. Dandelion coffee has no caffeine but it does have that rich depth of flavor that coffee drinkers crave. The flowers too are edible and many people use them to make wine and for dyeing. The unopened flower buds can be pickled as you would capers (the unopened flower buds of  the Eurasiafrican shrub, Capparis spinosa).

It feels like spring today, as this mild winter continues. Dandelions and a lot of other wild greens are growing nearby, maybe in your yard or nearby park. There’s so much bounty free for the taking but mostly we walk past or over it on our way to the grocery store.

With the huge, seasonal aggregations of salmon and other species of anadromous fish largely gone from our dammed and polluted rivers (at least in the lower 48 states), our cities covered in concrete, much of our available land contaminated with toxic chemicals, our peri-urban and suburban spaces filled in with lawns and ornamental landscapes, it’s not possible to seriously pursue a hunting/gathering way of life here in Seattle or in the other dense population centers of North America, though the freakish explosion of white-tailed deer numbers on much of the east coast might warrant it and a very rare, careful, ingenious, tenacious but statistically insignificant person might pull it off on the fringes for a while with some raccoon, squirrel, possum, mallard, Canada goose and whatever else is abundant in their neck of the woods added for variety.

Even so, we can use common sense to harvest what we know is edible (get a good field guide at your local, independent bookstore or public library) from safe places to supplement our increasingly uniform diets with some plants that haven’t had all the flavor and nutritional qualities bred out of them. Nettle season is in full swing!

If you’re local and have some time tomorrow, stop by Anderson Hall at the UW and attend Jo Robinson’s talk about eating healthier plants that still bear some of the nutritional attributes of their wild relatives :

Jo Robinson, author of the bestselling Eating on the Wild Side and resident of Vashon Island, will be the guest speaker at the UW Society of Ethnobiology’s Winter Speaker Event on Tuesday, March 10. The event is from 1:30-3:00pm in Anderson Hall, Forest Club Room (floor 2). A reception and poster session follows.

 

 

 eyes out for wild greens

creeping over the wastelands

as we did before

 

See you in the garden.

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In Seattle spring begins in February

If you believe the calendar, spring begins on March 20, but if you garden in Seattle you know that spring begins in February. This year it has been unseasonably, freakishly warm. The lack of snow in the mountains is worrisome. But even in an average year, if such a thing exists, the dormant season here is short and it starts to warm up in February. Weeds that double as salad greens, like shot weed (Cardamine hirsuta) and chickweed (Stellaria media) are flowering now and the shot weed is already setting seeds in sunnier spots.

Cardamine hirsuta (hairy bittercress)

Cardamine hirsuta (shot weed, hairy bittercress) tastes like watercress and it’s free and accessible in the city. Look down, you’re probably stepping on it.

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Stellaria media (chickweed) fills the bare soil in your garden and makes a nice salad green whose taste is sometimes compared to corn silk, in a good way.

But there’s a lot more breaking into leaf and flowering. Here’s a sampling from around the garden this week.

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Oemleria cerasiformis (Indian plum) around Cascara Circle. It’s easy to miss most of the year but easy to spot now because so little else is flowering. Look for it in the untended green space around the city, where native plants coexist with exotics from around the world.

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Mahonia aquifolium ( Oregon grape) flowers ready to open any day. When they do, stop to smell them. You won’t be disappointed.

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Garrya elliptica (wavyleaf silktassel) in Cascara Circle is used as a muscle relaxant among other things but it is also a great, broadleaved evergreen with beautiful, long catkins, hence the name silktassel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Aristolochia californica (California Dutchman’s pipe) section D. Like the Indian plum and Cornelian cherry, the California Dutchman’s pipe flowers precede the emergence of new foliage.

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Chamaedaphne calyculata (leatherleaf) north of Cascara Circle.

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Cornus mas (Cornelian cherry) section B border. The fruit of Cornelian cherry are oblong, cherry red and delicious when they turn purple and soft. I like to pick them up off the ground so that I know they are fully ripe. They are extremely tart and astringent when even slightly unripe, but the ripe fruit has a complex and delightful flavor, cherished by Eurasians, though still underappreciated in the USA.

 

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Mandragora officinarum (mandrake) section E.

Mandragora officinarum (European mandrake) section E. Also in section E is  Podophyllum peltatum (American mandrake or mayapple) which emerges from dormancy a little later. They’re in different plant families, the former in the Solanaceae and the latter in the Berberidaceae, but the similarity of the fruit, poisonous when hard and green but edible when soft, yellow and fragrant (according to some adventurous authorities; many consider European mandrake poisonous at all times though others consider it an edible aphrodisiac)  is likely what earned the American mandrake its name.

Wasabia japonica (wasabi) section E.

Wasabia japonica (wasabi) section E. No, it’s not growing next to a crystal clear stream in the dewy mountains of Japan but it is wasabi and it is doing well. You can grow it outside in rich and somewhat shady soil in Seattle.

 

 

watching the seasons

inscrutable as fortune

ah, humility

 

See you in the garden.

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Stalking the water

This morning I heard cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) in Cascara Circle. But where were they? Shy birds that they are, the whole flock were clustered at the top of the western dogwood (Cornus nuttallii). Why? They were checking out the water from a safe distance. Birds love water for drinking and bathing. Many birds will land and do their water business as I’m weeding or pruning a few feet away, but the waxwings are as spooky and flighty as birds can be, so I spent my whole morning break stalking the water, my camera already zoomed in so I wouldn’t have to move or look directly at the waxwings. They don’t like that.

Well, they finally came, all at once with some friends. There’s safety in numbers when you’re a little bird.

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Ever watchful waxwings making absolutely, positively sure the coast is clear for a drink.

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Notice the yellow at the end of the tail.

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Two watching while one drinks. You’d have to arise pretty early to sneak up on a waxwing. Sorry for the fuzzy zoom on my camera.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The least movement drew their attention and spooked the whole bunch. The one on the far right led the escape and then they were gone. Waxwings sometimes pass through the garden in winter but I’m lucky to get close maybe once or twice. I’ve seen a single robin (Turdus migratorius) drive a whole flock of waxwings from the cotoneaster shrub near the greenhouse. City life seems to be stressful for them. I can relate.

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But this ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula), flitting around the nearby shrubs, stayed still just long enough for a portrait. The spring mating call of the male is long, complex and beautiful.

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As shy as the waxwings are, the Steller’s jays (Cyanocitta stelleri) are bold. You can look them in the eye all day and they’ll look right back at you. Dinosaur blood runs in their veins and it’s a good thing they’re not much bigger than they are. I can think of no more beautiful bird that pays the garden daily visits. Rambunctious, loud and alarmist, yes, but it’s always a treat to have their company.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tsee tsee is their call

all for one and one for all

waxwings on a bough

 

 

See you in the garden.

 

 

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January

The colors are muted earth tones, not the bright, primary and secondary colors of summer. But the textures and the edges stand out in winter. The space between branches and stalks assumes a new gravity, framed by the dessicated, dormant, gnarled architecture of past growth. An array of little song birds, hidden by foliage the rest of the year, reveal themselves if you stay still long enough. Do that for yourself if you visit. There’s so much to see here in the off-season. Behold.

Vitis californica (California wild grape) tendril wrapped around a supporting Viburnum opulus (tall bush cranberry) trunk.

Vitis californica (California wild grape) tendril wrapped around a supporting Viburnum opulus (tall bush cranberry) trunk. The USDA reports that Vitis californica “was used to save the European wine industry between 1870 and 1900 when most wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) were killed by grape phylloxera aphids (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae). Since that time, nearly all commercial wine grapes grown anywhere in the world have been grafted onto rootstock of resistant California wild grape cultivars.” Thank you, California wild grapes!

Oh, the things you see when you look closely.

Oh, the things you see when you look closely.

Castanea sativa (chestnut) leaf in section D.

Castanea sativa (chestnut) leaf in section D.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I didn’t expect to see a spider in the garden yesterday but…

Gardenus spiderus (garden spider). I'm sorry to say I still know next to nothing about spiders and that is an obviously fictional Latin name. It managed to find a meal on a cold day in January.

Gardenus spiderius (garden spider).
I’m sorry to say I still know next to nothing about spiders and so I made up the Latin name. It managed to find a meal on a cold day in January.

 

And, can you believe it, the rosemary is flowering.

Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) flowering in January. The flowers are sweet, fragrant and delicately beautiful if you examine them closely.

Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) flowering in January. The flowers are sweet, fragrant and delicately beautiful if you examine them closely.

Aster linosyris (goldilocks aster) section C.

Aster linosyris (goldilocks aster) section C.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silphium terebinthinacium (Prairie dock) leaf vein in section C.

Silphium terebinthinacium (Prairie dock) leaf veins in section C…

Silphium terebinthinacium (Prairie dock) leaf glowing with late afternoon sunlight in section C.

…and whole leaf glowing with late afternoon sunlight

Cynara syriaca (wild artichoke) section C.

Cynara syriaca (wild artichoke) section C.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It never hurts to lie down and look up once in a while, especially on a sunny winter day.

Eupatorium purpureum (Joe Pye weed) section C

Eupatorium purpureum (Joe Pye weed) section C

Nolina microcarpa (sacahuista, beargrass) section C. It flowered for the first time this summer and the stalk still stands. It turned black and sculptural.

Nolina microcarpa (sacahuista, beargrass) section C. It flowered for the first time this summer and the stalk still stands. It has faded to a skeletal grey and black.

Silphium terebinthinacium (prairie dock) stalks and sky.

Prairie dock stalks and sky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beautiful in summer or winter, used  in Traditional Chinese Medicine to reduce swelling and stop bleeding, among other things, bai ji is dependable and easy to grow. The seed heads look they were dipped in bronze.

Bletilla striata (bai ji) seed pods

Bletilla striata (bai ji) seed pods in section E.

Penthorum sedoides (ditch stonecrop) has tiny seeds, light enough that when the seed capsules dehisce, the seeds can be dispersed by the wind.

Penthorum sedoides (ditch stonecrop) has tiny, powdery seeds, light enough that when the seed capsules dehisce, the seeds can be dispersed by the least puff of wind. It is both demulcent and astringent and has been used in cough remedies as well as to treat diarrhea and hemorrhoids

Potentilla arguta (tall cinquefoil) section E.

Potentilla arguta (tall cinquefoil) section E. The tannins make this plant an effective astringent. Recent studies have also shown root extracts of Potentilla arguta to have antiviral properties.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daucus carota (wild carrot, Queen Anne's lace) section D

Daucus carota (wild carrot, Queen Anne’s lace) section D. The fuzzy seeds, when ingested, have been and still are used as a morning-after contraceptive.

Cynara cardunculus (cardoon)

Cynara cardunculus (cardoon) section E. Though cardoon is perennial, as a food crop it is grown as an annual and its leaf petioles are harvested in the fall after blanching.  They are relished by gourmands, rich and poor alike.

Helenium autumnale var. autumnale (common sneezeweed) section A

Helenium autumnale var. autumnale (common sneezeweed)
section A

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Smilax rotundifolia (common greenbriar) section B

Smilax rotundifolia (common greenbriar) section B

Helianthus maximiliani (Maximilian sunflower) section D. When the esteemed geneticist Wes Jackson paid a visit to the UW Farm several years ago, I had the opportunity to ask what herbacious perennials he and his fellow researchers at the Land Institute were working on. He told me that one of their experiments was crossing Helianthus maximiliani with Helianthus tuberosus (Jerusalem artichoke). Wes Jackson and the Land Institute are an inspiration. http://www.landinstitute.org/ As our conversation that day meandered, we somehow strayed into the topic of the poet Gary Snyder. Wes then spontaneously recited from memory Snyder's poem, For the Children, a poem we have taped to the farm tool cabinet

Helianthus maximiliani (Maximilian sunflower) section D.

When the esteemed geneticist Wes Jackson paid a visit to the UW Farm several years ago, I had the opportunity to ask what broad-leaved, herbacious perennials he and his fellow researchers at the Land Institute were working on. He told me that one of their experiments was crossing Helianthus maximiliani with Helianthus tuberosus (Jerusalem artichoke).
As our conversation that day meandered, we somehow strayed to the subject of poetry and the poet Gary Snyder. Wes then spontaneously recited from memory, Snyder’s poem, For the Children, a poem we have  taped to the UW Farm tool cabinet.

Wes Jackson and the Land Institute are national treasures.

http://www.landinstitute.org/

 

 

Brickellia californica (California brickellbush)

Brickellia californica (California brickellbush) section E.

 

 

 

tiny blur of light

  flickers through a brickellbush

ruby-crowned kinglet

 

 

See you in the garden.

 

 

 

 

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