Ok, I wrote that title in a moment of irrational exuberance. It wasn’t raining at the time, in fact it was sunny outside. What a refreshing change. Well, never fear, it’s raining again now. Raining hard and all day. Last month was the rainiest on record in Seattle. We normally get about three and a half inches of rain in October, but this year we got slightly over ten inches. Though the rain and wind have knocked down many of the leaves, the fall colors were, and those that are left still are, brilliant this year (not by New England standards but exceptional for Seattle).
The woods north of Cascara Circle are worth a visit any time but fall is best…
Not surprisingly, the heavy rains of October brought a flush of mushrooms around campus. Some white king boletes (Boletus barrowsii) popped up, along with many other edible, not-so-edible and some mind-altering specimens. A few feet from the grapes, near the white birch tree (Betula papyrifera), some birch boletes (Leccinum scabrum) appeared. They are edible, though the smaller, firmer ones are best.
I’d rather eat these. I took a day off and drove out to the mountains to look for matsutakes (Tricholoma magnivelare) and I’m including them in this blog post because they are medicinal (though this study was done on the similar Eurasian species Tricholoma matsutake). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3732428/
Matsutakes can be hard to find before they break through the forest duff. These pictured below were just bumps in the soil until I moved the duff aside.
But back to the Medicinal Herb Garden foods. The leccino olive (Olea europaea) produced just enough fruit…for a tapas plate. But it’s better than nothing.
This year, people are harvesting fruit husks (pericarps) from the Szechuan pepper trees in the Medicinal Herb Garden borders. Finally. Every autumn, these trees/shrubs produce thousands of little “peppercorns”. As the ripe, brown husks split open, the shiny black seeds often fall out on their own, but those that don’t can easily be cleaned off the husks. They won’t do any harm but are gritty and add no flavor.
Moving east in the garden to the built environment. Behold.
Photos of the Life Sciences Building and Biology Greenhouse construction site become dated almost daily. Those guys work fast. But here’s a shot from over the fence a week ago.
Experiencing winter in the garden is like stepping into another world. The space, the light and the plants all change. Wait, it’s not winter for another month and a half. For my purposes as a gardener, winter in Seattle begins in November.
Ji shi teng (Paederia foetida) in section B is a new addition to the garden. Hopefully it will survive the winter outside. From temperate to tropical east Asia, this plant has many, many names and uses in a variety of healing traditions. Here are a couple of links:
It was another hot summer, but thankfully, not as hot as last year. I have a freezer full of tomato sauce from a bumper crop of tomatoes, and not cherry tomatoes or paste tomatoes or mid-size tomatoes, but Black Krim and Brandywine, two of the best big slicers in the world. It’s a shame to turn slicers into sauce, but one can only eat so many fresh tomatoes so it’s the dryer or the saucepan for the rest. My clay soil retains water so well that I watered my tomato plants exactly once, on the day I planted them in late May. After years of planting into sandy soil, it’s nice to have clay. But I digress…as usual. These days the air is crisp and it’s time to pull the annuals and tender perennials to get cover crops planted in their place. The garden needs its winter rest and we growers need to harvest the fruit of our labors.
I finally bought two traps to catch the rabbit(s). Hmm, if only it were that simple. Rabbits are smarter than I thought and I have a new respect for them. I’ve caught and released two squirrels but the rabbits are tougher customers. They’re steering clear of the traps. Maybe I’ll stop growing the grain bed for a few years, since that was a rabbit magnet and a disaster this year. It looked like it had been mowed in places. It’s always something in a garden. Ask any gardener and they’ll tell you a variation of my tale, “Something is eating my plants”. It might be a tiny insect or a huge ungulate, but unsolicited herbivory is part of the bargain when you grow a garden. And so it goes.
The snow is starting to fall higher up in the mountains and the rain is slowly returning to the lowlands. We need more rain for the fall mushroom season but I’m happy to say I’ve crossed paths with a few porcini (Boletus edulis) on backpacking trips in September. Matsutakes (Tricholoma magnivelare), if they’re going to appear, should be popping with this colder weather, but who knows? Last year’s summer drought and intense heat must have been hard on the mycelium. I didn’t bother foraging last fall and maybe this will be another fungal recovery year.
The oak tree (Quercus rober) that languished on the border of section C last year was finally declared dead and cut down. One of the evergreen huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum), on the border of sections D and E, has lost some limbs and I won’t be surprised if it gives up the ghost. In a drought, all of the plants put more of their resources into finding water. Unfortunately, they’re all competing for the same limited resource. The nearby Sierra redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum) has stretched its roots into adjacent beds, sucking up much of the water that the smaller plants need. It’s difficult to keep the plants on the east side of section D sufficiently irrigated. The soil surface might look damp but just below it’s bone dry and full of tree roots. The same is true on the east sides of sections E and F. There are too many big trees much too close to the garden beds and they will be an increasing problem for a long, long time, especially as we live through the transition to warmer summers.
But it’s October now, harvest time, and the rain is here and heat is behind us as we brace for winter. Delicious ground cherries (Physalis spp.) are ripening. They’re an excellent fruit but they ripen late. Give them a very sunny and protected spot and start them at least as early as you start your tomatoes.
Before retiring one of the tropical/subtropical beds for the winter, I photographed the striped cucumber plants (Diplocyclos palmatus). The fruit have been used medicinally in India. They are toxic and not for eating, but they made a beautiful display on the trellis.
Maybe try these Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) fruit instead, for a sweet, spicy addition to a savory salad. There was a small crop last year, but this year both bushes near section C were covered in fruit. The fruit forest from across the street is being reborn on the north border of section C and the lawn east of Benson Hall. The first prune plums (Prunus domestica), Nanking cherries (Prunus tomentosa) and Chilean myrtle berries (Luma apiculata) should be ready for harvest by 2018 and the paw paws (Asimina triloba) by 2019.
Some fruiting vines, shrubs and trees bear fruit pretty dependably, and others have productive years followed by nearly barren years. It takes a lot of energy to produce fruit and environmental stress, like too much heat or cold (that might damage the plant’s tissue or shut down its pollinators), not enough water, robust competition from neighboring plants, excessive herbivory, disease etc., can all play a part in irregular fruit output. I’d love to have the time to study the vagaries of fruit production but other duties call. The best I can do is try to be observant. So I do (when I remember) note on the seed collection envelopes, very high or low volume seed production years. If I lived a thousand years and kept very good records, maybe I’d gain some insights worth passing on, but there are so many variables…I’m not sure a thousand years would be enough.
Last year the maypop (Passiflora incarnata) was covered in fruit. This year there is only one.
There were more trifoliate orange fruit last year, but they were all small, a very late second crop after the first crop dropped off, presumably due to the intense heat and lack of water. This year they’re fully ripening for the first time in about a decade. I know not why. If you want a life full of unending mystery, become a gardener.
Since no charismatic predatory birds or adorable (Grrr!) bunnies would pose for the camera, this little spider had to step in for the obligatory fauna shot. What a handsome spider.
A few mornings ago, as I set off to water on the east end of the garden, I passed through section C. That’s the section where the grains have been mysteriously disappearing into the stomach of the phantom herbivore. Make that formerly phantom herbivore:
I’m not sure what to do. Eventually, I might get a live trap and relocate any rabbit(s) I catch to somewhere far enough away that returning will not be a viable option. The barred owl (Strix varia) seems to have moved on but maybe it will be back. Barred owls eat rabbits. For now, I’ll wait to see how bad the damage gets and how dense the rabbit population becomes. The good news is that that so far, with the exception of the grain bed, damage hasn’t been too bad. A lot of nibbled areas here and there, but nothing has been decimated. Peace for now, bunny.
While weeding recently, I came across these two:
It might be my misperception, but it seems like there is an increasing number of juncos and a decreasing number of white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) in the garden over the last decade or so.
If you make it to the Medicinal Herb Garden, be sure to walk across the street and view the site of the future Life Sciences Building and Biology Greenhouse. It changes from day to day.
Somewhere in or near the Medicinal Herb Garden lives an herbivore whose ways are quite mysterious. It has eaten all the oats (Avena sativa) and has moved on to the spelt (Triticum spelta) and the einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum). Last year I thought it might be birds, but now I don’t think so.
Well, after much preparation, the clearing of the space for the new Life Sciences Building and Biology Greenhouse has begun. The contractors work really fast.
The greenhouse was next.
Meanwhile, back in the garden, I have a followup report from the last blog post. No, the other yi ye qiu (Flueggea suffruticosa) is not female so I need to get more plants started and yes, the Leccino olive (Olea europaea) has a few olives forming, so it must be marginally self-fertile.
This is a good time to visit the Medicinal Herb Garden if you want to see flowers on display, or insects sipping nectar and gathering pollen, birds and maybe rabbits eating the grains from the grain bed and even a raccoon taking a nap in a tree. Listen for the crows who see all and report on it to those who listen.
If you have wandered through section C and wondered what is going on with the mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum), fear not. This has been a big year for aphids on a lot of plants, but the predators finally arrived. I smushed many aphids at first, but once the ladybugs showed up, I passed the duty to them.
Update: Most of the herons have flown the coop. To the best of my knowledge, all of the fledglings made it. Maybe the eagles were busy with the larger rookery in Ballard.
The flower show doesn’t last forever, so hurry if you want to see the garden at its peak. Life is short and it’s good to get outside. Really good.
At the risk of jinxing the string of recent good gardening weather, I have to say it’s been nice to get some rain and cooler temperatures after the extreme heat of spring. It rained last night and the night before. It’s cool and breezy today and the air has the freshness of April, but not this April, which felt more like August. After an explosion of flowers on the Leccino olive tree, I had high hopes that we might get another good crop, two years after the first. But I noticed yesterday that neither the Arbequinas nor the Manzanillos flowered at all. Dang! It so happens that, of the three cultivars, only the Arbequinas are supposed to be self-fertile. So the Leccino, unless another olive cultivar was flowering synchronously nearby while I had my back turned, will likely be barren again this year. Ouch.
Luckily, the fig in section B is finally recovering from the radical reconstructive surgery I performed on it over the last five years. It’s more like a fig bush than a fig tree now, but it’s bearing fruit again. The fruit used to go almost entirely to the birds, but humans are now sharing the bounty.
It is July and, of course, many flowers and fruit are still in the process of developing, but others are in full display. The native roses have already flowered, but their fruit persist on the plants for a long time, food for an array of herbivores, including some humans.
Fifty feet to the west, the American plum has produced fruit. Last year’s heat (or something) caused it to abort all of its fruit. I think they will ripen this summer.
According to the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens (KRBG) website, Alexander the Great, while out conquering and adventuring, lost men who made the mistake of skewering their meat for grilling on the toxic branches of oleander. Yes, it is quite toxic, but, as KRBG also points out, oleander can be used by some heart patients as an alternative to digitalis. The same is true of lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis). The oleander in the garden made it through the last (mild) winter with no damage. How it will do if temperatures get below 20F for a week or two, I don’t know. I’ll have to wait and see.
Most species of milkweed in the Medicinal Herb Garden have no discernible scent (nothing that I’ve noticed anyway), but the showy milkweed has beautiful, star-shaped flowers with a delicious aroma that draws people in as if by gravitational pull, as they try to figure out where the scent originates. Perhaps they’re human-nose pollinated. Once before, I grew showy milkweed in section C and it performed dismally. It seems to like its new spot and is thriving as one of the garden’s more charismatic specimens. If it spreads out of its bed like the nearby Chinese licorice (Glycyrrhiza uralensis) and American licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota), well, so be it. Garden borders are an unnatural encumbrance (as are gardens…) and I support all plants that will not be neatly domesticated. Amen. Anyway, it’s a small price to pay for being able to grow wild plants.
And then there’s yi ye qiu; the flowers are tiny and unremarkable, but who cares? It just happens to be one of the 50 fundamental herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine. It doesn’t need to look good. Unfortunately, I neglected to look closely at the flowers on the other plant. Yi ye qiu is dioecious, meaning there are both plants with only male flowers, and plants with only female flowers. These pictured below are male (or staminate) flowers, so, first duty on Monday is to investigate the flowers on the other plant to see if they’re female (or pistillate). If not, I need to start more plants to hopefully grow a female to plant near the male and get some fruit (small, unremarkable seed capsules…).
This has been a banner year for the eastern prickly pears in the xeriscape bed, but this is the only species of Opuntia that is flowering. Don’t ask why. What you see is what you get.
That’s the flora report. Now for the fauna report. Raccoons, herons and coyotes…and now deer. The edge of the University of Washington campus has a lot of green space connected to other green spaces around the city. These green spaces are excellent corridors that allow animals to pass through the city without being seen. Sometimes it feels more like a park than a college campus.
I wanted to get pictures of the coyote (Canis latrans) pups by the Union Bay Natural Area (near where I’m starting my plants for the next two years, until the new Biology Greenhouse is built), but I was too late. Apparently a few of the neighbors felt they could not live near coyotes that had a den nearby, so they called in the USDA to shoot the mother and two pups last week. I suspect there will be more coyotes. They’ve been seen in that area for years, so the habitat must be good for them. They haven’t acquired the title of Trickster for nothing. My guess is that shooting a few coyotes, assuming at least one escaped, is the first step in selecting for stealthier, wilier coyotes. If they learn to stay out of sight, only those of us who look for their signs will know they’re here.
Last week, on the same day I heard about the coyote extermination, my source told me that a deer (Odocoileus hemionus ssp. columbianus) had been seen walking through the same area. There aren’t many off-leash dogs running around the north end of the city and there are a lot of gardens with tasty plants to browse, so it’s probably a pretty nice place for a deer to bed down for a while. It’s exciting to know that a walk at first light or evening twilight might lead any of us to a close encounter with a wilderness visitor, creeping in at the edges, outside our control. Here’s a YouTube link to a song by Exene Cervenka, written from the perspective of that irreverent outlaw, the coyote.
I took some photos a while ago, hoping to write an April blog post but that didn’t happen. It has been very busy around here. Spring is the busiest season at the Medicinal Herb Garden and in most gardens. It always feels like a juggling act with hundreds of seedlings to be planted, unpredictable weather, the challenges of slugs and snails and weeds. The extra stresses of the move out of the greenhouse and having to maintain my plants in multiple locations have sapped my energy a bit, and writing blog posts has been low on the list of things to do. But here’s a slim update.
It was the hottest April on record here in Seattle, and May started out hot, but it is cool and overcast and we’ve had some good rains recently. What a blessing spring rain is in a Mediterranean climate. If we can get another couple of inches before summer hits, I will be very happy. Plus, this rain is good for the morel and spring porcini forecast. Porcini!
Here are some recent(ish) photos from around the garden.
There’s so much more to see but this will have to do for now. I’m exhausted and very soon I will need some blissful time in the mountains to recover.
A couple of weeks ago we met with a windstorm that took a toll on some of the big trees of Seattle. In the Medicinal Herb Garden, a large, upright branch of a deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara) came down on the southwest edge of Cascara Circle.
Maybe this pair lost their nest tree in the storm and were out searching for a new home, when out of nowhere popped the paparazzi. I tried to be discreet but they wanted none of it. Usually people move away from raccoons. They seemed uncomfortable with my breech of protocol as I moved closer to snap their picture.
I once tried to shoo a raccoon off my enclosed front porch. It was eating the garbage from a garbage bag I’d put there…to keep it away from the raccoons. The intrepid, wily omnivore got on the porch by pulling open the screen door. So I opened the kitchen window a crack and thrust a broomstick out to jab it and scare it off. It grabbed the broomstick with its teeth and tried to pull it out of my hands, then charged me when I wouldn’t relent. That was enough for me and I retreated. Raccoons are tenacious.
And so are some seeds, clinging to dormancy when they should be germinating. Starting seeds seems like a pretty simple proposition. If you’re starting broccoli seeds, it is. Your wait will be short and your rate of germination will be high. But wild plants can be a bit trickier. They exist beyond the pale of human selection, so they have evolved in environments with very specific natural conditions. What months does the rain fall, and how much rain? How cold are the winters and how long? In what sort of soil do they grow? How hot are the summers, what is the elevation and latitude, which herbivores (if any) consume and spread the plants’ seeds, etc., etc. There are many pieces to the puzzle of how to propagate wild plants from seeds, trying to replicate the conditions of their natural habitat. Some are so easy and some are so hard. Cracking the code of how best to germinate seeds (and keep them alive) is the mission of plant propagators everywhere. Patience can pay off sometimes.
I received and quickly planted these Eleutherococcus henryi seeds in March of 2014. They got ninety days of cold (in the refrigerator) then proceeded to do nothing all summer in the hoop house behind the greenhouse. The next winter they got five months of cold and still there was no action that spring and summer. This winter, they got another five months in the refrigerator. When I pulled them out in late February, I had low expectations. Then they all started to sprout. So it took three winters and two summers, plus scarification with some rough sand paper (Eleutherococcus seed coats are hard) before sowing to get these plants started. You can see all the moss that has grown on the flat. I broke it up each spring to make it easier for the seedlings to grow through.
More perennials are emerging from their underground dormancy. This week we’re supposed to have temperatures pushing 70 F.
March is a transition month here. Most of it is technically winter but gardeners in the Pacific Northwest know that spring begins long before March 20.
Speaking of the Araliaceae, in a nearby bed is one of its more charismatic members, the Siberian ginseng, a tough, spiny shrub. Common names are often confusing. Though it is called ginseng, E. senticosus is in a different genus than the plants we normally call ginseng. Those plants, both the Old World Panax ginseng and related species, and the New World Panax quinquefolius, are herbaceous perennials, not shrubs.
The other skunk cabbage, from eastern North America, is smaller and less striking (though these are just two years old) than our western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus). Both fall into the category of marginal survival foods (after cooking) of last resort. As we mushroomers say, better kicked than picked.
Camphor tree is a native of eastern Asia, from warm temperate zones to the tropics. An essential oil with a wide range of medicinal uses is extracted from the leaves and twigs. A really cold spell here in winter can kill off much of the top growth. We’re not quite zone 9 yet. But we’re getting there…
This glorious week feels like springtime, with warmth, sunshine, a few plants starting to flower and singing birds in the garden and nearby woods. Get outside if you can. Step away from your desk and eat your lunch in the fresh air. Break the work spell. You owe it to yourself and you’ll have a better afternoon if you do. Maybe you’ll see the blue herons circling the woods north of Anderson Hall as they prepare their rookery for another breeding season. There’s so much to see…right outside your door.
For the first time in years, this winter I didn’t have to cover the olive trees (Olea europaea) with tarps to protect them from cold…at least not yet. We dipped below freezing a few times, but we didn’t get into the very low 20s F, the point at which olives, at least young trees as I have observed them here, begin to sustain noticeable damage. When we dip into the mid teens, they can die back to the ground. I’m hoping they will be able to withstand more severe cold as they get bigger. The Australian tea trees (Melaleuca alternifolia) and New Zealand tea trees or manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) also made it through uncovered. It’s been sunny this week with warm days and a touch of frost at night (at least in Rainier Valley, where I live), but most of the winter has been marked by heavy rains. In fact, this is already Seattle’s rainiest winter on record. And winter isn’t over yet, not by a long shot. The winter rain, which translates to snow in the mountains, is a good thing. That snow, when it melts, provides the water we depend on in Seattle. I think I’m in good company when I wish for a slow melting of the mountain snow and less heat this spring and summer than we lived through last year. Good luck to everyone on the east side of the state this fire season, especially the firefighters.
Soon we will be losing the Botany Greenhouse across the street from the Medicinal Herb Garden. That’s where I start all of my plants and share a small office with colleagues who run one of the best greenhouses in the country. The good news is that in two years, we will have a larger, fancy new greenhouse in more or less the same spot, attached to the new Life Sciences Building. I’ll be starting my plants on the other side of campus for a couple years, but there will otherwise be no interruption to business as usual at the garden. Stop by the greenhouse soon (before April) to see the amazing collection of plants. The next time you will see them will be in 2018 at the new greenhouse.
Last days of the Botany Greenhouse in all its glory. I have too many happy memories to count from this magical space and I will miss it dearly…but we will quickly learn to love and adapt to the new greenhouse (once I convince the planners to put in a soft serve ice cream machine…).
In a nearby bed, the sweet cicely is emerging from winter dormancy. Their green seeds, leaves and roots are sweet and anise flavored. It is the sole species in the genus Myrrhis and it requires little care and does well in shade or dappled light but can also handle sun. That’s my kind of plant.
Yesterday, while doing my morning garden inspection, I came across a strange contraption. It’s a little strange but not not too strange considering…I work at a university and thousands of people are running experiments at all times. Here’s what I saw.
A message on the little metal box in the lower picture says the researcher is measuring ‘floral volatiles’. The plant is Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) and I have to admit I haven’t sniffed their flowers…yet, but I’m curious. Anyone and everyone conducting research is welcome in the Medicinal Herb Garden. Hooray for strange contraptions.
The very ripe fruit of cornelian cherry are delicious, but too astringent until they are almost mushy soft. Here’s an interesting article about their potential for treating liver conditions:
It will be many months before the fruit are ripe and ready to eat, but the flowers are out, as always, before the leaves and that makes for a striking sight in February…
According Daniel Moerman’s book, Native American Ethnobotany, the Okanagan-Colville people used Utah honeysuckle as a blood medicine, dermatological aid and laxative, all from infusions of branches. They also ate the fruit, though probably as a last resort.
Mandrake, a native of the Mediterranean region, is well adapted to hot and dry summers. It emerges from its underground dormancy early, flowers and produces fruit the size of a golf ball or larger, then senesces and disappears until the following winter. If you spot a sign in the garden for a plant that is nowhere to be seen, it could be taking a nap under the soil surface.
I wish this plant would take an eternal nap on another planet in a galaxy far, far away. It’s also from the Mediterranean but it is rarely dormant. If you have this in your garden (poor you), please, at the very least, cut off the spadix (while wearing gloves and safety goggles) before the seeds turn red and fall off. This is Italian arum or cuckoo pint and is quite invasive and extremely difficult to eradicate. It has taken over much of the understory in many areas of campus. I got a tiny drop of its sap in my eye a few years ago and wound up in the emergency room to have my eye flushed. The calcium oxalate crystals in the sap cause excruciating pain for a long, long, long (much too long in my opinion) time. Don’t ever get the sap in your eye or any mucous membrane, if you know what’s good for you. You have been warned…
On a happier note, check out the delightful flowers of this large manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.) west of section C. What a display right now, from Stevens Way almost to the Chemistry building.
At the bottom of section C, the goji has leafed out. Unfortunately, it will get powdery mildew in March and April. By May I will have to cut it way back. It takes a while to regrow but it’s very vigorous and produces flowers by late summer, then fruit throughout the fall and into winter. Imagine eating dried goji fruit from your own garden. Better yet, eat goji fruit from your garden. But first you have to plant one.
Can you spot the slug on this yellow pheasant’s eye? Neither can I, but it’s probably in the picture frame, judging by the recent herbivory of the flower petals. Yellow pheasant’s eye is used in homeopathy to treat heart disease.
Inconspicuous flowers of the wild ginger are rarely seen by the casual hiker in the northwest forests. I had to move a leaf out of the way and flip the flower over for this photo. They’re well hidden. Wild ginger is in the same family as…
They’re both in the Aristolochiaceae, but the California Dutchman’s pipe flowers come out before the leaves. They’re not brightly colored but they’re hard to miss if you’re paying attention. Hopefully you will pay attention when you visit and stroll through the Medicinal Herb Garden.
It hasn’t been terribly cold this winter, but cold enough to keep the snow falling in the mountains. What a good feeling to look east at the Cascades or west at the Olympics and see whole mountain ranges deep in snow, as they should be. The last straggling leaves have finally fallen from the deciduous trees and shrubs, and the stalks of herbaceous perennials and annuals are fading to brown, ready to return to the soil and recycle their nutrients for the next round. Wander through the misty pathways and catch a fleeting glimpse of a raptor or the last migrating Townsend’s warbler on its way to the tropics, look up at the sound of crows and you might see a family of raccoons asleep in a nearby tree, or follow the scent of truffle or some other mysterious fungus hidden beneath one of our oak trees; midwinter visitors to the Medicinal Herb Garden have much to experience if they pay close attention.
This is the time of year for filling seed orders and ordering seeds from botanic gardens all over the world. The middle of winter is a good time to plan for the future. Looking over a map of the garden and juggling where the new plants will go (if the seeds come up!) is a good challenge. There’s only so much space in a garden but…there’s always room for more plants.
That’s the news for a quiet January. I hope everyone has some time and a safe, warm place to rest and reflect, sip tea and watch the rain (or snow) come down.
After a few hard frosts, we’re back to classic Seattle fall and winter weather. It’s been very rainy in the lowlands with daytime temperatures in the 40s and nights in the 30s, heavy snow is accumulating in the mountains and short days seem even shorter because the sun is nowhere to be seen. But today the days start getting longer. It’s winter solstice and a new year has begun.
Cascara (Rhamnus purshiana) leaves are still clinging to their branches, but most deciduous trees and shrubs are bare now.
The chestnut (Castanea sativa) stump next to the bus stop held its leaves until last week. I’m going to stop cutting it back and let it grow into a tree now that the fig tree (Ficus indica) has been ‘shortened’ and is out of the way.
Roots, bark and leaves of bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) were widely used by northeastern Native Americans for a variety of conditions, including liver, urinary and lung complaints. Branches with fruit attached are sometimes woven into holiday wreaths back east.
Hope for festive fruit on the tian men dong (Asparagus cochinchinensis) proved delusional. I had assumed they would look like the bright red fruit of garden asparagus (Asparagus officinalis). They’re about the same size and shape but not red.
In the woods north of Cascara Circle, the male cones of the sugi or Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) are getting ready to drop their pollen some time this winter. Sugi, which can grow up to 200 feet or more (though usually less), is often planted around temples and shrines in Japan where it is native. Ours at the Medicinal Herb Garden has stayed small and bushy. I suspect it is a dwarf cultivar. There are much larger ones in Seattle, but I remember seeing a very impressive specimen at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, a Shinto shrine in Granite Falls, WA.
A few yards away, a hedge of wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) is looking better in winter dormancy than in summer growth. There’s something magical about the dried foliage of herbaceous perennials and the skeletal, sculptural branches of deciduous woody plants. I think it’s the negative space that opens up around these plants in winter. Wild hydrangea root is a diuretic that has been used to treat kidney stones and irritation of the bladder, urethra and prostate.
But not everything is dormant. Neither our native blackberry (Rubus ursinus) nor our two introduced blackberries (Rubus armeniacus and Rubus laciniatus) that grow in Medicinal Herb Garden borders do much resting in winter. They’re essentially evergreen here and they stand out when plants around them drop their leaves.
Luckily, all blackberries have edible fruit and medicinal leaves that are astringent, anti-inflammatory and high in antioxidants. I’m sure they have many more health benefits, and they’re free and almost everywhere. There’s no excuse not to have some of their dried leaves in your tea supplies, along with locally harvested dandelion roots (Taraxicum officinale) and stinging nettle (Urtica dioica).