The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a forest as a “dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract.” This seems, to me, to be a description of an ecosystem at its most base level. Of course, I could wax poetic about the majesty and true splendor of a forest. For now I will save you the ‘rhapsody.’ Portland, Oregon may not be a major metropolis by the standards set by Chicago, Boston, New York City or even Seattle. But where it lacks in high end shopping opportunities it makes up for in the number and acreage of forested parks. Parks such as Forest Park (and the nearby Audobon Society and Macleay Park), Tryon Creek State Park, and the Hoyt Arboretum, are amazing forested areas located within our city limits and are frequent places my family enjoys romping. Last weekend we braved the rain showers to pay a visit to Tryon Creek, an old favorite.
The forest seemed to be waking out of its winter slumber. The majesty of the Douglas Firs, Western Hemlock, and Western Red Cedar are constant and true. Spring, summer, winter and fall they stand tall and brave. But now, as the forest awakens from its winter hibernation, the leaves of the Big Leaf Maple and Vine Maple are bursting forth along with a shower of forest flowers. It is the found treasures of the newly blooming flowers that gave me hope that this dreary, cold spring might someday end.
Athyrium filix-femina – Lady Fern
The Lady Fern will stand 2-5 ft tall, can be found in boggy, wet areas and enjoys anything from full sun to full shade. It is a deciduous fern that dies completely back in the winter. I love to watch its delicate fronds uncurl and spread forth.
Mahonia aquifolium – Tall Oregon Grape
Those of us in the Pacific NW know Oregon Grape (not only as our state flower) but also for its bright blue berries. The berries are quite tart and even though they can be used to make jelly or wine, they have to be mixed with a lot of sugar to make them palatable. Interestingly, the berries can be used medicinally as an anti-imflammatory and anti-bacterial. This evergreen plant with its prickly leaves can stand 5 ft tall and is adaptable to habitat that is moist or dry, sunny or shady.
Rubus spectabilis – Salmonberry
A relative to the rose, I have to admit that when I first came across this large shrub in the forest I mistakenly identified it as a wild rose! Standing up to 10 ft tall, the Salmonberry bush will produce fruit that many birds, animals and humans can enjoy. Salmonberry attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, enjoys moist places and spreads vigorously through underground runners. Because of this it might not be an ideal plant for a small urban yard, but is beautiful out in more expansive areas.
Sambucus racemosa – Red Elderberry
Red Elderberry has got to be one of the most adaptable wild plants out there. This 20 ft tall ‘shrub’ likes habitat that is wet or dry, sunny or shady. The flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies and the berries are enjoyed by birds and small animals. The berries can cause nausea in humans when eaten raw, but make delicious jellies and wines.
Trillium ovatum – Trillium
This plant holds a special place in my heart since it was one of my grandmother’sfavorite flowers. I always know that spring is around the corner when I first spot the trilliums peeking out of the forest floor. Initially white, the flower turns pink and then maroon as it starts to ‘age.’ Standing 6-18” tall this diminutive plant likes shady, moist places.
Viola – Violets
This little yellow flower was the one to catch my son’s attention. Tucked into a tree’s bark, this tiny flower is a spot of sunshine in the shady forest.
A wetland is defined, by the same Merriam-Webster Dictionary, as “land or areas (as marshes or swamps) that are covered often intermittently with shallow water or have soil saturated with moisture.” The Wetland Conservancy goes into a little more detail when they describe wetlands as being a “uniquely productive and valuable ecosystems, and provide a wide range of ecological, social and environmental functions. Though often limited in size, they occur in all corners of Oregon and are among the most biologically productive and species-rich habitats in the state. Wetlands are habitat for plants, animals, invertebrates, fish, and fungi. They store flood waters, maintain base flows, and recycle nutrients and chemicals while providing opportunities for recreation, education, and aesthetic experiences.”
A wetland is an extraordinarily diverse ecosystem and looks very different (as a bog, marsh, swamp, etc) depending where you are in the country or even the world. Historically they have been viewed as wastelands and attractors for pests and so were drained to create rich farmlands, shopping centers and housing tracts. But now that we better understand wetlands, their importance to healing and actually repairing our environment cannot be understated. Their primary importance is their contribution to our water supply. Wetlands retain and absorb stormwater, cleaning and replenishing our water table. Important as a carbon sink, wetlands also provide valuable habitat for fish, birds and other mammals. A wetland doesn’t have the same majesty as a forest and can actually be difficult to identify. We are fortunate in Portland since we have a couple (Jackson Bottoms Wetland Preserve and Smith and Bybee Wetlands) amazing public wetlands to learn from.
But my personal favorite is the Mary Theler Wetland in Belfair, Washington. Deeded to the school district by Mrs. Theler’s husband, the land was originally destined to be developed as soccer fields. Fortunately, the wisdom of preserving this amazing ecosystem was realized prior to its destruction. Now, we get to stroll the trails learning about the Hood Canal watershed and the native Americans that called this area home, look for birds and get some exercise. To my children it is a place to run and enjoy time with friends. For me it is a changing seasonal display of our interconnected environment.
Lysichiton americanus – Skunk cabbage
Getting its name from the distinctive smell it emanates, the skunk cabbage enjoys wet shady areas. My children love, once they identify the smell, to find the unique yellow flowers that are common to wetland areas.
Oemelria cerasiformis – Indian Plum
The Indian Plum, blooming in February or March, is one of the first shrubs to bloom. I love spotting the delicate tendrils of flowers that hang from the arching branches. The Indian Plum does not grow in the saturated soil of a true wetland, but it does like the moist, shady habitat along a wetland’s edge. This shrub stands 5-12 ft tall and bears small purplish fruit.
Ribes sanguineum – Red-Flowering Currant
Red-Flowering Current is another shrub that can’t tolerate the saturated soil of a wetland but loves the moist soil next to a wetland or stream. It likes full sun or partially shady locations and its main attraction are the profusion of pink blooms the 3-12 ft shrub bursts forth every spring. The abundant flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies and the berries feed birds and small antimals.
And similar to the forest, we were surrounded by the flowers of the Oregon Grape, Salmonberry, Trillium and Violets.
Spring is in the air, but the new spring vegetables just aren’t quite ready for harvesting (at least not in my yard). In the meantime we must continue to dine on winter vegetables. This salad is another excellent dish that bridges that gap between winter and spring. The cabbage and celery root are winter leftovers,…
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