Monday, April 29, 2013

Rhodie Update

I was back in Deception Pass State Park this morning to check on the wild rhododendrons.  I had seen a little color in the buds when I was there on Friday.  The turbulence in Deception Pass caught my eye as I crossed the bridge.  I hiked out onto the span to get this photo.  The shadow of the bridge on the water is cast by the morning sun.  The headlands beyond are Lighthouse Point and Lotte Point in the northern section of the park.

The Lower Forest Trail at Goose Rock is prime rhododendron country.  While they enjoy the Northwest rain, they do not like to grow in damp soil.  Sitting at the edge of the Olympic Rain Shadow, annual rainfall here is probably similar to my yard, about 20 inches/51 centimeters.  Some of that will never reach the ground.  It will be caught in the canopy and evaporate back into the air.  Then the Rhodies will have to compete with the trees for the portion that does reach the soil.  The mycorrhizal fungi around their roots will assist them with this.  It is doubtful these plants would survive here without their fungal partners.

Hikers must watch their step on the trail.  Some of the local residents will be out and about.  This Whidbey Island Banana Slug (Ariolimax columbianus) sustains my theory, that Whidbey slugs have spots while those on Fidalgo do not.

Proceeding along the trail, I suddenly find myself surrounded by the "king of shrubs."  I think this spot is becoming my favorite place in the park.  I count only four blossoms opening on this plant.  These are the only ones I can see from the trail.  As I mentioned in the last post, this is not a good year for rhododendron blooms.

I will be able to get back here on Saturday when this R. macrophyllum blossom should be fully opened.  I hope it won't be too late.

Here are a couple of photos of species rhododendrons in my garden.  On the left in the shade garden is R. catawbiense var. 'Album' native to the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern U.S.  On the right is R. yakushimanum from Yakushima Island in the Japan archipelago.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Pacific Rhododendron

I had a big day today.  For four or five years, I have been on a quest to find the wild rhododendrons growing in Deception Pass State Park.  I knew they were there somewhere, but I could never find them.  Finally, I tweeted @WAStatePks and just asked.  They told me exactly where to find them and also sent a link to an updated trail map.

The Pacific or Coast Rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) is the Washington State Flower.  Nevertheless, it is a relatively rare shrub in the state.  Olympic National Park and this grove in Deception Pass State Park are two of the few spots where they can be found growing wild.  Just like in the garden, rhododendrons love to grow in the understory beneath Douglas Firs, Western Hemlocks and Western Redcedars.  Here they will get just enough dappled sunlight through openings in the canopy.

Macrophyllum means "big leaf" and I understand now why they have this name.  Many of the leaves on these plants were more than a foot long.

The rhododendrons grow along the Lower Forest Trail, Trail No. 9 on the map (.pdf) in the Goose Rock area.  You can park at the south end of the bridge and reach it from the Discovery Trail (No. 10) which crosses through an arch under the highway.  There is an alternate route on the map that begins at the Park Headquarters further south on Highway 20.

Rhododendrons produce a compound flower called a truss at the end of each stem in the spring.  As it goes to seed, four or five new stems sprout at the base of the flower, each with a rosette of new leaves.  Next year's flower bud then forms at the center of the leaves.  Leaves are held for two years.  Each summer after the new leaves form, the two year old leaves will die and drop off.

I did not see many flower buds on these rhododendrons.  Some of the rhodies in my garden are also failing to bloom this year.  We had a bit of drought last summer and fall which may account for this.  That is the time when they set flower buds for the following year.  If conditions are not right, the buds will produce only leaves.  Making flowers requires the investment of energy and assets by the plant.  This could be an adaptation to prevent wasting resources when conditions are less than ideal.  Climate change could have a serious impact on this "king of shrubs."

If you find them blooming, please leave the flowers for others (and me) to enjoy.

Rhododendrons are members of Heath family, Ericaceae.  This is a group that seems to thrive in acidic soils and infertile conditions.  Members include evergreen shrubs and trees.  Many are shade tolerant.  They all have an association with mycorrhizal fungi in their root systems which assist in their nutrition.

The photo on the left is one of the Deception Pass Rhododendrons.  On the right is a young Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii) growing along the same trail to illustrate the Heath family resemblance.  Other more diverse local members of the Heath family are Huckleberry and Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), Kinnikinnick and Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) and Salal (Gaultheria shalon).

Rhododendrons also hold their seed heads indefinitely.  Gardeners normally pop these off after the flowers have died. It looks like last year was a very good year for rhododendron blooms.  I did see a few flower buds in the Lower Forest Trail grove.  I will try and check back each week to catch those blooms, so stay tuned.  In the meantime, here is a photo from Wikipedia:

Photo:  Randy Smith via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, April 22, 2013

Goose Rock

Today, I visited one of the highest points on Whidbey Island, Goose Rock in Deception Pass State Park.  Looking southwest from the summit, the Olympic Mountain Range can be seen across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  Also visible is the Whidbey Naval Air Station on the left and Cranberry Lake in the park on the right.  We have seen those power lines here before.

Several interconnecting trails crisscross the Goose Rock section of the park.  Start in the parking lot at the south end of the bridge.  The trail head is actually under the bridge.  For an easy morning hike to the summit begin by following the Goose Rock Perimeter Trail.  Veer right on the NE Summit Trail.  Then return to the bridge on the steeper NW Summit route.  These trails are wide and comfortable and well marked with signs.  As an alternative, continue on the Perimeter Trail into Cornet Bay to view the wildflower meadows.  Here, the trail will narrow to a foot or less wide along the steep hillside.  Being outside my comfort zone, this is where I double back to pick up the NE route to the summit.

Most of the Goose Rock Perimeter Trail passes through a closed-canopy old growth forest.  Some of the Western Redcedars and Douglas Firs are gigantic.  Keep in mind that our Western Redcedars are not cedars and our Douglas Firs are not firs!  It's a Pacific Northwest peculiarity, I guess.  In the understory, an explosion of plants, mosses, lichens and fungi create a wonderful, almost mythic botanical garden.  We are learning how the trees in such a forest are linked together by an underground fungal network.  The older and larger "mother trees" are apparently passing carbon through the network to help support the younger trees.  I can't stop thinking about this when hiking through such a forest.

There was also wildlife out and about.  A pair of Bald Eagles called to each other.  One was above my head in the canopy, the other was across the pass on Fidalgo Island.  Canada Geese on Strawberry Island made their presence known.  I also heard Spotted Towhees, Northern Flickers and Black Oystercatchers.  A Puget Sound Garter Snake found a sunny spot on the trail to warm itself.  A rabbit scampered off ahead of me to hide in the underbrush.

The glaciers of the last ice age receded around 11,000 years ago leaving exposed bedrock scraped clean of topsoil at the summit.  This can also be seen in spots along the trails.  The movement of ice is revealed by grooves carved into the stone.  Visitors are asked to stay off of the grassy meadows up here.  Thousands of years of natural processes created them.  They could be destroyed by human footsteps in a weekend.

Mount Baker is visible in several spots along the Goose Rock Perimeter Trail.  This is the view from the trail looking past Ben Ure Island.  The trees in the foreground are Pacific Madronas.

I arrived early in the morning on a Monday and had the entire place to myself.  Even the usually crowded parking lot was empty when I got there.  Along the trail, I met only one other person on my way down from the summit.  It was late morning when I returned to the parking lot, and this time, it was full.  At the end of the bridge, it is one of the most visited spots in the park.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Hidden Nature

There are wonderful things to see in the Pacific Northwest.  This includes big trees, mountains, beautiful scenery, grand man-made structures and fascinating wildlife to mention a few.  There are also interesting details that might be hidden in plain site.  Here are some things I found hiking the Bowman-Rosario Nature Trail in Deception Pass State Park that might be easy to miss.

The trail skirts the cliff side along the north shore of Bowman Bay.  Much if it is carved into solid rock.  The rock face along the trail may be covered with plants, mosses and lichens.  The gray leafy structure in the photo is most likely Peltigera membranacea a variety of Dog Lichen.  Lichens are symbionts and fans of Star Trek Deep Space Nine will know what that means.  Remember Jadzia Dax?  Lichens are fungi that have incorporated algae into their body structures.  The algae photosynthesize and provide nutrition to the fungus.  The fungus, in turn, offers the algae protection and a structure in which to grow.

Pay attention along the trail and discover that there are actually dozens of lichen species growing on the cliff face, on rocks and in the trees.  Some look like colored dust, others make rough patches and still others look like yarn tangles or long strands of hair.

The ferns in the photo are Licorice Ferns (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) named because of the flavor of their rhizomes when chewed.  They are commonly seen growing with moss on rock faces like this and especially on the trunks of Bigleaf Maples (Acer macrophyllum).

The casual hiker admiring the scenery might not notice that there are flowering shrubs growing out of the rock face.  This is Red-flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum), one of the earliest spring bloomers in the Pacific Northwest.  Sedums, Heucheras and Mahonias may also be found growing in this seemingly hostile place.  All of these are plants admired and cultivated by gardeners and available at nurseries.

In spots, the upland forest canopy opens up to reveal secrets.  This amazing Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) clings to life despite having lost all of its crown.  Only a single branch remains as a hint of its former glory.  That branch may still be producing cones and seeds which will pass on those wonderful genes.

I learned something amazing from a recent episode of Nature on PBS.  This Douglas Fir's companions may be helping it to survive.  In "What Plants Talk About,"  University of British Columbia forester Suzanne Simard reveals that the trees in a Douglas Fir forest are interconnected.   To help understand this, recall the Mother Tree in the movie Avatar.  In this case, however, it is not science fiction.

A vast underground network of fungal mycelia attach to the roots providing an interlinking network.  Through this network, carbon produced by photosynthesis in one tree can be passed some distance away to another tree.  This may be the major source of carbon for seedlings growing in the shaded understory.  It appears the trees in a forest are taking care of their offspring as well as each other.  The survival of young trees or those under stress might depend on older, healthy trees in the network.

Is it possible that all the plants in a forest are interconnected?  I want to learn more about this.  It has changed how I perceive the forest in a profound way.

Trail's end is at Rosario Beach.  Some distance off shore is Northwest Island.  I spotted two black spots, and on a hunch, strained the telephoto lens to get this shot.  Those spots are a pair of Bald Eagles resting in the isolated seclusion of the island.  Another lichen imparts an orange coloration to the solid rock.

Urchin Rocks at Rosario appear from shore to be lifeless, but look carefully.  Can you spot the pair of Harlequin Ducks resting and preening in the camouflage of Rock Weed?  Click the photo to enlarge it.  Hint:  The drake and hen are a few feet apart near the center of the photo.  I wonder if this is the pair I spotted in the same area a year ago.  I have learned to check these rocks carefully to spot hidden wildlife.

From out in the bay, the high pitched courtship song of Black Oystercatchers revealed another attraction hidden in plain sight.  Without the telltale sounds, I might never have noticed this pair performing their nuptial dance on the top of this rock.  The gulls seemed to be unaffected by their performance.  I have seen evidence that gulls and oystercatchers are friendly, congenial neighbors.

On the return back to Bowman Bay, I spotted this pile of fir cone scales on a log near the camp sites.  Such middens are signs of wildlife.  This is a feeding station of our native Douglas Squirrel.  I have found these telltale signs on my treks all over Fidalgo Island.  The squirrels will return to the same spot to tear the cones apart and feast on the seeds in the core.  It is not necessary to see wildlife to know it is around.

Early spring, before the crowds arrive, is a good time to explore the park.  The forest and beaches are coming alive.  Short hikes like the Bowman-Rosario provide good opportunities to ponder, look closely, listen and discover new things along the way.  Though I have been here dozens of times, each visit reveals something I had never noticed before.