Friday, September 30, 2016

Madronas of Deception Pass

Pacific Madronas at Deception Pass

This past week, I took a short hike at Hoypus Point in Deception Pass State Park.  Driving over there, I was astounded by the Pacific Madronas (Arbutus menziesii) along Highway 20.  On the Fidalgo side of the pass, the trees on both sides of the road were ablaze with clusters of berries.  In nearly thirty years living here, I had never seen anything quite like it.  I had to return to get a closer look and some photos.

Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii)

It is normal for some of the trees to sport a few clusters of berries in the fall.  But not like this.  The unusual fruitfulness of the Madronas is undoubtedly the result of the equally spectacular bloom that I posted about last spring.

The berry-like fruits are called drupes.  Other examples of drupes are coffee beans, cherries, coconuts and peaches.  The red color in the photos is not the result of editing.  In fact, my camera tends to over saturate reds and I had to subtract a lot it from the photos to get them to look right.

Pacific Madronas and Friends on the Goose Rock Summit

The photos I took of the flowering last spring were from the Goose Rock summit and its south flank.  I returned there to see if these were laden with fruit as well.  Sure enough, they were.  While at the summit, I made a couple of new friends, a pair of young Columbian Black-tailed Deer.

Columbian Black-tailed Deer

The deer were not yet fully grown.  I suspected they were siblings.  After leaving their mother's side, they stick together for a few years until they mature.  This was the case with a pair that visited my yard.  Below is Deception Island marking the entrance to Deception Pass.  Beyond is Lopez Island in the San Juans.  But I digress.

Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii)
Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii)

The Goose Rock Madronas were also fruiting abundantly.

The tree shares its species name with the Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii.  It honors the Scottish botanist Archibald Menzies, a member of the George Vancouver Expedition.

We have discussed here before whether Madrona or Madrone is the correct name.  This is a regional preference and both are correct.  Where I grew up it was Madrona.  Canada avoids the problem altogether and calls it Arbutus.

Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii)
Pacific Rhododendron (R. macrophyllum)

Left:  Coming down the Southeast Summit Trail, I spotted this young Madrona with wilting leaves.  This is not a good sign.  I had one in my yard that did this, and it ultimately died.  I was still "madrona-naive" at the time, so the first thing I did was water it.  That may have been the mistake that sealed its fate.  I know now the best thing to do with Madronas is leave them alone.  They are designed to survive harsh conditions.  Hopefully this youngster will do just that.

Right:  The Rhododendron grove near the bottom of Goose Rock was also showing signs of stress.  A Madrona cousin, some of the rhodies were also wilting.  I hope this is a reaction to summer drought, and not something more serious.

Pacific Rhododendron (R. macrophyllum)

While some of the Pacific Rhododendrons were showing stress, others looked good.  I saw flower buds in preparation for next spring's bloom.

Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii)

I agree with Arthur Kruckeberg.  The "Foliage, bark, flower, and fruit of madrone consummate one of Nature's most ornamental works of art."

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Barking 2:  Identifications

In a previous post, Barking up the Right Tree, I introduced the trunks of six trees seen along local hiking trails.  The task was to try and identify them using only their bark.  This post will reveal the trees in the photos.  I have added a seventh tree here that was not in the first post.  These are the "seven biggies" you are likely to encounter while hiking in local forests.

Normally, trees are identified by their leaves, scales or needles.  But in a mature forest, it my not be possible to see them in the canopy.  During the winter, deciduous trees drop their leaves, so other features must be used for identification.  Bark may be all we can see from the trail.  Click or right-click the photos to see larger versions.

Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

This is the king of conifers in the Pacific Northwest.  In a mature tree, the bark is the craggiest and roughest of all with deep furrows forming long, wide strips.  It is the craggy, rugged old man of the forest.  On the other hand, the bark of young trees is smooth with numerous pitch blisters as with your Christmas tree.  In size the Douglas Fir grows second only to the California Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens.)

Interestingly, the Douglas Fir is not a fir at all.  Unlike true firs, its cones point downward.  Its genus name means "false hemlock," so it's not a hemlock either.  The genus Pseudotsuga includes two other North American species and three in China and Japan.

The Douglas Fir is the state tree of Oregon.

Grand Fir (Abies grandis)
Grand Fir (Abies grandis)

One of the commonest trees in this area, if it's not a Doug Fir, it's probably a Grand Fir.  Carrying the genus name Abies, this is a true fir with cones that point upwards.  The furrows in the bark are shallower than the Douglas Fir.  They demarcate narrower strips with a lower profile.

On the trail, it can be difficult to distinguish from the Western Hemlock (#3 below).  The strips on the Grand Fir tend to be longer, wider and more continuous with a slightly concave surface.  The surface can be smooth, and sometimes even shiny.

In very old trees, the furrows look stretched apart and may take on a yellow-rust color.  The overall look is rugged, but less so than the Douglas Fir.


Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla)
Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla)

Distinguishing the Western Hemlock on the trail can be tricky.  The bark looks very similar to that of Grand Fir.  The strips tend to be narrower and flatter and separated by shallower furrows then the Grand Fir.  The strips are rough to the touch and often broken into smaller patches.

In general, I would characterize the bark of Western Hemlock as more refined compared to the ruggedness of the Grand Fir.  For a positive ID, you might have to catch a glimpse of the needles which are shorter and finer compared to firs.  The branch tips will be feathery and pointed, whereas the fir tips are more blunt and solid looking.  From the ground, of course, it may not be possible to see the needles hidden in the canopy.

Western Hemlock is the state tree of Washington.

Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis)
Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis)

A patchy, shingled look is the distinguishing characteristic of Sitka Spruce bark.  Like shingles, the patches tend to flare out at the bottoms.  It can also be identified by its unique wavy-scaled cones found scattered on the ground around the trunk.

It requires moister conditions than the Douglas or Grand Fir but can be found growing with them.  Also, find it close to salt water.  It grows to be the largest species of spruce and the fifth largest conifer in the world.  On the other hand, exposed to ocean winds, it may be stunted and shrub-like.

The Sitka Spruce is the State Tree of Alaska.




Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata)
Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata)

The Western Redcedar is another Pacific Northwest misnomer.  It's not a cedar, but an arborvitae, a member of the cypress family.  There are no true cedars (Cedrus) native to North America.  It has probably been called cedar because of the appearance and fragrance of the wood.  Both are splendid.

The bark appears to be made of long, loose, fibrous-looking strips.  In the forest, it often has a green or blue-green color caused by dust lichen.  Trees usually have a wide base tapering quickly into a straight trunk.

Local native peoples knew how to harvest the bark without damaging the tree.  It was used to make cordage and textiles.

Western Redcedar is the official tree of British Columbia.

Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum)
Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum)

Eponymous big leaves, more than a foot across, characterize the Bigleaf Maple.  Find it growing in mixed conifer forests, where the canopy has opened to let in light and where there is adequate soil moisture.  It becomes a beautiful shade tree, but grows much too large for the average garden or street planting.

The bark can be more variable than on the other trees here.  The distinguishing characteristic to look for is luxuriant moss growing on the trunk and branches.  Through the winter, small Licorice Ferns (Polypodium glycytrhiza) sprout from the moss on older trees.  The three plants, maple, moss and fern form an aerial ecosystem.  Soil will accumulate under the moss providing habitat for worms and insects and thus food for birds and small mammals.  Sometimes the weight of wet moss can cause branches to break off the tree.

Red Alder (Alnus rubra)
Red Alder (Alnus rubra)

I didn't include Red Alder in the first post, but I should have.  When I built my house, I didn't get the landscaping in right away.  Very quickly, I had hundreds of Alder seedlings coming up like weeds everywhere.  This is useful lesson about their nature.  In forest succession, Alder is considered a pioneer species.  After land is cleared by logging, fire or home building, these species will attempt to repopulate the bare ground.  It will grow fast and live a relatively short life.  Seasonal leaf drop and nitrogen fixing will help nourish the soil, getting it ready for a new growth of conifers.  It is also a useful species for stabilizing slopes and attracting wildlife.

A member of the birch family, the bark of Red Alder is gray with with white or lighter gray patches.  Some trees will have patches of orange lichens or other epiphytes.



All of these photographs were taken in the Hoypus Point Natural Forest in Deception Pass State Park.  These seven trees are the most commonly seen in our local forests.  Next time you take a hike in the woods, see if you can identify them all.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Skywatch Friday:  Autumnal Equinox

Skagit Bay, Washington, September 22, 2016

Looking south, the Skagit Bay sky at the moment of the autumnal equinox, 7:21 a.m. US Pacific Time, 14:21 GMT.  At that moment, the sun is directly over the equator.  The weather forecast for the day:  Mostly sunny, 65° F, 18° C.

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Friday, September 2, 2016

Skywatch Friday:  Meteorological Fall

Skagit Bay on September 2, 2016

September 1 is the first day of "meteorological fall" and our weather has changed right on schedule.  This is the sky over Skagit Bay this evening.  This seasonal reckoning is different from "astronomical fall."  It begins this year with the autumnal equinox on September 22nd.  The tilt of the earth defines it.  The months of September, October and November make up meteorological fall defined by the weather.

Skagit Bay on August 31,2016

This is what the sky looked like three days ago.  That night and the next day, September 1, we would get almost an inch of rain.  Before that, the last time it had rained here was July 9th.  With one of the warmest summers on record, we were experiencing a significant drought.  Gardens and woodlands were suffering.  A statewide outdoor burn ban was in effect.  The drought was finally broken with a convergence zone sitting over us for several hours.  At one point, my weather station measured a rainfall rate of 3.11 inches/hour, 78.99 cm/hour.

Those roll-shaped clouds reveal turbulence and predict possible thunderstorms.  That's exactly what we experienced that night.  Before the rain came, the sky had been mostly cloudless and hazy.  It is much more interesting now.


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