Gardens of Kukutali

For Earth Day, let's look at a very tiny piece of the earth.  I recently paid a return visit to the Kukutali Preserve, now a part of Deception Pass State Park.  Recall that it is a protected area in Skagit Bay that is owned jointly by the State of Washington and the Swinomish Tribal Community.  The Preserve includes Kiket and Flagstaff Islands, a rare pocket estuary, salt marsh and a connected property on Fidalgo Island.

From Fidalgo, visitors access Kiket Island by foot on a roadway over the tombolo.

The road crosses the island through a mature forest of Douglas Fir, Grand FirWestern Redcedar, Western Hemlock, Bigleaf Maple, Pacific Madrona and Red Alder.  The observant visitor might also spot a rare Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia), the original source of the cancer drug Taxol.

In a small meadow on a stone outcrop just off the road, we spotted the sporophytes of Awned Haircap Moss (Polytrichum piliferum).  Unlike many mosses, this one prefers a dry location.  The annual rainfall in the Preserve is only about 20 inches/51 cm.

By the side of the road was this tuft of lichen.  They are difficult to ID, but I think this might be Forking Bone (Hypogymnia inactiva) which likes to grow in the branches of conifers.  This piece probably fell out of a nearby tree.  If someone knows for sure what this is, please let me know.

As we proceeded, the road became more shaded.  This is Dog Lichen (Peltigera praetextata), which is one of the leaf lichens.  It was growing among mosses in forest litter next to the road.

Growing in the shadiest spots, I have tentatively identified Step Moss (Hylocomium splendens).  Again, please correct me if I am wrong.

Also in deep shade, this plant was hard to spot.  These are the emerging shoots of Western Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), one of our native orchids.  It does not contain chlorophyll and does not photosynthesize.  Instead, it derives nutrition by parasitizing fungi growing in decaying plant material.  This allows the plant to exploit total shade under forest canopies.  I hope to return in about a month to get a photo of the tiny flowers.  Pacific Northwest soils are relatively devoid of bacteria, but do contain many fungi.  Several native plants have learned to take advantage of these soil organisms.

The road emerges into a clearing with Skagit Bay and South Fidalgo Island visible in the distance.

At road's end is the Dunlap house, no longer occupied.

At the edge of the clearing, drainage from the hillside has created a wet spot.  This makes perfect habitat for Common Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) just coming up.  Notice that there are two types of shoots.  The green shoots are sterile and the brownish ones are fertile.  The strobili or cones on the fertile shoots will produce spores, then die back.  The plant is considered a living fossil.  It has survived the trodding of dinosaurs and everything since.  Even the eruption of Mount St. Helens couldn't kill it.  Horsetail was the first plant to emerge in the wastelands around the mountain.  An interesting discussion of the plant may be found at Susannah Anderson's blog Wanderin' Weeta.

A trail continues past the house to the Flagstaff Island tombolo and a beautiful little bay.  The ruin of a boathouse here was the site of a University of Washington marine biology survey in the 1970's.

Grassy areas along the  trail were flush with purple flowers.  These are called Red or Purple Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum).

Seen up close, the color is from clusters of reddish leaves at the top of stems, and not the tiny, orchid-like flowers.  Despite the name, the plant is not related to Stinging Nettle and does not sting.  In mild climates, it may bloom all winter providing a rare source of nectar for bees.

Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium) begins blooming in March and continues well into April.  This is a very nice, drought-tolerant plant for the native garden.   The berries are relished by birds.  The plant was first described by Europeans in the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Flagstaff Island is mostly solid rock and off-limits to visitors.  Broad-leaved Stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium) loves to grow on the stony edges of the island.  It is now putting out new growth which is a rosy color.  In about a month, it will produce large clusters of yellow flowers held above the foliage.  You can find it in nurseries under the name Sedum 'Cape Blanco.'  I have tried to grow it in soil, but it just falls apart.  Apparently, solid rock is more to its liking.

If you click on the photo to enlarge it and look carefully, there are little blue spots here and there.  I believe these are the first signs of Common Camas (Camassia quamash) just starting to bloom.  This is another wildflower I want to catch in full bloom.  At its peak, I am told Flagstaff turns purple.

Back at the Dunlap house, there are several garden plants blooming.  I believe this is Fragrant Snowball (Viburnum x carlcephalum).  Coming around the corner of the house, I smelled the amazing perfume before spotting the shrub.  This is a beautiful and desirable garden plant.  Remember, the cultivated plants here have received little or no care for several years.  They are basically growing wild.  This makes them good ideas for the easy-care garden.

This is Giant Feather Grass (Stipa gigantea).  I have this in my own yard and I can vouch for its beauty, easy care and drought tolerance.  The flowers may grow 6 feet/2 meters tall.  The dried flower heads can be brought into the house in arrangements.

My grandmother had Grape Hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) in her garden.  It was one of those little flowers that just persisted year after year without much care or concern.

Near the front door, this choice Camellia was in full bloom.  I am not an expert, but it appears to be a beautiful variety of Camellia japonica.  Some of the flowers were 4 inches/10 cm across.  According to the Sunset Western Garden Book, Camellias require moderate to regular watering.  This one is certainly not getting that.  Perhaps like Rhododendrons, once they get established, they require very little care.

The beauty of this flower justified a second photo.  You can see the huge, blooming shrub in the house photo above.  It is to the right of the big Rhododendron next to the front door.

Different varieties of Daffodils were blooming around the front yard.

There were also several blooming Rosemary (Rosmarinus officianalis) all around the house.  This is supposed to be a good seaside plant for dry areas.  I tried to grow it in my yard, but it didn't survive a winter cold snap.  I have to be careful with a couple of spots where cold air will pool.

Finally, I encountered this little fellow while walking back out.  This is the native Banana Slug (Ariolimax columbianus).  Some may have black patches giving them a camo look.  Where I grew up on the west side of Puget Sound, we had the big yellow Banana Slugs.  I include him here to point out that these are not garden pests.  They are valuable detritivores that clean up plant and animal waste and recycle it into organic humus soil.  The gray, red or black slugs that relish our Petunias and Hostas are invaders from Europe, perhaps George III's revenge.  They are also threats to the native species through competition and predation.  When you encounter one of these natives in the woods, remember they are the good guys worthy of your protection.

You can visit the Kukutali Preserve in small guided groups on most Saturdays.  To make reservations to join a group, call 360-661-0682.

For a different look of this visit to Kukutali, check out  "Visiting Old Friends" at Wild Fidalgo.