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Plant Books: Foraging, Flowers, and Community Weaving

I've recently been reading some great books about Pacific Northwest ecology. All of these books are on different topics, but I've come to realize that there is a commonality between them: they all have to do not only with the land, but also with the relationship between plants and people. 

  The Nettles & More...  series from Deborah Freeman and Diana Mongeau,  Common Threads  by Sharon Kallis, and  Dandelion Hunter  by Rebecca Lerner.

The Nettles & More... series from Deborah Freeman and Diana Mongeau, Common Threads by Sharon Kallis, and Dandelion Hunter by Rebecca Lerner.

A book that delves into the connections between human beings and the urban landscape is Rebecca Lerner's Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness. Lerner is a nature enthusiast, forager, educator, healer, and blogger - check out her excellent site, First Ways, where she has created a photographic plant gallery to help independent learners like me with plant identification. In addition to writing about urban foraging, she takes us through the history of the land by visiting the remnants of an ancient Chinook village in Washington State, participates in the post-mortem processing of a roadkill deer, meets a lifelong friend after placing a Craigslist ad for free weeding, and goes on a freegan adventure through local specialty store dumpsters. The book is not only centred around Lerner's deep encounters with plants, both as foraged food and as medicine, but also the people in her life that aid her in making this connection with the green world. In her words, the merging of plants and people yields a deeper understanding of the self:

When I first began foraging in the city, I viewed wild plants as just-in-case disaster insurance, something meant to stay on the fringes of my life. But what I learned over the next four years is that they are much, much more than that. Not only are wild plants food and medicine, but they also offer us a way to connect with each other, to build community, and to access our deepest selves. Foraging brings with it a consciousness-shifting transformation of vision that reveals hidden treasure. It leads us far beyond the limits of dualistic frameworks like human versus nature or city versus wilderness: We find the wilderness within. (Dandelion Hunter, p. 184)

A further exploration of plants and people emerges in Sharon Kallis's Common Threads: Weaving Community Through Collaborative Eco-Art. Kallis is a Vancouver-based artist who sources weaving materials from local invasive species such as English ivy, Himalayan blackberry, yellow-flag iris, and scotch broom. For a nice introduction to Sharon's work, see her blog or my post about weaving a bio-net from English ivy.

In Common Threads, Kallis describes her experience working on community-engaged projects using materials from the land. These projects include crocheted English ivy erosion netting installed at Stanley Park, a woven willow arbor structure built to commemorate a wedding, a spinning wheel sculpture constructed to honor a local textile artist who passed away, temporary mosaics made from seeds, petals, leaves, cones and other seasonal detritus, and linen spun from flax grown on city property. The book also contains interviews with other community artists and park officials, and has a section dedicated to weaving and materials processing techniques.

Kallis identifies a triangular connection between places, plants, and people as being the root from which local problem-solving can grow - one needs only to look at the example of the bio-netting installed at Stanley Park (a biodegradable structure made of uprooted invasive ivy to stabilize new native growth) to see how poignant solutions can stem from community brainstorming about the local environment. Another interesting concept that Kallis explores is the interplay between structure and space. She speaks about the advantages of ephemeral artwork as opposed to permanent installations, and the virtue of spaces (such as community gardens) that are built to with a sense of openness and an assumption that they will evolve over time. She also speaks of an unpredictable magic that occurs when community artists leave space in their structured projects for participants to interact, add stories, and share information while they work with natural materials.

The two volumes of Nettles & More... Holistic Healing Plants of the Pacific Northwest by Deborah Freeman and Diana Mongeau are a great stopping place to ruminate upon Lerner's "wilderness within" and Kallis's synergistic magic between plants, people, and places. The Nettles & More series contain simple, slender books, with each page dedicated to detailing the physical description, habitat, herbal remedies, and essence remedies of a flower. What are essence remedies, you ask? They are based on the concept that each flower has "an energetic template, and by imprinting that template, we are able to extract its ability to assist us" (p. 6). In other words, by creating a sun-infusion of a flower in water, it is able to help us with a specific emotional issue we may be having. For example, an oregon grape flower remedy targets "perfectionism - feeling unloveable [;] helps to transform feelings of self-criticism to self-love" (22). Trillium, which I recently posted about, aids in "transformation - helps us to return to our place of dignity. Assists us in death/rebirth, both physically and mentally. We can let go of [the] material plane [and enter] into a place of feeling truly comfortable in who we are. It shows us the beauty in our basic simplicity, in all aspects of ourselves" (40). If you are curious to learn more about essence remedies, do a bit of research into British homeopath Edward Bach.

Because I am a logical thinker, I'm not able to fully endorse flower essence remedies, but I do feel a great comfort in reading Nettles & More. I suppose my comfort is rooted in knowing, from my various encounters in the forest, that different plants do in fact coax from me different emotional responses, that plants and I are integrated. Even if I am resistant to flower essences as a method of healing, I can still support the thesis that there is a shared consciousness between human beings and nature.

Tree ID: Red Alder trees vs. Black Cottonwood trees

As I alluded to in my New Beginnings for Fall post, I've made it a project to learn more about trees over the last couple of years. I've been examining trunks, leaves, seeds, and cones on my walks, and deepening my tree identification skills by flipping through the wonderful Northwest Trees

For those of you who are new to tree identification, I thought I'd do a quick tutorial on how to tell the difference between a Black Cottonwood tree and a Red Alder tree. Both are trees that grow near streams and wetlands in British Columbia, so you might see them near ponds, lakes, rivers, or other places where their roots can access water.

Let's start with the leaves. Have a look at the following 2 pictures. Can you tell which leaves belong to the black cottonwood tree and which belong to the red alder tree?

Ready? If you guessed that the top image shows red alder leaves and the bottom displays black cottonwood leaves, you are correct! Still unsure? No problem - let's walk through the differences.

Shape: The red alder leaves have more of an egg shape with a pointed top, whereas the black cottonwood leaves have more of a rounded triangular shape.

Colour: The red alder leaves are a bright, fresh, matte lettuce green, whereas the black cottonwood leaves are darker and glossier on top, and whitish-green on the underside. You'll also notice that the underside of a black cottonwood leaf has some golden tones, which are from residual resin left from their springtime leaf bud. Sometimes you can smell this sweet resin on the leaf.

Leaf Veins and Margins: The red alder leaves have a toothed outer edge and very straight veins. The black cottonwood leaves are slightly toothed, but almost smooth on the outer edge, and have an upward curve in their veins.

Are you ready to look at some trunks? Here we go:

 An alder trunk - notice the white patches.

An alder trunk - notice the white patches.

The image above is of a typical alder trunk. You'll notice that its outer skin is a greyish colour, but that it almost appears white because of the lichens that grow all over it.

And here is a big old cottonwood trunk. You'll notice that it is quite a bit thicker, browner and more corrugated than an alder trunk. Note, though, that this particular tree is quite old, and that younger cottonwood trunks tend to have thinner skin.

If you are walking near a patch of alders or cottonwoods in March or April, before the leaves have fully shown themselves, there are other ways that you can tell these trees apart. In the springtime, alder trees have dangly bits called catkins that hold the male part of the seed, and small, half-inch cones that contain the female parts. You'll notice the male catkins scattered all over the ground in the early spring.

Cottonwood trees have sticky buds that encase their new leaves in the springtime. Because these buds are filled with resin, you'll often be able to smell a sweet smell when you're walking near these trees in March or April. Once the leaves have emerged early in the season, you may notice clusters of spent buds surrounding the trees.

 The emerging springtime leaves of a sitka alder tree, a smaller, shrubbier alder with multiple trunks. 

The emerging springtime leaves of a sitka alder tree, a smaller, shrubbier alder with multiple trunks. 

 A black cottonwood branch.

A black cottonwood branch.

A final identifying feature of a black cottonwood tree is that it shimmers when it blows in the wind. I think this might be due to the slight glossy quality of its leaves, or the fact that the front and the back of its leaves are two different tones. One of the places you can see this lovely vision in action is along the Millenium Line of Vancouver's Skytrain. Watching the cottonwoods that line the train trajectory is a great way to add a bit of enjoyment to an otherwise mundane commute. 

Bigleaf Maple and Vine Maple Trees

Spring is an excellent time to learn about deciduous (leafy) trees. I've been watching the Alder, Cottonwood, and Maple trees in my neighbourhood bud and become green throughout the last few months, slowly revealing their identities to me as their leaves settle into their final, fully-grown shape. The trees have made themselves known in other ways as well: in March, Alder trees dropped their yellow-green catkins all over the ground, which ended up as a mash of pollen beneath the shoes of trail walkers. Cottonwood leaves exploded from sticky, resinous buds and surrounded their tree trunks with half-inch, sweet-smelling shells. And Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), the most showy tree of all, proudly displayed its yellow flowers and long, elegant buds throughout the early spring.

 

 Bigleaf maple flowers dangling in the springtime sunshine.

Bigleaf maple flowers dangling in the springtime sunshine.

 Bigleaf maple leaves opening from their impressive buds in early April.

Bigleaf maple leaves opening from their impressive buds in early April.

As the yellow maple flowers begin to float down and carpet the ground below, a change is taking place. The flowers are beginning to grow "wings", indicating that the fruit of the maple tree is ripening.

 Pollinated maple flowers are becoming winged fruits.

Pollinated maple flowers are becoming winged fruits.

And in one brief month, the maple leaves have grown from the size of a a mere sprout to twice the size of my hand: 

 The leaf of a Bigleaf maple. I can see how it gets its name!

The leaf of a Bigleaf maple. I can see how it gets its name!

A complementary species of maple that also grows along my neighbourhood forest trail is the Vine maple (Acer circinatum). There are some key differences between the Bigleaf maple and the Vine maple: the former grows from a single, thick trunk, whereas the latter grows from several thin trunks (hence the name "vine"). Vine maples also have a different leaf shape of 7 to 9 points (shown below) and grow flowers that are pink instead of yellow. 

 A vine maple leaf with its flowers.

A vine maple leaf with its flowers.

 A good view of the overall Vine maple leaf shape.

A good view of the overall Vine maple leaf shape.

Trillium

At the beginning of April, I noticed some trillium flowers peeking out from behind a cedar tree on my neighbourhood forest path. I was struck by the unique 3-leaved, 3-sepaled, 3-petaled shape of this flower, and felt happy to have noticed the white blooms amongst the other green things that were sprouting from the earth.

 A few trilliums blooming on the forest floor

A few trilliums blooming on the forest floor

This flower is unique in that it starts off as white and quickly turns pink:

 A trillium in the process of changing colour

A trillium in the process of changing colour

As I was walking by the trillium patch today, I suddenly realized that I couldn't see them anymore. Upon more careful inspection, I realized that the flowers had shrivelled away, and the outer leaves now fringed skeletons of the petals that they once displayed so proudly. I wanted to commemorate the seasonal passing of trillium in a blog post, and let the memory of these flowers be a gentle reminder to watch the forest mindfully lest we miss something fleeting and beautiful. 

Good resource: Northwest Trees

Hi all - just wanted to let you know about an excellent book for those who wish to learn more about identifying trees. The book is called Northwest Trees by Stephen F. Arno, with illustrations by Ramona P. Hammerly. The book gives good descriptions of the habitat, appearance, and traditional uses of the region's trees, and contains very clear drawings to aid the reader with identification.

Here is the cover and some sample pages about cedar. Enjoy!

nw_trees.jpg
nw_trees1
nw_trees2
nw_trees3

The thing about Spring...

I recently moved back to my hometown in the suburbs of Vancouver, and am concurrently missing the city and relieved to have some peace and quiet after a tumultuous end to last year. I am in a state of transition right now, and there is a lot of uncertainty as to how my life will unfold over the next year.

Fortunately, very close to my home is a small parcel of forest that I've been exploring. It is land that I lived close to as I came of age, but I am just now opening my eyes to all the plants and trees that dwell within it. For the past few months, I've been observing the changes to nature brought about by the warm weather. The dull brown sticks of winter now bloom with salmonberry leaves and flowers,  Indian plum plants bear blushing fruit, tiny white flowers adorn the elderberry trees, and a large patch of nettles carpets a special corner of the forest floor.

 The tiny fruits of the Indian plum shrub ( Oemleria cerasiformis)  hang and ripen in the sunshine. 

The tiny fruits of the Indian plum shrub (Oemleria cerasiformis) hang and ripen in the sunshine. 

 An umbel of elderflowers adds a cheery splash to forest walks.

An umbel of elderflowers adds a cheery splash to forest walks.

The thing that both pleases and frustrates me about springtime is that nature unfolds at its own pace, and reveals itself slowly, in stages. While there are plants that I can identify easily by a leaf or a flower pattern, there are others that remain a mystery to me. Take, for example, the flower buds of these plants:

thimbleberry.jpg
currant.jpg

I can guess that the top image is that of a thimbleberry and the bottom image is some kind of currant, but I can't be sure until the flowers grow in and I can do some positive ID-ing. The forest is unwilling to reveal all of its cards to me at once, and I must learn to be patient.

In her wonderful book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, Robin Wall Kimmerer makes an astute observation about teaching and learning. She writes:

"In traditional indigenous communities, learning takes a form very different from that in the public education system. Children learn by watching, by listening and by experience. They are expected to learn from all members of the community, human and non. To ask a direct question is often considered rude. Knowledge cannot be taken; it must instead be given... Much learning comes from patient observation, discerning pattern and its meaning by experience" (pp. 76-77).

This lesson - that much learning happens at a pace set not by humans, but by nature - is one of the most important things that I've learned over the course of the Stanley Park Project. I can leaf through countless nature books, studying forest ecology as I would a school subject, but I must wait patiently for an encounter with a plant before I can truly know it. On top of this, it often takes a number of seasons to get acquainted with the ins and outs of a plant's appearance and personality.

As I've been relishing the slow springtime reveal of more flowers and leaves, I've also decided to release my desire to control the aspects of the future that are not within my reach. I will continue to work on paving my way at a measured pace, but will leave a clearing for the unknown to root and blossom along the path. 

 

New Beginnings for Fall

Late summer has officially morphed into autumn, and for the past few weeks I’ve been feeling a bit disoriented with my independent nature studies. I’ve spent the spring and summer of 2013 with a specific focus: identifying and observing the wild berries of coastal BC. Now that most of the berries have been devoured by birds and people, or hang morbidly on their shrubs after they’ve peaked and rotted, I need to choose a new aspect of the forest to watch.

 It's official... fall has arrived!

It's official... fall has arrived!

In late August (when the panic of an upcoming berry-less existence set in), I started searching for a new learning direction that would fit with the fall. I attended a bird walk at Stanley Park, where I learned that the male mallard ducks would be growing in their colourful feathers in October and starting to mate with the females in the winter. I signed out a mushroom field guide from the library, as I knew that the forest fungi would be thriving in fall. I savoured a wonderful cross-disciplinary book about moss and memory (Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which I’d like to tell you about in more detail sometime), and began taking close-up photos of shaggy rocks and logs. Though I find all of these things (ducks, fungi, and moss) interesting, the information overload made be feel paralyzed. I was grasping at the intricate details of feathers, single cells, and tender fruiting bodies, when perhaps I needed to ground my learning in something more solid and simple.

 A moss party in the forest.

A moss party in the forest.

 Fall is a fine time for finding forest fungi.

Fall is a fine time for finding forest fungi.

After a head-clearing walk through Stanley Park last Sunday, I officially settled on a point of focus. And it’s the most obvious thing: I’m going to learn more about trees.

It’s funny – I’ve never paid much attention to trees. I mean, I like them as a concept, and I enjoy the canopy and oxygen that they provide. I would notice and be upset if they suddenly disappeared from a local street or park. However, if pressed to describe the features of a specific tree, to identify a species of tree on a walk through the forest, or to figure out which tree a cone had dropped from, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it. Time to change that!

 I'm realizing that conveying the power of trees photographically is very difficult. The detail in the bark! The shadows and depth! The height! Well... I'll try my best. This is a tree at Stanley Park, by the way.  

I'm realizing that conveying the power of trees photographically is very difficult. The detail in the bark! The shadows and depth! The height! Well... I'll try my best. This is a tree at Stanley Park, by the way.  

In addition to exploring the physical and scientific aspects of trees, I’m also curious about their connection to the human and the sacred realms. How were trees used and honoured by people in the past? What kind of legends have people told about trees? What are their interior lives like? How do they govern each other and the plants around them? What magic, and what medicine, do they provide to those beings who know them intimately?

My first glance at tree literature, which was intended to be for basic identification purposes, yielded insight into the anatomy of trees that was deeper than I expected. A small guidebook from the library called Native Trees of British Columbia (by Reese Halter and Nancy J. Turner) introduced me to vocabulary terms such as “cambium” – a layer of living tissue-producing cells located between the bark and the wood of a tree. Sandwiched between the cambium and the rough visible outer bark of the tree is a living inner bark that transmits energy from leaf to root. There is a human softness in the solidity of the tree, a flowing circulatory and regenerative system that rests between the hardness of its skin and bones.

I also had a read through The Global Forest, a book of short essays written by botanist and bio-chemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger. In the book, Beresford discusses some of the medicinal properties of trees, the connection of trees to the growth of fungi and wildflowers, the need to protect the future of tree fruits and nuts in a global food landscape of genetically modified crops, and the effects of forest clearcutting. Two of the most interesting essays in the book were about the communication of trees. In one essay, Beresford notes that trees interact with each other in the forest – when one tree isn’t doing well, it sends out molecular signals that help to attract beneficial insects. The other trees in the area also receive these signals and send carbon to the ailing tree in order to help it out. In another essay, Beresford describes “infrasound” – a long-waved sound that travels long distances. Infrasound is produced by various things on earth, including trees, and is audible to some species but not humans (except, for the highly sensitive, in the form of an emotional response). There is some evidence that suggests that trees may be able to communicate with each other sonically, and to send out unique, mournful waves when a tree in the local community is being cut down. Step into a forest, close your eyes, and enjoy a barely perceptible massage of interactions pulsing above, below, and through you. If the trees are sending messages to each other, are they trying to tell you something as well?

 What secrets lie within and behind this bark?

What secrets lie within and behind this bark?

A few paragraphs above, I describe trees as “solid and simple”. In a sense, this is true. They are a basic unit of the forest, an easily recognizable object, a frequent feature in a small child’s drawing. Trees are structurally and conceptually strong beings. I wonder, though, if they are so easy to grasp not only because they are tall, visible, and ubiquitous, but also because they are the most human of the beings in the forest, a subject of unconscious recognition. Something to ruminate on as I observe the trees in Stanley Park this autumn…

 

Berry Watch 2013 // Part 6: Blackberries

I’ve been reading a chapter called “Wild Pickings” from Irish chef Denis Cotter’s Wild Garlic, Gooseberries… and Me: A Chef’s Stories and Recipes from the Land. Cotter talks about his adventures in foraging for greens, mushrooms, fruits, and sea vegetables, as well as the cooking experiments that he carries out with his findings. In his discussion of picking blackberries, he talks about what an effective intergenerational activity it can be.

  Wild Garlic, Gooseberries... and Me  by Denis Cotter. A great book for recipes, foraging info, and engaging narratives about food.

Wild Garlic, Gooseberries... and Me by Denis Cotter. A great book for recipes, foraging info, and engaging narratives about food.

Says Cotter, "Picking blackberries is pure pleasure. For kids, there is no misunderstanding, no wondering what this nasty stuff we’re collecting is about. The berries are sweet, and the slight thorny challenge only just enough of a problem to make them feel adventurous and appreciate the reward. Don’t get preachy, but you will know that you are making future memories; building and nurturing connections and stretching them into the next generation. This is how traditions survive, with the merest fingertip contact with the past. If blackberry picking is the easy link, it may well be the portal through which another generation may pass in order to explore the wider possibilities of wild foods." (p. 122-123)

 A cluster of blackberries at various stages of ripeness near Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park.

A cluster of blackberries at various stages of ripeness near Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park.

I love this description of gathering blackberries. Listening to Cotter illustrate the taste of the berries, the sting of the thorns, and “fingertip contact” – which makes me think of a ripe berry resting between my thumb and forefinger, ready to slide effortlessly off of the shrub – speaks to the power of these wild fruits to create a lasting sensory impression upon the people who choose to collect them. I know that when I pick blackberries, the pain of the prickles, the pillowy ripeness of the berries, the feel of the leaves against my wrists, the bright magenta shock of the juice from accidentally crushed fruits all help to tether my memory of the fruit to the shrub that provides it.

I give blackberries a lot of credit for being my “portal” into “the wider possibilities of wild foods”. It was about three years ago that I began to notice clumps of blackberry bushes in a few different parts of my neighbourhood (an observation likely guided by the taste of a friend’s homemade wild blackberry jam). After picking my first bucket of urban blackberries that August, I began to wonder why I had thought that the expensive store-bought berries were my only option. At that time, I also casually wondered what other foods were up for offer in local parkland, forests, and on the side of the road. I heard rumors about apple and pear trees around the city, and about people picking edible weeds for use in salads. I wondered about other wildberries, too – aside from blackberries, were there other plentiful local pickings to be had in the summer? Through my explorations of Stanley Park this year, I’ve been able to grow that inquisitive seed planted by the blackberry into a small tree of knowledge (see the Berry Watch posts).

I’ve also come to learn more about the blackberry itself through my study of Stanley Park. I’ve discovered that there are different kinds of blackberry shrubs that exist along the coast, all with varying levels of power. The Himalayan blackberry shrub (Rubus discolor), for example, is sturdy, sharp, and ubiquitous. The blackberries that you’ve picked in the park, on the side of the road, or in an industrial lot are likely from a Himalayan blackberry thicket. Nature has a complicated relationship with the Himalayan blackberry here on the coast. In one sense, it is a generous provider of gourmet fruit for anybody with a bucket, and, as described above, a forger of sense memories and connections with the natural world. In another sense, it is like the condo developer who is trying to take over your humble neighbourhood. It is an invasive species (see my previous post) that greedily expands into spaces that could otherwise be enjoyed by the native plants and shrubs that belong to the coastal land. Sometimes the branches of the Himalayan blackberry arc and re-root at their tip, creating an occupation of horizontal space, a chain store. Himalayan blackberry shrubs can grow quite tall (up to 5 metres), and are loaded with fruit… though they often like to tease short folks like me with a wealth of sweet, ripe berries that are a foot out of reach!

 The top of a tall Himalayan blackberry shrub - most of these berries are out of my reach!

The top of a tall Himalayan blackberry shrub - most of these berries are out of my reach!

 Sometimes Himalayan blackberry branches form arcs and re-root at the tip. 

Sometimes Himalayan blackberry branches form arcs and re-root at the tip. 

I’ve also learned about a blackberry that grows closer to the ground on more delicate stems, produces a smaller fruit, and is native to coastal British Columbia – it is called the trailing blackberry (Rubus ursinus). I encountered ripening vines of this blackberry along the sides of the Stanley Park forest trails in July. I liked the sense of surprise that I felt upon seeing this plant – unlike the Himalayan blackberry, which boldly makes itself known to the public, the trailing blackberry requires a keen eye and a bit of patience, as it hides closer to the ground. Unlike the Himalayan blackberry, some trailing blackberry shrubs are male and some are female - so only the shrubs with female flowers bear fruit.

trailing_blackberry.jpg
 A couple sightings of trailing blackberry along the Stanley Park forest trails in late July. 

A couple sightings of trailing blackberry along the Stanley Park forest trails in late July. 

You also might see cutleaf (or evergreen) blackberry shrubs (Rubus laciniatus) around coastal BC. Like the Himalayan blackberry, these shrubs are not native to BC and are considered invasive. They can be distinguished by their leaf shape – each leaf contains 5 leaflets with very frilly edges.

 A cutleaf blackberry shrub spotted at Crab (aka Portside) Park in Vancouver.

A cutleaf blackberry shrub spotted at Crab (aka Portside) Park in Vancouver.

Plant ID: Himalayan Blackberry vs. Salmonberry Shrubs

Last Saturday, I did some invasive species removal with the Stanley Park Eco-Stewards. We removed Himalayan blackberry from some sites that had previously been cleared of invasive species and replanted with salmonberry shrubs. Because Himalayan blackberry is such a persistent plant – it, along with English ivy, is one of the most aggressive invasive species in Stanley Park – there were several spots in which it had grown back.

One of the most helpful things I learned during this eco-stewardship session was how to tell the difference between a Himalayan blackberry shrub and a salmonberry shrub – we wouldn’t want to be digging up the native salmonberry vegetation, after all! I’ll share with you some of the plant identification tips I learned.

Have a look at the picture below. It contains a Himalayan blackberry branch and a salmonberry branch converging with each other. Can you tell which is which?

Can you guess which branch belongs to a salmonberry shrub and which belongs to a Himalayan blackberry shrub?

If you guessed blackberry on the left and salmonberry on the right, you are correct! If not, don’t worry – let’s walk through it together.

First, let’s look at the colour and texture of the branches. The blackberry branch is green and thorny. The salmonberry branch is brown and smooth (Wild Berries of British Columbia tells me that younger salmonberry branches are prickly, and then they shed their prickles as they get older... I'll have to start paying more attention to these things!).

BRANCHES: notice the prickly green blackberry branch on the left versus the smoother brown salmonberry branch on the right.

Secondly, notice the leaf pattern of each. Himalayan blackberry leaves tend to consist of 5 leaflets, each of which round and then end in a point. Salmonberry leaves have three leaflets that are more angular in shape:

LEAVES: A Himalayan blackberry leaf (left) vs. a salmonberry leaf (right).

A good trick that Ivy, our Stewardship Coordinator, taught us: if you fold down the top leaflet of a salmonberry leaf, you get a butterfly!

 A salmonberry-leaf butterfly!

A salmonberry-leaf butterfly!

Try the same trick with a blackberry leaf, and here’s what you get:

 Not quite a butterfly.

Not quite a butterfly.

It’s useful to note that there are exceptions to these identification rules. I’ve certainly seen some salmonberry branches (I think they are, at least!) that are green…

 Green salmonberry branches

Green salmonberry branches

… some Himalayan blackberry canes that are reddish…

 Red Himalayan blackberry branch

Red Himalayan blackberry branch

… and some Himalayan blackberry leaves that have three leaflets (though note that the overall leaflet shape is much rounder than that of a salmonberry leaflet):

 

 A Himalayan blackberry leaf with three leaflets

A Himalayan blackberry leaf with three leaflets

But hopefully sticking with the aforementioned guidelines will help you to identify these shrubs. Happy plant ID-ing! For those readers with a little more nature expertise, please let me know in the comments if I've made any mistakes.

Berry Watch 2013 // Part 5: Western Black Raspberries

In late July, as I was strolling through the forest toward Third Beach, I came across a patch of western black raspberries (aka blackcap raspberriesRubus leucodermis to be exact). The raspberry branches are on the north side of Tatlow trail, just west of Park Drive.

 Here are the western black raspberry branches, photographed August 11. As I'll mention below, these raspberries are a bit past their prime!

Here are the western black raspberry branches, photographed August 11. As I'll mention below, these raspberries are a bit past their prime!

Just as the name suggests, western black raspberries are ripe when they are a purplish-black colour. They are similar in shape to thimbleberries – their drupes (the little bumpy parts on the exterior of the fruit) are smaller and more numerous than that of a conventional raspberry, and they have a broad, “cap”-like shape. I tasted a nice ripe black one – it was very tasty, but also super seedy!

But alas… how soon the summer fruits disappear! When I first came across the raspberries 12 days ago or so, there were several unripe red berries on the branch, along with a few ripe black ones - it was a berry patch so full of hope! When I checked back on them yesterday, most of the raspberries had disappeared – some had likely been picked by passers-by or eaten by wildlife, and others had simply ripened and rotted away. My camera had died when I passed the raspberry patch for the first time, so unfortunately, all I have to show you are are a few slightly overripe berries from yesterday. As you can see, they range from mouth-watering to macabre:

 Closeup of a western black raspberry cluster, past its prime and on the decline. There are cobwebs and everything!

Closeup of a western black raspberry cluster, past its prime and on the decline. There are cobwebs and everything!

In case you're curious about the leaf shape and stem-prickliness of the western black raspberry for identification purposes, here's what to look for: 

The leaf and stem of a western black raspberry branch. 

Berry Watch 2013 // Part 4: Thimbleberries

Over the course of the spring and the early summer, I was dying to try thimbleberries. As with many of the fruits mentioned in the Berry Watch posts, I had only learned what thimbleberries were early in the spring – like salmonberries, raspberries, and blackberries, they are part of the Rubus genus of berry. As soon as I turned to the “Thimbleberry” section in Wild Berries of British Columbia, I was sold. “Thimbleberry is one of the most delicious native berries you will find in BC (and beyond!)” raves Fiona Hamersley Chambers in Wild Berries. “…The taste is somewhat like a raspberry, but more intense and flavourful with a sharper ‘tang’” (p. 74). Between that description and the picture of the gorgeous, red-fuschia ripe berry on the same page, my mouth was watering. Too bad it was only April – I had several months to kill before the fruits ripened in July!

 

 My first "taste" of thimbleberries was a tasty description in  Wild Berries of British Columbia  by Fiona Hamersley Chambers.

My first "taste" of thimbleberries was a tasty description in Wild Berries of British Columbia by Fiona Hamersley Chambers.

From that point forward, I was on close thimbleberry watch during my visits to Stanley Park. Luckily, even without flowers or fruit, thimbleberry shrubs are easy to spot: they are large, and have big, fuzzy, maple-shaped leaves. In early to mid May, their big white flowers began to emerge:

 A thimbleberry shrub in May. Note the large maple-shaped leaves and white flowers.

A thimbleberry shrub in May. Note the large maple-shaped leaves and white flowers.

In early June, green berries started to appear. Note that their drupes (the little bumps all over the fruit) are smaller than those of a raspberry:

 Some unripe thimbleberries at the beginning of June. 

Some unripe thimbleberries at the beginning of June. 

By late June, the berries were changing colour to a pale yellow / dusty rose:

 A ripening thimbleberry in late June. 

A ripening thimbleberry in late June. 

 This thimbleberry is getting there! It should be ripe pretty soon!

This thimbleberry is getting there! It should be ripe pretty soon!

My first taste of thimbleberries happened not at Stanley Park, but while I was on Salt Spring Island, on July 7 - yes, the event was so significant that I made note of the day! I was walking along from the “downtown” part of the island toward a forested park, and noticed a few thimbleberry shrubs along the side of the road. To my delight, they were adorned with several ripe berries ready for picking. I learned that thimbleberries respond best to a steady hand when they are being plucked from the shrub; though they look quite solid, they are actually just fragile little domes that can easily slip out of clumsy fingers and onto the ground. A shape analogy: if a raspberry were a head, a thimbleberry would be a beanie.

 A ripe thimbleberry in July. Finally!

A ripe thimbleberry in July. Finally!

Folks, as far as I’m concerned, these little fruits live up to the hype – they are spectacularly tangy and sweet.  Forget raisins – thimbleberries steal the title of “nature’s candy.”

In my previous post, I mentioned I’ve witnessed berries that ripen slowly and gradually (such as salal), and those that live fast and die young (such as red elderberry). Thimbleberries possess a touch of both. The shrubs that I come across will often have two or three ripe berries, several not-quite-ripe ones, as well as many that have mummified in the sun. There is a gradual process to the ripening of thimbleberries – they are not yet finished for the season – but they are so fragile that they don’t last long once they are mature.

You probably won’t be able to collect a bucket of thimbleberries as you would blackberries – it’s doubtful that there would be quantity or substance enough to fill a receptacle, and even if there was, these fragile fruits would not hold their shape for long. However, they are a wonderful “living for the moment” fruit. If you see a ripe thimbleberry, please eat it, enjoy it, and let it be a reminder to enjoy the sweetness of the present.

 

Berry Watch 2013 // Part 3: Red Elderberries

As I’ve watched the berries ripen in the forest this summer, I’ve found that different berry shrubs have different sensations of time. Some berries, such as blackberries, red huckleberries, and salal berries, treat their time on this planet as a leisurely, extended celebration. They ripen gradually and in succession, leaving some fruits green while others sweeten in the sun. The window of time for gathering the ripened fruit is long; I know that I can observe, document, and taste them at a slow and measured pace.

There are other berries that treat their ripening in a live-fast-and-die-young kind of way. Every berry will ripen at once, will live a plump and happy life for a glorious few weeks, and then will shrivel and decay. From what I’ve observed at Stanley Park, this seems to be the life of the red elderberry.

{Note: if you plan to forage red elderberries, have a look at the cautionary blurb at the bottom of this page.}  

I first started to notice red elderberry shrubs at Stanley Park around April. Many of these shrubs have grown into tree-like formations. Their leaves are long, pointed ovals that hang in a relaxed, friendly manner. The foliage makes the tree look slightly tropical – I was reminded of the leaves of a “money tree” houseplant. My eye was also drawn to the clusters of little white flowers adorning the branches. These flowers can be used for medicinal and culinary purposes – a bit of “elderflower” googling connects me not only to pictures, but to recipes for cordial, wine, fritters, and cakes. Give it a try and see what you can find!

 My first picture of a red elderberry shrub. I believe I took it in April (though I didn't have the date set correctly on my camera then!) Note the little white elderflowers in bloom.

My first picture of a red elderberry shrub. I believe I took it in April (though I didn't have the date set correctly on my camera then!) Note the little white elderflowers in bloom.

The transition from elderflower to elderberry began in May. The areas that once held flowers were now clusters of tiny green nuggets. Each nugget looks like a mini-acorn, or a tiny squash. The clusters look like the stems of grapes:

 A red elderberry shrub in May. These little green nuggets will eventually become red berries.

A red elderberry shrub in May. These little green nuggets will eventually become red berries.

By the end of June, the elderberries were ripe:

 Red elderberries in late June.

Red elderberries in late June.

As you can see, the berries in the picture above have a plump and appealing look. However, when I returned to Stanley Park about three weeks later, the elderberries had peaked and were looking shriveled. These past-their-prime berries reminded me of Nerds candy!

 Only 3 weeks later, these elderberries are on their way out.

Only 3 weeks later, these elderberries are on their way out.

Though I continue to enjoy, the slow, gradual ripening of berries such as salal, I think that the quick-to-mature, quick-to-decay nature of red elderberries is important to ponder. While the shrubs were producing their luscious berries (the month of June), I was spending copious amounts of time indoors, completing a work project that required a computer. I didn’t have a chance to visit the park as often as I hoped, and I didn’t get to observe the transition of the elderberry shrubs as thoroughly as I would have liked. I think about the region shared by the red elderberry and I – the south coast of BC, where the daylight hours are slowly begin to contract and sunlight is a privilege – and I wonder: what other brevities of nature are slipping through our fingers? I guess it's time to turn the computer off for the day, go outside, and soak up some Vitamin D...

 * A cautionary note about red elderberries: 

Almost all parts of red elderberry shrubs, aside from the fruits and flowers, contain toxins. These toxins are also in the seeds of the fruit. Some sources cite red elderberries as poisonous, and some say they are okay to eat as long as they’ve been cooked and de-seeded. I recommend doing a bit of research and using your own good judgment if you plan on consuming these berries. I think that the summary of red elderberries on this Eat the Weeds post (written by experienced forager Green Deane) is quite good – just scroll about halfway down the page and have a read.

Berry Watch 2013 // Part 2: Salal Berries and Red Huckleberries

Hello, everyone – I’m back from Salt Spring Island! I had a wonderful, renewing trip, and I’m excited to get back to the Stanley Park Project.

More and more of the berries in the forest are starting to ripen – it’s so exciting! I’ve been anticipating the arrival of the berries for months. I began reading about coastal berry shrubs in the late winter, spent months identifying their leaf and flower patterns, and photographed their progress throughout the late spring. Now that the sun is working its transformative magic, I can exchange cool observation of the ripening berries for the intimacy of touch and taste.

Salal was one of the first berry shrubs that called out to me at Stanley Park in mid-to-late spring. I immediately noticed its bold, playful personality, its leathery leaves buoyed by the energy of new spring growth. What really caught my eye were the whitish-pink flowers dangling from little stems, as though the salal shrubs were decorating itself with paper lanterns for a party. Even the name of the plant itself - salal - has a lilting, festive ring to it.

 A springtime salal shrub with bells on! This photo was taken in late May.

A springtime salal shrub with bells on! This photo was taken in late May.

Throughout the last few months, I’ve been taking snapshots of the changing salal flower stems. Each flower eventually morphs into a green “berry” (Plants of Coastal British Columbia tells me that this “berry” is actually a “fleshy sepal” – a “sepal” normally being that green part that covers the petals of the flower before they open up). As I was walking through the forest last weekend, I noticed that some of the salal “berries” are starting to ripen into a bluish-purple colour, so I munched on a few. They have a deep, musky, tangy flavour that resembles a concord grape – I quite liked them. They are also a little hairy, but don’t let that deter you!

Here is a salal flower stem in late May:

 

salal_may.jpg

...in mid-June: 

salal_june.jpg

...in late June:

salal_late_june.jpg

...and in mid-July: 

salal_july.jpg

I’ve also been noticing red huckleberries speckling the forest since early June, and there’s certainly still some around to enjoy. These berries really snuck up on me – I was walking past a red huckleberry shrub one day, wondering when it would flower, and was surprised to see tiny ripe red berries already adorning the underside of its foliage! The little oval leaves were shielding these berries as best they could, as though the plant was bashful about its sudden maturity.

 Can you see the little red berries hiding under the leaves of this huckleberry shrub?

Can you see the little red berries hiding under the leaves of this huckleberry shrub?

A bit of careful observation throughout June shed more light on the development of these red fruits: they start very subtly from tiny, whitish-green flowers that hide beneath the undersides of the leaves:

 Can you see the little green "flower" on the right side of the plant. So incognito!

Can you see the little green "flower" on the right side of the plant. So incognito!

Red huckleberries are very small (1 cm or less in diameter), but pack a delicious, tangy punch. Though this shrub is more delicate and effacing than the outgoing, festive salal, it is worth getting to know – in my opinion, the berries that it quietly creates are of equal intensity to those of showy salal. You’ll find a lot of red huckleberry shrubs rooted in crumbling, rotted stumps throughout the forest.

 

A quick note...

Hello everyone!

Just wanted to let you know that I'm still here, but am going away to Salt Spring Island for a couple of weeks. I was just at Stanley Park yesterday, and there's so much to report... but I have to run and catch a ferry! I'll be back in 2 weeks with plenty of new findings. Thanks for your patience!

There is Foam All Over Stanley Park!

Okay, okay… I know this is a strange topic for a post, but I’m going to run with it. I’ve been seeing something strange all over the park for the last couple of weeks. It looks like someone’s been having a bubble bath and leaving the remnants of their frothy tub all over the park. Either that, or a whipped egg-white food fight has been going on after dark. Here’s an example of what I mean:

 Foam at Stanley Park - spotted in late May.

Foam at Stanley Park - spotted in late May.

And another example: 

 More foam - spotted in early June.

More foam - spotted in early June.

Last week when I was pulling ivy with the Eco-Stewards, I asked our group leader, Ivy, about these foamy blotches. She said that they came from spittlebugs. Spittlebugs! Bugs that spit foam? I started to think of every alien film I’d ever seen.

It turns out (not surprisingly) that those first thoughts and images flashing through my brain were incorrect. After doing some research, I found out that adult spittlebugs (also called froghoppers – in the Cercopidae family of insects, in case you are curious) are insects that look like a cross between a beetle, a grasshopper, and a tiny frog. They lay their eggs in the joints of plants between summer and winter, and then the overwintered eggs begin to hatch in May. The newly hatched spittlebugs excrete a foamy substance that insulates them, keeps them moist, and hides them from predators. Here's a great picture of an adult spittlebug taken by Sean McCann:

Spittlebug on Stinging Nettle

For your further enjoyment, I found this YouTube video of a spittlebug nymph in action. Fast forward to 0:25 to see the bug start to bubble!

 

Pulling Ivy with the Stanley Park Eco-Stewards

Last week, I wrote a post about the wonderful experience I had weaving English ivy into bio-netting with artist Sharon Kallis. Sharon uses English ivy as an art medium, and determines ways to convert this invasive plant into structures that are beneficial to the forest and our surroundings (i.e. bio-netting, fencing). Now, I’d like to take a step back and talk about the role I play in pulling ivy from the ground.

The Stanley Park Eco-Stewards – a volunteer group that I’m a part of – are responsible for removing English ivy and other invasive plant species from key places throughout the park. Why does the ivy need to be removed, you ask? English ivy is a non-native, invasive species that likes to take over large areas and crowd out the native species that provide habitat and food for the wildlife in the park. Once English ivy is removed from an area, the native vegetation has more space to flourish.

 Here are two piles of invasive species that the Eco-Stewards pulled last weekend. The pile in the front is holly, and the ivy is piled in the back. Sorry about the camera smudge!

Here are two piles of invasive species that the Eco-Stewards pulled last weekend. The pile in the front is holly, and the ivy is piled in the back. Sorry about the camera smudge!

I’ve been an Eco-Steward since March, and have been pulling ivy once a month with a great group of volunteers. There are several things that I like about this experience. Of all the nice sensations I get from being close to the forest floor (the smell of mulch, an increased ability to breathe, the light compression of the soft ground under my feet), the feeling I love the most is the tug of war with the ivy vine as I pull it from the ground. English ivy is anchored to the ground horizontally by rootlets that are distributed across its vine. Sometimes I can extract the vine easily, with the sensation of ripping out a length of yarn from an unraveling sweater. Sometimes it is more challenging – often the ivy vines don’t end when I think they will, and continue for several metres underneath the weight of fallen branches, or are busy strangling the base of a sword fern. In this case, the ivy vine often breaks before I can pull it in its entirety, and I spend time digging through the soft mulch with my gloves, extracting the remaining rootlets and removing the rest of the vine. In these cases, I work like an electrician searching for the correct wire, trying not to mistake the severed ivy vine with the slender roots of trees and shrubs.

 A tangled circuit of extracted ivy vines.

A tangled circuit of extracted ivy vines.

Another great thing about being an Eco-Steward is the opportunity for learning about the forest in real time, as it develops throughout the seasons. Our energetic and knowledgeable group leader, Ivy, is very in tune with emerging vegetative growth at Stanley Park. She is good at scanning the landscape and finding many teachable moments as she leads us toward our work site. From Ivy I’ve learned how to identify douglas fir trees, salmonberry canes, and salal shrubs. I’ve learned facts about fiddleheads, salamanders, and spittlebugs. If I have a specific question about an aspect of the forest, I can ask Ivy rather than paging through a book or typing a vague question into Google.

If you’re interested in learning more about invasive species in the park, there are some pictures and notes on these species on the Stanley Park Ecology website. There’s also a handy-dandy picture poster that lists the common invasive plants and suggests native alternatives for gardeners. If you’re interested in eco-stewardship at Stanley Park, check the Stanley Park Ecology Society events page and look for “community invasive species management” or “eco-stewardship” events.

 

Weaving a Bio-Net from English Ivy

Last Saturday I learned how to weave a net out of invasive English ivy vines that had been pulled from the ground. Cool, right? My net will become a small piece of a functional bio-netting community art project led by Vancouver-based environmental artist Sharon Kallis.

 Our raw materials - English ivy that had recently been pulled from the park.

Our raw materials - English ivy that had recently been pulled from the park.

What is bio-netting, you ask? It’s essentially a woven layer that’s placed atop the soil of an ecologically-sensitive area. The bio-net helps to prevent soil erosion and protect new plantings of native vegetation while still letting in light and air. Eventually (in about 2-3 years), the net biodegrades and enriches the soil around the newly established vegetation.

In 2009, Sharon led The Ivy Project, a community bio-net weaving and installation project in Stanley Park. If you’re interested in learning more about The Ivy Project, it has a website and a video. Sharon has recently written a good blog post about the growth results of the netted area on her website. The bio-netting from Sharon’s current project will be installed on a slope on the north side of Lost Lagoon in October.

I was greeted warmly by Sharon on Saturday morning as she was setting up above the Stanley Nature House on the southeast side of the lagoon. She was busily taking strands of ivy and looping them around a series of fenceposts, setting up about 4 or 5 community workstations so that people could drop in and try the weaving technique throughout the day. With a cheerful and relaxed attitude, Sharon showed me how to wrap the ivy around a fencepost and leapfrog a loop overtop of this wrap to create a “stitch” in the net. I worked back and forth across 6 fenceposts to create my rectangle of netting.

 

 A piece of bio-netting in the works!

A piece of bio-netting in the works!

Over the course of the day, many patrons of the park stopped by and asked what we were doing. Sharon explained how, when, and where we’d be using the bio-netting, and also highlighted that we were repurposing English ivy (an unwanted, invasive plant that covers much of Stanley Park, crowds out native vegetation, and takes thousands of volunteer hours to remove) into a functional structure that will benefit the park ecology. She pointed out that the woven hat she was wearing – a stylish newsboy cap – was also made out of English ivy.

“Would you like to try? I can teach you the technique and have you weaving in about two minutes.” This is Sharon’s invitation to curious passers-by. Some people take her up on her offer and spend a few minutes to an hour at a work station, looping ivy around the fence and creating a length of netting. This community project is ingenious in its ease – no special tools or materials are required; we simply use what the built environment and the forest provide.

I’ve been thinking lately about environmental education, and how well-meaning messages can often come off as boring and technical. Sharon’s way of communicating about ecology is different. She channels fresh ideas into small, local projects that combine craft and conservation science, and have clear, visible, and measurable outcomes. She accesses the sensation of touch when she teaches people to weave, and invites us to create hand rhythms that literally seal nature in a loop and link our fingerpads to the forest. I wonder: how could other environmentalists make use of all 5 senses to impact people’s minds and actions? How else can the arts guide the sciences in delivering effective ecological messages?

Sharon told me that the next phase of the project will take place in August around Third Beach. We’ll be creating woven circles of ivy to join the larger pieces of netting together. If you’re interested in joining in, check out the events section of Sharon’s website and scroll down to the August listings.

 

Berry Watch 2013 // Part 1: Salmonberries

Update, August 2013: The "Berry Watch 2013" saga continues! If you're interested in the ripening fruits at Stanley Park and in and around Vancouver, have a look at the other fine "Berry Watch" blog posts! Or continue reading about salmonberries below - they are finished for the season, but it's always good to know about them.

I’ve been slowly and steadily increasing my knowledge of the native berry shrubs that grow in coastal BC. Berries were one of the first things on my radar during the early inklings of this learning project; I felt it would be empowering (and impressive to friends!) to know which fruits I could safely pop off the bush and into my mouth during a summer hike. In April, I signed out a book from the library called Wild Berries of British Columbia by Fiona Hamersley Chambers (one of the wonderful guides from Lone Pine publishers) and was surprised to learn about the vast amount of edible berries that grow in the region. As I was getting more absorbed in this book, the salmonberry shoots in Stanley Park were concurrently beginning to grow taller and come alive with pink flowers, a bright anticipation of the berries that would soon replace them.

 A salmonberry flower blooming near the seawall in early April. 

A salmonberry flower blooming near the seawall in early April. 

It seems crazy to me now, but I hadn’t heard of – or noticed – salmonberries until this year. They are very common in Stanley Park, but certainly not as prolific to Vancouver as the Himalayan blackberry, which I’ve spotted in parks and green spaces, as well as in vacant and industrial lots. More on blackberries later, I promise!

Salmonberry shrubs begin early in the spring as skinny canes, and sprout clumps of refreshingly green, corrugated leaves in groups of 3 pointy leaflets. Their papery pink flowers begin to bloom in March, and are one of the first bursts of bright colour to speckle the brown and green springtime forest. Those of you that live on the BC coast will know that the grey, wet spring season can last forever – so as I gazed at the salmonberries this past spring, I appreciated the sense of optimism that these pinks provided, a promise that there would be more vivid colours to come as the weather grew warmer.

 Some salmonberry canes hanging out in the forest in April. You'll see that some green berries are beginning to form with a muppet-like fringe around their "necks".

Some salmonberry canes hanging out in the forest in April. You'll see that some green berries are beginning to form with a muppet-like fringe around their "necks".

I watched with anticipation through March, April, and May as the flowers became small green fruits and ripened into brilliant red and orange berries. Salmonberries look very much like raspberries, and belong to the same Rubus genus of berry as raspberries, blackberries, and thimbleberries. However, salmonberries are unique from their Rubus peers in that they grow in two colours (red and orange, the result of a one-gene allele difference). In addition, they are the earliest berries to ripen on the coast. It is only early June, and for the last couple of weeks I’ve certainly been popping a few ripe ones in my mouth as I stroll the trails.

 A ripening red salmonberry hiding under its green canopy.

A ripening red salmonberry hiding under its green canopy.

 Some yellow salmonberries moving toward ripeness.

Some yellow salmonberries moving toward ripeness.

Are salmonberries the most delicious berries in the world? Probably not, but it depends on your taste buds. The ones I’ve had seem to range from mildly tart to mildly sweet and a little bland, but those berries may have benefitted from a little more ripening on the branch prior to plucking. What I’ve really enjoyed about salmonberries is their precociousness – they provide a bit of colour, flavor, and relief during the long wait for the emergence of other summer wildfruits. And, like a good precocious pupil of the forest who has finished her work early, the salmonberry helps to teach beginners like me about the rhythms of flowering and fruiting, and to guide my eye to the development patterns of the berry shrubs that will bear fruit later in the summer.

     

Three Discoveries from a Guided Nature Walk

On Sunday May 19, I attended my first guided nature walk through Stanley Park. I learned a number of interesting facts about plants and trees, and wanted to share the best of the best with you:

Discovery #1: There is vegetative life that emerges from death.

We walked past some decaying tree stumps topped with small hemlock trees that had sprouted and taken root upon the rotting wood. There were also some red huckleberry shrubs growing on the stumps. Apparently, both hemlock and red huckleberry like to grow on decomposing wood.

 The very alive roots of a hemlock tree cascade over the sides of a decaying tree stump (with bonus horse!).  

The very alive roots of a hemlock tree cascade over the sides of a decaying tree stump (with bonus horse!).  

 Here are a couple examples of red huckleberry shrubs growing from tree stumps. They are the bright green plants with the small oval-shaped leaves. Unfortunately, they aren't growing berries yet!

Here are a couple examples of red huckleberry shrubs growing from tree stumps. They are the bright green plants with the small oval-shaped leaves. Unfortunately, they aren't growing berries yet!

Discovery #2: Salmonberries are a delicious celebration of diversity.

The berries (which are ripening right now!) mature into one of two colours: red or yellow. Each colour has a slightly different flavor. According to our nature guide, the difference in colour is the result of a one-gene genetic difference, with the yellow berries being the result of a recessive allele.

 

 Two examples of ripening salmonberries - yellow on the left; red on the right.

Two examples of ripening salmonberries - yellow on the left; red on the right.

Discovery #3: There is more to a flower than meets the eye.

Our exploration of the ground-level flowering plants in the forest was quite illuminating. We learned about the bunchberry, or dwarf dogwood, which is a little leafy plant that grows the same type of 4-petaled white flower that would grow on a dogwood tree. But wait – the white part is not a flower! The white “petals” are actually bracts, or modified leaves, that circle around a cluster of tiny flower buds in the middle. I did some reading at home on the bunchberry and found out that when the bunchberry is ready to release its pollen, a little trigger attached to each flower bud causes the flowers to open very suddenly and "catapult" pollen into the air. It's funny to hear such violent language ("explosive," "trigger," etc.) in the descriptions of such an innocuous-looking plant:

 

 A bunchberry, or dwarf dogwood ( Cornus canadensis ). Note that the white "petals" are actually bracts, or modified leaves - the flower buds are in the middle, waiting to explode their pollen into the air.

A bunchberry, or dwarf dogwood (Cornus canadensis). Note that the white "petals" are actually bracts, or modified leaves - the flower buds are in the middle, waiting to explode their pollen into the air.

I was happy to finally learn the name of a ground-plant I’d been seeing everywhere: the fringecup, which has a nicely-shaped leaf and a stalk of small pink and white flowers with spiny edges. The flowers are arranged vertically on the stalk, with the newer white flowers blooming toward the top and the older pink flowers located near the bottom. Our guide said that this may have to do with the vision of bees – bees can’t see red very well, so the plant is telling the bees to pollinate the newer white flowers, and leave the pink flowers alone.

 

 The stem of a fringecup ( Tellima grandiflora ). Note the larger pink flowers and the newer white flowers toward the top of the stem.

The stem of a fringecup (Tellima grandiflora). Note the larger pink flowers and the newer white flowers toward the top of the stem.

It was also great to have miner’s-lettuce pointed out, as I’d been eyeing this edible species in a foraging book. Miner’s-lettuce is quite a common plant that grows on the sides of paths in the park. Our guide asked us to look carefully at the flowers that grew from the plant, and notice the stripes down the middle of each petal. Apparently the purpose of the stripes is to draw insects’ attention toward the centre of the flower.

 The striped flower of the miner's-lettuce plant ( Claytonia perfoliata ). 

The striped flower of the miner's-lettuce plant (Claytonia perfoliata). 

 A miner's-lettuce plant on the side of a nature trail.

A miner's-lettuce plant on the side of a nature trail.

A special thanks to our nature guide, Terry, for sharing his wisdom about the forest – I hope that I’ve done his teachings justice in this post. If you’d like to participate in a guided walk at Stanley Park, check the Events section of the Stanley Park Ecology Society website. The walks are reasonably priced – $5 for members or $10 for non-members – and you’ll learn a lot!