Category Archives: Natural Areas

Death and Life in the Garden: Learning in the Garden Classroom

As gardeners our hands are ‘bloodied’ with the chlorophyll of plants…while it may not stain us as ‘murderers’, we are never the less complicit in their deaths…as much as we are necessary for their lives.  Without us, as a group, these garden plants would never would have been propagated and, if not for our ‘selfish’ acts in the garden, choosing, designing and displaying them, many would be passing into obscurity, most of us knowing nothing of them or of their loss, their passages into decline and extinction, even more quiet, unnoticed, as too many already do today.  While we may acquire and attempt to grow them with the ‘best’ of intention, eventually, they will all die, ill fit or not, suddenly or after many years in our gardens, as a result of our ignorance, impatience, simple curiosity, our desire for something ‘different’, or even in spite of our best informed efforts.  Death comes to all things and our gardens are no exception.  Our gardens art artificial after all, creations of our making and they do not comprise a viable population that will out live us, reproducing in place, making the adjustments that they must over time to survive.  To do this would take an unprecedented amount of effort and coordination on our part and that of our neighbors.  The setting of our gardens are unique to us and their purposes are much narrowed and more intentional than are the places their progenitors come from, the ‘gardens’ of their origination.  For many of these plants our relationship with them might best be thought of as student to teacher as nature sacrifices itself in an attempt to teach us of what is being lost, ever since we stepped out of the loop that once put us in daily direct contact with nature and came to embrace this modern world and its expectations of consumption, ‘ease’ and never ceasing growth…so it is not ‘murder’, it is life, an attempt to return and reclaim.  There is purpose to be found in our gardens, well beyond surface amusement and distraction in what is too often becoming an ever uglier world, or for some of us our need to impress in a game of one-upmanship.  Nature demands more of us, that we accept our role as student and become careful observers, willing acolytes…maybe even crusaders….Too much? no, I don’t think so. Continue reading

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Our Gardens as Teachers

 

Of all the things our gardens do for us, arguably the most important is their role as our teachers, even in winter when a temperate garden ‘rests’, its surface crust or top few feet, frozen, maybe sheltered beneath the cover of snow, or, as ours so often are, simply too cold for active plant growth, the soil wet, the rain too heavy to percolate fast enough down through its layers, without the active aid of either the direct heating of the sun or its effect on plants, through evapotranspiration, pumping water back into the air as the plants grow.  Gardens teach patience.  They encourage us to become more careful observers…to think and plan, to anticipate and prepare, to understand that there is more going on here than we can readily see…and they teach us about faith and trust in the natural world, that there is always more going on than we can see. Continue reading

Growing and Understanding Globe Mallows in the Urbanized Maritime NW: Sphaeralcea spp. and Cultivars

Every plant evolved in and lives in context.  They are dependent upon it for continuing support, not just for their survival, but for their well being as they grow, mature and attempt to reproduce.  It is not just competition out there.  Though we may order them from a catalog, grow them from carefully collected seed, receive them as gifts from a friend or purchase them from the shelves or rows at a garden center, they are individual plants, removed from their context…their futures’ will be short if we don’t make some attempt to recreate it.

Sphaeralcea ‘Childerly’, from the Dancing Oaks catalog, though it’s not currently listed.

Sphaeralcea are often called Globe Mallows and are another member of the large Mallow Family, the Malvaceae, some 244 genera with 4,225 known species.  I’ve written recently of Anisodontea another genus of the family.  Most of the 40-60 species of Sphaeralcea are North American natives of dry areas, growing from the Great Plains west and south into Mexico, with a few occurring in South America while a few others reaching into southern Canada.  They include annuals, perennials and shrubby species, I’m looking here at perennials, all of which have very long bloom times, often spanning the entire summer into fall.

Sphaeralcea (ambigua) ‘Childerley’

Sphaeralcea ambigua, one of the largest growing species of the genus, at up to 3′-5′, often found considerably smaller, is native to the US Southwest, SW Utah, Nevada to Arizona and southern California down to Sonora and northern Baja, Mexico.  They are found east of California’s Sierra Nevada and the several other smaller ranges of southern California, which shield them from moisture coming from the Pacific.  It is the most xeriphytic of the genus, meaning, the most tolerant of drought.  The USDA breaks the species into four separate subspecies, S.a. ssp. ambigua, the most commonly occurring form across the four states with the typical orangey flowers, S.a. ssp. monticola, the one occurring at higher elevations, beyond the Sonoran Desert and covering its Nevada range, S.a. ssp. rosacea which is limited to the San Diego area east to Maricopa county in Arizona, of the warmer Sonoran Desert, with a flower that is rosy-pink and S.a. ssp. rugosa which is limited to the Mojave Desert area with the more expected orange-red flowers.  Both S.a. ssp. ambigua and S.a. ssp. monticola grow on north of the Mogollon Rim, an east-west running escarpment,  the abrupt rise in elevation marking the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau.  The other two subspecies grow below this and largely south and west of it. Continue reading

The Lower Deschutes River: the Incursion of Invasive Plants and our Failure to Responsibly Maintain Native Plant Communities

This picture should give anyone more than enough reason to visit here, the Deschutes sliding out its mouth into the Columbia with the Washington side of the Gorge in the distance, the low angled early evening sun illuminating everything sharply.

 

[As I go over this post yet again, July 21, the 80,000 acre Substation Fire is still burning across canyon and wheat country here.  Included in the blaze are the 20 miles of the Lower Deschutes canyon down to the campground at the confluence with the Columbia.  Much of this burned down to within 2′ or 3′ of the riverbank including the historic Harris Ranch buildings.  So, when you look at all of these pictures, with the exceptions of where the fire hopped and skipped, everything is charred.  The Oregon Wildlife Federation, formed in the 1980’s to purchase and protect this portion of the canyon, has stepped up with $100,000 to help the area recover.  It will take considerably more especially if there is any intention of making headway regarding the spreading invasives problem.]

[Now, another 2 weeks later more massive fires continue to burn across the dried up West that has just experienced another record breaking month of heat, while the president goes on ‘bleating’ and blaming it on our ‘bad’ environmental laws and all of the water we’re diverting into the ocean!  ‘F’ing! moron!]

The last time we came here was eight years ago in December.  My memory of then is much like the experience on this evening…only it was clear and cold.  The light was similar except that then the low angled sun was due to winter, with that season’s urgency, not a late Spring evening like this outing.  This time it is warm, camp is comfortable and nearby and the greens are still gathered around the river and the still moist draws and seeps.  On that day we’d gone to Hood River for my birthday, to get out of town and there was a break in the weather so we drove here to these trails at the mouth of the Deschutes, hiked along the river, returning on the upper springs trail.  Winter or summer, green only sticks around a little longer than we do, before it retreats…life is shier here, tough, but shy.  The starkness of this landscape should be read as a warning to visitors, this is no easy Eden.  Life is earned here or at least requires a strength, patience and frugality that many don’t have.  This is much the same for people as it is for wildlife and plants.   Them that don’t, can’t.  That’s why it may be surprising to some that such a place has a problem with exotic invaders.  What could possibly look on places such as this as ‘favored’?  Well, Central Asia, especially its Steppe, with its continental, cold and dry climate containing many species that see such a place as this as home, or even better, without the competitors they faced back there.  The temperature can swing widely here on any given day while the seasonal extremes can vary as much as 125ºF from high to low.  Relatively few plants can thrive in this.  The dry summers with their very limited and sporadic thunder showers, combined with the ‘wet’ winters, total only 10″-12″ or so of precipitation, plus or minus, is another major limiting factor.  Of course, near the river, the moisture problem is moderated  and a broader range of invasives can find a ‘foothold’.  We, as a people, have ‘brought’ these weeds here with us in our travels, often as a result of our commerce.  Those that have made it here are spreading.  Too many prosper. Continue reading

Cottonwood Canyon on the John Day River: Place, Plants and Experience

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Cottonwood Canyon State Park, near the campground, looking upstream toward the old Murtha barn and common buildings, the evening sun climbing the worn canyon sides. The Park retained some of the old ranch equipment.

Massive lava flows pushed around the lower John Day and Deschutes rivers over the course of several million years leaving them to find and carve new routes, often next to the very ‘plugs’ that filled their former canyons!  Today, deep below the layers of hardened basalt that form the palisades and ramparts projecting out in tiers from the smooth full curves that rise above us, we look through 15 million years of accumulated history.  The fine grained basalt shatters and fractures in line with their mineral structure under the forces of water, weather and gravity.  Sagebrush and grasses dominate revealing an oddly ‘netted’ pattern across the sloping canyon hillsides, lit by the often harsh sunlight, illuminating some kind of subsurface movement of the thin soils that soften the slopes.  The ‘net’ looks as if it had been draped across the land then stretched sideways catching and snagging on what lies beneath in a never the same, but consistent repeating pattern.  It shows best when the angle of the sun comes across the pattern, not when it hits it head on or when clouds make it too diffuse.  Coarse falls of shattered basalt spill down to the canyon’s bottom always seeking their angle of repose.  The sagebrush steppe plant communities cover the surface and in their richness and vigor speak to the soils beneath.  Along seeps and drainages cutting verticallly down the canyon’s face, spring lasts weeks longer, and species crowd in that you won’t see other than near the river.  The surface botanical palette in this way reveals what lies beneath…if one knows what to look for.  Cottonwood Canyon State Park is a great place to observe this. Continue reading

Hiking at Riley Ranch Nature Reserve and Along the Deschutes River

It’s the edges, the margins, that always contain the most diversity.  Large expanses of unbroken landscape take a portion of their character from their scale, a vastness, that the uninterested can often view as monotonous.  Seemingly endless expanses of ocean, desert, prairies even forests, can lull some into indifference, a kind of blindness, in which they lose interest and fail to see the intricacy and richness of that which surrounds them….By overlapping two different landscapes places can take on a complexity that neither has alone…and may even arouse many of those inured to the natural world surrounding them.  Two different landscapes sharing a common edge can form ecotones, where each landscape contributes species in patterns not found across the vastness of each alone.  Cut a river through an arid landscape and it becomes altogether different often with stark changes within a few feet.  Such is the arid canyon landscape of the Deschutes River immediately north of Bend, OR.

 

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Rimrock Springs, on the Crooked River National Grasslands: A Look at the Eastside’s Sagebrush Steppe Region

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In the comics world this would be called my ‘splash page’, a picture related to but not exactly honest, done for effect. This is taken from the top of the popular destination Smith Rock State Park, on top of Misery ridge, the trails up and down of which have been the cause behind many an emergency run to the local hospital. Here we’re looking across irrigated pasture lands in the middle distance, that would be steppe if not for all of the added water and on to the Cascades along the horizon.

You cannot make someone like something.  To many, a desert will always only look brown and dead, but for those attuned to them, deserts can be beautiful, awe inspiring, expansive, places of raw earth and geology, intimately tied to sky, filled with little jewel boxes, hidden just out of view and down at your feet…places of rock, delimited by the scarcity of water, with plants that not only tolerate its paucity, but require it, where the sun and wind seek it out.  My wife and I grew up in the ‘Sagebrush Steppe’, the Oregon High Desert and on its edge where it meets the Ponderosa Pine Forest.  I often spent hot summer days with my family water skiing on reservoirs in the dammed up canyons of the Deschutes and Crooked rivers, while she often found herself living out of places like Summer Lake and northern New Mexico for the summer.  We both still feel the draw of these places, while others only hunger for more green and lush landscapes where the scale is shifted and plants cover the earth often with flowers that you can’t help be pulled to.  As a horticulturist, I actually appreciate both. Continue reading