A look back: The year and a decade in review

2017 marks a decade since we started our conservation projects in earnest.

How timely then, that we were scheduled for a review by the Forest Stewardship Council. The FSC logo you see on your recycled and green wood products indicates the product has been certified to actually be “green”. Members adhere to specific standards that make their forests more planet-friendly. An agency – in our case, the Northwest Natural Resource Group – holds the certificate for its members, shepherds us along, and makes sure we report pesticide use and generally keep to the righteous path. Every few years the FSC audits a portion of the properties that are members of NNRG. This year we were asked to compare current practices to our management plan and explain how we measure our progress. Short answer: mainly by looking, because our “crop” is conservation, so it’s pretty simple compared to an actual tree farm.

It was helpful to look back and see where we are. The original plan was to restore oak savanna and woodland throughout the property. Some areas needed to be logged, others could be sheared and mowed. We have stuck with projects laid out by the Conservation District which differ from the management plan done by a consultant because some of the steeper areas are just too difficult or expensive to access.

Below, a few reflections, photos and assessments.

Progress is incremental. Everything takes time. We will get the scotch broom corralled eventually. Some increments that I appreciate are:

The savanna (really almost a bald) is still savanna-like. Scotch broom was as tall as the tractor when we started but thin soil and hot exposure have slowed down growth.

In all parts of the property, legacy patches of native wildflowers continue to expand and I enjoy finding the odd new plant or population, which gives me great hope, even though there will always be weeds and non natives.

The woodland oaks have more space and continue to put on growth after being crowded for many years. These things are best seen in contrast with previous condition.


Maintenance is forever. Yes, it is. Scotch broom is not forever, but it seems like it.

Getting new stuff to grow is a challenge, but Roemer’s fescue has really been a friend. California oat grass was hanging on when we arrived, we’ve seeded more of it and it’s a lovely bunch grass.

In the absence of fire, a good mowing makes everything better. I would like to burn more. but we don’t have fire available for management (land area too small, too close to neighbors, too expensive, etc), so we must pick our battles and do what we can.

Early- or mid-summer is the best time to mow for our objectives, because this often will kill mature scotch broom. But it is difficult to find a mower operator who will do this when we need it. Tom’s walk-behind has been a great help to reduce the non-native grass thatch in many places and a get to some of the broom in a timely fashion after the natives are done blooming.

Some firs have died of drought in the last few years – a sign that they are not suited to this site and/or climate change in this location. Possibly the thinning took away some of their support system.

dying fir. 2017

Douglas fir dying from the top down from repeated drought

Trees that were girdled to make space in the Land of Moose and Squirrel are toppling over but the big snags live on, with their tufts of branches still green, for now. The plan was to make them last as long as possible and right now they pose little threat to the surrounding oaks while offering a perch and some cavities for birds and squirrels.

Some oaks will unfortunately be on the losing end as conifers outgrow them in the inaccessible areas. On the positive side, our steep slopes provide many niches that are home to a variety of species, and some prefer a mixed forest, or a more closed canopy and patchy landscapes are natural. The thickest scotch broom was even favored by common yellowthroats in past years, although that will not save it from the knife I’m afraid.

Our squirrel survey revealed that western gray squirrels were using some pretty dense vegetation, and we see them in conifers around the house. On moister lower slopes, birds like Pacific slope flycatchers and black-throated gray warblers prefer our damp, cool headwater streams, shaded by a mixed conifer/oak forest that protects the water table and is the source of our springs. Sword ferns and moss carpet the ground. Wilson’s warblers return to their low perches here every year. It is a cool and welcome spot during the longer, hotter summers.

2017-12-20 edge.wdlnd.mixedforest

Mixed woodland, young firs will overtop oaks in time. Dead scotch broom in foreground.


Current Projects

In partnership with the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation DIstrict, we are working to get the broom under control so we can manage it better. The woodland areas have a more benign microclimate and deeper soils than the savanna. Hence more weed invasion. Removing tree cover plus soil disturbance, while beneficial to oaks, has had the predictable result of releasing scotch broom to grow rampantly and outpace our control efforts. Repeated mowing early on kept the broom short, but did not kill it and it rebounded in the last few years. We were able to hire a contractor to spray and mow the worst of it this year.

In one area there are a lot of native plants hiding underneath, including rein orchids. We tried hand cutting and painting first (at my request) to see if we could avoid broadcast spraying. But after a morning of slogging, with the prospect of even taller and denser broom to come, I relented and agreed overspraying was a better choice. Fortunately James, our contractor, was quite careful (he really liked the orchids, which were new to him), and by the time he came back to mow, the orchids and other wildflowers were mostly underground, post-bloom. The wintertime “after” photo below makes me so happy!

Next year we’ll go in for a cleanup to spray regrowth missed on the first pass and make a plan for the seedlings – likely a combination of careful pulling and spraying in the dormant season. One mistake we will not repeat is to keep mowing the broom when it is small, since that just grows bigger roots for growth the next season.

In the third year of the project I plan to spray out non-native grass in several otherwise “clean” areas for a broadcast sowing of native plant seed. Non-native grasses are the second most vexatious problem we have. Burning a few smaller piles of slash works well to pave the way for broadcast sowings of California oat grass and Roemer’s fescue plus wildflowers. Checkermallow (Sidalcea spp) is still germinating from sowings more than a year or two ago, and slowly we are increasing the ratio of native to non native. I will be keeping an eye out, especially in the woodlands for new populations of natives(like the mystery lily below) and hand-weeding life rings around them .

Finally, aside from weeds, one of the challenges in the last few years has been unusually heavy winter rains that scour our small headwater streams. Adjacent land that formerly was covered with forests in various stages of regrowth has been cleared for agriculture, or just cleared and gone to broom. This means rainwater doesn’t get intercepted and soak slowly down to the water table like it used to. A rain drop takes hours, instead of days, to reach the creek across the road. We do what we can to slow it down, but as you can see, there is a large watershed area off the property. Our little paths have undersized culverts where they cross the streams, so the culverts get plugged up.

Again the Conservation District came through to quantify catchment areas and re-size some culverts that will be replaced, to handle the increased water volume. Eye opening views of our hydrology came to light in these maps. Ouch, no wonder there’s such a torrent.

We are slowly making some progress to bring back more native habitat and native plants. The weeds will always be with us, but we continue to make headway and enjoy our animals, birds, and plants through the seasons and the years.

New Information Has Come To Light….

Just when I had given up on new discoveries, up pops a plant not yet seen on our place (by me anyway). Here is it in bud:

Fritillaria affinis ? Chocolate lily/checker liliy

Fritillaria affinis ? Chocolate lily/checker lily

It’s quite impressive at a foot or more tall, still in bud. How long has this bulb been growing in the deep shade, getting large enough to bloom? Was the ivy and Vinca from the yard smothering it all these years and now – like the plants on the savanna and woodland – suddenly released, it appears? Wow. Another name for it is rice root. Indigenous tribes used the bulbs for food. The plant also produce small, rice-grain-like offsets.

Here’s another. I thought we had just one patch of these in the woodland. Now, on the hill above the house where we had trees removed almost 2 years ago, they appear magically! Shooting stars (Dodecatheon hendersonii)  – recognizable by their spoon-shaped, slightly succulent leaves. This is a photo from 1 month ago just before bloom time.

New shooting star 3:23:13Again, from one month ago (late March), a medley of wildflower leaves and shoots:

Although not new, here is a reminder of what emerging Rein orchids (Piperia elegans – the fat leaves), sweet cicely (Osmorrhiza sp), hairy cat’s ear (Calochortus tolmiei – single grass-like leaf), sanicle (Sanicula crassicaulis – lower left), and self heal (Prunella vulgaris – lower right) look like as they’re just waking up.

East hill orchids, mariposa lilies, sweet cicely, sanicle, and self-heal.

East hill orchids, mariposa lily, sweet cicely, sanicle, and self-heal.

Spring shoots, bizarre fungi, welcoming birds

It’s been awhile since I went out with the camera, but I got some timely photos of emerging shoots, early bloomers and – oh yes, some alien pods – possible leftovers from last fall….

Here is a beautiful photo of an Anna’s hummingbird from Lisa who posted it on the Mid Valley nature blog. We discussed the lichens in the nest – they work great as camouflage; these lichens may have some antimicrobial properties against parasites and disease.

On the topic of birds, I diligently researched the best ways to keep birds from crashing into our sliding glass doors. I am sorry to say ours have been responsible for knocking a few birds unconscious and a few deaths. According to an American Bird Conservancy study, vertical white lines 4″ apart on the outside of the windows should work (my stripes are wider because I was too impatient to make them tiny and neat), and we are now ready for the birds to raise their babies.

windows painted to reduce bird strikes

If you don’t find the new shoots below particularly exciting (always better in person!) Plants can be found on the In Bloom in Gopher Valley page as they look later on in spring and summer.

Lilies abound, and it’s not clear which these are, as many have onion-like leaves. Many leaf out, but not all will bloom. Some need to grow larger to have the resources to send up a flower, others may just be in a spot that is too shady. Here they are growing up through the invasive ornamental Vinca minor.

Onion-like stems of lilies showing red at the base

The fawn lilies (Erythronium oregonum) are recognized by their speckled leaves – like a fawn. They’ll soon be in bloom.

And of course the great big bulbs of Camas are sending up fatter leaves. Unfortunately, the deer will probably eat them before I get a chance to see them bloom and collect seeds. These are very much bigger than the little oniony ones above – see the dougfir cone for comparison as these are not so close up.

Camassia leichtlinii

Trillium albidum

Here a clump of Trillium albidum is just emerging with flower buds at the center. These knocked my socks off when I first saw the in bloom – magical!

Although I’m not a big fan of snowberry in landscaped areas because of its tendency to turn into an amorphous thicket, in the wild, it’s quite modest. These tender new leaves attracted my attention, and now I see something has been nibbling the branch tips. Possibly a rabbit. Deer would leave a raggedy, shredded end, but these are cleanly pruned.

Early snowberry leaves

They are not arresting at this stage, but this one patch of shooting star (Dodecatheon sp) is the only occurrence I’ve found on our property and therefore a treasure that I watch for every year, hoping to collect seed and propagate more. I have gotten a few to sprout but none survived.

Shooting star leaves March

Indian plum with hazelnut catkins

Hard to believe all these leaves and flowers were packed into a couple of buds on the Indian plums; their time is spring and early summer. As summer drought wears on, their leaves yellow and drop, and they disappear in the woods. Right now their blossoms seem to float in front of the conifers and ferns. The hazelnut catkins are out early too – most of ours are either escaped cultivated ones or hybrids between domestic and native.

It’s almost invisible, but last year’s brown flowering stalk on this orchid (Piperia elegans) is still attached. Wide leaves are emerging from the bulb-like underground storage stem, surrounded by the ferny leaves of sweet cicely [Osmorhiza sp]. The orchids will spend 3 more months gathering the energy to bloom.

This photo of just the leaves may help in finding the cryptic leaves in the previous photo. This is a month earlier in mid-Feb:

The tiny single, wide leaf in the photo below is one of several giant houndstongue seedlings I planted at various locations. These in the oak woodland seem to be surviving. The long-established mother plant I harvested seed from is sending up huge fat shoots (second photo).

Giant houndstongue sending up shoots from a giant rootstock.

Cynoglossum grande

I find meadow checkermallow (Sidalcea) here and there, and although we have planted some, the indigenous plants are always my favorites. Like finding easter eggs hiding from the years of grazing, logging, and whatnot. Here they are just peeking out, and easily confused with sanicle or the ubiquitous invasive shining geranium or dovesfoot geranium.

Sidalcea campestris

I am delighted to see some Kincaid’s lupine made it through a second winter. I have been trying to get this endangered species established, but they are still not there yet. Hoping for more chances to plant this year. Someday the Fender’s blue butterflies may find these.

Kincaid's lupine seedlings planted in 2009

And now, for something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT! Take a guess what this might be:

I saw a group of these next to the lupines in the oak savanna. Vaguely remembering a photo and description, I confirmed that it is the fruiting body (similar to a puffball) of a fungus called an earth star. Check out the whole story here.

They are reminiscent of the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And they have a uniquely strange ability to rise up out of the ground and expand when moist (when the spores in the white puff would have a chance to germinate); with the tough, leathery star part retracting back underground when dry.

Here is what the underside looks like – I think these must be left over from last fall and winter because they seemed to have detached from their underground parts or mycelium. The one I brought home is dry and curled up again – might be a fun kid’s toy that curls and uncurls when you get it wet like those sponges in the shape of animals.

Earthstar underbelly

Stay tuned for more natural history surprises from the oak savanna, and oak and fir woodland of Gopher Valley Road and the Willamette Valley!

Oregon white oak - still dormant

Highlight of the Season in Bloom!

Last year a mystery-plant put out two leaves in April and continued to be leafy while the other spring flowers bloomed and went to seed. While the dark leaves grew a little, nothing much was visibly going on. It seemed this plant must be spending all this time gathering resources to send up a bloom that takes an enormous amount of energy to produce – another lily? (They use the stored carbohydrates in their bulbs to flower, so they require bulbs of a certain age and size before managing the showy blossoms.)

Then in mid-June a flower stalk began to grow. Finally, in mid-July, full bloom: a rein orchid!

Here is the three-month progression:

leaves of Piperia elegans - late April

P. elegans bud in June

P.elegans in bud - thinking about blooming

P. elegans late June

A group of P. elegans scattered across forest floor

P. elegans - full bloom 18-24 inches tall

P. elegans flower - 3 sepals, two upright green-striped petals and a third (lip) below

After much consultation with field guides, especially P.M. Brown’s Wild Orchids of the Pacific Northwest and Canadian Rockies I am pretty sure we have several healthy patches of the rein orchid Piperia elegans (elegant piperia). The “rein” part of the name refers to supposedly strap-shaped petals which resemble bridle reins. Or perhaps the long spur – note how it curves down along the stem. It’s much longer than the lowest petal or “lip” on the blossom.

individual blossoms with spider P. elegans

P. elegans

Although Brown states that several species from the same genus may grow together in “genus communities”, so far I have only found this one. They exude a light, sweet fragrance after sundown. Last year we trekked up the hill in the dark to see if we could find any night-flying pollinators – perhaps a large unusual moth – but were not rewarded with much of anything. Such is the hunt for pollinators; they can be elusive. The fragrance was worth it, however. There may be some beautiful exotic night-flyer that arrives in the wee hours.

Here is a closeup of the blossoms, and yet another flower spider (i.d. to follow).

These unique and sometimes mystifying plants can afford this extravagantly long lead-up to production of truly robust 1-1/2 to 2 foot tall blooms because like all orchids, they form associations with a particular fungus or fungi, from which they derive large amounts of extra energy and nutrients. This is one reason they don’t survive transplanting – ever. They choose the fungi and the spot where they wish to grow, and that’s pretty much it. Except for a few experts who are able to culture the seeds and grow them, we can enjoy the thrill of finding wild Pacific Northwest orchids and knowing that we are witnessing something that cannot be reproduced just anywhere. This genus is only found in North America, and after some botanical splitting and probably more to follow according to Brown, 5 of the ten species are found in the Pacific NW.

This year I am planning to collect some of the seed capsules and place them in a few areas to see if they will take up residence just a little ways from where they are now. The seeds are like dust, and have no food storage. They must form an association or be infected with a fungus in order to even germinate, after which they rely on the fungus to get going and continue to develop.

Very cool!