Nature knows no difference between weeds and flowers.
—Mason Cooley (1927-2002)
It never ceases to amaze me how the forest goes from drab winter brown one day, to vivid green the next. As if overnight, spring arrives. Leaf buds burst into action, and I can no longer see Huckleberry Mountain through empty branches. Fiddleheads, which always remind me of little seahorses, unfurl into lush green fronds. The forest closes in. All around, the woods are green again.
I have always enjoyed gardening, but when we became forest dwellers, I had to make some changes. No longer could I plant whatever I wanted. All those brilliant, greenhouse-pampered, “eye-popping” perennials and annuals, no longer found their way into my shopping cart. There were several reasons for this; one, to avoid the spread of noxious plants, and two, was simply for lack of sunlight.
I understood these limitations, and did my best to accept them. I wasn’t really missing out, I told myself, after all, the forest is a wild garden; something that would take this former city dweller some getting used to. It was hard to ignore the garden center at the local shopping center. For a while, I bought whatever plants struck my fancy. Nevertheless, despite my best efforts, within a few weeks, their flowers dropped, and their leaves and roots withered.
While I still enjoy a potted geranium or two, I turned my attention to native plants. While their flowers are not as vivid or numerous, or as lasting as store-bought hybrids and ornamentals, and despite their having little or no scent, I’ve come to cherish them.
Unlike my urban garden that required constant tending, a wild garden is easier to manage. No longer do I have to spend a small fortune on fertilizers, plant foods, and pesticides. Nature takes care of that for me.
It begins with the soil, held together by a vegetative fungus called “mycelium” that sends out a loose network of delicate, branching fibers known as “hyphae” that generates fruiting bodies of fungi (mushrooms), that feed and reproduce hyphae; a marvelous combination that creates rich, organic compost vital for a healthy ecosystem.
How it works is simple. Mycelium decomposes plant material. It transfers nutrients to trees, and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It also provides food for various invertebrates, and controls erosion. Mycelium is so effective, that collected and placed elsewhere, it stabilizes erosion prone areas. In eastern Oregon, in the Malheur National Forest, the largest and oldest, single mycelium (belonging to the honey mushroom (Armillaria ostoyae), covers more than 2,200 acres, and is more than 2,400 years old! What I like most about mycelium, in addition to its producing delectable mushrooms (the edible kind, of course), is its clean woodsy scent that infiltrates the air just before a rain shower following a dry spell.
While Nature does many good things, what it can’t do is keep the weeds away. Non-native plants spread quickly, and will choke the life from native plants if given half a chance. Most troublesome are herb Robert “stinky Bob” (Geranium robertianum), wall lettuce (Mycelis muralis), Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor), and domestic grasses. I dig-in, and pull them out by their roots. But for every weed pulled, ten more take its place! Weather conditions decide if their numbers rise or fall with some years worse than others. Of this notorious weedy bunch, herb Robert is the worst. Despite its attractive fern-like leaves, reddish stems, delicate pink flowers, and ability to produce herbal medicine, it spreads so prolifically, it’ll make your head spin! Fortunately, its shallow root pulls easily from the ground; unfortunately, removing it must be done year-round to discourage it from spreading. My persistence, however, is working, and there are fewer plants.
In this temperate rain forest (nourished by mycelium), plants grow bigger and spread more quickly; so it’s not only weeds that need controlling, but native plants as well. Those that spread most quickly are bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), vine maple (Acer circinatum), salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), Cascades Oregon grape (Berberis (Mahonia) nervosa), western sword fern (Polystichum munitum), bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), and candy flower (Claytonia sibirica). Keeping their numbers under control requires some annual thinning and pruning.
I’d mentioned lack of sunlight. This is most pleasant on hot summer days, as it provides natural air conditioning. The downside is that even on the brightest of days, there is abundant shade. Only a side yard receives adequate sunlight; a small clearing that supports our outbuilding and well. Surrounded by firs, cedars, and bigleaf maples (whose seedlings are as common as dandelions), this is the only area open to the sky. It is here where I collect the seedlings of western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). Because they only sprout occasionally, makes them an exceptional find. When a seedling is six inches tall, it is ready for transplanting. After planting, I mark the site with a small flag so I can find it later and note its progress. The last seedling I planted was a few years ago—a Douglas-fir at the edge of the drain field; that seedling is now several feet tall and growing straight as an arrow.
Noting the seedling’s progress, made me curious to know how many plants could be found within a relatively small space. And so I sectioned off a ten by ten foot area, and made a list.
Trees: Red Alder (Alnus rubra), Western Red cedar (Thuja plicata), Bigleaf Maple (A. macrophyllum).
Shrubs: Vine Maple (A. circinatum), Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium), Red Elderberry (S. racemosa), Cascade Oregon Grape (B. (Mahonia) nervosa), Salal (Gaultheria shallon).
Vines: Black Raspberry (Rubus leucodermis).
Ferns: Western Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum), Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum).
Herbs: Western Trillium (Trillium ovatum), Large False Solomon’s Seal (Maiathemum racemosum), Star-Flowered Solomon’s seal (Smilacina stellata), Hooker’s Fairybell (Disporum hookeri), Western Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa), Columbia Windflower (Anemone deltoidea), Candy flower (C. sibirica), False Lily of the Valley (Maiathemum dilatatum), Wall Lettuce (M. muralis), Herb Robert (G. robertianum).
Lichens: Bird’s Nest (Cyathus olla).
Fungi: Black Morel (Morchella elata).
Bacterium: Red Alder Root Nodule (Frankia sp.).
Most recent, and most curious, and certainly the last thing I ever expected to add to my list, was bacterium. While pulling weeds the other day, my garden tine kept catching on a tree root, and so I pulled it up. Firmly attached was a yellowish-orange, golf ball-sized growth. None of the guidebooks in my reference library could help identify it. At a loss, I contacted the Oregon Department of Forestry. They were incredibly helpful, and sent the photograph I’d taken to their entomologist who identified the growth as a red alder root nodule (Frankia sp.). According to the Oregon Department of Forestry, red alder root nodules form from nitrogen-fixing bacterium. They are beneficial to the environment in their ability to release new nitrogen into the soil, which allows other plants to flourish.
It just goes to show that in Nature, there is always something new to discover, and something new to learn.
Copyright 2011. All Rights Reserved
▸Photo: “Red Alder Root Nodule” published in the Book “Soil, moves towards the foundation of our existence” by Hakan Wallander, 2012, Lund, Sweden
🌿Book is only available in Swedish at this time: http://www.atlantisbok.se/layout/detail.php?id=7710