Alder Flowers

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Sitka Alder (Alnus viridis ssp. sinuata).

Some my find this title surprising. Alder trees have flowers?

To a botanist, a flower is anything that produces seeds and fruit (in the case of plants like alders with separate male and female flowers, the pollen-producing flowers also count, of course). There is no requirement that they be showy.

Yes, alder trees bear fruit as well as flowers! To a botanist, a fruit is anything that surrounds a seed. It doesn’t have to be fleshy, juicy, or edible. The tiny, dry wings that surround alder seeds are as much a fruit an apple or an orange.

The photograph above shows clusters of both male (large, dangling catkins) and female (the smaller, erect catkins at top) flowers. Those male catkins released clouds of yellow pollen when I gently brushed them.

The alder pictured above was not taken on Bainbridge Island and is not the Red Alder (Alnus rubra) so common on the Island. It is a Sitka Alder (Alnus viridis ssp. sinuata). I took that photo in the Olympic Mountains.

The Sitka Alder is much smaller than the Red Alder, typically being only a large shrub or small tree, making it far easier to find flowers in easy shooting range. Sitka Alders have glossier leaves, which are sharper-toothed than the Red Alder’s. The Sitka Alder’s leaves are not curled under slightly at their edges like the Red Alder’s are. The Sitka Alder is mostly a mountain tree, while the Red Alder is a common lowland species. One of the favored habitats of the Sitka Alder is avalanche slides; for this reason it is sometimes called the Slide Alder.

If all that leaves you a little confused, fear not! That particular Sitka Alder happened to be growing in the altitude range where the two species overlap, right next to a Red Alder sapling. I snapped a picture showing the two side by side (Sitka on the left, Red on the right).

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Sitka Alder on the left, Red Alder on the right.
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Wild Cherries

The wild cherries on the Island are finishing their annual spring bloom. We have two kinds.

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An atypically small Mazzard Cherry (Prunus avium) tree.
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Mazzard Cherry (Prunus avium) flowering branch.

Our most common wild cherry is the Mazzard Cherry, Prunus avium. It was introduced from Europe, and is basically the wild ancestor of the cultivated Bing cherry. Our situation is actually the reverse of this, however; the ancestors of our wild Mazzard Cherries were introduced as cultivated cherries, and began growing in our woods when birds ate those cherries and scattered their seeds.

The large fruit and smaller tree size of cultivated cherries are recessive characteristics, so their progeny quickly reverted to the dominant wild form for the species. Although smaller and not quite so sweet as Bing Cherries, the Mazzard Cherry’s fruit is completely edible. The trick is finding any that are within easy picking reach; the usual large size of this tree means most of its fruit is accessible only by birds.

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Bitter Cherry (Prunus emarginata) tree.
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Bitter Cherry (Prunus emarginata) flowering branch.

The native Bitter Cherry, Prunus emarginata, is also found growing wild here. While not quite so common as its introduced cousin, there is still no shortage of them on the island. It is well-named; as author Arthur Lee Jacobson notes, its fruit is “bitter enough to make one grimace in agony.”

It turns out that birds have a very different sense of taste than mammals do, and happen to find this cherry’s fruit completely palatable. It is thus likely that their bitter flavor evolved as a way to discourage consumption by mammals. Birds, being able to fly, are likely to do a better job of spreading seeds widely than mammals are.

In addition to having fruit that is basically inedible to humans, the Bitter Cherry is in all respects (size of overall tree, leaves, fruit, and flowers) smaller than the Mazzard Cherry. The Bitter Cherry’s flowers tend to open a week or two later, right as the Mazzard Cherry is finishing its bloom.

The Bitter Cherry also tends to have a trunk and branches that are slender for a tree of its size (the Mazzard Cherry’s appearance is much stouter). The Mazzard Cherry is the showier of the two when in bloom, thanks to its larger flowers.

Western Thatching Ant (Formica obscuripes)

I still remember the first time I discovered this ant, decades ago in a subalpine meadow in Colorado. I stepped on what I thought was an odd patch of dried bits of last year’s meadow grass. My foot sank into it and my leg was instantly covered in angry ants! Fortunately, I managed to brush them off before I received many bites.

I was astounded by how large that anthill was. Little did I know at the time that that particular colony was only a small-to-medium-sized one as this ant goes. After I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I started regularly encountering colonies of this ant. One I spied in the Cascades of Oregon was five feet high and a dozen feet in diameter!

The anthill pictured below is a fairly average size for this species’ colonies (note my bicycle helmet for scale). As always for this species, it is constructed of plant debris, not soil or sand. This anthill is near a road and I first noticed it when riding my bicycle past it.

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Formica obscuripes colony.

It was teeming with activity; every square inch of it contained at least several ants.

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Formica obscuripes.

These ants have an undeserved reputation for being aggressive biters. Bite they do, and after their mandibles break the skin they add insult to injury by spraying formic acid into the wound, causing further irritation and pain. But unless one is one of the few unfortunates who is abnormally sensitive to formic acid, the bite is minor and the pain quickly vanishes.

Moreover, in my experience these ants tend to be reluctant to bite. I spent ten to fifteen minutes acquiring the photographs in this article, and received but a single bite for my efforts, despite being in the immediate proximity of a hill teeming with thousands of ants and even accidentally bumping that hill and doing minor damage to it with a leg of my tripod.

Formica is the Latin word for “ant,” and this genus is the type genus for entire ant family, Formicidae. The plastic used for kitchen countertops that goes by the same name has nothing to do with ants, being so named because it was originally envisioned as being a substitute material for mica. Formica is, however, how formic acid (first discovered in ants) and chemically similar compounds like formaldehyde got their names.

These ants have quite a profound impact on the plants in the areas they inhabit. This is one of the ant species that tends and spreads aphids, feeding off the honeydew that the aphids secrete. They also dislike plants in the immediate neighborhood of their colonies, and will chew through the bark and spray formic acid on the resulting wounds, which eventually kills the attacked plants.

Their impact on the plant world is far from entirely baleful, however: many of our woodland wildflowers, such as trilliums and bleeding hearts, are dispersed by ants. Their seeds bear oily, nutrient-rich bodies called elaiosomes whose purpose is to attract ants, which usually carry the seeds for some distance before removing the elaiosome and discarding the rest of the seed.

These ants are plentiful here on Bainbridge Island, and our woods are full of blooming trilliums in the spring. I have never seen these ants inside the city limits of Seattle, and even in Seattle’s larger wooded parks, trilliums are an unusual sight. I do not believe these facts to be mere coincidence.

 

It’s Been a Hard Winter

It’s been a hard winter. You can see it in the patches of the Himalayan Blackberries, which were pressed flat by the heavy snows of early February (and which lost their leaves thanks to overnight lows in the teens):

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In wooded areas where native vegetation prevails, the sword ferns were also affected:

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Coltsfoot (Petasites frigidus subsp. palmatus) normally starts blooming in late February, but it only began blooming a few days ago this year:

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This one was in a wet ditch by a road, so its young shoots probably spent much of last month smothered in dirty, compacted snow pushed there by the plows. Aside from being delayed in blooming, little harm seems evident to them.

“Hard winter” is of course a relative term; anyone from Chicago or Denver would laugh at the notion that a winter where for the vast majority of time it was above freezing with green lawns and a snow-free ground was “hard.” But for us, it’s unusual to have a spring where there are lingering signs of the snow we had even after it’s gone. I’ve only seen it a few times in the quarter-century I’ve lived in this ecoregion.

American Wigeon (Mareca americana)

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Winter is here, and with winter comes wintering birds, particularly waterfowl, which find our ice-free bays attractive.

One of the more common migratory ducks you will see in Eagle Harbor is the American Wigeon. Often one can find large flocks of this duck in the vicinity of Strawberry Point Park in wintertime.

Wigeon are skittish ducks, prone to flushing en masse into flight at slight provocations. Outside of the breeding season (such as when wintering) they tend to be gregarious and often form large flocks.

Like the male of well-known mallard, the male wigeon has green iridescence on his head. However, the male wigeon is a smaller duck, has a less iridescence, lacks the mallard’s white neck band, and has a distinctive whitish patch on the top of his head. The latter is the source of the common nickname for this duck, the baldpate.

The American Wigeon is the fifth most commonly-hunted duck in North America.

Common Trees of Bainbridge Island, a Booklet

One of the reasons I haven’t been posting so much recently is that I’ve been putting the finishing touches on a booklet I’ve self-published, Common Trees of Bainbridge Island.

I’ve yet to distribute what hard copies I’ve had produced. Until then, soft copies may be downloaded from this Web site:

  • Here is a PDF suitable for viewing on-line as an ebook.
  • Here is a PDF intended to print as a booklet (two-sided, landscape mode).
  • Here is a PDF of a cover for the above booklet (separate in case you desire a cover printed on card stock).

I plan to print and self-publish more booklets in the future.

Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium)

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Tall Oregon Grape, Mahonia aquifolium. Fruit on the bush.
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Harvested fruit.
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Fruit processed into jam.

Tall Oregon Grapes (Mahonia aquifolium) are now ripe.

They are edible, but they are also sour, so they tend to be best used as an ingredient for sweetened dishes, rather then eaten as-is. I have however learned that if they are fully ripe (which means not just so dark they are nearly black under their waxy bloom, but actually starting to shrivel), they actually are palatable when eaten plain. For making jelly or jam, however, you naturally want them to be plump and juicy.

There are actually two species of Oregon Grape on the Island, the other one being the Long-Leaved Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa). As their names imply, the Tall Oregon Grape is the taller-growing of the two, while the Long-Leaved Oregon Grape has longer leaves containing many more leaflets. The two also grow in different environments: the Tall growing in open, sunny spots and the Long-Leaved growing as an understory plant in forests.

Of the two, it tends to be easiest to make harvests of the Tall Oregon Grape’s fruits, because it tends to fruit more heavily than the Long-Leaved Oregon Grape.

The inner bark of both our Oregon Grapes is bright yellow, due to the presence of the alkaloid berberine, which has long found traditional use as a yellow dye. Berberine-containing extracts of these and related plants have also been used traditionally for anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-fever, and other properties. This compound is currently the subject of mainstream medical research; it has already been demonstrated to be therapeutic for diabetes.