A Wild Winter

Been busy out in the woods with the students. It's going on the fourth week, and for the last three weeks we've been in the Coniferous Woods and Riparian Zones of the lower elevations in the Cascades, about 2000'-3000'. The winter was full of flooding and storms, so I figured we'd be in for some wild times on the class. And indeed, on this week's field trip, we went to a bridge and looked down to the river. Where the telltale Valeriana sitchensis var. scouleri used to be, under a tall tree, was no Valeriana. In fact there was no tree! No plants at all along the river, just piled up pieces of old growth trees from upriver. Venturing further, we walked down river to where the Valeriana stands bless the rocky/sandy shallows near the confluence of an even larger river. To my amazement, where the Valeriana used to be was three feet of sand!

Ah, but not to dismay! There's Valeriana aplenty growing in the rocky cliffs above the sandy bank. Look how it grows in the cracks and steep places, holding the soil down with its rhizomatous toes. See here ..... a little erosion on the cliff has left a pile of soil at our feet, and Valeriana has already established a foothold. Wait, things are not as they appear: There is quite a bit of moss on this mound of earth, this has been here more than the winter .... this is from a few years ago. And Valeriana likes to grow in this mound. Then it will thrive in the three feet of new sand. Do not say, "Oh the 30-year flood has destroyed our Valerian." Indeed, it will invigorate it. Quickly will our calm friend live again on the shallows. How do you think she got there before?

Needless to say, in the last few weeks I've seen evidence of drastic changes in the riparian zones. Mats of moss along the water's edge rolled up like a sleeping bag, easily rolled back, and within days the plants are sprouting again ..... the Mitella's miniature mandala flower often missed in the misty spray of the waterfall. But then some of my favorite waterfalls have moved or disappeared. Many trails have no bridges. In one area, two creeks that flowed close together changed course and merged into one. The foot bridge is under rocks. The riparian zone consists solely of 50 feet of rocks and fallen old trees, thrown from their home by some unseen force stronger than any human, left like pickup sticks along the creek's edge. Where is the gentle place we ate lunch at last year? Oh the food .... Candyflower, Montia sibirica; Salmonberry, Rubus spectabilis; Waterleaf, Hydrophyllum tenuipes; Osoberry, Oemleria cerasiformis; and those little smiling Viola glabellas. We could always gather some willow bark for those who have need, and do not wish to harvest food.

But this year there is none of that. The creek has said, "In case you weren't sure where the high watermark is, let me show you clearly." All the willows and shrubs have been snapped at the base. It's a short term endless ripple in the ecology of the creek. I can see already as spring progresses that the Heracleum and other water lovers are still there. Sure, the populations of the herbs are smaller this year. Yes, the perennial shrubs have to restart again from the ground. It's hard to hurt the river willow, unless you remove its water source. Even the Salmonberry is sprouting. But it's funny. I introduce the plants to the students as they bloom, so as not to overwhelm them. but the Salmonberry is not blooming in all its usual riparian places. Its been snapped off, and is a little sprout with leaves but no flowers instead of a six foot shrub. Usually it's on the plant list every week from the first one, but I've only seen two flowering ones, and one of them was laying flat on the ground.

Well, enough for now.

This was originally posted on the Professional Herbalist's Mailing List 15 May, 1996 by Howie Brounstein.
"It's easy to harvest wild plants, the hard part is not harvesting."


Homepage - Apprenticeships - Workshops