Botanical Rambles

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Bees, Trees, Keys, and “Say Cheese”: A Midsummer Medley

Bumble bee on balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) Photo: Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office

It's the height of summer—a busy and lazy time of year. Here are several options to increase your enjoyment and engagement with Washington's native flora during the summer months, and beyond.


My garden is abuzz, and I've been wanting to learn more about the bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, spiders and other multi-legged inhabitants. So I was excited to hear about the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas, a collaborative project to track and conserve the bumble bees of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. The goal of the atlas is to gain a better understanding of the distribution of bumble bees throughout the region.

By finding out where bumble bees—essential pollinators— are thriving in the Pacific Northwest, researchers can figure out what productive bumble bee communities need from their habitats. This will help inform land management practices that to support healthier ecosystems. I have some bumble bees living in my worm compost bin, does that count?

The project is actively seeking volunteer citizen scientists and they write, "We aim to make this as fun and as inclusive as possible. As such, we've created opportunities so that you can get involved at many different levels." 

Trunks of western red cedar (Thuja plicata) Photo: Ben Legler

Road trips are a summer-time tradition (cue the station wagon, the potato chips, the family bonding and bickering). Donald Hanley, Extension Forester Emeritus, Washington State University suggests playing the "license plate game" with native trees.

He writes: "We have all played the "license plate game" whereby occupants in the car on a long road trip keep track of how many out of state license plates they see. This game is enjoyed by all, but mostly children and grandchildren, so why not make it a forestry game with trees?"

He goes on to suggest ground rules and provides several links to several tree identification resources. And he provides these great route suggestions:

"My personal favorite Washington route for tree touring is State Route 20, from Discovery Bay on the Olympic Peninsula to Newport near the Idaho border, 440 miles of great scenery and tree watching. 

Other excellent routes are:

  • US Route 2 from Everett to Newport
  • US Route 12 from Aberdeen to Clarkston
  • US Route 101, highlighting the Olympic Peninsula, via a meandering course from the Astoria Bridge to Olympia
  • US Route 97 from the international border near Oroville south to Maryhill
  • Last but not the least, State Route 14 from Vancouver to Plymouth.
  • Of course any paved or gravel road in our national forests is sublime as well."
Healthy branch of western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) Photo: Ben Legler

While you're out looking at trees, you can keep a watch on tree health in the forests as well. Washington Department of Natural Resources Forest Pathologist Amy C. Ramsey wrote recently about emerging issues with western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii).

She notes "A couple of issues in two of our most common tree species have emerged this year, including western hemlock defoliation and mortality, and tip dieback in Douglas-fir. You may have seen some of this damage on trees on your own property or while travelling from here to there."

Western hemlock prefers growing in areas where it has consistent moisture available, and it can lose leaves in droughty conditions, as many plants do. However, a fungus has recently been implicated as causing defoliation of western hemlock, especially drought-stressed trees.

Ramsey continues:

"The foliar disease affecting western hemlock is a fungus called Rhizoctonia butinii. Professor Jared LeBoldus's lab at Oregon State University has been investigating this pathogen and disease since 2015. The first detection of the disease was in Washington in 2016 and symptoms have been observed scattered across western Washington since then."

Healthy branch of Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) Photo: Ben Legler

"The fungus appears to have a wide range of hosts, including western hemlock, Douglas-fir, Sitka spruce, Pacific yew and true firs. Not all patterns of defoliation among host species look the same as those observed in western hemlock, where the pathogen tends to start in the lower crown causing foliage loss and dead branches and works its way upwards."

She also reports that tip dieback is being seen in Douglas-fir trees growing in western Washington. 

"Basically, the branch tips and some tops of young Douglas-fir are red and dead. The dead portions are adjacent to a dark, sunken area on the branch, which is usually indicative of some type of fungus-caused canker." 

This condition also appears to be associated with drought conditions, and researchers are actively investigating the cause.

The DNR Forest Health Program would like to track where these tree health issues are occurring. If you observe these tree health issues, please let them know. 


Have you heard the news? The newly revised Flora of the Pacific Northwest is available for pre-order from the University of Washington Press, and it is scheduled to be released in October 2018. This is incredibly exciting for all plant nerds and anyone who wants to accurately identify plants of the region. Congratulations on this great achievement to our friends at the University of Washington Herbarium at the Burke Museum! The Flora of the Pacific Northwest is THE most important technical reference for field identification of vascular plants of the Pacific Northwest, and it hasn't been updated since 1973.

There have been new discoveries, new arrivals, new nomenclature, new understanding of how plants are related, and many other changes since 1973. As David Giblin remarked, "If we didn't revise it, we really wouldn't have a comprehensive guide for our region. At the time the original users took this book to the field, they could identify a plant with the correct name 95% of the time…today taking the same book, you arrive at the correct name less than 50% of the time."

Image from 2017 WNPS Calendar: arctic-alpine forget-me-not (Eritrichium nanum) Photo: Ted Alway

"Say Cheese"

Taking pix when you're on vacation, while hiking, picnicking, camping, walking, botanizing—it's another summertime-anytime activity. Professional photographer Mark Turner recently posted on the Washington Native Plant Society Facebook Group page these great reminders:

"The 2019 WNPS Calendar is in production, with photos from members of the Washington Native Plant Society. We'd love to see your wildflower photos for consideration for the 2020 calendar when the photo contest opens next winter. Now is the time to photograph our native flora while you're out exploring and botanizing.

"Here are a few tips to help your photos rise to the top of the heap:

  • Compose carefully, filling the frame with your subject and eliminating distracting elements around the edges
  • Pay attention to lighting. Soft light is flattering to the flowers, but backlighting and side light can be very nice.
  • Tell a story in your photo ... How does the plant grow? With what other plants? How is it pollinated? What's the environment?
  • While blossom details are nice, showing a bit of context is even better
  • Show people respectfully enjoying or studying our native flora
  • Interesting weather or atmospheric conditions can add to your photo
  • Continue photographing into fall and winter, showing changes to our flora through the seasons
  • Identify the plants you've photographed"

Still looking for things to do? Check out the field trips and programs available statewide with the Washington Native Plant Society. 

Three Ts on Tiger Mountain
Kids Growing Sagebrush for Restoration

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