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BIG LEAF MAPLE (Acer macrophyllum)

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life. –       Hermann Hesse, Trees: reflections and poems

Dear ones,

I have struggled for weeks for the words to express my love of the trees. My last attempt while teaching about conifers was to create graphs, with just the fine points, of how to possibly experience conifers.  I spent hours trying to choose just a few words to express the cones, needles, wildlife, habitat, healing qualities and ethnobotany of each tree. I wanted you to carry the graph into the forest and touch each tree.

But somehow it felt empty.  I did not have enough space to express the soul of the tree.  The one thing above all else is that I want you to know that the trees are alive! They are alive in a way that humans are alive.  And we humans are decimating them.

Now, I want teach you about 12 deciduous trees that live in the Cascadian bio-region. There are far more than 12 of course. But these 12 are my friends.  I will again teach in essay form- as a story teller. That is what Great Spirit who loves us all wants me to do. Tell you the story of the tree and how we are related.  I will attempt to convey what the trees have taught me, rather than what science has collected about the trees.  I want you to fall in love with the trees.  I want you to go outside and embrace the trees as you would a lover.  I want you to cherish the trees so much that you will not allow them to be decimated. I will teach you the indigenous name as well as the common English language and Latin name of each tree so that you can learn how humans related to the tree for thousands of years.

So let us begin

BIG LEAF MAPLE (Acer macrophyllum)

The Name- before the Europeans came and renamed everything, this tree was called many things.  It was a protector, a habitat creator, a source of food,shelter, medicine and tools.  It was a wood used to make canoe paddles and ceremonial masks and rattles. It was a sacred being in the forest; it was much revered. Here are a few of the names that the First Peoples of Cascadia used to identify this tree.

sqəlelŋəxʷ = Salish =Any large Tree

K’u’lawi = Chehalis

Cuk’ums = Cowlitz

Stsla’act = Klallam

K!amali’tc = Lummi

K!o’luwe = Skokomish

Two years ago I lived in an older apartment complex near Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon where there was a still-standing grove of Big Leaf Maple trees.  The large trees had been on the land for over 200 years and were part of the original farmstead that graced the area 100 years ago.  A developer bought the property in 2009, tore down the trees in 20122, and built a shambles of cheap “student” apartments.  My heart was broken.  I had known these trees since my childhood.   I moved away and took my potted garden with me.  Much to my delight many of my potted native plants and herbs pots began to sprout Big Leaf maples.  The trees near my apartment had dispersed their “Samara” or winged seeds to my pots and I unknowingly took them away from the slaughter.  Today they still travel with me as I search for land to settle on.  They are getting quite tall and I may have to find a safe haven for them in a nearby forest.  It does my heart good to know that I took the offspring of my childhood friends to a new life. I hope that I can also find a place to plant myself near these young ones and watch them grow.

THE BIG LEAF MAPLE – A Mother Tree

These trees are magnificent large trees that can grow over 100 feet tall and branch out another 100 feet as well.  The tree offers shelter to diverse wildflowers that need shade and moisture. Wherever you find this forest of Big Leaf Maple you will find Bleeding hearts, ferns, Larkspur, Trillium, Salmon berry, Thimble berry, Indian plum, and Elder berry.  Vine maple and other native shrubs are found growing under this tree. The branches often harbor a completely new eco-system of ferns, mosses, lichen and herbs. Numerous birds nest in the branches and the knots and cave-like holes found in its bark.

The Big Leaf Maple is the “mother tree” of the forest.  Much like the Western Red Cedar in the conifer forest, the Big Leaf Maple attracts the conditions, the plants and fungi that create a healthy viable eco-system.

I used to climb these big trees.  I know these trees. The trees can live hundreds of years.  Their outstretched large limbs made a wonderful place to hang a tree cocoon (canvas tent hung in a tree).  The wildlife attracted to the tree was phenomenal.   One of my favorite things to do in the spring was to visit the blooming flower of Big Leaf Maple.  I stood under the tree and felt the light breeze of the thousands and thousands of bees and other pollinators visiting the tree for nectar. There was so much pollen distribution that it fell downward and peppered the ground with a light yellow dusting.  I came away covered in pollen.  It was such an invigorating experience.  I often built fairy altars under the tree in thanks giving for its great beauty and vitality.  White Oak (Quercus garryanna) grew on the edge of the forest.  Red cedar and other conifers speckled the forest.  Squirrels, deer, blue jays and wild doves moved throughout the forest.  Wild rabbits and raccoons ran along the well-traveled animal trails.

THE RACEME – The flower of the Bigleaf Maple

The Raceme- is a pendulum-like flower stalk that hangs down from a short stalk attached to an early spring leaf bud. It is unbranched and it’s yellowish to light green flowers open up to an array of wild and domesticated bees and other pollinators.  The Bigleaf maple begins to flower at about 20 years of age.  Insects and bees pollinate the tree and produce about 1000 pollen grains per flower. The flower pollen and other secretions are quite sweet. The nectar-rich flowers were eaten raw in the spring by the Sannich First peoples.  It was said to be an over-all spring tonic and was highly nutritious. The sticky gum of the spring bud was used as a hair tonic.

THE LEAF

It has the largest leaves of any maple, typically 15–30 centimeters (0.49–0.98 ft) across, with five deeply incised palmate lobes.  They are dark green above and lighter green below. The leaf will turn yellow in the fall.

The large leaves were used under layers of food while cooking on an earthen oven.  The leaves were used to cover food cooking in pits. The leaf stalk has a milky juice when cut. This is the sticky gum used in hair tonic.

 

THE SEED- SAMARA

My favorite wild seed – called a “whirly-gig” by children and more playful adults. The fruit is a paired winged seed called a samara. Each seed is approximately 1–1.5 centimeters (0.39–0.59 in) in diameter with a 4–5 centimeters (1.6–2.0 in) wing.  Wings help to disperse the seeds throughout the forest. The whirly-seeds or double-winged samara, as well as spring’s leaf-buds, are a major food source for squirrels, birds, & other wildlife. The First Peoples of the Salish Coast ate the young sprouted seeds as food.

THE BARK

In the more humid parts of its range, as in the Olympic National Park, its bark is covered with epiphytic moss and fern species. The species that grow upon the branch of the Bigleaf maple can form canopy roots deep into the adhering mosses. The mosses are often so deep they create their own soil and their own ecosystem. The bark of the tree is green when young and grows grey-brown and ridged after a few years.

HABITAT

 This species of maple is found in dry to moist sites, often with Douglas-fir. Found in low to middle elevations in its range.  The trees are found along riverbanks and in somewhat early spring damp areas.  The trees will begin to rot if they stand too long in flooded areas, but they are often found in native rainforests.

ETHNOBOTANY

In many coast Salish languages, its name actually means “paddle tree” because the people are able to carve paddles out of its wood due to its great size. Some other helpful tools fashioned from the Big-Leaf Maple include dishes, spoons, hairpins, combs, and scouring pads.The inner bark was eaten in small quantity as it was constipating. The inner bark was also used to make baskets, rope and whisks for whipping soopolalie berries. Some First Peoples ate young maple shoots raw, and also boiled and ate the sprouts when they were about 3 cm tall. The leaves, like Skunk Cabbage leaves, were used as a base for drying berries. The large leaves were also used for storing food during the winter or burned in steaming pits to add flavor to food.

The wood was used for spindle whorls and various other implements such as combs, fish/duck spearheads, and fish clubs. The ends of branches and strips of bark were used in basketry.  The wood was used to make masks and rattles used in ceremony.

The sap was boiled and made into sweet maple syrup and sugar by some First Nations.

POLLINATORS ATTRACTED TO BIGLEAF MAPLE

 The Bigleaf maple is an important early blooming tree.  The tree blooms in March and is essential food for many wild bees, honey bees and other pollinators that are now threatened because of habitat and plant loss.

Here is a short list of wild bees that need this tree for food and habitat:

Solitary bees – Osmia aglaia – O. aglaia are metallic blue, green or rust/bronze in color. They nest in tunnels in wood about 3/8 – 1/4 inches in diameter. They are active as adults in late spring, while Rubus is in bloom

Osmia lignaria- mason orchard bee

Blue Orchard bees – Osmia lignaria, in the Portland area and in WashingtonState are more attracted to Big leaf Maple, Acer macrophyllum

 

And of course the honey bee-

A short video looking at the structure and habitat of the Big Leaf Maple

References

  • Gunther, Erna (1973) revised edition Ethnobotany of Western Washington, University of Washington Press, Seattle and London.  pp. 39
  • Moerman, Daniel E.(1998) Native American Ethnobotany, Timber Press, Portland and London, pp.38
  • Pallardy, Stephen G. (2008) Third Edition,  Physiology of Woody Plants, Academic Press, Burlington, MA – Elsiver Inc. pp. 90
  •  Pojar & McKinnon, (1994) Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska, Lone Pine Publishing, Vancouver, British Columbia

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I went into the forest today to be thankful for the bounty and ask Great Spirit who loves us all to teach me about these amazing beings we call plants. I had that feeling I often have that I once lived in the forest with my tribe and my people. I feel at home in that forest. The farmers have brought in honey bees and the oak and maple have attracted the bees and other pollinators.  The air is churning with activity.  It is like a natural air conditioner swirling above me. The sound of the bees is so loud that I can barely hear the other sounds of nature.  Wildflowers are blooming everywhere: trillium, bleeding hearts, coral bells, false Solomon seal.  The pinks and buttercups and the wild berries are all in bloom.  The smell of the forest is sweet and musky all at once.

I have in my life time been introduced to many native plants and I have been taught about how everything is connected to this forest, even humans belong here if they will just slow down to be at peace with this place. 

It is spring and I am collecting many starts: cuttings, roots, sprouts.  Once they have roots and are strong, I will put them in pots and take them to the nearby farmers market and try to teach others about opening up their garden doors and letting the native plants back in.  It is important.  We are losing the pollinators and the fertility of the soil, and the hillsides and streams and rivers because we take out the native plants. We call them weeds and poison and chop and throw them away. These plants are our future and our hope.  Once gone, so goes our food, medicine, clean water, clean land, and beauty so great that our essential energy is affected and changed for the better.

Soon at the local farmers market I will be setting up my table and handing out simple brochures on how to incorporate native plants into gardens, farms, parks, roadsides and river and stream banks. I will sell the plants to support the overall Radical Botany project and to give back to the farm I am living on now. Carly, the land owner is allowing me to finally have a home for me and my plants.  I have moved a half dozen times in the last five years, always carrying my many plant friends with me.  We are tired. We need a real home that is safe and long term. I think I am home. I love this land. I am thankful for this land. I respect this land and the creatures and people who live here.

Thank you Great Spirit who loves us all for bringing me home.  Thank you Carly, Deb, Mitchell, Annie,  the farmers for inviting me in from the cold.

Here is a list of a few of the plants I saw today and why they are important:

Common Name Scientific Name    Ecological  Importance  and Human Use
Pacific Willow Salix lucida ssp. Salix lasiandra              

The catkins will attract insect and hummingbird pollinators, and all willows are used as butterfly host plants.

The same for Hooker’s Willow

The Fraser River Lillooet  called Pacific Willow the “match plant”.  They dried the wood and used it for both the hearth and the drill in making friction fires. The ashes were mixed with diatomaceous earth and were made into a fine white powder to treat wool.

Hooker’s Willow Salix Hookeria   The bark was used in shingle baskets, the young plants were split into twine and made into rope.
Pacific Ninebark Physocarpus capitatus Used to make small tools, but was also used as a laxative and needs to be handled properly. The flower attracts many insect pollinators and the birds will eat the berries of the plant. Beautiful shredding bark, this plant is found along streams, rivers and wetlands.
Oceanspray Holodiscus discolor Found in dry to moist, open sites (open woods, clearings ravine edges and coastal bluffs).  Commonly called ‘Ironwood” because of the hardness and strength of the wood. Was used to make digging sticks, spears, harpoon shafts, bows and arrow shafts by almost all coastal groups from BC southwards.  An infusion of berries was used to make a tea that was used to treat diarrhea. Also used as a blood tonic.  May attract as many as 50 pollinating insects.The flowers provide nectar for butterflies and insects. A caterpillar host plant for Pale Tiger Swallowtail, Lorquin’s Admiral, Echo Blue, Brown Elfin, and Spring Azure but­terflies. Oceanspray provides foraging habitat for insectivorous birds including Bushtits and Chickadees
Red Elderberry Sambucus racemosa Found along stream banks, swampy thickets, moist clearings and open forests, sea level to middle elevations. The unripe or uncooked berries are toxic can cause stomach cramps or worse. They should  always be cooked even when making Elderberry wine or jellies. The stems, bark leaves and roots, especially in fresh plants, are toxic due to the presence of cyanide-producing glycosides. Elderberry is an important caterpillar host plant and its white flowers attract hummingbirds.
Thimble berry
Rubus parviflorus

 

Has a white flower – petals crinkle tissue paper. Found in open sites such as clearings, road edges, shorelines etc. Has a red, raspberry-like cluster berry. The flower favorite of bumblebees and native pollinator insects. Spreads by rhizomes. Eaten by all Northwest Coast people.  Some people also collected and ate the early shoots. The berry can be easily dried.  Often mixed with Salal berries for winter food (dried).  Often mixed with native raspberries and blackcaps and used in a dried cake for winter food. The large leaves were often made into berry collecting containers.

 

Salmon berry
Rubus spectabilis

 

Has a pink to reddish purple flower. Found in moist to wet places of forests and disturbed sites. Often abundant along stream edges, at low to subalpine elevations. This wonderful wild berry blooms very early and attracts the earliest pollinators.  The berries arrive early in the season and attract several song birds. Both sprouts and berries were eaten by First Peoples.

 

Nookta Rose Rosa Nutkana Found in open habitats (shorelines, meadows, thickets, and streamside areas). Was often used in pit cooking. The leaves were placed over food for flavoring.  Tea from the bark were used as an eye wash. The chewed leaves were applied to bee stings and the ripe hips were cooked and fed to infants for diarrhea.Its seed-filled hips are full of vitamins A & C and are eaten by a variety of birds and mammals. Bees and but­terflies seek nectar from its flowers. A caterpillar host plant for Western Checkerspot, Mourning Cloak, and Gray Hairstreak butterflies.
Indian Plum Oemleria cerasiformis The flowers arrive very early spring to late winter – often before its leaves appear.  Important food source for pollinating insects, butterflies and the fruit is eaten by many woodland animals.  The fruit can be quite bitter and astringent so it was often mashed with sweeter berries such as Salal.  It bark was used to make tea that was used as a purgative and tonic.
Bleeding hearts Dicentra Formosa Pink heart-shaped flower. Found in moist forests, ravines, streambanks; low to middle elevations. Its namesake pink flowers attract hummingbirds and its rhizomes are reported to be medicinal by some, toxic by others. Ants feed on an oil-rich seed appendage. Bleeding heart is an important caterpillar host plant for the Clodius Parnassian.
White Oak or Garry Oak Quercus garryana A beautiful, heavy-limbed tree that is very important in helping to maintain the integrity of several low-lying ecosystems. Found in dry, rocky slopes and bluffs, sometimes in deep, rich well-drained soil. The springtime catkins (flowers) are highly attractive to honeybees and many native insect pollinators. The acorns are an important food source for ducks, deer, squirrels and other wildlife.  First peoples used the bark as one ingredient in the Saanich “4 barks” medicine used against tuberculosis and other ailments.
Big leaf Maple Acer macrophyllum Large, often multi-stemmed.  In the spring the flower will often appear with or before the leaves.  Found in dry to most sites, often with Douglas-fir, often on sites disturbed by fire, at low to middle elevations. Bigleaf maple supports a large ecosystem on its trunk, limbs and stems. These symbiotic relationships are important to native forest. Living on this tree you will often find: mosses, lichens, ferns, fungi, herb-like plants, small flowering plants etc. Many parts of the tree were used for food, medicine and utility.  Insects and bees pollinate the tree and produce about 1000 pollen grains (55µm each) for an individual flower.  Important solitary bees such as the Blue Orchard Bees, Osmia lignaria, are attracted to this tree
Fringecup Tellima grandiflora In the Saxifrage family. Found in  moist forests, glades, stream-banks, thickets and clearings; common from low to middle elevations. The Skagit pounded fringecup, boiled it and drank the tea for any kind of sickness, especially lack of appetite. Provides habitat and cover for small insects.
Yellow Wood Violet Viola glabella A common perennial in moist, shaded forests. Its flowers are yellow, with some petals boasting violet streaks. The flowers have a small spur which provides an excellent landing platform for insects, which are attracted to its nectar. A caterpillar host plant for a variety of butterfly species. Also known as stream violet.
Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica Common in moist, rich soil, often in disturbed habitat, nettles are a tasty green if cooked, a valued medicinal herb, and traditionally a good source for strong plant fiber. Nettles are also an important caterpillar host plant for the Milbert’s Tortoiseshell, Satyr Anglewing, and Red Admiral butterflies.
     

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