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  • Anna Hammond

Native plant appreciation and trilliums blooming while searching for holly!

We had set out to sweep through a forested backyard on the traditional lands of the Duwamish and Coast Salish Peoples, a bit east of Lake Sammamish. The forest was beautiful and quite healthy, full of mossy bigleaf maples and vine maples, native conifers, and a variety of native ferns including sword, lady, and bracken. There was plenty of salal, both dull and tall oregon grape, salmonberry, red huckleberry, and red elderberry. There were large patches of pacific bleeding heart just coming up, fringe cup nearby, and then of course the western trillium!


Trillium is one of the most beloved woodland wildflowers here in the Pacific Northwest. While there are 43 species of trillium known worldwide and 38 in the US, the most famed one here in our Western Washington forests is the Western White Trillium (Trillium ovatum var. ovatum.). All the trillium species belong to the Lily family (Liliaceae). The trilliums are perennial plants, and grow in moist to wet woods, on streambanks and shaded open areas, at low to middle elevations. They have leaves in whorls of usually 3, that are shaped triangular-oval with a 'drip-tip'. The single terminal flowers consist of 3 white petals that turn pink/purple with age, and 3 green sepals underneath. The fruits are oval, green, berry-like capsules with wing-like ridges, producing numerous egg-shaped seeds in a sticky mass when first shed. The seeds each have a little oil-rich appendage that is attractive to ants! The ants lug the seeds back to their nests, where they eat the appendages or feed them to the larvae, and then discard the remaining seeds on their rubbish piles. This is a pretty effective mechanism for seed dispersal, especially as they are found in the calm shaded forest floors. The plants also spread slowly by rhizome. They are long lived (up to 25 years!), but tend to take 3-5 years to bloom when grown from seed, and the seeds take two warm/cold cycles to germinate! Because of all this, please only observe trillium with your eyes, and do not pick them, as they do take a long time to form a bloom and are quite delicate! Rest assured, we were very careful with our steps as we were searching through this forest for invasive species.

Western White Trillium (Trillium ovatum) in bloom!

One of the main reasons we were here in this forest was to search out any English Holly that had been missed in previous visits. The holly with large enough stems we would inject with little pellets of herbicide with a tool called an EZ Ject Lance, where the chemical is directly targeting only that plant and its roots. The smaller plants that wouldn't easily take a pellet however, we attempt to pull out of the ground. Holly spreads easily by rhizomes (a horizontally spreading root structure underground that is a form of reproduction), and since the ground here was really soft, we were usually able to pull this holly up easily without much trouble! These 5 stems were all attached via one underground rhizome.


English Holly (Ilex aquifolium) spreading by rhizome

While searching through this forest, we were also finding several piles of black bear poop. This pile was getting checked out by one of the local banana slugs. Slugs do process animal feces, and there was definitely plenty to go around here!

A banana slug findings its way along some pretty fresh black bear poop!

Another native groundcover shrub beginning to flower this spring is the dull oregon grape, or Berberis nervosa. Dull oregon grape has 9-19 leathery leaflets (compared to 5-9 with tall oregon grape). Oregon grapes can look similar to holly at first glance, but you'll notice that the leaflets are paired along the stem opposite of each other with oregon grape, where they alternate along the stem with holly. Oregon grape leaves are also flatter where holly leaves are quite curly with longer spines. The blue edible berries can be used for jelly or wine. The bark inside is bright yellow due to an alkaloid called berberine, and the shredded bark of the stems and roots has been used to make a bright-yellow dye for basket materials. The bark and berries were also used medicinally for liver, gall-bladder, and eye problems.

Dull oregon grape (Berberis nervosa) beginning to flower

One of my favorite native plants that is emerging for spring right now is red elderberry or Sambucus racemosa. Red elberry can be found along streambanks, swampy thickets in moist clearings and open forests. It grows as a shrub to small tree size up to 6 meters tall, with soft pithy twigs that are dark reddish-brown in color. The deciduous leaves grow opposite and large, divided into 5-7 leaflets. They are lance-shaped, pointed, sharply toothed, and a bit hairy underneath. They will soon produce rounded or pyramidal clusters numerous small white to creamy flowers with a strong unpleasant odor. They will produce bright red berry-like drupes, which have been an important food for peoles of the central and northern coast. They should always be cooked, since the raw berries may cause nausea. The berries can make a delicious tangy jelly, or can be made into wine- but should always be cooked first. There have been caches of red elderberries found in archaeological sites dating back hundreds of years! The stems, bark, leaves, and roots are tocix due to the presence of cyanide-producing glycosides. The plant can however be used for many medicinal purposes, including treating sinus infections, lowering blood pressure, and even as an anti-carcinogen. The roots can be infused to treat stomach pains or rubbed into the skin to soothe aching or sore muscles.


Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)

A fairly well known native shrub in the pacific northwest is the Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis ). The salmonberries are out in full bloom right now, and you can find them in in moist to wet places especially abundant along stream edges. They erect up to from branching rhizomes, forming dense thickets. The zig zagging twigs are hairless with scattered prickles, and the bark is golden-brown and shredding. They form alternating deciduous leaves with 3 leaflets that are sharply toothed. If you fold back the center of the 3 leaves, the 2 remaining look like a butterfly. The flowers are pink to red, with usually 1-2 on branches. The fruits are yellow or reddish, and while edible, the reviews vary wildly by personal preference. I personally do find them enjoyable, but only when fully ripe. (Thimbleberries would be my pick over salmonberries however). Because the plants spread in clones, it is said that some clones can be tastier than others, so spread out when harvesting to find the sweetest berries! The sprouts and berries have been eaten by all northwest coast peoples. The young stem sprouts would be gathered in early spring through early summer as a green vegetable, and the sprouts would be peeled and eaten raw, having a sweet and juicy flavor. The sprouts were also sometimes steamed. Some groups would mix the berries with oolichan grease or dried salmon spawn, and the berries were often eaten with salmon. Throughout the northwest coast, the ripiening of salmonberries is associated with the song of Swainson's thrust, which is called 'salmonberry bird' in many languages.

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) in bloom

Last but not least, the stinging nettle have been bursting up around the area! Stinging nettle, or Urtica dioica is a perennial plant growing 1-3 meters tall from strong spreading rhizomes, and armed with stinging hairs. The leaves grow opposite each other, and are coarsely saw-toothed. Numerous dense drooping clusters of greenish tiny flowers grow in the leaf axis and stem tips. You can find nettle growing in a large variety of habitats including meadows, thickets, stream-banks, open forests, in large patches in disturbed habitats, and always in moist rich soil. The stinging hairs are hollow, and each arises from a gland containing formic acid. When the brittle tips are broken, the acid is secreted and causes an irritating rash on skin contact. The leaves can be cooked and eaten as greens when young- one of my former coworkers Emily made a DELICIOUS nettle pesto. The plants have been eaten by coastal and interior tribes, and have been an important source of fiber for making fishents, snares, and trumplines.

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)

Sources: Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska. Pojar & Mackinnon.

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