Burst and Bloom: Plants Celebrate Spring’s Arrival at Evergreen
photos by BLAINE EWIG
words by CASSANDRA JOHNSON
Plants in the Northwest have officially woken up for spring. The dense “wall of green” that brackets every inch of cement on campus offers even more wonder for the keen observer or curious passerby. The following photo essay offers a few windows into the vast outdoor classroom surrounding Evergreen’s built structures.
Horsetails, along with mosses and ferns, are some of the most ancient plants on the Northwest coast. These plants grow in low, water-saturated areas, recalling a time in plant evolution when the Earth was much wetter and flatter. Historically, they preceded flowering plants. But in the present, horsetails form new stems, leaves, and strobili (cones) in the spring, along with wildflowers and berry bushes. Pictured here, giant horsetail can be distinguished from the smaller common horsetail by its blunt cone as well as a greater number toothed bands (20-30) up and down each stem.
Bracken fern is one of the only “cosmopolitan” native plants in the Northwest, meaning it grows in ecosystems worldwide. Its underground stems, or rhizomes, were important foods for Native peoples and the fern remains important for Northwest peoples’ sense of place and history. Unless you’ve been specifically instructed in processing ferns for food, do not attempt to eat them. Ferns (in a raw, unprocessed state) contain toxins to deter animals from eating them. The defensive toxins in bracken and sword ferns have allowed them to take over the undergrowth in Evergreen’s woods, where deer forage year-round.
Bracken fern is able to grow and multiply in relatively exposed, dry areas. A rarer sight, the maidenhair or five-fingered fern prefers wet, shaded environments. Its delicate ginkgo-like leaflets, thin black stems, and unusual branching draw aesthetic admiration from artists and ecologists alike. This plant has many medicinal and cosmetic uses. But check that any native plant you intend to gather is growing in a patch or stand of at least 20 plants of its species.
Salmonberry does not fruit until spring is well under way, but its slender magenta petals appear first in March. Its tissue-like petals and surrounding bright green sepals (modified leaves around petals) come in fives, one of the characteristics of the rose family. Rose family petals also often have small teeth at their otherwise pointed ends. Berry bushes in the rose family, such as blackberry and raspberry, produce leaves that make excellent ingredients in herbal tea mixes.
Another berry plant, the red-flowering currant, also bears brilliant red-pink flowers in the spring. Instead of a single flower, red-flowering currant’s scarlet winter buds give way to clusters of multiple blooms or inflorescences. This plant’s leaves are typical in shape and texture for currants and other members of the gooseberry family.
Faculty and students maintain a series of teaching gardens throughout the Evergreen campus. In the Waterwise Pollinator Garden to the left of the library entrance, native species like the red-flowering currant, bleeding heart, and white fawn-lily grow alongside the Mediterranean transplant rosemary.
Rosemary is an introduced member of the mint family that thrives in Northwest gardens, but is not an invasive species. Rosemary’s flower, like its herbaceous leaves, can be eaten in fresh or cooked.
Many plants flowering now will produce fruit later in the warm season, but Oregon grape and bigleaf maple offer edible inflorescences (multiple flowers) in the early Spring.
The two species of Oregon grape common in Western Washington have spiny, holly-like leaves and billowing yellow flowers. Their most distinguishing trait is their differences in leaf structure.
Tall Oregon grape has an apparent midvein separating the leaf into left and right sides. The edges of its leaves are often angled strongly up or down into spiked points. Dull Oregon grape is less angled and has no obvious midvein. Apparent frost damage to the leaves, in the form of holes and dark spots, reveals their evergreen quality. Oregon grape does not shed its leaves for the winter.
Bigleaf maple also blooms in yellow, grouped flowers. New leaves appear with each year’s flowers. This means that unlike Oregon grape, bigleaf maple is deciduous. Both Oregon grape and bigleaf maple inflorescences can be eaten fresh with a salad or dessert or battered and fried like vegetables.
If you are sensitive to pollen, it is best to test if you have a respiratory reaction (sneezing or coughing) or a skin reaction (hives) when you come in contact with a flower you intend to eat. To test for a skin allergy, rub a small amount of
pollen and/or other parts of the plant on the inside of your elbow and watch for inflammation.
Another campus teaching garden, the Primitive Plant Garden, is located between the CAB’s Greenery entrance and the Bike Shop. Two well-established ginkgo trees are this garden’s main attraction. During a very different time in geologic history, the Pacific Northwest harbored a semi-tropical environment perfect for gingkoes.
Fossilized ginkgo remains can be seen at Gingko State Park, near Vantage, Wash., on the Columbia River. Because they are also deciduous, gingkoes grow new leaves from winter buds every spring after shedding them in the fall. The new leaves just came in, as indicated by their remarkably small size and bright green color.