Native salmonberry flowers along Judd Creek (Jim Diers Photos).

Native salmonberry flowers along Judd Creek (Jim Diers Photos).

Notes from a native plant walk

Plant ecologist Jim Evans calls areas like The Judd Creek Preserve corridor ‘bridges to the future.’

On Easter Sunday afternoon, Jim Evans led a tour through the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust’s Judd Creek Preserve. It was also, appropriately, the first day of Native Plant Appreciation Week.

Evans is a plant ecologist who’s studied Vashon’s ecosystems for more than a dozen years. Plant ecologists differ from botanists because they examine the big picture of plant interactions, including how natural processes and land use history form habitats for specific plants. Evans also studies the ways in which plants, insects, birds and animals are interconnected.

The Judd Creek Preserve corridor consists of 155 acres in Paradise Valley. It’s a riparian ecosystem marking the transition zone between aquatic and terrestrial environments. While riparian areas account for only about 1% of ecosystems worldwide, they are among the most productive and ecologically valuable places on earth.

Evans calls Vashon’s riparian areas, “bridges to the future,” and says they should be our number one conservation goal. They help replenish the aquifer, host wildlife, connect landscapes, cool the water for spawning salmon and provide a thermal refuge for wildlife during our increasingly hot summers. He says, “We’re lucky to live in a place where protecting these areas is a priority.”

Like many Vashon properties, Judd Creek was a farm field prior to World War II. Now it’s in the middle stages of forest regeneration and home to many pioneer species. Most of the trees are red alders, which colonize abandoned farmland quickly but are short-lived, typically giving way to conifers such as Douglas firs, hemlocks and cedars.

The first plant on the tour was salmonberry with stunning hot pink flowers in full bloom. It’s a woody plant related to blackberries and especially suited to wetlands. Thickets of salmonberry attract rufous hummingbirds and orange-crowned warblers, which were singing in the trees above during the tour. Salmonberry is named for the orange-pink color of its berries that ripen early in the season, providing food for many species at a critical time.

Next up is red elderberry, a tall, woody shrub with clusters of tiny white flowers, which attract native pollinators then form dark red berries, attracting birds such as cedar waxwings, robins and other thrushes. Mason bees drill holes to make homes in the hollow stems.

Large swaths of native Pacific bleeding hearts line the Judd Creek trail this time of year — their exceptional flowers dangling above dense lacy foliage that’s an important food source for butterfly larvae. Evans notes these plant will mostly die back by midsummer.

He then draws attention to several species sometimes considered weeds. Native stinging nettles aren’t very popular, but they are also valuable host plants for butterfly larvae, including red admirals and angel wings. Cleavers are considered native weeds that can be easily cleared if needed. Chickweeds are non-native weeds, but not invasive.

However, Herb Robert, aka Stinky Bob, may look like a pretty little wild geranium, but it is a rampant invasive that reproduces profusely and is so shade tolerant it threatens to overrun our forests. It produces a chemical that suppresses native plant and tree seedlings. Fortunately, it’s easy to pull out, but, as Evans demonstrated, it really does leave your hand stinky when you do.

Evans notices some deer browse along the path and jokes, “We’d have better wildlife habitat if we didn’t have all these animals.”

Farther down the trail is a wetland filled with skunk cabbage — in full and fragrant bloom —creeping buttercup, Pacific water parsley and horsetails. Lady ferns and sword ferns line the path in this section, and licorice ferns climb the trunks of mossy trees.

Evans stops to demonstrate the difference between two plants that are commonly confused. English holly, another shade-tolerant invasive he calls, “the next wave of concern,” in Vashon’s forests, and Oregon grape, an important native plant, which has holly-shaped leaves and berries.

After almost two hours, the walk winds up at a decaying nurse log. The group has seen more than two dozen native plants but only covered about a quarter mile of the Judd Creek Loop Trail. Evans stops to ponder a large cedar, felled by this winter’s snowstorm, near the nurse log. He notes optimistically, “There is more life in dead logs than in living trees, between bacteria, fungi and insects.” He ends his talk optimistically, noting that the future of the forest lies in the nurse logs that will continue to contribute to the restoration of this evolving riparian ecosystem.

CALENDAR

Sunday, May 5

VWP Open House

The Vashon Wilderness Program is offering a new Farm and Forest Program starting fall 2019 for 3- to 6-year-olds. It will meet twice a week during the school year. Registration required at vashonwildernessprogram.org. 10 a.m. to noon at Plum Forest Farm

Tuesday, May 7

BeachNET- Forage Fish Surveys

Join Vashon Nature Center scientists conducting forage fish research. Surveys collect bulk sediment samples and other physical data. No prior experience needed. Must be able to walk 2 to 3 miles on the beach. Dress for the weather. All equipment provided. Plan for two hours of volunteer service. For more information or to sign up: email mariametler.vnc@gmail.com. 10:30 a.m.

BeachNET Forage Fish Sample Processing

Assist Vashon Nature Center staff processing bulk sediment samples to prepare them for lab analysis of forage fish eggs. No prior experience needed. Must be able to lift 50 lbs. Plan for up to three hours of volunteer service. For more information or to sign up, email mariametler.vnc@gmail.com. 1 p.m.

Saturday, May 11

Vashon Audubon Field Trip: Come birding on the island. Drop in, free and no experience necessary. Bring binoculars and scopes if you have them and wear walking shoes or boots. Children must be accompanied by an adult. Carpools encouraged and can be arranged at Ober Park. 8 to 10 a.m. Meet at Ober Park Park & Ride.

Work Party at VCA Wetlands

Join board members from Vashon Nature Center and VCA to tour the site, hear about plans and help the first steps to restore the wetlands. 9 a.m. to noon.

Saturday & Sunday, May 11 & 12

Annual Whispering Firs Bog Tours

Visit this hidden, fragile and exotic habitat in small groups to learn about its history and ecology. Tours are $5 per family for Land Trust members, $25 per family for non-members. Reservations only. Space is limited to 10 people per tour. Contact the Land Trust for information or to reserve a spot, at 463-2644 or info@vashonlandtrust.org. Saturday: 10 and 11 a.m. Sunday: noon and 1 p.m.

Thursday, May 30

Land Trust Book Group selection: “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, mother, scientist, professor, member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. 6:30 p.m. at the Land Trust Building

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