Tastes like Christmas

Engelmann spruce
Engelmann spruce is one of several conifers whose leaves (needles) can be made into tea. Photo: US Forest Service.

We have many ways of identifying our Washington state conifers, from looking at the bark or tree silhouette to examining the needles. As part of a tree ID session at a Forestry Field Day this summer, I challenged participants to sip a variety of conifer needle teas. We had a good time trying to identify the species by flavor, but the comment I heard over and over was “These taste like Christmas!”

So this season is a good time to venture outside and try something new. New to many of us, anyway—various conifer needle teas have a long history of Native American use for both culinary and medicinal purposes. You can purchase Engelmann spruce, Douglas-fir, white pine and other teas packaged up in tea bags for your convenience from internet sites but as forest landowners, we are usually able to harvest them straight from the source. Most authorities recommend gathering the fresh, soft growth on spring branch tips for optimum flavor, however, winter needles can also be used (though you won’t be able to find green larch needles this time of year!) Start with a teaspoon or so of chopped needles per cup of hot water, and if it isn’t strong enough, add more or simmer a few minutes for a slightly different flavor.

Avoid yew or cedar needles which contain toxic compounds, but most other species—including western hemlock (the poisonous association with its name come from an entirely different plant) can be safely brewed. Some authorities caution use of some pine species by pregnant women because they may be abortifacient, but advise that the dose makes the poison. As with all wild foods, its good advice to taste in small quantities until you know how you will react—individuals vary in allergies and digestive tolerances to any new food or drink.  And don’t drink large quantities of a favorite until you have researched the constituents and know they are safe on a daily basis—like most everything else, variety and moderation are key.

Most herbalists agree that there is a lot of nourishment in a cup of needle tea with many species boasting lots of electrolytes, much more Vitamin C than orange juice, and high Vitamin A levels as well. Frontiersmen often drank conifer tea to stave off scurvy. In his book Stalking the Healthful Herbs, naturalist Euell Gibbons said of pine needle tea, “With a squeeze of lemon and a little sugar it was almost enjoyable, and it gives a great feeling of virtue to know that as you drink it you are fortifying your body with two essential vitamins in which most modern diets are deficient.”

While “almost enjoyable” is fairly faint praise, other sources enthusiastically compare the taste of conifer needles to mint, lemon, or even cola flavors—all with an overtone of forest.  So take a hike around your woods this winter, collect some needles, and try a cup. You may be eyeing that Christmas tree for a whole new purpose!

By Carol Mack, WSU Extension Forestry, cmack@wsu.edu

Sources for this story:

  • Stewart, Hilary. Drink in the Wild. Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, B.C. 2002
  • Parish, Roberta, Ray Coupe and Dennis Lloyd. Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia. Lone Pine Press, 1996

That Darn “Brush” (a New Look at Our Wonderful Forest Understory Habitat)

Black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii).
While considered a nuisance by many landowners, shrub growth like black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii) provides important shelter and forage for many many wildlife species.

Stand in your forest and count the overstory tree species you see. On the west side, this will likely include Douglas fir, hemlock, cedar and alder. On the east side, you are likely to tally Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and grand fir. Now, from that exact spot, count the shrubby understory, (or “brush”) species that you. This may include oceanspray, serviceberry, ninebark, salal, salmonberry, red or blue elderberry, cascara, beaked hazelnut, bitter cherry, chokecherry, evergreen huckleberry and so on. Nearly always there are two to three times as many species of native shrub, understory species on a site than there are tall trees. Wow!

Trees generally have a single stem and reach the highest levels of the canopy, while shrubs have multiple stems and grow in the understory. And yes, sometimes there are plants that confuse us. This rich, and often overlooked and underappreciated, layer of our forests contains some of the best wildlife habitat out there.

Benefits of Brush

Nearly 25 percent of our forest-dwelling wildlife rely on these plants for food or cover, and would not exist on our lands without these wonderfully dense thickets. Song sparrows, spotted towhee, warblers, chipmunks, deer and so. The critter list of those that thrive on this critical habitat element is long. In fact, the shrub layer may be the most important habitat feature for a high diversity of wildlife species in early forest successional stages. Systematic research in Oregon has shown that songbird abundance and diversity is increased when west side plantations are allowed to develop some shrub components.

When sunlight reaches the ground, even in small amounts, the various shrub species will take advantage of this niche and grow, sometimes for many years and to impressive mass. Who hasn’t seen a gap in the wet forest where the shrubs have come into create a little pocket of shrubs in the midst of an otherwise dark conifer overstory? These canopy gaps are a great source of habitat diversity. Mixed stands of mature trees, (conifer and hardwood), openings and substantial shrub components can provide some of the richest and most diverse habitats in our forests.

Many shrub species produce “mast,” or fruit, that is eaten by a wide array of wildlife, from birds to the smallest mammals and all the way up to the black bear. The wonderful flowers of our shrub species provide feeding opportunities for pollinators, including hundreds of species of native bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. Unlike the conifer, these flowers produce nectar, a rich draw for many animals including specialized insects. And most of our game species, those big charismatic megafauna, forage on these plants too. Shrubs usually carry these animals through the winter.

Superstars

There are many shrub (“brush”) superstars. Here we highlight just a few of our best wildlife habitat shrub species.

Blue elderberry (Sambucus-cerulea)
Blue elderberry (Sambucus-cerulea)

Blue elderberry (Sambucus cerulea): This lovely plant grows in sunny spots east and west of the Cascades. It can take on a fairly large form if given enough time and light, reaching up to 25 feet high and across. Multiple stems produce lush, compound foliage that is preferred browse for deer, elk and other animals. The abundant purple berries are favorites of many birds and seldom last long. These same berries can even be made into wine or jam. If you want to enhance wildlife habitat by planting shrubs, this one is a great choice.

Red elderberry (Sambucus raesmosa)
Red elderberry (Sambucus raesmosa)

Red elderberry (Sambucus raesmosa): Wetter sites in western Washington grow the red elderberry, a very similar plant to the blue, with a branching brushy form and red berries favored by many wildlife species. These grow in small openings and in the dappled understory of mixed forest stands. In my observation these two plants usually don’t occur in the same locations, but both are great wildlife habitat plants.

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)
Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis): Dominating many understories across western Washington is the ubiquitous salmonberry. This plant features dense woody stems that can create a jungle of dense vegetation — perfect places for birds and small mammals to seek shelter. The berries resemble salmon roe (hence the name) and are eaten by most everything, including people.

 

Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis)
Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis)

Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis): Perhaps the earliest blooming shrub species in western Washington is the gorgeous Indian plum. This rich understory species occurs on many moist forest sites, providing early foliage and flowers for native pollinators. They produce lovely, tiny purple fruits and never last long, being eaten at first chance by many birds and mammals. Watch for the white flowers in the first blush of spring.

Indian plum foliage

Black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii): The spiny hawthorn creates dense cover for birds and a great place for mammals to hide and rest. The fruits (called “haws”) are also eaten by many species. It prefers sun, but will get by in dappled shade. This plant occurs on both sides of the mountains.

Other shrub superstars worth mentioning include serviceberry, mock orange, ceanothus, cascara, salal, willow, dogwood, and even devil’s club. Each of these has great wildlife structure and bears fruit.

Management

Sometimes the dense nature of shrub cover can prevent conifers from regenerating for many years, much to the frustration of those attempting to grow trees for harvest. Vast effort is made to eliminate this competition on lands dedicated to tree production, often by using aerial application of herbicides. This is hard on the shrub layer to say the least. The small landowner, however, usually has mixed objectives, wishing to provide quality wildlife habitat AND grow the next crop of trees. This can be accomplished by identifying the best wildlife shrub species growing on your property and actively maintaining them over time by allowing for space to grow these plants. Conifer competition can be dealt with by physically cutting the competing plants back, and/or strategically using herbicides on individual plants or clumps, thus allowing the conifers to get above the shrub layer and form a new canopy.

Sometimes individual plants are cared for. Planting can work if adequate care is made for each plant. Control competition and prevent browse on young plants. Desired shrubs that have become tall and “leggy” with extended stems and leaf and fruits out of reach of browsers, such as deer, can even be simply pruned back just as we might manage the bushes in our yards.

These are just a few thoughts and examples of the fabulous shrub species we encounter on our forest lands that are worth knowing and keeping on the landscape. Find out what shrubs you have on your place. Their value to wildlife as habitat is very great and definitely worth managing for.

Learn and enjoy your brush, or should I say, “shrub habitat.”

For more information or questions about managing small forest lands for wildlife, please contact me.

By Ken Bevis, DNR stewardship wildlife biologist, Ken.Bevis@dnr.wa.gov

Staunching a Wound, Starting a Fire

Tinder conk
Tinder conk (Fomes fomentarius) is found mainly on birch trees in the northern boreal forest. Photo: Alaska Dept of Natural Resources.

Anyone who wanders in the woods has seen bracket fungi, those odd banded shelves that grow in arcs from standing snags and deadfall trunks. Most of them belong to the family of Polypores, whose members are composed of thousands of tiny tubes growing tight together on a vertical plane. The fungi hang on to dead or dying wood through a network of parasitic, thread-like roots called rhizomes that slowly work to decompose their host. Like any mushroom, the brackets emerge as soft, spongy masses. Many are edible, and they shed millions of microscopic spores during their fruiting time. But usually by the time people notice polypores they are tough and woody, often harder than the log they are attached to.

In the forests of Pend Oreille County, by far the best host for bracket fungi are birch trees. Birches grow around the edges of many wetlands, from low to medium elevations, but also sprout in patches on hillsides with an extra hint of moisture. They are a short-lived tree, prone to the diseases that make them easy fodder for the life-sucking rhizomes of the fungus. The curly, peelable birch bark outlasts the sapwood, so that after a tree crashes down bracket fungi often multiply up and down its length.

The species of bracket fungus most commonly seen on our local birches is Fomes fomentarius, better known as horse’s hoof fungus or tinder conk. The brackets emerge as a white foamy mass that hardens and expands from a slender top down to a broad, flat growing margin. From both side and bottom views, they really do mirror the form of a horse’s hoof. Like most brackets, these fungi are perennial, continuing to grow as long as the tree can feed them. Each year they add a new dark-colored line to the bottom of the hoof shape. As long as it is alive, the growing margin of each hoof remains velvety soft, and distinctly cool to the touch.

These birch polypores have a circumpolar distribution–they can be found in any northern forest around the globe, across Asia, Europe, and North America. That range connects them through time and place in a way that reflects the movements of a host of different cultures. The common name conk, applied to many species of bracket fungi, compares their shapes and colors to those of the elegantly curved conch seashells. Originally derived from a Greek word associated with ocean shells, many Inland Northwest school kids today still apply the term conk to all hard fungi growing in the woods.

The same tinder conks that we see attached to birch trees have been used to start fires all around the world for untold generations. The Latin genus name, Fomes, means tinder, as in flammable kindling. Long ago people discovered that if you pound on this polypore the tubes separate into fibers that can catch a spark and keep it going. The early fur men who came to our part of the world carried tinder conk in their tobacco pouches, but that did not surprise the local tribes they met–a Salish word for the fungus has been translated as ‘burning coal’ because of the way an ember from a fire, when placed in the center of the growing margin of a freshly plucked tinder conk, will smolder for hours. In a world before flint and steel, this would have been the most effective way to transport your fire from camp to camp.

In the 1970s Martin Louie, an elder of the Colville-Okanagan tribes, described how the tribes used the heat retention properties of tinder conk as a treatment for arthritis. The fungus was picked, pounded until mushy, then applied as a poultice to the affected area. When hot towels were wrapped around the spot, the pounded fibers would absorb their heat and apply it to the affliction. Louie also confirmed earlier ethnographic reports that the tribes would place a small piece of ignited ‘burning coal’ directly on a moistened, aching joint. As the fungus fragment smoldered down to the skin it would ‘pop,’ and the ache was often soothed. Both these methods call to mind the variety of heating pads and liniments so often used today for similar complaints.

The Latin species name for tinder conk, fomentarius, means ‘dressing for wounds,’ a fact reflected in many standard textbooks of European medicine. Their myriad tubes, pounded and separated, have the absorbent qualities of a handy sponge, and the tannic acids present in the woody fibers provide an antiseptic action. More than two thousand years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates described the use of birch polypores as a means to stop bleeding and cauterize infections. In France, dentists still keep a supply of what they call ‘amadou’ on hand for packing in the socket of a freshly pulled tooth. Amadou is nothing more the horse’s hoof fungus we know pounded into fibers, dipped into a solution of saltpeter, and allowed to dry.

But what is two thousand years? The Ice Man who washed out of a glacier in the Italian Alps a few years ago died five thousand years before the present. Beside his famous brass ax, bow and arrow, and remarkable clothing, he carried with him a small leather pouch. Inside the pouch were the ground-up fibers of tinder conk, at the ready for anything from an everyday fire to emergency medical treatment. The little horse hooves, so common a part of our local scene, have been a part of traveler’s kits across the ages.

by Jack Nisbet

Jack Nisbet is a naturalist and writer who lives in Spokane, Washington. This article first appeared in the 2004 Fall issue of Diggings NewsletterNisbet’s most recent book, Ancient Places, is now available in paperback. For more information visit www.jacknisbet.com

Native Plants and Fire

Lacamas Prairie Natural Area in Clark County
Lacamas Prairie Natural Area in Clark County is an example of the landscapes where native peoples used fire to control vegetation for food and medicinal plants, craft materials and wildlife. Photo: DNR

It is known that fire can be a major factor in the health of the forest. It also can be a major factor in the composition of the forest. Many of our native plants have adapted to fire, including lodgepole pine which requires fire to melt the wax on cone scales so they open to spread their seeds, and grasses which thrive after fire has killed the competing shrubs and broadleaf plants.

Native people who managed the lands of the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years understood how valuable fire was in maintaining sustainable stands of native plants. They used fire as we might use chemical herbicides. Eventually, growing trees would provide too much shade for the good production of fruit, tubers, grasses and herbs. So the native people would use controlled burns to rejuvenate failing stands of edible, medicinal and spiritual plants.

Typically, the burns would be conducted in late fall or early spring. This was timed to take advantage of the plants’ ability to store nutrients in their root structures during the growing season. It also took advantage of the cool and wet times that helped control the size and heat of the fires. By keeping the fires small and fast moving, the site never got hot enough to hurt the below-ground parts of the desirable plants, but would prune back their tops and kill the unwanted plants. The trees that were encroaching on the huckleberry, camas, fescue and blackberry fields were kept at bay by fire.

The chemicals that were stored in the tops were deposited on the soil surface and then moved into the rooting zone by rains and melting snows. These chemicals such as potassium, phosphorus and micronutrients became the fertilizer that supported new plant growth. So the residue of the fire along with the energy that was stored in the roots would enable the plants to push up new growth the next spring. Fire also exposed the mineral soil by burning the duff and debris, providing an excellent seed bed for native plants.

In Washington the native peoples kept large prairies open for production of food plants, medicinal, craft materials and wildlife. What new arrivals from Europe thought were virgin prairies were in fact large pastures and gardens. This was also true of the vast berry fields in the mountains and the diverse plant system in riparian areas.

As we have controlled fire in all areas of our environment, an unfortunate result in many areas is that we have enabled nonnative plants to push out the native plants that needed fire to thrive. The nonnative plants also are better users of nitrogen runoff from agriculture and homestead lands. In some cases now the invasive plants have become so prolific that they are better able to repopulate burned area than our native plants. The native plants are no longer present in sufficient numbers to produce the seeds and new plants like the introduced plants.

So how do we take advantage of the native plants’ ability to survive fire if they are no longer in the ecosystem in numbers like they were 100 years ago? As a first step, we need to learn what native plants were growing before fire was excluded on land we manage. We can learn a lot from the work being done by restoration ecologists at universities, federal land management agencies, conservation groups and tribal governments. These entities are all looking at how to successfully replant and reseed burned- over areas with the goal of raising the numbers of native plants in the ecosystem. This will help to increase fire resiliency as well as reestablish traditional gathering areas, and create new areas on public natural resource lands. The real end goal is to provide the public with access to sustainable native plant materials.

Many forest landowners have developed a trust relationship with local Native American families who still practice traditional gathering. The landowners share the forest bounty, increasing access to local plants, while the native families teach how to manage areas for special crops.

Other great sources of information on traditional native plant systems are the journals of early explorers and botanists like David Douglas, who kept detailed descriptions of where he found plants and how they were being managed. A final great resource on native plants for Washington state residents is the Washington Native Plant Society and its website, monthly local chapter meetings, and statewide workshops.

Creating native plant gathering sites is just a matter of learning the proper management techniques, acquiring the seeds, cutting or seedlings and making it happen. Consider converting that root rot pocket into a shade garden of native plants. Or take the area under a powerline or over a utility pipeline and create a mini-prairie of native grasses, shrubs, bulbs and berries. A wet area or a frost pocket where trees will not grow can become a field of wild raspberries, currants, blueberries, blackberries and roses.

These areas can be managed sustainably without herbicides, especially if fire can be included as part of the long term rotation. Not only will you be producing native plant foods but you will be providing flowers for the native pollinators and snacks for the native animals. You will be creating perfect wildlife viewing areas across your family forest landscape.

So put on your forest gardening gloves and get started adding native plant garden plots across your family forest landscape.

By Jim Freed, WSU Extension Forester Emeritus

The Holly and the Ivy… Festive, but Not in Your Forest!

English holly plant
Two-thirds of this English holly plant is below-ground root, illustrating how hard it is to eradicate this invasive plant from Washington forests. Photo Kevin Zobrist/WSU Extension

This is an English holly (see photo) that I pulled out of the ground. What I want to impress upon you are the measurements. From the top to the root collar is about 12 inches. The root then extends another 24 inches. Folks, that’s a 2-to-1 root-to-shoot ratio. Maybe they should change the expression “tip of the iceberg” to “tip of the holly.” Can you imagine what the root system is like on larger hollies? This is one of the big problems with this invasive species—it’s so firmly rooted that anything larger than what I pulled up is very difficult to dig out and causes a lot of soil disturbance.

Most of our invasive plants can ultimately be killed by shade, so establishing a healthy forest overstory is a long-term solution in most cases. Not so with holly, as it is extremely shade tolerant. Other understory vegetation will be long gone from heavy shade before the holly gives up. It spreads not just by birds eating the red berries, but also by suckering and layering.

“But it’s so pretty!” Yes, and that’s why most of our invasives ended up here—because of their beauty. Think Scotch broom, butterfly bush, etc.

“But the birds enjoy the berries.” Yes, but the birds also enjoy a myriad of native food sources. They did just fine for thousands of years before this English import, and they will continue to do fine without holly trees. Each of those red berries represents a new infestation that will crowd out the diversity of native food sources that a whole host of different wildlife species depend on, and each of those berries represents a lot of difficult restoration work on other properties, parks, and natural areas.

Holly is dioecious, meaning male and female on separate plants. The females are particularly bad because of all the berries that feed infestations. The males are hardly innocuous, though. They fertilize the females, and they spread by suckering and layering to form large thickets.

“But I only have a few holly plants here and there and they don’t seem to be spreading.” Perhaps not above ground… yet. It may be getting well-established below ground to prepare for future expansion. Recent research (Stokes et al. 2014) suggests that a holly plant can stay relatively contained for about 14 years, after which it begins growing exponentially creating large colonies that overtake the rest of the understory.

So what to do? If you see holly sprouts that are one inch or less high, pull them out. Use gloves and pull slowly (don’t yank) with firm pressure to ease the whole root out. For bigger specimens, you may need to do some serious digging. Or if it’s not practical to dig, you may need to use an herbicide. Foliar sprays aren’t practical because the holly resists them with their thick, waxy leaves. Cut stump treatment is a common approach in which herbicide is applied to the stump immediately following cutting. A local study by EarthCorps in 2013 found that triclopyr was more effective than glyphosate for cut stump treatments.

The study also found that frilling (a.k.a. hack and squirt) with triclopyr or stem injection with imazapyr were even more effective. Stem injection is nice because the applicant and surrounding environment have minimal exposure to the herbicide. Cut stump and frilling also have pretty low impact as there is no overspray on other vegetation and a relatively small amount of herbicide is used, compared to foliar sprays. Check with your county’s noxious weed program for more information and recommendations. Make sure that any herbicide you use is registered for your type of site (forestry, for example) and always follow all label instructions.

Holly is not currently listed as a noxious weed by the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board, meaning that control is not state-mandated and the plant can be cultivated, bought, and sold (it is on the monitor list, however). Adding a species to the noxious weed list is subject to a decision by the Board and, in some cases, the Legislature. Holly was considered for listing in 2010 and 2011, but this move was opposed by holly growers who were concerned about the resulting economic losses. Some holly growers argued that holly is not invasive, does not readily spread by seed, and is primarily growing on locations where there had previously been holly orchards. The issue also was covered by the Pacific Horticulture Society.

Here are two fact sheets on controlling English holly:

English Ivy Invades Forests

What’s wrong with a little ivy? Plenty. The photo below was taken in Olympic National Park, demonstrating that invasive species know no boundaries. This was only a small piece of the infestation, which was killing and pulling over trees and completely destroying the native understory. This has very little wildlife value, unless you’re a rat.

English holly infestation in Olympic National Park
English ivy, like this infestation in Olympic National Park, can kill and pull down trees. Photo: Kevin Zobrist/WSU Extension.

“But I only have a little!” That’s how this started out, too. It spreads aggressively both vegetatively and by bird-disbursed seeds. There are a number of different varieties, all invasive and all brought in as ornamentals.

Spraying is challenging because ivy has a thick, waxy leaf, but there are some products listed for use in this way (always follow label instructions). But it pulls up (roots and all) pretty easily, so with a little elbow grease you can make good strides. You should wear gloves and a dust mask for this, for the sake of comfort. For ivy growing up and strangling trees, you don’t have to pull it all off the tree (which could damage the bark, not to mention needless effort. Pull it off up to shoulder height, making sure to sever all stems growing up the tree. Without ground contact, the remainder up the tree will die. Then work on pulling the stuff on the ground back from the tree, pulling it up by the roots. Here are three fact sheets on controlling English ivy:

By Kevin Zobrist, Regional Extension Forestry Specialist, WSU Extension, kevin.zobrist@wsu.edu

[This article is an edited version of the article that Mr. Zobrist first published in the May/June 2015 WSU North Puget Sound Extension Forestry E-Newsletter]