Ask an Expert! Answers to Landowner Management Questions

Question:

I have knapweed and rush skeletonweed on my property (which isn’t huge, 80 acres, and the infestation isn’t enormous, just enough that it’s an issue for me). I spray, re-spray and re-re-spray, using 2,4-D and Milestone at 2 oz and 3/8 oz, respectively, per gallon, the dose the county weed guy recommends. The weeds never seem to die. I don’t think I’m wrong when it seems like I treat the same weeds year after year.

Do I increase the amount of chemical? Use a different chemical? Do something radical like dig up the weed and, with a tiny artist’s brush, paint undiluted 2,4-D directly on the root? Am I doing something wrong? Thanks.

Answer: 

Weeds never seem to die.

Thanks for your question and your determination to manage a couple of troubling noxious weeds.

Do I increase the chemical? A recommendation, that is part of an integrated weed management approach, would be that you monitor your upcoming season spray application closely to observe the impacts of your treatment. The rates and materials you describe should work well on the knapweed and skeletonweed. Treatment timing is also very important for these two perennial weeds. Treatment timings should include both the spring and fall to reduce the amount of new seed production. Timing must also consider periods when soil moisture is adequate and plants are actively growing to get good movement of herbicide into the plants. Both of these weeds are known for their abundance of seed produced and the seed viability in the soil (3 years for rush skeletonweed, 8 years for spotted knapweed).

Spotted knapweed and rush skeletonweed
Spotted knapweed (left) and rush skeletonweed (right) are aggressive weeds that can easily take over disturbed areas and rangelands. Photos:  Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board.

Taking the time to identify the boundaries of the weed populations and then working through the area in a grid pattern to minimize misses is time well spent. Additional time should also be given to scout outside the area to pick up any outlying plants. After the initial treatment, return to the site in about two weeks, to spot treat any new seedlings or any plants previously missed and beginning to bolt. Treatments in the fall season to target any plant rosettes that survived through the summer is very effective in reducing these perennial weeds.

In addition, always evaluate and consider the planting of competitive native vegetation in the area of the infestation to compete with these invasive weeds. If the weed site is frequently disturbed and can’t be managed differently, the location may require some annual maintenance to keep the weeds from spreading to other areas.

Distribution maps of spotted knapweed and rush skeletonweed.
Distribution maps of spotted knapweed (left) and rush skeletonweed (right) across Washington State.  Photo: Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Given the scale of your acreage and infestation size, individual treatments of digging, cutting and daubing stems with herbicide wouldn’t be very efficient for these fast moving weeds. However digging may be appropriate for those single, outlier weeds that are found elsewhere on your acreage.

By Bill Wamsley, Noxious Weed Control Board Coordinator, Lewis County, bill.wamsley@lewiscountywa.gov

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