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, firstname.lastname@example.org
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
Many land managers have contacted me in a panic saying that they could hear bark beetles feeding in their trees. Although bark beetles may be present in those trees what they were likely hearing is wood borer activity. Wood borers tend to be much larger than bark beetles and are, therefore, more likely to be heard chewing away inside trees.
While bark beetles feed solely on a tree’s phloem, wood borers feed on sapwood and heartwood as well as phloem. Native wood borers attack stressed, dying, or dead trees; there are very few native species that actually kill trees.
Wood borers are attracted to volatile gases released by dead or dying trees and lay their eggs under the bark of these trees. Once the larvae hatch, they begin feeding on the inner bark and then tunnel into the wood. The larvae are white, legless grubs and can be quite large. They are valued as a food source by woodpeckers (they make great fishing bait too!) and woodpecker activity is often seen on trees that contain wood borers. The tunnels produced by larval feeding activity have a random pattern and increase in size as the larvae grow.
Frass (beetle poop) is likely to be present within the tunnels. Unlike bark beetle frass, which is fine and reddish in coloration, wood borer frass tends to look more like shredded wheat and is white in color. When wood borers develop into adults, they emerge from trees and leave exit holes that are typically quite a bit larger than those left by bark beetles.
Wood borers play an important ecological role by introducing wood decaying organisms into dead and dying trees which, in turn, helps to speed nutrient cycling. Typically, no management is necessary for native wood borers in a forested setting. Wood borers can damage lumber, but damage is unlikely to occur if the wood has been treated.
Types of Wood Borers
There are three common wood borer families; Cerambycidae, Buprestidae, and Siricidae. The family Cerambycidae, often called longhorned beetles (adults) or roundheaded wood borers (larvae), includes many species. Adults can range in size from ¼ to 2 ½ inches in length. Adults, particularly the males, have long antennae, hence the name longhorned beetle (Figure 1).
The family Buprestidae are commonly known as metallic (adults) or flatheaded (larvae) wood borers. Similar to longhorned beetles, there are many species, and adults may be ¼ to 2 ½ inches in length. Metallic wood borers have small antennae and some are very beautiful, with iridescent or metallic coloration somewhere on the body (Figure 2).
Flatheaded woodborer larvae can be differentiated from roundheaded wood borer larvae in they have a flattened and broadened area beneath the head (thorax) that gives the appearance of a flat head. Rather than the round exit holes left by roundheaded wood borers, flatheaded wood borers leave D-shaped exit holes.
The family Siricidae, often called woodwasps or horntails, are in the order Hymenoptera (i.e., wasps), unlike Cerambycidae and Buprestidae which are in the order Coleoptera (i.e., beetles). Adults may be ½ to 1 ½ inches in length and have a short hornlike process at the end of their bodies. Females have an additional stinger-like ovipositor which is used to oviposit eggs under the bark of trees (Figure 3).
Woodwasp adults can be distinguished from common wasps in that they have thick waists and neither males nor females can actually sting. Woodwasp larvae look similar to roundheaded wood borers but have a small spine at the end of the body. Woodwasps are particularly attracted to fire damaged trees and all except one western species feeds on conifers.
Although native wood borers typically attack stressed, dying and dead trees, several invasive species have been introduced into the United States that are incredibly damaging. The Asian longhorned borer (Anoplophora glabripennis) was introduced into the eastern United States in the early 1990’s. The Asian longhorned beetle feeds on many deciduous species (birch, horse chestnut, poplar, willow, elm and ash), but maples are one of its favorites.
This species has killed thousands of trees in New York and Chicago. Adults are large, 1 to 1 ½ inches long, and have wings that are shining black with irregular splotches of white. The antennae have bands of black and gray and the feet and legs have slate-blue “hairs” (Figure 4). This species can be confused with another invasive, the citrus longhorned beetle (Anoplophora chinensis, Figure 5).
The emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) is an invasive metallic-green wood borer (Figure 6) currently found in 30 states. The emerald ash borer attacks ash trees and has killed hundreds of millions of ash in North America. If you have seen rectangular purple traps hanging in trees alongside the road, these traps are being used to monitor for the emerald ash borer, which is attracted to this particular color. The emerald ash borer may be confused with many native metallic wood borer species, such as Prasinalia cuneata (Figure 7).
The European woodwasp (Sirex noctilio, Figure 8) has been accidently introduced into the eastern U.S. as well. This species attacks and kills living pines. Similar to the emerald ash borer, this species may be easily confused with native species.
Reports from citizens help scientists track the spread of these pests. To report a potential invasive species in Washington state, take a picture if possible, and contact the Washington Invasive Species Council.
October 16, 2016, marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the wildfire outbreak — Fire Storm ‘91 — that demonstrated the deadly hazards that can occur when urban development encroaches on wildlands.
The City of Spokane’s fire central dispatch center received its first wildfire call of the day at 8:49 a.m. on Oct 16. By noon all available county, local and Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fire resources had been committed to contain an unprecedented outbreak of wildfires in the area. By 9:00 p.m. local dispatch centers had fielded some 2,000 fire-related calls.
When everything finally calmed down and numbers were tallied it was discovered that 92 separate wildfires had burned more than 35,000 acres over a four-county area that included Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Spokane and Stevens counties. In all, 114 homes were destroyed and two fatalities were linked to the fires.
Weather was a major factor on this day. No precipitation had been recorded in the previous 41 days and northeast Washington was in its fifth year of lower than average precipitation. Wind gusts of up to 62 mph on Oct. 16 caused the fires to spread rapidly. Wind also was a factor in fire starts when gusts pushed trees into powerlines.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) case study on Fire Storm ’91 concluded that homeowners can indeed take steps to reduce the risks of losing their homes and other structures to wildfire by creating “defensible space” to reduce flammability and fire intensity of the land surrounding their homes.
The NFPA also found that during Fire Storm ’91, homes that had 529 feet of defensible space had a 50 percent lower chance of being destroyed during the fire (see table: Home Loss vs. Defensible Space).
Since 1991 we have had numerous fire seasons where we lost structures. One common fact in all these fires is that homeowners can make a big difference by creating defensible space that reduces wildfire risks to their homes.
In 2002, the Firewise Community recognition program was launched to encourage homeowners to work with neighbors to reduce the impact of wildfire to their communities. Washington state residents have taken this message to heart; our state has the third highest number of Firewise Communities in the nation at 135. In 2016, we added 23 new Firewise Communities, the highest number of new communities in the nation. By the end of 2016 both of these numbers will have increased.
Washington State DNR has a goal of making Washington state the leader with the most Firewise Communities in the nation. To help communities become Firewise-recognized DNR created the Firewise Challenge and offers grants to help communities make themselves more resilient to the next wildfire.
If you want to learn more about what you can do to protect your home or your community from the next wildfire, call your local DNR region office. Be sure to also ask about grants available to help you and your neighbors become a Firewise Community.
For more information on making your home or community safe from wildfire, please call or visit a DNR regional office near you:
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.
There are many shrub (“brush”) superstars. Here we highlight just a few of our best wildlife habitat shrub species.
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): 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): 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): 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.
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
(If you are reading a paper copy of this newsletter, links for these events can be found at the WSU Extension Forestry Website: http://forestry.wsu.edu )
Forest Stewardship Coached Planning
If you own wooded property, our flagship course will teach you how to assess your trees, avoid insect and disease problems and attract wildlife. State experts will help you develop your own Forest Stewardship Plan to keep your woods on track to provide enjoyment and income for years to come.
Newport (Pend Oreille County) Tuesdays, Jan. 10 – Feb. 28, 2017 (also available via computer streaming for snowbirds, absentee landowners and other NE WA forest owners not able to drive to Newport.) Click here for more information
Twenty-fifth Annual Family Foresters Workshop, January 20, Spokane
This annual workshop strengthens the skills of natural resource professionals who work with family forest owners, and serves as a forum to provide updates on emerging technology and knowledge applicable to family forestry. Click here for more information.