I worked for years as an ecologist surveying for plants and animals that were listed as threatened or endangered either under the federal Endangered Species Act, or the California equivalent. I saw a lot of good habitat about to be replaced by permanent structures, but I also saw a lot of decent habitat degraded simply by soil compaction, garbage dumping, and alien weeds.
These places might never have supported listed species with narrow habitat needs, but they could have sustained more common species with broader distributions that could not withstand the damages done to the soil, nor compete against aggressive, weedy invaders. Once eliminated, they could not come back unless there were nearby seed sources. And if a particular species is not a ‘pioneer’, e.g. able to grow on bare soil in bright light, they likely would never return to pummeled areas anyway. As good habitat becomes increasingly rare, or fragmented, the loss of only a few of the remaining populations can spell the end for the species in an area. Add these areas up over a county, state, or region, and the species becomes rare.
In WA, weather and geology means that habitats are more homogenous, and we have far fewer unique and rare species as a result. Most of our rare plants occupy scarce places such as rocky cliffs or remnant oak woodlands where humans do not usually tread. However, there are lots of not-rare but not-common plants that occupy more widespread, undisturbed habitats such as mature Douglas fir forest or seeps that feed wetlands. These include perennial forbs such as piggy-back plant (Tolmiea menziesii) and miterwort (Mitella sp.), as well as less-common trees such as Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia).
Two species that I am fortunate to have discovered on my property are foam flower (Tiarella trifoliata), and pathfinder (Adenocaulon bicolor), the latter known for the white undersides of its leaves that turnover when disturbed. These are not rare by any means, but nor are they extremely common in lowland Puget Sound. Both occupy relatively common habitats – moist shady sites and dry forest floor in Douglas fir dominated forest, respectively – but neither can survive an area graded and logged, as my own experience in May with coral root revealed.
Since much of lowland Puget Sound is ripe for development, and because development not only destroys habitats occupied by less-common plants but also introduces invasives that exclude natives, we stand to lose a lot. In my last job, I had to listen to a client and another biologist speak casually about how a relatively pristine riparian area on a major river had no listed species and therefore disturbance was of no concern. And yet as we hiked along it, I could see many species of plants (neither of these individuals were botantists), that were common only to this type of riparian area. There were no plans to site the planned structure where disturbance would have minimal impact to springs and seeps, or to salvage and replant natives. Most companies would want to avoid the additional costs associated with mitigations that were not required. Yet it is precisely for that reason that plants become rare in the first place.
Think of the first passenger pigeon to fall by a gunshot, and then the last to die only a few decades later. I stand by the ESA, but it is only a last-ditch effort. If only our conservation minded volunteer groups (e.g. the Native Plant Societies of many states) would step forward to provide salvage and restoration services for projects that involve temporary habitat disturbance, we could at least ensure that some plant populations could receive additional protections.
Since the sale of my father’s excavator heralded (for the most part) and era of relatively limited disturbance, my mission for my Personal Jungle incorporates habitat restoration and the reintroduction of species that would be expected to occur (we won’t go into the debate behind that assertion) in Puget Sound lowland habitats.
To this end, I have developed my own restoration plan based in part upon my readings and observations of species diversity here:
1. Remove invasives I have several acres of mature Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor), about 1/4 acre of reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) scattered about, and patches of English ivy (Hedera helix) and scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius). I believe that with diligence I can eradicate all but the ivy, which reseeds freely from mature plants on adjacent properties. I am always finding new seedlings or young vines which I diligently pull only to find more somewhere else. However, I keep them from climbing trees and reseeding.
The blackberry removal follows a three-part plan: a. cut back with clippers or machete b. cut back next season and, if not in a restoration area, dig some roots OR c. if in a restoration, dig roots
Cutting eventually kills them as the thick tubers cannot keep up with leaf loss, but it takes several seasons. I like to cut when its cold and dry and I’ve little else that I can accomplish. Its also good exercise and even an emotional vent too!
2. Collect or buy native seed for restoration. This year I’ve collected and planted foam flower and pathfinder seed from this property, both in the greenhouse and in cleared habitats that match the soil and light conditions of the donor plants.
I also collect seed in the wild where permitted. In the logged are by the shed, I purchased a native seed mix for wet areas that I hope will assist in securing the soil and outcompeting the weeds. Native plant societies are also good sources for seed.
3. Propagate cuttings I have an indoor greenhouse with light and heating pads for this purpose. Armed with my booklet ‘Cuttings through the Year‘ published by the Arboretum Foundation of the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle, I take soft and hardwood cuttings of both natives and ornamentals and attempt to grow them. I have about a 10% success rate so far, but I keep trying. Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea, willow (Salix sp.), deutzia (Deutzia gracilis), and beauty berry (Callicarpa sp.) do well. I hope to have success with cuttings from one of my old-growth nine bark (Physocarpus capitatus).
4. Transplant mature plants I have several fern ‘nurseries’ around the property with sufficiently moist conditions to allow for propagation. I use these plants, and those from along areas where I mow, or in roadside ditches that are mowed, for replanting the logged areas or as borders to developed gardens.
I also have permission to collect on a property I used to own by the Cowlitz River, and purchase natives online or from local nurseries. Besides sword fern ( Polystichum munitum , lady fern ( Anthyrium filix-femina), sedges (Carex sp.), bulrush
(Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani), piggy-back plant, and miterwort are plentiful on the property and transplant well. The retention pond and wet areas on the logged unit behind the shed have benefited from my redistribution. I don’t always adhere to the use of local natives, such being the case with the four bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) I purchased and planted last spring. A native to the Southeast, they grow in wetlands and offer up a gorgeous gold color in fall. I couldn’t resist.
My observations on this property while I’m out pruning, transplanting, and cutting have served me well in my restoration efforts. Besides becoming increasingly aware of microhabitats, I have also learned the value of rotten wood as fertilize. My greatest success to this end is the giant Viburnum opulus (aka high-bush cranberry, now 15 ft in 4 years) in front of the barn. In the recently logged area, I am now planting old, rotting stumps left from logging many decades ago with licorice and sword fern. I am also seeking to add red huckleberry, which in my observations grow almost exclusively on stumps and logs.