Thursday, August 2, 2012

Common Yarrow

Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is in the Aster family (Asteraceae). 

Yarrow is a wondrous weed with so many benefits the list seems endless. It is rhizomatous so it prevents erosion and is wonderful mixed in meadowy lawns. Growing yarrow repels beetles, ants and flies but attracts butterflies and predatory insects so it benefits gardens. It grows well in poor soil and is drought tolerant but can become invasive if not kept under control. The leaves are nutritional additions to the soil and can be used as an activator to speed up composting.  Medicinally the leaves can be chewed into a poultice and applied to wounds to stop bleeding. There is limitless medicinal potential with the entire plant but it should been noted that extended use may cause allergic skin rashes and sun sensitivity in some people so use it only when you need it.

Yarrow displays feathery alternate stem leaves

Although many people prefer to identify any given plant by its flowers, I prefer to focus on the leaves. Leaves can often be more revealing than flowers in plant identification and are usually observable much longer than the flowers. In the case of yarrow, focusing primarily on the flowers can lead to misidentifying the plant. There are a variety of species with similar inflorescences as yarrow but the leaves provide the best verification.

Yarrow has beautiful grey-green, lance-shaped leaves that are divided into segments which are further divided into fringe to create a feathery look. They grow directly from the stem with no petiole (leaf stem). The leaves are mostly basal but are alternate on the leafy flowering stem. The leaves lowest on the stem are the largest (up to about 6" long).

The flowering stem can grow to a couple of feet tall. Flowers bloom in terminal clusters of flat to rounded umbels. The bracts below the entire inflorescence are less than a half an inch long. The ray flowers (radiate around the margins of each floret) are white to pinkish and are as long or longer than they are wide. The disk flowers (bunched in the center) are cream-colored. All flowers are perfect (both male and female) and fertile. These flowers fruit into achenes that are dispersed by wind.

Ray flowers are white-pinkish, button flowers are creamy.

Yarrow is native and introduced throughout North America and grows in dry to moist well-drained soils in meadows, roadside and disturbed areas from low to high elevations.

USDA Fact Sheet
Plants for a Future
Flora of the Pacific Northwest by Hitchcock & Cronquist
Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar & Mackinnon

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Swamp Lantern aka Skunk Cabbage

Swamp Lantern is a perennial herbaceous plant in the Arum Family (Araceae). The name Skunk Cabbage is often used in reference to this plant due to the strong odor that fills any area where it is in bloom. The leaves are large, mostly erect with a strong main vein down the center and a smooth (entire) margin. The flowers are  very small and bloom in a tight, uniformed arrangement on a fleshy spike hooded by a single, large, bright-yellow bract.

Lysichiton americanus

The roots and leaves are edible, though not particularly tasty. It is known as famine food. Grazing animals do browse the leaves in early spring when there is little else to eat but leave them alone once they have a choice. The leaves are so large and tough that they are excellent for lining baskets or using like wax paper or making cups to drink out of or whatever your imagination allows.

It grows in (and is native to) swampy locations from Alaska to California and east to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming at low to middle elevations. It is an excellent garden plant for boggy areas or water's edge and is easily transplanted or propagated by divisions of the underground stem.

USDA Plants Database
Flora of the Pacific Northwest by Hitchcock & Cronquist
Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar & Mackinnon

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

False Solomon’s Seal Differentiation

False Solomon’s Seal  is a popular shade-loving forest plant.  It is easy to recognize and lovely to behold. Even more delicate is Star-Flowered False Solomon’s Seal  which is equally as easy to recognize but the two are often confused with each other. This section will attempt to clear up the confusion enabling you to easily distinguish between the two species and find additional information on them as desired. 
First to address their names as this presented a degree of personal confusion on the part of this author. Traditional sources list both species in the lily family (Liliaceae) giving false Solomon’s seal the scientific name of Smilacina racemosa and star-flowered false Solomon’s seal the name of S. stellata. More recent sources may list them in a newer plant family called Convallariaceae as Maianthemum racemosum and M. stellatum respectively. This author chooses to refer to them as in the lily family and uses those names in all writings. Additionally, other common names used for these plants include feathery false lily of the valley or false spikenard (S. racemosa) and starry false lily of the valley (S. stellata).
The species name of stellata and stellatum both accurately describe star-flowered false Solomon’s seal’s flowers. But the species name of racemosa and racemosum are a bit misleading in a botanical sense because false Solomon’s seal (S. racemosa) displays inflorescense in the form of a panicle (branched cluster of flowers) while the star-flowered species (S. stellata) displays an inflorescense in the form of a raceme (unbranched cluster of flowers). This has led some people to misidentify false Solomon’s seal as the starry species. 
To clarify: S. racemosa blooms in a panicle (branched); S. stellata blooms in a raceme (unbranched).

Star-Flowered False Solomon's Seal
Smilacina stellata
False Solomon's Seal
Smilacina racemosa

The individual flowers are very different as well. Both are white to creamy but False Solomon’s seal displays many (more than 10) fuzzy looking flowers. Even if you do not notice the branched inflorescense or are not sure about it, count those flowers. Star-flowered false Solomon’s seal has only 5-10 flowers (and no more) that are not fuzzy but star-like. It may only have a couple of flowers when you see S. stellata but S. racemosa always shows tight clusters with many flowers. Observe the photos above. 

Flowers are not always present and should never be the only features used in identifying any plant. These two particular species differ in almost every way at least enough to tell them apart easily. Consider the size of the plant and the differences in their leaves. 


Star-Flowered False Solomon's Seal
Smilacina stellata
False Solomon's Seal
Smilacina racemosa

S. racemosa grows up to about a meter tall (3’ 3”) while S. stellata grows no larger than 60 cm (almost 2’). The leaves have the same venation in both species and both clasp the stem but they differ in size and shape: S. racemosa’s are large, broad and elliptical. The leaves of S. stellata are narrow and lance-shaped coming to a sharp point at the tip. Also there always seems to be one leaf on S. stellata that points straight out on the end. Perhaps it is because there is more room for it given the smaller inflorescence. S. racemosa’s leaves always splay out to the sides.


The fruit of S. racemosa is a red berry sometimes dotted with purple.  The fruit of S. stellata is green with reddish-purple stripes maturing to a dark blue or reddish-black. Both are edible but not often preferred.

It may not be appropriate to observe the root system of these plants when discovered in a park but if chosen for gardening the opportunity is more likely to present itself. Both plants grow from rhizomes but that of S. racemosa is stout, fleshy rhizome while that of S. stellata is slender, pale.

Living conditions for both plants are so similar they can occasionally be found growing near each other. S. racemosa can be spotted on roadside slopes when in bloom while S. stellata thrives in shadier woods. They bloom simultaneously but S. racemosa is the one most noticed because it is larger and more conspicuous than S. stellata.

Resources used for researching this plant include Flora of the Pacific Northwest by Hitchcock & Conquist as well as USDA PLANTS and Plants for a Future. Please contact me if you find any mistakes in my information or have any question.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Process of Pollination

The process of pollination differs for different plants depending on their unique evolution. But many flowering plants, most common gardening plants and most of the herbaceous plants mentioned in this text have evolved to be pollinated in the way described below. Try to identify parts of the flower described as the process is explained. 
Pollinators (such as birds, bees, butterflies and other insects) approach the flower from the petal. Flying pollinators land there and non-flying pollinators crawl up to the surface. They all pass through the male parts of the flower (androeceum) where they get pollen all over the tiny hairs on their bodies. They reach the base of the female part in the center (gynoeceum) where the nectar is located. Any pollen already acquired by the pollinator sticks to the sticky stigma at the tip of the gynoeceum (the style). 

The pollen penetrates the stigma, travels down the style to the ovary at the base of the gynoeceum where it has the opportunity to fertilize the eggs and develop into seeds. There are actually two cells in each tiny little spec of pollen. One cell’s job is to tunnel down the style and the other one follows so it can do its job of fertilization. 
Flowers develop a wide variety of colors, styles and sizes in their different parts in order to attract and utilize different creatures for pollination purposes. The style of the flower is sometimes a clue to its pollinator. It is easy to imagine a bee buzzing all over this rose, leaving a mess of pollen on the petals and everywhere. Some flowers are more tubular for the long tongues of hummingbirds (like orange honeysuckle, Lonicera ciliosa). The structure of the flower holds great purpose in pollination. 

Friday, May 25, 2012


Huckleberries are a delicious treat every fall. They are in the heather family (Ericaceae). Here in the PNW there are three common huckleberry species that we see whenever we walk a local trail or drive down the road. They do not look exactly alike, even though they are all edible. They differ in flower color and arrangement, fruit color and sweetness, leaves are similar yet very different, even the bark is different. But they are all shrubs growing in our coniferous forests feeding our wildlife. Below are a few differences to notice.

Black Huckleberry
(Vaccinium membranaceum)

 Black huckleberry flowers are pink with dark bases. They are arguably the prettiest huckleberry flowers in the area. They are born solitaire from the leaf axil just like the red huckleberry. But there is no confusing flowers of the two species. As you will see below, the red huckleberry flowers are far more inconspicuous.

Evergreen Huckleberry
(Vaccinium ovatum)

Evergreen huckleberry flowers are mostly white or pinkish white but you will notice they have green bases. In fact, the evergreen huckleberry is the most unique of the three. The flowers are born in clusters at the leaf axils. People tend to rave about the delicious taste of black huckleberries. They often enjoy red huckleberries (my favorite) but few people go out of their way to collect evergreen huckleberries. The birds and wildlife certainly don't mind. There are plenty to go around.

Red Huckleberry
(Vaccinium parvifolium)
 (red huckleberry flower above, fruit below)

 Red huckleberries are delightfully bright in color. The inconspicuous flowers insure they do not get eaten before they can develop the most delicious fruit. Birds and many mammals enjoy the fruit. Both black and evergreen huckleberries have dark fruit. So there is no mixing them up with red huckleberry. And if you are not sure whether you are looking at fruit on the branch of a black huckleberry or an evergreen huckleberry, the difference is clear in the leaf. 

Below are clear photographs of the evergreen huckleberry leaves. There are a lot of them on a branch, they have stiffly serrated margins, they are dark green (new growth red turning green) and leathery. Review the photographs above to observe the difference in leaves of the other two huckleberries. They are both much lighter green and more delicate to the touch. The main differences between them is that the black huckleberry leaves are larger than red huckleberry and have softly serrated margins where red huckleberry has smooth (entire) margins.

Huckleberries are not only delicious when in fruit but a tea can be made of their leaves. Drink the tea daily to stabilize blood sugar levels (check with your doctor). They are also delightful shrubs to have around because birds love to hide in them. Unfortunately, red huckleberry does not transplant well. It often takes up residency on rotting logs and trees. In fact, I always notice them on stumps of western redceders (Thuja plicata) alongside little hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) seedlings. Black huckleberry usually grows at mid elevations so we won't often run into it on our lowland trails. But evergreen huckleberry makes a good hedge and is available for your garden at many nurseries in the PNW