Heading up the very popular Eagle Creek Trail in the Columbia Gorge, it is obvious how close to Portland you are. Still, the beauty of the forests and the roar of waterfalls leaves one with a wonderful feeling of escape. You will see several lovely waterfalls and when going in early spring, a few less people. The dripping leaves of bigleaf maple keep away the fair-weather hikers while adding to the power of the falls. An early spring hike also means one can search for some of fore bringers of spring in our forests. Oemleria cerasiformus, known as Indian plum or osoberry, depending on your thoughts on the word “Indian”, is a small trefoils in the understory of the wet forests of Cascadia. It is the first major native to leaf out, sending out green shoots as early as February, soaking up the early rays of sun before its taller, naked competitors can block them out.
It is also the first to flower, sending out delicate clusters of bell shaped flowers. These flowers beckon to sun-starved and soggy hikers. “Could it be? Is spring really here?” Minds fill with visions of backpacking through the mountains, of grand vistas with clear blue skies, of bumble bees bouncing through the air in fields of lupine, of campfires and whiskey, and dangling tired feet in cool streams. Then, of course, comes that pang of disappointment; it’s February. There are still months of grey skies, of rain, of dark dreary mornings, of Googling seasonal affective disorder. Still, to many, those white cluster in the woods are a light at the end of a cold damp tunnel.
Learning to recognize species of plants, like Indian plum, can be difficult, especially at first. Many people, even hikers, see the forest as a sea of green differentiated only by tree or shrub or flower. Learning to see the differences, however, is a very rewarding process. When the sea of green begins to focus, it’s like spotting friends in a audience, smiling back at you. “Oemleria, my old friend, what lovely flowers you have this spring!” There are times when my love of plants leaves me feeling a little exposed, but hey, I’m a plant nerd and I’m proud. Plants contain a fascinating amount of diversity (an estimated 300,000 species) not to mention their essential role in every ecosystem on earth. Every living thing thus far discovered is made primarily of carbon. We, and our animal and fungus brothers and sisters, thus have to eat other animals to get this carbon. Plants, however, can take carbon right from the air. This is every high school biology students favorite process, photosynthesis or carbon-fixation, taking atmospheric CO2 and creating carbon-based carbohydrate molecules and O2, atmospheric oxygen which us animals greedily inhale. This process not only is the basis for carbon based life forms, the O2 byproduct also prepped the land for mobile, oxygen breathing animals.
So don’t get me wrong, animals are great, but lets not forget our more distant cousins, the plants, they need advocates too! Much has been made of our tendency to protect charismatic megafauna, pandas and tigers and elephants, while amphibians and fish and less cuddly things are often forgotten. An estimated 33% of amphibians and 21% of fish globally are in danger of extinction. This bias is even stronger with plants. Considering all they do for us animals, only around 13,000 of the estimated 300,000 total plants have even been thoroughly evaluated. Additionally, plants are at a disadvantage simply because they can’t move away from danger or habitat loss. Likewise, they will be less able to retreat to higher latitudes or elevations as climate change worsens.
Plants are fascinating, unique, and beautiful organisms in their own right and they deserve a voice. Learning to see plants as individuals is a good start. So look for Indian plum next time you are on an early spring hike and start learning the tree species you see everyday. If you are here in Cascadia then this isn’t too difficult as there really aren’t that many tree species here. Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is the ubiquitous tree with the mouse-butt cones—three bracts that stick up from between the cone scales as if a tiny mouse were hiding in there. Western hemlock looks similar, but its needles are not uniform in length but variable, thus the latin name Tsuga heterophylla, hetero meaning different and phylla meaning leaves. These are two common conifers you’ll see along Eagle Creek and most places between the coast and the Cascades. There are numerous books on plant ID, no matter where you live, and they are all rewarding. At the very least, you can impress your friends and family and possibly annoy them as I do by stopping every hundred feet to identify something new.
Continuing on the trail, sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) and salal (Gaultheria shallon) provide much of the ground cover. If you head up later in the spring, you can find orange Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) in the shade. Try one if you’re sure what it is, though they’re a little bitter. I prefer thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), a delicious, sweet raspberry-like berry with a satisfying crunch. Smilacina racemosa, with its racemes of white flowers turning to red berries in summer (don’t eat!) protrudes from hillsides. I found some cliff larkspur (Delphinium menziesii) on a wet slope–look for it, it’s beautiful! This is obviously only a small sample of the diversity of flora on this trail. I certainly don’t recognize every plant, not by a long shot, but learning even some of these plants greatly enhances a wilderness experience. The true diversity of life becomes obvious, the green sea focuses, you see friends in the crowd. Also, the consequence of losing forests and natural areas becomes more severe. Logging doesn’t just push back the green sea, it kills our friend Delphinium menziesii.
On the other side of the Columbia and a few miles east is Dog Mountain. This is another very popular hike and likely to be filled on any sunny day. The more eastern location of this hike leads to a very different plant community as will be obvious when you, hopefully, spot the large amounts of poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) near the start of the trail. This plant is fairly easy to spot, with its shiny oak shaped, known as pinnate, leaves in sets of three. It like things a little drier and sunnier and troves in the eastern portions of the Gorge. The effects of this plant vary from person to person based on their allergic reaction to its oils—some folks have no reaction, some will be laid up for days, and most will be somewhere in the middle, which is still miserable enough to avoid. If you’re here in spring, also look for the lovely white blooms of serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) whose berries were an important food source for many native peoples. After braving the poison oak, the trail climbs steeply through the forest before breaking out into a lovely open meadow filled with flowers in late spring or early summer.
On my latest early summer hike, I found fairly-slipper orchids (Calypso bulbosa) as well as some coral-root orchids (Corallorhiza maculata). Orchids, though the largest plant family on earth in terms of the number of species, are relatively rare in the Northwest, due to it largely being a tropical family. So seeing one on the trail deserves a stop to absorb their beauty (just don’t pick them!). The coral-root orchids are especially interesting, despite their lack of flashy colors, due to their lifestyle. Their lack of any green pigment is not coincidence, they no longer are able to photosynthesize. These are parasitic plants. They have a system of roots that will actually connect with fungal strands in the soil in order to steal the nutrients they need from the unsuspecting mycorrhizal fungi. These connections between plants and fungi are by no means uncommon, in fact most plants have them, however, they typically represent a more equal partnership. The fungi uses its vast network of strands to suck up water the plant can’t get. This water is exchanged in the roots of the plant for sugars the plant has made via photosynthesis. This mutually beneficial relationship is incredibly important for both parties and thus is essential for the survival of forests today. Without this assist from fungus, trees in particular would not be able to pull enough water from the ground to support their massive bodies.
In evolution, however, if a partnership can be exploited, it will. This clever little orchid has found that it can not only take water from the fungus but it will have some sugars too. And what are you going to do about it? Parasites of all kinds are very common in nature. They are also, I believe, unfairly maligned by us proud and earnest free-living types. Why go through all the trouble of hunting or grazing or photosynthesizing, when one can just take a little from an unsuspecting neighbor? Just as evolution has no direction (towards intelligence for example) it has no morality either. If a creature can make a better living, that is create more offspring and thus spread its genes more widely, by “cheating” then it will. This comes down to the very simple and seemingly basic concept of selection, which to me makes skepticism towards evolution so strange. The gene variation (known as an allele) that makes more copies of itself will be more prevalent in the next generation. Repeat this over several generations and you have evolution, defined as the change in allele frequency over time. So if the cheating orchid has more offspring then there will be more cheaters in the next generation. It’s unavoidable. For example, Imagine a gene with two alleles or variations: A and B. 90% of the individuals have A and 10% B. Now, however, the organisms with the B allele start making more offspring than A due to some benefit the B allele grants them. Maybe this means B allows them to escape predation more effectively, or gather more resources, or have better offspring mortality. Whatever the details, the generation after this will be skewed. Let’s say 85% A and 15% B. As long as B continues to have an advantage then it will continue to grow until eventually all organisms have the B allele. If the B allele imparts some amount of parasitism, then eventually the species will be parasitic. This is evolution by natural selection. Selection is the most well known and likely most prevalent process of evolution, though there are three other process that can lead to evolution: mutation, gene flow, and genetic drift.
Understanding evolution is not only important for understanding the world around us, it also lays a tremendous weight of history on to each living thing. From today, all the way back to the origin of life, each living thing can necessarily trace an unbroken chain of lineage. Each of those lines converging and converging again as we find common ancestry to every other organism, all the way to the beginning of life. The wolf, the mushroom, and the poison oak plant are our cousins and each the product of 3.5 billion years of changing alleles. The impact of losing these unique and beautifully adapted species is to lose an unbroken chain of genetic history we can never get back. It lends tremendous weight to the struggle for conservation as it means each extinction is an irreplaceable loss that affects the present, the past history of life, and stretches into the future, where new branches of evolution will never be realized.
It is also important to see what this evolutionary view of conservation means for ecosystems. Ecology, the study of ecosystems, and evolution are inseparable. It is within an ecosystem that the parameters of natural selection are set. Whether an allele is beneficial or not is determined by the environment. An allele that allows a bird to catch more insects in the forest may be useless for a bird living in a grassland. Therefore, conserving an ecosystem is just as important in protecting the past, present, and future of life. Wilderness areas, from this perspective, are not only shrines to the present beauty of nature, they are also celebrations of the 3.5 billion years of natural history they contain as well as preserves for life yet to evolve.
With these thoughts running through my mins, I reached the top of Dof Mountain and found my inner self temporarily quiet. It really is a remarkable view. Wildflowers abound, the wind blows strong and the Gorge opens up in both directions. Gazing down at the mighty Columbia River, my legs sore and back sweaty, my mind turned to more basic thoughts: a cheeseburger and a beer: it really was a tough climb.
Thanks for reading my first post! Please let me know what you thought. If you’re interested in an actual hike description check out these: Eagle Creek and Dog Mountain. Also check out the Friends of the Columbia Gorge. Have fun, and maybe share what plants you saw on these hikes!