02 March, 2023

The Sad Story of Ravenna Park, and the Palmate Coltsfoot Population that I Introduced There

If you see, or make, an observation of, Petasites frigidus var. palmatus - Western Sweet Coltsfoot (or "Palmate Coltsfoot" as I prefer to call it) in Ravenna Park in Seattle, that plant was most likely part of what may have been my greatest success in introducing or re-introducing, a species that I estimated was missing from the site I couldn't find it in!

In 1996, when I was living in the Ravenna neighborhood, I had made it my goal to bring back as much of the lost biodiversity where I lived as possible, and decided the shaded wetland habitat along Ravenna Creek would be perfect for Palmate Coltsfoot, but I couldn't find any there. I then found a large and healthy population in a wooded wetland in a Seattle area greenbelt, and dug up a bit of root-stock. I also gathered some seed. I then planted the root-stock in a few spots in the wetland along the creek in Ravenna Park, and I sprinkled the seed all along that wetland. I then moved to West Seattle, and didn't return to Ravenna Park.

Then, after I began to use iNaturalist in 2017, I started seeing observations of Petasites frigidus in Ravenna Park, and they kept coming! I later realized that, as one of the closest natural areas to the University of Washington, it would be a top destination for students in classes now using iNaturalist. It would also be a top destination for Seattlites, living not too far away, to enjoy nature. Of course the coltsfoot with its dramatic, giant, leaves would attract the attention of anyone looking to make their next iNaturalist observation. Now there are 30 iNaturalist observations of P. frigidus in Ravenna park , the P. Frigidus evidently having spread throughout the wetland along the creek there! I'd also like to think a couple of outliers, such as 2 observations nearby along the Burke Gilman Trail, might have originated from the Ravenna Park population's wind dispersed seed.

I then asked why the coltsfoot spread as easily as it did throughout the Ravenna wetland? When I started on my goal to help "Mother Nature" recover the lost natural wealth of species, and natural beauty, that she had in my local area before European contact, I thought it would be easier. I would just learn which plant species may have historically grown in my area, but were evidently lost, I would learn to identify them, and learn just the kinds of habitats they naturally grew in, and grew best in. The locally lost co-dependent animal and fungus species would also have a better chance of returning after I brought back the plant species that they depended on. If the plant species wasn't totally extinct, I would then find where it still lived, and, if the population I found was large enough to spare some seed, or plants, with no impact, I would collect some seed, and / or a bit of plant material. I would then find areas near where I lived that had the habitats closest to the preferred natural habitats of those locally lost species, and plant them there. Then, if that remaining habitat was close enough to what they grew well in, they would grow, and spread through that habitat. I knew it might require some additional effort to get plants, and populations established, such as maybe some initial watering, or some weeding around them, and that my efforts might not always succeed.

I later realized that if a species no longer grew where it once did, something probably caused it to disappear from that location, and odds were that the thing that caused it to be lost wouldn't have changed, and would still interfere with the reestablishment of that species in that location. Many species that once lived in a given location have been lost because newer conditions no longer supported their being able to hold their own, and continue indefinitely there. So the coltsfoot spreading through the shaded wetland along Ravenna Creek, with no help beyond planting a few pieces of root stock, and sprinkling seed through the wetland, was more the exception, than the rule.

Most of the plant species lost from the Seattle area, that were here before European contact, disappeared either because of land management practices imported with the European commercial culture, or because introduced, incompatible, species that came in with the global commerce the Europeans brought here, made the habitat less suitable for the lost, incompatible, native species.

So if I found good, shaded wetland habitat for Palmate Coltsfoot along Ravenna Creek, why wasn't the Coltsfoot there already. I initially thought people of European heritage may have somehow wiped out a previous Ravenna ravine population. Maybe they over-harvested the coltsfoot for coltsfoot cough syrup (whether or not it was effective).

Then, about a week ago, I was looking into the history of parks officials selling off the commercially valuable, older trees in our parks, and pocketing the money. While I had long suspected there were other examples, my limited websearch revealed only one documented example, in the history of Ravenna Park

Ravenna Park was originally created in 1887 as a private preserve showcasing Seattle's last patch of old growth forest, with magnificent, enormous trees, up to 13' in diameter, and 274' high, no longer seen then in Seattle, and ceremonies by admirers named each of a number of the largest trees after some famous person. It also had a trout and salmon stream, fed by Green Lake, running through it, and mineral springs, popular at the time to drink from for the reported healing properties of their waters. The original private owners charged 25 cents admission (~$9 in today's dollars), and it was a very popular destination, especially after the street car line was extended to the new town of Ravenna in 1892.

While the private owners of Ravenna Park had offered to sell the park to the city, rather than buying it, in 1910 the city condemned the park, the legality of the condemnation highly questionable, and took ownership of it. A court determined that the owners should get $144, 920 for it, only about $5,000 less than the asking price! So they could have just bought it!

In another act of misuse of city power, in 1911 the level of Green Lake was lowered by 7' by the city of Seattle, nominally to create additional park land, and Ravenna Creek was also diverted into a sewer line to put Ravenna Boulevard over its former path. This left the tiny fraction of the former Ravenna Creek, that we see today, flowing through Ravenna Park, no longer supporting the trout and salmon, but with a newly created wetland along most of the bed of the formerly much wider stream.

Not only was the much wider stream that supported salmon and trout turned into a far narrower creek, without those fish, but by 1913, with the park in the city's hands, and the superintendent of parks J. W. Thompson, in charge, the ancient trees of Ravenna Park started disappearing. This was also in a culture, and a time, where, and when, the enormous trees of the Seattle area had recently been cut for the money they could yield. The first to come down, was the largest, that had been named "The Roosevelt Tree", after President Theodore Roosevelt, (or alternately called "The Big Stick" after Teddy Roosevelt's famous saying "Walk softly, but carry a big stick") An investigation revealed that the superintendent pocketed the money for the sale of 63 cords of firewood. The superintendent falsely claimed it was rotten, and had to be removed as a threat to public safety. In spite of protests, the largest of the trees kept being cut, and removed.

So rather than those from the commercial, European culture having degraded the habitat for a lost species, they created appropriate habitat for a native species that may not have occurred in that location before. And, as Ravenna Park had become an island of P. frigidus habitat in a growing urban sea, the nearest remaining P. frigidus population may have been too far away for its seeds to easily blow to Ravenna Park, so to grow there the coltsfoot needed to be introduced there to occupy the habitat that was created by, what I would argue were, misguided modern humans at around 1911.

Posted on 02 March, 2023 16:14 by stewartwechsler stewartwechsler | 7 comments | Leave a comment

16 October, 2021

Lovely flower faces, and flower heads alone, are better for attracting pollinators than determining a plant species

Too often, people talk about the different "wildflowers" as if they are different plant species, but they are really only a small part of any species of plant. I've come to the conclusion that while plants created flowers to attract pollinators, humans were also attracted. The degree to which we then focused on the flowers came for much less benefit than the pollinators got for that focus. In the process, the photos people took of any species of plant has tended to focus too much on the flowers, and their faces, more than is best to identify which species the plant is.

Know that distinguishing features for any given plant species may come with any of the following: a view at how the plant as a whole looks; or how any of the countless plant parts look; or with other features of the plant, such as smells, or the way they grow; as well as with photos of, or notes on, the habitat, and plant community, they are growing in. A flower face, or even whole flowering top of plant, alone, only shows a small percentage of the potential distinguishing features of that species. Also views that show both side and face of a flower show more features than just face views. For flowers that form any kind of tube, a side view is needed to show the shape of that tube, and there may be sepals, or leafy bracts, on the side, or back, of a flower, that have distinguishing features of the species. While the time you have to spend may be limited, views showing, and notes on, more features of a plant, improve your chances of getting a good ID.

Also know that the character of the leaves on a plant, that sends up a flower stalk from the ground, changes as you go up, from the larger, more complex, more distinctive, basal leaves, at the bottom of the flower stalk, to the smaller, less complex, leaves further up the stalk, closer to the flowering area, and going into the flowering area, which may have tiny, simple leaves, potentially with no more shape than a tiny finger, just called "bracts". So the most useful photos of leaves are generally the basal leaves, or those that are closest to the basal leaves, at the bottom of the plant, that aren't shriveled up yet. Occasionally cauline leaves (leaves on the flower stalk) have distinctive features, so also having a view of leaves from the middle of the stalk doesn't hurt.

With many groups of plants a view of just a flower face, often only allows me to say which genus it is in, or maybe only which family. Also know that the Aster Family has many species with similar yellow flowers, such as the many dandelion look-a-likes, so for many of these yellow flowered Aster Family members better distinguishing features tend to be found in the basal leaves, rather than the flowers. So if you only have time for one photo of these, one showing the basal leaves will be better than one of a flower, though having views that show both are even better. For some other Aster Family members good views of the side of the flower head, showing the usually green, often somewhat leafy, "involucral bracts", on the side of the whole flower head, may be the biggest key to determining the species.

So remember that if you are overly distracted by the reproductive organs of a plant, that is the flowers, and their faces, you may miss offering key distinguishing features that may allow others to determine, not just how pretty the flowers are, but what species the plant is!

Posted on 16 October, 2021 00:28 by stewartwechsler stewartwechsler | 2 comments | Leave a comment

08 October, 2021

It always helps to use your "Notes" section for some habitat notes

I see too many naturalists, including a number of the most experienced ones, failing to offer any of what I will argue is some of the most important information that can be used to identify the observed species, that is its HABITAT! They will too often only use their "Notes" section to tell us the location, duplicating the information in the satellite map. (I suspect this originates with a need to include location information in field notes, when there was no satellite map that you could zoom in to, or out from, to see the location.) Some location information that you don't think could readily be determined from the satellite map, might still be useful to include.

Every naturalist knows that you first need to know where a species is being observed to know if it is within the range of that species, that is to know whether or not the species it might be identified as, is known to occur where the organism has been seen. If it is being seen in North America, it is not likely to be a kangaroo, only known to occur in Australia. While Australia could be considered the "physical range" of that species, its habitat could be considered the "ecological range" of that species. Learning the ecological range of a species is at least as important as learning the physical range, and reporting the ecological conditions where a species is found, can be one of the biggest keys to knowing what your species might be.

It always helps me when the "Notes" section is used to include at least a short note about the habitat of the observed species. For fungi, and plants, this can include what it is growing in, or on. For plants, it helps to know the other plant species it is rooted in the same material with, and within a short distance from (a shorter distance for shorter rooted, nearby herbs, and a longer distance for longer rooted nearby trees). That material can be wetter, or drier, it can be rockier, sandier, or composed less, or more, of humus, or maybe clay. It could be in an acid bog, or in an additionally salty area, possibly with salt spray, or where some tidal salt water periodically covers the ground, mixed, or not mixed, with fresh water. The spot can also be sunnier, or shadier.

For Animals any information on the physical conditions where it is, and the community of species it is among, is also likely to help. For animals, plants, or fungi, with obligate relationships with other species, such as parasites, it is more important to know the other species it is with, in, or on. Similarly, all animal species have a limited range of what other species they can eat. For example, many caterpillar species can only eat one kind of plant, and all caterpillar species have at least some limited range of "host" plants that they can eat.

Naturally, with plants, and fungi, the more one knows about the natural growing conditions of each species in one's area, and the species communities each species is a member of, the more the information about surrounding species will be useful in determining what the subject species growing with them is. For fungi, if you know plant species it may be growing in, or with, that can be very helpful. If it is growing in wood, and you know the species of wood that can help, if you don't know the species of wood, but still know whether it is of a broad-leafed tree, or if it is coniferous, indicating which often helps. The same is true for plants growing on coniferous, or broad-leafed, "nurse logs". One moss specialist I know does a great job of always including, in his "Notes" section, a short note on what the moss is growing on. This may be partly because mosses are sometimes classified by what they will grow on, and those who study mosses are more likely to understand the importance of knowledge of what the moss grows on.

My older brother / nature mentor liked to say "Habitat!, Habitat!, Habitat!" to emphasize that the first thing you want to note for an ID of a species is what habitat it is in. Then you don't have to worry about knowing how to distinguish a "Short-billed Marsh Wren" (now called a "Sedge Wren") from a "Long-billed Marsh Wren" (now just called a "Marsh Wren") if it is in an actual marsh, where the only "marsh wren" you would ever find would be the one we had called the " 'Long-billed' Marsh Wren".

While iNaturalist asks that observation photos always include the observed species, some photos can be taken at angles, and distances, to give some idea of the larger habitat there, and the other species it is with, without making the observed species hard to see. Another advantage of including views from further away than the best distance to see one individual, is that the way multiple individuals grow together, or gather together, can be a key to recognizing a species.

The essence of identifying a species is the process of narrowing down the possible species, using one potential distinguishing feature after another, and habitat, much like range, is generally one of the best features that can be used as we start to narrow down the possible choices for the species we are seeing!

Posted on 08 October, 2021 18:40 by stewartwechsler stewartwechsler | 1 observation | 12 comments | Leave a comment