Sunday, May 18, 2014

Land of the balsam-root, blue camas, and housing sprawl

Balsamorhiza sagittata and an Eriophorum sp. on Rowena Bluffs, OR.
 Spending two weeks in the USA. Mostly in the Pacific North West. Between doing lectures and workshops I have been out and about seeing as much of the wild plant life in this most beautiful of regions. At the moment, I can't bear the thought of going back to England, which seems so tame, limited and ecologically damaged by comparison. For those who have never been, the PNW offers a truly amazing range of epic landscapes and incredible biodiversity.

For all sorts of geological reasons connected with ice ages, the flora here is richer than in Europe, and far more than in Britain. There is also that extraordinary change as you go east – west, which is what you find all the way down the western spine of mountains and intermontane basins from British Columbia to Chile. Quite unlike anything in the Old World, a few hours west-east driving takes you from lush temperate to semi-desert (or even real desert) and then to cooler montane temperate, and so on. So, different floras mix and match and interweave in relation to different climates but also of course geology.
Lupinus sp. possibly L. sericeus in Ponderosa Pine woodland

The Rowena Bluffs area of the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon, is Quercus garryana (Garry Oak) savannah, with castilleja, lupin and Balsamorhiza sagitata (Balsam Root). Castilleja is a semi-parasite, related to the yellow rattle beloved of by British wildflower meadow restorationists. And famously difficult to grow in garden conditions. Pictures here.

Turnbull Wildlife Refuge is in eastern Washington. It is a truly epic landscape. You can get the feeling that this is what this country looked like before white settlers - as far as you can see there is no trace of human habitation or obvious impact. It is also a very attractive landscape – parkland, a kind of Ponderosa Pine savannah, which alternates grassland with a very loose open forest. I think (as indeed do many others) that we respond to this kind of landscape because we came from the African savannah and it is somehow hard-wired into our brains. The wildflowers were sensational, a result of a dramatic geological history which has left shallow, even minimal soils over basalt, with closely intertwined wet and dry places. The blue Camassia quamash grows on the wet while yellow umbellifer Lomatium triternatum on the drier. You can see pictures here.

Balsamohrhiza again, unlike the lupins, a long-lived perennial which apparently takes 5 years to reach flowering size, with a deep taproot, hence not seen much in gardens.

Being here is also an opportunity to look at a characteristically American way of living, which is kind of worrying for the future – low density living. Travel outside any US city and its aureole of suburbia and you hit huge areas of housing more or less hidden in the woods. Lots of houses on big lots - often over an acre. I think of it as 'exurbia'. Rarely do folk 'garden' most of this area, which stays wild, but only sort-of. Ok, but not great for shy wildlife (although increasingly US wildlife is anything but shy). However over time, the whole process of woodland regeneration will inevitably suffer. The inevitable suppression of fire means that the species mix will change, and all too often when there is a fire, it will burn out of control because of the fuel build-up of years worth of dead leaves, branches etc. How many homeowners know anything about forest management anyway?

The idea that houses in large lots keeps the rural character is an odd one. You can't escape the houses, their drives, the aggressive 'keep out' signs. By building at such low density, vast areas of real rural areas, in the form of unmanaged or natural forest land is being effectively lost. I can't help feeling that the big lot sizes are part of an unsustainable 1950s 'American Dream' way of life along with enormous houses ('MacMansions') and the widely criticised 'trucks' (enormous gas-guzzling cars, which seem so essential to the expression of masculinity here). It also feels that, amongst some people, there is a deep aversion to living in any kind of community; a landscaping style which also mean a long-term loss of natural communities as well.

Link here to a fascinating piece on the vanishing White Oak in eastern forests, which relates to these issues:

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