Starting the Year with Nature

I have to admit I was anxious. Although, really, what better way to start a new year than in the woods with a bunch of friendly plant lovers? The New Year’s Day walk in Evans Creek Preserve would be followed by lunch at a Mexican restaurant. It sounded like a perfect combination of nature and civilization for a newcomer to the world of native plants.

My anxiety stemmed from the fact that this walk would be my first of any length since Thanksgiving.

  • What if there were hills?
  • What if I lagged helplessly behind the group, breathless and red-faced?
  • What if I wasn’t dressed warmly enough?
  • I had new hiking shoes, and I had consulted experienced hikers about my wardrobe plans, but for that matter, what if I was too hot?

    Snowy forest scene

    Evans Creek Preserve
    Photo: Elizabeth Gage

Our destination for this Washington Native Plant Society walk was Evans Creek Preserve in Sammamish. The preserve sits between two busy roads, but I found that once we were out of the parking lot and onto the path, traffic and city noises disappeared. An inch or so of snow covered the ground and half-covered the trees.

The paths were clear but since the ground and tree limbs were covered with snow, I wondered how we were going to investigate plants if we couldn’t see them. True, there were silhouettes of bare stalks both bent and straight, but even if we brushed off the snow, would we be able to tell what they were without leaves or flowers?

While I was pondering the frozen weeds, part of our group had gathered under what I learned was a big-leaf maple and were looking through their loupes at something small.

I did wonder how they knew it was a big-leaf maple when no big leaves were to be seen. I found out that the color and other characteristics of its bark, as well as bud placement, help identify it.

As I approached the tree, I noticed patches of different colors, pale, gray, reddish. A walker was holding his loupe right up against the tree and invited me to have a look. One of the gray patches that looked flat to the naked eye turned out to be a patch of lichen consisting of tiny barnacles, each round with a center depression.

I wished then that I had printed out the plant list provided by the trip leaders, Sharon Baker, Richard Droker, and Dan Paquette. The plant list would’ve helped me keep track of all the flora I was meeting for the first time.

Gray crustose lichen with raised pits

Bark Barnacle (Thelotrema lepadinum)
Photo: Richard Droker

Looking at the plant list later, I thought the gray patch I saw might have been “Tiny Button Lichen,” but when I looked at a picture I wasn’t convinced. Then I took a stab with Google and typed “barnacle lichen” into the search box. There it was, mini-barnacles and exactly the color I had remembered. The plant list for the walk called it “Bark Barnacle,” and its scientific name is Thelotrema lepadinum.

A lichen, I learned, is a “lichenized fungus.” A fungus grows in symbiosis with algae or cyanobacteria. The properties of a lichen are very different from the properties of its component organisms. A lichen is greater than the sum of its parts.

Although lichens are often found with mosses, or have common names containing “moss,” (e.g., reindeer moss, Iceland moss), they are not related to mosses.

I was beginning to see that while many plants were asleep, such as the big-leaf maple and the Pacific bleeding heart, there was a whole world of mosses, lichens, and liverworts that were wide awake. They were busy filling their niches in a miniature but vital ecosystem.

Many lichens have “wort” as part of the name. Wort itself means plant or root, and its presence in a plant’s name indicates that the plant has been used medicinally. Plus, perhaps you’ll enjoy knowing that the Dutch word for carrot is “wortel.”

I didn’t pay close enough attention to come away with names of any of the numerous mosses we saw. But I did observe that they take many forms: short and fuzzy, long and stringy, long with broad leaves and something—although I’m not sure it was a moss—that looked like pearls hanging from a long thread.

Group of people in snowy park with snowperson

A pause, with snowperson
Photo: Central Puget Sound chapter

One of the walk leaders had brought diagrams of the life and reproductive cycles of mosses. Who would think that creatures so small could lead such a complex life? I suppose it’s all to prepare them to do battle for space and sunlight with the other mosses and, I suppose lichens as well.

In the meantime, we were reaching the other end of the trail, where there was a second parking lot. Some kids were making snowmen, with sticks for arms, moss for hair, pebbles for eyes, nose, and mouth.

The terrain was steep: oh no, the dreaded hills! The path had changed from pebbles to slippery mud. I did do some huffing and puffing, but I made it to the top without having to stop and rest, and without sliding backwards.

Going back down the hill was a little scary and one of the other participants kindly loaned me her walking pole.

We walked along, taking a different route back to where we’d started. We stopped, looked, discussed, carried on. The commentary was interesting: the closer you looked at each specimen, the more tiny wonders it revealed.

I was entranced by the life at the sides of the trail. So much going on. How many mosses? How many lichens? How many different stages of their respective life cycles? Each patch was like a little city, its occupants going about the business of being.

As we approached the cars to drive to our Mexican meal, I was full of thoughts:

  • Next time, I’ll print my own copy of the plant list.
  • I’ve got to get my own loupe.
  • I knew I had a lot to learn, but I didn’t know how fascinating it would be.
  • I bet this place is gorgeous when it’s green, but this snowy wander was a perfect way to start the year.
  • And…my wardrobe layers were just right!

6 thoughts on “Starting the Year with Nature

  1. Mickie Chamness

    How nice to have a field trip so early in the year and for there to be hardy souls who want to get out, no matter the season. Here in eastern Washington where nothing is much taller than my waist and there’s snow up to my knees, we’ll have to wait a bit to enjoy the plant life. But I’m looking forward to the wildflowers our relatively abundant fall rains and plentiful winter snow will bring in the spring.

    1. Elizabeth Gage

      Hi Mickie,
      Thank you for your comments. The walk was fun and I’m looking forward to the next one.
      Elizabeth

  2. Joe Arnett

    It is always a pleasure to hear about the experiences of a relative new-comer, getting those first exciting glimpses into new dimensions of nature! This kind of enthusiasm inspires us all. And it is helpful to hear about the challenges we might not think about, like all those new names(!), and hills, and snow! And it is good for us to think about how we can make these ventures even more welcoming to new comers.

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