What’s Blooming Now: Spring Comes to Pacific Northwest Forests
May 29, 2019
A walk in the woods.
As spring progresses in the Pacific Northwest, temperatures are finally getting warm enough to enjoy the great outdoors in earnest. With the onset of warmer weather, local woodlands and low elevation forests have come alive with tender new growth and delicate blossoms, turning the dappled forest into a carpet of fresh shoots and leaves.
Spring in the Pacific Northwest displays an explosion of textures and endless shades of green, but the blossoms of spring in our region tend to be more subtle, in hues of white and pale pink with the occasional splash of yellow and orange. While at first, you may not notice the small blooms along a trail or streambed, hiding in the dappled shade of the big leaf maples and Douglas firs, take a closer look and you will be rewarded by these sweet, native blooms.
The only tree-form dogwood native to the Pacific Northwest, Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) graces the understory of conifer woodlands from southern British Columbia to northern California. In open woodlands, Pacific dogwoods can grow up to 50’ tall with dome-shaped canopies and smooth, spotted bark. In denser, forested areas, the trees tend to stay smaller, getting only as tall and thick as available light allows. Smooth, oval leaves emerge in opposite pairs along slender, tiered horizontal branches in April. By May, the large white flowers have begun to emerge along each branch. The delicate white of the modified leaves, called bracts, stand out in the dense shade and frame the central cluster of tiny flowers, marking the otherwise inconspicuous flowers for pollinators. The rounded central flower cluster matures throughout the summer, ripening into a red berry loved by small mammals and birds, like the red tree vole and pileated woodpecker.
Shown Above: Pacific Dogwood – Cornus nutallii
In fall, the deciduous leaves turn shades of orange, red and burgundy, lighting up the forest understory with a fiery glow. We love the pale blossoms and stunning autumn foliage of the Pacific dogwood, which make it an exceptional native ornamental tree. However, like other tree-form species of dogwood, Pacific dogwood is susceptible to anthracnose (Discula destructiva), a non-native fungus that causes unsightly splotches on leaves and flowers and can lead to mortality, even in mature trees. While we love the native species and recommend it for naturalized areas, we recommend a hybrid species like ‘Venus’, that is resistant to anthracnose, for gardens and urban areas.
Primarily native to Washington and Oregon, trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa) is a hollow-stemmed vine that grows wild up tree trunks and along the ground in dry, shaded woodlands. With bright yellow to deep orange clusters of long trumpet-shaped flowers, this vine stands out in the shaded woodland and dense groundcover. While the blossoms may be the most noticeable feature in the shaded woodland setting, the trumpet honeysuckle’s leaves are also unique. Emerging a pale, matte blue-green, the leaves grow in pairs, opposite along the stem and culminate at the tip of each shoot with a single circular leaf. From each round leaf emerges a cluster of golden flowers, set into the cupped leaf-like jewels. Like many honeysuckles, the trumpet honeysuckle is very adaptable in our region and can be found rambling along the edges of woodlands and slung across tree branches in the deep forest. In Coast Salish languages, trumpet honeysuckle is known as ‘Ghost Swing’ for its looping, hanging vines high in the canopy that crows of lore are said to use as swings.
Shown Above: Trumpet Honeysuckle – Lonicera ciliosa
Although intolerant of extreme heat and cold, trumpet honeysuckle proves the tenacity and hardiness of its genus with pockets of the species found as far east as Montana and as far north as British Columbia. Although generally hardy to dry conditions and partial shade, trumpet honeysuckle is not tolerant of high heat or arid conditions, and its range extends only to relatively moist areas of California, Idaho, and Montana. Like many flowers in its genus, trumpet honeysuckle is known for the sweet nectar stored at the base of each tube-shaped flower. In fact, the common name refers to children plucking the flowers to suck out the nectar from the base. Humans are not the only species who love this flower’s sugary offerings, honeysuckle is also a favorite of hummingbirds and bees. And it doesn’t stop there — after blooming, the vine forms clusters of edible, translucent red berries that are devoured by birds in autumn.
False Lily of the Valley
Named for its resemblance to lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) — a sweet-smelling but extremely poisonous groundcover — false lily of the valley (Maianthemum dilatatum) is a groundcover native to the Pacific Northwest that is beautiful, non-toxic, and extremely hardy. Spread through fleshy underground roots called rhizomes, Maianthemum appears above ground as broad heart-shaped leaves a few inches tall and wide.
Shown Above: False Lily of the Valley – Maianthemum dilatatum
Carpeting shaded areas, the rich green tone and distinctive whorl at the base of each leaf may be why this plant is often confused with lily of the valley. While usually presenting as a mass of single leaves across the ground, in May, double leaves appear and bear single, frilly white flower stalks that push up through the dense leaves and hover suspended on slender stems. Once pollinated, the flowers give way to round white berries that become conspicuously speckled with red before turning completely red when ripe. Although edible, the fruit are rarely eaten by humans and tend to be harvested by small ground mammals like deer mice and voles. While Maianthemum is a deciduous groundcover, we love its adaptability to dry shade, its elegant white flowers, and the lush carpet of wide leaves it creates in woodland settings. Native in our region, Maianthemum can spread widely underground and become aggressive in the garden; it is best planted in shade where an aggressive groundcover is desired to suppress weeds.