Sunday, January 11, 2015

Visiting Seattle--Rambling in the Forest at Bloedel Reserve

View from the Ferry, Seattle
An escape into nature in Seattle.

I was on a tour with the Denver Art Museum's  Asian Art Association in Seattle. Art tours are great fun: they feature private collections you could not see otherwise and walks through museums led by enthusiastic curators. But this one also took me to Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island for a relaxed afternoon that nurtured my love of plants close to the hustle of a big city.

If, like me, you don’t live in city with ferries, taking a water route to a destination is a treat in itself.

We landed on Bainbridge Island and took the bus (very convenient).

Bloedel Residence
Bloedel Residence, Bainbridge Island
Bloedel Reserve was purchased by Prentice and Virginia Bloedel in 1951 as their home. Prentice Bloedel was a successful Seattle timber company owner. The Reserve reflects his knowledge and interest in trees, landscape, and renewable resources.  It was opened to the public in 1988.

On the September day I visited, it was green, barely touched by fall, full of sweeping landscapes and intriguing vistas.

We wandered paths between rare foreign trees and plantings of important trees of the region. The
Empress Tree,  Paulownia tomentosa
Princess Tree, Paulownia tomentosa
princess tree, Paulownia tomentosa (figwort family, Scrophulariaceae), for example, is native to central China. Cultivated in China for at least 3,000 years, it was valued both for the handsome flowers and the strong, light wood. In fact, it was the custom on the birth of a daughter to plant an empress tree, which, by the time she was ready to marry, would be big enough to make the wardrobes needed for her dowery. The bark, wood, leaves, flowers and fruits are all used in Chinese medicine. 

Drimys winteri, Winter's bark
Drimys winteri, Winter's bark
Drimys winteri, Winter's bark (Winter's bark family, Winteraceae) planted near the princess tree, is a small tree from southern South America. The name, Winter's bark, comes from Captain John Winter. Winter captained The Elizabeth accompanying Sir Francis Drake in 1577-1589. His ship failed to make it around Cape Horn with Drake. The battered ship with a hungry, ailing crew paused in Tierra de Fuego. Ashore, Winter gathered bark from Drimys winteri, which he successfully used to treat scurvy in his sailors. They sailed home rather than try to find Drake in the Pacific.


And then there was a glorious planting of many shades of heather (Calluna vulgaris, blueberry family, Ericaceae). Heather is an important low shrub of Eurasia which provides forage for grouse, deer and sheep. Currently it is a popular garden flower. My photo is of only one of the heathers planted in the bed, but it is certainly glorious.

Thus, there were Chinese, South American and European plants planted to close to each other. The arrangements represent plants of interest to Bloedel--and interesting they are!--not an academic collection.

Nor did Bleodel intended a botanical garden. His goal in giving the Reserve to the public was to create a place of refuge, a site for enjoying nature. The quote on the brochure resonated with me: "Nature can live without man, but man cannot live without nature. - Prentice Bloedell."

Those three plants above were barely inside the Reserve. From there we strolled past a Japanese Garden and Guest House, graced by many lovely Japanese maples. They had not yet turned color when we were there: they must have been spectacular in another month!

Japanese maples Bloedel Reserve
maples of the Japanese garden
The paths led through forests of towering trees, some native, some not.

towering trees

forest Bloedel Reserve

We did see at least one maple that had changed color, spectacularly:

early fall color

In some areas plants were allowed to grow as if wild, in other palces they were manicured to create attractive scenes, for example the weeping willow by a reflecting pond, below. Weeping willows, Salix babylonica (willow family, Salicaceae) are from Eurasia, where like us, people valued the "weeping" shape. They were brought to the United States long ago. The branches break off easily, creating a good deal of litter. They also root easily: when my father used them for garden stakes in upstate New York, he created a dozen young trees.

Chinese weeping willow, Salix babylonica
Chinese weeping willow, Salix babylonica and a pictureque pond
giant lily, Cardiocrinum sp.
Dwight Shappell, Bloedel Reserve guide,
and giant Himalayan lily Cardiocrinum giganteum
Our guide was Dwight Shappell, who had a delightful sense of humor and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Reserve. Here he points out Cardiocrinum giganteum, the giant Himalayan lily that towers over him (in fruit). The giant Himalayan lily is the largest of any of the lilies, growing to 3.5 meters (as you can see). As the name indicates it is from the Himalayan Mountains, from India to China. It was first discovered by Europeans in the 1850s and will grow well where there is ample moisture and not too severe cold. (Photo of it in flower link)

In addition to the rare exotics, I enjoyed seeing vegetation that was characteristic of the Northwest, for example the carpet of oxalis, likely Oxalis oregana, redwood sorrel (wood sorrel family, Oxalidaceae link) a widespread ground cover on northwestern forests. It is pretty and like other species of Oxalis, is rich in oxalic acid, giving it a tangy taste (eat the weeds).

carpet of oxalis
Also on the forest floor was Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium, barberry family, Berberidaceae). We have a relative, Berberis repens, in Colorado, which I had been sloppily calling Oregon grape, so I was pleased to see B. aquifolium, which is the Oregon grape--the one native to Oregon.

There is currently a struggle going on over whether these plants (Berberis aquifolium and B. repens) and their American relatives should be merged with barberry, genus Berberis, or be placed their own genus, Mahonia. USDA Plants website puts them in Mahonia, while the Flora of North America says the mahonias only differ from barberries by having spines on the leaves and so should be called Berberis. I am going with the Flora of North America today. Everybody agrees they are very closely related.

Oregon grape, Berberis repens
Oregon grape, Berberis repens
And a tall, old madrone (Arbutus menziesii):
madrone, Arbutus menzeisii
Arbutus menzeisii (blueberry family, Ericaceae) is a native American species in a genus that includes plants from around the Mediterranean in Europe as well as plants from western North America. (Trailing arbutus Epigaea repens of eastern forests in the U.S. is in the same family). The name madrone comes from the Spanish name for the European ones, madroño, strawberry tree, for the strawberry-like fruit. The American madrones have an attractice reddish color on their branches and trunks whichs tend to peel, making them easy to recognize. (photos from Google). The wood is pretty easily worked. Today it is used for small decorative objects, historically Native Americans used madrone wood for everything from spoons to lodge poles.

Bloedel Reserve is a wonderful place to spend a couple hours and let go of the stresses of the daily routine as the Bloedels intended.  It is also a collection of fascinating plants.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Devereaux, E. 2003. Flora del Archipielago Fueguino. 2nd ed. Jose Garcia, Buenos Aires.
Mahonia aquifolia USDA Plants website accessed 12/25/14
Moerman, D. E. 1998.Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portalnd OR.
Valder, P. 1999. The Garden Plants of China. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
Whittemore, A. T. Berberis aquifolium Flora of North America accessed 12/25/14

Kathy Keeler

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