A brief exploration of the Columbia River region's botanical curiosities.
For many, the word “wildlife” conjures thoughts of charismatic mammals, birds, and other animals. Indeed, members of kingdom Animalia tend to grab the majority of conservation headlines. However, when Columbia Land Trust’s mission refers to conserving and caring for the wildlife of the Columbia River region, the word implies the full spectrum of living organisms. Like most conservation organizations, we understand that one can’t protect a single species without appreciating its place within an intricate and interdependent web of life. Kingdom Plantae sets the table for the Pacific Northwest’s varied and complex ecosystems.
“Plants are foundational, but they are often implied when conserving habitat,” said Jen Zarnoch, a natural area manager with Columbia Land Trust. “It’s also easy to overlook understory plants, which provide so much biodiversity.”
A dazzling assortment of plant life resides within our 13,760-square-mile service area along the lower Columbia River. While larger, more prominent tree and shrub species, such as the Douglas-fir, are celebrated icons of the Pacific Northwest, the vast majority of the region’s native plants grow in relative obscurity.
The following is only a small sampling—a figurative vasculum—of botanical rarities nestled throughout the landscapes of the lower Columbia.
Island Lake Forest, a conserved area of Long Beach Peninsula comprised of coastal forests and interdunal wetlands, is home to peculiar yet fascinating specimens of the plant world. The carnivorous round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) employs glandular tentacles topped with sticky secretions to trap unsuspecting prey. With weak roots meant only for anchorage and water absorption, sundew gather necessary nutrients by devouring insects.
The Land Trust’s West Major property in Klickitat County, Washington, is home to a small population of a rare orchid known as clustered lady’s slipper (Cypripedium fasciculatum). Listed as a threatened species in the state of Washington, the terrestrial orchid features a drooping stem and delicate, slipper-shaped flowers ranging from greenish gold to reddish brown in color. Our stewardship staff keep an eye out for the elusive and elegant orchid during annual monitoring efforts, but it’s no easy feat to locate the small, earth-toned plants during their short late-spring bloom.
Another rare plant clings to the wet, sandy shores of Pierce Island, in the middle of the Columbia River just south of Beacon Rock. Persistent-sepal yellowcress (Rorippa columbiae), a small perennial herb—10 to 40 centimeters in length—is listed as endangered in the state of Washington and a federal species of concern. The plant, which is a member of the Brassicaceae, or mustard family, grows best in seasonally wet environments like island shores and playas (dry lakes).
Beyond the overt benefit of conserving natural spaces threatened by development, the Land Trust’s restoration efforts seek to protect existing plant life and restore areas with the potential to support complex native ecosystems. These include increasingly rare habitats, like Willamette Valley wet prairie, Sitka spruce swamps, and old-growth forests.
The Land Trust restricts access to both West Major and Pierce Island in an attempt to protect their threatened plant species from human disturbances. Our stewardship staff also coordinates with local botanists and universities to facilitate research opportunities.
By conserving and restoring lands with the potential to offer valuable habitat, we safeguard tens of thousands of species, some prominent and some seldom seen. There are possibly plants on our conserved lands that remain undiscovered or whose myriad values are not yet fully understood. We already rely on plants to convert sunlight into food; to sequester carbon and produce oxygen; to clean our soils, water, and air; to absorb water and mitigate erosion; to provide habitat, lumber, and medicine; and to offer shade and inspiration. These services are fundamental yet routinely taken for granted. Rooted in place, solar powered, adaptive, interdependent, and beautiful, plants offer a model for sustainable human development, hidden in plain sight.
Aside from ecological, economic, and cultural values, the intrinsic value of plant life in the Columbia River region is reason enough for it to merit our protection. “If you need a compelling argument to conserve plants, just look at our Four Sisters property when its wildflowers bloom in spring,” offered Zarnoch.
In a time when the average American child can recognize more than 100 corporate logos but struggles to identify 10 plant species, opportunities for discovery abound. By observing nature both close to home and far afield, we can kindle new curiosities and begin journeys of learning, discovery, and stewardship.
Photos (in order): Carnivorous round-leaved sundew by Wikimedia Commons Clustered lady's slipper by Flickr user Jeff B Persistent-sepal yellowcress by Paul Slichter