Summer vacation: a plant geek visits the Pacific northwest.

IMG_7126 adjust
Mount Baker (Kweq’ Smánit), an active stratovolcano in the northern Cascades, as seen from Semiahmoo Spit in Whatcom County, Washington.

Two weeks ago we joined my wife’s parents, her sister, and her sister’s family for a week’s vacation in northwestern Washington State.  It was my first trip to the Pacific northwest, other than a long-ago conference in downtown Seattle, so I was thrilled to see the spectacular scenery and enjoyed exploring ecosystems very different from the familiar environment of the east coast.

Even the roadside flowers on the drive north from Seattle-Tacoma airport were different than what we would see along North Carolina roads.  I recognized the most common plant, fireweed (Chaemanerion angustifolium), because it also grows in eastern Maine where we go for an annual week’s escape from the heat and humidity.

Chaemanerion angustifolium (fireweed) at the side of the road near Padilla Bay.
Fireweed closeup
Fireweed in Lynn Canyon Park, Vancouver

Fireweed is found throughout northern Asia, Europe, and North America, but it is absent from the North Carolina piedmont.  In fact, it reaches the southern edge of its range in North Carolina, but it has only been recorded from a few counties in the Blue Ridge mountains.

Another common roadside weed was completely new to me, but a quick browse through a field guide in a museum gift shop revealed that it was Spiraea douglasii (hardhack), native to the pacific Northwest but apparently an invasive weed in Europe.

Spiraea douglasii near Padilla Bay

Other roadside plants were truly weeds–exotic plants that had escaped from gardens and naturalized.  The most common were sweet peas and common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea).  The foxgloves came in various shades of white, pink, and purple, but my favories were a rich magenta:

Digitalis purpureae
Digitalis purpurea growing at the side of the road in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

We spent most of our time along the coast, exploring State parks and other interesting spots between Bellingham, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia–basically the region where Mount Baker dominates the skyline.  The shoreline in this area alternates between rocky promontories and muddy bays:

Larrabee State Park
The rocky shore of Samish Bay at Larrabee State Park
Samish Bay
Mud/sand flats on Samish Bay at Taylor Shellfish Farms
Eschscholzia californica
Eschscholzia californica (California poppies) growing in the sand at Taylor Shellfish Farms

The white sand beaches of North Carolina are justifiably famous, but I much prefer exploring rocky shores where the kids can scramble up and down, and we can poke around in tidepools to find interesting creatures.


The sea life was almost more interesting than the plants, but there was plenty to hold my interest on land, too.

The woods, from sea level up into the mountains, were predominantly conifers, and it was disconcerting to realize that I couldn’t identify any of the trees.  To my eyes, accustomed to details of the eastern deciduous forest, the firs, hemlocks, and western red cedars were just an undifferentiated dark mass.

Western forest
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep”…but what are they?

Even the broadleaf trees were strange.  Down near sea level, the most striking was Arbutus menziesii (arbutus, madrona). This species, found primarily near the coast from California to British Columbia, is a member of the heather and rhodondedron family, Ericaceae.  With its leathery leaves and red, peeling bark, it reminds me of Arctostaphylos (manzanita) bushes that I saw in Arizona.


In sheltered spots, the arbutus were fairly large trees, but my favorites were the gnarled dwarfs growing out of cracks in exposed rock faces.  On those same rocky slopes, particularly along Chuckanut Drive beside Samish Bay, I also saw beautiful sedums in full bloom.


I think they may have been S. oreganum, although I’m not entirely certain.  In Deception Pass State Park at the northern tip of Whidbey Island I found another Sedum with very glaucus leaves.  Perhaps S. spathulifolium?


Away from the water, a beautiful white-flowered shrub was fairly common in shady spots under the trees.  I had no idea what it was, but its leaves reminded me a little of hawthorns.  When I got a chance to flip through the aforementioned field guide, I discovered that it was Holodiscus discolor (creambush, ocean spray).  Hawthorns and creambush are both members of the rose family, Rosaceae, so I guess I wasn’t too far off.

Holodiscus discolor
Holodiscus discolor flowers and foliage

The most common understory bush in the lowland woods was, like arbutus, a member of the Ericaceae.  Depending on the location, Gaultheria shallon (Salal) was either in bloom or had ripening berries.

Gaultheria shallon flowers
Gaultheria shallon flowers
Gaultheria shallon berries
Gaultheria shallon berries

One morning, we left the coast and drove up into Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, following the Mt. Baker Highway (SR 542), so the children could have a chance to play in snow in the middle of summer.  At about 1000 feet (305 m) above sea level, we stopped to walk along the North Fork Nooksack River (Horseshoe Bend Trail).

North Fork Nooksack River

In heavy shade beside the river, I found some very interesting shrubs with spiny stems and a conical mass of bright red berries:

Oplopanax horridus

They were Oplopanax horridus, Devil’s Club or Devil’s walking stick.  This species has a disjunct range that includes the Pacific northwest from Oregon to Alaska and, oddly, a few islands in Lake Superior.

Along the side of the road were the inevitable foxgloves, and some very nice Aruncus dioicus (goat’s beard), a plant that is also found in North Carolina (and Asia, and Europe).

Aruncus dioicus
Aruncus dioicus

I also saw a different Spiraea species with round flower heads instead of the conical inflorescences of S. douglasii:

Spiraea densiflora
Spiraea densiflora (subalpine spiraea)

Continuing to drive up into the mountains, we stopped for a picnic lunch at Picture Lake (4200′, 1280 m) and admired the view of Mount Shuksan.


While walking around the lake, I noticed numerous clumps of what appeared to be a very vigorous orchid. Unfortunately, they were not yet in bloom, but I suspect that they were Epipactis gigantea.

Are they Epipactis? They have a certain orchidaceous je ne sais quoi.

I also found numerous beautiful Erythronium montanum (avalanche lilies):

Erythronium montanum
Erythronium montanum beside Picture Lake

Erythronium montanum

Continuing on, we followed the road higher into the mountains.  And then there weren’t any more interesting plants to look at, because we had reached the snow.  That was fun, too. I had never tromped around in snow, in July, while wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals.

Artist Point (5100′, 1554 m), the end of Mt. Baker Highway

In addition to exploring State Parks and the National Forest in Washington, we also checked out two public gardens in Canada:  Butchart Gardens and VanDusen Botanical Garden.  Butchart Gardens are on Vancouver Island, so we took the car ferry over from Tsawwassen on the mainland.  The winding route through the Strait of Georgia and the Gulf Islands was so beautiful that it would have been worthwhile, even if we had just turned around and returned immediately.


Active Pass Lighthouse on the tip of Georgina Point, Mayne Island, marks the point where the ferry begins to wind its way among the Gulf Islands.

A high point of the trip was spotting a pod of killer whales:



The Butchart Gardens would have to be spectacularly beautiful in order to do justice to their surroundings, and the staff have obviously been working hard to accomplish that goal.  The plants were an interesting mix of flowering shrubs, colorful annuals, perennials that wouldn’t be out of place in an English cottage garden, and tropicals that thrive in the mild coastal climate.  The landscaping was truly lovely:


But occasionally, it was all a little too much for my taste:


The gardens were clearly envisioned as works of art, rather than collections of interesting plants.  With the exception of the rose garden, no labels marred the perfectly coiffed flower beds.  If visitors want to know the identity of plants, they can consult a little pamphlet or ask at an office by the front gate.

My favorite plant in the garden was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a little orchid that I found tucked away in a quiet corner.

Epipactis helleborine
Epipactis helleborine

Epipactis helleborine is native to temperate Eurasia, but it has become widely naturalized in North America.  I  have a suspicion that these small and somewhat drab orchids, so unlike the other plants in the gardens, were self-seeding weeds that had eluded the diligent gardeners.

Once I knew what to look for, I started noticing E. helleborine elsewhere, including in Vancouver, the site of the other public garden that we visited on one of the last days of our trip.

The VanDusen Botanical Garden is my kind of garden:  an collection of interesting and well-grown plants organized and labeled for easy identification.  Despite that, it is also one of the most beautiful botanical gardens that I have ever visited.  And although it is close to the heart of Vancouver, it was far less crowded than the Butchart Gardens.  I could have stayed there all day.

VanDusen Botanical Gardens
VanDusen Botanical Garden

The Sino-Himalayan collection was fantastic, although the rhododendrons were long past blooming.  The Chilean and Australian collections were also fascinating–the mild climate permits cultivation of plants that we can only dream of on the east coast.  Speaking of the east coast, we skipped the eastern North American collection.  Been there, seen that.

Scattered around the garden were beautiful and unusual trees.  One of my favorites was a cultivar of our southeastern native, Catalpa bignonioides, with bright yellow green leaves.  The unusually colored foliage made a lovely backdrop for its flowers.

Catalpa bignonioides 'Aurea'
Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’


I also liked these brobdingnagian Christmas trees:

Sequoiadendron giganteum
Sequoiadendron giganteum with juvenile Homo sapiens for scale.

According to Gerald B. Straley in Trees of Vancouver: a Guide to the Unusual and Common Trees of the City (UBC Press, Vancouver, 1992), these young giant sequoias were planted in 1973.  They have grown well in the past 44 years.

With the visit to VanDusen, our week was almost over.  We returned to Sea-Tac airport and turned in our car, ready to return to the overheated sauna that we call North Carolina in the summer.  But the northwest had one last treat for us. Not many airports have a view this spectacular:

Mount Rainier
Mount Rainier, another active stratovolcano and the highest peak in the Cascades, as seen from the top of the main parking deck at Sea-Tac airport.

We’ll be back.

6 thoughts on “Summer vacation: a plant geek visits the Pacific northwest.

    1. I hope you do. I love reading travelogues, especially when they have some good botanical content.

      Have a wonderful trip! I’ve only been to Italy once, long ago, when I was a teenager. Walked across the border from France. Said, “Here I am in Italy.” Then turned around and walked back to France.


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