I have been away at a conference in Washington, DC. Until I have a chance to get back out into the garden, please enjoy this portrait with significant horticultural content that I saw while touring the National Gallery of Art during my lunch break.
Rubens Peale with a Geranium was painted by the human subject’s older brother, Rembrandt Peale, in 1801. According to the story attached to the painting, the botanical subject was grown by Rubens Peale and was the first of its kind to bloom in North America.
“Painted in Philadelphia, the work could be described as a double portrait because the geranium, reputed to be the first specimen of this exotic plant ever grown in the New World, is as lovingly portrayed as the painter’s brother is…Combining firm, clear drawing, carefully modulated color, and an intense devotion to detail, twenty-three-year-old Rembrandt Peale produced an eloquent expression of his family’s philosophical orientation.” Source
(I meant to write this shortly after the post about our trip to the Pacific northwest, because I thought it would be interesting to compare the flora, both wild and cultivated, of the two northern locales. But something else always seemed to require my attention, and now two months have gone by. Luckily, photos of flowers never wilt.)
Part the First: Introduction
Towards the end of summer it is our habit to rent a little cottage on the coast of Maine and spend a quiet week hiking, fishing, and sampling the lobster rolls from as many different seafood takeouts as possible (the best this year: Bayview Takeout on Beals Island). The primary appeal of the area (apart from summer temperatures a good twenty degrees F cooler than North Carolina) is the coastline. As a youngster, I imprinted on rocky shores in Cornwall and Norway, so the sand beaches and dunes of North Carolina, pretty as they are, can’t compete. The granite slopes tumbling down to cold, deep water are evocative of happy childhood memories, and there can hardly be a better way to spend a summer afternoon than exploring a rocky tide pool.
We go far enough “down east” to leave the heaving mass of vacationers behind, and it’s not unusual to have a couple of miles of shoreline or a mountain trail all to ourselves. Just an hour’s drive to the west, there are traffic jams in Acadia National Park, but we often see more wildlife than people.
I just can’t get enough of this scenery.
Part the Second: Wildflowers
Of course, whenever we go for a drive or a hike, I keep my eyes open for interesting plants. This year, I noticed some similarities between the coast of Washington and that of Maine, despite more than 3000 miles,several mountain ranges, and four degrees of latitude separating the two locations.
In both places, one of the most common wildflowers is Chamaenerion angustifolium (fireweed):
Spiraea species are also common along the roadside. In Washington we saw pink flowered Spiraea douglasii and S. densiflora, while in Maine we see the white S. alba. Both fireweed and white meadowsweet are native to the mountains of North Carolina, but I have never seen them growing in the piedmont. Too hot in summer, I would imagine.
I saw some very interesting plants during a hike in Great Wass Island Preserve, where part of the loop trail runs just above the high tide line. There’s really no trail at all for several miles, just occasional blazes painted on the rocks. The cracks in the rock accumulate enough soil for plants to survive in what must be one of the harshest environments imaginable: baking in summer, frigid in winter, and dry when it isn’t being lashed by salt spray.
This is the home of a very pretty Campanula species that almost seems too delicate to grow in such a tough habitat.
Nearby, I also found and odd little plant with a cloud of tiny purple flowers above prostrate leaves:
I also found a succulent that I tentatively identified as a sedum. When I looked it up later, I discovered that I wasn’t far off.
The interior of the island is a shield of bare granite that the trail crosses to return to the parking lot. Where a thin layer of acidic soil has accumulated on the rock, lichens and moss form a carpet among various ericaceous shrublets and stunted Pinus banksiana (jack pines). In early August, the soil and moss was bone dry, and the leaves of wild blueberries and other ericaceae were already taking on their autumn colors.
Where the topography of the rock results in poorly drained pockets of peat, sphagnum moss and carnivorous plants grow. I saw numerous Drosera rotundifolia (roundleaf sundew) and a few Sarracenia purpurea subsp. purpurea (northern purple pitcher plant)
This plant was growing in shade, so it has much less red pigmentation than plants growing in a more sunny location. The presence of red veins in the pitchers shows that it is not the all-green Sarracenia purpurea subsp. purpurea forma heterophylla
For comparison, here is a red plant that I found a couple of years ago in Quoddy Head State Park, a little further northeast towards the Canadian border:
And here are the shorter, wider pitchers of the southern subspecies, Sarracenia purpurea subsp. venosa, growing in North Carolina :
Part the Third: Kingsbrae Garden
No matter where we travel, we like to visit local botanical gardens, so one morning we drove about a hundred miles and crossed into Canada to visit Kingsbrae Garden in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. On the drive up Route 9 to the border crossing at Calais, we stopped at what may be the most beautiful highway rest area I have ever seen.
It also had the smelliest outhouse, but I didn’t take a photograph of that.
Along the stream, bright red Lobelia cardinalis were in full bloom.
Interestingly, the same species was blooming at the same time in my garden 600 miles to the south.
Kingsbrae Garden was well worth the trip. It isn’t all that large, but it is beautifully landscaped and contains a wide variety of native and exotic plants.
The first area a visitor encounters is a formal knot garden.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
Purple sea star (Pisaster ochraceus)
Red rock crab (Cancer productus)
Mottled sea star (Evasterias troscheli)
Harbor seals resting
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.
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.
Arbutus menziesii growing on cliff face above Deception Pass
Bark of a young A. menziesii
Large A. menziesii tree on Vancouver Island
Bark of a large tree
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.
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.
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).
In heavy shade beside the river, I found some very interesting shrubs with spiny stems and a conical mass of bright red berries:
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).
I also saw a different Spiraea species with round flower heads instead of the conical inflorescences of S. douglasii:
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.
I also found numerous beautiful Erythronium montanum (avalanche lilies):
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
I also liked these brobdingnagian Christmas trees:
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: