I want to start building a list of 'indicator' plants - those that can be observed to learn about past or present conditions like moisture, frost, etc.
For example, an experienced forester can tell you roughly what your annual rainfall might be (or the equivalent if you take into account condensation of frost and dew, which rainfall gauges don't) by looking at the types of trees you have.
Some that we have here, to get the ball rolling:
We have a long-standing bog here at 3200 feet elevation.
Though the pond has been deepened so the bog doesn't bog up as much, we still have the following indicators of wet-ish conditions:
- rushes, esp. the grass-like short round rushes (this picture is from Britain, but conveys the general look of the plants - ours are more sparse but similar)
We also have pine, fir, larch, and spruce up here, which do not occur further down the slopes in our valley, so I would guess we have more moisture up here for them as well.
Further down our mountain on the steep slopes, where it's mostly sagebrush, you can spot the little creeks and draws in the fall by the bright golden patches of aspen, cottonwood, and possibly poplar or beech.
(Can you spot the patch of aspen in the picture above?)
Elderberry will grow in these creeks and draws, but also grows OK here and there on steep slopes. I wonder if there are springs there?
Oregon Grape grows in the boggy areas, and also in under the conifers. Maybe it indicates moisture, maybe acid soils?
We also have lots of red-stemmed plants anywhere there is a decent soggy spot - they look like osier dogwood, but some grow very tall and look more like cherry.
I will get a picture next time I think of it.
Willows up here are not the big craggy ones with long yellow withes - I've seen a few of those down at about 2000 feet, but not many yet up here above 3000. Our willows are small and scrubby.
They grow much bigger in the valley, too, by year-round creeks and rivers.
So maybe that type of willow indicates more water, or shelter, or milder frost temperatures. (Though our valley gets some mighty-cold winds; I would not assume they are warmer.)
We also have a lot of snowberry, bearberry (kinnickinnick), and bunchgrasses, which are all cropped down to like 6" to 12" tall except in limited, fenced areas.
That, plus a lot of poop, and crunching sounds in my garden during otherwise-pleasant summer evenings last year, tells me the deer are through here quite a bit.
There is especially a lot of deer poop right now in the sunken areas (swale / meadow) around the rim of the pond, and a lot of it looks fresh.
This makes me think maybe they like either new grass that is popping up there due to swale-collected moisture, or they just like to be a bit out of the wind. These patches are near fences, too. Maybe they poop when they jump.
There is less deer sign in the areas right near dogs, but still a little bit.
Once we have started a list of "what kinds of plants can tell me how things are here?"
then it might be fun to expand to consider relationships.
"Aspen means we are up high; other plants that might grow well are X (poplar?)"
"tomatillo self-seeding means ... (would tomatoes do the same?)" (That's down lower in the valley, NOT up here so far! But I did have some carrots overwinter, and even had a couple potatoes come back from last year's missed tubers.)
"balsam root means anything I want to overwinter had better root very deep and not mind losing its above-ground parts to frost or drought,"
that sort of thing.
Does Oregon Grape tell me anything about where I can plant blueberries?
Do cattails tell me about the potential for wild rice, or wapato, or other marsh foods?
If I want to know if camas would grow up here, what do I look for (besides camas)?
Find a plant you know, that's common in your landscape. Ponderosa pine, say (pinus ponderosa).
Find the most characteristic associated grouping of plants for the area you want to work in - say, "K008 Lodgepole pine-subalpine forest" .
Open a Google search or other search engine you like,
and enter this phrase, in quotes, along with another planty-type word you want to find:
in my case,
"Indicator + "K008 Lodgepole pine-subalpine forest" "
Now I have a whole list of species that show up in the same database, with "indicator" in the description somewhere.
(Most of these are indicators of stage of forest succession, or edge habitat for other forest species, but still, it's cool.)
You can use the same method to cross-reference a plant you want to grow.
The genus is most useful (e.g. Ribes, or Prunus) but you could also just enter "berry" or "fruits" or "nitrogen" or "regenerates," anything you think would be in the description.
Many of these plants have tons of data, like listing studies of regeneration and propagation in different states or climates.
I was not aware of the FS database. Thank you! I like the thoughts on indicator plants.
In my own observations of the region, I have found what I call "soil development" to be one of main determinants of vegetation. This is particularly true of the northern half of the Washington, which has not had much time to develop soil, since the retreat of the ice sheet. To me, a "developed soil" is one in which parent rock has weathered down and accumulated as finer particles, and/or has been colonized by plants for a long time, thus acquiring organic matter, and all of those luscious qualities gardeners look for. But developed soil is rare in the mountainous Inland Northwest- maybe 10% of the landscape. Much of our horticulture comes from agricultural areas, river valleys, and grasslands, and doesn't doesn't translate well onto our rugged, brushy, shallow-soiled landscape.
Your valley shows the full spectrum of soil development, from the bare rock on the ridges then sterile gravels, then colonized gravels, then stony soil, and then the deep dark soil of the creek bottom. The soil is moving. The best stuff all moves down. Bitterbrush (Purshia) is an indicator of undeveloped sterile soils- it can live here because it is a colonist nitrogen fixer. It grows on stony slopes, sand dunes, and in the understory of frequently disturbed pine forests. In soils with more organic matter, sagebrush will replace bitterbrush. Both species are indicators of some of the driest conditions in our region. Bitterbrush, being N fixing, is superior browse for ungulates, and crucial food source for seed eating rodents. It is so attractive to animals, that the Sanpoil Indians avoided it in the Spring, thus avoiding ticks. Both bushes yield a profusion of fibrous bark on favorable sites, once used for clothing.
These shrubs tend to prevail over native grasses where the summer precipitation is lacking. That is why, as you move east of the Cascades, you encounter less shrub steppe more grasslands. You are moving from a West Coast (Mediterranean) winter precipitation regime, to a Continental summer monsoon regime. Grasses also do better at higher altitudes, which experience less summer dryness. By the time you get to Eastern Idaho, Central Montana, and Wyoming, you're in bison country. Mismanagement of grazing achieves the same affect as low summer precipitation- it creates shrub lands out of grasslands.
Undeveloped soils can be used to advantage. In some cases, as on talus slopes, moisture availability might be very high, due to reduced evaporation and low plant completion. Riparian colonists, like cottonwood and siberian elm, can grow in bare sand and gravel in otherwise dry sites. Most fruit trees are slope adapted, and do excellently where there is just a little dark soil forming between the stones (as in basalt). Among the reasons for this are: air drainage, temperature moderation, condensation, freedom from grass competition, freedom from competition from taller riparian and climax trees, and reduced browsers accessibility. Elderberries, particularly in the southwest, will grow here and there on such slopes- not necessarily because there is any ground water there. On stony slopes, plant establishment may be a greater challenge than moisture availability. It is hard for a seed to find foothold in stone.
Of coarse, slope direction matters. In general, east facing slopes are the best for fruit trees. In hot arid locations, north may be best. South is workable if there is moisture. West facing slopes are very harsh.
Basalt seems weather into the most fertile floury soils around. It seems great for everything. But some plants, like apricots, seem to prefer coarser soils from metamorphic rock. And it seems like the more geologicaly "recycled" parent rock is, the less fertile it is. Sandstone and gniess tend to be bad. Some rocks form poor soils simply because of the way they break down physically. Granite that rots into coarse sand will be infertile. Granite that breaks down into a mixture of fine and coarse particles, especially clay, can be fertile. Limestone isn't terribly common in our region. Caliche is or main calcareous rock.Slow breakdown of rock by plants (humic acid) seems to result in fine soil more often than mere physical weathering. Soil deposited by water can vary in texture depending on what part of the former watercourse you're in. My place was under an ancient glacial lake! Soil blown in from grinding glaciers is the awesomest, but don't let it blow away again!
Tall leafy forbes, perenial grasses, and leafy deciduous trees/shrubs, in that order, are the best creators and indicators of developed of soil. Fire is helpful in developing soil where significant organic matter is retained below the soil surface. When shallow rooted vegetation (like doug firs) is burned, the soil may be briefly fertilized, but loose organic matter. The more plant material returning to the soil each year, the more developed it will be. Woody growth, especially in our semi-arid climate, tend to lock up nutrients and stall soil development. Evergreen trees and shrubs, are the poorest nutrient cyclers, and can colonize nutrient poor soils (they are adapted to conserve nutrients). Most native conifers can colonize a fresh road cut, whereas grasses and forbs may take many years. Conifers can take hold at low nutrient conditions and perpetuate them indefinitely. Conifer forests with less forbs, grasses, and deciduous shrubs in their understory are less fertile- this is is either due to soil texture, or some factor preventing understory plants from establishing. In our dry conifer forests, light is not a limiting factor. Water and nitrogen are limiting factors.
Soil wood is another important vegetation determining factor. Fallen wood stores moisture. Most of a douglas firs' fine roots grow in soil wood. Soil wood promotes rhizomatous shrubs like snowberry and oregon grape. Soil wood does not promote soil development, because it is slow to release nutrients, and does not shed organic matter deep within the soil. A conifer forest has a very thin layer of organic soil, the deeper soil will be sterile.
Evaporation is critical to pH. In an arid area, the pH will be low, and bulrushes will grow in ponds. In very humid areas, where there is little evaporation, sedges may dominate ponds. Cattails have a wide tolerance. pH and evaporation determine stream-side vegetation as well. Places where water is drawn out of the soil by evaporation are the most fertile areas (look for butterfies). Here you will find nettles, and other tall leafy forbes. Even though sagebrush is an evergreen, and a poor nutrient cycler, sagebrush soils will be fertile because of the minerals drawn up by evaporation. Large Brassica weeds like tumble mustard indicate a fertile basic soil. In many sagebrush soils, there will be a layer of chalky white caliche stone several feet below the surface. Caliche forms at the level where the evaporation and leaching have equalized. In wetter places, we can assume that leaching takes lost minerals to an indefinite depth.Too much evaporation leads to surface mineral deposits, or salt flats, and greasewood shrubs.
Some practices and vegetation types cause acidity by limiting either evaporation or transpiration. This can be seen when bracken ferns take over a pasture or woodlot. In forested place, If grazing devegetates an area, the soil will leach out and become acid. On the flipside, if herbivory is insufficient, shallow rooted woody plants may dominate, the ground will be shaded, and acid conditions will prevail. Bunch grasses are excellent at regulating pH, because they are deep rooted, transpire water efficiently, and let the soil breathe between bunches.
"Savanah trees" are those that can tolerate grass competition. Savanah trees are more compatible with soil fertility than forest trees. Savanah trees include: legume trees, ponderosa and pinyon pines, oaks, and walnut family members. These trees tend to have deep roots.They tend to be fire adapted.
Forest trees like Douglas Firs, Larches, Red Cedars, and Grand Firs, tend to be less compatible with other plants. The tend to be shade tolerant and have shallow roots. I believe than any alleopathic effects of these plants are insignificant compared to their effects on pH and nutrient cycling. Paul Wheaton seems to be very anti native conifer. This is not a very sophisticated position. At low densities, the intermittent shade and sheltering provide by conifers, even the more "alleopathic" species, is of great benefit. A ponderosa pine never hurt nobody.
You ever think: those wetter places where deciduous forest grow- don't they also get less sunlight because of all the rain clouds? And maybe the reason we don't grow deciduous forests here is as much because of too much sun as not enough rain? I think a little shade is good for most wild plants here. The damn domesticates are sun hogs though.
The conifers arrange themselves along a moisture gradient, which mostly corresponds to an altitude gradient.
Some plants, like high altitude aspens, may indicate areas of snow accumulation and conservation, more than ground water. North facing cliffs achieve this in arid areas.
Pocket gophers are another overlooked limiting factor. Open areas with high gopher depredation will be dominated by rhizomatous shrubs and unpalatable annual weeds. And don't underestimate herbivory from deer. Deer can totally curb succession away from soil development by causing unpalatable evergreen dominance.
Soil depth is another great determinant. It takes at least four feet of topsoil to grow wheat, and perhaps more for perennial grasses. Deep, well developed soil has high water storage capacity, but it can only be used by deep rooted plants. Some plants prefer not to grow in deep soils. Gopher vulnerability and grass competition are factors. Only a few fruit trees excel in deep bottom-land soil, and they tend to be the cold tolerant ones. Pears and hawthorns love it. Many of the best edible native plants, like biscuitroot and bitteroot, grow only on the droughty frost-heaved, stony soils of ridge tops.
Camas prefers vernal pools, mucky black soil, and freedom from grass competition. In well drained soils, this condition is only achieved in lenses of soil held by bedrock. If I had to plant camas on Erica's sight, I might burn part of the apsen grove, or make a stone-lined vernal pool in a draw, filled with black mucky soil. Like the soil that forms under sphagnum moss growing on a rock.
But if you really want feral root veggies, I'd sow those dry slopes to salsify, the the valley bottom to yampah and wild carrot, and feral parsnips in those prime evaporating wet spots. Burdock in the shady places around riparian trees. Bull thistles in the slash piles and compacted soils. Evening primrose on the sandy soils. All of these are bienial, vs. perenial. Camas takes a while to develop.
I wouldn't take willow type as a temperature indicator. The whole poplar family is very cold hardy.Willows grow in the Arctic circle.The shrubbier willows are probably more dispersive and browse/beaver resistant.
There don't seem to be many good native indicators of temperature or frost. We don't have many frost sensitive plants in the first place. The dominant plant communities haven't changed much since the ice retreated. There where historic cold spells that froze the major rivers and caused the service berries not to fruit. The native plants seem to simply adjust their timing as they go upslope. The only warm areas in the region are the river valleys, so I'm not sure if the plants that grow only there are just adapted to riverine dispersal (smooth sumac, hackberry, poison ivy, white alder). The best temperature indicators may be exotic plants, like evergreen blackberries. Don't get me wrong, a spruce obviously can hack the cold better than a ponderosa, but that's not going to give you any sharp boundaries about what you can plant.
I think people too often blame temperature or precipitation when they kill plants by planting them where they don't want to grow. An apple tree doesn't want to grow in a lawn on a valley bottom. It wants to grow on slope or a in minor draw. People try to plant things on sites where they would face great competition of succession were allowed to proceed. Most of our edible plants naturally grow on sites too dry and marginal for climax forest trees.
From an ecological perspective, the best use of deep soiled areas is grass and grazers. The best use of riparian areas is wetland, fish, and beavers. The best place for orchards are the draws and foothills.
Don't forget to look at the length of first year wood, and whorl spacing on conifers, when making site comparisons. Conifers don't care much for fertility, so greater whorl spacing is a good sign of greater summer precip. Mature conifers which retain their lower branches indicate marginal moisture.Poor recruitment of conifers means marginal moisture. Poor recruitment of deciduous shrubs could just mean deer.
Okay, enough for now. Maybe I need specific questions about how particular plants fit into this framework of determinants.
The Human Habitat Project https://sites.google.com/site/humanhabitatproject/
Location: NW Pennsylvania Zone 5B bordering on Zone 6
There don't seem to be many good native indicators of temperature or frost.
I have a friend that lives at about 1500 ft in the Carolina Mountains. He actually uses Rhodedendron to tell how cold it is when around freezing. He can tell by how tightly the leaves are curled on the plant. He has it down to where he is usually within a degree or two, based on his observation of the plant.
"Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you." ~Maori Proverb
Wow Kyle, spectacular post! I'll be picking through that for weeks!!!
Permaculture is a gestalt ... a study of the whole. Not just how to produce more and better food, but how human life on the planet affects and is affected by the surrounding environment.
Bill Kearns http://columbiabasinpermaculture.com
Thanks Bill. There were these two botanists, Daubenmire and Daubenmire, who took my understanding of native plant ecology a long way. I recommend their stuff. The trouble with botanists is that they are more interested in determinants than potentials. They tend not to see a lot of wiggle room in succession.
But I got on a roll, and I didn't address some of Erica's questions:
-Oregon grape doesn't seem like a great indicator for blueberries. Oregon grape can handle sterile acid soil, but it seems to have a wide soil tolerance. Blueberries need more water than Oregon grape. Evergreen leaves are an adaptation to both nutrient stress and winter moisture. Blueberries loose their leaves. I've never seen naturalized blueberries in the Inland Northwest. The native Vaccinium are mostly at altitude, except in wet North Idaho. I haven't had a good look at that habitat. The Vacciniums I'm most interested in are the evegreen huckleberry of the coast (is it hardy anywhere in the interior?), and West Asian species like Vaccinium arctostaphylos (similar precip regime). But overall, I think the genre requires particular environmental conditions that are difficult to create here. I'd rather live here, where pome and stone fruits were indigenous staples, rather than on the soggy coast, where Heather Family plants like salal and red huckleberry were the staples.
-Wild rice and wapato both grow in a little bit deeper water than cattails. Wild Rice is harvested commercially in Benewah Lake in Idaho. This is the logical seed source. I have not seen how it grows there. Wapato may be tricky because it relies on particular cycles of high and low water, which typify larger lake and and river systems. The nearest indigenous wapato complex I'm aware of is that of the islands and sloughs of the lower Columbia. John Callas of Portland knows some good spots there. There are several species. I have yet to see any of the species growing in harvest able quantities in the interior.
But there are a number of aquatic options. I'd like to see a Nelumbo lutea trial. Water caltrop is invasive and illegal, but it probably kept our Mesolithic European ancestors alive. Our regular yellow water lily has edibles seeds, which were a staple of the Klamath and Modoc. I still wonder if there's a hardy Eleocharis for us somewhere. Then there are things you can grow on the landward side of the cattails, like Potentilla anserina. In the Mint Family, there's a local Lycopus uniflorus and some European Stachys for pond edges. Cattails are a very versatile veggy themselves.
Okay. Getting too late. Beddy bye.
The Human Habitat Project https://sites.google.com/site/humanhabitatproject/
Kyle, thanks for both of those awesome posts, and for responding to my specific questions / examples.
I had to look up a few of the plants you mentioned, like Nelumbo lutea.
I recognize caliche from your description; didn't realize that what we have goes with that word, which I just learned anyway. I encountered blue-grey, chalky, hard-packed surface about 6" below the topsoil in our front "lawn" area while excavating a mulch-pit. Sometimes hard to tell whether it's made of decomposing grit from the rocks (glacial till granite, square-fracturing/layered bedrock), or whether it's rock-like soil.
Thanks for the many wonderful suggestions for edible tubers. I will be doing a lot of looking-things-up!
Any places you'd recommend looking for seed stock, for anything that doesn't pop its head up here already?
I love the ideas about how to use rocky slopes. I have noticed balsamroot carpeting those areas, and would not be surprised to find other things abundant there once I know what to look for.
To be clear (since this thread is getting into help-Erica mode which I don't mind a bit):
The rocky outcrop pictures are from the drive up and down the face - about 2500 feet of elevation gain overall, from 900 up to 3200 feet. Local permie groups tend to stratify by elevation for idea-swapping. I welcome ideas about indicators and planting for the shrub-steppe for my neighbors' sake, but it probably won't apply in my own backyard up here.
Taking your ideas about succession into consideration, I wish I had more familiarity to estimate the cycles this area might be moving through. This little kettle pond seems to have had a meadow around it routinely before disturbance, possibly due to bog-type soil saturation throughout the spring thaw that might discourage some types of trees. Garden soils tend to regrow rhizominous grasses first, but round-stemmed bunchgrass or reeds come back pretty quick thereafter.
We have a lot of rich edge areas between woodland and meadow, but the property itself only has steep slopes where they've been artificially created. Retaining walls, rock walls, and the bermed-up edge of the pond.
Our little area is just 12 acres, all located on this kettle-like bench, receiving melt-water from the N and NW, with a little ridge on our neighbors' place to our south, before the further neighbors' land slopes away steeply to the SW.
We think that the forest edge basically got wiped out during logging and buldozing; there's a lot of slash piles that seem like they might have been brushy shrubby stuff as well as dead-and-down, even 20 years later. Like here: you can see some regrowth in the distance, but the near edge of the forest looks like the middle of a forest to me. Are my eyes just trying to relate it to Western densities, or are we missing the understory here?
We do have a black-soil vernal pool area near our pond... I think a better picture of the pond area might be useful here.
Here's the vernal pool / ditch from the other side:
I am thinking about mucking around in there, maybe dumping some logs and dirt to make a nurse-log for something bog-loving. Fencing the deer out would be a challenge; they love that spot.
I am not sure if we want to take down that crater-like pond rim in a few places and get the meltwater into the pond for drought protection, or let it keep soaking into the pasture with a swale-like effect.
There are more pics of the forest and pasture understory in the blog entry if anyone's interested.
I did a whole tour of recent efforts - both moisture-retaining garden hugels, and a counterclockwise tour around the pond, and just posted it all here:
ErnieAndErica.blogspot.com, entry dated April 8, 2014
An older lady told me about 6 or 7 years ago not to put out my tomatoes until the blackberries bloom. The blackberries have been correct for the past 6-7 years. Last year they got it down to the day...they bloom the day after the last frost. I’m in SW Virginia.
Just came back to this post again, and got even more out of Kyle's information the second time.
Thanks again, Kyle.
As for you East Coasters with your reliable indicator plans: very cool, I am jealous.
But I don't know that I will be able to use them.
I have not seen any rhododendron up here, although the ones I saw in Massachusetts looked so miserable that I could well believe the symptoms of their suffering correspond with degrees of cold. (The native ones on the Oregon coast are rarely troubled by weather extreme enough to curl their leaves).
I don't think we HAVE any blackberry here, but that's an interesting indicator. I will have to see if it works on our friend's farm down in our valley here.
We certainly have apple and other vaguely-related stuff that blooms early and gets frost-nipped without extensive remedial care.
I'm told apples are originally from Kazakhstan, one reason why they do well here (we have similar inland extremes, with summer heat and winter cold).