Standing at the turnout to the Westside Preserve recently, I counted the varied shades of gray and bedrock blue in Haro Strait and pondered the ashen sky. A pair of pigeon guillemots whistled their vibrant breeding calls just offshore and a small gathering of mergansers and scoters foraged near Deadman’s Bay but would soon be leaving for their nesting grounds to the north. The tight-fisted cinnabar buds of big-leaf maples were beginning to unfold, and red-flowering currant protruding from a rock crevice was heavily in bud – waiting, I fancied, for the arrival of the rufous hummingbirds that always relish the nectar of this early blooming plant.
Only two days before, the sun shone brightly upon this 16-acres of glacially tilled slopes catching the silky purple sheen of one of the first wildflowers of the season – satin flower (Sisyrinchium douglasaii). While winter was trying still to assert itself on this day, I knew just beneath the cold slopes an awakening had already begun. That purple bloom of two days before told me the seasonal shift to spring was well underway.
I was waiting for Eliza Habegger, botanist with the San Juan County Land Bank. Eliza had been anticipating the emergence of satin flowers so she could move forward with the Native Plant Nursery Pilot Project she is developing. I was joining her on a wildflower walkabout as an avid admirer of the treasured satin flower and one eager to support the Land Bank’s efforts to protect it.
Over several years, the Land Bank has been working to recover and restore Garry oak and prairie habitats on their preserves in the islands. To date, the majority of their work has been manually removing Douglas-firs, other woody species, and invasive plants from these once open habitats. Now they want to expand their efforts by planting locally sourced native grasses and wildflowers at Cady Mountain and the Westside Preserves on San Juan Island. One of the first steps in this process is to procure seeds from carefully selected species of native wildflowers and grasses that may presently be growing in these preserves but mostly in small numbers. Early priorities will be gathering seeds from camas, shooting star, spring gold, Oregon sunshine, Roemer’s fescue, possibly California oat grass and, surely, satin flower.
Satin flower is a member of the Iris family akin to blue-eyed grass. It is modest in size – if showy. Its six-tepaled blooms perch atop 12” stems with narrow, silvery-green, grass-like stem leaves. In bright sunlight, the pinkish purple flowers cast a lustrous sheen and thus its name satin flower. While relatively common in some regions of the Puget lowlands, here in the islands satin flower is uncommon. The plants that survive the spring bloom will produce brown, finely pitted seeds offering promise for the next generation. While long regarded by botanists as Sisyrinchium douglasaii the plant’s classification shifted in recent years to Olsynium douglassii retaining the species name after noted explorer David Douglas. Nomenclature aside, satin flower is a scintillating presence in any grassland setting.
Eliza arrived just as the clouds parted slightly to mitigate the overcast. Her enthusiasm for botanizing the preserve was apparent and we both smiled upon spying a far-off satin flower perched precariously along the bluff. The single magenta flower shone like a fiery punctuation mark rising from the silver lichens and evergreen mosses that had sheltered the over-winterer waiting its time to bloom. There would be several more satin flowers – and smiles - to come.
Eliza’s goal for the day was to identify as many individuals of this species as we could and to protect some of the vulnerable blooms from the threat of deer browse. In years past, we had both witnessed the heavy toll the deer took on this early blooming species. If the plant was to be more than just a remnant in this small patch of northwest prairie habitat it was going to need protection. Eliza came equipped with fencing materials to enclose some plants so the deer could not access them. If the plants survived, seeds would be gathered later in the year, raised in a nursery and, next year, out planted back into the preserve.
We started our walk along the bluff scanning rocky outcrops and freshly vegetated grassy knolls for signs of the delicate iris. Almost immediately we spied the emerging green shoots of another sought-after wildflower, shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii). Soon it would join satin flower with its own fiery pink blossoms eloquently demonstrating the ancient prairie roots of this place.
Under an old maple tree, Eliza found another satin flower in bloom and was excited to report a fly was visiting it. The plant sat close to the edge of the bluff so we were obliged to keep our distance. It was an interesting find, though, a less common pollinator here with the birds, bees, and butterflies. I did some research that evening and learned flies primarily pollinate small flowers that bloom under shade and in seasonally moist habitats. Among the local species they pollinate are skunk cabbage, goldenrod, and members of the Carrot family including Queen Anne’s lace.
And so our survey continued. We found several promising locations to place deer fencing and Eliza was eager to show me the area of the preserve that sustained an unexpected wildfire burn in September of 2012 and where more satin flowers were in bloom.
As we walked along the charred, uneven terrain, new vegetation had already taken hold. We were reminded that fire had been an important tool of the First People who cultivated camas on many prairie sites in the San Juans long before European settlement here. Fire was used to burn back the underbrush to make room for the camas beds and to rejuvenate nutrients in the soil. It is a practice utilized by restoration ecologists to this day.
Eliza noted that while native prairie plants are adapted to wildfire so, unfortunately, are many aggressive non-natives. It is often these non-native plants that appear first after a burn and, sure enough, the exotic Geranium molle (dovefoot geranium) was already carpeting the substrate with its celery green leaves. Hypochaeris radicata (hairy cat’s ear), Teasdalia nudicaulis (shepard’s cress), Dactylis glomerata (orchard grass), Trifolium dubium (small hop-clover) and Rumex acetosella (sheep sorrel) would all be expected to return in abundance possibly crowding out preferred native plants for the site.
Eliza pointed out two small experimental plots that she had established to explore whether seeding might be used to improve native plant diversity on the preserve, especially in the burn area. A twenty species seed mix including camas, shooting star, field chickweed, chocolate lily, buttercup, nodding onion, bare-stem desert parsley and pearly everlasting was broadcast onto the plots last November. Only time would tell how well the experiment works but it was encouraging to see Eliza examine a patch of soil and exclaim with delight, “Oh look, here’s a shoot coming out of this camas seed.”
We found more satin flowers in bloom by a small grove of bitter cherry; work had already been done to protect those plants from the deer. Walking back to our starting point, Eliza found shoots of another early native, small-flowered prairie star (Lithophragma parviflorum), and we were excited with the possibilities of having more of that delightful white bloom on the preserve.
Once Eliza’s evaluation of the area was complete she set about enclosing some of the early blooming satin flowers. We noticed in one area that the deer had already nibbled off the tips of the leaves and buds. It was heartening to know that now the Land Bank was being proactive in protecting the blooms of this and other wildflower species and moving forward with restoration at the Westside Preserve and elsewhere.
Eliza fenced four additional areas rife with the tiny green shoots of satin flower. The ephemeral blooms would last only through March and during that short time shooting stars, camas, prairie starflower, saxifrage and monkeyflower would join this native wildflower gathering and remind visitors that even small patches of prairie habitat can produce a glorious palette of colors so characteristic of an emerging island spring.
Eliza will be out through the spring and summer collecting seeds from other species of wildflowers that bloom at the Westside Preserve and elsewhere. Close monitoring may help answer questions about the rate of survival of the wildflowers, other threats to the plants, and data regarding what insects may be pollinating the native blooms.
It was great fun spending part of the afternoon with Eliza and the satin flowers. As Northwest natives, we both felt a kinship with this remnant of an ancient prairie ecosystem and for the wildflowers that have been blooming there for so long. I look forward to the time when the satin flowers, camas, shooting stars and other natives abound along this south-facing slope. The bees and butterflies will welcome the nourishing blossoms and islanders will enjoy the splendid view and be reminded that even a small piece of restored prairie enriches us all.
The Land Bank is looking for volunteers to participate in this pilot program. Support will be needed with every phase of the project from seed gathering and site monitoring to nursery care and, eventually, out planting of the new crop back to Cady Mountain and the Westside Preserve. If you are interested in joining Eliza in this program contact her at the Land Bank at [email protected] or 378-4402.
SAN JUAN NATURE NOTEBOOK BY SUSAN VERNON / RESTORING WILDFLOWERS © 2013 by Susan Vernon. All rights reserved. No part of this column may be reproduced in any form without the permission of the author.
Susan Vernon is the author of Rainshadow World – A Naturalist’s Year in the San Juan Islands.