Plant I.D. and a Late Summer Break

Do you know PlantSnap? It’s a three-dollar app that uses artificial intelligence to identify plants from a photo taken with a smart phone. On my first try, it provided two out of three correct identifications (the third plant was pretty obscure).

It’s wonderfully August – time for a break and for spirits to rise outdoors. I’ll be back when the days grow short, and I’ve managed some drawings. Enjoy this last month of summer, and thank you always for reading, comments, and messages!



Mushrooms have been much on my mind. They’re everywhere in the woods – but I select them from the shelf at the Food Co-op. This time of year wild mushrooms like chanterelles join the ones local mushroom growers provide year round like shiitake and cremini. Portobellos are a favorite. (They fill a bun so nicely!) Jack Bishop’s “Portobello Mushrooms with Red Wine and Oregano” is quick and delicious.

But now also, I have mushrooms in the house – or at least the potential for mushrooms. A “blob” in a plastic tote (a gift from our builder) is allegedly going to sprout shiitake mushrooms! I’m following a schedule: misting for two weeks – then dry, then submerge, and start over. I’m on day four so not much to see yet – but it’s an exciting thought. The builder says it works and he’s usually right.

Now I’m in the midst of making “Polenta Gratin with Mushrooms and Tomato” – a Deborah Madison recipe. (I love Deborah Madison – she never lets me down. She explains and inspires always. I never pick up my cluttered-with-sticky-notes copy of “Vegetarian Cooking for Everybody” without encountering something pleasing to cook.)

Today I’ll make the firm polenta and refrigerate. I’m actually looking forward to stirring for the entire recommended 30-45 minutes – this is for company so I want it to be good. Deborah says it’s the “time spent cooking that brings out the full corn flavor.” (She also says it’s a good time to catch up on reading.) When cooked, half of the polenta gets poured out into a baking dish and the other onto a baking sheet, wrapped with plastic film and refrigerated.

Putting the rest of it together looks easy for tomorrow. I have a mixture of mushrooms – around a pound – to slice, and add along with garlic mashed with salt, to olive oil cooking with an onion, bay leaves, thyme and marjoram. Then add half cup of dry white or red wine and simmer till reduced and add two cups of tomato puree or crushed tomatoes in puree. Simmer a little longer, “taste for salt and season with pepper.”

The tomato-mushroom sauce gets spread over the polenta in the baking dish and covered with grated provolone and Parmesan. Another layer of polenta (Deborah warns that it might be necessary to cut it into smaller pieces before placing over the sauce). Cover with the remaining sauce and cheeses.

I like the description of this dish as “hearty and straight-forward” and the thought of baking till it’s “bubbling and hot throughout” – about 25 minutes. Along with greens from the CSA and an apple crisp, this should make for a festive, fall Friday night.

Regret Analysis

My husband is apt to apply “regret analysis” to decision making – will we be sorry if we don’t do something? It’s not always possible to know how the regret might lodge, but one gray morning, deciding whether to hike or not, we acknowledge that dry hiking days are numbered. My old friend always says: “You won’t know if you don’t go.” So we set out.

It felt good to pack up a portable breakfast of peanut butter sandwiches with blueberry jelly on Seedy bread, a big bunch of grapes, and tea in cups-to-go. We headed for Mount Zion – a short hike, but a challenge with an elevation gain of 1300 feet in two miles.

The maples begin to turn and lean out yellow over the road along Discovery Bay, and traffic is lighter. Signs of autumn –  like the chilly and damp parking lot at the trailhead.

Littered with sienna brown leaves fallen from surrounding rhodendron, the trail climbs between mossy rocks and narrow trunks of closely growing trees. Bracken just begins to bronze. Salal, kinnikinnick, and moss-covered downfalls crowd the sides of the path.

The ascent up Zion is steady, not relentless, but steady up. Half an hour along, I shed fleece, happy for the easing of crochets in joints and muscles. Breaks in the trees reveal Mount Townsend across the way. The Townsend trail is so much harder and longer that it surprises me to reach the gravelly small summit of Zion in just an hour.

Ribes, ocean spray, and many rhododendron surround this little rock outcropping at the top. A cloudbank obscured the view below. But in places the sun, shining through thin clouds above us, lit up parts of the cloud below – like sunshine coming through a window onto the floor. Cold and quiet – a bee dozed on a wizened blossom of fireweed, a lone squirrel chattered, but no birdsong.

We drove home another route – on Center Valley Road through Washington farmland – barns and fields – then stopped at Red Dog’s farmstand looking for eggs. It’s fun to drive the farm road beside rows of kale and strawberries, and buy huge, delicious sweet carrots to chomp.

Home to a lot of the day still intact – and no regrets!

Berries for Birds

While outdoors to cut little stems of salal berries and evergreen huckleberries to paint – and earlier in the day picking blueberries – I kept noticing the silence. It’s broken only by the unmistakable “chick a dee dee dee” of chickadees. It’s comforting to hear them – calmer than the many-voiced busyness of spring, a mellow twitter hinting of the coming autumn.

I read that birds often stay hidden in late summer and early fall. After the time of breeding and raising their young, songs and territorial announcements being over for the year, many birds molt, replacing worn feathers with new. Bushes thick with leaves and berries make disappearing easy.

Another theory suggests that benevolent weather and plentiful food encourage birds go further afield to eat and store up fat. Perhaps our year-around residents, like towhees and juncos, leave the berries here for later to find when they return. Except for the blueberries, these berries belong to the birds.

The Bluff Thicket

Fewer deer live out here on the bluff than in some parts of town, so it’s mostly a privilege to see them so close by. They eat pineapple weed and cat’s ears from the lawn, and offerings from the bluff thicket. A doe and her fawn visit nearly every morning – the fawn all gawky exuberance – the mother more cautious. Skittish sometimes – a sudden noise leads to a deer exit offstage, head nervously bobbing in a back and forth loop.

When we bought our property the lawn edged right to the bluff and then fell over. The bluff is undercut in places, but it isn’t a sheer drop all along – from the beach you can see clumps of stabilizing trees and shrubs.

The first sight of the bluff scared me. My thought was “Oh no, not a cliff, that’s not what I had in mind.” But I returned the next morning, sat on the picnic table at the bluff’s edge, drank a cup of tea from a shop in town, and thought “Oh yes.”

We built a fence the first year – one of those ubiquitous green-metal-wire with white-topped-posts fences, and placed it back from the bluff with the hope that plants could fill in, and it would disappear.

The abrupt and naked edge became an impenetrable blockade the height of the fence – a tangle of salal, wild roses, honeysuckle, ferns, vetch, and native blackberry. (This year a single stalk of Columbia lily with spotted and reflexed petals emerged above the thicket.) We can trim the thicket a little, by reaching out from this side of the fence. When sheared this way, the ocean spray blooms in a froth – and looks just like its name.

Later, when the thicket is full of salal berries, a deer will jump the fence – daintily leap from a stopstill and land carefully – wallow in belly-high berries, eat its fill, and jump back.

Pleasures outweigh any loss of view – bees at work become the sound of the thicket, and hummingbirds hover near vetch blossoms. Birds perch on branches near three wooden chairs in a small, well-mowed spot. Last summer when my young friend and her mom came to visit, we sat happy hours there, listening to songs of sparrows, drinking tea, and taking turns reading a book out loud. Summer!

Sara Stein, in her book, “My Weeds: A Gardener’s Botany,” muses about leaving her gardens: “If I have to abandon them, I would like to abandon them to a natural succession for which they have been prepared, and to which they will take gracefully.” She continues: “It occurred to me that there might be a way to mimic natural gardens so that, as neglect becomes necessity, their character will carry them with dignity through their advancing years.”

When recent visitors asked if the thicket was all natural – meaning did I plant any of it – I wished I could take credit, because it answers Stein’s hope – a lovely jumble of favorite natives – supporting wildlife – giving pleasure – and lasting for a long time.

Native Plants

My husband recites when needed a lot of statutes, from both Alaska and Washington. He defines words, and explains concepts from philosophy and events from history for me. But he’s a beginner at plant names.

When we first came here, I painted a series of familiar plants for his birthday. I did it to get to know the plants – specially the native plants – like the boy who buys his mom a fire truck.

Since last week was Native Plant Week in Washington, it reminded me to revisit our efforts. On a hike a few years ago in a patch of familiar-to-me wildflowers, I recited their names in a schoolmarmy, irritating way, suggesting my husband learn a few. He agreed, but only three plants at a time. “You have a tendency to clutter things,” he said.

So on a walk in the old fort close to home, I began again. Spotting trailing blackberry as we climbed a hill, white blossoms on prickly vines, I asked for an i.d. The confident answer came back: “Lilies.”

Moving on, looking for better success, I was struck again by the orderly way the natural world provides food. Rarely do all flowers or berries on a native shrub appear at the same time. Similarly, the bloom time of species is a progression of bounty through the season.

Tiny Indian plums already form, smaller than the end of a little finger, already in that plum shape. My husband easily names them – and earns bonus points for the added information that they were the first native plant to bloom.

White flowers on a vine (or thin branches) leaning over the trail puzzle me, but I ask anyway. The answer immediately provided, because they resemble a vine from Midwestern boyhood: “Honeysuckle.” This doesn’t seem quite right.

A stretch of trail is fragrant with many of the next plant – corrugated leaves alternate up the stem to a frothy, creamy-white cluster of blossoms. The answer is: “Solomon’s Seal.” Very close. False Solomon’s seal.

By now I had exceeded my quota of quizzable plants, but I can’t resist asking about the tiny, pale pink bells of salal blossoms. I offer a hint: shiny thick leaves – the most common Washington native plant?

The answer: “Clematis.”

We have some work to do. But all my testing (as is often the case) reveals my own uncertainty and my pleasure in learning the names.

The puzzling white flower, the misnamed honeysuckle, grows everywhere right now. I brought a stem inside and with the help of the bible of Northwest coast plants – Pojar, entertaining as well as informative and never irritating –– learn it is saskatoon (also called serviceberry), and that we can watch for it in August when its highly regarded berries will ripen. And can be identified!