I was strolling through the woods near Spokane the other day when it occurred to me: A lot of us don’t have the keenest grasp of local nature. We don’t know our aspen from our allium.
So today, I present “The Inland Northwest for Dummies (Nature Version),” so that you can do what I like to do: Bore my family and friends to tears with superficial, and occasionally correct, knowledge of the natural world.
What’s that pine? – Mother Nature, in her infinite generosity, has given us a foolproof way to figure out the difference among our three main pine species: ponderosa pine, white pine and lodgepole pine. Just grab hold of some needles and see how many are in each bundle.
Lodgepole pine: Two needles per bundle.
Ponderosa pine: Three needles per bundle.
White pine: Five needles per bundle.
By the way, “pine trees” are those tall things with long, green needles.
The first colors of spring – It’s exhilarating to see those first wildflowers of spring in our woodlands – and it’s so embarrassing to call them “those yaller flowers over yonder.”
Two of the first wildflowers of spring are blooming right now in profusion on our hillsides:
•Buttercups – Which look like five-petaled cups of, you know, Parkay margarine.
•Grass widows – A perfect, single purple-blue flower atop a single grasslike stalk. They just started blooming last week and they’re all over our woods.
And coming on strong – If you can identify only one Inland Northwest wildflower, this is the one it should be: the arrowleaf balsamroot. It looks like a showy bouquet of bright yellow sunflowers. The big wooly leaves are shaped like giant arrowheads. Their leaves are shooting up out of the ground right now, and a few are already in bloom. Within the next month, they’ll turn entire hillsides yellow.
The four birds everyone in the Inland Northwest should know – I know, I know, birds are confusing. Most are small, brown and boring.
But try to learn these four nonsmall, nonbrown and nonboring ones:
•Great blue heron – Giant, blue-grey monsters standing on stilt-like legs in our creeks, ponds and lakes. Think “pterodactyl.”
•Red-tailed hawk – If you see a flash of red as a hawk wheels on the air currents, that’s a red-tailed hawk. It’s probably still a red-tailed hawk even if you don’t see a flash of red. This is by far our most common hawk.
•Osprey – They’re black and white and they like to dive down and snatch fish out of the water. But they are not eagles, as some people think. They’re ospreys and soon they will return to our lakes and rivers by the hundreds. We have more ospreys in the summer than practically any other place on Earth.
•Northern flicker – You need to know this one, partly because it’s so annoying. It’s our big, noisy woodpecker with a wide repertoire of insistent squawks, squeaks and Klaxon-like calls. It also likes to hammer repeatedly on telephone poles or your siding. Yet the best reason to know it is this: It’s one of our most beautiful birds, with a red mustache, red feather shafts and clown-like dots on its breast.
The one shrub to know – Shrubs are tough, too, because most of them are just, you know, bushes. But you should get to know the serviceberry, also known as the saskatoon, because it will be covered with beautiful white flowers later this spring. And then it will produce a big crop of edible purple berries.
The serviceberry was one of the most important plants – of any kind – to the native people who have lived here for thousands of years.
So, if you’re going to live here, too, here’s an idea: Maybe you should get to know it as well.