Not enough time in the woods for me these days, but once I get there relief washes over me. My legs stretch into hiking rhythm, my senses wake up, and I am prone to moments of wonder and joy.
June is a floriferous time, especially at the lower elevations. Higher up, muddy spring still follows the retreating snow. Here in Johnson Creek, the forest is fully embraced by summer. I can’t help but imagine the woods as a 3-D tapestry in motion. Over my head, the mellow tune of the Swainson’s thrush weaves in and out with the bright sharp calls of warblers. The buzzy notes of olive-sided flycatchers add a bit of rough texture. The sound of the creek is the underlying chord. The trees give vertical structure, but the stand is changing, opening. Firs infected with root rot have been tipping over for years, giving the trail crew plenty of work. The spruce budworm infestation that swept through about ten years ago defoliated many of the trees. Some died and some are slowly recovering. The trees that were not tasty to the budworms, such as western white pine and western larch, stand out in contrast to the gray ghostly trunks of the grand firs that didn’t make it.
The forest floor is perhaps my favorite part of the tapestry. I tend to look down, partly to watch where I put my feet and partly to notice plants. Before the summer plants leaf out, there is the complex tangle of sticks, twigs, needles, cone scales, skeletons of last year’s leaves and ferns in various states of decay. Through this mat of detritus, trilliums push up their tightly coiled green leaves and unfold into tender white blossoms. The vanilla leaf sends up dark purplish thready stems with tiny flattened leaves on the ends. These grow and open into umbrellas of three leaves. Flat leaves like these are solar collectors for the light filtering down through the conifers. Midsummer sun dapples the green expanse. The creamy flowers poke up like fingers pointing at the sky.
Vanilla leaf was named for its scent. It is especially fragrant when dried. I confess I don’t know where the vanilla bit comes from. To my nose, it smells sweet and flowery, a little like recently-cut hay. Sometimes I have walked through a big patch on a warm day and been lifted nearly off my feet (in a good way) when the scent hit the olfactory part of my brain. Oh my, one of those moments to stop and savor.
I read that native people of the Northwest used vanilla leaf as an insect repellent, for skin problems and tuberculosis. Interestingly, it contains coumarin, a natural blood thinner. The dried leaves can also be made into a tea, which I read about here.
Maybe someday I’ll try it. For now, I am content to admire vanilla leaf as part of the rich and changing midsummer tapestry.
Happy Summer Solstice to all readers, and thanks for your company along the trail…