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Originally published May 24, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 24, 2007 at 3:19 AM

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Natural Wanders

Lost wildflowers bloom again at Seward Park

Like phoenixes of photosynthesis, there are wildflowers blooming today in Seward Park that have not grown there for more than 100 years...

Special to The Seattle Times

Field notes


Garry oak

(Quercus garryana)

Puget Sound's only native oak, this striking deciduous tree has white-gray furrowed bark and round-lobed leaves. Resistant to fire, the oak withstood frequent burnings by Native Americans who used fire to manage the growth of desired plants and berries. Oak acorns were a staple food for those who visited and possibly lived along the shore between today's Seward and Martha Washington parks. They pounded and soaked the acorns to leach away bitter tannins.

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Like phoenixes of photosynthesis, there are wildflowers blooming today in Seward Park that have not grown there for more than 100 years. Thanks to a project that's enticing to botanists and butterflies alike, an oak ecosystem is being reborn alongside bicyclists and joggers in this popular urban park.

The environment in question is that of the Garry oak woodland/prairie, also known as the oak savanna. Historically known as Clark's Prairie (named for Seattle's third schoolteacher, who once owned it), the area stretching from Seward Park south to Martha Washington Park is home to the only remaining population of native oaks in Seattle. Prior to pioneer settlement, this is believed to be the site of Native American burning to promote growth of prairie plants such as camas lily, an important staple food.

Naturalist Stewart Wechsler is leading an effort to resuscitate this lost ecosystem — one painstaking seedling at a time. Hooked on nature since childhood, Wechsler's first love was butterflies, and this lepidopteran lean brought him full circle to nurturing the host plants of extirpated (locally extinct) Seattle species.

"It started with my passion for butterflies and grew into using them along with their host plants to generate excitement around protecting and, in this case, bringing back a natural ecosystem," Wechsler said, as he carefully hand-watered tiny starts of Pacific snakeroot and Menzies' larkspur — some barely two centimeters high.

He described how he envisions this south-facing slope in 10 years, with park picnickers ooohing as Sara's orangetip butterflies sip the nectar of tower mustard, and showy cream and black pale swallowtails chase each other around snowbrush flowers.

The mighty oak

If you go


Wildflowers among the oaks

Seward Park's two Garry oak woodland/prairie restoration areas are both located south of the Environmental Learning Center (currently under renovation) and playground.

The first can be found under a large madrona tree behind Picnic Shelter No. 1. Please stay behind the fence to view the plants. The second is located about 120 feet south of the south parking lot turnaround under three mature Garry oaks. The baby plants are marked with colored flags. Please stay on the grass to view them.

Currently in bloom are woolly sunflower, graceful cinquefoil, long-spurred violet, field chickweed and prairie buttercup. Test your ID skills and bring along a plant field guide such as "Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast" by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon (Lone Pine).

Where

Seward Park is at 5902 Lake Washington Blvd. S., Seattle

More information

206-684-4396 or www.seattle.gov/parks/parkspaces/sewardpark.htm

The grande dame of this ecosystem at large is the oak tree — the Puget Sound area's only native oak, Quercus garryana, commonly known as the Garry oak. On a windy day, this majestic deciduous tree presides over the landscape waving great fistfuls of thickly clustered leaves. Of Clark's Prairie's 54 native oaks, 30 grow in southern Seward Park, where Wechsler along with representatives from Seattle Parks, Washington Audubon and Friends of Seward Park planted the first oak woodland/prairie-associated wildflowers last fall. Now more than 20 species of plants, from the delicate blue-eyed Mary to the graceful chocolate lily, are being nurtured there.

The goal is to restore the understory of this small oak prairie site and encourage conservation by educating the public about the unique Garry oak ecosystem. A recent grant from the Washington Native Plant Society will allow the group to continue planting efforts, finance signage and produce an informational flier.

Wechsler, 50, was a child naturalist who by age 17 knew the names and habits of almost every wriggling, crawling and flying creature around his home, but after high school he strayed from his Muir-esque roots. About 10 years ago Wechsler was at a life crossroads and asked himself, what used to work for me? Soon afterward, at a prairie conservation event sponsored by the Nature Conservancy, Wechsler saw a "full-grown adult" chase a butterfly just as he had as a boy and realized he should once again be doing the same.

Remembering longingly childhood summers spent with a butterfly net glued to his side, he went in search of Seattle butterflies. He found few and realized he'd be more successful once he learned and found their host (caterpillar food) and nectar plants. He soon discovered that of 512 plants historically native to Seattle, 145 are considered lost.

"I thought if we got those back we'd get many of the butterflies back and see more fascinating creatures like the red-and-green-striped leaf hopper and the Western bluebird," Wechsler said. "A major key is getting the native plant community back with all its diversity."

Into the wild

Field notes


Garry oak

(Quercus garryana)

Puget Sound's only native oak, this striking deciduous tree has white-gray furrowed bark and round-lobed leaves. Resistant to fire, the oak withstood frequent burnings by Native Americans who used fire to manage the growth of desired plants and berries. Oak acorns were a staple food for those who visited and possibly lived along the shore between today's Seward and Martha Washington parks. They pounded and soaked the acorns to leach away bitter tannins.

Wechsler embarked on a mission to learn about the healthy habitats of the lost plants and begin to bring them back to the city. The majority of them were sun-loving species associated with butterflies and prairies, which led him to study Garry oak ecosystems in Thurston and Pierce counties, and Oregon's Willamette Valley. The plants he sought to repatriate were thriving in places that reminded him of the south-facing slope in Seward Park, which led to restoring the oak prairie there.

Finding suitable seedlings is not a question of just popping over to Molbak's to pick up a four-pack. It's a lesson in patience and timing: Wechsler salvages plants from bulldozed building sites and collects seed in the wild, ever careful to leave enough behind for the next generation.

"I want to use only wild genetic material," he explained. "Nursery flowers have the human touch, and won't help me bring back the heritage feel I want." He is zealous in his commitment to wild and local stock; he only collects seed and plants within about a 90-mile radius under 1,500 feet of elevation.

This attention to detail serves Wechsler well in the field. Going on a walk with him is a lesson in looking more closely. His keen eyes can spot butterflies flitting 50 feet away, the telltale movement of a beetle traversing the daisy jungle at his feet, or one lonesome acorn among a sea of leaves.

Wechsler believes his love of nature is instinctual, rooted in mankind's hunting and gathering past.

"There is an intrinsic excitement in learning about plants and animals tied to finding food and medicine," he said. "It was once a matter of survival and it hasn't been unwired yet."

Freelance writer Kathryn True of Vashon Island is a regular contributor to Northwest Weekend. Contact her through her Web site: www.kathryntrue.com

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