History goes to ground

Little pieces — very little pieces — of Whidbey Island’s past are growing. For the last few years, Au Sable Environmental Institute on Central Whidbey’s Smith Prairie has been collecting and planting acorns, then nurturing Garry oak seedlings. Last fall, volunteers have been planting groves of the tiny trees.

“It’s wet, a great time to plant,” Au Sable Site Manager Steve Byler said. “We have 300 one-year-old seedlings to set out before the ground freezes.”

With caring, and luck, large oaks from little acorns will dot the landscape with wind-bowed, contorted branches and distinctive deeply furrowed bark. But sprawling vistas of majestic oaks won’t be seen for years. Garry oaks grow slowly and Central Whidbey’s dry, wind-buffeted climate has never encouraged extravagant bursts of growth.

“In Oregon, an oak that could grow 12 inches in a year may only grow six inches here,” Byler said.

But these little sprouts are getting every chance to live to produce acorns.

In 2002, the first Garry oaks were set out. During last summer’s drought, regular watering kept 85 percent of that initial planting of 400 seedlings alive.

Tall collars of chicken wire surround the inches-tall seedlings to protect them from being stepped on or mowed over. The high wires prevent deer from chomping on the delicate trees.

Oak seedlings and alfalfa contain the same nitrogen levels. “This makes oaks deer candy,” Leigh Smith said as he and Jill Eelkema prepared to set out an oak by excavating a deep hole and loosening the rocky prairie soil. They gently set the seedling’s rootball in the hole then firmed the soft black dirt. Next they spread a square of dark plastic and teased the seedling through a slit.

The plastic will keep moisture in the rapidly draining soil.

“It will keep other plants, especially weeds, from sprouting and smothering the oak,” Eelkema said.

While Garry oaks might be the most easily recognized native plant on Whidbey Island, Au Sable has been growing a variety of native plants from grasses to bulbs. Last year, volunteers planted more than 9,000 native prairie plants that had started as seeds collected from the prairie plants or other populations of natives on Whidbey Island.

In addition to planting, Au Sable is allowing the prairie to regenerate itself. Islands of shrubs have been removed. Nootka rose and snowberry may be native, but these robust, fast-growing plants choke other natives. Under the dense islands of vegetation, thick moss carpets the ground.

“It’s been interesting to see what natives return after we cut the shrubs,” Byler said. Shrub islands grow out from a center, he said. Volunteers and students noticed that more natives grew spontaneously in the outer rings where thick vegetation had existed for shorter lengths of time. But even in the center of the islands, some very resilient natives have sprouted.

Byler said chocolate lilies came up. This hardy species never bloomed but the bulbs sent up vegetation.

“We knew some of these shrub islands were probably 50 years old,” Byler said. “To see any natives return on their own was amazing.”

Au Sable has grown many Garry oaks and plugs of Roemer’s fescue, a grass that characterizes prairie in “seedlots” — where pheasant runs once stood when the site was the state’s game farm.

Soon, a greenhouse will go up, allowing Au Sable to grow more plants locally and increase knowledge on raising native species.

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