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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

A Landscape of Brush

by Carol Mack

Westerly winds blow in from the Pacific Ocean, warm and wet. As the clouds rise over the coastal mountains and Cascades, they cool—dropping large amounts of precipitation on the west slopes, and leaving a drier “rain shadow” on lee side of the ranges. The air masses continue eastward across the basin, picking up moisture as they go. They hit our inland mountains, and once again they rise. The precipitation they deposit over Pend Oreille County creates a band of wet forest which is much more similar to the coast than to drier regions in between. But here, much of the annual precipitation occurs as snow. The snowmelt in late spring and early summer provides much of the moisture required for plant growth. And plants do spring forth abundantly in this place.

Our drier Ponderosa pine sites used to be much more open and grassy in the days when regular wildfires were allowed to thin them out. Our moister mixed conifer forests have always been described as having a luxuriant understory that springs up anywhere sunlight can penetrate. But whenever you are in the county, it is very likely you are looking out at native shrubs and trees ranging from snowberry and ninebark to chokecherry, Ceanothus, mountain maple, syringa, huckleberry, spirea, and a host of others.

Humans tend to get a bit claustrophobic in thick spots. We generally dismiss dense undergrowth as “brush” to be tromped down, hacked through, or rooted out. “Just like a park,” we say, in approval of a landscape where we have an unobstructed view through the trees.

But the understory shrubs and trees all have their place in the system and their stories to tell. While we are learning how to manage “brush” to reduce wildfire risk and create the right look around our homes, let’s also learn what these plants have to offer. The wildlife we value is here because of these plants, and will not be here if we completely eliminate “brush” from our homesites.

Take some time to look closely at Pend Oreille “brush”. Get a good plant book to help with identification. Visit the Master Gardener native plant demonstration garden at 4th and Fea in Newport, or bring a branch in to the Extension office or Ione Community Center plant clinics on Thursdays. And watch, smell, feel, hear, and even taste the magnificent variety of wild plants growing here. When it comes to brush, we can use all of our senses to expand our sense of place.

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