Washington native plant steward Scott Blackstock is mindfully stepping among newly mulched plants at Roxhill Bog, hunting for one of his favorites, rattlesnake plantain. With the singular...
Washington native plant steward Scott Blackstock is mindfully stepping among newly mulched plants at Roxhill Bog, hunting for one of his favorites, rattlesnake plantain. With the singular focus of a proud father, he wants to show off this delicate Northwest member of the orchid family.
“They were so careful with this mulch, I know it’s under one of these willows,” he continues, painstakingly scooping away woodchips in search of the plant’s telltale snakeskin leaf pattern. Park volunteers planted it here last winter and Blackstock would like to witness its first bloom a stalk of intricate pouched flowers. After several more minutes he stops momentarily, adding, “I think I can save it if I keep at it. It’s worth finding.”
For volunteers at this West Seattle park, this kind of commitment is not uncommon. Since the fall of 2000, a community-led effort has benefited from hundreds of such nurturing hands planting, weeding and mulching thousands of seedlings. Now children at the adjacent elementary school enjoy an outdoor classroom among sawbeak sedge, Labrador tea, bog laurel and giant bur-reed. Nesting red-winged blackbirds scold intruders, as the din of traffic almost disappears amid the hush of quaking aspen leaves.
And this spring, singing their seal of approval, Pacific tree frogs found Roxhill.
“People are surprised to learn that four years ago this place was covered in turf now there are trees here 20 feet tall,” said Jeremy Valenta, Roxhill project coordinator for Starflower, a nonprofit organization that focuses on native-plant restoration. “This is an amazingly rich and diverse plant landscape with about 150 native species.”
Equally important to the improved natural habitat are the benefits to human members of this community.
“Roxhill Bog is at an intersection and people criss-cross the trails through the middle of it every day,” said Valenta. “I get so excited when I see a park with so many different ways for people to enjoy it.”
A retirement community, low-income housing, an elementary school, a shopping center and a neighborhood of small homes border the park. Kids call to each other from the playground’s landmark wooden castle and ride bikes on pathways through the wetlands, while parents picnic nearby. Retired neighbors walk their dogs here, as the jack-in-the-box melodies of an ice-cream truck compete with the shouts of soccer players from the school next door.
In the 1950s, this was home to a vast marsh extending from the school all the way to the back of what is now the Bed, Bath and Beyond store in neighboring Westwood Village. When the marsh was filled in for development in the 1960s, surrounding businesses had to be built on 40-foot pilings to keep their foundations from sinking. At Roxhill’s play fields, the water refused to yield, leaving mushy areas nearly legendary in their ability to engulf ballplayers.
Starting with a Neighborhood Matching Fund grant, neighbors worked with the Seattle Parks Department, Washington Native Plant Society and others to try and undo what was considered progress 50 years ago. They knew the area was swampy, but what they uncovered was a surprise; 6 to 10 feet of sedge peat make this the only wetland of its kind in Seattle.
Peat forms when plants grow more quickly than they can decay. Over thousands of years the partially decomposed plant matter is compressed, creating peat soil. This spongy soil is ideal for holding and cleansing storm runoff water.
“In urban areas where there’s no habitat, these little fingernails of wetland can have exceedingly high value because they’re the only resource of their kind in an area,” said Tina Miller, King County’s volunteer coordinator for natural lands. “It’s essential habitat for birds and animals.”
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The wetland also plays an important role in what happens to creatures downstream. Roxhill Bog is the headwaters of Longfellow Creek, which drains a 2,000-acre watershed and is one of the few year-round free-flowing creeks in Seattle. Stream-restoration projects dot a three-mile pathway called the Longfellow Creek Legacy Trail. Longfellow provides habitat for salmon, cutthroat trout, red fox and ensantina salamanders.
“Especially in salmon-bearing creeks, what’s most concerning is the hydrology or how the water gets into the watershed,” said Katherine Lynch, senior environmental analyst for Seattle Public Utilities. “One of the most valuable things, particularly at headwaters like Roxhill, is the wetland’s ability to hold the water and mete it out slowly into the stream.”
Without a collection area, high water flow combined with the narrow channels common to urban creeks has deadly results for stream life. At Roxhill Bog, the peat soil acts as a giant sponge, storing storm runoff and releasing it gradually into Longfellow Creek. This keeps young fish, fish eggs and the food that sustains them from being washed out in a firehose effect.
Roxhill is still a work-in-progress and offers visitors the starkly contrasting palette of restoration “before and after.” In the newly planted areas, miniature sedges and ocean spray saplings pray for rain, while next door in phase one, 2-year-old plantings reach for the sky.
“It’s encouraging to see what you can accomplish in a few years that making improvements is not a 100-year process,” said Scott Blackstock, who pointed to the arrival of the frogs as an important milestone. “It proves the wildlife is out there just looking for a home.”
Kathryn True of Vashon Island and Maria Dolan of Seattle are co-authors of “Nature in the City: Seattle” (The Mountaineers Books, 2003).