EACH SEATTLE PARK has a unique character, and each offers unique opportunities for horticultural investigation. One particularly interesting (and aptly named) location is Discovery, the city’s largest park.

Discovery Park is at the northwestern edge of Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood, on a large promontory positioned in such a way that it earned both a lighthouse and a strategic military base. Legend has it that the neighborhood surrounding the park got its name in 1856, when a surveying team mistook the future park’s coastal madrona trees for magnolias.

In addition to providing tidbits of historical trivia, the park is abundantly rich in natural history. Its combination of beach, prairie and forest habitats attracts hundreds of species of birds and a host of marine and terrestrial mammals. In fact, the park is such a vibrant ecosystem that black bears and cougars have been known to explore its offerings.

The park also provides plenty of opportunities for plant-watching. In particular, Discovery provides a perfect opportunity to view the early stages of Pacific Northwest forest succession.

Ecological successions are sequences of species appearance and disappearance over time. After a disturbance such as a forest fire or logging, a forested area will be first repopulated by ground covers such as stinging nettle and fringecup, then by pioneer tree species such as red alder and bigleaf maple. Eventually, these deciduous trees will give way to the region’s climax species, western hemlock, Douglas fir and western red cedar. These coniferous trees live much longer in our climate, and their appearance ushers in a more permanent, stable forest ecosystem.

When surveyed in the mid-1800s, the future Discovery Park was covered by a mature coniferous forest. However, nearly all of those trees were cleared in the late 1890s to prepare the site for the Fort Lawton Army base. The site was heavily trafficked until the base was decommissioned in the 1970s, at which point the forest began to re-emerge.


Today, when exploring the forested sections of the park, you’ll notice the primacy of the maple-alder forest. As pioneer species, these trees tend to grow quickly and have relatively short life spans. Red alders can reach 60 to 80 feet tall by the time they are 20 years old, but live for 100 years or less. Bigleaf maples have a bit more longevity, up to 200 years, but still are relatively short-lived trees that eventually pass the baton to the hemlocks and cedars that grow up in their shadows.

As with any recently disturbed site, the local pioneer plants at Discovery have had to compete with a host of invasive species, including Himalayan blackberry and scotch broom. Fortunately, recent restoration efforts have made huge improvements at the park, clearing acres of invasives and replanting the areas with suitable natives. The only possible downside to the restoration work is that it’s no longer possible to visit the field of scotch broom that is so prominently featured towering above Eddie Vedder in Temple of the Dog’s music video for “Hunger Strike.” Hopefully, Seattle Parks and Recreation is in the process of designing an interpretive sign to mark this historic location. If not, we might have to start a letter-writing campaign.

Because of the huge numbers of alders and maples at the park, now is a perfect time for a visit. Both species flower in the early spring, so keep an eye out for their hanging catkins and racemes as you appreciate these great native trees in the prime of their lives.

At 534 acres, and with nearly 12 miles of walking paths, Discovery Park is a lot of ground to cover. It’s worth making a few visits so you can really explore the area’s varied environments.

The easiest way to get acquainted with the park is to hike the 2.8-mile Loop Trail. This will take you through extensive sections of forest and cut across the large prairie overlooking the Sound. Happy trails!