In our temperate Olympic Peninsula climate in the northwest corner of Washington state, a wild hedgerow is home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna. While many of you may conjure up images of the more managed hedges in the English countryside, those in our area form more naturally at the edges of fields perhaps where the stones and brush from the original field clearing was dumped. If undisturbed, the hedgerows develop into a conglomeration of life including many medicinal and food plants along with the fauna that pollinate, eat or find shelter within the structure of the hedge especially birds, insects, spiders, rodents, reptiles and toads. The bordering fields are visited by coyotes, raccoons, deer and the tall trees within and on the perimeter are spotting posts for ravens, eagles, owls and hawks.
Just a short walking distance from our home, there exists a fine example of a hedgerow. It borders a quarter mile of hayfield across the lane from a suburban housing development so there is a slight overlap of cultivars and wild plants which adds to its medicinal/food and beauty value.
The rampant growth of the hedge is its most striking feature. We recently did a plant inventory and although the Himalayan blackberry vines, common snowberry, oceanspray and Nootka rose are the dominant plants, the hedge is home to at least sixty other species, the majority of which have been introduced from abroad.
Each season has its all stars beginning in the late winter when the nettles, miner’s lettuce and chickweed start popping up, teasing our palates and reminding us to check our medicinal larder for what is yet to come. Shortly other plants make an appearance: equisetum, bur chervil, oxeye daisy, wild mustard, speedwell, yarrow, Herb Robert, dandelions, curly dock, salsify, lambs quarters, wild lettuce, tansy, cleavers, wild carrot, pineapple weed, burdock, california poppy, three species of peppermint, two species of mallow, two of plantain plus others we’re not well acquainted with yet.
Tree species tucked into the hedge include western red cedar, black cottonwood, hawthorn, mountain ash, bitter cherry, hazelnut and willow.
Berry vines, shrubs and bushes provide important food sources for the abundant bird and rodent life attracted to the field and hedge. The fruits of thimbleberry, saskatoons or serviceberry, snowberry, trailing blackberry, Himalayan blackberry, black gooseberry, red and blue elderberry, Indian plum or Oso, and two species of wild rose hips are eaten by local and migrating birds.
There’s nothing quite so striking as watching cedar waxwings descend on the saskatoon shrubs, their melodious feeding calls alerting others that the berries are ripe and ready for the picking. The snowberry and rose hips will provide food later in the winter when other food sources are scarce for chickadees, towhees, quail and robins.
Several species of mosses, lichen, mushroom and fern also grace the hedge. The lichen we are most familiar with is usnea; the mushroom being turkey tail.
And as fall rains begin and winter approaches, the nettle and chickweed make a final appearance before the frosts call a halt to their growth. Then it’s a waiting game until their new shoots again make an appearance in late winter.
Knowing that these food resources are important to the fauna of the area, we keep the harvest of our neighborhood hedgerow medicines and foods light, rather munching on a handful of berries and wild greens in season. Seeing an herb or food reminds us to check out our other sources for more serious collection.The wildlife that utilizes the environs of the hedgerow does much to enliven our curiosity and appreciation for the diversity needed to maintain healthy populations.