Nurse Log Imagination—Hemlock, Huckleberry, and Salal

I’ve been wanting to do a nurse log as a kusamono planting for quite some time. Always had another project in the way. But recently the creative mood hasn’t led me to work with older trees in the midst of the pandemic, but rather new, fresh, young ones which give a feeling of forward momentum. And that is kusamono territory. It seemed a perfect time to finally head for the mountains to begin the hunt for materials.

Nurse logs are large fallen timber colonized by young trees. The Pacific Northwest forests of the future—the seeds of Western hemlock and Western red cedar—often get their start in the rotting wood of nutrient rich, moist nurse logs. And sometimes these big fallen trees expose their root systems, with soil still attached, offering a place for a cornucopia of plants to germinate.

Nurse log in the Pacific Northwest, showing the typical ‘straight-as-if-planted’ row of trees that germinated on the moss and rotting wood of a former giant (photo by Gerry Ellis).

If you look closely at our chosen ‘nurse stump’ you can see burned areas on it—evidence of a fire in the forest where John and I were picking around for a suitable log. The log, or rather stump with a snag of roots on it, is from a Western red cedar, the giveaways being the broad flare of the base and the thin shreddy bark.

We then collected several small plants—Western hemlock, evergreen huckleberry, and salal—to compose on our nurse stump.

Evergreen huckleberry, Vaccinium ovatum, a cheerful shrub which retains its shiny, tiny leaves through the mild winters here. And the salal, Gaultheria shallon, is a common understory plant sporting larger evergreen leaves.

Western hemlock, Tsuga heterophylla, is the largest hemlock in the world. It’s also one of our climax, late succession trees out here, meaning it comprises part of the final stage of forest succession to eventually form huge, stately, quiet stands along with Western red cedar. These stands are self-perpetuating in the dark spooky gloom of a mature Northwest forest. Nurse logs are mostly an old-growth phenomenon, with complex ‘structure’ (as I heard a naturalist call it once) that includes many types of forest history. I’ve seen char from ancient fires on nurse logs and stumps, and it’s hard not to leave those resilient and elastic forests without a sense of their regeneration and promise.

16″ H x 27″ L

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  1. Ray says:

    Beautiful nod to nature. Death and then new growth. Life goes on

  2. Roberto Lanahan says:

    I enjoy creating kusamono. It’s in the eye of the beholder. Kusamomo can be created with a local fare and represent the individual and the community. An added plus is that they are easier to move.

  3. John Nackley says:

    Thank you for a nice study of natural history and plant biology in such a picturesque way.

  4. gkmcdonnell says:

    Hey Michael,

    That is cool as anything! Beautiful Maestro!


    • paul3636 says:

      Love this post. I have a question, about 22 years ago went up Mt Reiner. On the way there where large trees that I assumed where red wood trees. since Than I was told they where not redwood. We could see forest clearing and replanting at the same spot. Can you tell my what kind of tree they where???? I would say holding hand it would take 5 people holding hands to circle some of the trees.

      • crataegus says:

        Hi Paul, yes there are some magnificent trees on the slops of Mt. Rainier. Three of the major Northwest trees can be found there, Western hemlock, Western red cedar, and Douglas fir. Douglas fir will be the biggest—the tallest at least (and is usually found where long ago there was a fire or a blowdown as it needs more light to get going than the others). The one that will look the most like a redwood is the Western red cedar, with a wide flared base and smooth, shreddy bark. There’s some boardwalks around several massive specimens at the Grove of the Patriarchs, a popular walk. But Western red cedar are found throughout much of the lower old-growth forest regions of the mountain.
        That’s an unbelievably big park, by the way. All the the peaks of the Cascade range (including Mt. Hood, our pet mountain down here in Portland) can fit into the single vast cone of Rainier.
        The furthest north the redwoods are found in forest settings is in the very last southern couple miles of coastal Oregon, just north of the California border. And they are not runty little things there, either… North of that, scattered along the coast, are some large single specimens that were planted by Native Americans. They traded seeds, and do grow well north of their native range.

      • paul3636 says:

        “Western red cedar are found throughout much of the lower old-growth forest regions of the mountain” that sounds like them “lower growth”. Magnificent trees. We had giant strait pines in New England but the British took most of them to make mast in late 1600 and the 1700. BTW those giant Cedars where the start of my love of trees and Bonsai.

  5. Paul Iwanaga says:

    I found a similiar trunk log in a park near our home in Belingham, WA. which looks like a Western red cedar. I have a couple of pine seedlings less than a year old. I pulled the seeds out of several different cones so I do not know what kind they are, although I suspect they are shore pines and one may be a white pine. I was going to photograph the nurse log as a stand alone object then toss it out. You have given me an additional purpose. I will look through the greenhouse and see what else I can add. I gave away my little Western red cedar at our last (February pre-coronavirus era) bonsai meeting. My only Western hemlock may have gotten too big for this project. I have vine maples, Japanese maples, and paperbark maples just beginning to sprout so they may be an option. My only question is what are you using for potting soil? Thank you for sharing this planting concept.

  6. Di Martin says:

    Huge fan of this look!

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