Botany by Boat: Plant Inventory in the San Juan Island

For the past week, I have been working with a Geocore intern to collect baseline data for the San Juans National Monument.  We, along with a number of amazing volunteers, collected information on recreation infrastructure and botanical communities on 11 islands over the course of 4 days. Some areas covered several hundred acres while others were less than a tenth of an acre in size. The vegetation spanned from thin soiled herbaceous balds to coniferous forests with dense (DENSE) understory shrubs. We visited islands with a long cultural history, sites of lighthouses which still attract thousands of visitors each year. We visited popular camping islands along the scenic bay. We also managed to monitor small islands in the archipelago, spots not known by the public with no human trails. Between island visits, we saw breathtaking views from the boat; of the nearby islands and of the Olympic and Cascade Mountain Ranges.


Cattle Point Lighthouse, San Juan Island

Plant composition varied marginally with each island. The more trafficked islands as expected had more invasives including English Ivy, Canadian Thistle, Himalayan Blackberry, Hairy cats ear, Dandelion, Rosefoot Geranium, as well as a myriad of grasses. Smaller islands tended to have western juniper trees
and Garry Oak, both species being uncommon elsewhere in the arcipelago. Regarding the prettier characteristic flowers of the San Juan Islands, we found
Great Camas , Death Camas, Nootka Rose, Nodding Onion, Hayacinth Brodia, Bicolor Lupine, Common Paintbrush, Woodland Strawberry.

Great Camas

Great Camas

Spring Botany in the San Juan Islands



My name is Jen.  I am writing and working from the San Juan Islands National Monument this summer,  where I will be helping to create a baseline biological database for monument lands.  If you aren’t familiar with the area, the San Juans lie in Washington’s Puget Sound, roughly halfway between Vancouver, BC and Seattle, WA.  From quaint village scenery to rugged grasslands, these islands hold some of Washington State’s most beautiful landscapes.  In the span of a 30 minute car ride (hour bike ride), you might pass protected harbors with anchored sailboats, picturesque churches surrounded by sheep pasture, and mixed forest ending with gnarled krummholz battered by ocean wind, usually ending with coastal bluffs looking out to crashing waves.  Not too shabby.  I have been living here for the past six months and am thrilled that I am getting to live in this beautiful spot doing the type of work I feel passionate about.  I’m equally stoked to be living somewhere long enough to get down to some gardening.

The monument land presents an interesting challenge in terms of monitoring.  Unlike the expansive rangeland usually owned by the BLM, the monument consists of just over 900 acres, most of that on small islands and disjunct parcels of land.  This land is generally heavily vegetated, comparatively lush.  A lot of these areas are heavily visited, with three lighthouses on BLM land and a number of destination locations.


Lunch break at Patos Island Lighthouse, one of the heavily used tourist destinations in the San Juan Islands


Cattle Point Lighthouse, San Juan Island.

Considering these and a few other factors, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around what i want to be recording in this areas.  One of my main focuses in this early stage is to understand the environmental indicators and to figure out how to best use standard baseline monitoring protocol in this non-standard area.  My other focus in this planning stage of the project is to do some vegetation mapping based on previously created databases.

Though I’ve been in the office most of April, I have managed to spend some sunny afternoons outside.  There is a huge local enthusiasm for plants so I’ve enjoyed opportunities to botanize with a number of people and learn really cool stuff about the local flora.  There are a few federally or state endangered species and there are lots of unique plant communities.  I thought I’d share a few of these pretty plants I happened upon during some of these walks.



Sedum lanceolatum on Iceberg Point, Lopez Island. In terms of stonecrops, the islands also have Sedum spathulifolium (broadleaf stonecrop) and Opuntia fragilis (brittle prickly pear cactus).



The 10+ petals of Ranunculus californicus (california buttercup), Iceberg Pt. This is considered nationally stable but critically endangered in Washington state.


Cotyledons of Lupinus littoralis (seashore lupine), Iceberg Pt. I couldn’t identify this for weeks. I was a little shocked when I saw lupine leavings sprouting up. Mystery solved.


Viola adunca, Iceberg Pt


Gooseneck barnacles Iceberg Pt. Did you know you can eat them? They have really nice scallop/abolone-like flesh.


I’m looking forward to a fun plant-based summer and I hope you are too!