Cascadia Revealed

A Guide to the Plants, Animals, and Geology of the Pacific Northwest Mountains


By Daniel Mathews

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“A love poem to the living things that inhabit the mountains and rivers of Washington, coastal Oregon, and southwestern British Columbia.” —Saul Weisberg, executive director, North Cascades Institute
More than just a field guide, Cascadia Revealed is the essential trailside reference for naturalists, hikers, and campers. With engaging prose and precise science, Dan Mathews brings the mountains alive with stories of their formation and profiles of the plants, animals, and people that live there. This is the perfect overview to help you discover the wonders of the region.
  • Covers the Coast and Cascade Ranges, the Olympic Mountains, the Ranges of Vancouver Island, and the Coast Mountains of southwestern British Columbia
  • Describes more than 950 species of plants and animals
  • User-friendly, color-coded layout, with helpful keys for easy identification



For over a century we writers of field guides preached that you readers should learn Latin names because, in contrast to common names, they are used consistently from one region, or nation, or book, or decade, to another.

We lied!

Sorry. Or maybe it was true up until a few decades ago.

For example, the common names red elderberry and blue elderberry have been solidly established for a century or two, but you find three different scientific names for the blue and five for the red, and that’s just in recent, respected floras.

Scientific names are in turmoil. One reason is decentralization. Taxonomic judgments used to be made by a few senior taxonomists at a few major institutions examining animal skeletons or pressed, dried herbarium specimens. Today’s taxonomists have more time and more specimens, and often have seen the live organism in its native habitat, where differences may be more visible. And they have DNA sequencing.

There’s also a divergence between two main functions of scientific names. Carl Linnaeus’s intent was to standardize the naming of organisms so that scientists could communicate about them without confusion. He also sorted organisms into ranked, nested categories based on their degree of similarity.

Linnaeus’s system had served Western science for a century by the time Darwin published On the Origin of Species. At that point, taxonomists began to say that Linnaeus’s ranked, branching categories might also represent a family tree of evolutionary descent. That became the second function of scientific names. It was a marriage of convenience, and like others it often proves inconvenient. Molecular biology offers a level of accuracy in drawing the family tree that Darwin never dreamed of, and taxonomists have leapt at the opportunity. They virtually all agree that scientific names should reflect evolutionary descent, but also that the Linnaean-ranked branches are a terrible fit for the real tree of life. Many have dropped the notion of rank having any absolute meaning; that is, calling something a genus does not mean it is in any way equivalent to other genera in breadth or value, it just means that it groups some species below it, and is grouped within the family above it. (So don’t worry: demoting Animalia from being one of the two kingdoms to being one of several kingdoms within one of three domains does not mean that animals are now less important than Archaea, which are a domain.) But few taxonomists are ready for a divorce from ranked branches.

From the other side of the marriage—field biologists and field guide writers and users—the problem is that the initial purpose of Linnaean names is ill-served: names are well on their way to being too unstable to facilitate communication. Thanks to internet speed, authorities today tend to adopt name changes soon after they are published. In several cases (Stipa, Tamias), authorities drop a long-established name and then readopt it ten or fifteen years later, after a new study comes out.

Recent taxonomic revisions split a species (or a genus) far more commonly than they lump two of them together. In the age-old war between “splitters” and “lumpers,” splitters are ascendant. A definition of species that many favor is “the smallest population or group of populations within which there is a parental pattern of ancestry and descent and which is diagnosable by unique combinations of character states.” If the species is the smallest useful taxon, there’s little use for subspecies or varieties. Many newly described species are cryptic, meaning that they are identifiable only by genetic analysis—not by anything visible, not even under a microscope, nor by simple chemical tests.

(Some revisions are based solely on molecular analysis of genes, but many others evaluate a wide range of clues to evolution. Looking at plants, for example, they may consider insects that coevolved with plants as pollinators, fungal partners as well, and unusual chemical compounds the plant produces. They take a broader view than Linnaeus did when he classified plants by their flower structure. But analyses based solely on genes may take over in the future, which would make sense and simplify the process, if genes are the last word on evolutionary descent anyway.)

Taxonomists are aware of their customers’ discomfort. Some try to reassure us: “This is a necessary but temporary phenomenon that is needed to correct our unnatural classifications.” When exactly will this phenomenon be done? From others I hear that the pace of revision will only accelerate as technology improves. Some see our pleas for stability as a threat to the advancement of knowledge—“folk taxonomy weakening 21st-century science. … ‘Stable taxonomy’ obscures attempts to reconstruct Earth history” and “weakens the ability to map biodiversity.”

(Not all scientists studying evolutionary descent are so embattled over naming: some see naming as a distraction, and prefer to publish relationship trees without concerning themselves with scientific names.)

Conservation politics are a hidden hand tipping the scales in favor of splitting. When you name more species, you’re seeing more biodiversity, they say. That sounds like semantic quibbling. More concretely, if you name newly diagnosed taxa at the level of species rather than subspecies, then there are more endangered species, and stronger legal grounds for protecting them. Some splitters accuse their critics of shilling for anti-conservationist powers. Those critics, on the other hand, worry that rapid proliferation of endangered species (by splitting) will overwhelm species-protection programs (and budgets) and undermine public trust.

As a field guide writer, I think that my readers are interested in the natural history of things we can see out there. It will be hard to care about (cryptic) species whose own authors can’t identify them in the field.

But let’s step back and remember that in the real world, Nature has never heard of “species.” The web of life does not break down into discreet species. That’s bound to be the case; just think about it. If species A and B are related, that means they have a common ancestor. Was the common ancestor species A, or B, or some other species X? At what moment did it transform from X to A and B? Necessarily, there was a time when species X had two or more populations that were on the cusp of becoming A and B. Some such transitions were relatively brief, but some undoubtedly stretched out over thousands of years.

Our present day is just a moment—actually an exceptionally fast-changing moment—in the history of evolution. A portion of today’s organisms are in the throes of speciating, to some degree. While some pairs of related species are just what we want species to be—discreet and non-interbreeding—many others appear to be discreet in some locales, but where they meet up they act like they’re one species: they interbreed more or less freely, and their characteristics intergrade. Some large and diverse genera, like lupines, hold dozens of species, almost any two of which would probably hybridize where they get the chance. Yet other species pairs are the reverse: they appear to be identical, but do not interbreed. Those are cryptic species.

“Family trees” of relationship are also something of an imaginary construct. Fairly often, evolution is reticulate—a net rather than a tree, because lines of descent can converge as well as diverge. Or the two species in a genus may be “parent and child,” a relationship misrepresented by tree branches.

If plant and vertebrate animal species are a fairly amorphous concept, fungal and one-celled species are even more so. Their breeding is more often asexual, and even when it is sexual it often works differently from how that works in plants and animals. The question of what is an individual gets difficult as well.

Be that as it may, the scientific project of delineating the course of evolution is progressing at a thrilling pace, thanks to technological advances. For better or worse, the inconvenient marriage between that project and Linnaeus’s project of standardizing the names people use for living things will stumble along for the foreseeable future.

Common names may become more useful to us than scientific names. But that would be vernacular common names, not the common names from nomenclature committees as long as the latter are committed to matching all their common names one-to-one with scientific names. We would have to declare the independence of “folk taxonomy” from systematics: our common names could represent groups of similar species, as the species concept moves into realms where field biology cannot follow. Mushroom pickers will continue to pick black morels, white morels, and fuzzy-foot morels as they always have; they gain nothing by inventing seven different common names for black morels, to keep up with molecular taxonomy. There’s no way they’re going to send their pickings in for chromosomal analysis anyway, and that’s the only way to identify them to species.

But we aren’t all the way there, yet. I still like Latin names. At least they’re more international than common names. The code regulating them anchors them to particular specimens—something common names can never offer. Biologists continue to use them.

Note that in this book I use the word “Also” (short for “also known as”) to present some of the other names you’re likely to run across for this organism—either common or scientific names. The other names are not always synonyms in the strict sense. For example, in many cases the “also” taxon and our taxon were formerly combined and are now separated, with the “also” taxon living outside our range; so the two are not synonymous, but the valid name for a species outside our range is a name you’ll see in older books for the species in our range.

Common Names

I also like real common names—the ones that came up on their own, through the vernacular. I hate to see common names coined purely for the sake of avoiding italics. If you invented the name, how “common” can it be?

In this book I put a common name on every species. I do not coin any new ones. In a few cases I perpetuate a name that charms me, even if I only heard it from neighbors or saw it in one faded book.

For birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes, I follow standard committee-revised checklists of common names that are broadly accepted, at least in the United States and Canada. (Exception: I choose consistent style over two checklist idiosyncrasies—capitalizing bird and herp names within sentences, and compounding snake names like gophersnake.) The checklists and online floras that I follow are listed on this page.

Compared to the situation with animals, plant names are the Wild West, and fungus names are in outer space. The US Department of Agriculture nobly took on the task of standardizing both scientific and common names of plants. However, their determinations don’t seem to carry a lot of weight when botanists compile a regional flora. The USDA also makes up long, compounded “common” names based on a logic that escapes me. My chief references for plant common names are regional: the Washington and British Columbia online floras, certain wildflower books, and my own taste. I hate calling a plant a “false” something, especially when there’s no way my readers are going to see the plant as a ringer for the one it is said to falsify. But I do use a name starting with “false” if it is the only name in wide circulation.

I have no objection to vernacular names that originated long ago as taxonomic falsehoods. For example, hemlock, the tree, was named for hemlock, the poisonous parsley, just because both have “lacy” foliage. But what else are you going to call this tree, if you ban misnomers? And if you can call a tree a hemlock, why would you stop calling a flower a brodiaea just because taxonomists decided that, though related, it no longer belongs in genus Brodiaea?

Back to that “outer space” comment, taxonomy of fungi is especially unstable. Fungus family names are so fluid that I decided not to use them in this book. Fungal morphology is turning out, in the light of DNA study, to be a stunningly poor predictor of lineage: fungi that don’t look related at all may be the same species in two different life phases, or taking two forms for reasons we can only guess at. Concepts of the species (and of the individual) that work tolerably well for higher animals and plants don’t fit fungi very well. Some mycologists estimate there are 1.5 million species of fungi in the world, of which 5 percent have been named. But doing so may be ill-advised. In a dead-serious article titled “Against the Naming of Fungi,” a well-published mycology professor wrote, “It may be more fruitful to abandon the notion of fungal species pending further basic research.”

Few lichens have common names in vernacular use. However, the excellent tome Lichens of North America picked sensible names for 805 lichen species, and I have generally followed its lead, replacing some common names I used in the past. A quirkier set of lichen names is found on E-Flora BC; many of these I list under “Also.” Unanimous common names for lichens would be a fine thing, as the outlook for their scientific names is dim. The scientific name is that of one fungal partner, not the whole lichen. With different partners, the same primary fungal species can produce very different lichens.

Pronouncing Scientific Latin

Pronunciations of genus and species names are provided in this guide simply to make Latin names more approachable. I devised no airtight phonetic system; my intent is simply to break each name into units that would be hard to misread. If you want to pronounce them some other way, feel free. Biologists are far from uniform in their pronunciations. There is an American style and a Continental style. Colorado Flora argues that Americans should adopt the Continental style so that taxonomic Latin can be more of an international language. Unfortunately, the two styles are different enough that Americans who adopt Continental pronunciation will find themselves misunderstood during the 99 percent of their discussions that are with other Americans.

That said, I wistfully admire the Continental style’s consistency: the five vowels are always “ah, eh (or ay), ee, oh, oo,” the ae diphthong is “eye,” c is always “k,” and t has a crisp sound even in -atius (AH-tee-oos).

In contrast, American style Americanizes vowel sounds, both long and short, but sticks to Greek or Latin rules on most consonants and syllable stressing. An initial consonant x is pronounced “z,” final es is “eez,” ch is “k,” j is “y,” and th is always soft as in “thin,” never hard as in “then.”

Syllable stressing causes difficulty and variation within the American style. The Latin rule says the second-to-last syllable is stressed if its vowel is long, is a diphthong (vowel pair), or is followed by two consonants or by x or y before the next vowel. Otherwise the third-to-last syllable gets the stress. Thus -ophila is AH-fill-a, but -ophylla, thanks to the double l, is o-FILL-a. When unsure whether the vowel is long, I consult Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Gray’s New Manual of Botany (1908), Jepson’s Manual of the Flowering Plants of California (1925), or Robbins’s Birds of North America (1966).

I depart from Latin rules for a few names that have entered the English language: we stress the third-to-last syllables in Anemone and Penstemon. Native Latin speakers would have stressed the second-to-last.

In the many cases of proper names with Latin endings tacked on, I try, up to a point, to respect the way the person whose name it was would have pronounced it. For example, jeffreyi obviously starts with a “j” sound rather than the “y” sound of the Latin j. Limiting this principle requires a judgment call based partly on what will roll easily off the tongue. Sometimes the honoree’s pronunciation is just too counterintuitive for us. Menzies is “ming-iss” in Scotland, and Douglas is “DOO-glus,” but the scientific names based on them are pronounced American-style on these shores. (When I heard a Scot say menziesii, he eschewed Scots pronunciation in favor of Continental style: “men-zee-AY-see-ee.”)

Where I omit the pronunciation and translation of a genus or species, it’s either the same genus as the preceding entry or obviously similar to its English translation, like densa or americanus.

For the -oides ending I hear “-oy-deez” today, rather than the “oh-eye-deez” I once learned in Leo Hitchcock’s class. I still usually hear “ee-eye” for the -ii ending, which could nicely be elided into just “-ee.” Plant families end in -aceae with the “a” stressed, and here again most of us streamline, calling the Pinaceae “pie-NAY-see”; Dr. Hitchcock said “pie-NAY-seh-ee.” Animal families end in -idae, with the third-to-last syllable stressed: Felidae is “FEE-lid-ee.” Bird orders end in -formes, “FOR-meez.” Insect orders end in -ptera, with the p pronounced and stressed, as in “DIP-ter-a.”


This book’s range comprises eight physiographic provinces based on landform styles that you could almost pick out intuitively on a good relief map. Geologically they are so distinct that some have hardly any rock formations in common with their neighbors, and yet, while rocks and landforms vary, the living things unite them all. Though the wet west-sides contrast dramatically with the dry east-sides, north-to-south changes are fairly gradual all the way from Alaska to the far tip of the Sierra Nevada.

The greatest exception—the sharpest vegetational shift within that north-south spectrum—comes between central and southern Oregon, so I draw a southern limit to our range there, at the Willamette-Umpqua divide. That means omitting, for the sake of ecological cohesion, a quarter of the Cascade volcanic chain. On the north end, I draw the line just past the last undisputed Cascades volcano, Mt. Meager, at the 51st parallel of latitude. (Roughly the same south and north boundaries delimit the new Flora of the Pacific Northwest.)

An eastern boundary for our range is easy: where the montane forests end dramatically east of the Cascades and Coast Mountains, giving way to open country classed as steppe. At the western edges, I leave out the salt-tinged seashore habitats, and also the agricultural and urban lowlands where the human influence dominates. (The book is still 98 percent applicable in “natural areas” within those lowlands.) Only by excluding steppe, salt, and the southern Cascades was I able to hold the book to a reasonable size.

The name “Cascade Range” originated at the Cascades of the Columbia back when they were a high-risk hurdle on overland voyages to and from the Pacific Northwest. (Later they were drowned by Bonneville Dam.) Early Euro-American visitors, either portaging around the cascades or running them, had an awareness of a mountain range forced upon them there, but it stuck in their memories almost like mere parentheses around their scary passage. The botanist David Douglas seems to have been first to put “Cascade Range” in writing, in 1825. An Oregon town was named Cascadia in 1898. In 1954, Burlington Northern Railway named a passenger train The Cascadian. In 1970 a sociology professor described a huge region he called Cascadia. Concurrently, earth science was being turned upside down by the concepts of plate tectonics; by 1977 geologists were writing about the Cascadia Subduction Zone—the chief scientific use of “Cascadia.” Cascadia subduction built these mountains—the range of this book, which I may lapse into calling Cascadia or simply “here.”

The Olympic Mountains

The Olympics are an anomaly: a nearly round mountain range, with drainage patterns radiating out from the center. That pattern seems to result from the domal uplift rather than predating it.

With help from a geologic map (p. 508) and your imagination, you can see the deeper geologic pattern of northwest-to-southeast arcs, bowed out to the northeast. The biggest arc is the Olympic Basaltic Horseshoe, a belt along the southeast, east, and north flanks of the range and running WNW out to Cape Flattery. Just inside it lie narrower belts—ridges, valleys, faults, additional slices of basalt. Each belt includes prominent peaks, evidence that this basalt resists erosion better than the marine sedimentary rocks that make up the rest of the range.

During the last Ice Age, major ice sheet tongues grinding west through the present-day Strait of Juan de Fuca and south through Hood Canal shaved the abrupt north and east flanks of the Olympics. These megaglaciers brought huge loads of rock from Canada, leaving individual boulders as “erratics” at elevations up to 4500 feet on Olympic slopes—proof of the enormous thickness of ice. Interior valleys have since been recarved by smaller alpine glaciers, of which today’s glaciers are the uppermost remnants. The glaciers left the broad valley floors lined with outwash gravels and cobbles, and later terraced by “Little Ice Age” glacial advances and retreats of the last 600 years.

The same processes worked on many Cascade valleys, but here in the western Olympics some poorly understood combination including ocean fog, heavy selective browsing by elk, and cobbly soils frequently overhauled by the rivers, has produced a unique style of forest. These Olympic Rainforests are famous for huge conifers, both standing and down, and an abundance of tree-draping mosses, lichens, and ferns unequaled outside the subtropics. Compared to other west-side Northwest old-growth these forests are more parklike and open—to sunlight, and to people on foot.

Timberline—the transition from closed forest to meadow vegetation—begins below 4000 feet in the western Olympics, yet some trees grow on 6000-foot crags nearby. The broad elevational belt in between includes extraordinarily luxuriant subalpine meadows. This differs from other regions where alpine timberlines mark the point above which it’s too cold for trees. A timberline based only on cold would lie above 6000 feet in the Olympics. Our low but diffuse timberlines are caused instead by the the sheer quantity of snow, leading to a short growing season. Annual precipitation, mostly snow, likely exceeds 240 inches—the highest in the lower 48 states—somewhere high on Mt. Olympus.

Precipitation decreases sharply northeastward in a rain shadow effect. The northeast corner of the Olympics has dramatically different forests—younger, because of more frequent fires, and with Douglas-fir and grand fir dominating at lower elevations.

Vancouver Island

Most of Vancouver Island is one continuous mountain area, with ruggedness to spare. At least 17 small individual ranges have names. The island’s mountains in toto bear two official names, both obscure perhaps because they are dull: the Ranges of Vancouver Island, or the Insular Mountains. The Insulars include a long stretch of undersea ridges northward, then reemerge on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands).

Several glaciers survive in the central part around the 7201-foot highest peak, Golden Hinde (named after Sir Francis Drake’s ship). In today’s warming climate, glaciers are shrinking faster on the island and in the Olympics than in the higher ranges to the east.

The island is ecologically more distinct from mainland British Columbia than modest intervening brine can explain. That’s because a mere 16,000 years ago it was separated from the mainland by broad lobes of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet. The island’s ice-free refugia were slim and frigid. More than half of the mammal species now on the adjacent mainland failed to regain the island, including chipmunks, grizzly bears, coyotes, red foxes, porcupines, mountain goats, and moose. The island has its own species of marmot, whose numbers are small and precarious.

The contrast from rainy west- to dry east-side is extreme. Henderson Lake, in a valley, is the wettest weather station in North America, claiming 260 inches a year. The rain shadow of the Insulars gets 40 inches. Victoria, the island’s driest point, is in a different rain shadow, the one behind the Olympics.

Rainforests of the coastal side have seen few fires ever, aside from occasional patch burns on south-facing slopes. Fire was, however, the chief disturbance on the island’s rain-shadowed east-side, and also at subalpine elevations, which used to burn often enough to maintain large areas of parkland. With fires suppressed, trees now encroach on meadows and heather.

Hikers accustomed to our other wet ranges may notice a shortage of creeks—or a plethora of broad rocky creek beds with only desultory water in them by late summer. The island has extensive limestone, a rock that slowly dissolves in water. Where water flows underground, it tends to eat away at limestone, enlarging underground conduits that then steal a much of the runoff. (The limestone areas are too small to show on the geologic map, p. 508, but are scattered within the “ocean basalt and sedimentary rocks.”)


On Sale
May 11, 2021
Page Count
584 pages
Timber Press

Daniel Mathews

About the Author

Daniel Mathews lives for backpacking and hiking in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of America From the Air and Rocky Mountain Natural History

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