‘Sacred bark’

Leaves and berries of the Cascara tree (courtesy Oregon State University, landscape)

Cascara is a medium-sized deciduous tree or large shrub that can reach 33-feet tall.

Spanish conquerors found several native people using the bark in the 1600s. The conquerors named the mottled gray bark “Sacred bark.”

Processed bark became famous in the 1800s. It was exported to the European markets.

As one might have guessed, the Pacific Northwest native tree populations declined through overharvesting.

Rising Star

Who would have thought that a local bark could become famous?

The commercial product was called ‘Cascara sagrada’ and it was used in more than 20 percent of the U.S. products in the late 1990’s. The industry at that time had an estimated value of $400 million.

In May 2002, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of this tree in over-the-counter drug products and found the use potentially carcinogenic.  

Cascara flowers (courtesy of Oregon State University, Landscape)


The outer bark has light splotching (sometimes from lichens). The inner bark is smooth and yellowish. Exposed inner bark will oxidize and turn brown.

Fresh cut bark is intensely bitter and will overpower the taste buds—for hours. Fresh cut, dried bark will cause vomiting and violent diarrhea.


The sickly, sweet fruit can be eaten cooked or raw. The berries are deep purple or black with yellow pulp. The berries usually contain two or three hard, smooth seeds.

In the past, the food industry used cascara as a flavoring agent for liquors, soft drinks, ice cream, and baked goods.

NOTE: The fruit and honey both have a laxative effect.

When to Collect

Bark collected in the spring or early summer can be easily peeled off the stem. Bark will be aged and dried for at least a year before use.


Cascara tree bark is a strong laxative that should be used carefully.

It can induce labor in pregnant women and transfer active compounds to nursing infants.

There are several precautions about this bark and warnings that it may be carcinogenic.  

Where Found

This tree is native to northern California up to British Columbia and from the Pacific Coast east into Montana. Leaves are oval up to 6-inches long with fine edge serrations. Small, green flowers develop into blue-black fruits.  

Cascara plant grow near streams in mixed forests. Check under big leaf maple trees–they are often an understory there.

Safe Uses

The fall yellow leaf color is pleasant (color varies based on light) and branching is interesting. Cascara does not adapt well to urban settings and is better in a woodland park or garden.

Cascara is a nice ornamental that can help prevent soil erosion and provide wildlife food and habitat. The fruit is a favorite of the Pileated woodpecker. Bears, raccoons, deer, and other wildlife also consumed the berries.

–Oregon State landscape plants (https://landscapeplants.oregonstate.edu/plants/rhamnus-purshiana and https://landscapeplants.oregonstate.edu/plants/frangula-purshiana)
–Wikipedia, Rhamnus purshiana (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhamnus_purshiana)
–Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest (http://nativeplantspnw.com/cascara-frangula-purshiana/)
–Trees & Shrubs for Pacific Northwest Gardens, Grant & Grant

The most common scoter, or ocean duck, along the Pacific coast is the Surf scoter (Melanitta perspicillata). This salt water duck is found from Alaska south into north-central Canada, and all along the west and east coast of the U.S.

Surf scoter (courtesy of ODFW)

The Surf scoter overwinters by the thousands off the Oregon coast and are abundant here from fall through spring.

The bulk of this species overwinter in boreal forests in Alaska and Canada near freshwater lakes. Birds may also visit large lakes and reservoirs west of the Cascades in the fall.


Surf scoters are the smallest of three similar species (white-winged, black, and surf), which are often found in the same habitat.

Adult male Surf Scoters are around 19-inches in length and just over 2.3 lbs. Females come in just a bit shorter.

Adult male feathers are predominantly black with two white patches (forehead and nape). The colorful wedge-shaped bill is highly visible with white, yellow, red-orange, and black.

Adult females and subadults have a dark brown back, lighter brown belly, and light-colored patches on cheeks and nape.

Generally, compared to the other two species, the head profile is more flat, and bill heavier. The surf scoter has completely dark wings (visible in flight).  


The species, however, does not breed in Oregon. Surf Scoters breed in Alaska and across north-central Canada.

Most form pairs before arriving at the breeding ground with males and females migrating together. Flight is strong and close to the waves.

Individuals appear to adjust their migration schedule so that they meet at the wintering and staging grounds at the same time. This helps the birds optimize reproduction.  

Females build nests that are bowl-shaped and lined with debris and down. Up to nine eggs in each nest are incubated for nearly a month by the female.

Nests are tucked into crowded breeding grounds and occasionally brood errors are made. The synchronous egg hatch must be a totally amazing event to witness.  


Surf scoters forage in the surf, typically in open waters less than 33 feet deep. They dive in regularly flooded intertidal and subtidal zones.

While mussels are an important part of their diet these ducks will feed on any invertebrate found in or near the near shoreline sediments. This could include insects, crustaceans, herring spawn, coral, algae, shrimp, oysters, crabs, squid, clams, and more.

They generally capture and swallow their food whole under water. These birds will often form loose flocks to forage that move in irregular, wavy lines. They will often do this as a group, or loose flock.

Dive duration varies based on prey, water conditions, season, etc. This duck will also shift their diet as needed in winter and spring to more abundant prey.

The Matter of Molting

All waterfowl molt their feathers one or more times a year. For Surf scoters this process begins before migration in late July and lasts for about four weeks.

Surf scoter travels to a molting site (different than the wintering or nesting sites) in bays, inlets, or estuaries. These sites would most likely have easily available food and lower predation risk.

Sea ducks are vulnerable during the molt because they lose their flight feathers. Brightly-colored male plumage is also replaced by duller plumage.

Predators and Survival

These birds typically winter in marine habitats near rocky shores. Predators can include bald eagles, golden eagles, and carnivorous mammals.

Birds are particularly sensitive to oil spills. Spills impact food supplies and are known to kill many birds through starvation.

In the last 50 years, the population has somewhat declined but is not considered vulnerable.

–Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, Swans, Ducks, and Geese (https://myodfw.com/wildlife-viewing/species/swans-ducks-and-geese)
–USDI Fish and Wildlife Service (https://www.fws.gov/r5gomp/gom/habitatstudy/metadata/scoter_models.htm and https://www.fws.gov/birds/bird-enthusiasts/bird-watching/waterfowl-identification/surf-scoter.php)
–Wikipedia, Surf Scoter (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surf_scoter)

This plump 13-inch, pigeon-shaped seabird is full of surprises. Let’s start with hanging upside down above the seafloor probing for prey.

Pigeon Guillemot during breeding season (photo courtesy of ODFW)

Is the Guillemot doing this just to impress us? Hardly. This guy is just a really strong swimmer and diver and dives to hunt for fish and invertebrates.

Diving Alone

The Guillemot often dives alone and sometimes in smaller groups. When diving, it prefers depths from 50 to 70 feet. Dives can last over two minutes with short intermissions between dives.

Unlike most other diving birds, this one uses both its feet and wings which beat at a rate of 2.1/s for propulsion. They have been recorded traveling 246 feet horizontally and as much as 150 feet below.

Big Eaters

This bird is known to forage before dawn and after sunset, particularly if they are feeding nestlings.   

The adult Guillemot requires about 20 percent of its weight in food each day (about 90 grams). They eat primarily fish, but will also consume seafloor creatures such as mollusks, crustaceans, crabs, shrimp, and worms.

Even the nestlings are big eaters.  Parents bring the young an average of 16 food loads each day (a load may be just a single fish).

Dressing for Love

During breeding season this bird gets dressed up with striking red feet, legs, and around the mouth (almost like lips). They also sport large white patches that contrast with their black iridescent feathers.

Non-breeding foliage mottled grey and black on top with white on the under areas. Non-breeding juveniles will look the same.


These birds not only get dressed up for breeding season but they also know how to turn up the romance. Breeding pairs will play chase “water games” and trill in a romantic duet.

They form long-term breeding bonds that last over years, with a few that occasionally divorce. Kind of makes one wonder how this occurs and if there is an underwater divorce court.

Guillemots are very vocal even outside of the breeding season. They use several whistle-like calls. Some of which include head, wing, and tail waggling displays.

Unmated males will also call for females, pairs will also communicate, during nesting, and birds will scream when predators are near.   


Guillemots breed on rocky shore areas, islands, and cliffs typically close to shallower water common on the Oregon coast. This habitat provides some protection from predators.

The most common cause of egg loss is through other birds such as crows, gulls, eagles, owls. Raccoons and other mammalian predators can also be a problem.

In the water there have been reports that these birds have been taken by orca and giant Pacific Octopi.


Pigeon Guillemots are found from California up through Siberia. They overwinter along the Pacific coast north.

In some areas they are considered indicator species and the populations are monitored. To learn more about this breeding survey in Washington see: Salish Sea Guillemot Network, Pigeon Guillemot Breeding Survey (http://www.pigeonguillemot.org/).

#2 photo free download https://pnommensen.com/

–Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (https://myodfw.com/wildlife-viewing/species/murres-auklets-and-puffins)
–California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=1825)
–Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/at-risk/species-recovery/seabirds#resources)
–Ebird.org (https://ebird.org/species/piggui)
–Wikipedia, Pigeon guillemot (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pigeon_guillemot)