Yellow Cliff Paintbrush Still at Middle Pyramid

On my very first trip to Three Pyramids, back on June 23, 2003, I discovered an unusual yellow-flowered Castilleja rupicola (cliff paintbrush). I mentioned this to Mark Egger, the author of the upcoming Flora of North America treatment of Castilleja, and he said he’d never seen one (click here to see Mark’s beautiful Castilleja photos). I’d been hoping to see it again some day. I also wanted to continue my quest to check out all the Dodecatheon pulchellum sites I know, so I decided a trip to the Pyramids trail was in order, and yesterday (July 9), Sabine and I headed up there.

Thunderstorms brewing over the High Cascades thankfully kept their distance.

Interestingly, the bloom season was almost the same as it was on that first trip. On almost every trail I’ve been on this year, flowering has been about two weeks later than “usual”— whatever that is these days. The weather was quite different, however. On my first trip, I remember the clouds were so low that for a few minutes, all I could see from my perch on the tiny summit was mist below me. It was quite unnerving, and I was so relieved when they lifted some before I went down—especially because it turned out I was totally disoriented and facing the opposite direction I thought I was. Yesterday, on the other hand, was quite hot, and while it was clear all around us, thunder clouds built up over the Three Sisters and Mount Washington as the day wore on, and we could hear rumbling all the way back down.

The first stretch of trail through the woods was quite beautiful. The large trees are well spaced and allowed a refreshing breeze through to keep us from overheating. The forest floor was covered with an array of white flowers: Cornus unalaschkensis (bunchberry), Maianthemum stellatum, and more M. racemosum than I can ever remember seeing in bloom in one place. Its fragrance perfumed the air in some places. A majority of woodland flowers are white or pale colored, making them easier for pollinators to see in the dark forest.

An unusual Stellaria

Where the trail opens up into the large cliff-ringed bowl, I started looking for patches of Stellaria. Since my last trip here in 2007, I’ve become interested in our easily overlooked, tiny-flowered species. Sure enough, within minutes of looking, I found some creeping along for some yards along the edge of the trail under the taller foliage of Mertensia paniculata, Polygonum (Aconogonum?) phytolaccifolium, and others. It was clearly either Stellaria crispa or S. obtusa, but although I’ve been looking at these quite a lot the last few years, there were some plants that didn’t look like any I’d ever seen before. Stellaria obtusa has ciliate hairs at the base of the leaves, four blunt sepals, and isn’t supposed to have petals. Stellaria crispa has hairless, wavy leaves, five sharp sepals, and occasional squinny petals (for more on these two, see Stellaria obtusa at Horsepasture). While most of these plants looked like typical S. obtusa, a number of them had petals, and several had four relatively large petals, as well as longer sepals and no hairs. Some had 4 styles, some 3. There were no flowers with 5 sepals, so my guess is that they are just very odd Stellaria obtusa. Or perhaps they are hybrids (the standard last resort for botanical oddities). It goes to show, once again, that the plants don’t read the books. How else would we get new species, if they didn’t occasionally like to try something new?

Checkerspot chrysalis attached to a Lithophragma leaf

My next stop was at a seepy rock garden along the seemingly endless set of switchbacks leading up the side of the mountain. There were many things in bloom here including Castilleja hispida, Lithophragma parviflorum, Delphinium menziesii, and Toxicoscordion venonosum (the new name for death camas). I found some of the Dodecatheon pulchellum still in bloom, but most were finished. They looked about the same as most of the other populations, but the leaves were pretty much toothless. This has probably been the most variable characteristic of those I’ve checked. The population seems rather small, but with so much of the walls of the bowl inaccessible, there could well be quite a bit more somewhere nearby. The rock garden where the trail finally(!) gets to the ridge was also blooming well with Phlox diffusa and Lomatium martindalei. There was still evidence of the first wave of flowers, the snowmelt species Dicentra uniflora (steer’s head) and Orogenia fusiformis (turkey peas).

My favorite spot on this trail is not the summit with its fabulous view but the north-facing cliff just below the ridge top. This is home to many of the species that are limited to this type of cool habitat. As cool as it is, this is also where the last snowbanks remain. There was one small one on the trail and more on the talus slope below. Numerous trilliums were in perfect bloom not far from the snow. Before exploring this area, we first headed up to the top in case the thunderstorms got to close, but we foolishly decided to satisfy my curiosity about bushwhacking back down the ridge. Sabine bailed after a short time, but I was farther below and couldn’t face going back up. It wasn’t too bad until it opened up and got very rocky—and I saw how much farther down the trail was. I got a little panicky for a couple of minutes, but I actually wasn’t so far from where I had climbed up from the bottom in the past and never did get into a pickle. But I do not recommend this—and I’m glad my husband doesn’t read my blog!.

A rare, yellow-flowered Castilleja rupicola

This left me just where I needed to be to access the relatively level area at the base of the cliff. From here, it is easy to see the beautiful flowers of Romanzoffia sitchensis and Saxifraga cespitosa. I finally found Anticlea occidentalis (formerly Stenanthium occidentale, bronze bells), which was reported on someone else’s list. Heuchera glabra had yet to bloom and Douglasia laevigata was all done except for a few flowers below near the snow bank. And then there was the Castilleja rupicola. There were a number of beautiful red flowers dotting the wall, and as I made my way along the base, I spotted it—a yellow flower!! It was still there after 7 years. I can’t say if it was the same plant or if there could be more than one. I’ve seen yellow-flowered Castilleja hispida a few times, but this is the only yellow C. rupicola I know of. As special as it is, I was determined to get a decent photo of it this time. Unfortunately, it was about 5 feet over my head and in the shade of the cliff. My non-SLR digital camera system is pretty simple and has a major limitation. I have to be 6 feet away to use my lens fully zoomed. If I attach my close-up lens to it, I can get much closer—but it will only focus from maybe 2 or 3 feet away. So I was sort in no man’s land. I couldn’t get closer, so I tried to get just far enough away to focus without getting anything else in the way. I guess I should be happy it wasn’t 30 feet up the cliff.

Castilleja miniata at Park Creek

Coming down is so much quicker, so we still had time to check out some of the Park Creek Basin area on the way back. Horkelia fusca, Calochortus subalpinus, Eriophyllum lanatum, and much more were in bloom at the intersection of the spur road to the trailhead. We took a quick look at a nearby small hidden lake I discovered last year. All three bog orchids were in bloom, along with lots of Packera subnuda (formerly Senecio cymbalarioides) and pond lilies in the water. Then we stopped at my favorite spot right along the creek, no more than a quarter of a mile from the main bridge. Castilleja miniata and Heracleum lanatum (cow parsnip) were putting on a great show. There was also quite a bit of another butterweed I rarely see, Packera (Senecio) pseudaurea. Some of these had button-like flowers because they were missing their ray florets. The amazing show of Lupinus polyphyllus was just beginning. A few Castilleja suksdorfiiArnica mollis, white bog orchids, and lots of blue-eyed grass rounded out the show. This area will probably be floriferous at least through the end of the month. It is also a great place to dip your feet in the cold water after a day of hiking. It was getting late, however, and the rumbling clouds seemed to be telling us to get a move on, so a longer day at the creek will have to wait until later.

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