Autumn at Lowder Mountain

Summer is definitely over. The vine maples are turning on a distant talus slope, and new snow has fallen on South SIster.

Thursday (October 13) was supposed to be a nice day, so Sabine and Nancy and I headed east to the mountains. I was hoping to collect a few Gentiana calycosa seeds to go along with the samples I’m going to send to the gentian researchers (see Singing the Blues at Tidbits for more about this project) and any other good rock plants that might be in seed. I decided I’d rather do the longer but less steep to Lowder instead of nearby Horsepasture Mountain where they also grow. The promised sun didn’t materialize, and there were even a few drops of rain, but it was still a pleasant and successful trip.

Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) just emerging

We were very surprised to see at least five clumps of blooming indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) near the beginning of the trail. At least one clump was just starting to nose up above the soil. They were already turning black at Patterson Mountain a couple of weeks ago. Their alarm must not have gone off because that’s a serious case of oversleeping! There were a few thistle (Cirsium remotifolium) and aster (Eucephalis ledophyllus and Symphyotrichum foliaceum) flowers left along the trail and late-flowering annual knotweeds (Polygonum cascadense and P. minimum) in some of the open bare spots. Even the Hall’s goldenweed (Columbiadoria hallii), one of the last flowers to bloom each year, was on its last legs. Otherwise most things were in fruit. There were still some huckleberries, the pretty bright red berries of baneberry (Actaea rubra), and the shiny black fruit of swamp gooseberry (Ribes lacustre), along with more of the pretty blue berries of queen’s cup (Clintonia uniflora).

There were many ripe tiger lily seed capsules near the trail, just starting to crack—perfect for collecting. The buckwheats were also ready for collecting, but I couldn’t face the idea of cleaning all the chaff of their sharp seeds. Penstemons are far easier—you just tip the capsule over and let the seeds roll into the envelope—so I got a small quantity of Penstemon procerus. Paintbrush are quite similarly easy, so I got a few Castilleja hispida to toss into my rock garden. We took a look at the seeds through my hand lens to see the unusual mesh layer around the seed. I’ve been told that it prevents germination, so I’m going to try to remember to rub it off before dumping them in the garden. It’s a really interesting adaptation.

Explorer's gentian on the upper part of the cliff. Most of the buds are aborted. Only the flower on the upper left succeeded in blooming.

My main goal, however, was to find some ripe gentian seeds. After lunching in our usual spot on the ridgetop rock garden part way up, I left my companions to relax while I surveyed the cliff on the front side of the ridge. Unfortunately, most of the gentians grow out of reach on small ledges on the vertical face. There’s only one easy-to-access plant on an upper ledge. I’d seen it on our NPSO Trip to Lowder Mountain in August before it had any buds. Now it was turning yellow. It looked as though most of the flower buds had died without even blooming. They were shaped more like Hershey’s Kisses than their normal long tubes. Perhaps they were coming into bloom just as that late heat wave hit. Only one had a developed seed capsule, but at least it was ripe. There were many other plants turning yellow lower down and farther along the cliff. One plant in particular had bloomed really well, and there was even some blue color left in the flowers. It was quite out of reach, however. But there is one other plant that is growing along the trail rather than on the cliff. On the way back we relocated it, and it had numerous capsules filled with tiny seeds. I collected some and tossed some out along some other rocks. It would be wonderful if it would spread around here. While hanging out on this ridge, we also noticed a flock of birds kept gathering on the one Englemann spruce (Picea engelmannii) on the east end. They turned out to be pine siskins. Clearly the spruce cones were a favorite of theirs because they returned several times.

From the viewpoint on the east side of Lowder, you can see across to O'Leary Mountain and down to the talus slope well below the summit and more cliffs.

When we reached the large opening on the summit, we had hoped to see the masses of Newberry’s knotweed (now Aconogonon davisae) in splendid fall color. It was disappointing to find most of them already collapsed and drying out. Only a few showed how brightly colored they can be in the fall. Whether the heat wave or a frost got them, we weren’t sure. The area where the gentians grow on the ridge is very small, and I’ve wondered if there wasn’t a larger population on the massive cliffs on the east side of the mountain. While there is a huge amount of vertical rock habitat on Lowder Mountain, it is frustratingly and scarily hard to see. But in 2008 (see New Plant for Lowder Mountain), I found a few places where I can get down a little ways north of the main viewpoint and at least get a better look at the front of the cliff with the binoculars. I’d discovered Campanula rotundifolia on the large cliffs after finding it on the small one on that trip, so I wanted to see if the gentians weren’t growing below the summit here as well. I had looked unsuccessfully in the past, but now that the plants were turning bright yellow, they were much easier to see.

Once again, I ditched my patient companions while I climbed down through the woods a little ways. I was really surprised to find quite a few white rhododendron plants (R. albiflorum). They grow to the north on Olallie Ridge, but I didn’t realize they were up on Lowder. Finding additions to my lists always makes me happy, but I was even more pleased to finally be able to see what I’d hoped was there—a number of gentians on the front of the cliff. They were quite a ways below me, but with the binoculars I could see at least one plant clearly enough to recognize the fading flowers at the end of the yellowing leaves. Of course, now I’m again obsessed with the idea of getting down below the summit as well as farther northwest along Sawtooth Ridge to the where there are more massive cliffs that are undoubtedly home to more gentians and other cool cliff lovers. But as I still can’t see any reasonable way to do it, I’m afraid it will just have to remain a pleasant pipe dream. Some places aren’t meant to be intruded upon, even by the most well meaning nature lovers.

One Response to “Autumn at Lowder Mountain”

  • Kris:

    Where’s a jetpack when you need one? :)

    The mountains up this way have a fresh coat of snow too. I haven’t seen Indian Pipe for years.

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