Penstemons Aplenty at Scorpion Butte

Gravel road is ideal habitat for Cardwell’s penstemon (Penstemon cardwellii) and frosted paintbrush (Castilleja pruinosa).

Hopscotching over to “Heavenly Bluff”, the rocky opening I saw from Bearbones, worked so well on my last trip (see A Heavenly New Site in Lane County) that I decided to try it again. On Friday (July 6), I jumped a little farther west to Scorpion Butte, a place I’d never heard of but had seen from Heavenly Bluff a couple of days before. While it is less than 4 miles as the crow flies from Heavenly Bluff, I couldn’t get there from the east and had to drive to Cottage Grove and approach it from the west side. It is just a couple of miles south of Bohemia Saddle, but the shortest route was to follow Sharps Creek down to Martin Creek Road 23 (confusingly, not the same Road 23 that runs east from the Hills Creek Dam), up Puddin’ Rock Road 2328 to Shane Saddle, and east a little less than 2 miles down Road 3828 to a hard corner with a large gravel area. It was almost 12 miles of gravel road, but thankfully it was all in pretty decent shape and lined with colorful flowers in some of the higher elevation sections. And it was well worth the drive to see this beautiful spot.

A colorful swath of wildflowers greeted me on my way up the ridge, including cliff (pink) and Cardwell’s (purple) penstemons and bluefield gilia.

I bushwhacked up the narrow ridge that rises up from the corner. Pretty soon I came to a fabulously display of penstemons (P. rupicola and P. davidsonii) and bluefield gilia. This was certainly a promising start! The top of the ridge is a mere 0.2 mile from the corner and only rises 300′ above the road, so this was a fairly simple bushwhack. Before reaching the open slope of the butte, there were other patches of rocky ground with blooming broadleaf stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium), rusty saxifrage (Micranthes ferruginea), small-flowered alumroot (Heuchera micrantha), and other plants tolerant of shade. When I first came out onto the fabulous open slope, it seemed I would not be able to explore much of it because it was so steep. But there was plenty to see on the top and some gentle slope on the back side as well. And it turned out the far (south) end was a little gentler, with small level areas between the outcrops and very little slippery gravel. It was all pretty solid and covered with moss, so I knew this wasn’t going to be kin to Heavenly Bluff with its thick layer of gravel. I looked but, not surprisingly, did not find any spring phacelia (Phacelia verna).

Cliff penstemon (Penstemon rupicola) blooming on top of the slope. Diamond Peak can be seen to the east. On the ridge in front of it is Youngs Rock and Moon Point and, heading to the left (north), Groundhog Mountain. The lumpy summit of Bearbones Mountain is in front below Diamond Peak. The small opening just above the conifer on the left of the photo is “Heavenly Bluff” where I had been earlier in the week.

What was there was quite beautiful. Usually I see Penstemon cardwellii mostly along gravel roads, but it was abundant here, outmatched only by the even brighter Penstemon rupicola. This is one of my absolute favorite wildflowers and the one that really says to me “You’re in the Western Cascades.” I must have taken around 50 photos of these beauties. There was also quite a bit of mountain cat’s ears (Calochortus subalpinus) and both northern and sulphur buckwheats (Eriogonum compositum and E. umbellatum). The latter was a favorite of butterflies, although there weren’t as many on the wing as I would have expected with this many flowers and warm, sunny weather. Also nectaring were a number of hummingbirds. One landed on a cedar branch right near just as my battery went dead. Curses—what bad timing! They seemed to be thrilled at the amount of Penstemon rupicola and also enjoyed the smaller amount of paintbrush. They buzzed by me several times while I was near the penstemon, but my only photo was from afar. I had apparently missed a nice bloom of spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa). Other plants that had bloomed earlier were glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum), naked-stem hawksbeard (Crepis pleurocarpa), and western groundsel (Senecio integerrimus). I’ll definitely have to return earlier next year.

Rufous hummingbird nectaring on Penstemon rupicola—a photo at last!

Sierra cliffbrake (Pellaea brachyptera) growing along the south edge of the slope. The pale gray-green shrub at the top is rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa).

When I got to the south end, I noticed a rock with some rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa). There’s loads of this on Bearbones Mountain, which, since it is 6 or 7 miles due east, was right in the center of the view from this east-facing slope. There were only 3 large plants here, however, but there was one 3″ seedling, so perhaps this small population hasn’t been here long and is starting to spread. When I went around the south side of the rock to see if there were any more rabbitbrush, I was shocked—although perhaps I shouldn’t have been—to see a big swath of Sierra cliffbrake (Pellaea brachyptera)! Two new populations in one week. That brings it up to six known sites in Lane County (there are only 30 records on the Oregon Flora Project Atlas, and some are duplicates, so it is fairly uncommon). The first one was only discovered in 2001 by some Forest Service employees surveying a site near Huckleberry Mountain, north of Oakridge, for a motorcycle trail. That remains the most northerly site in Oregon for this species. The last four sites, including this week’s, I discovered only in the last four years. Is this evidence of global warming allowing this species to move north from its main small range of northern California and southwestern Oregon? Or was it just that they are growing on sites few people visit? Quite surprising to me, it turns out there is a site in Chelan County, Washington and one 1954 collection from Idaho! So who knows why or how these, or any other plants for that matter, manage to spread out of their original range.

Looking north along the east-facing slope of Scorpion Butte to Grouse Mountain

Lots of Valeriana scouleri was growing on nearby north-facing roadbanks. Valerians have a fascinating adaptation for seed dissemination. The calyx lobes remain coiled up until the flower drops off. Then they start to uncoil. When the seed is ripe, they have opened up into a feathery parachute, much like the pappus of a dandelion, to help lift the seed aloft. How clever!

Growing in this hidden area with the Pellaea were two other southerly plants. As at Heavenly Bluff, there was quite a bit of skullcap (Scutellaria antirrhinoides) but also some Collomia tinctoria, a small pink annual that is found mainly to the south. There was another of the many patches of dwarf oaks, and underneath them were some Lomatium dissectum in bloom and the dissected leaves of the early-blooming Viola sheltonii. I continued downhill along the edge of the woods for a ways and then crossed along the middle about halfway down. The rocks really were stable enough to allow easy passage anywhere I wanted to go, but I was too lazy to go all the way down and back up again. There was a small wet area with common monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus) still in bloom and evidence of old larkspur (Delphinium menziesii). Many hot rock penstemons (P. deustus) were in bloom in the center as well. I headed back to the top and out the way I came. Before heading back to the car, I took a look at the road in front to see if I could climb up from below the slope rather than via the ridge. It looked doable, so perhaps I can make a loop next time, for I definitely want to return to this lovely natural rock garden.

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