The Lure of the Little

Miniature gilia and Kellogg’s knotweed at Groundhog

On both my last two outings, part of my agenda was to relocate tiny annuals I had seen in the past. More and more, I find myself fascinated with these smallest of plants that have such a brief time in the sun. They just don’t get much respect. Sometimes I find myself ignoring large, showy perennials shamelessly calling attention to themselves with their bright colors. Instead, I look for the empty spaces in between the tall plants. Here lie an amazing array of Lilliputian annuals that can hardly be seen without kneeling down (hence the name “belly plants”). But up close, they are as fascinating as the relative giants above them.

At Bristow Prairie on July 13, my first stop was just a short ways from the road up a small wash. A couple of years ago (see Bristow Prairie’s Open Gravelly Slope), I had seen some tiny popcorn flowers (Plagiobothrys spp.). Unfortunately, they are so similar that to differentiate many species you need to see the nutlets. The various patterns of bumps and ridges and the placement of the scar where the nutlets were attached to the style help distinguish one species from another. I found the little plants pretty easily, and, unlike the previous trip, they had started to form nutlets. Even unripe, it is possible to see some of the necessary characteristics. I’m pretty sure they are harsh popcorn flower (P. hispidulus), as I had suspected, but it was good to finally get a look at the nutlets.

The “big stuff” at Bristow Prairie’s gravelly sloping meadow: Oregon sunshine, bluefield gilia, and more. Some of the “little stuff” can be seen in the lower right corner of the photo.

The moss and brown pine needle at the top give some indication of how diminutive this spikerush (Eleocharis bella) is.

Growing among them were masses of pink Brewer’s monkeyflower (Mimulus breweri), our smallest and most overlooked Mimulus species. These have been blooming everywhere lately, enjoying the last of the moisture left by our cool spring. On that previous trip, I had discovered miniature gilia (Navarretia [Gilia] capillaris). This is common to the south but not usually seen in Lane County. It was growing really well here along with dwarf groundsmoke (Gayophytum humile) and the tiniest knotweed I see in the Western Cascades, Kellogg’s knotweed (Polygonum polygaloides ssp. kelloggii). I know little about graminoids, but I do recognize many, even if I don’t know enough to put a name on them. So I also know when I’m seeing something unusual. Among the tiny flowers was a patch of teeny grass-like plants, only about 2″ tall. I took one home because even large graminoids may require magnification to identify. This one needed magnification just to see that it was, in fact, flowering. It turned out to be beautiful spikerush (Eleocharis bella), which is not very common. Perhaps, though, it is just overlooked because of its size.

The tiny flowers of mountain bluecurls (Trichostema oblongum) do not attract many pollinators, so they are self-pollinating.

At the beautiful south-facing bald on the Lane County side of Bristow Prairie, there were sweeps of bright yellow Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum), gorgeous bright pink farewell-to-spring (Clarkia amoena), bluefield gilia (Gilia capitata), hotrock penstemon (P. deustus), and much more. But I spent much of my time looking for the little guys again. Here, as on my previous trip, there were a great many of the only slighter larger candelabrum monkeyflower (Mimulus pulsiferae) blooming among the Brewer’s monkeyflower. The rare whisker brush (Leptosiphon ciliatus) was blooming this time, but apparently it closes up in the afternoon because when I returned to the trail to photograph them after circling around the slope, I couldn’t find a single one still open. I should have photographed them when I first saw them. Its more delicate relative Harkness’ flaxflower (Leptosiphon harknessii) also grew here. While kneeling down to look at them, I noticed an unpleasant odor. I thought it might be the clustered tarweed (Madia glomerata), which was just starting to bloom. Then I noticed a little pink flower. Suddenly they were everywhere—I just hadn’t seen them. It was a member of the mint family called mountain bluecurls (Trichostema oblongum). Rather than a minty scent, it has a smell of vinegar that I find really nasty. Despite the name, in the three sites I’ve seen them, their flowers have been pink.

The “big stuff” at the largest wetland at Groundhog Mountain: elephanthead (Pedicularis groenlandica) and sparse-flowered bog orchid (Platanthera sparsiflora).

Slender cryptantha (Cryptantha affinis) has very, very small flowers.

Sunday (July 15), I went to Groundhog Mountain to see if the miniature gilia I’d found there last September (see Butterflying at Groundhog Mountain) was in bloom. It was so far gone last year that it was hard to gauge the size of the population. It is only the third site in Lane County, I believe (along with Bristow Prairie and Lowder Mountain), so I wanted to get a good idea of how much was there. There’s a roadside bank on Road 2309 just downhill from the intersection of Road 452 that often has a good show of Brewer’s monkeyflower and other annuals this time of year. Happily, the miniature gilia and monkeyflower were blooming en masse there. Considering their size however, you might still think the ground was bare if you didn’t look very hard. Growing among them were the smallest of our bedstraws, thinleaf bedstraw (Galium bifolium). This one grows throughout the meadows as well and is common in the Western Cascades but is rarely noticed. Slender cryptantha (Cryptantha affinis) was here as well. Its flowers are as small as the tiny popcornflower at Bristow Prairie, but its leaves are larger. Again, the nutlets aid in identification. Those of slender cryptantha have a distinctive off-center groove.

Next time you are out in the mountains looking for showy wildflowers, take at least a few minutes to sit down and pay attention to their less conspicuous relatives. They can be just as fascinating.

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