Forensic Botany at Tire Mountain

View of Oakridge and Hills Creek Reservoir. You can see the dirty air sitting down low in valleys and obscuring the reservoir. A glimpse of a small forest of oaks can be seen a little left of the trees in the center at what appears to be the base of the meadow.

Rain at last—what a relief! Not that I wasn’t enjoying the glorious weather we’ve had lately, but things were getting bone dry, the air was dirty, and the roads were terribly dusty (as is my car both outside and in!). On Thursday (October 11—10/11/12 for those of us who love numbers), I went to Tire Mountain to enjoy the weather before the promised rain. It was dry—really dry. It is normal this time of year, especially at that elevation (under 4000′), for most of the meadow plants to be dried out and the woodland plants to be yellowing, but after so many weeks of drought, even the sword ferns—arguably one of our toughest plants—were badly wilted. I’ve been to Tire Mountain in the fall in the past and marveled at the abundance of tiny green seedlings covering the ground. These will be many of the annuals that will put on a show the following spring. Without a drop of water to set them off, the seeds are still dormant in the soil this year. How long it will take for them to germinate now that the rains have started? It might be worth a return trip soon to find out.

Cat’s ears are still beautiful even when nothing remains but their dried, dangling seed capsules.

On this trip, however, I focused on “forensic botany”, studying the often skeletal remains of what is left at the end of the season after all the wonderful flowers are gone. Many interesting things caught my eye. There must have been another amazing show of farewell-to-spring (Clarkia amoena). Now, in addition to masses of their narrow, four-parted seed capsules, there were scattered dried petals, looking white except for the bright pink blotch still evident though quite shrunken. Perhaps these flowers were caught off guard and dried quickly while still in full bloom.

There are many annual clovers in the meadows. Their leaves were too shriveled up to recognize, for the most part, but the dried up flowers looked quite similar to when they were fresh. I was surprised that the small-head clover (Trifolium microcephalum) pricked my fingers when I tried to collect seeds. Though the flowers are soft and fuzzy when fresh, their pointed calices seemed to have become needle sharp as they dried. The abundant tomcat clover (T. willdenovii) was also somewhat sharp, but the seeds could be seen plainly in open slots and collected by tipping the flowers, while those of the small-head clover had to be dug out. They both have tiny dried bean-like seeds like most legumes.

Looking up from the bottom of the large meadow. The little oak forest can now be seen in the upper right.

My plan was just to walk the trail and enjoy the day, maybe collect a few seeds but not to do anything strenuous. Hah! For most people this is fine, but exploring seems to be in my blood. I simply can’t resist checking out places I haven’t been. When I reached the large southeast-facing meadow near the beginning of the trail, the pull to check out the base was just too strong. Ten years or so ago, I “adopted” Tire Mountain when Oregon Wild (then ONRC) was looking for people to groundtruth unprotected roadless areas. In addition to driving all the roads in the area to see which were still in use, I checked out off-trail meadows below the summit and elsewhere and climbed most of the ridge above the trail. I guess the slope always seemed too steep because I had never done this before in any of my previous 30 trips to this wonderful mountain. So off I went down the hill. The pitch really wasn’t bad at all. Beyond a small stand of trees was a miniature oak forest, the dead brown leaves still gracing the branches. When I reached the oaks, I could see the slope went down even farther, so I continued on to where it becomes more rocky, about 400′ below the trail, and drops off steeply perhaps another 100′. From here, I could see another meadow just to the west. I assumed it was the smaller bit of meadow that one reaches quickly after passing the large meadow on the trail. I had to cross a small ravine to get to it, but it was relatively easy.

From the lower half of the hidden meadow, you can see the part of the lower half of the main meadow, most of which can’t be seen from the trail 300′ farther upslope.

Fall knotweed (Polygonum spergulariiforme) has pretty clusters of flowers at the ends of many delicate branches.

This other meadow was larger than I expected and had some nice rock outcrops. I wandered around looking at all the dried flowers of bulbs. There were many of elegant cluster-lily (Brodiaea elegans), a plant I hadn’t even seen before at Tire Mountain. There were also some ookow (Dichelostemma congestum) in tight heads and hyacinth cluster-lily (Triteleia hyacinthina) in loose heads on long pedicels. They all had shiny, wrinkled black seeds similar to but smaller than their relative camas (they are all now in the family Asparagaceae), but there were differences. Those of Triteleia are rather plump while those of Dichelostemma are elongated. The Brodiaea seeds are somewhat angled with some relatively flat surfaces and pronounced edges. Among all these dead plants, there was one plant still blooming. This was another addition to my plant list, the well-named fall knotweed (Polygonum spergulariiforme). It really does bloom in the fall. There are even fresh flowers of this pretty plant on my property right now—mid-October—that really is a late bloomer! No wonder I’d missed it there before.

This is the upper half of the meadow that is hidden from the trail. A lovely berry-covered madrone sits on one of the outcrops near the top.

I was surprised when I reached the top of the meadow that the trail wasn’t in sight. I knew it couldn’t be that far, so I headed up through the woods for a little ways (perhaps 200′ or so) and popped out very close to the small meadow at the intersection of the Alpine and Tire Mountain trails. A sign at the intersection said the Alpine Trail was closed because of the Buckhead Fire, but I couldn’t see any evidence of fire from this side of the mountain. And having left late in the morning, I didn’t have enough time to go any farther. Turning around, there was no evidence of the meadow as I walked back to where I had popped out. So this was not the meadow I thought it was but a new meadow, hidden from the trail. I had seen these meadows from nearby points such as Heckletooth Mountain a number of times, but I never realized how they related to the trail. The small meadow along the trail just west of the large one is actually just an upper sliver of the main one. It doesn’t go down very far, but it is steeper. You can see this on Google Earth (look at the bottom of my Tire Mountain description.) Both meadows reach almost down to Road 1910, but when I decided to drive back that way to look up at them, I couldn’t see either of them. Next year, when the meadows are once again bursting with color, I will have to go back and explore this meadow further.

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One Response to “Forensic Botany at Tire Mountain”

  • Wilbur Bluhm:

    Thanks, Tanya, for including me on your “report” list. Enjoyable and informative.

    Best wishes,

    Wilbur Bluhm

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