Siskiyou Fritillary in Lane County

Last year, I discovered what is currently the northernmost known site for the lovely Siskiyou fritillary (Fritillaria glauca). I purposely did not write about it in my report about Heavenly Bluff, A Heavenly New Site in Lane County, because it has been considered a rare plant, and the Oregon Flora Project and Oregon Biodiversity Information Center had been withholding location data for the reported sites. Evidently there are enough populations now that their locations are no longer withheld, so I guess I needn’t be so circumspect.

Fritillaria glauca happily grows en masse in the loose rock of a steep slope.

Fritillaria glauca happily grows en masse in the loose rock of a steep slope. The plants spread by little bulb offsets sliding downhill along with the gravel.

Siskiyou fritillary is found from northwestern California to southwestern Oregon. In the last few years, I’ve discovered it in several sites in the Calapooyas in Douglas County, including one other site in Lane County. Flora of North America describes it as growing in “serpentine talus slopes”, but there is no serpentine in this area, and I would describe its habitat as gravel slopes rather than the talus that is formed at the bottom of a cliff, but I guess the word can be used to describe any slope covered with rock debris, and rock debris is certainly what they love. When I find a slippery gravel slope, I keep my eyes out for their small, glaucous, tulip-like leaves. When I first stepped out on the top of the gravelly slope at Heavenly Bluff last year, I was sure I would find it there, but it took me quite a while because most of the plants were drying up, and only a small percentage of any population I’ve been to ever blooms—most plants consists of a single leaf—so it wasn’t until I was most of the way around that I spotted some leaves and some seed capsules. What a thrill! But I really, really wanted to see them in bloom. The other Lane County site, Bearbones Mountain, is just a few miles away, but I’ve only found two flowering plants, one each in two different years. So Heavenly Bluff was high on my list of places to visit this year, and since the fritillary is such an early bloomer, I knew I had to get up there as soon as the roads were clear.

South-facing slopes melt out long before level roads, so it can be tough to access them this early in the season. Here John is checking his GPS before walk past the tree blocking the road.

South-facing slopes melt out long before level roads, so it can be tough to access them this early in the season. Here John is checking his GPS before we walk past the tree blocking the road.

Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) growing along the road

Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) growing along the road

John Koenig was also interested in seeing them and luckily was available to go up to Heavenly Bluff with me on Friday, May 10. We took his truck and my saw—both turned out to be very handy. We made it past Bearbones okay, as someone else had been up on Road 5850 clearing some trees already. But after that we did have to clear some piles of branches, cut a small tree, and cross some small patches of snow partly covering the road. After each obstacle was cleared, we felt a little more confident that we would actually reach our goal. But then we came upon a tree across the road that was far too big to cut with a hand saw, and even if John had remembered his chain saw, it would have taken a lot of time and effort to move such large logs. A look at the map showed us to be only 2 miles from the site, and with only a few hundred feet of elevation change, we decided to walk the rest of the way.

It was quite a pleasant walk. Everything was very fresh from the recent snow melt. There were perfectly blooming Trillium ovatum and Anemone lyallii and beautiful dogwoods (Cornus nuttallii) and red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) decorating the roadsides. It didn’t take us long to get to the spur road that leads to Heavenly Bluff. Another tree was down along this little road, so we would have had to walk some of it anyways, but we didn’t mind because we saw lots of things we might have missed in a car. At the end of the road where we entered the woods, the ground was carpeted with fresh snow queen (Synthyris reniformis). I was pretty hopeful that we were early enough to catch the precocious fritillaries still blooming.

These little cuties look a lot like dwarf tulips with nodding flowers.

These little cuties look a lot like dwarf tulips with nodding flowers.

But when we popped out of the woods onto the rocky opening, my confidence slipped. It was so dry already. The moss was already baked and brown. After a bite to eat in the shade on this warm day, we went to where I remembered seeing the most fritillaries. It only took a minute to spot the first dried up flower, and then another, and another. I was glad to see they had bloomed so well, but surely we couldn’t be that late when we had crossed patches of snow to get here! Moving about on this steep slope of deep gravel is no easy task, so I pulled out my binoculars to see if I could find even a single flower still in bloom. And there they were farther down the slope—four of them side by side—”thank you, thank you!” I thought. We scratched our heads a bit trying to figure out the best and safest way to get to them. When I reached the spot, I spent quite some time taking photos. I wanted to make sure I came home with some good ones, so I shot from every angle, horizontally and vertically, close up and wide angle. I was not counting on finding anything better than this or having any better luck on another year. While I obsessed over my little quartet, John disappeared farther downslope and then around the east side. He managed to find a few more still in bloom here and there, and after I finished at this spot, I went around and took photos of several others. They are so adorable, it is hard not to want to get a picture of every one.

The new fronds of Sierra cliffbrake (Pelleaa brachyptera) do not yet have the glaucous coating that makes the plants so distinctive.

The new fronds of Sierra cliffbrake (Pellaea brachyptera) do not yet have the glaucous coating that makes the plants so distinctive.

With the main goal of the day successfully completed, we wandered around the whole area looking for plants I hadn’t seen on my July trip last year. You’d think that two months earlier, it would have seemed very different from when I was there last year, and we would have seen some earlier flowers that were gone by July, but this is turning out to be such an early year, and last year was a late one, so we only added a few plants to my list. We also decided the lack of diversity is probably because of the small area’s fairly uniform habitat. There are no really moist, seepy areas and only a bit of accessible north-facing rock in this predominantly south-facing slope. Still, what is there is wonderful, and the habitat is one you don’t see all that much in the mainly forested Western Cascades. The Sierra cliffbrake (Pellaea brachyptera) was just unfurling delicate new fronds, and the other unusual plant for this area, Mahala mat (Ceanothus prostratus), was in perfect bloom in shades of deep lavender blue to white. A few pretty paintbrushes (Castilleja pruinosa) were coming into bloom. The drought didn’t seem to have much of an effect yet on these perennials. The lack of water was most clearly evidenced in the multitudes of dwarfed, sparsely flowered blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia grandiflora). They were in a hurry to get at least some seeds made before it was too late. My photographs from last year show they were quite a bit taller and showier. I remember how frustrated I was the last few springs waiting for a sunny day to go out on. Now all I want is a really good soaking rain. I feel like Goldilocks—always hoping for the perfect season.

My best guess is that these are the seeds of

My best guess is that these are the seeds of spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium).

Fresh glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) glowing in the setting sun

Fresh glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) glowing in the setting sun

On our way back to the truck, we were surprised to see several things we had missed entirely on the walk in. Along the short stretch of the main road, 3831, there were yards of white fluff. John’s first reaction was that some bird had met its demise there. It turned out to be the fluff of seeds in narrow pods that seemed to have just dehisced. The plants had not yet emerged, so these had to be from last year, but why would they be just opening up now? Could we possibly have missed them this morning or had they opened during the day? What were they that was so unfamiliar to both of us? The silky fluff reminded me of milkweed, but the seeds were much smaller. Then it hit me that dogbane (Apocynum spp.) is related to milkweed and is fairly common growing along roadsides. That night I checked the internet for photos of dogbane seed capsules, and they sure looked similar. I wonder why I’ve never seen dogbane in seed before? On the last stretch of road where the truck was parked, there was a small meadow where we had noticed the emerging leaves of bluebells (Mertensia paniculata) earlier in the day. As we passed by, some yellow caught my eye, and I realized it wasn’t more violets but glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum). We turned around and went back to see them and found a number of western springbeauty (Claytonia lanceolata) in bloom as well. The clouds had been increasing all afternoon, and it was already about 7pm, but then one last shaft of light shone on some gorgeous glacier lilies for the perfect photo and a fitting end to the day.

 

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