Back to Elk Camp Shelter—Not Once But Twice

The meadow by the Elk Camp Shelter was awash in color, with both marsh marigolds and mountain shooting stars still in their prime.

The meadow by the Elk Camp Shelter was awash in color, with both marsh marigolds and mountain shooting stars still in their prime.

After the beautiful day I had enjoying the first flowers of the season near Elk Camp Shelter last month (see Wetland Bloom Starts with a Bang Near Elk Camp Shelter), I decided I should try to come back every few weeks and follow the whole season as it progresses. I’ve thought about doing this many times, but it is hard to squeeze in so many trips to the same place, especially when there are so many great spots to visit. But this one is so easy for me to get to, and the only time I’d seen this area before this year was at the very tail end of the season, so I have a lot of catching up to do.

Within just a few feet from the last snowbank, one can see the development of the skunk cabbage from first emergence through blooming to fully leafed out.

Within just a few feet of the last snowbank, one can see the development of the skunk cabbage from first emergence through blooming to fully leafed out.

The pollen of Claytonia cordifolia is black.

The pollen of Claytonia cordifolia is black.

On Monday, June 10, Nancy Bray and Doramay Keasbey joined me on a return trip to the meadows along Road 420, and then for the short walk to Elk Camp Shelter and the gorgeous wet meadow there that I had skipped the first time because of snow and lack of time. There were still a few small patches of snow and some spots that had just melted out. This was great because my friends got to see a few of the earliest flowers that had been so pretty on my first visit. They spotted some fresh glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) and western springbeauty (Claytonia lanceolata). While most of the abundant skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) was finished blooming, next to the last snow bank, there were still a few emerging from the ground. The lovely Oregon bluebells (Mertensia bella) that had just started seemed to be everywhere—bella indeed! Another plant that was coming on strong was heart-leaf miner’s lettuce (Claytonia cordifolia). We were able to compare it to its smaller but similar cousin, candyflower (Claytonia sibirica), growing nearby. In addition to the size difference, candyflower has bracts on the inflorescence that are lacking on the other species. What I hadn’t realized was that the heart-leaf miner’s lettuce has black pollen. Many of the glistening white flowers looked rather dirty, sprinkled with black dust. Upon closer examination, it was clear that it was from the dehiscing of the anthers. I don’t remember ever noticing this before. Some of the anthers were still pink, so this is quite a change in color.

A beautiful display of Claytonia cordifolia.

A beautiful display of heart-leaf miner’s lettuce (Claytonia cordifolia).

The meadow at Elk Camp Shelter is about a hundred feet higher than the roadside meadows and was just a little behind them. The wettest part of it was quite stunning. While the main show was marsh marigolds (Caltha leptosepala) and mountain shooting stars (Dodecatheon jeffreyi), there was also some pretty blue camas (Camassia quamash) and a small population of alpine laurel (Kalmia microphylla). I, however, was distracted by the blooming willows growing along the outside. While I spent a while studying and photographing them, my friends explored more of the meadow, eventually making their way over to the somewhat drier side where the rare Umpqua frasera (Frasera umpquaensis) grows. They noticed a number of posts and stakes, which I figured were from the Forest Service’s tracking of this species of concern. When I returned on Friday (June 14) with Molly Juillerat, the Middle Fork district botanist, she explained that they are worried that the plants don’t seem to be spreading in this small population. The posts in the middle of this arm of the meadow mark where an attempt was made to plant some seed-grown young plants to boost the population. Alas, we couldn’t find any sign of plants within the marked area. We tried to find some habitat preference that would give a clue as to what the problem was. They don’t like full shade, but the healthiest plants seemed to be growing under some rhododendrons right along the edge of the forest. They will continue to monitor this population and others in the nearby meadow, which I now know they call Nevergo Meadow because it drains into Nevergo Creek. Nancy had discovered a few plants there, but Molly told me there are more farther downhill than we ventured.

Many characteristics are needed to identify willows. Salix eastwoodiae has ovaries that are covered with hairs.

Many characteristics are needed to identify willows. Salix eastwoodiae is distinguished from similar species by its ovaries that are covered with hairs.

On my trip with Molly, I also returned to look at the willows. There appear to be three species in the shelter meadow. Along with the common Geyer’s willow (Salix geyeriana), there was one with hairy ovaries that, after much deliberation with various keys and books, I’ve decided must be Eastwood’s willow (S. eastwoodiae). I wasn’t aware of ever seeing that one before, so I am excited to finally know what it looks like. A superficially very similar one in a separate thicket had glabrous ovaries and pretty magenta stigmas on its female flowers (perhaps Salix commutata? [no, I believe now it is S. boothii). And there were no male flowers anywhere, which I found very strange. As I walked back in front of these, I noticed the small paired spatulate leaves of water montia (Montia chamissoi), hiding among the shooting stars. How had I missed that earlier in the week when I took exactly the same route along the willow thicket? You might think it is silly to go back to a site again so soon, but you never see a place the same way twice. When I first discovered this plant at Patterson Mountain, it was the first record for this plant in Lane County—now it’s up to four. It is far more common on the east side of the Cascades.

Earlier in the day, Molly and I had started our day checking out the wetlands a couple of miles to the north at the base of Saddleblanket Mountain. These require a little bit more bushwhacking, so we had skipped them on Monday. The first had some fading skunk cabbage but none of the shooting stars or marsh marigolds of the other meadows. Still we found some plants to look at and photograph. Somewhat disturbing, though, was a small structure someone had built at the far end of the meadow. We marked it with the GPS, so someone from the Forest Service can remove it. While it was not actually a working day for Molly, she still always sort of has her Forest Service hat on.

Molly and her dog Mango admiring some of the grand trees in forest at the edge of the wetland. Mango was more interested in playing stick than botanizing, but she was a wonderful companion for the day.

Molly and her dog Mango admiring some of the grand trees in the forest at the edge of the wetland. Mango was more interested in playing stick than botanizing, but she was a wonderful companion for the day.

The caterpillar of the Lorquin's admiral butterfly might be mistaken for a bird dropping by a potential predator—at least that's the idea!

The caterpillar of the Lorquin’s admiral butterfly might be mistaken for a bird dropping by a potential predator—at least that’s the idea!

There is another meadow not far off the road but hidden from view by some stunning old growth Douglas-firs. Using an aerial photo, we found our way out to the meadow. A well-placed fallen tree acted as a great bridge into the wetland, saving us the effort of having to punch through the many thickets of shrubs, some of which were the pretty but thorny Douglas’ hawthorn (Crataegus suksdorfii). Although we saw lots of wonderful herbaceous species here—mostly the same as at the meadows near Elk Camp Shelter—much of this wetland is covered in shrub thickets, including Sitka alder (Alnus viridis), Sitka willow (Salix sitchensis), and Geyer’s willow. The Geyer’s willow seemed to be suffering from some disease, leaving many of its branches black and almost leafless. We’d never seen anything like that before, and we were worried it might be affecting some of the other willows, as we saw dead leaves on a few. One other willow here was different from any I’d seen in the other meadows. It had no flowers to help with the ID, but that itself might be a clue that it was a very early bloomer. Its leaves did have distinctly glaucous undersides, making me believe it might be arroyo willow (Salix lasiolepis). One of the highlights of the day for me was a caterpillar Molly spotted on this willow. They are valuable plants for many insects, for the leaves as well well as nectar from the flowers. While I still haven’t gotten all the Western Cascades willows sorted out, six different willows in this one area has whet my appetite to see more before they finish blooming, then maybe I can finally get a handle on these confusing but fascinating shrubs.

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