Another Exciting Day in the Calapooyas

It had been three years since I’d been up on Loletta Peak, and I’d been hankering to see the Siskiyou fritillary (Fritillaria glauca) in bloom up there since I first discovered it on my first trip back in 2009—I didn’t write about it because, at the time, it was considered rare, and its locations were withheld. The road is on the north side of the Calapooya crest and is normally blocked with snow when these very early bloomers are peaking, so the lack of snow made this year seem like the perfect chance to give it a shot. On March 29, I was joined by John Koenig, who loves the Calapooya area as much as I do.

Spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa) are abundant on the summit slope of Loletta Peak.

Spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa) is abundant on the gravelly summit slope of Loletta Peak.


As usual, we had to make numerous stops on Coal Creek Road on the way up. The first spot that caught our eye was a little waterfall I don’t remember noticing before. There was a small damp meadow above it and lots of flowers with more to come. It occurred to me the waterfall was good habitat for the uncommon bronze bells (Anticlea occidentalis), and I was thrilled to spot it quite quickly, as though my thought made it appear. A few plants were just starting to bud up.

There are many great places to botanize along Coal Creek Road 2133. This seepy meadow with a small waterfall was a new one. I'm guessing I haven't noticed before because in a normal year, it is probably dried out by the time I'm able to drive up to the higher elevations.

There are many great places to botanize along Coal Creek Road 2133. This seepy meadow with a small waterfall was a new one. I’m guessing I haven’t noticed it before because in a normal year, it is probably dried out by the time I’m able to drive up to the higher elevations.

A short ways up the road is the larger waterfall where we almost always stop. Not as much was in bloom yet, but after poking around closer to the road, we found a seepy spot with lots of small pairs of leaves, a twayblade. Given the wet habitat, I’m pretty sure it will be prove to be broad-lip twayblade (Neottia [recently changed from Listera] convallarioides). I’ll have to remember to check that later in the season if possible (always so many reasons to return!). Both the Anticlea and Neottia would be new additions for my list for this area.

A junco bursting out right in front of me led to the discovery of its nest hidden beneath spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa).

A junco bursting out right in front of me led to the discovery of its nest hidden beneath spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa).

Next stop is always along the road after it winds around and starts heading west along the base of the long, steep, rocky slope that descends from the crest of the Calapooyas. The seepy banks and wet ditch are a haven for moisture-loving species. We had noticed, quite happily, that the road was in great shape with not a single fallen rock. This is unusual and a clear sign the Forest Service had done some road work. Sadly, in order to prevent washouts, they had completely cleared the ditch, probably fairly recently. It was desolate, and so was I. All the beautiful species that had inhabited the ditch, including the rare yellow willowherb (Epilobium luteum), were completely gone. While there are still plenty of plants higher up on the banks, this is a great loss. I wonder how long it will take them to recolonize it.

Beautiful cliff paintbrush bloom on the steep north cliff of the lower slope.

Gorgeous cliff paintbrush (Castilleja rupicola) bloom on the steep north side of the lower slope of Loletta Peak. The Calapooya crest appears to be the southern end of its range, but it is quite happy here. Unfortunately, none of them were within reach of a closeup photo. The white flowers are rustyhair saxifrage (Micranthes rufidula).

Finally we parked at the makeshift camping site along the road and headed up to our main destination, Loletta Peak. It’s quite a scramble up the loose scree that the Siskiyou fritillary loves so much, but it is always worth it to see all the wonderful plants growing on this steep slope. It didn’t take us long to spot the fritillaries, but alas, even in May, we were already too late. The leaves were still fresh, but all the flowers were dried out. We were, however, able to do a little research project of sorts. The Flora of North America and the Jepson Manual, both treatments written by Bryan Ness, describe this species as having “2–4” leaves. Few other floras mention this species at all as it is only found in California and Oregon. I was quite sure that the flowering plants I’d seen at Heavenly Bluff with more than one flower had more than 4 leaves, but I couldn’t be sure how many from my photos. It’s possible that some of the leaves at the base could be from smaller separate bulbs since, like other fritillaries, the main bulbs form smaller bulblets that break off and form new plants. Finding the bottom of the stem meant pushing away some of the small rocks, but it was quickly apparent that there were indeed far more than 4 leaves to a plant. We counted a great many with 8, 9, or 10 leaves; one hefty plant had 5 flowers and 15 leaves! Unfortunately it is probably too late to change the description in the upcoming Flora of Oregon, now at the printer (unless there are more corrections needed after we proof the final copy this month). The description in our Flora says “1–4(6)” with 6 now seeming a very conservative number for extreme cases. I’m not sure why the other floras use 2 as the lower number because the vast majority of plants aren’t of blooming age and only have a single leaf.  It may take a number of years before they are large enough to bloom and have more than one leaf.

Siskiyou fritillary at various stages in its life.

Siskiyou fritillary at various stages in its life. At the top, a blooming plant, with a single-leaved, non-blooming plant right in front of it; young spoon-shaped leaves near the bottom, and a few narrow seedlings, including on with its seed still attached to the top at the lower lefthand side.

While disappointed at missing the bloom on the lower slope, John and I both held out hope that there might still be some left in flower on the summit, several hundred feet higher. We were so relieved when we reached the top and spotted a few fresh flowers. There had obviously been a great many blooming plants. This is by far the healthiest population I’ve ever seen. It must have been quite stunning a week or two earlier—hopefully one of these days I’ll get to see it in its glory! Another thing I’d wondered about this species is why I’d never noticed seedlings. While they certainly propagate themselves frequently by bulblets that wash down slope from the parent plants, they must spread by seeds sometimes (or they couldn’t have found their way to all these sites!). Once I said this out loud, voila! They started to appear. Not only did we notice a number of individual linear leaves (monocots have only one cotyledon leaf) among the larger, glaucous, more obvious fritillary leaves, but we started seeing these little leaves with the outer part of the seed still attached to the top. Having grown fritillaries and the closely related lilies, these thin, brown, potato chip-like seeds were unmistakeable. How cool to finally see that in the wild! My magical ability to make things appear at will lasted for a short while longer when, after seeing a California tortoiseshell—a butterfly species that has been hard to find the last few years—I mentioned that it has been an unexpectedly good year for red admirals—normally a far less common species in the Cascades. Almost the moment after I said it, one appeared right in front of us. I wish that super power worked more often!

A beautiful Siskiyou fritillary plant still blooming on the summit. The books also usually describe this species as purplish or greenish marked with yellow. All the populations I've seen in Douglas and Lane counties have been bright yellow with darker markings. Could ours at the north end of its range be different than those growing farther south on serpentine?

A beautiful Siskiyou fritillary plant still blooming on the summit. The books also usually describe this species as purplish or greenish marked with yellow. All the populations I’ve seen in Douglas and Lane counties have been bright yellow with darker markings. Could ours at the north end of its range be different than those growing farther south on serpentine?

After we returned to the car, we decided to take a look at the wetland right next to where we were parked. That turned into 2 hours of pleasant wandering around this interesting mosaic of wetland, rocky spots, and forests. Marsh marigolds (Caltha leptosepala) were common in the wet areas, along with their best buddies, mountain shooting stars (Dodecatheon jeffreyi). We saw a number of very short, somewhat hairy willows in bloom. I suspected they were Salix eastwoodiae, but with only male catkins, we couldn’t confirm that until we finally found an area with some female plants mixed in with them. The hairy ovaries made it official. Where there were damp, elevated rocky spots, we saw lots of tiny threeleaf lewisia (Lewisia triphylla), but they were presumably all closed for the night. I’ve never quite figured when during the day they bloom, but more than once, I’ve postponed photographing them too long, only to find them closed up on my way back to my car.

Siskiyou fritillary

An unusually robust Siskiyou fritillary just a little too late to see its 5 flowers in bloom. Pushing away the ground to see the stalk revealed 15 leaves. Some botanists refer to small leaves in an inflorescence as bracts. Using that definition, this plant only has 10 leaves, but that’s still well above the range given in the floras.

I’d done some exploring back in this area before, so I showed John where this relatively flat plateau drops off at the north and east edges. We could see Cascade fleabane (Erigeron cascadensis) blooming on some gravelly slopes below the north edge, and when we went around to see the east-facing cliffs, we could see lots of flowers down below us on similar slopes, all tantalizingly out of reach. How to get down there? With my binoculars, I was pretty sure some large, fluffy-leaved plants I was seeing were fern-leaved lomatium (Lomatium dissectum), a species I hadn’t seen in this area before. From 100′ above it was hard to confirm. We headed back through the woods to the car, ready to call it a day, when we noticed it was a bit open again toward the cliff side. Heading over to see what was there, I was thrilled to step out onto a flowery gravel slope, this one right at our level. Within a minute, I was able to add fern-leaved lomatium to my list as it was flowering right in front of me. Naturally, we had to do some more exploring and found a number of pretty but common plants.

A line of rock jutted out of the gravel, forming a small wall. Looking to see what might be growing in the somewhat different habitat, I was surprised by some fleshy, palmately veined leaves, growing densely in some moist spots. All sorts of things came to mind—larkspur, saxifrage, buttercup—but none of them quite matched these leaves. I called John over, and we set about looking for some sign of flowers, seed heads, anything to help with the ID. We found two early inflorescences with tight, spherical heads of small buds covered with hairs. The leaves on the flowering stems had these weird-shaped wings at the base. Now I was really stumped! My only thought was to come back for a return trip to see it in flower. Moving farther north along the slope, more moist, vertical rock appeared. And the rock was covered with white flowers—our mystery plant in bloom! For a second, I was disappointed at the thought that these were just small mountain boykinia (Boykinia major). But wait a minute—the flowers looked like boykinia, but the leaves were still wrong as was the habitat. What in heck was this? At least it seemed clear it was in the saxifrage family, Saxifragaceae; the palmate leaves, white 5-petaled flowers, and moist, shady habitat all fit. I was still clueless as to what it could be, but I was sure I’d never seen it. That alone made it special. I could hardly wait to get home to check out some books and the internet and solve this mystery. When we got back to John’s truck just a few minutes later, I couldn’t believe it was already 8pm— time sure flies when you’re having fun!

Buttercup-leaved suksdorfia looks a lot like other members of the saxifrage family with palmate leaves and white 5-petaled flowers.

Buttercup-leaved suksdorfia looks a lot like other members of the saxifrage family with white 5-petaled flowers and palmate leaves that really do resemble those of some buttercups.

When I finally got home, I looked through the Oregon Flora Project photo gallery at every unfamiliar genus in Saxifragaceae. It took very little time before I saw a perfect match: buttercup-leaved suksdorfia (Suksdorfia ranunculifolia). Checking several floras confirmed the ID. I’d never even heard of the species. Interestingly, all the photos shown were from Washington and California. Where did it grow in Oregon? There are 23 records listed for Oregon on the OFP atlas, a majority of which were quite old. Most are in the Wallowas. There are a few in Hood River County near the Gorge Mt. Hood, and the closest ones were 100 miles away in Josephine County in the Siskiyous! These plants sure were far afield. How did they get to the Calapooyas? Alas, that’s a mystery I won’t be able to solve.

10 Responses to “Another Exciting Day in the Calapooyas”

  • Greg:

    Another fantastic report! I try to visit as many wildflower locations as possible, but I enjoy living vicariously through your reports to locations that I have yet to visit. Keep up the great work!

  • Ron Mudd:

    It is always a pleasure to read your beautifully written reports. For this one in particular I felt I had to comment, and say thank you for allowing us to share in your experiences. :)

  • Thanks for the kind words, Greg and Ron!

  • Jason Clinch:

    Great report Tanya! I always love reading them! I did have a clarification to add. The Suksdorfia ranunculifolia in Hood River County are all south of Mt. Hood around Barlow Butte according to the OFP Atlas whereas those nearer the Gorge are Suksdorfia violacea which is rare and an ORBIC List 2 species. It has no state or federal listing status unfortunately. While I’ve not seen the S. ranunculifolia, I have seen S. violacea and was wondering if you’ve encountered it in your rambles? I gotta go to Barlow Butte now! Thanks again!

  • You’re quite right, Jason. The Atlas shows it in a small area south of Mt. Hood. I also read on Paul Slichter’s website that it had been collected once along the Gorge, but now I can’t find that link. Thanks for the correction—I hate to pass on bad info!
    I haven’t seen Suksdorfia violacea, although I sure would like to. Who knows? It may turn up farther south one day.

  • Kristy Swanson:

    You write so enjoyably. I feel like i was there. You were magically in tune with your surroundings!

  • Tanya, where is Loletta Peak? I can’t find it on the forest map or the USGS topo map but suspect it is the unnamed high point on the ridge at the section corner a quarter mile SE of Loletta Lakes. Which you do not mention but which i suspect is on the same plateau as the wetland next to where you parked. Clue us in; I’d love to explore this area and particularly the lakes and wetland on this high plateau. There are some very interesting mosses in high wetlands on the slopes of Little Groundhog Mountain you directed me to many years ago. This looks like another great wetland to explore.

  • Caroline:

    I really enjoyed reading your report. Makes me yearn to get out and explore. Thank you.

  • Hi Dave,

    You are quite right about the location of “Loletta Peak,” which is between Balm Mountain and Loletta Lakes in T25S. R3E right at the intersection of sections 14,15,22,and 23. I didn’t describe the location in this report, but I did mention the location and my giving the unnamed peak a name in several of the earlier reports I wrote (click on the “Loletta Peak” tag at the bottom of the report to see the older posts). One of these days, I’ll add a full description of the area to my website.

    There are lots of unnamed places that deserve names, and if I ever have enough time, I’m going to petition the Oregon Geographic Names Board to make some of the names I use official.

  • Ron Mudd:

    Very interesting observation Tanya, – ” Could ours at the north end of its range be different than those growing farther south on serpentine? ” .

    There is, in my opinion, a gradual % shift in the number of ‘bronze’ flowered individuals to ‘golden’ flowered ones from South to North. Detailed examination of both extremes, (and all possible intermediates), still points to this being a single, although quite variable species. Why this gradation in color should be so pronounced is still, to my mind, unproven. Would love to hear from anyone who has any other thoughts. :)

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