Counting Purple Milkweed at Grassy Glade

A cedar (AKA juniper) hairstreak waiting for the milkweed buds to open.

Last year we did a lot of milkweed counts, but somehow we never counted the main population at Grassy Glade, even though we all went there many times. So on May 30, Maya Goklany, volunteer coordinator for Walama Restoration, and I went to Grassy Glade to look at the milkweed. Thankfully the road in was fine, and it didn’t look like there was much storm damage there. The purple (or heartleaf) milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia) was just barely starting to bloom. Only a few plants had any open flowers, although several cedar hairstreaks were hanging around, hoping for some nectar from these butterfly favorites.

Maya cutting some more flagging to mark the milkweed.

Since there are quite a few plants in the areas on both sides of the small spur road 262, we chose to mark each plant with a piece of flagging after counting the stems and recording the number on my iPhone. It took quite a while to cover the larger of the two meadows. We kept finding smaller, non-blooming plants we’d missed. What we couldn’t find were any seedlings among the larger plants. I’m thrilled to have gotten over 30 sprouting where I planted them in some rocky spots on my property, and Maya has been checking on the ones that Walama Restoration sowed in the nearby Jim’s Creek restoration area, so we both knew what we were looking for.

When we finished our count, we went back around to pick up the flagging and looked again for more seedlings, but there just didn’t seem to be any. It’s not like there’s a lot of other vegetation for them to hide under. There’s a large fallen Ponderosa pine in the meadow alongside which a few milkweed plants were growing among a slew of broken bark pieces. When I went to retrieve the flagging by those plants, I spotted a fence lizard on a branch of the log. Maya had also seen another one earlier on. When I looked closely, I was astonished to see there was a spider on its back. With its front legs wrapped around the lizard’s neck, it looked for all the world like it was going for a ride!

Rodeo spider? What’s happening here?!

Apparently, spiders and insects are the main diet of fence lizards. How did the spider get there without being eaten? Or did it jump on the lizard’s back as the only place it could avoid the lizard’s long tongue? The lizard darted under some bark but came back out—still with its long-legged rider! I can’t imagine how this story ended—and whether the spider survived to ride again—but the two disappeared under the bark after we both got a few photos of this unlikely pair.

32 seedlings in one spot! These must have come from a capsule that didn’t open enough to release the seeds.

While watching the two, I noticed a small pair of rounded leaves partly hidden under the bark. Once they were gone, I looked more closely at the leaves. Sure enough, it was a little seedling milkweed! I looked around the area and spotted several more. And then I spotted a whole clump of seedlings. These most likely were clustered together where the capsule had fallen but the seeds weren’t blown away by the wind. A more thorough look around the log garnered 3 more clumps, one with 32 seedlings! Was it the search image that allowed us to suddenly see so many after not noticing them here when we counted? Or did we just get lucky? Perhaps the lizard showed us the seedling on purpose when it heard us lamenting there were no new milkweed plants coming up in this meadow.

A single purple milkweed seedling. The two larger cotyledon leaves look connected, but they are actually separate for a ways below ground. The true leaves are coming out of a separate stalk, which is also connected below the surface.

Two seedlings showing the unusually long petioles of the cotyledon leaves. In contrast, the true leaves are sessile. The first true leaves are just starting to develop on the shorter stalk in the middle of each seedling.

We decided the tight clumps of seedlings wouldn’t all survive, so I dug one up one clump and replanted the seedlings separately near the log and watered them in. We never did find seedlings away from the log (although we did find a few last year), so was there something about being next to the log that was beneficial to the seedlings? We spent a while speculating about this. Perhaps there was a little more shade among the pieces of bark, or maybe it was moister. Or maybe the capsules landed there because the wind pushed them up against the log. Or maybe the lizard moved them there! It certainly seemed odd finding so many seedlings in this one spot. I do hope some of them survive. I will certainly check on them later in the season.

There was an amazing display of paintbrush (probably Castilleja hispida) up on the cliffs along Hills Creek Reservoir. I wish I could have gotten closer!

Purple milkweed blooming in the Quarry Meadow along Road 2129.

We didn’t have enough time to go down to “Rocky Glade” or “Rabbitbrush Ridge,” two nearby milkweed sites Maya hadn’t been to yet, so we decided to make a quick stop to the Quarry Meadow I’d been to a few weeks before (see Early Trips to Rigdon). The milkweed plants were now in full bloom, but I was only able to find 9 plants—a much smaller population than at Grassy Glade (no need for flagging here!). Some of them had many stalks, however, so maybe the population had once been a lot larger before the quarry devoured much of the meadow. The rocky areas that were so pretty on my earlier trip were completely dried out, but thankfully some seepy areas in the meadow were quite lush with monkeyflowers (Erythranthe sp.) and rosy plectritis (Plectritis congesta), and other plants, including bluefield gilia (Gilia capitata) and western rayless fleabane (Erigeron inornatus), had yet to start blooming. Hopefully, we’ll still get some more rain to keep the flowers going for a while longer at these low elevations.

One Response to “Counting Purple Milkweed at Grassy Glade”

  • Kristy Swanson:

    It’s interesting to see your milkweeds. I planted a couple and it’s turned into a clump adjacent to a little rock garden. They may take it over. I have 8? seedlings I started in a flat…and they’re going slowly. We had monarchs everywhere in Minneapolis so I might get some on the edge of Eugene. In the fall I think I’ll let some pods spread seeds over in another part of the yard.

    I’m getting stronger and my bionic knees work. Maybe in July I can join you for a not too long hike.

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