Still More Discoveries at Bristow Prairie

The rock garden is always gorgeous in June and July. The cream-colored hotrock penstemon (Penstemon deustus) was at peak. It was joined by frosted paintbrush (Castilleja pruinosa), Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum), bluefield gilia (Gilia capitata), and much more.

On July 3rd, John Koenig and I went to Bristow Prairie, one of our favorite places. Due to the pandemic, we drove up separately. Turns out we were both planning to go, so we figured we might as well go at the same time. Two sets of eyes are much better for finding interesting things. And we always seem to find unusual plants and other cool things up in this wonderful area.

It takes a very tiny bee to pollinate the little flowers of Columbia lewisia.

Sierra onion is a shy thing, with a small umbel of flowers that are a difficult shade to spot against the dirt. Its dried heads persist like little tumbleweeds, so perhaps if there are more, they will show up better once they are out of bloom!

We started off checking out what we named Lewisia Point for the rare Columbia lewisia (Lewisia columbiana) we discovered two years on my last trip there with John (see Yet Another Exciting Discovery at Bristow Prairie). Within a half hour we had our first discovery. I was very close to the ground in an area of shaley-type rock, looking to see if any of the large-flowered blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia grandiflora) were going to seed yet. They were blooming well where we parked, but here they were drying up. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be, so I would never have spotted the single purple-flowered onion had I not been looking so carefully up close. I immediately recognized this as a species I’d seen in the Rogue-Umpqua Divide but never in this area, although I spotted some dried heads last year at Reynolds Ridge that I thought might be this species. Trouble is, I simply couldn’t come up with the name (my brain’s not what it used to be either!). It bugged me all day; I’d start to think the name was appearing, but then it would just as quickly vanish, kind of like when the fog brightens for a moment, but the sun never comes out. It took two hours before the common name, Sierra onion, magically came to me. Another two hours after that, we were walking in the woods when, suddenly, there it was: Allium campanulatum! It fascinates me how one’s brain can work on a task in the background like a computer. We spent quite a bit of time looking for other plants, but we never found any more. This plant was still mostly in bud, so perhaps others had yet to bloom—it doesn’t look like much out of bloom, and the few narrow leaves would be almost impossible to spot without an inflorescence. Or maybe it is the first seed of a new population. Perhaps time will tell.

Left: western white laying an egg on tower mustard. Right: an egg on reflexed rockcress that must have been laid on a previous day. This close up, you can see the stellate hairs of the rockcress.

After enjoying the beautiful lewisia and view and having our lunch, we headed back to the cars. Sadly, yet again, there weren’t anywhere near as many butterflies as we’ve seen in the past. But here we did see a single western white (Pontia occidentalis) who landed on some tower mustard (Turritis glabra) but not on the flowers. Remembering that mustard family species are the host plants for most whites, I went to look for eggs after the butterfly departed. Sure enough, there were a couple! So off we went on another quest, searching for butterfly eggs. There were only a few other tower mustards, but there were a number of reflexed rockcress (Boechera retrofracta [formerly Arabis holboellii), also in the mustard family and probably the most common rockcress in the Western Cascades. We ended up finding eggs on a number of these as well. Some were creamy, others were yellow, and a few were reddish orange. I guessed that might have to do with the age of the egg, and indeed, in Life Histories of Cascadia Butterflies, it says, “the spindle-shaped egg is pale yellow, turning orange-red within 24 hours.”

We came across a small area at Lewisia Point where there were a number of beautiful clumps of clustered broomrape (Aphyllon fasciculatum, formerly Orobanche fasciculata). It is a parasitic species, and all of the clusters were near or in Oregon sunshine or silverleaf phacelia (Phacelia hastata). We also spotted a few at the rock garden.

This little female Sierra Nevada blue picked my mood up as I was afraid I would miss them entirely this year.

After all that hunting for hard-to-spot plants and eggs, it was mid-afternoon before we even made it into the main meadow. John hadn’t seen the small wetland area that hosted another population of Sierra Nevada blues, so that was our first stop. There we were again patiently hunting—but now we were trying to spot little blue butterflies among the fading mountain shooting stars (Dodecatheon jeffreyi). There were three, maybe four blues fluttering about, but they hardly sat still. And when they did, they opened up their wings, presumably warming up on a sunny but cool day. Unfortunately, the upper wings of the far more common greenish blues that also live in wetlands (their host plant longstalk clover—Trifolium longipes—was also growing here) look about the same as those of Sierra Nevada blues except for being a brighter blue. Both species have a dark bar that most of our other blues don’t have. Finally, I was pretty fed up with not getting a clear view of their undersides. I was pretty sure they were too bright a blue anyway. Out loud, I told the butterflies that I’d run out of patience and was heading on. I turned around to head farther up the meadow. Apparently someone was listening, for just then, a small brownish butterfly landed in front of me, closed her wings, and sat there—a lovely female Sierra Nevada blue! I was so relieved. And now, after we both got a good look at her, we really could move on.

Gail Baker spotted this lovely pink-tinged northern buckwheat (Eriogonum compositum) back in 2013 (see A Grand Day Exploring Bristow Prairie’s Varied Habitats), and I now look for it on each trip.

We headed cross country to where I remembered we could pick up the actual trail—faint though it is—that leads to the gorgeous rock garden. Despite John’s knee being sore, we wandered around on the steep, gravelly slope for over an hour, admiring the colorful display of showy perennials and the many tiny annuals. While the first wave of species was fading, there were plenty of flowers to enjoy, even if we saw no more than a handful of butterflies.

This gorgeous pure yellow cliff paintbrush was growing among a number of the typical bright red ones. I wonder if I’ve missed it in the past, or if it is a young plant. It will be interesting to follow it in the future. Hopefully, it will be as long-lived as the one at Middle Pyramid.

After returning to our cars, there was just one more stop to make. There’s a striking cliff above the road just west of the main prairie. It is north-facing and in the shade most of the day, but as the sun goes down, it finally illuminates the cliff, so it is best to save this great spot for last. I was surprised and pleased that the cliff paintbrush (Castilleja rupicola) was not only still in bloom but quite fresh. It is a fairly early bloomer, but the snow builds up quite a bit against the cliff and doesn’t melt as quickly as elsewhere because of its shady aspect. Near the southern end of its range here in the Calapooyas, cliff paintbrush is almost always found on north-facing rock. Poking around among the lush foliage of many other species that like this cool and moist spot to find an accessible plant to get a good photograph of, my jaw dropped when I came across a bright yellow cliff paintbrush. This is only the second one I’ve ever seen (see Gorgeous Day on Middle Pyramid for the first). Castilleja expert Mark Egger says, “Color variants are not common in this species,” so this was a special treat.

The gestalt of Sitka mistmaiden is different than that of California mistmaiden. Its leaves are usually larger relative to the flowers, and the flower stalks aren’t so tall and upright.

Seeing all the beautiful paintbrush out of reach on a shelf of sorts between the road bank and the actual cliff, I really, really wanted to get up there. I knew it was too late to thoroughly explore it today, but I’ve thought about this many times, so when I saw a small drainage coming down between some rocks, I figured I had to at least see if it would be a good access point for a future trip. And John was there to watch me if I got stuck and needed help figuring out how to get down. Other than being covered with elderberries and other tangled branches, it turned out to be quite easy, and I was up 20 or 30 feet in no time (and back down just as quick). On the way up, I was surprised to see some mistmaiden in bloom. It struck me as having the wrong gestalt for the common California mistmaiden (R. californica), and the habitat was perfect for Sitka mistmaiden (R. sitchensis), a cool-loving species more common to the north and usually limited to north-facing spots like this one in the southern part of its range. There are two good ways to tell the difference between the two: the former grows from brownish hairy bulbs and has more tubular flowers, and the latter has a base of overlapping leaves and has flatter flowers. So this was indeed Sitka mistmaiden, yet another new discovery for Bristow Prairie! Between the yellow cliff paintbrush and the Sitka mistmaiden, it was a fabulous way to end another terrific trip to Bristow Prairie.

3 Responses to “Still More Discoveries at Bristow Prairie”

  • Val Rogers:

    Your adventures with plants are so captivating Tanya! I’m living vicariously through your blog and feeling inspired to explore more.

  • Chad Sageser:

    Praying not so many trees fall next few years to cut out to get to these places. The last two years have been crazy with tree fall with heavy snows and rain.

  • A special thanks to you, Chad, for cutting the road to Bristow Prairie. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your hard work that allows the rest of us to enjoy the mountain flowers! And I’m right there with you, hoping next year’s tree fall won’t be as bad. There were so many trees along Road 2134 that I gave up trying to get up to Potter Mountain last week. Hopefully, the fire crew will finish cleaning it up.

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