Roaming for Romanzoffia

Romanzoffia californica along North Shore Drive

Romanzoffia californica blooming profusely along North Shore Drive

Several days ago, I got a very informative letter about Romanzoffias (mistmaidens) from Vern Marttala. Vern is undoubtedly the expert on our Romanzoffia species and is the author of Romanzoffia thompsonii, our only annual species and a Western Cascade endemic. The letter was in response to a conversation we had after I gave a talk on plant adaptations to the Portland chapter of NPSO the previous week. Along with some excellent information and keys to Romanzoffia, Vern included some of his best sites from my neck of the woods in Lane County. While the recent cold weather seems to have passed, the snow is not quite gone from the lower mountains, so on April 18, I decided this would be a perfect day to check out Vern’s roadside sites around Lookout Point Reservoir, between Lowell and Westfir, just up the road from my house.

Romanzoffia sitchensis

Romanzoffia sitchensis by Fern Creek

Heading east of Lowell on Hwy 58, the first spot I came to was the most intriguing to me. Just past milepost 19 is a pulloff at the bottom of Fern Creek. From the road, it doesn’t look like much: a pile of rocks and lots of blackberries. If anyone else had told me there was a population of Romanzoffia sitchensis there, I would not have believed them. I usually see it at much higher elevations in cool, damp, north-facing rocky areas. The only place I’ve seen it in Lane County is below Fuji Mountain in the High Cascades. Well, there in the woods, hiding behind the weeds (awful Geranium lucidum as well as blackberries), was a waterfall, and on the mossy cliffs beside it was a large population of R. sitchensis. Even through the binoculars, I recognized it by the large leaves—even larger than I’ve seen at higher elevations. The walking was quite treacherous, as there were many large rocks covered with wet moss and half hidden by branches of blackberries and salmonberries. How Vern ever found this site, I have no idea! The main population is high up on the west side of the creek. Luckily, there were a few plants in the rocks on the east side, so I was able to study them up close. It was easy to see the hairs on the stems I’d seen in other populations and the wide-open, saucer shape of the flowers Vern mentioned. The base of the plant is also an important feature, and on these plants the bases were mostly exposed, making it easy to see the loose bulb formed by the overlapping widened ends of the basal petioles.

Romanzoffia sitchensis

The base of Romanzoffia sitchensis

Romanzoffia californica

The more tuberous base of Romanzoffia californica

After I safely made my way back to the car—only slipping once—I continued east for several miles until I came upon an amazing stretch of the more common Romanzoffia californica between mileposts 23 and 24. The north-facing roadcut was covered with a froth of white flowers for over 1/3 mile. I have been by this spot many, many times, but certainly had not seen it blooming any better than today. What perfect timing! The easiest way to learn to tell two species apart is to be able to see them side by side, but seeing them 10 minutes apart with a fresh flower sample in hand will do just fine.

Romazoffia californica

Romanzoffia californica

Romanzoffia californica generally has smaller leaves and glabrous stems, although there may be some small glandular or regular hairs. The flowers are more funnel-shaped. From the outside, the calyx seems to cover less of the corolla, so a lot of yellow shows here as well as inside the tube. The calyx of R. sitchensis seems to cover more of the corolla in today’s population. I’ll have to check my other photos to see if that is true in other areas. Inside the flower, the base of the style has a cluster of hairs. A hand lens is necessary to really see this, but it is worth looking for as it is more definitive than many other features. The style of R. sitchensis is glabrous. While R. californica also likes damp rocks, it seems to be able to take a lot more sun. These rocks were north-facing, but the other populations I saw later in the day were all on south-facing road cuts. This makes sense considering the more southerly range of R. californica. And since we are closer to the northern end of this range, where it is generally cooler and damper, the north-facing aspect may not be as important. We are closer to the southern end of the range of R. sitchensis, however, so in the Western Cascades, it always seems to be found in the coolest damp and shady site around.

When I reached the end of the reservoir, I headed around through Westfir and looped back via North Shore Drive. The road is mostly gravel and is narrow and quite filled with potholes at the east end, but it gets increasingly better heading west toward Lowell. I stopped briefly at the base of Lookout Point, the large rocky prominence that gives the reservoir its name. It is quite floriferous in the spring and often a good place to see butterflies. Along with some blooming R. californica, there were some adorable, unusual Mimulus alsinoides with extra-large red lipstick spots on the lower lip.

Orobanche uniflora

Orobanche uniflora parasitizing R. californica

The real treat was farther east where the largest open slope is. You can easily see this from Hwy 58 on the other side of the reservoir. About half that stretch, maybe 0.4 mile, is covered top to bottom with Romanzoffia californica. The westernmost end of the area is at MP 14. I can’t remember ever seeing such a show, even better than the impressive roadcut along Hwy 58 because it reached higher up the hillside. No doubt they’ve benefited from the frequent rain of late. Mixed in with Romanzoffia were other seep lovers: mainly a great mix of Mimulus species and forms (more on this later perhaps) and Cascadia [Saxifraga] nuttallii. I spent a long time there taking photos and studying the Romanzoffia. Eventually I noticed that among the Romanzoffia were hundreds of blooming Orobanche uniflora. I know that they can parasitize plants other than Saxifrages and Sedums, but I’m used to seeing them peeking out of Sedum spathulifolium, and I never noticed them in Romanzoffia before. Clearly that was there host here, however. It is amazing how that purple color disappears among the lighter flowers. Once you get the search image in your mind, however, they seem to be everywhere.

One of the reasons that R. californica is able to form such large populations is that it reproduces by bulbils as well as seeds. These are like fuzzy little tubers that form in the leaf axils. As the season progresses these look more and more like the tuber-like bulbs of mature plants—very different from R. sitchensis—and they even form tiny leaves. When they are large enough, they will fall off into your hand. This a good way to start some for your garden, if you have the right habitat for them. They never seem to persist in my garden. Vern says that farther north R. sitchensis forms bulbils as well, but I have never seen them do this in the Western Cascades.

orange sulphur

orange sulphur enjoying a sip from Romanzoffia californica

After admiring this area sufficiently, I headed west but soon ran into some friends of mine from the local butterfly group. Ellie Ryan is the president of our chapter of the North American Butterfly Association. She and her husband John were out on North Shore Drive for the first time, hoping to see some butterflies. I brought them back to the main floriferous area, and, maybe it was their presence, but I got my first butterfly photos of the day. Up until then, I’d only seen a few blues—one at least was a spring azure—and a few tortoiseshells and Propertius duskywings. Not only did we see this gorgeous fresh orange sulphur, we’re pretty sure we saw a Moss’s elfin as well as more blues and duskywings. I should go out with them more often.

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