Hell’s Half Acre Heaven for Butterflies

Yesterday (August 1), I headed up to Hells Half Acre for what was supposed to be a fairly relaxing day. I’d had good luck with butterflies in August there in the past and thought I might take it easy and just enjoy hanging out in the meadows and not doing any strenuous bushwhacking. Hah! Most of the forest plants such as bunchberry (Cornus unalaschkensis) and queen’s cup (Clintonia uniflora) were on the wane. There were lots of ericaceous plants coming into bloom including Orthilia secunda and some very pretty Pyrola picta. One clump of indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) was just starting to push through the ground.

An elegant clodius parnassian nectaring on arrowleaf groundsel (Senecio triangularis)

Lots of things were still blooming in the lower meadow area, however. I was disappointed that there were no butterflies in the first two meadows (or sections of a larger meadow if you like), in spite of lingering Senecio triangularis and Valeriana sitchensis, two butterfly favorites. These meadows were quite overgrown with bracken and, as the trail is seldom used, had to be plowed through. The last meadow was a different story. It was much grassier, with very little bracken, and filled with fresh Alice’s fleabane (Erigeron aliceae) and pink owl-clover (Orthocarpus imbricatus). A number of blues were flitting about along with some checkerspots, mylitta crescents, a few parnassians, and at least one hydaspe fritillary. I spent a while trying to photograph them before heading up to Hell’s Half Acre, the much larger meadow at the end of the trail. I was joined by a very nice couple and their sweet dog Pepper who were unsure about where the trail was. For those going up there, the trail is really hard to follow in the meadows, and there is no sign where the trail picks up in the woods on the right-hand side just in front of an enormous noble fir.

Northern Anna’s blues enjoy a change of pace from their usual lunch fare of flower nectar

After noticing some Stellaria obtusa and blooming Oxalis trilliifolia in the damp areas near the creek that drains the meadow, we popped out into the sunny, badly misnamed Hell’s Half Acre. It’s far more than a half an acre and anything but hellish. We were greeted by a multitude of butterflies. My companions decided they didn’t feel like doing any bushwhacking, as, although the trail apparently once continued on to Verdun Rock, it now essentially disappears here near the bottom of the meadow. I took my vest off to wander about the nearby wet area and munch on some lunch. When I returned a few minutes later, a couple of dozen blues were also having lunch—on my vest and diffuser! The wetland was also covered with blues. There must have been hundreds of them across the meadow. All appeared to be northern Anna’s blues. Their caterpillars eat members of the pea family, and the meadow was filled with Lupinus latifolius, Vicia americana, and Lathyrus nevadensis. But many other blues like these, so I don’t know why there was such an explosion of the one species without a trace of any of the others.

The lobed petals and fragrant glandular hairs clearly show the relation to other tarweeds, but its height and need for moisture help separate Kyhosia from Madia.

In the wetland, it was mid-season, with Dodecatheon jeffreyi finished, the white bog orchids (Platanthera dilatata) in bloom, and Parnassia cirrata in bud. The first flowers of Bolander’s tarweed (Kyhosia bolanderi) were open. Near the northern end of its range, this unusual moisture-loving tarweed is rare in Lane County. While it used to be considered a Madia, it is now the only species in its own genus. I still haven’t quite figured out when the optimal time to photograph it is. The flowers seem to close up for part of the day, and I often find all the flowers shriveled up. Also, unlike other members of the Helianthae tribe of Asteraceae such as Helianthella or Balsamorhiza, the flowers seem to face away from the sun, and I can’t seem to get a decent photo without using a fill flash. I’m not sure if they are always facing east, and I never see them until afternoon, or if they track away from the sun the way sunflowers track toward the sun. If it was my job to find out, I wouldn’t mind spending an entire day here watching them and the butterflies.

This magnificent Cascade lily (Lilium washingtonianum) had 30 flowers at different stages.

I could have done that yesterday, but inexplicably I found myself heading up the steep eastern end of the meadow toward the rocky cliffs at the top in spite of the voice of reason in my head telling me I would exhaust myself and run out of time to get home for dinner with company. There’s just no denying the magnet-like pull that cliffs have for me. As I headed up the edge of the woods to avoid the abundance of bracken, I ran into several piles of bear scat. I’d already seen some earlier on the trail, and, by the time I returned, I must have seen at least 10 piles—not quite fresh—yet I was still expecting to run into a large bear or perhaps a bunch of them. Considering how randomly I was walking, there must have been even more out there to have run into so many. I couldn’t find any seed capsules of Fritillaria atropurpurea we had found a couple of years ago on an NPSO trip (see Fritillaries at Hells Half Acre). That would probably have been like finding a needle in a haystack. An incredibly floriferous Cascade lily (Lilium washingtonianum) couldn’t help but catch my eye, however.

From the cliffs above Hells Half Acre, there is a great view of the even larger cliffs of nearby Mt. David Douglas.

When I arrived at the first exposed rocks, still wondering if I’d made the right decision—the time it took would cost me the chance to check several excellent roadside stops along Eagle Creek Road—I was ecstatic to find a small population, only 9 plants, of boreal sandwort (Minuartia rubella) in bloom. While it is common at Mount June, in all of my botanizing, I’d only seen it in one other spot, at the top of O’Leary Mountain last year (see To the Top of O’Leary at Last!). James C. Hickman, editor of the Jepson Manual (1993), wrote his doctoral thesis at U. of Oregon on “Disjunction and Endemism in the Flora of the Central Cascades of Oregon.” He created plant lists for many of the Western Cascades sites I frequent. Except for O’Leary, I have been unable to relocate Minuartia rubella at any of the sites where he listed it. I couldn’t find any more plants as I made my way to the top of the ridge, but there is far more rock than can safely be explored. I did see a number of different Eriogonum, Erigeron foliosus, and pretty Lotus nevadensis in bloom. Luina hypoleuca was just starting and Hall’s goldenweed (Columbiadoria hallii), one of the last flowers to bloom, wouldn’t be out for a while yet. As I suspected, the way back down the meadow was just as slow as going up because of the steepness, tall bracken, and slippery beargrass, but I’m glad I finally made it to the very top. Now that I’ve done that, hopefully next time I’ll be content to take it easy and relax with the butterflies.

3 Responses to “Hell’s Half Acre Heaven for Butterflies”

  • Eleanor Ryan:

    Dear Tanya,
    Lovely pictures especially the Clodius Parnassian and the lily. Your trips sound quite adventuresome. Warmly–Ellie

  • Jim Purscelley:

    I enjoyed reading you article. I first hiked to Hells Half Acre on November 5th 1960. At that time the road didn’t go far enough to reach the trail you are talking about. My Dad and I hiked the Verdun trail from Highway 58. A truck escape ramp is located there now. It was a hellish hike up steep switchbacks. That is why it has been called Hells Half Acre. I have hiked all over that country, including the top of David Douglas. Seen many many elk, deer, cougars, but never seen a bear. Plan on going again this summer for some photos.

  • Ellie Ryan also tells me that, according to expert Pacific NW lepidopterists Bob Pyle and Andy Warren, what we have been calling Northern blues in the Cascades are actually the very similar Anna’s blues. Northerns are only found in northeastern Oregon.

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