Autumn Comes to Iron Mountain

Vines maples turning red between Iron Mountain and Cone Peak

It was a gorgeous day on Monday (September 27), and a great day to be in the mountains even if most of the flowering is over. In all the times I’d been to Iron Mountain and Cone Peak, I realized I’d never been there in late summer or early fall, so that was our destination. Like most people in western Oregon, Iron Mountain was the first place I’d heard of when asking where to go see flowers. So I went a number of times after I moved here in the early ’90s. But, eventually, I discovered how many other terrific botanical areas there are in the Cascades—and how much more peaceful they are without the summer crowds that seem to make the pilgrimage to Iron Mountain as though it is the only beautiful spot in the mountains. I still love to go up to Cone Peak as the snow is melting, but I’ve kind of ignored Iron Mountain for quite some time. There were many late-blooming plants listed for the area that I’d never seen there, so I was long overdue for a visit.

Northern buckwheat (Eriogonum compositum) goes out in a blaze of glory.

The vine maples were bright red in the lava flows along McKenzie Highway and were changing color on Iron Mountain as well. Many of the other deciduous woody plants were beginning to turn yellow. Even some of the herbaceous plants take on autumn hues this time of year. Eriogonum compositum has especially bright coloring in the fall. We were surprised to see many skyrockets (Ipomopsis aggregata) obviously reblooming, their seed capsules already empty at the top of the plant, while flowers and buds were still appearing lower down. Good September rains must have given them a new lease on life. A few plants were in their normal blooming season. The annual knotweeds, Polygonum douglasii, P. minimum, and the lovely P. cascadense, were abundant in the open ground between larger perennials. Columbiadoria hallii was blooming well, and some bright yellow rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa) were blooming out of reach on some south-facing outcrops on the way up to the summit of Iron Mountain. I hadn’t seen the new observation deck that replaced the old lookout in 2008. It is very nicely done. The view from the top was especially nice with the vividly clear blue sky but was somewhat marred by a cloud of flying insects not present anywhere else. They drove Sabine off the top very quickly. Some of them landed on me and I noticed they looked somewhat like ants but had very narrow waists. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them before.

Cascade knotweed (Polygonum cascadense) has a long season of bloom.

Sky pilot (Polemonium pulcherrimum) is usually found at higher elevations. It relishes vertical cracks in cliffs.

On the way up and at the top, I spent a lot of time binocular botanizing the magnificent red cliffs that make Iron Mountain unique in the Western Cascades. There were several uncommon cliff plants listed for the area that I still hadn’t seen. Without the throngs of people, I was able to take my time and search more carefully for some of these. I was very pleased to finally spot the tiny tufts of Minuartia rubella and even found one still flowering just below the observation deck. After not being able to find this plant anywhere but Mount June for years, I’ve now seen it in three other sites. James Hickman listed it for a number of sites back in the ’60s, but I have not been able to relocate all those sites yet although I looked really hard on Middle Pyramid earlier this year. Maybe next year. I also finally spotted some Heuchera merriamii. Someone, I can’t remember who, told me it was up there, although it hasn’t been reported to the OFP Atlas yet. It seems to be the most northerly site for the species, and this is the first time I’ve seen it north of the McKenzie River. The dried blossoms usually persist and can be recognized by their short, dense inflorescences. The common H. micrantha and less often seen H. glabra both have tall, airy flower stalks. Also hiding in these cliff faces were some small Polemonium pulcherrimum, rarely seen in the Western Cascades but one I had seen here in the past.

Despite the sunny skies and warm temperatures, only a few pine whites, fritillaries, and skippers were present.

After we finished the main Iron Mountain trail (the easy way from the upper trailhead), we took the trail around the backside toward Cone Peak. I told Sabine to keep a lookout for remnants of non-chlorophyll plants, something I’d always been too early to see here, and she instantly pointed to several stalks of pine drops (Pterospora andromedea) right by the trail. We never did see any pinesap or any of the others. It doesn’t seem to have been a very good year for most of those in the places I’ve been. Some round, heart-shaped leaves on a wet bank in the woods caused us a little confusion until we saw the fading flowers—a grass-of-Parnassus. I was surprised to find it in the small damp spot, but then it turned out it wasn’t Parnassia cirrata, which has been reported for the area and which grows abundantly at nearby Echo Basin. It was Parnassia fimbriata with its telltale smaller green staminodia and narrower petals. This species is the less common of the two in the Western Cascades, and I have seen it growing in wet rocky areas as well as wet meadows, the habitat I usually see P. cirrata in. We went as far as the ridge along the west side of Cone Peak. Neither of us had the energy to do much more.

The classic view of the dramatic red cliffs of Iron Mountain

Since it was still early, I took a quick a quick trip around the Tombstone Prairie nature trail next to the lower parking lot while Sabine relaxed in the car and planned her trip the following day. Some asters were about the only flowers still blooming. But I was able to check off several species on others’ plant lists that I hadn’t noticed before. I also spotted more starworts, both Stellaria crispa and S. obtusa. There had also been many mats of Stellaria obtusa growing under thickets of thimbleberries on the upper trails. I dutifully checked for leaf hairs, capsule shapes, and sepals in a number of spots. I still think S. obtusa is actually more common than S. crispa but this is only observational data and isn’t very scientific. Growing among them at Tombstone Prairie was a small patch of pearlwort (Sagina saginoides). This is also turning up more than I expected. All in all, it turned out to be a very valuable outing for me, adding a couple of dozen plants to my personal plant list. Even the most familiar site can seem new if you go at a different time of year.

Leave a Reply

Post Categories
Notification of New Posts