Singing the Blues at Tidbits

Explorer’s gentian (Gentiana calycosa) growing out of a crack in the rock face at the base of the “east Tidbit”. Seeing this same plant well over a decade ago was what first made me wonder if these rock-loving gentians were really the same species as those that grow in wetlands in the High Cascades and elsewhere in the West.

On Friday (September 23), Nancy Bray, Ingrid Ford and her adorable dog Bogy, and I headed up to Tidbits to see the gentians. I had planned to get up there early in the season to see the many great plants that grow on the massive rock formations, but there are just too many places to visit. But although it was actually the first day of fall, there are still a few things to see. Thank goodness for the gorgeous gentians. They are somewhat like dessert after a great meal, saving the best for last, the final sweet treat that lingers with you and tides you over until the next flower season. There are not very many species of Gentiana in the Cascades, and they are never terribly common. Tidbits is one of the few places in the Western Cascades with a good show of gentians, so it is always worth a late-season trip.

These Gentiana calycosa were blooming in a wetland near Whitewater Creek on the way up to Jefferson Park.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve wondered for a long time about the unusual preference for rocky habitat of the Gentiana calycosa in the Western Cascades. In the Vascular Plants of the Pacific Northwest (VPPNW), Gentiana calycosa is described as growing in “meadows, swamps, and streambanks.” It is commonly called mountain bog gentian. Another common name is explorer’s gentian. This is the name I use because our Western Cascades plants never grow in bogs—and, of course, I’m an explorer, and it is my favorite gentian! They do, however, grow in wetlands in the High Cascades. So earlier in the week, my husband Jim and I made the long hike up to Jefferson Park where they were blooming beautifully. I hadn’t been up there in many years, and it was great to see the two different forms of the gentians in the same week. I’ve been collecting Gentian specimens for a couple of researchers (more about this is mentioned in the fifth paragraph of The Quest for Enemion Flowers at Table Rock) and brought home flowering stalks of each. Being able to compare live plants of each type side by side was especially interesting.

Left: Gentiana calycosa from Jefferson Park; Right: from Tidbits

The High Cascades plants near Mt. Jefferson look quite different from those at Tidbits and other Western Cascades sites. They were shorter and quite upright with small, fleshy leaves and very red stems. All these could be just normal adaptations to being out in the sun. The rock-loving plants tend to sprawl and have large, spreading leaves, some as large as the flowers, that feel thinner and floppier. Many were even wilting at Tidbits. These always seem to be found on north-facing talus slopes and cliffs where they get little sun. Larger leaves would help to gather more light. VPPNW describes the leaves as 1–2.5 (3) cm long. Some of the Tidbits plants had leaves as much as 4.5 cm long. They are also much wider near the base rather than ovate and widest in the middle like the Mt. Jefferson plants. But the species is known to be quite variable, and photos from some of my other sites show quite a variety of leaf shapes, although never as small as the wetland ones.

Growing near the plant in the first photo, I originally assumed these were seedlings, but now I think these are just stems from the same plant that popped out of the crack a few feet away.

The flowers look similar, but I did notice that the Jefferson wetland ones had blue anthers and the Tidbits ones had white anthers. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have taken very many photographs looking straight down into the flower, which is the only way to see the anthers deep inside the tube. This is the kind of thing that could be important or could be just local variation. The most striking difference was in the calyx. The flowers from Tidbits have five lobes spreading out evenly at right angles from the tube. This seems to be true at the other Western Cascades sites, judging from my photos. Those from Jefferson Park had two lobes on one side, three clustered together on the other. Like the leaves, they were more-or-less pointing upward.

Another difference was evident when I tried to dig a specimen out of the edge of the talus. I was trying to get back to where it branched, usually just underground. The thick white root just kept going and going. While there were many stems next to each other, the base of the plant seemed to be quite far away. This would be a necessary adaptation to living in unstable rock. I looked at a plant that wasn’t in as much rock and all the stems did branch just under the soil. So while there are certainly differences in the plants in these two habitats, based on my limited data, I would definitely not want to make any conclusions about whether they are genetically different now or just adapted to their local conditions. Many plants can look different from others in their species growing nearby but in different conditions. I will have to see what Gentiana calycosa looks like elsewhere in the West. I am really looking forward to finding out what the Swiss researcher, Dr. Adrien Favre, will find out from the leaves I’ve collected for him to do DNA work on. With such a different preference in habitat and the resulting adaptations needed to survive in these different conditions, I expect they would eventually form their own species, if they haven’t already. VPPNW briefly mentions Gentiana saxicola English, which “appears to be an ecological variant of this variety [var. calycosa], with widely flaring calyx lobes; it is apparently restricted to rock slides and drier areas, rather than moist meadows. Its status at present is uncertain.” I’d sure like to clear up some of that uncertainty!

Left: Bluebells or harebells (Campanula rotundifolia); top: blueberries or huckleberries (Vaccinium membranaceum); bottom: bluebead or queen’s cup (Clintonia uniflora); right: blue grouse, now known as sooty grouse (Dendragapus fuliginosus)

The gentians weren’t the only blue things that caught our eye. There were a few left of another late bloomer, Campanula rotundifolia. It also likes the cool, north-facing rocks and becomes more common to the north. I wanted to see if the one light blue gentian I’ve seen in the past was out, so I dragged my friends up the old trail that winds around the east side of the “west Tidbit” rather than the main trail which heads up to the lookout via the west side. Here were the first really good, large, juicy huckleberries (Vaccinium membranaceum). We spent quite some time here, and along with a great afternoon snack (Bogy loved them, too), we each brought home around a pint of berries. On our way down from the top, we scared up two grouse, one of whom flew into a tree by the trail, not really sure what to do next.

Golden hairstreak on pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)

The color theme changed to gold, however, on our drive back down Road 1509. We stopped at about the 8-mile marker (right by an old green water tank) to look at the bright yellow flowers of Arnica discoidea, a rayless Arnica I rarely see but had noticed here in the past. While many were going to seed, there were still some good flowers on them. There were lots of golden chinquapins (Chrysolepis chrysophylla) growing on the roadbank, one even still with blooms. Where there are chinquapins, there are often golden hairstreaks late in summer as well. These little butterflies use the chinquapin as both a caterpillar host plant and a nectar plant. There were quite a few of them chasing each other up in the trees, but to my great thrill, several were staying low, drinking from pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) by the road. I usually find them hard to photograph, but these didn’t mind me at all. Earlier, on our way back down the trail, we had wondered why there were a number of them flying around an area filled with rhododendrons, with only a few chinquapins around. Most likely, this was just above where we were here, and some of the numerous butterflies were just flying farther up the slope. Mystery solved and a nice way to end the day.

6 Responses to “Singing the Blues at Tidbits”

  • Kris:

    Hi Tanya, the visual differences between the G. calycosa from Jefferson Park and Tidbits are very noticeable in your side by side picture. The DNA results should be very interesting. Now you’ve got me looking at my gentian pictures to see if any of them have red stems or blue anthers. So far none do.

    I’m wondering if any of the G. calycosa at Jefferson Park open up like the ones at Tidbits? The flower of the calycosa from Jefferson Park reminds me of G. sceptrum.

    When you told me that some of the calycosa there grows on rocks, you weren’t kidding. The ones I see are often on rocky hillsides (with plenty of dirt) but I don’t recall any that grow directly on rocks or out of cracks in rocks. Now I’ll be watching closer for that too.

    Those huckleberries look yummy. I’m shocked, shocked I tell you, that you didn’t bring me any. :)

    Oh well, there are plenty of them up this way and I’ve chowed down on some of them. Isn’t it nice of nature to provide tasty snacks?

    As usual I enjoyed all of your pictures and your article. I’d like to just step into a picture and be there.


  • Kris:

    Oops, I should have said the none of my G. calycosa pictures show a red stem, that I’ve looked at so far. My G. sceptrum pictures do show a red, or reddish, stem.

  • Kris:

    Well, I spoke too soon. Some of the G. calycosa in my pictures does have reddish stems.

  • Adrien:

    Wow, these pictures would deserve to be displayed in American Floras!


  • Jeffrey Caldwell:

    Great to see your Golden Hairstreak at nectar on Pearly Everlasting. Some down this way concluded it never took nectar from anything, since they hadn’t seen it (even keeping watch).

  • Hi Jeffrey,

    I rarely see Golden Hairstreaks far from chinquapins (Chrysolepis chrysophylla), so it was unusual to see them nectaring near the ground. They do, however, nectar on the chinquapins themselves. Their late summer emergence seems timed well for the unusually late bloom of the chinquapins in August and September.

Leave a Reply

Post Categories
Notification of New Posts