Laid Back Botanizing Along Cougar Reservoir

The stream running down the concrete-lined ditch along the base of the cliff is filled with plants that have seeded or fallen down from above.

The weekend before last at the Mount Pisgah Arboretum Wildflower Festival, I was surprised to see someone had brought in blooming cliff penstemon (Penstemon rupicola). It was (and is still) blooming in my garden, but I didn’t know of any low elevations sites, south of the Columbia Gorge anyway, where it would be blooming this early. It turns out, Tobias Policha had been collecting along Cougar Reservoir in northeastern Lane County. He told me the penstemon was blooming along the roadcut. How had I never noticed that? He also saw a rare sedge there. I’d passed it many times and wondered about the fountain-like grassy clumps on the wet rocks. I’ve explored the wonderful roadcut cliffs along Hills Creek Reservoir countless times, but, although I’d thought about it, I’d never stopped to check the similar habitat along Cougar Reservoir.

The seed capsules of Merten’s saxifrage (Saxifraga mertensiana) twist back as they mature.

With my curiosity piqued, I decided it was time to do just that. So Tuesday (May 29), Sabine and I drove up the McKenzie Highway to do some easy roadside botanizing. We weren’t sure how much there would be to see down along Road 19 on the west side of the reservoir since we usually head east across the dam to go to Lowder Mountain, Quaking Aspen Swamp, or Olallie Mountain. It had been years since I’d driven down the Aufderheide along the lake. We had some backup plans in case we didn’t find much, but we managed to spend the entire day by the reservoir, stopping over and over as almost every bend in the curvy road brought another seepy cliff covered with plants. What fun!

The largest cliffs are right by the dam. We spent quite a while along the third of a mile stretch from the dam north to milepost 55. The many damp stretches were covered with Merten’s saxifrage (Saxifraga mertensiana) in fading bloom. As the flowers faded, their two-pronged seed capsules twisted until they were doubled back against the stem. I’d never noticed this before, nor had I seen this on other saxifrages. As is typical in the Western Cascades, there weren’t any bulbils apparent in any of the many thousands of plants. Earlier in the season, there had obviously been a similar show of sprays of the little white flowers of Romanzoffia californica. Now their branches were covered with small, fuzzy bulbils instead.

Alaska single spike sedge forms beautiful sprays on an especially wet spot of the cliff.

We kept our eyes open for the uncommon Alaska single spike sedge (Carex scirpoidea ssp. stenochlaena). We found it in abundance about 0.1 miles from the dam. I don’t know why it hadn’t spread to the rest of the equally wet areas nearby. This particular sedge is dioecious. There seemed to be two different types of flowers, but when I looked closely, all I found were female. This seemed like the perfect habitat for bronze bells (now Anticlea occidentalis). Sure enough, they were in there, a few buds just starting to open. Their drooping, grassy leaves are easily hidden among the sedges and grasses. Closer to the dam, we spotted the bright magenta mats of Penstemon rupicola clinging to the vertical rocks in the drier areas. They continued on up the 100 feet of cliff. I’m thrilled to find this blooming down at this elevation, not much over 1700′. The main color on the dry rock was supplied by the vast amount of Sedum spathulifolium. It seems like it would be a good place to look for Moss’s elfins earlier in the spring, as this sedum is their primary host food plant.

We made quite a few stops along the road. Many of the seepy roadcuts were covered with maidenhair ferns, Merten’s saxifrage, and Scouler’s valerian (Valeriana scouleri). The valerian was in perfect bloom. It has sometimes been included as a subspecies of Sitka valerian (V. sitchensis). The new Jepson Manual is now doing this as well, but according to correspondence with the author of the treatment, it seems this decision was based more on expedience than taxonomy. There simply wasn’t time left before the publishing date to study this in depth, and the name Valeriana scouleri cannot be used because of some complicated (at least to me) naming conventions. If it stays a separate species, its name might have to return to V. hookeri. Whatever its name turns out to be, it is an attractive perennial with heads of pale pinkish flowers that prefers moist, cool, shady shelves on rock or moist, rocky woodland. Valeriana sitchensis prefers damp meadows, often in full sun. Scouler’s valerian can be distinguished by its lower stature with mostly basal leaves. Sitka valerian is taller with mostly cauline leaves. They remind me of Jack Sprat and his wife—Sitka being Jack and Scouler’s being the shorter, plumper, and pinker wife.

These odd seedlings have only the single, erect leaf. They were growing in among the small, annual Lupinus polycarpus.

Across from one of these valerian-covered roadcuts, we found numerous seedlings in a flat, dry piece of ground. Each had a single upright oblong leaf on a long petiole. Nothing else. And there were loads of them. We racked our brains for a while before deciding that they might be seedlings of barestem lomatium (Lomatium nudicaule). I have seedling pots of L. martindalei and L. hallii at home. Both start out with a single leaf that resembles one of their leaflets. There’s no apparent pair of cotyledon leaves. Quite odd, now that I think of it. So if these were baby lomatiums, where were the parents? We looked and looked, even over the side of the bank above the lake, thinking road crews might have scraped the ground nearest the road at some point. No sign of any all day. There were also baby geraniums with their cotyledon leaves still evident—and no full-sized plants anywhere either. They didn’t look like any of the many weedy species, so hopefully they were the native Geranium oreganum. How mysterious. We’ll have to watch this spot in the future to see if any of these babies develop into blooming adults.

The unusual petals of leafy mitrewort (Mitella caulescens) look like TV antennas.

There was one other especially fruitful spot, toward the south end of the lake at milepost 49. The cliffs here were tall and very wet, with a plant-filled wet ditch along the road. I had noticed the lack of mitreworts, despite all the wet habitat, but here were some Mitella caulescens in peak bloom. We added several more species to the list we were compiling, bringing it up to over 100 species. There were also lots more bronze bells in bud. Growing with them was one plant we weren’t able to identify. It had large overlapping leaves—most likely an orchid. But what orchid would be growing on almost vertical rock? A Platanthera, Epipactis, Spiranthes? It also appeared to be the only one. I’ve seen many water-loving orchids growing in roadside ditches, why wouldn’t there be any there? Thankfully, there appeared to be a bud forming. Not that we need any excuse to return, but we both decided we have to come back in a few weeks when it and the bronzebells are in bloom. Can’t wait to solve some of these mysteries!

One Response to “Laid Back Botanizing Along Cougar Reservoir”

  • Kris:

    Hmm, maybe I should hook up a leafy mitrewort to my TV to see if I get better reception. :)

    Seriously though, those are fascinating and beautiful flowers. It looks like you and Sabine had a great day along that road. Finding P. rupicola blooming there is way cool. It makes me wonder why it doesn’t grow at lower elevations in many other places. The ones I see are above 3000 feet.

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