Super Early Look at Snowless Bristow Prairie

My first post of the year, and it’s already April. What with the heat and forest fires, my summer hiking season petered out much earlier than usual last year. Then my work with the Oregon Flora Project ramped up, and I’ve been super busy all winter. I’ve been editing, designing, and doing layout for the new Flora of Oregon (more about that another time). I’m usually happy to be parked in front of my computer most days in the winter, but with all the glorious weather during this winter-that-wasn’t, it’s been really tough not having time to go out, especially after getting reports from my friends of getting up into the Western Cascades in February(!). We’re almost done with the Flora, and we just had a brief, much-needed respite while the publisher read through the manuscript. At last, I was able to take a day off and get up into the Cascades to see what it looked like after this unusual, largely snowless winter.

Looking north from Bristow Prairie, there is no snow in sight—very scary for late March! In the center of the photo is the imposing south face of "Mosaic Rock". Youngs Rock and Moon Point can also be seen, just to the left of the dark tree on the left.

Looking north from Bristow Prairie, there is no snow in sight—very scary for late March! In the center of the photo is the imposing south face of “Mosaic Rock”. Youngs Rock and Moon Point can also be seen, just to the left of the dark tree on the left.


 On Sunday, March 29, Nancy Bray and I headed up to Bristow Prairie so I could see things for myself. This botanically rich area up on the Calapooya crest has a wide variety of habitats. I wanted to see how each adapted to the mild winter. Also, as early as possible in the year (I never guessed it would be this early!), I wanted to check on the population of Siskiyou fritillary (Fritillaria glauca) that Sabine spotted in the rocky bald on our trip last summer (see The Bristow Prairie Area Continues to Yield More Discoveries). We had no problem getting up to the main prairie. A few trees were down, but nothing blocked the road. There was barely any snow visible except a little on some higher, north-facing slopes. It’s really quite frightening to think about the consequences of having no snowpack in the Western Cascades. If we don’t get plenty of rain during the next few months, the plants will dry out very quickly, there’ll be far less water to feed the rivers and water supply at low elevation, and we may well be in for a bad fire season. It could well be another summer like last year or perhaps even worse.

We saw this tiny fungus growing on dead twigs quite a number of times along the trail.

We saw this tiny fungus growing on fallen twigs quite a number of times along the trail.

For now, it’s rather exciting to be able to get up over 5000′ in March. My botanizing companions and I have often speculated on what conditions trigger different species of plants to emerge and to bloom. Some may respond to daylight conditions at certain times of year; others seem to follow heat or rainfall. Oregon yampah (Perideridia oregana) seems to bloom when the ground starts to dry out in early summer. So-called snow-melt species emerge as the snow is melting and don’t occur (in the Cascades anyway) where there isn’t reliable snow. When would they emerge if there wasn’t any snow at all? How will plants react to months of above-normal temperatures? What happens when they bloom so early that they get covered with snow while in full bloom? There may be one small silver lining about the lack of snow in the mountains: it gives us a rare opportunity to see how different plants respond to the unusual conditions, and perhaps we can learn more about what makes them tick.

We started out with a quick look at Bristow Prairie itself. Very little was happening in the large open meadow or along the seepy roadbanks that are covered with interesting early annuals, just some leaves emerging, including great polemonium (Polemonium carneum) and coneflower (Rudbeckia occidentalis). Nothing coming up in the wet ditch below where later there will be bog orchids and the tiny least moonwort (Botrychium simplex). What we did find was a new plant for my list, western springbeauty (Claytonia lanceolata). They were scattered about the meadow. This is my favorite snow-melt species. Perhaps the lack of snow and moisture made them smaller and less abundant, but they just didn’t have the same charm for me that they usually do.

A beautiful display of fairy slippers just below the large pillar rock near the north trailhead

A beautiful display of fairy slippers just below the large pillar rock near the north trailhead

We headed back down the road to the trailhead (which I had once again missed because of the hidden sign!), passing blooming Sitka willow (Salix sitchensis), which we had also seen blooming down along the Middle Fork of the Willamette, several thousand feet lower. No snow in the north-facing woods at the beginning. We spotted a lone white-veined wintergreen (Pyrola picta) with a number of buds on it. This isn’t even an early species; it normally blooms at this elevation in July. What caused it to develop buds so early? We saw plenty of snow queen (Synthyris reniformis) and some evergreen violet (Viola sempervirens) blooming on the forest floor. And on the way back, we saw a gorgeous stand of thirteen fairy slippers (Calypso bulbosa). All three of these species are still blooming at my house.

Viola sheltonii is a very early bloomer recognized by its dissected leaves.

Viola sheltonii is a very early bloomer recognized by its dissected leaves.

The rocky bald was my main destination. South-facing, rocky slopes usually bloom earlier than surrounding areas, so I fully expected to find some things flowering already. We were greeted by lots of bright yellow Shelton’s violet (Viola sheltonii) and fully blooming pinemat manzanita (Arctostaphylos nevadensis). At the bottom of the smaller, more protected open slope just west of the main bald, there were a few more western spring beauties but none elsewhere. I imagine the snow (usually) builds up more there where the sun can’t melt it away as quickly. There was a blooming white-flowered sweet pea (Lathyrus nevadensis?) and budding up larkspur (Delphinium menziesii). Some Sierra sanicle (Sanicula graveolens) was also starting. Lots of tiny seedlings held the promise of a good bloom of annuals—but when? Figuring out when things will bloom this year will be a real challenge! Butterflies knew that plants were coming out. A Moss’s elfin and an anise swallowtail flew about in the area, and we’d seen a painted lady along the road by the prairie.

Fritillaria glauca is found in deep gravelly, south-facing  slopes such as the one just north of Bristow Prairie.

Fritillaria glauca is found in deep gravelly, south-facing slopes such as the one just north of Bristow Prairie.

Nancy did not want to climb up the steep, rocky slope from the trail which crosses the bottom of the bald, but I needed to check on the fritillaries, so I left her to her own devices for a while. As I headed up the slope, there were more larkspurs, some Hall’s lomatium (Lomatium hallii), and quite a few spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa) in bloom. I managed to find a few small, glaucous leaves of Fritillaria glauca after quite a bit of searching and the help of my GPS, on which I had wisely placed a waypoint during last year’s trip. The leaves seemed quite small and still mostly folded. My guess is that they have a long ways to wind through the rocks before emerging, so it takes some time. They are normally one of the earliest things to bloom but were beaten to the punch by these other flowers this year. After going to the top, I decided to come back down following the same swath where the frits seemed to flow down. This time I counted more carefully and reached over 40 before becoming confused about which leaves I had already counted. I’m guessing there may be more leaves still searching for a way through the rocks, but it’s still a relatively small population. I was very pleased to find one blooming-sized plant with a single early bud. You’ve got to get out pretty darn early to see Fritillaria glauca not yet in bloom!

This was one of two Pacific treefrogs (Pseudacris regilla) we spotted.

This was one of two Pacific treefrogs (Pseudacris regilla) we spotted on our trip. He’s resting on the newly emerging leaves of Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum).

It’s way too soon to come to any conclusions, but it will be quite interesting to see how the rest of the year plays out. Just since Sunday, the cooler weather and storms have dumped more snow above 5000′ than there has been in quite some time. Perhaps it will slow down the flowering of many species. We are probably weeks, maybe even a month ahead of “normal” at low elevations, but the mountains aren’t far behind and may be as much as a couple of months ahead of time. What will that mean for the plants—and the animals? I’m planning to get up to Bristow Prairie a number of times this year to try to track the season, so hopefully some of my many questions will be answered.


4 Responses to “Super Early Look at Snowless Bristow Prairie”

  • Kristy Swanson:

    I flew by Mt. Shasta yesterday and it had snow. Julia and I hiked two days at Point Reyes north of San Francisco. At Abbott’s Lagoon we talked to some plant people who were looking at Sidalcias. I enjoyed reading your blog and thinking about the effects of our “winter.”

  • Wilbur Bluhm:

    Interesting, Tanya, but not real surprising. I’ve been collecting phenology data for more than 50 years. Up until a week or two ago plants in Salem area were about third earliest in past 50 years. But, there’s been a noticeable advance this past week to where this season is almost the earliest in past 50. There may be a slight slowdown now with recent cooler weather. Just now I’m following maybe 300 taxa, a few of which are natives.
    Your field trips get the excitement going. Hope to get into the field once income tax time is past.
    Thanks, Tanya, for your post.

  • So, I think it will be interesting to track each species response to climate. For example, since species each moved at different rates in response to climate change after the last glaciation, they should be adapting individually to climate change now. Great that you are keeping track! Look forward to more info.

  • I have never been up to Bristow Prairie. I will have to get up there in the next few weeks to see all these early flowers. Thank you so much for sharing your adventures! The plants in the Valley are very early this year. The camas is nearing peak bloom already, several weeks earlier then usual. Amazing!

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