Glacier Lilies at Grasshopper Meadows

Starry glacier lilies in the meadow

Starry glacier lilies in the meadow

American winter cress was abundant in a moist section of a lower meadow.

American winter cress was abundant in a moist section of a lower meadow.

After seeing the very odd flowering habit of the glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) at Bristow Prairie a week before, I was anxious to see if this was happening elsewhere, so on May 3, I decided to head up to Grasshopper Meadows, which has a good complement of snowmelt species. There was no snow in sight on my way up, but the flowering season was still quite early. Scattered Trillium ovatum were in perfect bloom, and little white Anemone lyallii flowers were also here and there in both the woods and the meadows. As I entered the first grassy patch among the trees, I was able to spot some perfectly blooming turkey peas (Orogenia fusiformis), a very small, easily overlooked member of the carrot family (Apiaceae) that blooms as the snow is melting—when there is any! There were also a number of western springbeauty (Claytonia lanceolata) in the meadows. Like those at Bristow Prairie, they didn’t seem as floriferous and showy as usual. Up on the ridge, I was also able to find a small patch of fading steer’s head (Dicentra uniflora). I usually see a lot more than that up there, so perhaps it wasn’t doing as well in the droughty conditions either. Other early bloomers included stream violet (Viola glabella), Baker’s violet (V. bakeri), Sierra sanicle (Sanicula graveolens), and American winter cress (Barbarea orthoceras).

More typical, reflexed glacier lily flowers

More typical, reflexed glacier lily flowers

What I really wanted to see were the glacier lilies. I spotted the first ones very quickly, and they were all over the meadows, sometimes quite thick. Just as I had seen at Bristow Prairie, they were indeed mostly flowering very low to the ground with upturned flowers. There were certainly normal reflexed flowers here and there, but the overall impression was of yellow stars. So this was interesting data for my informal research on the effects of a snowless winter on snowmelt species. It was also of interest that some I saw perched on rocks on the north-facing side of the ridge where it was much cooler all looked “normal.” Perhaps they had gotten a bit more snow or were at least in soil that didn’t dry out as soon.

beautiful shooting star and rustyhair saxifrage blooming under an overhanging rock but

Seep-loving beautiful shooting star and rustyhair saxifrage blooming under an overhanging rock but getting moisture through the rock

The highlight of any trip to Grasshopper Meadows for me is the cliffs below the southeast edge of the meadow. I headed down there to see what the rock plants were up to. Not surprisingly, they were much farther along than the meadow species. There were lots of larkspurs (Delphinium menziesii), Blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia parviflora), rustyhair saxifrage (Micranthes rufidula), Hall’s lomatium (Lomatium hallii), and some pretty mats of spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa) in various shades of pink. All of these species I had also seen at Bristow Prairie, which is at a similar elevation. One of the special plants for me in this spot is beautiful shooting star (Dodecatheon pulchellum). I wondered if it would have started yet. I was a bit disappointed to find it mostly finished blooming. Naked broomrape (Orobanche uniflora) were blooming among the patches of wholeleaf saxifrage (Micranthes integrifolia) leaves. They look quite different from the ones at Cougar Reservoir with much smaller and paler flowers, perhaps representing var. occidentalis, but I haven’t paid much attention to the subtaxa.

Fern-leaved lomatium along the edge of the upper cliff with the Three Sisters in the distance.

Fern-leaved lomatium along the edge of the upper cliff with the Three Sisters in the distance.

After returning to the meadow, I looped around my usual route, following the trail, such as it is, to the top of the ridge. Since there wasn’t much new to see, I thought it might be a good time to try to follow the top of the ridge more closely than the cairn-marked trail does. I’d always wondered if there might not be some more rocky spots on the much steeper northeast-facing side. After some prescribed burning, the top is a more open with better views of the Three Sisters, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Washington. They were still pleasantly frosted in white, but there was no other snow to speak of on the lower ridges and peaks that spread out in front of me. I did, however, find two very small patches of old snow still lingering on the protected side of the ridge.

After a bit, I came to a spot where the ridge went much higher above the trail, and there it was—my imagined cliff! It was covered on the south edge with blooming fern-leaved lomatium (Lomatium dissectum) and wallflower (Erysimum capitatum). Happily, I was able to get around the front side and follow it along the base. There was a narrow walkable area with a tangle of scraggly maples below me but no big dropoff. The cliff itself was only around 15–20′ high and had lots of good shelves and cracks to accommodate a number of plants, including some large mats of not-yet-budded cliff penstemon (Penstemon rupicola) and two additions to my plant list: Martindale’s lomatium (L. martindalei) and smooth prairie-star (Lithophragma glabrum).


Part of the front, northeast-facing side of the small cliff along the top of the ridge

Finding a new rocky spot in an old favorite haunt really made my day, and I look forward to checking that out later in the season when more is in bloom. It helped make up for the dread I’ve been feeling about the rest of the advanced flowering season and what it might be like if snowless winters become more common with further climate disruption. I just looked through my photos from a trip to Grasshopper on June 14, 2010 (see First Wave of Flowers at Grasshopper Meadows)—six weeks later in the year than this trip. That was a late spring after a snowy winter, and the flowering was almost the same except the flowers seemed happier and healthier then. The glacier lilies were on much taller stems and the shooting stars weren’t drying out. There were loads of steer’s head, and they were still in bloom. There were still some patches of snow and much more moisture in the ground. Thank heavens it is finally raining as I write this because the plants are incredibly thirsty. This is just one of those years where we may have to scale back our expectations of great floral displays and just hope we don’t get too many forest fires. It may be a long, hot summer!

5 Responses to “Glacier Lilies at Grasshopper Meadows”

  • Global warming or not? I get asked that a lot when writing about this season being early or the last one not. Your observations help to put side walls on the error bar. Some years early, some late. Over the long run we can discern trends. Only year by year observations will reveal serious data.

  • Hi Dave,

    Whether the whole world is warming up on average, I leave for the real scientists. What seems evident as a lay observer is that we are farther out of equilibrium, so, as you say, some years early, some late. And some years very early, some very late. I’m not worried that there will never be snow in the mountains again—we certainly had quite a bit in 2008, 2010, and 2012—my fear is we’ll have more way-out-of-whack years. How do plants and animals survive wild swings in their habitats? It’s not going to be easy to adapt to such irregularity. Some sensitive plants and animals will no doubt be casualties, especially if there are strings of drought years as there have been in much of the West. That scares me.

  • Great post, very interesting and beautiful! To add to the above conversation on climate swings, one aspect to long term plant survival is dependent on their pollinators. Flies are reliable pollinators of many mountain flora, but bees depend on generally suitable conditions. Ideally, bees will emerge at the same time their plants of choice are in flower, but depending on what cues each respond to to initiate growth or emerge, they can be very off. Bad timing can hurt the populations of both plants and bees, in other words.

  • Very good point, Travis. We’re all connected, and if the timing of the plants is off, it affects the insects as well as larger animals, and the ripple effect may cause the whole house of cards to come falling down.

  • Yes, some solitary bees are only active for a few weeks before mating, laying eggs, and dying. If the plants they forage on have flowered earlier or later, the plants do not get efficiently pollinated and the bees do not get the nutrition from the flower’s resources (pollen and nectar, also used to bolster the nests for when the eggs hatch and the larvae need food).

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