Hidden Meadow Reveals a Thrilling Secret

Purple milkweed is a gorgeous plant with glaucous leaves and garnet-colored flowers

In November of 2012, I went exploring down along Rigdon Road 21 southeast of Hills Creek Reservoir, an area I spend a lot of time visiting, as readers of this blog no doubt have noticed. There’s a small old quarry between Campers Flat campground and Big Pine Opening. I thought I’d see what was in the rocky area up top. The woods were fairly open so I continued up the ridge and popped out in a rocky meadow. While it was well past blooming season, I enjoy “forensic botany”—trying to identify species in various states of decay or at least past flowering. I saw some saxifrages rejuvenated by fall rains, a flower or two left on the late-blooming fall knotweed (Polygonum spergulariiforme), and evidence of bluefield gilia (Gilia capitata). But what really excited me was a few clumps of dried stalks with old capsules filled with silk-topped seeds—a milkweed!

The rocky meadow from near the base

There are five species of milkweed (Asclepias spp.) in Oregon, three of which grow on the west side, but milkweeds are almost non-existent in the Cascades. Other than a few roadside plants of showy milkweed (A. speciosa) I used to see along the upper part of the McKenzie Highway—apparently now gone—only purple milkweed (A. cordifolia) occurs in the Cascades. While common in California, it ranges just into western Nevada and southwestern Oregon, where it occurs mainly in the Siskiyous. It can be found in the transition area of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. According to the Oregon Flora Project Atlas, there are a few disjunct sites to the north: one just north of the North Umpqua in Douglas County and several clustered around this area of southeastern Lane County. A number of years ago, Rob Weiss showed me the population at the top of Big Pine Opening. I also knew about the populations at Jim’s Creek Meadow a mile or so to the northwest and at Grassy Glade, about 3 miles southeast, although I’d never seen the former and had only seen dead stalks at the latter. So I wasn’t entirely surprised to find out it was growing in this 5-acre meadow in the middle of the other three populations. But it was still exciting as it is so uncommon overall.

For four and a half years, I’ve been planning to get back to this spot to see how much purple milkweed was there and what else might grow in this nice habitat. Although I must have driven past it on Road 21 at least 50 times since then, I just never made it back—not enough time, too early, too late, whatever. I put it back on my to do list for this year and finally made it there this week.

A pale swallowtail nectaring on purple milkweed. Milkweeds have an unusual flower structure. The corona in the center is made up of five fused “hoods”. These appear to start out purple, but as the flower matures, the petals become reflexed and the coronas fade to pink and then white.

Tuesday (June 20) was the only free day Sabine had to go out, so I suggested we check out this meadow, and if it wasn’t interesting or we couldn’t get there, we could visit our usual spots along Road 21 and maybe collect some seeds. We parked in a pulloff along Road 21 and looked for a good way up. The meadow is hidden from sight about 400′ higher than the road, but the forest is quite open and the slope not terribly steep. Other than avoiding occasional poison oak, it was really quite easy to access. The meadow itself wasn’t anywhere as steep as the ones at Deer Creek or Illahee Road I had been to recently, so it was very relaxing to explore.

A juniper hairstreak also enjoying purple milkweed

As soon as we reached the open meadow, we could see blooming purple milkweed—I was thrilled. While I was pretty sure it would be here, I had no idea there would be so much. I asked Sabine to help get a count while I took photos and started on a plant list. We eventually gave up after it was obvious there were more than 100 plants. I also had no idea it would be in full bloom. It was just dumb luck that after all the time it took to get around to returning to the meadow, our timing was perfect. While I was still poking around the rocks along the east edge of the meadow, Sabine yelled that she thought she saw a monarch. That would be exciting! Monarchs are as rare in the Cascades as milkweeds. I can only remember spotting three monarchs in the Western Cascades before, one at Grasshopper Meadows years ago, one near Bradley Lake in 2012, and one at Whitehorse Meadows in the Rogue-Umpqua Divide in 2011. With no milkweed in these sites, the monarchs would merely have been migrating through.

Seepspring monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus) was still fresh in a seep near the top of the meadow. In the distance on the right, Steeple Rock is the tiny point on top of the ridge, while the shaded side of much larger “Mosaic Rock” can be seen just below and to the left.

As we continued around the top of the meadow, Sabine would exclaim “there it is!” on occasion, but it kept disappearing out of sight before I got much of a look at it, and Sabine had forgotten her binoculars. Even though much of the vegetation was dried out, there were some still-blooming seeps to survey, a hairstreak to photograph, and lots of spring gold (Lomatium utriculatum) seeds to collect for growing on my lomatium-less meadows at home. My attention was being pulled in multiple directions, but the monarch was clearly the most important thing to see, and the plants would still be there after we had confirmed the identity of the butterfly.

Sometimes a butterfly looking for a meal becomes the meal itself, as this poor checkerspot discovered when it got caught by a crab spider.

I was getting hungry anyway, so we decided to sit by an area of milkweed near the base of the meadow. Before too long, the butterfly landed quite a ways away, but I was finally able to see it through my binoculars—it was indeed a monarch! It took me forever to finish my sandwich. Several other butterflies stopped to nectar on milkweed, so of course I had to photograph them. And the monarch kept sailing past us, sometimes right over Sabine’s head. I chased it around, but it was futile. It rarely landed. But when it did land briefly, I noticed it wasn’t nectaring. I went over to check the leaf it had been on, and, sure enough, there was a tiny pearl white egg! I’d raised monarch caterpillars when I lived in the country in Connecticut during high school. We had common milkweed (A. syriaca), an eastern species that looks very much like our showy milkweed, growing in the meadows behind our house, and I often watched monarchs to see where they were laying eggs. They lay one egg at a time, and only a few per plant. Their caterpillars are large and can strip a plant pretty quickly in their latter instars.

The glistening perfection of a tiny monarch egg

To say I was thrilled that not only was there milkweed here, but that monarchs had found it and were laying eggs here would be an understatement. I checked some other leaves and found a few more eggs. Still, I couldn’t seem to get more than a distant shot of the monarch. Eventually we went back to wandering around the meadow and into the woods where there were some small openings adorned with showy tarweed (Madia elegans), a flower oddly missing from the main meadow even though it is common in the meadows of nearby Youngs Rock. I continued working on my plant list and photographing plants and other butterflies. I was determined not to leave until I’d gotten a decent photo of our monarch, but I wasn’t particularly confident she would ever stop long enough for me to run over and catch her before she took off again. But while I was photographing another milkweed plant, suddenly she landed on it right in front of me! I took several shots of her apparently laying an egg. I couldn’t see her abdomen, but she was hanging onto a leaf, and when she flew off, there was another precious little egg! Sabine and I had been having some philosophical conversations about how sometimes the best things happen to you when you relax and stop trying so hard. Surely this was a perfect example! While I was watching this one, Sabine yelled she was looking at another, confirmation of her belief there were actually two monarchs in the meadow.

The female monarch apparently laying an egg right in front of me!

When I returned home, I e-mailed Molly Juillerat and Joe Doerr, Willamette National Forest botanist and wildlife biologist respectively. Joe was very excited and said he “never realized the Willamette NF was part of the [monarch conservation] conversation until now.  Now I have so many questions my head wants to explode.” That’s exactly how I feel. How did these milkweeds end up in this relatively small area away from the main range? How did these monarchs find these isolated populations? Were there any in the other nearby spots? How long would they stay in the meadow? Molly e-mailed me that she went there yesterday and saw the monarchs, so maybe they’ll live out the rest of their adult lives there, now that they’ve started the next generation. How long had monarchs been coming here? How many eggs were laid? I had so much on my mind, I forgot to check for more eggs as we headed back to the car. I hope to get back soon to what will be “Monarch Meadow” to me from now on. Hopefully there will be lots of caterpillars and a new generation of monarchs to return here in future years. What a thrilling day!!!!


5 Responses to “Hidden Meadow Reveals a Thrilling Secret”

  • In a further development, Joe Doerr writes: “I went to 7 meadows today that had milkweed and found monarchs in 5 of them”. It looks likes this area is well known to the butterflies, even if it wasn’t to us! I can’t wait to hear all the details and get back there myself.

  • Kelley Leonard:

    I went for my first hike on Monday, June 19th in 11 months (4 months post hip replacement) Our group met at a friend’s house in Sunny Valley (Josephine County) While there I spent a while watching at least 5 Monarchs visiting several clumps of Asclepius speciosa in the open meadow next to the house. During our hike to the top of King Mountain I saw an additional two Monarchs and many other butterflies fluttering about one of the open meadows. I looked for, but did not see any Asclepius, but there was prolific flower bloom, including Penstemon rupicola.

  • Wilbur Bluhm:

    Thanks, Tanya. Truly exciting. Finding the monarchs was really a find. I’ve not seen them in the Cascades.

  • Kristy Swanson:

    Thanks for sharing your exciting discoveries. I grew up with monarchs in Minneapolis and I’m hoping they keep finding milkweed and laying eggs.

  • Jill:

    Your excitement comes through loud and clear in this entry, Tanya! Great reading, and the purple milkweed IS gorgeous! Love to have some of that in our yard.

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