Purple Milkweed Emerging on Milkweed Ridge

Purple milkweed is tinged with purple as it emerges, and its inflorescence is already well developed.

With my showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) at home emerging from the ground, I hoped the purple or heartleaf milkweed (A. cordifolia) would be up in the Rigdon area in southeastern Lane County. On May 2, I headed down to see if I could find the first plants. I started out by climbing up the hill at Big Pine Opening, the one site visible from Road 21 and the lowest elevation site in the area at 2300′. The milkweed is only in the northeast corner, above an old quarry, but it is a very healthy population. Sure enough, they were up! Having never seen them this early in the season, I was quite surprised to find the flower heads already formed as they emerge. They must be in a hurry to bloom! The plants come up quite dark, their glaucous leaves suffused with red-violet. This makes them quite easy to spot against green grass but hides them well in bare soil. They are often found in very rocky areas, but sometimes they seem to be happy enough in meadows with no rocks but perhaps gravelly soil beneath. I’m still trying to get an idea of their preferred habitats, but they certainly seem to want to be in well-drained soil.

Big Pine Opening is a sloping meadow above Road 21 directly across the road from the bridge that leads to Coal Creek and Staley Creek roads. The Forest Service has been doing prescribed burns on it for a number of years. In the distance to the west (center of the photo), you can see Bearbones Mountain, one of my many favorite sites in the Middle Fork District.

Satisfied that I could at last look for actual milkweed plants rather than last year’s old white stalks, as I’d been doing the last month or so, I drove up Road 2135 that runs along the quarried edge of Big Pine Opening and parked just a quarter-mile from the intersection of Road 21. Last year, Crystal Shepherd and I spotted this old road that leads up to the ridge I’m calling “Milkweed Ridge” above Big Pine Opening and Monarch Meadow (see A Week of Monarchs and Milkweed: Day 1) and found it to be a good access point for the ridge. Right after the old road bends hard to the left, I cut into the woods. Although my main goal was to head up to the ridge where we’d found milkweed last year, I was also intrigued by an open spot that showed up as green on the aerial views, which were taken in late July, after all the other meadows had dried out and turned brown.

A pretty plant-filled pond was the last thing I expected to see while surveying the dry woods below the rocky ridge.

Using the new tools on my iPhone and following well-worn deer trails through the open woods, it was a fairly simple job to find this opening. Expecting perhaps a wetland, I was surprised to discover the entire half acre was a shallow pond. What a wonderful and tranquil spot! Interesting aquatic plants covered its surface. Among them were floating-leaf pondweed (Potamogeton natans), duckweed (Lemna minor), water starwort (Callitriche sp.), and water buttercup (Ranunculus aquatilis). I had crossed an outlet creek on my way to the edge, but the only inlet creek I could find was completely dry. I’m not sure how this pond stays wet enough to support the pondweed. Unfortunately while trying to photograph plants in the water, I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn’t realize until I put the camera away that I was surrounded by the bare branches of poison oak! It was so lightly scattered through the woods and not leafed out yet that I had stopped being vigilant and didn’t notice a few thick spots along the edge. And also unfortunately, I was just beginning my day and wasn’t able to scrub down for many hours—too late as it turned out. Several days later the rash appeared on my cheek and arm. The price I pay for not paying attention while bushwhacking at low elevations.

Unlike the ones I usually see at higher elevations, this variety of water buttercup (Ranunculus aquatilis var. aquatilis) has two types of leaves. The floating leaves lie flat on the surface, while the underwater ones are finely dissected, allowing the water to flow through them.

From there I headed to the one other opening I hadn’t visited last year, a little east of the old road that runs through most of the openings. It was another 400′ elevation above me but pretty close, so I just went straight up the steep slope. I’m sure the deer had a better route, but I didn’t notice it. This meadow was very pretty with lots of outcrops. I was pleased to see the milkweed coming up all over the place. I counted at least 60 plants. Not much was in bloom yet other than numerous spring gold (Lomatium utriculatum) and lots of small popcorn flowers (Plagiobothrys sp.) in the grass and Hall’s lomatium (Lomatium hallii) on the rocks.

The dark new stalks of purple milkweed were already appearing in the east meadow.

It was just a short way to the old road from the east meadow. I came out just about in the middle of the north-south stretch of road, so I headed north to where Joe Doerr and I had explored last year (see Farther Up “Milkweed Ridge”). I went to the northernmost opening along the ridge where gold stars (Crocidium multicaule) was sprinkled all over the rocks. While photographing these darling flowers, two Pacific chorus frogs hopped by in succession—first a blond one, then several minutes later a bright green one. If they’d gone up the same steep slope from the pond that I had, then I’m really impressed! And this area was 300′ higher than the east meadow. It always surprises me to find them in rocky areas so far from water. I couldn’t find a single milkweed plant, although I definitely saw them here last year. Most likely, the slight difference in elevation put them behind the plants lower down.

A Pacific chorus frog on the dry, rocky ridge, hopping among the gold stars and spring gold.

It wasn’t until I got to the meadows along the lower half of the road, closer in elevation to the east meadow (2900′) that I finally spotted a few more milkweed plants emerging. Certainly, there had been many more plants there last year, so there were still quite a few yet to push up through the soil, although clumps of old stalks revealed where some of them would be appearing. I’m guessing the moister, gentler slope might have delayed these plants compared to those in the east meadow. I checked out all but one of the other openings, seeing only a few milkweed plants and not too many other wildflowers yet either, but I plan to head back later in the season when the milkweed is in full bloom and the monarchs have arrived.

2 Responses to “Purple Milkweed Emerging on Milkweed Ridge”

  • What a bummer about the poison oak. I hope it’s healing now. Do you think the pond is spring-fed? The photo of the young purple milkweed plants is so inspiring. I hope the other plants are just late and not, God forbid, gone. I was unsuccessful at wintering over my A. cordifolia from Seven Oaks. When I spoke with Mike at Seven Oaks, he said they lost their stock too. It must prefer a dry, rocky spot for wintering. I’m wondering if the East Meadow has winter snow covering for the dormant milkweed. Or maybe it needs freezing temps? So many questions. :) Great post!

  • Janie Thomas:

    Wonderful to read about your explorations Tanya. It’s an incredibly busy spring and summer travel wise but I am inspired to see the A. cordifolia. I will check with Seven Oaks as I would like to try it. I have an exposed, gravelly garden where I’m having success with plants like Lomatium columbianum (5 years, blooms quite well) and others that like sharp drainage, and dry summers. I cover the sensitive to winter wet species with plexiglass.

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