Terrific Day at Medicine Creek Road

John exploring the steep slope above Medicine Creek Road. A few purple milkweed plants can be seen in the foreground.

Last year, while camping on the North Umpqua, Nancy Bray and I explored the first few miles of Medicine Creek Road 4775, just east of Eagle Rock Campground (see A Week of Monarchs and Milkweed Day 2 and Day 3). It was the only site for purple milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia) listed on the Oregon Flora Project Atlas. We had a wonderful time looking at milkweed and watching monarchs and other butterflies, and I could hardly wait to get back this year to see the earlier blooming plants.

Silver lupine growing en masse along the roadside

I probably shouldn’t mess with Mother Nature’s plans, but I instinctively scared the juniper hairstreak away when I realized there was a crab spider waiting for careless pollinators on this silverleaf phacelia (Phacelia hastata) inflorescence.

On May 17, John Koenig and I drove down there to explore it further. It’s a long day trip for me, but John is happy to stay out late, and I wasn’t organized enough to start camping yet. While we made some stops on the way there and back, most of the day was spent along Medicine Creek Road. It was just as beautiful as I remembered it, even with a different set of flowers. We were greeted by large purple sweeps of silver lupine (Lupinus albifrons) along the road. While it was fairly dry, some of the seeps were still moist and had flowering monkeyflower (Erythranthe [Mimulus] sp.) and rosy plectritis (Plectritis congesta). The milkweed was everywhere and just getting ready to bloom. We found a couple of plants with the first open flowers.

After admiring some of the roadside flowers, I felt a nip on my elbow. I was not at all surprised to discover I’d just been bitten by a tick—it’s par for the course in this kind of habitat. What surprised me was that the bite swelled up. I’d never had that reaction before. Perhaps it was because I’d woken up to a couple of tick bites and my body was already dealing with their toxins. All day, it cast a slight shadow on what was otherwise an awesome day. By the next day, the width of my arm was swollen. But then it dissipated, just like a wasp bite. I hate to say it, but the ticks seem much worse the last few years than I’ve ever experienced in 25 years in Oregon. I hope this isn’t the new norm. Anyway, I survived just fine.

This little bee spent a while on a purple milkweed flower. It appeared to be cleaning, so for once, I had more than a fraction of a second to take a photo.

Last year, I had wanted to climb up the slope above the road, but it was really hot, and Nancy wasn’t up to it, so I only climbed up a short way to look at a magnificent mock-orange (Philadelphus lewisii). This was a much more temperate day, and we were both very curious about the plants up on the slope. While it was a bit slippery in places, we went up as far as the bottom of a treed area. The slope actually continues up for a good 600′, and we hemmed and hawed, but in the end, we decided to save our energy for exploring farther up the road. It’ll have to wait for another trip, I guess. We were impressed with how many milkweed plants were growing here and how large many of them were—quite a few had more than 20 stalks—but this would be a very difficult area to do an actual count, so we just enjoyed looking at them. We also saw quite a few more plants of cobwebby thistle (Cirsium occidentale) with its practically white, bristly foliage. It would be a while yet before its raspberry red blossoms would appear, but the foliage itself is quite eye-catching. This is almost at the northern end of its range, so it was good to see the population was doing well and more spread out than I thought.

Marshall’s saxifrage at peak bloom

After we returned to the road, we walked down to where the milkweed ends and it becomes far more wooded. The silver lupines continued their fabulous display. Bright red frosty paintbrush (Castilleja pruinosa) and purple ookow (Dichelostemma congestum) added more color. Plenty of butterflies and bees were out and about. After turning around, we noticed sprays of tiny white flowers on the backside of a large outcrop. It was quite damp and shaded. We were quite surprised to discover it was our “mystery” saxifrage of earlier in the year: Marshall’s saxifrage (Micranthes marshallii). We had seen it at Coal Creek Bluff (see First Look at Coal Creek Bluff Milkweed), Shy Creek Meadows, and I’d spotted it at the Staley Creek Gorge, all in the Rigdon area of Lane County. This was the first time I’d seen it in Douglas County.

The hidden cliffs off the east side of the road.

We drove up a short way to where we thought we might access some open areas just east of the road. We could see a narrow grassy area through a short stretch of trees, so we climbed down to it. From there, through another short band of trees, we walked out into what turned out to be a stretch of meadow sitting atop a vertical cliff. On the Google Earth aerial view, you can see that there are openings, but the vertical imaging isn’t as clear, and you usually can’t tell how steep they are. Luckily the top area was large enough I didn’t have to get too close to the precipitous edge. We could see that the rest of the openings were also meadow-topped cliffs.

An amazing display of narrow-leaf owl-clover and tomcat clover on top of the cliffs

We spent quite a while enjoying the late afternoon sun and the great view. There were small oaks here, and alternating patches of dried-out grass and still-lush stretches of clovers and other annuals. John got rather frustrated when his camera battery died just as we came upon a particularly beautiful swath of narrow-leaf owl-clover (Castilleja attenuata) growing among tomcat clover (Trifolium willdenovii). Luckily, turning the camera off for a few minutes gave him just enough extra battery life to get a few photos in. I always carry two spare batteries for just that reason. I really hate to miss a good photo opportunity. At the north end of the area, we spotted an odd shrub hanging onto the edge of the cliff. It turned out to be a rather dwarfed oval-leaved viburnum (Viburnum ellipticum). This was such an unusual place to find it. It grows in somewhat moist places on my property, so I didn’t expect to see it on a cliff, but there was actually a seepy area beside it where moisture could flow down and over the cliff edge. On the other side of this was a sheltered vertical cliff with more Marshall’s saxifrage. How interesting that a plant I’d never seen less than a year ago seems to keep showing up. All in all, it was a fabulous day, and a great place I highly recommend checking out if you’re ever driving along the North Umpqua and have a few minutes to spare. I certainly hope to get back down there soon when the monarchs have returned.

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