Citizen’s Rare Plant Watch at Bristow Prairie

Kris checking the Lewisia key on her tablet while Betsy continues to count plants.

Betsy spotted this pair of three-leaved plants trying to trick a trio of botanists. The Columbia windflower (Anemone deltoidea) flower is trying on the western trillium (Trillium ovatum) leaves, perhaps disappointed that its similar leaves (hiding above) are much smaller.

Citizen’s Rare Plant Watch is a citizen science program that was started by the Native Plant Society of Oregon in 2012 and is now run by the Rae Selling Berry Seed Bank and Plant Conservation Program at Portland State University. Volunteers, led by Kris Freitag, travel around the state gathering information on rare plants and trying to relocate plants that have not been seen in the state in many years.

Kris contacted me a while back about monitoring the Columbia lewisia (Lewisia columbiana) John Koenig and I found last year (see Yet Another Exciting Discovery at Bristow Prairie). I suggested I join her and give her the “tour” of one of my favorite places. After several volunteers had to cancel, only Betsy Becker was able to make it all the way down from the Portland area. As it happened, Walama Restoration was hosting a campout at Sacandaga Campground that weekend, so Kris and Betsy and I joined them there on Friday night and headed up to Bristow Prairie on Saturday morning, June 22nd.

I was very happy to see some of my little butterfly friends, Sierra Nevada blues, flying about in the wetland in the main prairie. This female is enjoying their favorite flower, bistort (Bistorta bistortoides).

We went right to work at the population of lewisia. Betsy took responsibility for counting the plants. This was challenging for several reasons. The biggest problem was accessibility. While some plants were growing on a relatively level surface, others were growing in areas too steep to comfortably approach. Betsy was understandably reluctant to get near enough to count individuals near the cliff edges, but she tallied up over 400 rosettes, so we figured there must be close to 500, including an estimate of how many we could see but couldn’t get near enough to count. Of the three of us, Kris was the bravest (and undoubtedly the sturdiest of us—after breaking my wrist, I’m less confident than I used to be, but hopefully that will come back when it is fully healed). She disappeared out of view more than once, making me a bit nervous.

I believe these lovely moths are Macculloch’s foresters (Androloma maccullochii). The similar Riding’s foresters have only one pair of orange tufted leggings and have solid black antennae instead of striped (see Bug Guide). They were mating while nectaring on sticky tofieldia (Triantha glutinosa)—you can see the sticky orange glands on the stem.

Merriam’s alumroot growing under an overhang near some cliff penstemon (Penstemon rupicola).

But on one of those occasions, I cautiously followed her down below an overhanging rock that we couldn’t see from above. There was indeed some lewisia near the top of this rock, but what really excited me was seeing one of my favorite rock plants, Merriam’s alumroot (Heuchera merriamii) growing, as it often does, under the overhang. I have seen it before on the pillar rock at the north end of the High Divide trail, so it wasn’t an addition to the list, but next to it was some glaucous willowherb (Epilobium glaberrimum var. fastigiatum), which was new for my list. Also growing in the same area and far more interesting, I recognized the distinctive leaves of Scotch harebell (Campanula rotundifolia). While this species is by no means globally rare—it has a circumpolar distribution, and I’ve seen it both in Europe and in the Midwest—it is uncommon in Oregon, especially this far south. Nearby Dome Rock was the first sighting in Lane County, and I found two other sites in the county and also at Hills Peak on the Douglas County side of the Calapooyas. Nowhere near as exciting as finding the lewisia here, but it was still an excellent addition to the list of cool plants found in the Bristow Prairie area.

What large roots for such a delicate plant!

We weren’t sure at first if each lewisia rosette was a separate plant, but after Kris carefully selected and dug up a voucher specimen for the herbarium, we could see that the plant had a single rosette with a surprisingly thick root. This must allow them to store moisture and nourishment in this exceedingly well-drained habitat. Many of them were growing bunched together, so perhaps they create offsets. We didn’t want to dig any more than necessary, so we weren’t able to answer this question. Kris also wrote down information about the site, including aspect, soil, and associated species.

The pretty red glands are quite visible on the sepals and upper bracts of Columbia lewisia.

Another of our questions was what variety of Lewisia columbiana this population is. I’d never paid much attention to this, but there are three different varieties, and a fourth variety in California is now considered its own species, Lewisia congdonii. The latter’s leaves look much different, so ours aren’t that. The main differentiating feature among the varieties has to do with whether bracts on the stems have glands. We looked at them with a hand lens. The lowest bracts had no glands, but all the others did. This would seem to point to them being variety columbiana as variety rupicola has glands on all the bracts. Our plants, however, seem much smaller than the descriptions of typical columbiana, which occurs much farther north, and the leaves aren’t as flat. The third variety, var. wallowensis is more the right size, but it isn’t supposed to be west of the Wallowas, and photos of it don’t look right either. Our flowers look a lot pinker than in photos from other areas. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ones in Lane and Douglas counties—so far from the others—haven’t developed separately into another variety. That’s a mystery for a taxonomist, however. My focus will be on finding some more populations! A special thanks to Kris and Betsy for coming all the way down to the Calapooyas to study the lewisia. I really enjoyed their company and spending more time learning about this lovely species.

After finishing up with the lewisia, we headed over to the rock garden along the trail. It was still in its prime with sulphur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum), frosted paintbrush (Castilleja pruinosa), Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum), and hotrock penstemon (Penstemon deustus) in full bloom. While on my last trip, the background blue was created by blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia grandiflora), this time it was bluefield gilia (Gilia capitata) setting off all the warm-colored flowers.

2 Responses to “Citizen’s Rare Plant Watch at Bristow Prairie”

  • Jason Clinch:

    I am so happy Kris and Betsy made it down to your “neck of the woods” and that you were able to join them on this CRPW outing! Thank you so much for the write-up, too! CRPW needs all the publicity it can get! Gorgeous photos as well!


  • Erin Gray:

    Thank you so much for this fantastic write-up of your Citizen’s Rare Plant Watch outing. Glad to be there vicariously through your description and your beautiful photos (Love those adorable glands on the Lewisia!)

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