Saxifrages and Toads near Loletta Lakes

The photographic highlight of the day had to be this cluster of trilliums visited by a pale swallowtail. The butterfly was as enthralled as we were and stayed for at least 10 minutes, allowing me to get over 40 photos from every angle.

For months, I’ve been working on and off to finish editing and doing the layout for the Saxifragaceae treatment for Volume 3 of the Flora of Oregon (I finally finished it so I felt I could take a break to write this report, however late). I had enough space to add a couple of illustrations and wanted to do two of the more interesting species, rusty saxifrage (Micranthes ferruginea) and Merten’s saxifrage (Saxifraga mertensiana). Our lead artist, John Myers, does most of the illustrations, but he has so many to do right now that I’m contributing a few of the species I’m familiar with.

Both these species are unusual in that they are able to produce asexually by vegetative offsets. Rusty saxifrage has tiny plantlets in the inflorescences that replace most of the flowers except the terminal ones. These drop to the ground and form colonies of clones beneath the mother plant. Mertens’ saxifrage often produces clusters of red bulblets in the inflorescences. Like the rusty saxifrage, these replace the lower flowers. From what I’ve read, it produces these bulblets in most of its range. In the Western Cascades, however, I’ve only seen them in a few populations. One of these is along Coal Creek Road 2133 on the way up to Loletta Lakes.

An interesting sight (though not a very good photo!)—three species with vegetative propagules growing side-by-side on the cliff. Littleleaf montia (Montia parvifolia) (left), rusty saxifrage (center), and Mertens’ saxifrage (right). There is also creamy stonecrop (Sedum oregonense) in the photo. While they don’t have true vegetative propagules, sedums can reproduce vegetatively by breaking off and rerooting where they end up.

I had just heard from several people that they’d successfully gone up Coal Creek Road, and it was in decent condition for a passenger car. So on July 13, accompanied by Nancy Bray, I headed up to look for saxifrages, among other things, this being one of my favorite places to botanize and look for butterflies. The road was in better shape than I’d seen it in a few years, but after hitting one small rock, we stopped to move any rock I might not be able to drive over. I was hoping to take advantage of the clean road on subsequent return trips later in the season, but the whole area has been closed off since the beginning of August because of the nearby Potter Fire, so I’m glad I at least got up there once.

Numerous seedling cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum) had sprouted where last year’s inflorescence had fallen on the road.

On our way up Coal Creek Road, we made the usual stops to see roadside flowers. My second traditional stop is at a small waterfall (click here for map). The small population of Mertens’ saxifrages that have bulblets grow on the far side of the creek as it cascades down. I slipped climbing up the rocks, and then I had trouble getting across the creek because so much water was coming down (it’s been more of a trickle when I’ve seen it the last few years), and the rocks were wet and slippery. I managed to balance enough to get some lousy photos and collected a few of the bulblet clusters. I hadn’t anticipated this was going to be so challenging. But at least I had something to draw from.

The gorgeous Shasta clover growing in the gravel road.

We spent quite a while admiring the plants along the road as it parallels the crest. I’ve written many times about all the wonderful plants that grow in the wet ditch and on the slopes here. I was happy to see there were still several plants of cliff paintbrush (Castilleja rupicola) still growing in the gravel road as well as many Shasta clover (Trifolium productum) in perfect bloom. We were surprised to see a toad hopping about here. It turned out to be the first of many over the course of the day. I’ve never thought of this as a good area for toads, and we wondered where they were coming from. The area was still very fresh with even a small snowbank left by one of the creeks that comes down from the crest of the Calapooyas 800′ above us. In bloom in the wet ditch were bog orchids (Platanthera stricta), clasping twisted stalk (Streptopus amplexifolius), and brook saxifrage (Micranthes odontoloma), which is often mistaken for Mertens’ saxifrage but has spotted flowers and leaves with large, triangular teeth.

This population of Nevada lewisia (top) had small flowers about the size of the threeleaf lewisia growing near it (bottom flower), although its flowers are pure white and the latter’s are veined pink.

This poor beetle on the bottom had too many suitors. It (she I presume?) was trying to get some pollen from sticky tofieldia (Triantha occidentalis) in the wetland.

From there, we headed up to the east edge of the plateau where Loletta Lakes lies. We went over to look at the steep, rocky slope on the east end where John Koenig and I first found buttercup-leaved suksdorfia (now Hemieva ranunculifolia) back in 2015 (see Another Exciting Day in the Calapooyas). Unfortunately, everything was dried out already, although I did find some suksdorfia with a few flowers left. We cut over from the slope to the wetland, passing through a somewhat open spot that is moist but not really wetland. I was very happy to find some plants of Nevada lewisia (Lewisia nevadensis), growing as it often does among patches of threeleaf lewisia (L. triphylla). This was an addition to my plant list that I had missed in the past, probably because the species is hard to spot, and I don’t always pass this little patch of meadow. Notably, this population had small flowers similar to some of those at Elk Camp (see Relaxing Day at Elk Camp Shelter). 

Mertens’ saxifrage growing on the north-facing cliff at the edge of the Loletta Lakes plateau. The clusters of beet red bulblets seem like they are weighing down the stem.

The finished illustration of rusty saxifrage for the upcoming Volume 3 of the Flora of Oregon.

Unlike the rocky slope, the wetland was still very fresh with a few small patches of snow in shady spots. Mountain shooting star (Dodecatheon jeffreyi) and marsh marigold (Caltha leptosepala) were still blooming, and elephant head (Pedicularis groenlandica) was just starting. I was disappointed not to see my favorite Sierra Nevada blue butterflies where I had seen them before (see Return to Loletta Peak for a report on last year’s trip to this same spot). I suspect it was a little too early to see them after our late spring. I wanted to show Nancy the view to the north, so we cut through the woods to the northeast edge of the plateau. I was thrilled to find more bulblet-covered Mertens’ saxifrages growing here! I’d never noticed them before. While I had to climb down in front of this small cliff to get a better view of most of the plants, these were still more accessible than those on the waterfall on the way up the road. And back across the wetland to another area where the wetland meets rocks, we came across numerous plants of rusty saxifrage, the other plant I was wanting to draw. How lucky! I had forgotten they grew here.

For at least one year, “Dead Toad Pond” became Happy Toad Pond!

Since we still had time before we needed to head home, I decided to drive farther up the road and see how things looked. We drove past the major intersection at the top to check on the large population of dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium), but we were just a bit too early for the abundant fragrant flowers that attract so many butterflies. For our final main stop, we parked by the vernal pool I’ve been calling “Dead Toad Pond” after the number of times I’ve seen it all dried up with a pile of dead carcasses in the middle. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to find the pond larger than I’ve ever seen it—and teeming with tadpoles! Thank heavens for the wet spring we had. None of the tadpoles had developed legs yet, and because of the fire closure, I was not able to return to the area later as I’d hoped to check on them, but I think they had a good chance of maturing this year. On top of finding all the plants I needed to draw in bloom, that really made my day! And now we had a pretty good idea where all the toads were coming from!

Nancy and I were both fascinated by the way most of the tadpoles in the vernal pool were moving around all together in the same direction—like they were on a highway in a traffic jam.

One small toad swimming in the pool. Most of the ones we saw were hopping along in the wetlands or along the road, but several hadn’t yet dispersed from the pool.

4 Responses to “Saxifrages and Toads near Loletta Lakes”

  • David Wagner:

    You mentioned tabpoles moving altogether in the same direction in dead toad pond. I have seen this in a much bigger pond. All were moving left to right when we looked down at the shore, or counter-clockwise. Do you remember the direction you observed? Maybe it is genetically implanted??

  • Susan Hebert:

    Love your reports. Lmk if you ever take people out on field trips, please!

  • Jeffrey Caldwell:

    Wonderful post, as usual. Which species of Trillium enthralled the Pale Swallowtail?

  • Leigh Blake:

    HI!!! Great Loved this post!!! Nice to see a COOL WET SPOT!!! Love that “saxifrage”…and great TOAD!!! Our tads have all changed into their tree Frog outfits,,,a lot this year… BUT where are our birds??? No Black Capped Grosbeaks this year…

    Thank you for all the photos…and great “story”,, Stay cool Would love to see the new saxifrage book!!!

    Happy Hiking!!!

Leave a Reply

Post Categories
Notification of New Posts