Rare Plant Discovery at Middle Pyramid

Although we were far from any of the major fires, it was still pretty hazy, making the impressive cliffs surrounding the wetland look farther away than usual.

My husband, Jim, and I celebrated our anniversary on August 12 by hiking up the Pyramids Trail. My last trip there had been in 2016 (see Gorgeous Day on Middle Pyramid), and my husband had only been once, way back in 2004. We couldn’t hike much of anywhere in eastern Lane County because of the smoke from the Cedar Creek fire near Oakridge, so we wanted to head north. I also really wanted to see some blooming explorer’s gentians (Gentiana calycosa), which I was hoping would have at least started blooming below the summit cliff, so it seemed like the perfect destination.

The trail goes below the north end of the summit of Middle Pyramid. Lots of wonderful plants grow in the cliff above the trail.

It was a bit late in the flowering season for most plants, and the trail is steep in places, but we really enjoyed the hike. My favorite spot is the cliff and talus slope just below the summit, so that was my focus for the day. The view from the summit is awesome, but the smoky haze diminished it somewhat. I also find the small summit rather nerve-wracking, so after a quick look, I left Jim and headed back down here to spend more time looking at the plants near the cliff.

There were quite a few explorer’s gentians in the talus both below and above the trail, but most were still in bud or out of reach.

I was so relieved that at least a few gentians were coming into bloom right next to the trail below the cliff. I have to see these beauties at least once a year! Somehow or other, I must have banged something on my camera as I was coming down from the summit, and I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out what settings had gotten changed so I could get decent photos of the gentians. I eventually gave up and had to fix the settings at home when I could focus better (guess that was an unplanned photography pun!).

There were still a number of flowers, including Columbines (Aquilegia formosa) and arrowleaf groundsel (Senecio triangularis) blooming in the talus. This north-facing slope is the last place that the snow melts and is moister and cooler throughout the year.

Gorman’s aster is found only in the Western Cascades of Linn, Marion, and Clackamas counties. It is closely related to the very common Cascades aster (E. ledophyllus), but it has solitary white flowers while the Cascades aster flowers are purple and in clusters.

Jim finally figured out the best way to get above the talus to the base of the cliff was by climbing up the ridge at the end of the cliff. There were some shrubby conifers to climb through, but it was a lot easier than going up the front of the talus. Hopefully, I’ll remember that next time!

Looking up the talus slope from the trail with binoculars, I could see something intriguing. It looked like an aster with white flowers. Our endemic Gorman’s aster (Eucephalus gormanii) grows in just this kind of rocky habitat. Could it be a new site for this rare plant?! That sealed it. I had to get up to confirm the ID. Jim had rejoined me by now, so we both tried to climb up the rocks where I thought I remembered accessing the base of the cliff from back in 2016, but while I could get up part way, I wasn’t sure I could get all the way up, and I definitely wasn’t sure about getting back down. We gave up, and Jim went farther down the trail to where the ridge met the trail. From there, it was much easier (and safer) to climb up to the somewhat more level strip at the base of the cliff. Once above the talus, the asters were now a little below me, but I was able to get a closer look at the few in flower. The solitary white flowers at the tip of few-branched stems could only be Gorman’s aster! It was great to find another site for this species. I suspect there are more undiscovered populations hidden in hard-to-access rocky sites. In fact, there may be some on the inaccessible rocks seen in the first photo. I might have to get a drone to find out!

Lots of smooth alumroot (Heuchera glabra) was finishing blooming under an overhang in the cliff.

There’s just enough room at the base of the cliff to walk somewhat safely and look at some of the many plants that grow on and below it. It’s worth the scramble to get up here when the many interesting early flowers are in bloom like the cliff paintbrush (Castilleja rupicola) in the front left.

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