Early Look at Meadow on Sourgrass Mountain

Thompson’s mistmaiden was abundant on the seepy parts of the slope (which is most of it!).

I was surprised to find this checkerspot caterpillar wandering around some wholeleaf saxifrage (Micranthes integrifolia), which is definitely not a host food plant. Neither is Thompson’s mistmaiden, the little flowers popping up among the saxifrage leaves. There must have been some paintbrush nearby.

My last report of 2022 was about two late-season trips to hidden meadows in the area near Saddleblanket and Sourgrass mountains (see Exploring Two New Meadows). I was really excited about getting to see the meadows in bloom this year, especially the large one off of Road 140 on the west flank of Sourgrass Mountain. Having already been to nearby Tire Mountain (see Early Season at Tire Mountain), I had seen the lush green meadow from the north side of the ridge, and I knew the road was clear to Windy Pass. On May 30, Nancy Bray accompanied me, hoping for a first look at the early spring flowers in the big meadow. We had also planned to try to get to the other meadow and nearby Elk Camp and Nevergo Meadow, just a few more miles to the north, but we were stopped by a single patch of snow blocking Road 140. Luckily, we were only half a mile from the first meadow, so we walked the rest of the way up the road, which was clear of snow except in some ditches. There were still some glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) and fresh western trilliums (Trillium ovatum) in the freshly melted-out ditches and road banks on our way up.

Nancy enjoyed a relaxing day enjoying the flowers and the view from the top of the north end of the meadow. I went all the way to the other end, down to the bottom, and was just coming back up the slope to rejoin her. From where I’m standing here, Diamond Peak can be seen in the distance to the southeast.

Does anyone know what this interesting little fungus is? I can’t remember ever seeing anything quite like it. It was growing on this branch of budding trailing gooseberry (Ribes binominatum) in the old road, but it was also attacking nearby grass, so I’m not sure it cares about a host.

I had forgotten precisely where the defunct road that goes past the meadows came out onto Road 140, but I had my Google Earth image, so I knew where the meadow was, and we did find the road fairly quickly after a little bushwhacking and quickly came into view of the meadow. It was wonderful to see the whole meadow so fresh and green after only seeing it on the first trip after almost everything was dried out. I was surprised at just how wet it was. Tire Mountain had moisture in some areas but was quite dry in the rockier spots. This meadow was only starting to dry out on a few moss-covered outcrops. Most of it was quite wet and there were even spots with flowing surface water. It is only a few hundred feet higher than Tire Mountain, but while the meadows at Tire are near the top of a ridge, this one was about 400′ below the large, fairly level summit of Sourgrass Mountain. Sourgrass is covered in part by an extensive beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) meadow, where snow can build up. On our Tire Mountain trip, Molly’s husband, Andy, had gone off running up the Alpine Trail to Sourgrass while we botanized. He texted her a photo of it still clothed by quite a bit of snow. No doubt that keeps this meadow fueled with moisture for quite some time.

Echo azures are one of the first butterflies to emerge in the spring.

Nancy didn’t want to go all the way down the steep slope and back up again, so she relaxed in the rocky area on the north end where we popped out of the woods. Looking at the first harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida), Hall’s lomatium (Lomatium hallii), and rustyhair saxifrage (Micranthes rufidula), and just relaxing in the mountains on a gorgeous day with a lovely view was enough to keep her happy while I explored. I wanted to check out the whole area, so after an hour of poking around the top, I ditched her and spent the next couple of hours trying to circumnavigate the meadow.

I believe this is a gorgeous cuckoo wasp rather than a bee. It was attracted to the Hall’s lomatium flowers.

Thompson’s mistmaiden usually grows in great drifts, making it hard to see the structure of the plant. In this small clump on a vertical rock, you can see the small, broad leaves, which are often larger than the flowers and occasionally have a few thumb-like teeth. Note too the squared off lobes and yellow centers of the tubular flowers.

I knew the lovely little Cascade endemic Thompson’s mistmaiden (Romanzoffia thompsonii) was at this site because I had found some dried plants with empty seed heads last summer. I had no idea, however, that there were sweeps of it all across the meadow. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a large population. And it was in perfect bloom! It especially loves the front of seepy, mossy rocks, but it was also in seepy spots with deeper soil. I had also seen the seed capsules of its “twin separated at birth” look-alike, Nuttall’s saxifrage (Cascadia nuttallii), growing right beside it, but I so no evidence of it on this trip.

Another plant I had collected seeds of last year was beautiful shooting star (Dodecatheon pulchellum). I had noticed some seed capsules on the rocks at the southern end of the meadow near the mistmaiden and saxifrages. I was thrilled to find it was way more abundant than I had realized and also grew in seepy outcrops from one end of the meadow to the other. Only a few flowers were open, but it promised to put on quite a show in another week or so. I immediately put another trip on my mental calendar. Large clumps of mule’s ears (Wyethia angustifolia) were also an enticement to return at a later date to see their large, showy flower heads.

The western waterleaf (Hydrophyllum occidentale) were starting to bloom at the lowermost stretches of meadow. This one attracted a propertius duskywing. They seem to be present anywhere oaks are, and there were a number of small oaks coming into bloom on the slope.

It was slow going, traversing the steep slope and trying not to slip and harm any plants (or sprain my ankle!). Some of the sections down the middle where the main water courses through were quite wet and required careful stepping as well. I really enjoyed poking around at this leisurely botany pace. Although they weren’t abundant so early in the season, I also saw a number of interesting insects, including butterflies, moths, bees, and wasps, as well as quite a bit of bear scat. It should be a great place to see pollinators later in the season and will undoubtedly be very different when more is in bloom. I’m really looking forward to returning a number of times to watch the seasons change in this really special spot.

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