Shooting Stars are Stars of a Great Day

The population of the seep-loving beautiful shooting star was more gorgeous than I had imagined in “Mistmaiden Meadow.”

Did it just snow? Nuttall’s saxifrage coats the rocks at “Mistmaiden Meadow.”

I was really anxious to get back to the steep meadow on the east side of Sourgrass Mountain after my first trip of the season (see Early Look at Meadow on Sourgrass Mountain). Exactly two weeks after the first trip, on June 13, Sheila Klest and I went to see what was in bloom. We weren’t disappointed. It was even prettier than we expected. As soon as we stepped out into the upper part of the slope, we were greeted with a sweep of pink rosy plectritis (Plectritis congesta). There was much more moisture than there had been at nearby Tire Mountain the week before (see NPSO Annual Meeting Trip to Tire Mountain). Tire Mountain is known for similar drifts of color in wetter springs, but this year was rather disappointing. Here, however, the moisture from the above-normal snowpack on Sourgrass was trickling down to the meadow and keeping it fresh in spite of a month with little or no rain.

Sheila admiring the beautiful sheets of rosy plectritis at the top of the meadow.

The day really started on the right foot for me before we even made it to the meadow. I happened to notice a single plant of tower mustard (Turritis glabra) on the bank of the abandoned road we used to access the meadow. I remembered seeing eggs and caterpillars on it at Bristow Prairie, so I took a look. Sure enough, there were some eggs—most likely of Julia’s orangetip, which uses plants in the mustard family like most whites. I looked around for some more plants and spotted one more higher up the steep bank. That one had a couple of caterpillars and more eggs. The photo is a little out of focus because it was not a very stable spot to try to get an extreme closeup.

We traversed the slope slowly—both so we could look at everything carefully and because it was steep. As I had hoped, the beautiful shooting star (Dodecatheon pulchellum) was in bloom, and as its name says, it was beautiful! On my previous trip, I’d checked out the lowest stretch of meadow down the middle but missed the upper part, so we decided to go up this time. Masses of great polemonium (Polemonium carneum) were just coming into bloom as were thickets of Douglas’ hawthorn (now Crataegus gaylussacia). As we sat down to eat, the sun disappeared, and we realized both of us had left our outer gear in the car since it seemed pretty warm in the sun. The sun didn’t return until just as we were heading out of the meadow—bad luck since I prefer to take photos in bright sun. The white overcast sky tends to darken the photo and wash out the colors (in my opinion, of course). Plus, the butterflies and other insects tend to disappear. But that was about the only thing that wasn’t perfect about the day.

The harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida) was blooming even better than the trip two weeks earlier. In the background are wild cucumber (Marah oreganus), rosy plectritis, and great camas (Camassia leichtlinii).

In addition to the pink of the plectritis and shooting star, froths of tiny white flowers covered the wet rock faces. On the previous trip, this was entirely Thompson’s mistmaiden (Romanzoffia thompsonii). Now, however, the mistmaiden was largely replaced by Nuttall’s saxifrage (Cascadia nuttallii). In spite of being in different families, the mistmaiden (Hydrophyllaceae) and saxifrage (Saxifragaceae) like exactly the same habitat and are so similar as to be easily mistaken for one another. In general, Thompson’s mistmaiden is found at higher elevations than Cascadia. In fact, this is the highest elevation I’d ever seen it. And it certainly was happy here, so the elevation wasn’t a problem. This was such a beautiful meadow that it really deserved a good name—Road 140 Meadow doesn’t have much of a ring to it. We tossed out a few ideas, thinking of all the special plants we’d seen, and then I decided to call it “Mistmaiden Meadow” in honor of the first special and abundant flower of the season there—and because I really like the alliteration!

Can you tell the Nuttall’s saxifrage from the Thompson’s mistmaiden? The saxifrage, on the left, has separate petals, narrow leaves, and usually has red stems, especially as it ages. The mistmaiden, on the right, has tubular flowers with yellow spots and rather squared-off lobes. Its leaves are wider, and its stems are largely to all green.

Eventually, we decided it was time to move on to our next site. It’s only a few miles farther north to Elk Camp. We were surprised to see two vehicles coming our way. As they passed by, I recognized the driver—Jenny Lippert, the president of our NPSO chapter! What a coincidence we passed them then; if we’d been down in the meadow just a little longer, we would have missed them entirely. We all stopped and chatted for a little while. My frequent hiking buddy Nancy Bray was also there. She figured that was probably my car parked along the road.

On my first trip of the season, I saw these pretty black and white moths, but they didn’t sit still for a photo. Maybe because of the overcast condition, I saw two separate Macculloch’s foresters (Androloma maccullochii) sitting totally still. I had seen a caterpillar on farewell-to-spring (Clarkia amoena) on my initial trip to the meadow last August, and it was only after looking up foresters online that I realized it was the caterpillar of this moth. Sometimes it takes multiple trips to a site to solve all its mysteries.

After Nancy and I had come this way on my first trip this year to the meadow, we told Jenny that there was snow on the road and she probably couldn’t use this route to get to Elk Camp for the trip she was leading during the NPSO meeting. She then tried to get there from south from Fall Creek—the way I usually go—but the road by the old quarry had slumped and was impassable in a passenger car. Since her trip level was listed as easy, she ended up taking her group to the essentially level Fall Creek trail for the meeting. But she very considerately promised everyone she’d take them to Elk Camp later. So this they had just been to Elk Camp to see what they had missed. From the snow we saw in the ditch by the Elk Camp trailhead, they probably would have been too early during the meeting anyway. The flowers were stunning now, so I think they got the best of both hikes.

Before heading out to Nevergo Meadow and Elk Camp, we made a short stop at the other new meadow I visited last August (see Exploring Two New Meadows). Unfortunately, it was mostly dried out, but the spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa) and some harsh paintbrush were in bloom where it wasn’t so dry.

The anthers of heart-leaf miner’s lettuce are usually pink. I initially thought these at Nevergo Meadow were unusual for having black pollen, but they are actually infected with a fungus called Microbotryum nelsonianum.

In another coincidence, the previous day, I received an e-mail from Michael Hood, a biologist from Amherst College in Massachusetts (where I once lived—another coincidence!). He first contacted me last year after seeing my blog report about odd black “pollen” on heart-leaf miner’s lettuce (Claytonia cordifolia) back in 2013 (see Back to Elk Camp Shelter—Not Once But Twice). He wrote, “We study the ecology of a group of fungi that grow inside plants and sporulate by replacing the pollen with dark-colored spores. I was amazed to see such an excellent photo of this fungus on Claytonia cordifolia on your site…. It’s particularly surprising because no one has really studied that plant-fungus combination for over a century, and I know of it only from some very old books.” He had been hoping to get a specimen of it, and I was really happy to be able to reply to his recent e-mail and tell him I was already planning to go there the following day. And best of all (for him, not necessarily for the Claytonia), when we got there, the population was blooming and was still infected with the black smut fungus, 10 years after I’d first noticed it. Perfect timing! I was able to collect some infected flowers to send to him. By writing reports about my trips, I hope to share my knowledge with others, but I learn so much in return!

Mountain shooting star is abundant in the wetland at Nevergo Meadow as well as at Elk Camp and the wetland by the closest trailhead.

We really enjoyed the early flowers at both Nevergo Meadow and Elk Camp. It’s my favorite time of year here when there are still some lingering snow banks, and the bright yellow skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), deep pink mountain shooting star (Dodecatheon jeffreyi), snow white marsh marigold (Caltha leptosepala), and gorgeous blue Oregon bluebells (Mertensia bella) are all in bloom. There are plenty of pretty flowers later in the season, and I often return later in the summer to collect seed, but there’s nothing quite like the first burst of color in Western Cascade wetlands.

Sheila and I were fascinated with all the wildlife in the small pool of water in the Elk Camp wetland. We saw several frogs as well as egg masses, a salamander, and this small-scale drama fit for a wildlife documentary. Several water bugs attacked a worm of some sort and were swimming around with it as it thrashed around trying to dislodge them. Several more bugs joined in the frenzy, and the poor worm eventually succumbed.

2 Responses to “Shooting Stars are Stars of a Great Day”

  • Hi Tanya,
    A great post! I love the way you combine the botanical aspects of a site with the invertebrate ecology. Your depth knowledge of both is impressive. Such a pleasure to learn from someone who deeply understands those interconnections. I wish someone was doing this for our sage steppe in Oregon.
    Best,
    Stu

  • Leigh Blake:

    WOW!!! What a wonderful selection a beautiful photos… Love them all…great hike… wish i had been with you, two, too!!! Hope all your future hikes are as wonderful as this one was… Ain’t MOM NATURE GRAND!!!

    Hugs..Leigh

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