A “Berry” Surprising Day at Groundhog and Warner Mountains

The star plant of the day was probably western mountain ash (Sorbus scopulina) with its shiny red berries. It was abundant along the roadsides. The large meadow in back is on Little Groundhog Mountain, more or less the south end of Groundhog Mountain.

In late summer, the gorgeous berries of wax currant (Ribes cereum) ripen, and the leaves develop a waxy coating.

After hearing from my friend Doramay Keasbey that Road 2120 was actually in pretty good condition, I decided I really needed to get back to Groundhog Mountain sometime this year. I used to go multiple times a year as it is one of my favorite places and has so many different interesting botanical spots to check out. With the fire danger finally reduced and the smoke no longer affecting the area (unfortunately for Doramay, it was pretty bad for her and her friend Pat when they went in early August), I was finally able to return on September 13. I was accompanied by fellow Native Plant Society of Oregon (NPSO) member Angela Soto, who had never been to this terrific botanical area. Due to the smoke and fire danger, I didn’t get out much in August and went alone as I was never sure until morning what the air quality would be like. It was wonderful to get back to “business as usual” and to be able to take another plant lover with me.

Why was this ceanothus silk moth caterpillar climbing up this dying hemlock?!

No problem heading up Road 2120 just south of Hills Creek Reservoir. That led us to our first stop, Waterdog Lake. Shortly after getting out of the car, we came upon the first of a number of wonderful surprises. About 5 feet up in a small dying hemlock tree, Angela spotted an enormous caterpillar. What on earth was it doing climbing up so high where there was nothing to eat? It was totally exposed and looked like it might have made a choice meal for a lucky bird. I looked it up when I got home and discovered it was most likely a ceanothus silk moth (Hyalophora euryalus), a close relative of the cecropia moth. We took a look around what was left of the small lake after the dry summer and checked on the caterpillar on our way back to the car. He was a foot higher in the tree!

We were all surprised at the showy fall foliage on this goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus). I’ve probably never noticed this before because it usually grows in the shade.

After driving farther down the road in an unsuccessful attempt to get some seed of skyrocket (Ipomopsis aggregata), we drove back to Waterdog Lake, and Angela got out to see what the caterpillar was up to (it was at the same height but on a different branch). We were surprised to see a truck parked by the lake. I had been telling Angela that I rarely see anyone in the area before hunting season, and they are usually folks from either NPSO or the North American Butterfly Association, as I’ve led trips to Groundhog Mountain for both groups. I’ve introduced many plant and butterfly lovers to this area, and they have in turn introduced their friends. I was staying in the car for this very brief stop, but I thought the driver of the truck looked somewhat familiar, even from the back, so I got out. It turned out to be another NPSO member, Alan Butler! He’s the one who drove me up here last year (see Wonderful Day at Groundhog Mountain and Logger Butte). We got to talking about where we were both planning to go in the area. After I mentioned the wonderful “Sundew Road” on the north side, he said he was heading over there because he’d never seen it. He kindly agreed to take the two of us up there, which was terrific luck because I no longer like driving the 2 miles of somewhat rought old road that leads there.

Left: Sitka mountain ash (Sorbus sitchensis) has dull berries and leaves with fewer berries and fewer teeth than western mountain (right) with its glossy fruit and leaves. Sometimes, however, they appear to hybridize, creating plants with intermediate characters.

Looking a lot like berries, these are actually galls on a willow.

We both drove to the intersection of roads 2129 and 452, where we left my car and hopped into his much bigger and sturdier truck. We headed up 452, passing the wonderful rocky areas where butterflies abound earlier in the season, and found Road 468, partly hidden by encroaching alders. We walked down the abandoned road to where the round-leaved sundews (Drosera rotundifolia) and other wetland plants grow in wet moss down a steep slope and right across the old road surface. We marveled at how good Mother Nature is at taking back what is rightfully hers. While most things were finished blooming, there were still asters (mostly Symphyotrichum foliaceum and Eucephalus ledophyllus) and goldenrod (Solidago elongata), and lots of Cascade grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia cirrata), one of my favorite late-season plants. The sundews had already gone to seed. Alan told us about how much logging had been done in the area back in the 70s and 80s. The conifers still haven’t grown very large, but it was impressive seeing how the other plants had come back. We had a distant view of Spring Prairie and Mule Prairie. With the binoculars I could see the Cedar Creek fire had burned it in a patchwork manner. What a relief to see there were still a number of green trees left! It won’t be accessible to check out the damage—and recovery—up close until the Forest Service has had a chance to clear all the roads that were affected by the large fire last year.

Alan standing in what used to be a logging road but is now a boggy wetland with blooming grass-of-parnassus. The steep slope also has bog plants including sundews on it.

While Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) is ubiquitous on the east side and in the High Cascades, in the Western Cascades, it usually pops up only in wetlands where there is less competition like here in the now-dry pond on the north side of Groundhog.

From there, we drove farther up the road to a hidden pond. My old 1996 USGS quad map still shows there being two ponds there, but the one closest to the road no longer holds water. The other lake is quite shallow and will eventually succumb to succession as well. This late in a dry summer, it was mostly dried out, but at least there was a small area still holding water for the wildlife. We were very excited to see many tiny toads and equally tiny frogs bouncing across the cracked mud. At about 5700′ of elevation, this area is a bit higher than the many other wetlands in the area, and it has a real High Cascade feel to it. This stems in part from the abundance of pink mountain heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis) and grouseberry (Vaccinium scoparium), which are common in the High Cascades but only occur in the Western Cascades in cool, relatively high-elevation sites, like this one on the north side of the mountain.

Three tiny toads are well camouflaged in the mud of the drying pond. One has to walk very slowly to give them time to hop out of the way!

Yummy black huckleberries (Vaccinium membranaceum)

Alan had to head home early, so he dropped us back off at my car. With a couple of hours left to explore, we headed over to another special wetland just north of Logger Butte, where Alan had started his day. We poked around there for a while, enjoying all the fruiting shrubs, including some delicious black huckleberries.

The one other site I really wanted to get to was the special sphagnum bog on Warner Mountain, so we continued south along the ridge. At one point, we had a view to the northwest of some smoke still emanating from the Bedrock Fire. While it was almost completely contained (thank you firefighters!!), it won’t be completely out until rainy season begins in earnest. Just a little farther down the road, we were startled by the sudden appearance of a hawk swooping low right in front of the car. It was apparently as spooked by us as we were by it because it dropped its hard-earned catch, a rabbit, by the side of the road. The rabbit—already dead—wasn’t going anywhere, so we figured the hawk would be back for its dinner after we passed by.

Angela admiring the view of Diamond Peak and the large wetland just north of Logger Butte

We passed the Warner Lookout—no time left to head up there—and parked across from the little dead-end road that heads north about a mile west of the lookout. It only takes a few minutes of trudging through beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) to reach the bog. It was still fairly wet, and there were quite a few Cascade grass-of-Parnassus still in bloom but farther along in this south-facing meadow than on “Sundew Road,” which is on the north side of Groundhog. The gorgeous gentians were all finished blooming, but I was very happy that some of them had ripe seed capsules. I had been wanting to study the seed of these to compare to the other gentian populations in the Western Cascades, but I hadn’t made it back here late enough in the season. Last year, the Cedar Creek Fire was still going too strong to head into this area until we finally got rain later in October.

The seeds of the Warner Mountain gentians are clearly winged. They remind me of fried eggs. For a look at the unwinged seeds of Gentiana calycosa, see https://westerncascades.com/photos/seeds/seeds-d-h/nggallery/page/1.

The ripe capsules just started cracking open, but there is still a hint of the lovely blue of the flowers. Not being able to get up here in August meant I missed the flowering season.

I looked carefully at the seed the next day and checked on the Flora of Oregon draft Gentiana treatment as well as the one from FNA (Volume 14 that I worked on just got back from the printer last month!). I was shocked to see that the seed is winged—that of Gentiana calycosa is not! I had just assumed this was the bog form of Gentiana calycosa and that the differences I noticed were because the form I’m used to in the Western Cascades is the rock form. After all, the plants looked very similar to the G. calycosa I’ve seen up at Mount Jefferson. They have the same upright habit and relatively wide leaves. The Flora of Oregon draft treatment lists 7 species.

I ran through the key, eliminating Gentiana newberryi, which I’ve seen a number of times up near Hand Lake; G. sceptrum, a tall species with more or less closed flowers (see Pigeon Prairie Painted with Purple); and G. prostrata, a small, prostrate annual or biennial that has unwinged seeds. Gentiana affinis has winged seeds and is supposed to be similar to G. calycosa, but it usually has long, narrow leaves, many-flowered inflorescences—these usually have solitary flowers or occasionally 2 or 3—and ciliate hairs on the sepals. They also aren’t described as growing in bogs. That left G. plurisetosa, Klamath gentian, and G. setigera, Mendocino gentian, two related species that are often confused. One of the characters I hadn’t paid enough attention to before was the plicae—appendages between the corolla lobes. The ones at Warner Mountain are divided almost to the base into long threads (see Studying Gentians at Warner Mountain). That matches the descriptions of both G. plurisetosa and setigera. The photos I’ve taken of rock-loving gentians in the Western Cascades have triangular plicae with short narrow bits at the tip (see Another Look at Aspen Meadow and Bradley Lake). The leaves, habit, and habitat all match both species as well. The difference between them is that the latter has side stems and non-flowering rosettes. I hadn’t paid enough attention to the growth habit (it can be hard to look at anything else while being dazzled by the gorgeous flowers!). The problem with either species is that the most northerly sites they’ve been found in are over 100 miles to the south! In fact, they are supposed to be rare endemics of the coast ranges and Klamath Mountains of southwestern Oregon and northwestern California and are of conservation concern in both states. Whichever species it is, what is it doing here? And if it’s neither, then what in the heck is it?!

One Response to “A “Berry” Surprising Day at Groundhog and Warner Mountains”

  • Leigh Blake:

    COOL!!! so glad you got up there..Love the caterpillar…maybe thinking to make a cocoon up high to avoid a flood??? LOLOLOL!! Probably not…but confused where to hide… Great photos…love the Sorbus and GENTIANS!!! WOW!! Those seeds are terrific..seed I had from G. sino-ornata…were microscopic…sent from Czech Republic.. I have joined the Native Plant Society.(YAY)..missed the plant sale…drat…
    Wish I had been with you both for this wonderful exploration…so grateful for rains… Would love to collect seed here…I’m hoping to get cuttings from Ceanothus
    pumilus near Butte falls on Thursday…I wish I could find Vaccinum deliciosa…so many plants I would love in this garden of ours… I got narcissus bulbicdium bulbs from Illahe Nursery…so much to do..so much FUN
    Many Hugs!! PS…I’m attempting to write a book about designing a rock garden constructing our own outcroppings… HAVE FUN!!! THANK YOU!!

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