It is the middle of summer in the Pacific northwest and the fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) is blooming everywhere. I’m seeing it all over Mt. Hood National Forest, near Mt. St. Helens, and along the Springwater Corridor in Portland and Gresham. A month ago it was just beginning to bloom in Alaska. Fireweed is a pioneer plant, one of the first to establish itself in disturbed soils – often along paths, roadsides, and anywhere a fire has burned (hence the name). It can grow to an impressive height of nine feet, but it is more commonly seen up to six feet high. It’s green leaves are long and narrow with unique circular leaf veins. The roots connect and form large colonies of fireweed. Rarely will you see a single plant growing by itself.
Fireweed’s pink-purple flowers are the star of the show. They bloom in a spike at the end of its stem, often with as many as 50 papery thin pink flowers. The flowers bloom from the bottom of the spike to the top. In Alaska, fireweed is an indicator of the coming of winter. Once the top flowers bloom, the first snow is likely less than 30 days away. Once the blooms are spent, they produce a capsule filled with fluffy white seeds. One fireweed plant can produce as many as 80,000 seeds.
Fireweed is edible and a favorite of many foragers. It’s leaves and shoots are high in Vitamin A and C. Leaves can be used to make tea and early shoots can be eaten raw or lightly cooked as a tangy spring vegetable. Fireweed nectar is used to make honey and syrup. It has been used as a traditional medicine, too. It has anti-inflammatory properties and has been used to aid in digestive disorders, sore throats and congested lungs.
It was one of the very first plants to return to the soil after Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980.
Farewell-to-spring (Clarkia amoena) is a melancholy name for this perky, pink native Oregon wildflower. I saw them recently on a hike to Dog Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge. They were scattered along the lower elevations of both the Dog Mountain and the Augspuger Trails. I noticed they were especially abundant on patches of dry, rock-strewn slopes among patches of dead grass.
The bright pink spots in the center of each petal is what caught my attention. The flowers can range from pale pink to deep wine red in color, but always have a patch of darker pink on each of the four petals. The flowers are generally single, and less than 1-1/2 inches wide. The stems are gray-green and slender with slim, lanceolate leaves. Eight stamens curl up around the single pistil in the flower’s center. The plants I saw were about a foot tall.
This flower’s genus name (Clarkia) comes from Captain William Clark (of Lewis & Clark). It’s species name (amoena) means charming or pleasing. Certainly, it is. Other common names are herald of summer or summer’s darling, which surely describes the time of year you are likely to see it in bloom.
The flowers serve as a source of nectar for important polinators such as honeybees, mason bees, bumblebees, butterflies, and other benficial insects. I saw many small insects and bees among them at Dog Mountain.
“Stop!,” I yelled as we slowly drove west on Coville Road. “There’s something in the field.” I rolled down my window and peered through binoculars to find a silver-feathered male Northern Harrier sitting on a hump of plowed farm dirt, preening. I sat there for a few minutes admiring his pale beauty in the bright Oregon sunshine. I’ve seen harriers in flight many times, but never had the luxury to watch one perched and preening for so long.
It was a gorgeous, sunny, unusually warm, spring day, and we were going for a hike at Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge west of Salem. The harrier proved to be only our first surprise. As we hiked up to the top of Baskett Butte and out to the Rich Guadagno observation platform, we learned through interpretive signs that the butte trail was dedicated to Rich Guadagno, a former refuge manager who died in the United Flight 93 plane crash on 9/11. He was 38 years old. It was a poignant and touching tribute to a man who obviously loved nature and nurtured this land where we now stood.
The views from Baskett Butte are inspiring – surrounding farm fields, the peak of Mt. Jefferson, and beautiful old growth oak savannas (one of the most endangered habitats in Oregon).
On this day in May, wildflowers dotted the meadows – Oregon sunshine, lupine, Nootka rose, Mariposa lilies and more.
Near Morgan Lake at the north end of the refuge, we saw a large area of white, and wondered if it was bare sand. A look with binoculars showed us it was a wildflower bloom, solid white and expansive. We were able to hike around the edge of the lake and get a closer look. Turns out it was a field of white meadowfoam (Limnanthes alba). Turns out, one species of meadowfoam is an important commercial crop in the Willamette Valley. The seed oil is used in cosmetics.
At one point along our hike, as we emerged from the oak savanna and walked downhill toward the marshes to the north, Keith wondered aloud if ring-necked pheasants lived here. Five minutes later we flushed a pheasant from the tall grass and watched it glide about 200 yards across the meadow to a copse of bushes. Pheasants are an introduced, naturalized species in the US. In fact, they were first introduced in the Willamette Valley from China in 1882. Farmland habitat is a pheasant’s heaven, so it makes sense that they would be sighted here at the edge of farm and refuge.
As we crossed Moffitti Marsh along the freshly mowed but sometimes muddy trail, we spotted nesting tree swallows in their iridescent blues, striking yellow common goldfinches, cinnamon teal, and red-winged blackbirds.
There was even a swarm of bees circling around an old barn across the road from the marsh. Hiking back up the butte from Morgan Lake we spotted three black-tailed deer browsing at the edge of the forest.
Four hours after we had seen that harrier stting and preening in the field, we left Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge with a renewed sense of wonder and light hearts. Our five miles of hiking had provided surprise after surprise, each one marvelous and welcome. Thank you to the US Fish and WIldlife Service for managing yet another amazing natural area for the people!
If you go: Baskett Slough NWR is located off of SR 22, west of 99W and Salem, OR. Some trails are closed in winter to protect wintering waterfowl. Take sun protection in summer; most of the trails are not shaded.
Anyone who has done much hiking in Oregon has seen this plant, even if they didn’t know what it was. Pacific poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is common in sunny and partially shaded areas and on rocky, south-facing slopes, especially in the eastern Columbia River Gorge and on Willamette Valley’s oak savannas. I’ve seen it on the edges of Doug fir forests and mixed deciduous forests as well, though. As long as the soil is acidic and below about 4000 feet, poison oak can grow there.
As someone who moved from the east, where I sported a patch of poison ivy rash somewhere on my body most of the time, I learned to identify poison oak as soon as I moved to Oregon. Like poison ivy, it typically has three leaves (you know, “leaves of three, let it be”), but sometimes five. Pacific poison oak can grow as a shrub, a trailing vine or a climbing vine. It’s leaves look very much like Oregon oak leaves, but not as deeply lobed. In the spring it is bright green, but in fall turns a brilliant shade of red.
There are some great photos of its many variations here.
I’ve been lucky to avoid contact with it until now. Last week, I was in the Gorge shooting photos of wildflowers, and wasn’t careful to look for the new leafless shoots of poison oak popping up in springtime. I guess my sleeves must have grazed some shoots when I was down on my knees taking pictures, because two days later I began to feel an itch on my wrist. The next day it had bubbled up, and by the fourth day it turned yellow. I had my first full-blown case of Pacific poison oak.
Lovely, isn’t it? Like its eastern cousin, poison ivy, Pacific poison oak has an oil called urushiol. It’s on every part of the plant and is active as long as five years after the plant is dead! That’s potent stuff. If you don’t wash it off with soap and water (or neutralize it with Tecnu) within 15 minutes of exposure, the urushiol bonds to your skin and then your immune system kicks in, causing the rash and bubbles and fun. It appears my rash is limited to my wrist and a finger or two, so I’m not worried about it, but there are folks who get much more serious rashes and need medical attention.
It’s not a “bad” plant
In spite of Pacific poison oak’s irritation to us human hikers, it has some redeeming qualities. It is a good food source for animals like deer (which browse leaves and stems) and birds (which eat the berries). The young leaves are high in protein and are sometimes food for goats. I actually found an article suggesting that it be “strategically planted” in a garden or yard for bird food. I’m gonna say no to that one.
Poison oak stands are also used as nesting sites by a federally endangered bird called the Bell’s vireo, and a rare colony of ringtail has been found nesting in a cottonwood-poison oak woodland near the Sacramento River in California. It might surprise you to know that Pacific poison oak is the most wide-spread shrub in all of California (source: US Forest Service). Wow!
It’s peak bloom season for grass widows right now in the Gorge. Grass widows (Olsynium douglasii) are traditionally the first spring flowers to bloom and a sign of warmer days ahead. This year, the grass widows are more abundant than during the past few years, and, after this long, cold, snowy winter, they are an especially welcome sight to see!
This species of grass widow is in the Iris family and the only species in its genus in North America. They are native to western North America from British Columbia to California and east to Utah. The bright purple bell-shaped flowers are about one inch wide. The slender green leaves and stalks are rarely more than 12 inches tall.
They seem to love wet rocky meadows. We hiked nearly 8 miles through the Coyote Wall trails and the widows were absent unless there was water seeping through the soil under them. In places they grow so thick, they formed a carpet of purple covering the sun-filled meadows high above the gorge.
In a large flourish like this one, an occasional rare white grass widow may be spotted, so be on the lookout as you hike. Grass widows are fairly common in the Columbia River Gorge east of Bonneville, west of the Cascades in the Willamette Valley and east of the Cascades down through Wasco County.
OK, this is not in Oregon, but it’s still one of those “close enough” Pacific Northwest wonderlands to include on this blog. For brilliant autumn colors, some pretty spectacular mountain and lake scenery and cool wildlife, this place delivers in a big way.
Our late September hike took us on a 7.3-mile loop through the Indian Heaven Wilderness area of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest just southwest of Mt. Adams in Washington. We started at the Cultus Creek Trailhead (a 2.25 hr drive from Portland), and our loop included Cultus Creek Trail #108, part of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and Indian Heaven Trail #33.
A History of Fire and Huckleberries
Fire has burned through this area many times over the years, but a particularly big, hot and fast fire burned here in 1902. It destroyed the forest and left behind nutrient-rich acidic soil, perfect for the copious huckleberries that now thrive here. Their fiery red and orange-colored leaves light up the landscape each autumn.
A sign on Forest Road 24 leading to the trailhead reminds visitors that all the huckleberries east of the road, known as the Sawtooth Berry Fields, are reserved for picking by Indians as part of a “1932 Handshake Agreement” between Chief Yallup of the Yakama Nation and Supervisor Bruckert of the US Forest Service. This area has been important to tribes of the Yakama Nation’s people for thousands of years, but during the U.S. Depression many non-native people came up the mountain and stripped it clean of huckleberries, prompting the Yakama Chief to request this treaty.
A Steep Start
The sun was shining and the air was a cool 50 degrees – perfect hiking weather. We took one look at the trail, and knew we were going to get some serious exercise. There was nothing gradual about the elevation gain on the first section of the Cultus Creek Trail. It’s a steep grade, rising 1200 feet in just 1.4 miles to a saddle at 5237 feet. It pretty much kicked our butts and had us stopping regularly to gasp for air and slow our heart rates.
Despite our huffing and puffing, we were able to see and enjoy songbirds flitting through the shrubs, very fresh scat and tracks from a black-tailed deer and exquisite views of Mt. Adams, Sawtooth Mountain and Lemei Rock.
After reaching our hike’s highest point, we descended into thick subalpine forests of noble and grand fir, mountain hemlock and western white pine. Soon we intersected the Pacific Crest Trail. Here the trail was soft, covered with fallen needles from the conifer trees above, and the understory was sparse due to the shade of the thick canopy. No birds chirped. At one point we stopped and looked at each other, simultaneously declaring “its so quiet here”. It was easy to walk in silence. The forest commanded reverence.
Meadows and Lakes
Soon, the thick forest thinned. Meadows and lakes dotted the landscape between trees. Every meadow and most of the trail edges were lined with those fire-red huckleberries. Some purple-blue berries still clung to their twigs. We constantly scanned for bears that might be in search of the sweet, juicy morsels. We came across scat from several different animals, none of them bears. I stopped at every meadow and stared, simply awed by the wealth of beauty and brilliance of color.
Indian Heaven is known for its abundance of mountain lakes. As we left the PCT and turned up Indian Heaven Trail, we could see Deer Lake reflecting the sun through the trees. A short distance later, the trail skirted right by Clear Lake, outlined with huckleberries and rocks.
The last two large lakes along the trail were Cultus Lake and Deep Lake, separated only by a wooden bridge and a small hill. Walking up and over the hill to Deep Lake gave us a birds-eye view of its impressive blue-green waters. North of Deep Lake, the top of Mt. Adams peeked over the forested horizon. Fish popped the surface of the water, snapping at insects. The only sign of humans was footprints.
Talus Slopes and Pikas
Adjacent to and on the other side of the trail from Clear Lake was a talus slope that covered about 10 acres of mountainside. As we approached it, I heard a loud, high-pitched “meep“. I looked up to see Keith pointing to a brown blob perched on a huge rock about 30 yards up the slope. Closer inspection with binoculars and camera confirmed that it was a pika – a cute, loud, elusive little rock rabbit. Keith had been on the lookout for one since we arrived in Oregon. Finally, here it was.
The size of this talus slope got us wondering: how do they form and why do they occur where they do? Are they the result of landslides and erosion? Why are they here and not there? Those are questions we still can’t answer, so I’ll do a little checking and write more about it later… If you know about the geology/origins of talus slopes, let me know.
The final 2 miles of our hike was all downhill, thankfully. We hiked along the flank of Bird Mountain and, about a mile from the trailhead, came to a sharp U-turn with a jaw-dropping view of Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier and Goat Rocks. Pretty spectacular scenery. That last mile was almost as steep as the first one had been, and the knees were screaming a bit but my lungs were grateful we were going downhill.
I loved this hike and definitely want to spend more time in the Indian Heaven Wilderness. I imagine it’s pretty special during the spring when lots of wildflowers are blooming, but I can’t imagine it being much prettier than it was on this autumn day.
Major props to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest Service staff and volunteers who maintain these trails and the forest roads that got us there. While erosion from runoff is clearly an issue here due to the steepness of the trails, they are very well-maintained and in great shape for hiking.
Kudos to Keith for finding this trail and planning this outing!
Cooper Mountain Nature Park is a 231-acre Metro park in Beaverton, Oregon with a Nature House classroom, a playground overlooking the Tualatin Valley, an awesome demonstration garden, forests and larkspur prairies. But, the star of Cooper Mountain is its beautiful oak savannas, an endangered strategy habitat in Oregon.
Oak savannas once covered 400,000 acres in the Willamette Valley. Less than 5% of those savannas remain today. The main reasons for the decline of this habitat type are conversion to other land uses (agriculture and residential) and fire suppression, which allows invasive species and Douglas fir to encroach and take over.
Fire is an important force for maintaining both the prairies and oak savannas at Cooper Mountain. First Nations peoples used fire regularly in oak savannas to promote the growth of camas flowers, the bulb of which was used for food, and to maintain openings for wildlife and for grazing. Fire maintained the open grassland under the oaks, allowing the oaks to spread and produce copious quantities of acorns which the Native People used for food. Fire recycles nutrients, reduces understory growth and keeps conifers from shading out young oak trees, providing space for the oaks to grow and spread.
These days, land managers use prescribed burns to maintain the ecosystem health of prairies and oak savannas on both public and private lands. While visiting Cooper Mountain on September 26th, we saw land management crews preparing for a prescribed burn by plowing fire lines, marking burn units and staging equipment. They hope to burn about 30 acres during the next few weeks.
Oregon white oaks (also called Garry oaks, especially in Canada) have rough bark with gnarly, twisting limbs, giving each tree a unique and interesting shape. I love the way they look silhouetted against the sunlight.
Oregon white oak savannas and meadows are hosts to a highly diverse array of beautiful spring wildflowers, including the rare white rock larkspur. I’ll be eager to return to this site next spring to see them in bloom. This habitat type also supports over 800 species of insects. While Cooper Mountain’s oak savanna acreage is small, it still supports oak-dependent species such as white-breasted nuthatches, bluebirds and Western grey squirrels.
Along the trail, a sculpture in the shape of a Western grey squirrel nest reminds visitors to look up into the trees for nests shaped like this.
Three “Listening horns” are situated along the trails as well, encouraging visitors to stop and listen closely for songbirds among the grasses and trees.
In the forested areas where Douglas fir and Western red cedar grow, tiny chocolate-and-rust-colored Douglas squirrels scampered along limbs and fussed at us as we hiked by. This little guy (below) was particularly vocal.
Set above the metro valley in the Tualatin Hills off Kemmer Road, Cooper Mountain is a gem of a park for both people and wildlife.