Siskiyou wildflowers we found today

We walked along a dirt road above the Applegate River. Warm and dusty, with the cool green river below. On the far side of the river there are houses, and tied up below one was a gas-powered dredge for sucking up sand and silt from the bottom or edges of the river, in search of gold. Any gold around here is powder or very small pieces; nothing you would think of as a nugget is likely to be found. Since the moratorium on dredging in the rivers of California more dredgers are mucking up our rivers.

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The first wildflower we saw was the rather spectacular Blazing Star (Mentzelia laevicaulis).

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This plant likes dry gravelly roadcuts such as this one, and is found from British Columbia south through much of the West. Accounts say the flower is fragrant but we didn’t notice that.

The buds are a pale dawn yellow. Or the color dawns should be.

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The leaves are distinctive: hairy and scalloped.

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Mentzelia was named by Linnaeus in honour of Christian Mentzel (1622-1701), a German physician, botanist and lexicographer. The epithet laevicaulis (laevi = smooth + caulis = stalk) refers to the comparatively smooth stems of this species in comparison to other Mentzelia species.” For this information on etymology, often impossible to find, I am indebted to the University of British Columbia’s Botany Photo of the Day site.

The flower is somewhat similar to one we saw back in mid-June, Yellow or Western Salsify (Tragopogon dubius), below. But Yellow Salsify is introduced, not native, and regarded as invasive in many areas. The root is “edible raw (slightly bitter, celery-like taste with a hint of cucumber) and cooked (smells like parsnips). The plant exudes a milky latex when cut.” Another species, T. porrifolius, has been known since Roman times for its edible roots and young shoots, and even cultivated. Europeans who introduced T. porrifolius to North America too, where it’s considered an “agricultural weed”, not quite as bad as “invasive”.

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The Yellow Salsify leaf is narrow, not scalloped, and smooth rather than hairy.

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Large patches of Rabbit-Foot Clover (Trifolium arvense) lined the road. This is another European introduction.
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We were too late to see any with fresh blooms, so here they are from A Photo Flora of the Devon and Cornwall Peninsula.

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Among the patches of Rabbit-foot Clover there were many spiderweb constructions like this one, a foot wide or more,

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consisting of layers of horizontal web and a funnel at the back where the spider awaits. While we did not see the spiders, the webs are said to be characteristic of species in the genus Agelenopsis, which are called Grass Spiders or Funnel Weavers. They’ve recently been found to be venomous, with a toxin that affects substances involved in muscle movement in insects and in mammals, though humans would seem to have little to worry about unless walking barelegged through the webs and stirring up the spiders. However, the toxins might have medicinal potential (anti-seizure medication). There are good photos of the spiders here along with information at bugguide.net.

Here are the yellow blooms of what we are sure is some species of Eriogonum, which includes plants often known by some variation of the common name “Wild Buckwheat” (although they have nothing to do with the crop plant that provides buckwheat flour).

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The flowers were borne on leafless thick reddish stems.

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We tried to figure out which Eriogonum this was, but were having no success. Finally we came across this remark about another unidentified Buckwheat,

This plant has frustrated me for years — it is so very common here but I’ve yet to find a picture or a description in any of my layman’s field manuals. However, my favorite A Field Guide to the Plants of Arizona by Anne Orth Epple, did have this to say: almost all species of eriogonum are difficult to identify, even for the expert botanist. For the amateur, simply recognizing wild buckwheat as such is an accomplishment. So there! Epple says that there are 53 species of eriogonum in Arizona.

Okay, we’ll rest on our laurels of having tagged it as a Buckwheat! The author above goes on to say of her plant, “As the season wears on, the flowers gradually turn a brilliant rust color”, and that seems to be true of ours as well, perhaps another Eriogonum characteristic.

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One final plant turned out to be another clover.

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This is White Sweet Clover (Melilotus albus).

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Pretty and delicate looking, but another European introduction, for cattle forage, which has turned out to be invasive.

And by then Jack the mastiff thought it was time to call it quits, even though he’d been down to the river for a drink.

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He drank from his water dish back at the car, and then supervised while we drove home.

We brake for butterflies

Butterflies everywhere in the air! so many you have to drive about 5 miles an hour, letting the current of your progress gently push them out of the way. That’s how it was one morning last week, on the paved forest road where we often walk. By 3 pm it would be 100°. Though there were still wildflowers in bloom, these butterflies seemed not to be feeding, but mostly just flying and chasing one another. Breeding season? One did land for a moment on Dan’s finger and another swooped at it aggressively, over and over.

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California Sister butterflies (Adelpha bredowii), ventral view.

As before, in a different location on this road, we saw scores of the California Sister butterfly (Adelpha bredowii) but this time none of the Lorquin’s admiral (Limenitis lorquinii) seen then. Swallowtails were present too, like sunlight in flight, but in small numbers. Unlike the others, the swallowtails never lighted for long either on vegetation or on the road, where the California Sisters clustered to get minerals from visible animal scat or from remains too small for us to see.

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California Sister butterfly, dorsal view, on the road.

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This ant was pulling along the body of a California Sister butterfly. It would move the butterfly an inch or two, then stop and scurry around looking (I thought) for a more effective place to grab on.

Swallowtail butterflies

The swallowtails never let us get close enough for a really good look or photo, and we may even have seen more than one species. Dan, whose eyes are better, says that most were a pale yellow. the others brighter. Of the three found in our area, one is a species called the Pale Swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon) that uses Ceanothus spp. for its larval host plant, and Blueblossom ceanothus (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus) is a common flowering shrub here. Very pretty too, growing to 6 feet or more in height and flowering in varying shades of blue and lilac. Most are past their peak of bloom now, beginning to fade or entirely withered; these photos are from June.

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The British biologist J. S. B. Haldane was engaged in discussion with an eminent theologian. ‘What inference,’ asked the latter, ‘might one draw about the nature of God from a study of his works?’ Haldane replied: ‘An inordinate fondness for beetles.’ Indeed, of the 1.5 million described species on the planet, 350,000 are beetles, more species than in the entire plant kingdom. So I didn’t even try to identify the mating beetles in the photo above, but Dan picked up Insects of the Pacific Northwest (by Haggard and Haggard) and found them easily: Anastrangalia laetifica, the Dimorphic Long-horned Beetle! The female’s red wingcovers are visible on the right side, beneath the male’s all-black back.

This is the Pale Swallowtail, below. [Photo by Franco Folini, from flickr]

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Different life stages of the Pale Swallowtail caterpillar are shown here, and for the Anise Swallowtail here. Caterpillars can have quite different appearances, as they pass through successive moults (stages called instars), and so the one illustrated in your field guide for a given species may not look at all like the one you find.

The other Swallowtails likely to be seen here in Southwestern Oregon are the Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon) and the Western Tiger Swallowtail (P. rutulus). Oregon’s state insect is the Oregon Swallowtail (P. oregonius, sometimes called P. bairdii) but it’s found in the dry sagebrush canyons of Eastern Oregon and Washington along with its caterpillar host plant Tarragon or Dragon’s-wort (Artemisia dracunculus). Our culinary tarragons are varieties of this same species.

Siskiyou wildflower roundup

There are quite a few wildflowers we’ve photographed on our walks, and identified, that I haven’t had time to research and write about. Here are some, with just species, date seen, and brief comments. All are natives unless otherwise noted.

We are very much amateur botanizers and we don’t key out these plants, so our identifications are not authoritative and we welcome helpful comments from more experienced folks. Each species account in this post is followed with a link to a page about the species, on the Pacific Northwest Wildflower site of Mark Turner, who really is an expert. In fact he and Phyllis Gustafson “wrote the book”, Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest (Timber Press Field Guide). If you have an interest in PNW wildflowers, or are a hiker/fisher/etc., you should go out and buy this book right now, preferably from your local independent bookstore. Knowing more about the flowers you see really adds to your enjoyment of the outdoors.

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This pasture, not far from Applegate Lake, has been invaded with a daisy-type flower—all the white areas in the photo above.

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It’s probably Anthemis cotula, common name Stinking Mayweed. The leaves of this species have an unpleasant odor, but there was a slippery gravel slope down to the edge of the field, and we didn’t get close enough to confirm that. Next time.

It’s been introduced, and is a native of Eurasia. Find in Turner here. [photographed July 4, 2010]

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Above is Dichelostemma capitatum, common names Common Brodiaea or Blue Dicks. This was taken back in on May 4, 2010, but I’ve seen others in bloom at higher elevation (around 2000 ft) even now.

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Height varies from 6 to 27 inches, and leaves are flat.

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Find in Turner here.

The plant below is a native shrub that also serves as an ornamental, and I saw it in bloom last week in Portland (OR). It’s found from British Columbia south through California, and also in Missouri and Tennessee. If we are to see it in our area it would be in sunny but wet spots.

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This is Spiraea douglasii, common name Rose Spiraea or Hardhack.

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I was unable to resist the temptation of investigating what “hardhack” means, but all I found was that the same common name is also applied to unrelated species, such as Potentilla fruticosa (back in 1885, here), Collinsonia canadensis, and Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) as well as to other Spiraea spp. But this may be a clue: another common name for Spiraea douglasii is Ironwood, and Native Americans used the wood for mat-making needles, spoons, and spears. Photographed July 2, 2010 in Portland OR. Find in Turner here.

Below is Arnica cordifolia, common name Heartleaf Arnica.

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Photographed May 9, 2010. Find in Turner here.

An earlier post showed Ribes roezlii, the Shiny-leaved Gooseberry. Below is Ribes sanguineum, Red-flowering Currant.

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The genus Ribes includes currants and gooseberries. What’s the difference?

Gooseberries and currants, although closely related, can easily be identified by examining the canes and fruit color; gooseberry canes normally produce a spine at each leaf node and bear roughly grape-sized berries singly or in groups of 2 or 3, while currant canes lack spines or prickles and bear 8 to 30 smaller fruit in clusters. Figure 1. Cane and fruit of (A) Gooseberry and (B) Currant.

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Drawing and text from University of Minnesota Extension page.

Photographed May 6, 2010. Find in Turner here.

Next is one of the thistles, a plant group which people find hard to appreciate. But this one is unlikely to show up in your backyard or pasture, and perhaps that will make it easier. We think it is Cirsium occidentale, Snowy Thistle—Turner calls it uncommon—and it is growing in a dry rocky area next to a road. We’ve seen the plant re-appear there for perhaps a decade and its seed has only produced two other plants in that time.

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The plant blends in with the greyish stones, having greenish-grey leaves and also a heavy coat of hairs like spiderwebs. Another of its common names is Cobweb Thistle.

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Perhaps the dramatic white pollen, seen below, is the origin of the “snowy” part of the common name.

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Photographed June 21, 2010. Find in Turner here.

Hydrophyllum fendleri, Fendler’s Waterleaf, is a moisture-loving plant with large leaves and fuzzy flower-heads.

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It has a spreading habit and often grows where vegetation is lush, so that other plants cover it up.

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Photographed on May 2, 2010. Find in Turner here.

Last, this small sedum.

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This is Sedum stenopetalum, Narrow-leaved Sedum. Flowers are yellow according to standard sources, but Turner shows white as well. Photographed end of June, 2010. (Yellow blossom in lower left, below, is clover.) Find in Turner here.

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Botanical prints of threatened flora

For those of us who find beauty in plant forms, the botanical illustrations available online are an always-blooming visual pleasure. Here are two that came my way via a mention in today’s Botany Photo of the Day.

First, a gallery of members’ works on the site of the The American Society of Botanical Artists, well worth a visit. There are only a couple of examples for each artist, but you can follow links to websites for many of those represented.

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Detail, Mountain lilac or Greenbark ceanothus (Ceanothus spinosus), watercolor © Chris Chapman. Source [this is a frames page, click on artist’s name in list at side].

Also, the ASBA has made available online nearly all of a touring exhibition called Losing Paradise? Endangered Plants Here and Around the World.The exhibit is at The New York Botanical Garden through July 25 2010, and at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in DC, August 14th through December 10th.

This ASBA blog has about thirty of the 44 artworks featured in the exhibition (another is added every few days), and each is accompanied by the text from the exhibit catalog: a description of the plant and its situation, and commentary from the artist. (Elsewhere, the ASBA also plans to post all 125 pieces that were submitted for the exhibit, with shorter text; only about a dozen are up now.)

Here are a few samples from the blog. The images on the page are thumbnails, be sure to look at the much larger versions.

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Detail of Painted trillium (Trillium undulatum), mixed media, © Anne Marie Carney, US.

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Detail of Royal catchfly (Silene regia), watercolor © Heeyoung Kim, US.

A perennial wildflower of the US Midwest; its bright red flowers are pollinated by butterflies and hummingbirds.

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Detail, Marsh gentian (Gentiana pneumonanthe), watercolor © Gillian Barlow, UK.

Marsh gentian is being studied all over northern Europe, mainly because of its fascinating relationship with the rare Alcon blue butterfly (Phengaris alcon). Adult Alcon blues lay their eggs on the outside of marsh gentian flowers, and when the larvae hatch, they emerge inside, where they begin to feed on the flower. After molting 3 times, these caterpillars chew through to the outside of the flower, then lower themselves to the ground on a “silken thread”. The caterpillar awaits the arrival of a Myrmica ant, which adopts it and carries it back to the ant’s nest. There it is fed by the ant colony through the fall and winter, growing quite large. In spring it forms a chrysalis, then emerges and exits the colony as quickly as it can to avoid being killed by the ants.

Actually, it’s even odder than that…

The larvae emit surface chemicals (allomones) that closely match those of ant larvae, causing the ants to carry the Alcon larvae into their nests and place them in their brood chambers, where they are fed by worker ants and where they devour ant larvae.

When the Alcon larva is fully developed it pupates. Once the adult hatches it must run the gauntlet of escaping. The ants recognise the butterfly to be an intruder, but when they go to attack it with their jaws they can’t grab anything substantial as the newly emerged adult butterfly is thickly clothed in loosely attached scales.

Over time, some ant colonies that are parasitized in this manner will slightly change their larva chemicals as a defense, leading to an evolutionary “arms race” between the two species.

The Phengaris alcon larvae are sought underground by the Ichneumon eumerus wasp. On detecting a P. alcon larva the wasp enters the nest and sprays a pheromone that causes the ants to attack each other. In the resulting confusion the wasp locates the butterfly larva and injects it with its eggs. On pupation, the wasp eggs hatch and consume the chrysalis from the inside. [Wikipedia]

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Alcon blue butterfly (Phengaris alcon). Source.

Since the butterfly lays its eggs right on the flower, it may be serving the gentian as a pollinator, if it visits more than one plant.

Below, the Santa Cruz Cypress.

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The endangered Santa Cruz Cypress, Cupressus abramsiana, is found only in the coastal Santa Cruz Mountains of central California, where it grows in gravelly, sandy soils above the fog belt, with chaparral and other evergreen species. This tree, once abundant, succumbed over the years to vineyard and home development, and road building. Only five populations totaling a few thousand individuals remain, all within a 15-mile stretch of the coast. It was Federally listed in 1987. It is still threatened by competition with non-native plants such as pampas grass and French broom, insect infestation and hybridization with other cypress species.

Visit the ASBA blogspot to see the rest of 30 or so. The catalog of the exhibit, from which these texts are excerpted, is on sale for $29.95 + s & h.

Siskiyou wildflowers and butterflies

Our roadside botanizing was especially exciting today. First perhaps I should explain why we walk along forest service roads instead of hiking along trails. It has a lot to do with a single plant, although not one I would describe as a widlflower.

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Yes, it’s poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), seen above early in the spring before it has reached its full diabolical potential of thickets six feet tall, stretching branches out onto trails in search of sunshine in order to grow even more monstrously large. Poison oak could be an interesting plant: it occurs in various forms from semi-vines threading up tree trunks, to a low-growing ankle-ambusher, as well as the aforementioned woody thickets. But all parts contain a chemical that is—not poisonous—but an extremely powerful allergen, an oil called urushiol. Most people are allergic to it, and I am very very allergic, so once we get off of bare ground I spend most of my time looking down and around before every step in order to find it before it finds me. (Be warned: allergies can come and go, so a history of immunity doesn’t mean you’ll always be immune.)

Happily, there’s an abundance of things to see by walking along the road and making a few careful excursions. Today was a bonanza.

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There’s an audio recording of Lew Welch reading this, here.

I don’t think we saw anything that “nobody’s ever really seen”, although one must pay careful attention to Lew Welch’s language, that “really seen” part. But what we saw was marvelous. Here’s one sight:

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From a distance I thought the butterflies were gathered upon a damp patch improbably located in the middle of the hot dusty gravel road. In other such situations, I haven’t been able to approach very closely without scaring them off. I took some pictures, then moved a bit closer, closer still, and in the end I was kneeling right beside them without really disturbing them at all. And then I could see what it was that they were so attracted to.

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They were on the scat of some animal, not an uncommon territorial marker to find in the middle of these forest roads. Could be fox, raccoon, coyote. Undigested material including seeds and some woody bits (pine needles?) can be seen, and the scat is pretty dry. Unlikely to be a source of moisture. However, butterflies require minerals not found in nectar, and often get these by drinking from damp soil or applying their tongues to scat. I am curious how they get nutrients from dry materials, because their tongues are hollow tubes designed for drinking liquids.

I poured some water on a nearby area before we left in search of lilies. When we came back, all the butterflies were still on the scat.

There were two species there. One was Adelpha bredowii, California sister, shown here exploring my arm. Some photos (here, for example) show this species with blue rather than grey markings, but that may be local variation.

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What’s the “sister” about? It’s said to refer to the black and white markings (like a nun’s habit) on the other side of the wings, the dorsal side (looking down on the outspread wings and the insect’s back, from above).

Adelpha bredowii, dorsal view.jpg

Photo source.

The other is Limenitis lorquinii, Lorquin’s admiral. There are several different butterfly species with “admiral” in their names, and the reference is not clear. Some say the names were originally “admirable” but I can find no support, just speculation. Lorquin was a Frenchman in California during the Gold Rush of 1850, who sent butterfly specimens back to France where they were described for the first time by eminent lepidopterist Jean Baptiste Alphonse Dechauffour de Boisduval.

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It is unbelievable to see these creatures in such detail. First, Limenitis lorquini.

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It is possible to see the wing-veins as the three-dimensional structures that they are. When we read that a new butterfly emerging from the chrysalis has to “pump up” its folded wrinkled wings, before they are strong enough to fly, these veins are the means. “The butterfly has to expand and dry [its wings] as soon as it emerges from the chrysalis. To do this, it uses its body as a pump and forces fluid through a series of tube-like veins. It’s a little like inflating a balloon — as the veins fill with fluid, they slowly stretch the surface of the wings.” Source.

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Adelpha bredowii, trailing its long tongue over my skin.

We went on to look at the Washington lilies described in my previous post. The blooms that were white and pink on June 24th,

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today were nearly bright pink and drooping.

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But another plant was in spectacular bloom.

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This is Philadelphus lewisii, commonly called mock orange for its fragrance. To me there was nothing citrus-y about the fragrance, but I’ve never smelled orange trees in bloom. (There are perhaps a dozen other plants also called mock orange, illustrating how treacherous common names can be.) Philadelphus lewisii is one of nearly 200 plants new to science which Lewis and Clark described. Indians used its straight stems in making arrows.

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On the drive back to the main road we saw many more, all in synchrony of bloom. It’s a shrub that can reach 12 feet, so it offers a lot of flowers! We had remarked earlier on how many butterflies were about, in the air: monarchs, tiger swallowtails, and others. Surely the Philadelphus extravaganza had something to do with the sudden abundance of butterflies, and we speculated on how insects and plants keep in step when the music of the dance—the temperature, rainfall, sunny or cloudy skies—can vary so drastically year to year. This long rainy spring was very atypical, yet after three sunny days here are the partners right in step.

Another unusual find will have to wait for my next post. It has something to do with this wild rose…

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Siskiyou wildflowers: Washington Lily

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For two months we have been watching these lily plants, waiting for them to bloom. It took several days of sun and 80 degrees or so to coax them into revealing their flowers.

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These are Washington lilies, Lilium washingtonium. The flowers are white, sometimes pinkish, with tiny pink or purple dots inside.

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Despite the name, these are not found in Washington state, but only in Oregon and California. The plant was first described in 1859 by Albert Kellogg, who went against the usual practice of botanists and used the local settlers’ name, Lady Washington Lily, as basis for the scientific name. Presumably the settlers were referring to Martha Washington.

Turner calls them “uncommon”, and these are the only ones we have seen in our area. There are four plants within a six foot radius. One has had its top foot or so nipped off by some browsing animal, and one has not formed buds—too young perhaps.

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Uncommonly beautiful they certainly are. And they bear a sweet fragrance.

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Siskiyou wild plants: horsetail, chokecherry and yarrow, and a detour into the Iliad

Today I’ll start with a genus of plants that is a bit different: it’s a “living fossil” from the Devonian (405 million to 345 million years ago, age of fishes and appearance of amphibians) when some specimens topped 90 feet (30 meters), it does not flower, and it’s found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. And, people both cook it and use it to scour pots. This is the genus Equisetum, commonly called horsetail. It’s a lover of wet places and we found it at the edge of a creek.

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Above are both stages of growth side by side: the jointed stem somewhat like bamboo, which I plucked from a slope next to the creek, and a smaller stem that has already “leafed out” in radial whorls of needle-like leaves. This picture from Wikipedia shows the leaf whorls well.

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The unleafed stems were beautifully colored,

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and hollow.

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The stems are said to be “anatomically […] unique among plants”.

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This beautiful microphotograph is of a stained cross-section of stem.

Equisetum species grow from underground rhizomes that are extremely persistent and invasive; think twice before deciding it is the perfect plant for that boggy spot in your yard, because it is likely to be there (and maybe other places too) forever. They’ve been used for all sorts of purposes through history. Many a camper and wildland dweller has scoured pots with the stems, which have a lot of silica in them, and they are “still boiled and then dried in Japan, to be used for the final polishing process on woodcraft to produce a smoother finish than any sandpaper.” The leaves are used as a dye for a soft green color. The young shoots are eaten but require special treatment because they contain the enzyme thiaminase[172], a substance that can rob the body of the vitamin B complex.

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In addition to spreading locally via rhizomes, Equisetum produces spores on terminal cones, shown below.

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Photo source.

There are several species found in Oregon, and I think the one we saw and photographed is Equisetum hyemale but I’m not sure. Equisetum, by the way, means “horse-bristle”, as in “scrub-brush”, and hyemale is from hiemis, “winter” (both terms from the Latin). Other common names include scouring rush, pipes (children play with them, as the hollow segments can be taken apart and put back together), and scrub grass.

Downstream from the equisetum, back on the road, we saw next to the narrow concrete bridge a small tree growing in the water

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and laden with tresses of white blooms.

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This is choke cherry (Prunus virginiana), a species of “bird cherry”. Fruits are small and sour but very high in antioxidant pigment compounds, like anthocyanins. With a lot of added sugar, they are used to make wines, syrups, jellies, and jams.

Yarrow cultivars are familiar garden plants. Here is the ancestor of those, Achillea millefolium or common yarrow. It’s found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, even in the Himalayas.

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A closer view of the flowers.

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The leaves are distinctive, giving rise to the common name plumajillo, or “little feather” in Spanish-speaking New Mexico and southern Colorado, and to the millefolium (thousand-leaf) in its scientific name.

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It’s called Achillea after Achilles, Homer’s hero in the Iliad, who was well-trained in healing wounds as well as in causing them. Yarrow has been used for thousands of years to staunch the flow of blood and for other medical purposes, and among its common names are “herbal militaris” or soldier’s herb, nosebleed plant, and soldier’s woundwort. But there doesn’t seem to be any peer-reviewed research into compounds in the plant that may have medicinal properties. One site I visited, planetbotanic.ca, promoted it as an immune stimulant to ward off colds. But then the site’s “fact sheet” also tells us that “Yarrow’s scientific name hints of a legendary use. Achilles’ famous heel is said to have been healed when yarrow was applied to it.” Other than the words “Achilles” and “heel”, everything in this sentence is wrong: Achilles’s mother held her infant by the heel while dipping him in the River Styx to confer invincibility upon him. The water did not touch that part of his body, and eventually the warrior who had survived many wounds was killed by an arrow to the heel, from the bow of Paris.

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Achilles bandaging the wounded Patroclus. From a Greek vase painting. Source.


Paris was not much of a fighter. He mostly stayed with the women and old men observing the ten years’ war from the heights of Troy’s great battlements, so it’s ironic that his blow (even if delivered from a distance) should kill the otherwise invincible champion of combat, Achilles.

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Achilles in battle. Source.

Homer doesn’t include the death of Achilles in the Iliad; he ends with a final consequence of Achilles’s wounded pride, fit of rage and refusal to fight, when his friend Patroclus goes out wearing the great warrior’s armor to drive back the attacking Trojans. Patroclus and the Greeks carried the day, indeed seemed about to breach the walls of Troy, but the god Apollo intervened, striking Patroclus so as to daze him, sending his borrowed helmet spinning in the dust; one Trojan wounded him from behind and then Hector, Prince of Troy, delivered the fatal blow. When word of this reached Achilles he put aside his pride under force of a greater rage, and went after Hector like a lioness whose cub’s been killed.

All is not the clashing of bronze and shedding of blood in the Iliad. This is a famously tender moment, famously sad as well, one that is familiar to too many soldier parents.

Astyanax, Hector.jpg

“And tall Hector nodded, his helmet flashing:
… shining Hector reached down for his son—but the boy recoiled,
… screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror—
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight,
and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms…”

Iliad Bk. 6: 556-56, in the very readable translation by Robert Fagles. Source.


The Iliad ends with Hector’s father King Priam of Troy humbly seeking his son’s body for burial. In his boundless desire for vengeance upon his friend’s killer, Achilles has been dragging the body behind his chariot, around and around the city. Yet when the old man, escorted through the enemy lines by a disguised Mercury, kneels before Achilles, kisses his hands, and implores his son’s killer to think of his own faraway father and give up Hector’s body, Achilles weeps with Priam, and relents.

All that was about 1250 BC, yet reading the Iliad we find characters and feelings that match those we can see around us still. The immense destructive power of rage and wounded pride are as great now as then. And the history of the humble yarrow also connects us to people like Achilles and Hector; their eyes saw these flowers, crushed these leaves to keep with them against the likelihood of wound from sword or spear.

Walls of Troy.jpg

Troy, level VI, defensive walls, as excavated by Schliemann. This level is about a hundred years earlier than that believed to have been the city destroyed by war in the Iliad, about 1250 BC. Source.