Catch the bloom
Early May, two years ago. We’re driving home to Portland, west along the south side of the Columbia River. Before the Deschutes River slides into the Columbia, we twist off the highway and park in the delta marshes.
The air is warm, the sky dusted with clouds. We trudge south along the Deschutes, through tall grasses and brambles, then up the east bank of the river. On the far bank, a freight train clanks slowly northward.
Reeds give way to sagebrush, brown patched in pale green. The trail is lazy, curving slowly and steadily upward. And then we cross an invisible line, from sagebrush to flowers. A blotch of lavender first. Mustard next. Within a few feet we’re dazed, surrounded by knee-high tufts of purple and yellow, sprinkled with pink and white. The pastel quilt stretches to the sky — stitched, it seems, just for us.
“The spring flowers in the Columbia Gorge are just awesome,” says Greg Lief, a Corvallis computer programmer and nature photographer. “It’s beautiful in Oregon any time of the year, but it’s more beautiful when there are wildflowers.”
Looking north along the Deschutes River to where it meets the Columbia River.
Lief runs OregonWildflowers.org, an online forum where enthusiasts share information on how and when to visit Oregon’s best wildflower spots. Contributors post photos and trip reports about what’s blooming where.
S-l-o-w works best
Lief sees the Web site — which he based on a similar site for California wildflowers — as an adjunct to wildflower-hike guidebooks, themselves a publishing phenomenon of the past decade. Unlike traditional hike guidebooks, which tend to emphasize grand vistas and physical challenges, wildflower-hike guidebooks focus on taking it slow and stopping to smell the lupines, balsamroot and avalanche lilies.
“For some people, hiking is the whole purpose,” says Angie Moore of Portland, board chairwoman of the nonprofit Friends of the Columbia Gorge. “But me, when I’m hiking by myself, I get so distracted by the flowers that my pace gets slower and slower.”
Both Lief and Moore say wildflower hikes have a similar appeal to bird-watching: going out, seeing what you can see, and identifying it. “Everybody starts out the same way,” says Lief. “You’ll go on a hike and take pictures of the flowers and come back and tell your friends, ‘Yeah, I saw these pretty red flowers and these pretty white flowers.’ But that’s about it. The guidebooks are great, but if you’re halfway serious about it, you need a good field guide. Because it really gives a sense of satisfaction to be able to ID the flowers when you’re actually out in the field.”
Two years ago, I took photos of all those purple and yellow and pink and white flowers. Two months ago, I finally checked out a wildflower field guide from the library and started trying to match digital image to book page. My best guesses? The tall flames of purple, clearly, were lupines, perhaps prairie lupines. The big yellow daisies with floppy leaves were probably arrowleaf balsamroot. The little pink flowers? Longleaf phlox, maybe. And the funny droopy yellow stalks? Definitely Menzies’ fiddleneck. The white bell-like flowers, though, remain a mystery.
“Before college, plants were just a blur to me,” says George Wuerthner, an ecologist currently based in Vermont whose books include “Oregon’s Best Wildflower Hikes: Northwest Region.”
“After a while, I started to realize that ponderosa pine really does look different from Douglas fir,” Wuerthner says. But at first they were all just Christmas trees.”
An empowering experience
Learning plant names, of course, is a little like learning a foreign language; once it starts to click, it’s empowering. Moore says Latin names reveal more than common names. “Latin names will tell you a lot about the plant, the color, the shape, who discovered it, or who they were friends with,” she says. “Sometimes the plant is named for the person who funded the expedition, or the person who taught the person who discovered the plant.”
One of Moore’s favorite wildflowers is Lewisia rediviva, which was collected by Lewis and Clark. “The Lewisia is for Lewis, and the rediviva comes from ‘resurrection,’” explains Moore. “The flower opens to a pale pink, almost tissue-like blossom that looks like someone had taken a Kleenex and crumpled it up and scattered it all over the ground.” (Don Jacobson, a photographer and Friends of the Columbia Gorge hike leader, says Lewisia rediviva blooms abundantly in late May at Catherine Creek in the gorge.)
Wild lupines blooming above the Deschutes River.
Lewis and Clark took a sample of the plant, pressing it between two pieces of absorbent paper. Back in Philadelphia, a horticulturist replanted the presumed-dead sample — and it grew anew, hence its Latin name. “Its common name is bitterroot,” says Moore. “But that’s kind of nice, too, because the Bitterroot Mountains were named after it.”
Follow the bloom
The basic principle of wildflower hiking is “following the bloom,” or starting low and ending high. In other words, flowers at lower elevations bloom first, in the spring and early summer, while flowers at higher elevations bloom later, in midsummer and early fall. Lief says his weekends are booked from March into September, following the wildflower season upward with his camera.
“If you do wildflower hikes every year, you start to notice differences, like, ‘Are we having global warming because the trilliums are blooming earlier than I remember five years ago?’” says guidebook author Wuerthner. “It puts you more in tune with the climate and everything around you. And your awareness of your surroundings makes it more enjoyable. ”
Moore agrees. “For a lot of people, getting to know plants is a way of kind of attaching themselves to a landscape and starting to care about it, because they can see the uniqueness of what it has to offer,” she says.
“It sounds silly, but every spring, when I first see them again — especially the trillium and the Oregon lilies in the forest — it’s like seeing old friends,” says Lief. “They provide a sense of continuity from year to year, because they always manage to come back again. They’re fragile, but they’re reliable.”
Several regional organizations offer guided (and often free) wildflower walks, including Friends of the Columbia Gorge (503-241-3762), Oregon Wild (503-283-6343), the Native Plant Society of Oregon, the Sierra Club (503-238-0442), and the Mazamas (503-227-2345).
Regional wildflower-hike guidebooks include George Wuerthner’s “Oregon’s Best Wildflower Hikes: Northwest Region” and its companion, “Oregon’s Best Wildflower Hikes: Southwest Region.” Good field guides include “Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest” by Mark Turner and Phyllis Gustafson, “Wildflowers of the Columbia Gorge” by Russ Jolley, “A Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers” by Theodore F. Niehaus, and “Pacific Northwest Wildflowers” by Damian Fagan.
Summer wildflower hikes
These are some of Greg Lief’s. Angie Moore’s and George Wuerthner’s favorite wildflower hikes. Most of these are described in wildflower-hike guidebooks.
Late May/early June
Columbia Gorge: McCord Creek, Angels Rest, Cape Horn, Dog Mountain, Dalles Mountain, Hamilton Mountain
Oregon Coast: Cascade Head
Coast Range: Mary’s Peak
Late June/early July
Columbia Gorge: Silver Star Mountain, Larch Mountain
Cascade Range: Iron Mountain/Cone Peak, Lookout Mountain
Coast Range: Saddle Mountain
Late July/early August
Cascade Range, Mount Adams: Bird Creek Meadows
Cascade Range, Mount St. Helens: Pumice Plain
Cascade Range, Mount Hood: Cooper Spur, Cairn Basin, Paradise Park, Elk Cove, Vista Ridge, McNeil Point
Cascade Range, Mount Jefferson: Jefferson Park
Eastern Oregon: Steens Mountain