Looking for Lewisia: a Treasure Hunt in the Klamath Mountains near Orleans
By Carol Ralph
We turned off Highway 96 south of Orleans onto Forest Service roads and rumbled up the steep, forested slopes, leaving behind the smooth, quiet ride of pavement, the sinuous but gentle Klamath River valley, and the comfort of a cell phone signal. Dust, bumps, loose gravel, steep drops by narrow roads are standard fare even on well maintained Forest Service roads. The security of having the most recent Six Rivers National Forest map was eroded by the knowledge that roads on the map could have been blocked, intentionally or accidentally, or roads Forest Service doesn’t want used were simply not shown on the map but were still obvious on the ground. The map’s campground symbols floated ambiguously in the steep, twisted landscape, indicating only vaguely where the patch of level ground with picnic tables and fire ring were. Security in this country comes from having plenty of water, overnight provisions, at least one spare tire, and tools. Did I mention it is steep? This was wild country, penetrated by fearless bulldozer drivers during the road-building frenzy in the 1970’s. Wild, steep, and grand.
In this mountain vastness 15 of us were headed to see a 2-inch tall, 1-inch diameter rock garden flower that blooms for a few weeks in only one place in the entire Klamath Ranges. Armed with good maps and photos provided by the Forest Service botanists we still needed the guidance of Kirk Terrill, the sharp-eyed naturalist who spotted this flower and knew that he hadn’t seen it anywhere else in all his years working for the Forest Service in these mountains. It was in the only stand of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) he knew of in these mountains, at about 4,000 ft elevation, between Slate Creek Butte and Cedar Camp. Last year Forest Service botanists determined this flower to be kellogg’s lewisia (Lewisia kelloggii), previously known only from the Sierra Nevada. Sure enough, there it was, dazzling white pinwheel flowers squeezing above the pebbles of a gentle, rocky, serpentine ridge patched with huckleberry oak (Quercus vacciniifolia), manzanita (Arctostaphylos viscida) and dotted with lodgepole pine. It didn’t match the photos we had to help our search image. The photos showed a rosette of leaves, similar to those of cliff maids (Lewisia cotyledon). We were looking at flowers with only stubs of leaves below them. Some herbivore–deer? jack-rabbit? caterpillar?– had enjoyed the small resources of this deep-rooted plant. The flowers had the gland-toothed sepals that define this species. We noted a small, yellow-flowered lomatium, later diagnosed as Lomatium tracyi, growing in the same area, and the heckner’s stonecrop (Sedum laxum ssp heckneri). The Forest Service contingent of our group stayed at this site to collect samples for DNA analysis by a Forest Service lab and to scout the full extent of the population.
The rest of us drove a short ways to a knoll with a weather station just south of Mud Spring, which had shown promise in aerial photos as habitat similar to where the L. kelloggii was. In reality, it was different–steeper, no lodgepole, a different lomatium, a different sedum. No lewisia. After establishing camp at Cedar Camp about a mile away, we walked a road-trail to Mosquito Lake, through more rocky and shrubby pine woodland. No lewisia.
As evening approached we shared a picnic dinner at Cedar Camp, named for incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), not port orford-cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana). Then some of us departed, while 7 camped for the night in the fresh mountain air among the cedar and douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). Early next morning our Rare Plant Chair, Dave Imper, who has a good sense of direction, discovered that the lewisia site was 15 minutes away by walking down an old road from Cedar Camp. Our goal for the day was to drive on 12N13 through Louse Camp to Onion Mountain, which has rocky balds that might host Lewisia kelloggii. This road had clearly not received Forest Service attention since the late departure of winter. We dodged rocks and trees on the road. With good teamwork and a scavanged timber we even moved a boulder about the size of a VW bug (well maybe a doghouse) enough to squeeze through a rock fall. We made it to Louse Camp, a lovely refuge under big trees by Bluff Creek, for lunch. Faced with a long uphill across a scree slope that had released lots of rocks onto the road, we abandoned our plan, reversed course, and headed out east on 12N13 to the G-O Road and down to Orleans.
This expedition was organized by our chapter and by the Forest Service as a Rare Plant Treasure Hunt, a program started by state CNPS rare plant botanists. We found our treasure in only one place, a known place, so we helped document the extremely restricted extent of this population. We didn’t contribute much to the burning questions rare plant biologists face continually: Why only here? and how did it get here? The DNA analysis might clarify a little by suggesting to which other population this L. kelloggii is most closely related.
As a road tour of our wild mountains we were more successful. Besides the grandeur we saw spots and corners of beauty and interest: pockets of rhododendron’s (Rhododendron macrophyllum) fresh pink flowers or mountain dogwood’s (Cornus nuttallii) glowing white; a population of rare bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa ssp. oregana), expanded from 3 to 50 plants over 27 years; elegant ruffles of long-tubed iris (Iris tenuissima) and orleans iris (Iris tenax ssp. klamathensis; white spears of blooming beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax); intriguing, ghostly stems of spotted and western coralroots (Corallorhiza maculata and mertensiana). We discovered places we can recommend others visit: Cedar Camp, Mosquito Lake, Louse Camp. A pre-trip campout by a few of us also tested E-Ne-Nuk Campground along highway 96, and the Bluff Creek Historic Trail, both on the list for future outings. The route followed on our chapter’s Lily Heaven field trip winds through these mountains. For the slightly adventurous this area in Six Rivers National Forest offers good botanizing.