Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Lilies to Lilies

Spring and summer for me are times of packing, leaving, fieldwork, returning, regrouping, packing, leaving…and so on. My last trip did not disappoint. I taught a four-day intensive plant identification workshop, which I lovingly refer to as my “Crash Course”….you get the idea? Emphasis on intensive… but fun too. Next a day in the field, a day of rest (laundry), followed by three days of meeting with the Native Plant Society of Oregon (NPSO): and this all at the amazingly lovely Deer Creek Center, home of the Siskiyou Field Institute (SFI).

            I have been coming down to this region of southwestern Oregon, the western Siskiyous, since 1978, first to botanize and revel in the amazing diversity of plants (like Lilium bolanderi shown above, WOW!), and later as the location of my field studies on the genus Arabis, or rockcress (Arabis aculeolata, the Waldo Rockcress, shown below being visited by a bombyliid fly).


I can’t recall when I started leading field trips for SFI, but it was long ago, and in recent years I frequently meet folks who attended one of my earlier hikes. Those were the dog-friendly days, and as much as people remember the places and plants, they remember my most feisty and energetic rock dog, tail-chasing Jack Russell Terrier, Josie.


Now SFI has its own field station (my deepest thanks to the anonymous donor), complete with accommodations for campers and those needing a room, and a wonderful classroom with dissecting microscopes for all! Hurrah for botany! I had 12 in my group this year, and we alternated classroom time including slides, lectures, and keying plants, with time in the field, reinforcing what we learned.

Day one: local Pitcher Plant fens and drive up the TJ Howell Memorial Highway (a forest service road named for one of Oregon’s pioneer botanists). I cannot list here the variety of native plants we saw, but one highlight was the purple milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia) above and below), complete with tiny monarch butterfly larvae—milkweeds are always an interesting place to look for insects.

Day two: a hike to Babyfoot Lake, shown below, to see the effects of the Biscuit Fire on its 10-year anniversary (and swim in the lake--a classic Vorobik field trip). Day three: botanizing the montane meadow and area around Bolan Lake (and swim). Day four: back at the lab with an intensive day of learning plant family characteristics and keying (and noon potluck).

The annual meeting of the Native Plant Society of Oregon was special for me, in that I have been involved with it since 1980, edited its bulletin and its journal, and this society includes many mentors and friends. During my talk I spoke a bit about the 2002 Biscuit Fire, as it was one of the largest that year at 500,000 acres in size, and came within a very few miles of the Deer Creek Center.

As our climate changes and droughts become more frequent and extreme, many of us have experienced wildfires. The two that are intimately in my history are the 1991 Oakland, CA firestorm that destroyed the homes of some of my friends, and the 2002 Biscuit fire, that transformed the Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area from an old growth conifer forest, including huge Sugar Pines, Douglas firs, and the Klamath endemic, Brewer’s Spruce, into a fire-ravaged moonscape, at least in places. (Above: the moderately burned rocky outcrop within the Babyfoot Lake Botanical area, with lewisias, penstemons, stonecrops, and 3 beautiful little rock ferns. Below: fire-ravaged forest in 2002).

The fire’s occurrence provided an excellent teaching opportunity. For many years before the fire I led field trips to the lake, to look at the plants, hike, and swim (a botanical baptism of sorts). We would enjoy the cool of the dark forest, and look at several different orchids, including Fairy Slipper Orchids, Phantom Orchids, and Coralroot Orchids. Post fire, the suite of plants had changed, but from the ashes comes re-growth!

There are several plants that are now conspicuously absent from the dead forest, notably all of the aforementioned orchids, but most of the shrubs came back vigorously from crown-sprouting. And wildfires do not burn uniformly…some spots are devoid of life immediately after the fire, some are passed over.

Though the character of this place has completely changed, I cannot communicate the optimism I experience when I re-travel these paths, and see the thriving shrubs, the white waves of blooming beargrass, and lower down, smell the sweet-scented Shasta Lilies in full flower.