Striking Gold in Whychus Canyon

Apr 05, 2011
It was a day swirling with a quiet joy. As if winter and spring were getting married and left the decorations up to Mother Nature. It was sunny ... and strangely also snowing lightly (the confetti/rice).

 
As spring blooms in the high desert, volunteers continue to help ready Whychus Canyon Preserve for its public opening on June 18:

It was a day swirling with a quiet joy.  As if winter and spring were getting married and left the decorations up to Mother Nature.  It was sunny ... and strangely also snowing lightly (the confetti/rice). 

Rod and I wandered past the melted ruins of the old homesteader cabin on juniper flats above Whychus Creek, a rock fence, gutshot tin cans, and splinters of gnarled silver boards. The tiny sunflowers called “Spring Gold” painted a yellow carpet under old growth juniper and rocky shallow soils. It is an amazing year for this miniature wildflower, also called “Goldfields” or sometimes “Gold Star”, whose scientific name is “Crocidium multicaule”. It is a native of the western US from California to British Columbia. In this year of good soil moisture, aided by some warm days it seems to be wildly brightening roadside shrubsteppe habitats everywhere.

MP_WCchickweed goldfields
MP_WCchickweed goldfields
MP_WCchickweed goldfields

The spring and winter nuptial color scheme of yellow and white was cheerfully realized where even tinier white flowers, an annual chickweed or Stellaria sp. acted as filler flowers under Crocidiums delicate stems. 

As we bent low to peer at the tiny wildflower extravaganza, Rods’ eagle eyes note hundreds of snowmelt-washed obsidian chips glinting black and shiny. Slivers of the glass carried from far places to be chipped into fragile points used for hunting birds or small game. He was rewarded with the bottom half of a translucent arrowhead, admired and left in place to preserve the canyons secret history. Maybe someday we will learn more of the lost story of those who survived in this high desert, in cabins and canyons living off game and a wild river full of steelhead. 

MP_WC_praire star
MP_WC_praire star
MP_WC_praire star

The scabflats will soon be scattered with early spring wildflowers as the shallow soils find solar heat radiating from their rocky foundations and inciting sand lilies, bitterroot and the intricately convoluted scullcap to bloom.  The resinous scent of juniper and sage will grow stronger as the sun grows hotter.  

But today we spotted only the earliest of the early, a few delicate Prairie Stars, Lithophragma bulbifera. There are lots of common names for this ethereal spring beauty such as the slender fringecup (nicely descriptive) or the Bulbiferous Woodland Star (kind of awkward), or Prairie Starflower (homey but eloquent). The very smallest blooms made Spring Gold flowers seem gigantic--a supertiny light pinkish borage...named--who knows what? 

MP_WC_goldfields_borage
MP_WC_goldfields_borage
MP_WC_goldfields_borage

We wandered to a castle gate of rocky spires above the lost river Whychus, warm monoliths, and so inviting to enter and climb for a view, but were stopped in our steps by the high buzz of a young rattlesnake guarding the labyrinth of his wild kingdom. Maybe he was the bouncer at this party and we had overstayed our welcome? OK...we’re out of here...

I christened the place near Amandas’ new trail “Rattlesnake Rocks” and we headed towards home as a cold wind reminded us that it is only April and there are many flower filled days to come. 

Maret Pajutee is a forest service ecologist with more than 20 years experience identifying and working with high desert wildflowers. She helped found the Land Trust back in 1995, was one of our original board members, and now serves as a volunteer in many capacities. Her partner in crime (mentioned in this article) is her partner in life, Rod Bonacker. Rod is also a forest service ecologist who currently serves on the Land Trust's Board of Directors.