Friday, April 8, 2016

Catherine Creek

Saya at Catherine Creek

The Columbia River from Catherine Creek

Every spring I visit the Catherine Creek Nature Reserve which is located at the east end of the Columbia River Gorge, on the Washington side of the river. My little munchkin, Saya, popped out of bed early to join me, then we drove into Forest Grove to pick up our new Brazilian intern for the trip, Rodrigo Desordi (mother German, father Italian).

Ranch at the east end of the Gorge

The only route to Catherine Creek is through Portland, but fortunately the traffic was light on a Sunday morning. Unfortunately, however, it was windy and raining hard, and I fretted that my first nice-boss gesture with Rodrigo would turn out to be miserable. Catherine Creek is at the beginning of eastern Oregon, where the lush biota of the west transitions into a dryer rangeland with pine (P. ponderosa) and oak (Q. garryana) forests. There the wind is stronger and the rain is wetter, and in summer it is hotter and in winter colder. Ranching red-necks abound in eastern Oregon, the kind of people who hate that President Obama frequently takes days off to golf, or goes on lavish trips to Hawaii on the tax-payer's dime.

Dodecatheon poeticum

But I digress. The main event at Catherine Creek, besides enjoying views of the Columbia, is the smorgasbord of wildflowers. First on the trail was a nice patch of Dodecatheon poeticum*, or the “Poet's Shooting Star,” one of six or seven Dodecatheon species found in the Columbia River Gorge. I don't know if they hybridize in the roughly seventy-mile-length of the Gorge, but why not?, as most plants will mate with a near relative if given the chance. Actually the plants aren't promiscuous at all – they just sit in the soil – and it is the wind or insects that provide the lustful energy. I don't know why Dodecatheons are commonly called “shooting stars;” I just don't see it, and I much rather admire employee Eric Lucas's 93-year-old mother's tag of “crow's bills” for the species. The generic name of the genus is from Greek dodekatheos, which is from dodeka for “twelve” and theos for “god.” Dodekatheon is the Greek word for “primrose,” and indeed it is in the Primulaceae family. Surprisingly, D. poeticum wasn't discovered until 1930, previously escaping the eyes of David Douglas and Lewis and Clark. Dr. Louis Henderson of the University of Oregon was the finder, and perhaps he was moved to poetry when he was trying to decide upon a specific epithet. The Dods occur along the soggy spring seepage ravines, and they don't mind that these wet areas will become baked and bone-dry in summer. One experiences most vividly at Catherine Creek that each species will approve of, or reject, a particular micro-site, but fortunately there are five or six of them and so we are rewarded with a wide display of wild flowers.

Dodecatheon conjungens?

*Previously we thought this was Dodecatheon conjungens, and frankly I can't tell the difference.

Fritillaria pudica

And since such a wide array occurs, every week will present you with one that particularly stands out. I don't think that I have visited C-Creek at this exact time before – Easter, March 27th – but I was amazed with the multitude of the yellow nodder, Fritillaria pudica, and daughter Saya also adopted it as her favorite. Saya was particularly charged by its clear-yellow flower color, and that the specific name pudica means “shy” in Latin, due to its nodding flower whose sexual expression modestly attempts to avoid detection. Rodrigo, the youngest of three children, gazed at Saya, at such an incredible creature, and smiled at her energy and zeal for C-Creek's F. pudicas, because there is nothing better than a pretty girl in love with flowers. The generic name is due to the Latin term for a “dice box” – fritillus – because of the checkered pattern of the flowers in some species. Many species are poisonous, but F. pudica is edible if prepared correctly, and it was eaten by the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. One wonders how many humans might die while a tribe tests a particular species to be edible or otherwise beneficial. Hey – you try it first! – and it was especially useful to have slaves for the research.

Sisyrinchium douglasii with the rare white-flowered form

The population of Sisyrinchium douglasii must be in the millions at Catherine Creek, but we were about a month late, and had to content ourselves with a few patches here and there. Just as well for I remember times when you couldn't go anywhere without stepping on them. Linnaeus named the genus in 1753 and used the Greek word Sisyrinchion which was recorded by Theophrastus. The corm's covering resembles a sisyra, or a “shaggy goat's-hair coat.” Recently S. douglasii has been transferred to the Olsynium genus, a group in the Iris family mostly found in South America, but it's difficult for me to abandon a life-long name for something new. So the flower that I am afraid to step on is closely related to the “Huilmo” of Chile and the Olsynium filifolium found in the Falkland Islands. The word Olsynium is derived from Greek ol meaning “a little” and syn meaning “joined,” referring to the stamens. Whatever the generic name, in previous years – late February to early March – the most fun was to spot an albino flower, literally one in a million, and I seemed to be particularly good at it. I don't know the origin of the common name – “widow's grass” – but perhaps when an old eastern-Oregon redneck was finally laid to rest the Sisyrinchium/Olsynium sprouted atop his grave.

Lomatium grayi

Lomatium grayi

Lomatium columbianum

Lomatium columbianum

There are at least 13 species of Lomatium along the Columbia, but I've identified only two at Catherine Creek: grayi and columbianum. The grayi is commonly known as the “pungent desert parsley” and the columbianum is the "Columbia desert parsley." My grandfather Gerald and I each had a pot of the latter, but mine was tortured to death by overwatering at the nursery. His was planted in pure sand and receives little or no water and it thrives. He loves to point it out to me whenever I visit, suggesting that a real plantsman can keep it alive. L. columbianum is an impressive signature plant of the eastern Gorge, and it features ferny silver-gray foliage and purple flowers. L. grayi is also impressive and it blooms at the same time as L. columbianum. The perennial herb's tap root was harvested by Native Americans as a vegetable or pounded into sun-dried cakes, while the stems and leaves were eaten either raw or cooked. The word lomatium is from Greek lomation for “small border,” a diminutive of lomatloma for a “hem” or “fringe.”

Balsamorhiza sagittata

Balsamorhiza sagittata exists at Catherine Creek, though it is far more plentiful about 25 miles to the west on Dog Mountain (Washington side). It is in the Heliantheae tribe of the Asteraceae family, so basically it's a one-to-three foot sunflower, and native to only the western portions of the United States and Canada. As with the Lomatium, the balsam roots were harvested by Native Americans. I can't imagine the energy expended to dig out an 8' taproot in rocky soil. With a pick and shovel I think it would take me half a day, but maybe the Natives had a method to make it easier. The top of the plant is edible as well, though not very tasty, and its sap was used to treat wounds. It is staggering how the Natives related to the natural world – as a means to survive – compared to the disconnect of most Americans today. Of my five children, who I love and respect deeply, only Saya seems really interested in nature, but maybe that's because she loves to bond with me. Merriweather Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition collected a specimen in 1806 and it was scientifically described by Englishman Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859). The word balsam is from Greek balsamon which is ultimately of Semitic origin, akin to Hebrew basham. It refers to a beneficial – and usually aromatic – sap that exudes from many plants. Rhiza is also Greek and means “root.”

Haruko on Dog Mountain

I mentioned earlier that Dog Mountain, rising about 3,000' next to the Columbia River, is a location where Balsamorhiza literally smothers the upper slopes. This is the place where west meets the east, and there's even a joke that the trail to the top is the boundary line, and that the rattlesnakes will not cross the trail to the western side. One time when I was descending I met a young couple on their ascent and they warned me that a rattlesnake was next to the trail about 3 or 4 switchbacks lower. They were a cute couple, dressed in their crisp REI shorts and boots, and the woman was very enthusiastic about saving my life from snakebite. I thanked her, and then I said, “By the way, you are standing in poison oak.” She gasped and instantly jumped out of it. I never did see her snake, though I was very careful, but I wondered if she developed a rash from the poison oak.

Crocidium multicaule

While the Balsamorhiza is large and splashy with color, Crocidium multicaule is tiny and fragile-looking, but its flower is a clear butter-yellow. It too is in the Asteraceae family, but its flowers are so dainty that they appear to float in air.* It is an annual with leaves on the ground, and the flowers sit atop foot-tall multiple (hence multicaule) gangly stems. Saya fell in love with the Crocidiums, nearly as much as she did with the Fritillaria pudica, and on the way home she kept repeating these botanic names, and then proceeded to brag about her exciting day to her mother and sister.

*Its common name is “Gold Stars.”

Mahonia aquifolium

Also blooming yellow was Mahonia aquifolium, and it could be true or not, but it just seems that the yellows are more intense at the east end of the Gorge than at home. I have written about Mahonia aquifolium in the past so I won't drag out the story again, other than to repeat that the specific name has nothing to do with water – even though the foliage is glossy and looks “wet” – but rather because the leaves have a sharp downward-turning point which resembles an eagle's beak.* 

*Aquila is Latin for eagle

Rodrigo at Multnomah Falls
Rodrigo at Horsetail Falls

Rodrigo and Saya

I should mention that the minute we arrived at Catherine Creek the rain stopped and the sun shined brightly, so I was a good boss after all. On return we crossed back to Oregon at the Dalles, and later exited the freeway to take the old historic Columbia River Highway. Rodrigo could experience the big difference between the flora of east vs. west which occurs in such a short distance. The Oregon side of the River features numerous waterfalls – hence the Cascade-name for the mountain range that divides west from east. The first waterfall we stopped at was Horsetail Falls and Rodrigo wanted his photo taken. I didn't know how to use his phone-camera, but Saya did, and that night he emailed photos to his family. While he initially thought that Horsetail Falls would be the highlight of his day, a few minutes later we arrived at the much larger Multnomah Falls, and he and Saya hiked up to the iconic bridge. One time a wedding was being conducted on the bridge when a huge boulder dislodged itself from the canyon wall and splashed into the pool below. No one was hurt but the entire wedding party got soaked. What a memorable wedding, and I hope that they are still happily married.

At Catherine Creek

A few words about Rodrigo. He comes to my company for a year via the International Farmers Aid Association, an organization that arranges for his visa. At first I was positive that I would not hire him based on his bio: He is 26 years old and has a masters degree in genetics and plant breeding. I have had “educated” Brazilian men before, and like most Americans with a college degree, they are useless in a wholesale nursery. I was assured by the program that he was different, that he would gladly accept any assignment, and importantly that he was no stranger to physical work. I doubted that, especially since he listed his weight at 187 lbs. but stood only 5' 8” tall. Nevertheless we made a Rodrigo Desordi sign and I drove to the airport. Imagine my surprise when a 6' 2” movie-star-good-looking man smiled from 20 steps away. He has been at work for about twenty days and he is more than holding his own with his co-workers. I am impressed by his aura of confidence that is tempered with humility – really a perfect combination.

Grandfather Gerald at Catherine Creek with Mt. Hood in the background

Washington and Oregon are wonderful states which are famous for their beauty of nature, and it is exemplified by the Columbia River Gorge. You have wildflowers, rangelands and lush forests, world-class waterfalls, and you can purchase fresh salmon from Native Americans. Also Metasequoia was once native, as evidenced by the fossil record. The Gorge has nurtured me, has made me who I am, and has furthered my botanical awareness – my connection to life – and I was so proud to show it off to my Brazilian friend, Rodrigo.

Wahkeena Falls

Our last waterfall was Wahkeena Falls, so-named for a beautiful Indian native. The parking lot was full so I idled in the car while Saya and Rodrigo crossed the highway to take a photo. They instinctively held hands both ways, each happily smiling; and later Saya told her mother that he was “so nice.”

P.S. Prior to Rodrigo's arrival we were at our farewell dinner for our previous intern, Takahiro Bito from Japan, and Bito-san showed me a Facebook photo of Rodrigo's girlfriend. I gasped at her breath-taking beauty – I couldn't help it – but it angered my almost teenage daughter, Harumi, for she thinks that I should only admire the beauty of her mother. As a wise course, the medical-student girlfriend is spending a year studying in Germany, while Rodrigo is away slaving for me in Oregon. My wife Haruko and I did the same while she finished her college degree in Tokyo, and I cheer that the Brazilians will have the same happy outcome that has blessed us.


  1. Glad to see someone else who appreciates Catherine Creek!
    The mtn bikers want to invade it.

  2. Where's the Lewisa rediva?