Cottonwood Canyon on the John Day River: Place, Plants and Experience


Cottonwood Canyon State Park, near the campground, looking upstream toward the old Murtha barn and common buildings, the evening sun climbing the worn canyon sides. The Park retained some of the old ranch equipment.

Massive lava flows pushed around the lower John Day and Deschutes rivers over the course of several million years leaving them to find and carve new routes, often next to the very ‘plugs’ that filled their former canyons!  Today, deep below the layers of hardened basalt that form the palisades and ramparts projecting out in tiers from the smooth full curves that rise above us, we look through 15 million years of accumulated history.  The fine grained basalt shatters and fractures in line with their mineral structure under the forces of water, weather and gravity.  Sagebrush and grasses dominate revealing an oddly ‘netted’ pattern across the sloping canyon hillsides, lit by the often harsh sunlight, illuminating some kind of subsurface movement of the thin soils that soften the slopes.  The ‘net’ looks as if it had been draped across the land then stretched sideways catching and snagging on what lies beneath in a never the same, but consistent repeating pattern.  It shows best when the angle of the sun comes across the pattern, not when it hits it head on or when clouds make it too diffuse.  Coarse falls of shattered basalt spill down to the canyon’s bottom always seeking their angle of repose.  The sagebrush steppe plant communities cover the surface and in their richness and vigor speak to the soils beneath.  Along seeps and drainages cutting verticallly down the canyon’s face, spring lasts weeks longer, and species crowd in that you won’t see other than near the river.  The surface botanical palette in this way reveals what lies beneath…if one knows what to look for.  Cottonwood Canyon State Park is a great place to observe this. Continue reading


Hiking at Riley Ranch Nature Reserve and Along the Deschutes River

It’s the edges, the margins, that always contain the most diversity.  Large expanses of unbroken landscape take a portion of their character from their scale, a vastness, that the uninterested can often view as monotonous.  Seemingly endless expanses of ocean, desert, prairies even forests, can lull some into indifference, a kind of blindness, in which they lose interest and fail to see the intricacy and richness of that which surrounds them….By overlapping two different landscapes places can take on a complexity that neither has alone…and may even arouse many of those inured to the natural world surrounding them.  Two different landscapes sharing a common edge can form ecotones, where each landscape contributes species in patterns not found across the vastness of each alone.  Cut a river through an arid landscape and it becomes altogether different often with stark changes within a few feet.  Such is the arid canyon landscape of the Deschutes River immediately north of Bend, OR.


Bend sits on the edge of the Ponderosa Pine Forest and the Sagebrush Steppe in an area where the Western Juniper has been allowed to become more dominant.  The Deschutes River flows down out of the eastern central Cascades turning north across the plateau country on its journey to the Columbia River, leaving the Fir then Pine forests behind on its way.  It is this juxtapositioning of geography and botany that provides the Bend area with so much of its appeal.  This is where the Riley Ranch Nature Reserve (RRNR) is located.  (Interestingly, Riley, the homesteader here, once held grazing leases in the Deschutes headwaters country which later became flooded when Crane Prairie Reservoir was created, ironically, negating his summer grazing lease, as the land was submerged to help store water for irrigation downstream to aid those with pasture lands and farming in Central Oregon, undercutting his ability to continue ranching.)

Julie and I spent a couple nights in late May at Tumalo State Park, about a mile and a half downstream from RRNR.  A well designed, built and maintained trail joins the two parks together following the river near the toe along the sloping eastern side of the canyon, both rims rising well above, the trail often traversing or crossing around tumbles, or falls, of fractured basalt that  broke away from the rim above.  Along one such stretch of 200′ or so the massive basalt fall comes right to the river and an engineered bridge/path floats, supported above it.  The trail has a mostly uniform grade.  You do need to pay attention to your footing, remember all of this rock, which is stable, but can cause you to stumble if you are to casual in places.  There is really only one exception to this and that is along Robin’s Run, within the RRNR, along the steep pitch that climbs out of the canyon on an irregular series of natural stone steps and twisting ramps…not a built stairway!  The only other steep portion is the very short pitch at the trailhead, downstream, near Tumalo State Park.


The river was here well before the more recent lava flows that filled its former canyon forcing the river to change its course and carve out a ‘new’ canyon adjacent to it.  It is impossible to ignore the geology of this country.  It is upfront and in your face everywhere!  There is informative signage pointing out the basics of the history of the landform and rock of this area.  There are several accessible books explaining the local and regional geology of this region that will inform your own understanding of what you are looking out and how it came about.


The signage at the trailheads, junctions and along the route is superior, clear and well done.  Of note are the admonishments that the trails are not open to bicycles! two of which we met along the relatively narrow trail, the riders feigning ignorance who then tried to downplay it jokingly when we confronted them…you know the type.  It is also good to keep in mind that dogs are allowed only on the connector river trail, but not anywhere in the RRNR.

We began our walk from Tumalo State Park.  There is a trail that continues passed the lawn at the south end joining the trail from the parking lot.  This goes a couple of hundred yards before meeting a private paved driveway that quickly delivers you to the trailhead right next to a private bridge that crosses the river to a home across the way.


The canyon trail is within the Sagebrush/Ponderosa ecotone, Juniper is intermixed with Ponderosa Pine and open swathes of Sagebrush and meadow all within the steep and sloping canyon walls of tumbled basalt.  Here are species of both landscapes.  The most notable exception is the area Manzanita, Arctostaphylos patula, which is common south and west of Bend, but not here.  There is lots of Bitterbrush, Purshia tridentata, and Wax Currant, Ribes cereum, above the trail mixed with the Artemsia and much lesser amounts the Ceanothus velutinus, Snow Brush and the drought dwarfed Western Serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia.  This spills down towards the river where it loses out to the native shrubby Alder, likely Alnus incana, the smaller shrubby form, dense thickets of Spiraea douglasii, Cornus stolonifera, the Redtwig Dogwood and Prunus virginiana, or Western Chokecherry where it grows as a shrubby thicket along the river bank, which were in full bloom during our visit.  Here too is at least one shrubby Salix species with a scattering of Rose as well.  Down at the water’s edge we saw what I think is Western Blue Flag Iris, Iris misouriensis, budded, but not yet in bloom, with its glaucous, bluish foliage.  Sadly, there were also scattered clumps of Iris pseudoacorus, the invasive, with its bright yellow flowers and shiny, medium green leaves, especially closer to and in Tumalo State Park.  They’ve attempted to control/limit access directly to the water, the density of the shrubs helps greatly with this, but there is plenty of evidence of hikers taking random routes down slope, disturbing the soil kicking smaller rock down as well.  The disturbance has lead to a significantly higher proportion of weeds like the invasive Cheat Grass.  Upslope, above the trail, is clearly dominated by the native Fescues and other grasses.


As you walk the trail there is considerable variability in the ground layer with some patches almost of solid Mahonia repens, others of Sagebrush, while others still were predominantly grasses.  Wildflowers were evident everywhere.  Everyone recognizes Yarrow, Achillea millefolium. I found myself scanning for my favorites and was a little surprised at the dearth of Penstemon.  I noted only 3 Castaleja maybe Applegate’s Indian Paint Brush as well, while there was a lot of  Lupine, including Lupinus lepidus (?) and probably a few Milk Vetch, Astragalas, though none were blooming.   My grasp of desert and arid land wildflower species is a little weak, but I did note several different Lomatium and Eriogonum species along the path.  Balsamorhiza careyana, though I wouldn’t stake my life on this ID, occurred throughout the area in single and multiple clumps.  Scattered throughout the canyon in slight shade Western Wallflower, Ersyimum capitatum, was here and there as was at least one species of Phacelia.  There were many other herbaceous species, not yet blooming, that I would not even hazard a guess at.


Down in the canyon, within the RRNR itself, I also spotted  the little native aster, Townsendia florifer, as well as a scattering of Larkspur, Nothocalais troximoides, the False Desert Dandelion, Redstem Spring Beauty, or Claytonia rubra and, the find of the day, a juvenile Rattlesnake!!! sans rattles, holding its ground threateningly on the edge of the river loop.  Here, the canyon bottom is broader and not only was there space to graze cattle down here, but it was also the site of 3 log structures, two of the them cabins, now all well on their way to rotting having collapsed many years ago.  The old pastures here, like above, with irrigation absent, are being reclaimed from pasture grasses and the Eurasian weeds that had taken hold.  For me, this must have been a truly idyllic place to live, though as bottom lands the cold would have settled down here posing a threat to veggie gardens compounding this country’s already brief summer growing period.


Climb the trail out of the canyon along Robin’s Run, a steep pitch that probably limits the less than sure footed, to the flatland atop the rim and near the parking area of the Reserve and you’ll find yourself firmly in the Juniper/Sagebrush Steppe with the expected change/reduction of species.  Much of this is old pasture undergoing restoration with its rocky perimeter and occasional rises populated with the familiar steppe plants.  Two loop trail traverse most of this and they are broad and smooth topped with 1/4 minus gravel providing a surface suitable to families with young children and strollers.  On our visit some areas had been disked with raw exposed soil.  I’m not sure what their immediate plans are for it in terms of planting or if it was just a tactic to eliminate a particularly pernicious weed.  To the outside of this path it is all too common to find the invasive Cheatgrass already well along on its way to producing seed!


The upland portion of the reserve is broad and open, covering about 150 acres.  Most of the old pasture area is devoid of trees including neither Pine nor Juniper.  When we visited it was around 70º.  Without shade, this area will be hot on warmer days, so choose your visiting times accordingly.  Along the top of the rim are two well sited and built viewpoints.  One gives a view upstream, toward the river where it has carved its path around the ‘point’ below Awbery Butte.   The second is a platform, further north, that projects somewhat over the rim’s edge, great for observing birds that work the canyon below.  Another spur trail winds quickly to a low rocky bluff within the ‘meadow’ to give a little longer view, while closer to the main parking lot is another formal viewing area that provides a panoramic view of the nearest Cascade peaks and foothills.

For most people the diversity of species in our arid landscapes will probably come as a bit of a surprise.  Too many people only see ‘dead’ and ‘brown’.  Pick up a manual that focuses on these plants.  Look closely as you walk the trail and observe.  Train your eyes.  Take your camera along and reference the Wildflower Search website, as I did here, which will give species lists for the specific area including the likelihood of finding a particular plant on that site at the time of year you are looking.  It is an amazingly helpful and exhaustive site, produced by Steven Sullivan, the brother of NW hiking book author, William Sullivan, with lots of references and links to photos and descriptions, created and found elsewhere on the net.


The Master Plan for Riley Ranch Nature Reserve, Bend Metro Parks and Recreation, Mar, 2017

The master plan pictured above, includes the future expansion and improvements to the Reserve.  I presume plans are underway to complete the entire project, but this doesn’t always happen or can take many years due to funding, land acquisition or easement issues.  The Point Loop portion is not open.  As everywhere property owners aren’t always supportive of projects that bring the public on or next to their own little bits of paradise.   The trail to Tumalo State Park is open.  The expansion of the connecting trail system, making it possible to walk the river to town or cross the river and hike all of the way to Shevlin Park west of Bend, along Tumalo Creek, have long been anticipated and will someday be wonderful assets for area residents and visitors alike.

Overall the RRNR is a very nice addition to the Bend Metro Park and Rec’s portfolio of parks.  It is unique in its system as a nature reserve and like all such efforts sorely needed as the urban area continues to sprawl out across the land forever transforming this unique place.  One can only hope that the area adopts a more compact pattern of growth to protect Central Oregon because there is no sign of growth slowing.  Sadly, this seems a little doubtful as there is a strong anti-urban sentiment common amongst residents, the newly arrived all wanting their own piece of paradise.  Much is being lost as should be expected.

On the day following our hike we drove to Bend along OB Riley Road, the same Riley of the Ranch, to Glen Vista which takes you west to the main parking lot at the Reserve.  Across the road from this street preparations for a large development were underway.  The site was dominated by the coarse  and irregular surface lava flows that solidified here thousands of years ago.  Early construction/grading was underway with the sounds of heavy equipment and jackhammering which was probably preceded by extensive blasting, homogenizing the entire site into a typical and uniform subdivision.  Hopefully, the Reserve will help awaken residents and developers of Bend, Redmond, Sisters and other area communities, to the natural beauty, literally at their feet and spur them on to consider what they are doing to this place.  For now the land’s main value lies in our ability to convert it into housing and profit.  At least some of us, who still think of this region as ‘home’, are pained by the rate and patten of growth that continues and the consequent loss of the unique natural character of so much that is essential to the quality of life that has attracted many thousands here since the discovery and boom of this place as a mecca for outdoor recreation.

More Information and Things to Do!

Here’s a link to a list of native plants along the Deschutes River around Steelhead Falls  further downstream in Crooked River Ranch.  The list area is a little more isolated being further out in the sagebrush steppe country so it will vary slightly from those found at RRNR.  Check out their, Guide to Common Native Plants of the Deschutes Canyon Area, by Marilynne Keyser published by the Friends and Neighbors of the Deschutes River Canyon.  This is an active group who advocate, provide education and lead guided hikes as well as do conservation work centered around the Steelhead Falls area of the Deschutes River.

Participate with and become a member of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, ONDA, based in Bend, another advocacy and education group who are busy doing replanting projects, invasives control, leading guided hikes and providing social and education events to members and the public.

The Deschutes Land Trust’s mission is to work cooperatively with landowners to conserve land for wildlife, scenic views and local communities.

The Oregon Nature Conservancy, a long established organization, has taken on the intermountain west’s vast sagebrush steppe country, among others, working on the ground to restore and protect this neglected and abused landscape.

Take your family to the Oregon High Desert Museum south of Bend on Hwy 97 as an introduction to the values and history of this desert country.

Echium wildpretii in Bloom


This Canary Island native has a tougher winter climate here to endure than back home.  As an alpine growing on Tenerife, this plant is said to tolerate down to 20ºF with its characteristic dry winters…not so here.  After a relatively mild winter here in inner SE Portland the later half of February chilled down with a little snow as shown here on Feb. 22.  The official weather station at PDX recorded nine days at or below freezing in February ranging down to 23F on the 21st.  This was a fairly ‘normal’ February temperature wise for us, though with just less than 2″ of precipitation, about half of normal, which could have aided its survival.  At my location in inner SE we can record 5-6º warmer than PDX though we often move right in step,  January was milder PDX recording below freezing temperatures on only two dates, the first and second…and we were right around freezing both of those days with just under 5″ of rain for the month.  During December we were ‘blocked’ from lower temperatures that hit most of Portland.  PDX recorded 14 lows below freezing, we suffered only six getting as low as 25º on one of them.

Continue reading

On the Demise of my Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’ (Red Abyssinian Banana

And how did your Red Banana, Ensete, do?  Mine didn’t make it having left it planted outside until after Christmas. In my part of SE, December was mild, until the 26th or so, with lows just below freezing a few times. Then we were out of town a few days and it dropped into the mid- and upper 20’s. I had thought it was okay for awhile, as it pushed out a leaf while sequestered in the basement where I had belatedly moved it, but that is all that it was able to do.  It’s meristem, at the base of the plant, was damaged. I did the finger test at the top of what I had left in place of the pseudostem, about 4′ of it, and the core, through which new growth should have been pushing was mushy and smelled of rot. I cut it down with my machete in a series of cuts, illustrated here, and you can see the soft brown center surrounded by what appears to be healthy tissue. It was still able to push out a few white new roots over its winter storage. Apparently, the meristem is less cold hardy than the rest of the plant. If you could smell it you’d smell strong rot!!! After 12 + years I have found this plant’s limit! The last pic shows its dismembered carcass, reminiscent of the Tibetan Sky burial ritual, to dry away its stink before I dump it in the bin!

IMG_0519A few days later….This was the business end of my Ensete, Red Abyssinian Banana. You can clearly see that the starch storing rhizome, modified stem tissue, 12″ in diameter, is crisp, white and healthy!  I’ve split it down the center, top to bottom, through the meristem. The meristem, the site of cell division and the initiation of all top growth, is black, dead and rotting.  Each leaf begins here.  As new leaves form at the center, the older leaves ‘migrate’ outward forming the tightly packed ‘pseudo-stem’.  This plant, my plant, was unable to initiate any new leaves and with last year’s leaf blades removed, was dead on its ’feet’.  The rot would have continued to spread from the center out.  New root growth is also compromised.  It shares this growth pattern with other monocots much like bulbs.  In others, like the woody Palms, the maturing layers of tissue around their meristems, provides some buffering from cold as they caliper up.  Obviously Ensete are very limited in their ability to do this!

See my other posts on growing this plant.
Planting out your ‘winterized’ banana
My initial winter assessment
A more in depth look at the growth of Monoctos as a group

Rimrock Springs, on the Crooked River National Grasslands: A Look at the Eastside’s Sagebrush Steppe Region


In the comics world this would be called my ‘splash page’, a picture related to but not exactly honest, done for effect. This is taken from the top of the popular destination Smith Rock State Park, on top of Misery ridge, the trails up and down of which have been the cause behind many an emergency run to the local hospital. Here we’re looking across irrigated pasture lands in the middle distance, that would be steppe if not for all of the added water and on to the Cascades along the horizon.

You cannot make someone like something.  To many, a desert will always only look brown and dead, but for those attuned to them, deserts can be beautiful, awe inspiring, expansive, places of raw earth and geology, intimately tied to sky, filled with little jewel boxes, hidden just out of view and down at your feet…places of rock, delimited by the scarcity of water, with plants that not only tolerate its paucity, but require it, where the sun and wind seek it out.  My wife and I grew up in the ‘Sagebrush Steppe’, the Oregon High Desert and on its edge where it meets the Ponderosa Pine Forest.  I often spent hot summer days with my family water skiing on reservoirs in the dammed up canyons of the Deschutes and Crooked rivers, while she often found herself living out of places like Summer Lake and northern New Mexico for the summer.  We both still feel the draw of these places, while others only hunger for more green and lush landscapes where the scale is shifted and plants cover the earth often with flowers that you can’t help be pulled to.  As a horticulturist, I actually appreciate both. Continue reading

Podophyllum and the Sometime Quixotic Life of Plants in My Garden


Podophyllum x ‘Spotty Dotty’ emerging this Spring.  Remember that these leaves aren’t small.  When they open to their mature size, at about 18″ across,  they’ll absolutely dwarf the vari-colored leaves of your Pelargoniums.

People will often ask me how I grow something, generally when its something they’ve killed, when our conditions, exposure etc, seem pretty close. I’ll shrug, because I may not have done anything special for my plants beyond, hopefully siting them appropriately. Then, there are all of the plants I’ve killed, sometimes repeatedly, that others seem to have success with while doing little more than ‘dropping’ them in the dirt.

I have a bit of a thing for the members of the Podophyllum…and almost everyone I know, who grows them, does so more successfully.  I do have a very ‘happy’ clump of P. pleianthum, and I’ve grown it in Park beds very successfully downtown, but until now I’ve had very little success with any of the others.  Most have lead short, tragic lives….P. delavayi…dead; an unnamed P. delavayi hybrid…dead; P. versipelle…dead; P. x ‘Kaleidoscope’…dead; P.(Sinopodophyllum) hexandrum…dead; P. x ‘Spotty Dotty’…dead; even P. peltatum...dead.  Some of these I’ve killed more than once.  These are usually relatively costly plants to acquire and their loss is more than emotional.  Sometimes I’ve grown them on in their pots for a year before I’ve thrown them into my garden to their deaths.  I’ve lost several other plants from the Barberry family as well, having consistent success only with the shrub forming species and Epimedium spp..  I’ve lost both NW species of Vancouveria as well as Achlys triphylla, one of my favorite ground covers, all of which I’ve grown successfully when I worked in Parks. These shouldn’t be hard.  I’ve grown quite a few different Epimedium spp. and varieties at home and several in Parks, all of which have been consistent and dependable performers.  For a long time, my failures with Podophyllum and assorted woodlanders,  was an embarrassment.  I couldn’t figure out why I kept losing them.  I have a hard time with many Himalayan plants in my garden and a lot of woodlanders in general, I think because it may just get too soggy over the winter.  They’ve taught me to shrug when they fail to emerge in spring.

Epimedium g. Lilafee4362

A cluster of flowers on Epimedium x ‘Lilifee’

Continue reading

Evolution, Speciation and What it Means to the New Phylogeny: A Primer for Gardeners



Understanding the New Phylogeny of Angiosperms, part 2

We tend to think of evolution as a historical process, something that occurred in the past which has resulted in life today, with us at the pinnacle.  Humans with our opposable thumbs, our relatively high ratio of brain to body mass, our consciousness…our souls, we often argue, are the ultimate life form.  We have a hard time imagining that this is not the case, that we as a species, are a part of a continuing process, that some day will fade from the Earth, as other species, more evolved and complex, develop.  This is what happens to organisms over seemingly impossible long periods of time. It has happened and is still happening to plants.   It won’t happen today or tomorrow and this doesn’t mean that what we are or what we do doesn’t matter…because in evolution…’everything’ matters. Continue reading