With 4,400 known species and varieties, Oregon ranks fourth among U.S. states for plant diversity, including dozens of species found nowhere else.
The mixed-conifer ecosystem of western Oregon—dense far-reaching forests of Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, and western hemlock interspersed with bigleaf maple, vine maple, and alder—is among the most productive woodlands in the world.
In southern Oregon, find redwood groves and rare myrtle trees (prized by woodworkers and for its distinctive coloring and grain); huge ponderosa pines are a hallmark of central Oregon. A particularly striking natural display along the McKenzie River mixes red vine maple and sumacs with golden oaks and alders against an evergreen backdrop.
Eastern Oregon’s desert is largely rabbitbrush, cheatgrass, sagebrush, and juniper. In the John Day backcountry of eastern Oregon, you can even find hedgehog cactus.
Just in case all the tree identification becomes overwhelming, remember a mnemonic taught to Oregon schoolchildren: The needles of a fir are flat, flexible, and friendly. Spruce needles are square, stiff, and will stick you. Hemlock needles have a hammock-like configuration, and the crown of the tree is curved as though it’s tipping its hat. Finally, the ponderosa pine’s platelike bark is a distinctive feature.
Coastal Plant Life
While giant conifers and a profuse understory of greenery predominate coastal forests, this ecosystem represents only the most visible part of the Oregon coast’s bountiful botany. Many coastal travelers will notice European beachgrass (Ammophila arenaria) covering the sand wherever they go. Originally planted in the 1930s to inhibit dune growth, the thick, rapidly spreading grass worked too well, solidifying into a ridge behind the shoreline, blocking the windblown sand from replenishing the rest of the beach and suppressing native plants. Populations of formerly common natives such as beach morning-glory, yellow abronia, gray beach pea, and American dune-grass are now much diminished.
The now-endangered pink sand verbena, once abundant along the coast from British Columbia to northern California, is restricted to a few locations along central and southern Oregon coast. Herbicides, burning, and tilling have been employed in recent years to remove European beachgrass and restore the dune ecosystem to a more natural state, but progress against the pernicious weed is slow and difficult.
Freshwater wetlands and bogs, created where water is trapped by the sprawling sand dunes along the central coast, provide habitats for some unusual species. Best known among these is the cobra lily (Darlingtonia californica), which can be viewed up close just north of Florence. Also called pitcher plant, this carnivorous bog dweller survives on hapless insects lured into a specialized chamber, where they are trapped and digested.
Coastal salt marshes, occurring in the upper intertidal zones of coastal bays and estuaries, have been dramatically reduced due to land “reclamation” projects such as drainage, diking, and other human disturbances. The halophytes (salt-loving plants) that thrive in this specialized environment include pickleweed, saltgrass, fleshy jaumea, salt marsh dodder, arrow-grass, sand spurrey, and seaside plantain. Coastal forests include Sitka spruce and alder riparian communities, which provide resting and feeding areas for migratory waterfowl, shore and wading birds, and raptors.
Of the 19 million acres of old growth that once proliferated in Oregon and Washington, less than 10 percent survive. Naturalists describe an old-growth forest as a mixture of trees, some of which must be at least 200 years old, and a supply of snags or standing dead trees, nurse logs, and streams with downed logs.
Throughout this travel guide, references are made to old-growth groves that are noteworthy for size, age, beauty, ecological significance, or ease of access. Of all the old-growth forests mentioned in this volume, Opal Creek most spectacularly embodies all of the above characteristics.
Flowers and Fruits
While not as visually arresting as the evergreens of western Oregon, the state’s several varieties of berries are no less pervasive. Found mostly from the coast to the mid-Cascades, blackberries favor clearings, burned-over areas, and people’s gardens. They also take root in the woods alongside wild strawberries, salmonberries, thimbleberries, currants, and salal. Within this edible realm, wild-food connoisseurs especially seek out the thin-leafed huckleberry found in the Wallowa, Blue, Cascade, and Klamath Ranges. Prime snacking season for all these berries ranges from midsummer to mid-fall.
No less prized are the rare plant communities of the Columbia River Gorge and the Klamath-Siskiyou region. A quarter of Oregon’s rare and endangered plants are found in the latter area, a portion of which is in the valley of the Illinois River, a designated Wild and Scenic tributary of the Rogue. Kalmiopsis leachiana, a rare member of the heath family endemic to southwestern Oregon, even has a wilderness area named after it.
Motorists will treasure such springtime floral fantasias (both wild and domesticated) as the dahlias and irises near Canby off I-5; tulips near Woodburn; irises off Route 213 outside Salem; the Easter lilies along U.S. 101 near Brookings; blue lupines alongside U.S. 97 in central Oregon; apple blossoms in the Hood River Valley near the Columbia Gorge; pear blossoms in the Bear Creek Valley near Medford; beargrass, columbines, and Indian paintbrush on Cascades thoroughfares; and rhododendrons and fireweed along the coast.
East of the Cascades, the undergrowth is often more varied than the ground cover in the damp forests on the west side of the mountains. This is because sunny openings in the forest permit room for more species and for plants of different heights. And, in contrast to the white flowers that predominate in the shady forests in western Oregon, “dry-side” wildflowers generally have brighter colors. These blossoms attract color-sensitive pollinators such as bees and butterflies. On the opposite flank of the range, the commonly seen white trillium relies on beetles and ants for propagation, lessening the need for eye-catching pigments.
Autumn is the season for those who covet wild chanterelle, matsutake, and morel mushrooms. September–November the Coast Range is the prime picking area for chanterelles—a fluted orange or yellow mushroom in the tall second-growth Douglas fir forests. Of course, you should be absolutely certain of what you have before you eat wild mushrooms, or any other wild food.
by Judy Jewell and W. C. McRae from Moon Oregon, 8th Edition, © Elizabeth & Mark Morris and Avalon Travel