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Discovery in the Past

Nature is a highly distracting element of my life. Last week I found myself standing in the middle of a city street in Seattle. A Merlin was running loops around a plethora of irate crows, jays, flickers, and robins overhead. The person who drove up, finding me blocking the road, slack jawed, with glazed over eyes turned skyward probably thought I had mental deficiencies. They kindly refrained from honking for me to move and sat in idle until I came to.

Nature even distracts me from other nature. I can think of a particular time, seven years ago, when just that happened.

I was walking with my fellow Spring Ornithology students down a mountain road in a range of mountains adjacent Ashland, Oregon. There was an air of excitement about the group, we were finding birds new to many of us. Several hours later we saw a Great Gray Owl, plopped stately on her snag topping nest. Yet, what caught my eye and drew me away was a delicately bent lily, emblazoned by filtered afternoon light. Everyone else walked off in search of a Hermit Warbler and I suddenly no longer heard its sweet chip notes from high in the conifers above.

This plant was captivating, the light fantastic, and I bent take a shot. Facing the ground, the base of the petals and the reproductive interior of the flower were a deep magenta. I’d never seen that pigmentation in a wild plant before. Following my eye, I captured an image that still sits among my favorites.

One of the follies in attempting to capture an ecosystem with photography is that the photographer is necessarily ignorant of some aspects. I was a naturalist and a birder long before a photographer but that doesn’t cover all bases. Even when I remind myself that I need to identify everything I manage a decent shot of, it takes a tremendous amount of effort when you are starting at zero. This was most evident in my recent time in Asia. My guess is that there are many so called “conservation photographers” that still don’t have a very complex understanding of the natural world they are immortalizing despite decades of experience (that’s ok though, they still produce valuable work). I’ve photos spanning a decade which I include species I am yet to put a name to. This lily until a few weeks ago was one of them.

Fawn-lilies, trout-lilies, dog’s-tooth violet, adder’s tongue, avalanche lily. All names for the same group of plants in the genus Erythronium. Plants are even more confounding than birds when it comes to classification and naming schemes. Depending on who discovered them and what colloquialism they ascribed, you can end up with any number of names for the same group of plants. Plant classification and names appear to change even more than the elastic and dynamic rearrangement of the class Aves. The pendant like flower I knelt to photograph was most certainly a lily, I knew that at the time. I thought it’d be in my trusty Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar and Mackkinnon, a staple for naturalists in my region.

Nope. And that was the end of it for several years.

This summer I decorated the wall of my room in the Sierras with various photos. I kept staring at this image and wondering. A summer of wondering past and back in Seattle, I asked my mother what she thought it might be. She knew it was a Erythronium, a fawn-lily, a native perennial. With small edible bulbs, they have delicate and attractive, pendulous flowers that are often early spring bloomers. After a bit of poking around in books and on the internet I figured it out: Henderson’s Fawn-lily, Erythronium hendersonii.

E. hendersonii is a fairly restricted species. In fact I was smack dab in the middle of the sole range of the plant, the Kalamath-Siskiyou mountains of Southwestern Oregon and Northwest California. While they are locally common and it’s amusingly silly, I felt a twinge of excitement in unwittingly photographing a pretty plant that was endemic to the small area I had been in (instead of it being an invasive or widespread plant). Walking through their typical habitat of open, dry woodland composed of Garry Oak and Ponderosa Pine, I’d stumbled upon a unique beauty.

The Siskiyou mountains specifically, are noted for their endemic plants and broad diversity. Wedged between the coast and the cascades with isolated peaks and a complexity of climates, it’s not hard to see how a wide variety of plants could have developed here. There is also a fair amount of serpentine that has been exposed for at least 5 million years. Soils over serpentine minerals are generally thin, poor in nutrients, a noted paucity of calcium, and rich in growth retardant, toxic elements. Serpentine plays a complex role in endemism around the world, from places like Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo and throughout California. Eventually specialized plants develop that can handle the poor soils, filling a niche and diversifying. I’ll leave it at that for serpentine, I’m no expert. The takeaway is that it’s no surprise I stumbled upon an endemic plant in these mountains.

Wait a minute though. Henderson? Who the hell was this Henderson? There’s thousands of old white men whose names are affixed to a myriad of organisms. Henderson happens to be well known for his role in Pacific Northwest botany.

Born in 1853 in Roxbury, Massachusets and attending Cornell University, he didn’t arrive out west until 1877 when he became a high school teacher in Portland, Oregon. From that point on, he started botanizing throughout much of Oregon and Washington during free time. He then successively Moved to Olympia, Washington to be a state botanist and forester and then to Moscow, Idaho as the University of Idaho’s first botanist professor, founding their herbarium.

Even after initial retirement in Hood River, Oregon in 1911 he didn’t falter in his passion for plants. He eventually became curator of the University of Oregon herbarium’s native plant collection, further enriching the existing collection. Strangely enough, he may have got this position by swimming across the Columbia River, a day before his seventieth birthday on September 8, 1923. The feat received statewide coverage and it may have caught the eye of the head of the botany department at U of O because he began a correspondence several days afterwords.  Who cares really – dude swam the Columbia river at age 70!

Not until a few years before his death did Henderson slow down. He passed in a nursing home in Puyallup, Washington in 1942 at the age of 88. His specimens number in the tens of thousands, filling the University of Washington, the Smithsonian, University of Oregon, and Oregon state herbariums, among others. Among his achievements, one of the most notable was that he was the first American botanist to explore the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, a member of the 1890 Olympic Exploring Expedition. At least sixteen species of plants have been named after him, including some I’d already known but never considered a namesake. Included in these is a favorite, Dodecatheon hendersonii, Henderson’s Shooting Star, which he and his wife Kate found on a hike east of Portland.

I discovered all this merely prompted, more than anything distracted, by this one photograph and one flower. I can now see this “grand old man of botany of the pacific northwest” slowly stepping down hillsides and through valleys, stooping to enjoy a particularly beautiful specimen just as I had done. The appreciation of nature most definitely transcends human history.

Filed under: Natural History, Oregon, Plants, Science, Washington

About the Author

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I am a natural history writer and photographer, obsessed birder, naturalist, and artist. When I'm not learning by reading, drawing, painting, taking photos, or being outside, I am probably asleep.


  1. Yay, you wrote it! 🙂 And it’s an utterly lovely post. I really like the way you structured it around discoveries, falling one into the other like dominoes. And I love the way you opened with the seemingly unpraiseworthy distraction that leads to the serendipitous/ the unexpected..

    • Brendan

      Thanks, I enjoyed working on it! Means all the more coming from a fellow writer and photographer I admire. Here’s to our curiosity!

  2. Pingback: A (Photographic) Year in Review « Wingtrip

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