Fall Colors

Share the joy of a botanist’s annual pilgrimage to the Darlingtonia Fens of the eastern Klamath Mountains

Julie K. Nelson
US Forest Service Botanist, Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Redding, Calif.
June 20th, 2012 at 4:30PM

I dreaded October as a child. Growing up on the Oregon coast, October promised rain and more rain—rain on my birthday, rain on Halloween, rainy rain rain.

What a difference 300 miles and the rain shadow of a mountain range makes! October here in far northern California on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest brings me nothing but pleasure. As the blistering, smoky fire season of 2012 comes to a close, I plan my annual pilgrimage to the Darlingtonia fens of the eastern Klamath Mountains. I know what I will see. I will drive slowly up the winding canyon of the upper South Fork of the Sacramento River to the headwaters of Gumboot Creek. 

When I walk into the meadow, I will notice how the harsh summer light has given way to a soft golden glow. While summer in this meadow is a riot of bright greens, pinks, oranges, and yellows, October is the time of purple and gold—purple asters, purple-blue gentians, golden grasses and sedges. I will reach down and part the grass, and get on my knees to see the gentians up close. I will remember that Aster alpigenus is now called Oreostemma alpigenum, thanks to someone’s phylogenetic research. I will still call it Aster alpigenus.

I will admire the fruits and seed pods of the season, especially the odd rattle-shaped cinnamon-hued capsules of Darlingtonia californica. I will probably shake a capsule or two. I will sit on an incense-cedar log and contemplate the soft pink leaves of western azalea, Rhododendron occidentale, and remember the lovely fragrance of their early summer flowers. As I wander farther up the stream, I may find fringed white blooms of the rare Parnassia cirrata, grass-of-Parnassus.

As the sun sinks into the trees, I will know it is time to go home.  I will pick up several Jeffrey pine cones for my mantelpiece, and I will bid farewell to this place until next year. We will- the plants and I - collectively breathe a sigh of relief that summer is done and rest is coming.