Nature Alert: A Sticky Situation

Photo courtesy of Greenbelt Land TrustNature Alert: A Sticky Situation 

Here we are in the depths of summer — with the temperatures regularly above the 90’s, and the skies often apocalyptically hazy as wildfire smoke gets sucked into the valley, it can be hard to get yourself out in nature. Perhaps not encouraging, my favorite trails near town encompass steep and rooted sections, and my ankle is still recovering from a sprain earlier this season when these long days made me feel invincible. Yet, I want to get out and see some wildflowers so that I can geek out over them with you, dear reader. 

How do I find somewhere relatively accessible with native plants blooming a plenty? I have found organizations of similar mind as I post on social media using #WildflowerWednesday. Searching this lead me to a plant that has been of interest to me for some time: tarweed. 

Tarweeds are members of the sunflower family and genus madia, and are native to the Willamette Valley. Their yellow flowers generally bloom from June to September and are incredibly cheerful. More intriguing to me however is their cultural significance to the area. 

Kalapuya Indians cultivated plots of tarweed that they burned once the plants had gone to seed. When the burn was finished, dry seedpods were left behind and could be easily harvested by whacking the plants with bats. The seedpods would then bounce off straight into collection baskets. Ground into a meal, the end result was flour, with oil for cooking also being derived. 

With these fun facts bobbling round my brain, I was stoked when I saw on my news feed that tarweed was spotted in bloom along the relatively flat and even trails of Bald Hill Natural Area. At the end of the month, I finally got myself down there. Walking from the Oak Creek entrance towards the Mulkey Ridge Trail, I caught sight of something darling and yellow on the edges of the gravel path. Like any good naturalist, I popped a squat and touched the plant’s leaves, and boy were they sticky, just as I had read they would be. I snapped some pics, filled with glee by the find. 

Later on, I noticed a discrepancy between the flowers I took photos of and those online. I pulled out the wildflower identification book any good naturalist would have brought directly to the field, and tried to push my pride aside as I came to realize that the sticky yellow thing I saw was no tarweed, but a gumweed, of the aster family and genus grindelia. From what I know plus a quick goog, there isn’t much cultural significance to this plant. But like anything else living, there is value to it, and if nothing else, it took you and me on an amusing journey of learning. 

By Ari Blatt

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