Monthly Archives: May 2011

A Wild, Wild, Wildflower

Hidden on the forest floor in damp areas beneath heart-shaped leaves lies one of Silver Falls’ most unusual wildflowers and my favorite to find each year. 

The wild ginger plant can be spotted year-round and identified by its deep green, shiny, finely-haired, prominent-veined leaves that look nature’s valentine.  But in the spring, these leaves hide a purplish brown flower with three-parts–each one tapering off like the handlebars on a mustache. 

If the flower isn’t impressive enough, when you find a wild ginger plant (or mat of plants–they tend to spread), take your fingernail, lightly scratch the stem, and sniff.  The lemony-ginger scent is what gives this plant its name.  And, indeed, Native Americans have used this root as both a flavoring and a medicine.  (But, before you run out to grab a handful for dinner, be forewarned that the plant does contain cancer-causing toxins!)

My go-to spot for wild ginger at Silver Falls is a bit of a trek, although you’re guaranteed to find it.  Head to Silver Falls’ tallest fall, Double Falls.  On the spur trail, keep your eyes to the left.  When you find a wild ginger leaf, carefully lift it and look for a purplish brown, wild, wild, wildflower.  Good luck!

Caution: Newts Crossing!

When I found my first rough-skinned newt making its way across the trail, I stuck my hand in its path so that I could feel its feet padding over me.  Had I known then what I know now, I would have kept my hands to myself.  (Or would have at least washed them!)  These 6 to 8-inch stocky newts can secrete a toxin throughout their skin that can be deadly to predators who dare to eat them.  And we humans are not immune.  These days, I keep my hands clear and belly-down instead of pick-up for a closer look.

Rough-skinned newts tend to travel during the day, and for this reason, they are one of the most frequently spotted salamanders at Silver Falls.  (All newts are salamanders; not all salamanders are newts.)  Just last week, I spotted three newts on the Canyon Trail and nearly stepped on a fourth–and would have if my hiking partner hadn’t warned me.  When moving along, the rough-skinned newt’s brownish, bumpy skin blends right in with the trail.  But, if you upset one, you’ll receive fair warning!  When threatened, the newt strikes a defensive pose–arching its back and curling up it tail to flash a pumpkin-orange belly.  This is a warning to predators (and you) to stand back.

A terrestrial (living on land) salamander for most of the year, the rough-skinned newt does migrate to aquatic areas to breed.  They prefer slow-moving creeks, lakes, and ponds.  They typically head to their watery breeding grounds in the spring, but might begin their journey as early as December or as late as June.  I wonder, were the newts I found were on their way to meet their mate?  There’s a good chance.  So, keep your eyes open for these fantastic rough-skinned newts crossing!