top of page

A Guide to Wallowa's Fall Plants

A recent backpack trip into the Wallowa Mountains of northeast Oregon had me thinking about the plant life. It seems that flowers are what most people appreciate about plants, and judging by the number of images, that is definitely the case. Certainly, to properly identify a plant you usually need some floral parts.

A lot can be said about looking at plants without the flowers. So, a slow walk in early October from the Hurricane Creek Trailhead to the nose bleed section of the mountains above Echo and Billy Jones Lake provided an excellent opportunity to look at the plants without their showy flowers.

A notable tree in the high county is the white bark pine (Pinus albicaulis), a five needle pine that has been impacted over the past forty years with bark beetles and blister rust. White bark pine grow at some of the highest elevations, experiencing some of the harshest weather. When you see these trees, it appears they have been through a lot, and they have.

A sizeable Whitebark Pine growing out of a large chunk of granite.

Whitebark Pine that looks as if it had been Bonsai-ed.

Looking similar to the whitebark pine, in that it has five needles per cluster, is the limber pine (Pinus flexilis). Naturally occurring limber pines in Oregon are only found in the Wallowa Mountains. One way to tell the difference is to look for cones. Limber pine usually keeps it's cones intact, while the whitebark pine cones disintegrate on the tree.

A lone cone suggests this is a Limber Pine.

A much shorter conifer is the common juniper (Juniperus communis) reaching heights of three feet tall. It's a shrub found throughout Oregon.

Mat-like Common Juniper.

Not all conifers are evergreen, and not all evergreens are conifers. The western larch, a conifer, loses it's needles in the fall, after turning a brilliant yellow, turning whole hillsides into flaming yellow. It was a couple weeks too early to see the colorful larch. But an example of an evergreen that is not a conifer was the pink mountain heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis). In much of the high country this shrub covers vast areas. The flowers are long gone, but the brown seedheads remain.

As tall as it gets: Pink Mountain Heather.

A larger shrub that many associate with the western Cascades, but is also found in the hinterlands of the Wallowa and Elkhorn Mountains, is the western Labrador tea (Rh