Oregon's Painted Hills section of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument northwest of Mitchell is a spectacular place that is well worth a visit. According to Ellen Morris Bishop's outstanding book on Oregon geology, In Search of Ancient Oregon, the striped landscape is a geological library of the Oligocene period going back as far as 39 million years.
The colorful, rather barren-looking hills are not so barren if one gets out of the car and onto the hiking trails. Today's article covers two of the unique flowers that thrive in the climate and ancient soil. Although both plants are reported to grow in a much larger region, I've only seen them at the Painted Hills. Both of these plants can be found blooming along the trails at this time.
Name: Golden Spiderflower
Scientific name: Cleome platycarpa
Golden Spiderflower, also called Golden Beeplant, is easy to spot with it's cluster of golden yellow flowers at the top of an erect stem about 1 to 2 feet high. It is a member of the Caper family, and is reported to grow in Eastern Oregon and adjacent areas of Idaho, California, and Nevada. This uncommon plant is a close cousin to the more common Yellow Beeplant which is about twice as tall, and with narrow linear seed pods instead of rounded pods. Yellow Beeplant can be seen at 65 mph along I-84 near Boardman.
The plant's clover-like leaves have 3 rounded leaflets, and the main stem is covered with gland-tipped hairs which are sticky to the touch and smelly. I know of no uses for the plant, though another similar pink-flowered cousin in the Rockies provides nectar for honey, was used as a potherb by Indians, and provides a black dye for pottery in New Mexico.
Name: Western Prairie Clover
Scientific name: Dalea ornata
Western Prairie Clover, a member of the Pea Family, grows about a foot tall, with branches spreading out from the base and turning upward. The flowers are a rich reddish-purple, borne in a dense cone-shaped head at the tip of the stems. The leaves are compound, with five to seven leaflets arranged along a midrib.
This plant is more widespread than the spiderflower, as it is known from the Columbia and Snake River valleys of Southeast Washington, Eastern Oregon, and Idaho, and lake basins of Southeast Oregon. Although there are more than 30 species of Dalea in the western U.S., this is the only species in Oregon, Washington, or Idaho. Dalea should not be confused with the garden ornamental Dahlia, which is in the Sunflower Family.