In March of this year, I found myself at a meeting in Portland, Oregon. The meeting, which lasted three and a half days, ended at noon on a Wednesday. With flights from Portland to northwest Arkansas being as they are, it didn’t matter whether I caught the late evening flight home or the early morning flight. Either way, I would arrive in Arkansas at 1:30 the next afternoon. So I decided to hang around Portland instead of sitting in an airport all night.
Portland is the kind of place where it only rains once a year. Usually, the rain starts in October and ends around the middle of June. But this is a strange year in the west. With the exception of one day when it poured, the rest of my stay was clear and mild. Mt. Hood, roughly 60 miles to the east, stood out clearly.
Portland is good at three things: beer, coffee, and walking. With the better part of an afternoon on my hands, I did what I normally won’t to do. That is I went for a long walk. Downtown sits on the bank of the Willamette (will-lam-it) River. Forty-five minutes’ walk to the west is the International Rose Test Garden. Clearly, there weren’t going to be any roses in bloom the day after St. Patrick’s Day, but it was a destination. What I didn’t know was that the Rose Garden was just a small part of the 400-acre Washington Park. Not only is Washington Park home to the Rose Garden, there also is a Japanese Garden, a Magnolia Garden, a Winter Garden, and several miles of wildland trail. Washington Park also is home to at least three of Portland’s infamous open water reservoirs.
Let me explain the open water reservoirs. These are, or were, reservoirs for storing drinking water. They are not round storage tanks like you might expect. You or I would likely call them lakes. They fit into the terrain and are very attractive features.
Portland’s source of water is the Bull Run Watershed. Bull Run is in the Mt. Hood National Forest northeast of Portland. The entire watershed is protected for the water supply. You are not even allowed to hike the watershed. The water is as pure as it gets.
Because Portland’s water source was so well protected, when EPA promulgated the Surface Water Treatment Rule, that required filtration of surface water, Portland was able to get a waiver. That waiver saved the city literally hundreds of millions of dollars because of not building filters. For years, they have drawn water from their reservoir in the Bull Run, disinfected it, then piped it into the mentioned open reservoirs. From the reservoirs, the water flows by gravity into the people’s homes. That is until last year. In 2009, EPA promulgated a new rule that prohibited the use of open reservoirs for treated water. The basis of that prohibition is that open reservoirs are open to contamination from animals, birds, trash and people. Indeed, in April of 2014, the city had to drain an entire reservoir because a young man found it amusing to pee into it. The citizens of Portland fought the new rule, but ultimately they lost. It is less expensive to build new closed reservoirs than to cover the existing open ones. Today the reservoirs sit empty. Likely it was time to close them anyway. After all, they were decades old and in poor shape. Portland’s website indicates that maintenance of the reservoirs was going to cost $125 million over the next few years.
Moving on past the reservoirs, I headed on up the hill to the Rose Garden. Roses really don’t interest me that much and they weren’t blooming anyway, so I walked on past and headed up the hill. While the roses were not blooming, spring does come early in Portland. Cherry trees were in full bloom as were many other blooming shrubs that I couldn’t identify. Eventually, I left the paved trail in favor of a less developed woodland trail. A couple coming off the trail stopped to talk for a minute. They told me that the trail I was on would eventually loop back to the Rose Garden. They also advised that I take a short side trip to the Magnolia Garden that was in full bloom. That being the best advice I had, I headed on up the trail into a forest of giant western red cedars figuring on a couple of hours of pleasant walking. That’s when I was surprised to find one of my favorite wildflowers, the trillium.
Anyone who walks the woods in Arkansas, or anywhere in North America, should be familiar with the trillium. In the Ozarks, trilliums grow along the base of moist hillsides. They have a brown stem up to several inches high, three ovate green leaves topped by three oval green sepals, and then three petals. The petals are usually a maroon color. Some references say that the leaves aren’t really leaves but they are actually bracts. That is a little beyond my horticultural expertise. They look like leaves and act like leaves so I call them leaves. Trilliums are members of the lily family.
In the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s database, there is a list of 22 different species of trillium. The one that I saw in Portland was the Trillium ovatum or the Pacific trillium, also called the western wake-robin. It was about 6 to 10 inches tall and a similar dimension across. The flower was white with petals maybe an inch and a half long. As I moved along the trail, I realized that the trillium was numerous in the park. It was a great day to be out.
I eventually headed down the mountain back to downtown. I stopped at a gastro-pub to enjoy another of the good things of Portland. Then, I headed back to the hotel to get into bed early. My morning flight left at 5:45.
As I already mentioned, trilliums are also called “wake-robins.” The name has a nice flow to it. Why it is called wake-robin is hard to say. The only reference I could find was from John Burroughs, a 19th century naturalist who lived in upstate New York. Burroughs’ first book was titled “Wake-Robin.” He used the term exactly once in the book: “When I have found the wake-robin in bloom I know the season (of birds returning to upstate New York) is fairly inaugurated.”
Arkansas is much further south than New York, and it seems to me that here the birds arrive first, and then the wake-robin blooms. Another common name is “birthroot.” Herbalists have in the past used trillium to stop the hemorrhaging of blood after childbirth.
Carl Hunter’s book, “Wildflowers of Arkansas,” describes five species of trillium growing in our state. We have the green, purple, and sessile trilliums in the Ozark and Ouachita mountains. The Ozark and the white flowered trilliums have a much smaller range. The Ozark may be found in Montgomery, Polk and Pulaski counties, according to Hunter. The white flowered is found in Stone County. The Ozark and sessile trilliums are likely the ones that we see most often. These plants are relatively large for woodland wildflowers, have wide green ovate leaves and the petals are a maroon color. The leaves, sepals and petals are always in threes. Usually, the petals are oriented vertically. The green trillium is the largest that we have at up to two feet tall.
Trillium can be found around Beaver Lake. Try cruising (paddling is best) slowly along a moist wooded hillside. Look for a small spot of maroon color. You can also try walking up the creek beds in the Devil’s Eyebrow or along Hobbs State Park and Conservation Area. April and May are the best times.