Plants & Critters of Southern Oregon


I moved to Curry County when I was seven. The thought struck me the other day: by the time I was 10, I’d been introduced to dozens of new species of wildlife that just didn’t exist in Sacramento. Plants and animals both: I touched, handled, fished with, and sometimes even ate, each of these. It’s part of my heritage, one of those things I don’t have in common with many other people in this world.

We even had our own language in the Northwest, with regional names for each of these. Except slugs. They’re just called slugs all around the world, even though ours grew incredibly large (I’ve seen a couple of these guys 12″ long). When I moved to Santa Cruz years later, they were called banana slugs because they’re also a much more vibrant yellow down there. We may have called them banana slugs too, but around the Southern Oregon coast they didn’t really resemble bananas in anything but size.

banana slug
Banana slug. You can see his breathing hole.

I’ve already written a blog about waterdogs, or at least mentioned them in passing, and composed at least one poem about them. No, you can’t read it. Anyway, these little guys are officially known as rough skinned newts and are about usually 4-5 inches long. Pretty sure they’re poisonous, or have toxic skin, or both. I once heard a rumor that in moment of drunken ridiculousness, or maybe a dare, my dad bit the head off a waterdog up in Agness.  I also heard the act made him throw up.

waterdog
It’s a waterdog!

As kids we would gather as many as we could and “corral” them in a basin of sand and water next to a creek. My sisters, cousins and I once corralled hundreds of them in our makeshift ponds, collecting them all afternoon.  We left them there overnight.  Some of the more adventurous waterdogs escaped by the time we awoke the next morning ( you could see them climbing over our sand barrier). But the the rest of them lay there in the bottom, a dark slithering morass of newts. Of course we let them all go when our camping trip was over.  No sense in taking home hundreds of waterdogs. It’s not like they would enjoy living in an aquarium.

pennywinkle 2
Pennywinkle

Caddisfly larvae, which we called pennywinkles or periwinkles, depending on the day and the weather, were also interesting. I’ve let a few of these little guys crawl all over my hand, sitting in their little homemade shells. Their heads and legs were all in the front, followed by an inch or so of body, all armored with little rocks and sticks the perrywinkle had collected.

Queen Anne's Lace
Queen Anne’s Lace
poison hemlock
Poison hemlock–a deadly stunt double for Queen Anne’s Lace

They also made the best live bait I could wish for. If I dropped one of these guys into a creek or river I could almost guarantee, if I casted right, and the hook didn’t wind up snarled in a tree on the opposite bank, the I’d either catch a fish within seconds, or the hook would be stripped of its bait. Apparently caddisflies are superabundant in the US, with over 1700 different species. This proved to be trouble when I was looking for a decent picture of the sort saw when I was a kid, but I finally discovered the one above.

The local rivers abounded in tiny freshwater snails that we also called pennywinkles, just to confuse the issue–they look like the kind that occasionally infest the inside of aquariums, not even 5mm long. They didn’t do much–just crawled in the slippery muck that inhabited the bigger stones in the warm parts of the river. No pictures for this one. Just imagine a tiny snail, and then imagine that snail underwater. You’ve got it!

sourgrass
Sourgrass. The leaves had udders

My cousins, Troy and Rusty Walker, my sister, and neighbors Brett & Jennifer hull would make obnoxious, watery stews of wild vegetation including that, blackberries and sourgrass (sheep sorrel), and we’d play house. “Hi honey! I’m home! What’s for dinner?” “Yummy stew!” “Mmmmmm!” We’d use any old container, sometimes the dog’s water dish, for our stewmaking. We’re lucky the dogs didn’t die too.

A brief note about sheep sorrel. I didn’t know what it was called until a few minutes ago. I typed “plant that have leaves that looks like udders” into Google and behold! about 5 images down was what surely was sourgrass. Just like that! Gotta love google.

tansy caterpillars
Tansy, covered in caterpillars
Cinnabar moth
The cinnabar moth.

Tansy grew everywhere. Apparently the official name is tansy ragwort. It was poisonous to cows and sheep, which were stupid because despite the bad taste they’d eat it anyway. My sister and I would uproot the tansy in the field beneath the house. We had some kind of a deal with my dad–a penny a stalk maybe? Something like that–which would keep us busy for awhile, until we got bored and just played in the forest. What was interesting were the little caterpillars that stormed the plant during certain times of the year. We called them tansy worms They loved the stuff, and I never saw them on anything else.  Apparently the caterpillars are the larvae of the cinnabar moth, which I recall seeing trapped in spiderwebs and such. I only seconds ago found out their name.

ArmyBug
Army bugs.

Certain times of the year, Southern Oregon rainforests would sprout up these little guys. We called them army bugs. The yellow spotted millipede was a couple inches long. A few hundred yards from our house, in the Burnt Creek culvert (a giant cement hole that ran underneath old Highway 101), I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of army bugs all at once in various throes of millipedian passion and egglaying. They were pretty harmless. I walked right through the culvert and stared at them with fascination. They ate leaves. If you picked them up though, they rolled into a tight spiral and emitted a horrible smell. I found out later, this is exactly why some people call them “cyanide millipedes.” That horrible smell was a warning to any critters that tried to eat them. To this day, I despise the smell of almond extract, and hate eating anything that is cooked with it.

Wooly_Bear
Image found at birdsoutsidemywindow.org

One last bug and the blog is done:  our little friend the woolly worm caterpillar. I’ve also heard it called the woolly bear. Old timers said that the more black they had, the colder the winter would be. Everything about them was woolly. The caterpillar was a sedate fuzzball of a thing. The cocoon was also fuzzy. Hairy, even. Looked like the tip of a pussywillow. If you peeled off the fuzz, a shiny brown pupa would be shining in there. The tiger moth that emerged was fuzzy, although I don’t remember seeing many of them. Maybe they were just too delicious for local birds to pass up.

That’s about it. Of course I learned my trees: alders, willows, douglas fir, sitka spruce, madrone (macaroni)… The first time I ate a salal berry, it was on a dare, and I was pretty sure I would die during the night. Turns out they’re perfectly fine to eat. There were plenty of critters in the ocean and in the local tidepools that Mr. Bowen’s biology class taught us in high school.

Moments ago, my younger son just marched up to the computer while I was writing this, spotted the waterdog, and exclaimed, “A newt!” “No,” I corrected. “It’s a waterdog.” “So…. a newt?”

Sigh. I guess I truly am from a different place, and a different time.

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One thought on “Plants & Critters of Southern Oregon”

  1. You forgot to mention woodrats and their giant nests of sticks throughout those woods. Strange creatures. Almost as strange as us. No, not nearly now that I think about it.

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