Kalmiopsis (Kalmiopsis leachiana)
It’s hard to believe that this plant was unknown until Portland botanist Lilla Leach and her husband discovered it in 1930 in what would become a designated wilderness named after the plant and set aside to ensure its continued existence. Even more astonishing is the fact that the stand of this small flowering shrub we photographed this past weekend, two miles into the Illinois River Trail, may be one of less than fifteen such stands on the planet, all within a small area of southwestern Oregon. So, while we were ever so slightly disappointed that we didn’t find it in full bloom (maybe in mid-April), we were extremely excited to see a plant that few will ever lay eyes on. This may be the closest specimen to any road (the trailhead is 19 slow miles from the nearest highway–much of which is gravel and dirt, the last half mile of which proved too scary for our low clearance compact).The quote and accompanying photo (at right) of Lilla cradling the newly found Kalmiopsis plant moments after its discovery, still 3 days from the nearest town, is priceless. Indeed, the career of Lilla & John Leach’s botanizing is a fascinating and inspiring chapter in Oregon history. You can learn about them from the Oregon Encyclopedia or by visiting their former residence, now a public garden, on the banks of Johnson Creek in SE Portland.
At first blush it’s shrubby shape reminds one of pink heather, while its flowers resemble Kalmia polifolia; both, like kalmiopsis, are members of the heath family. It is the latter’s resemblance that lends the kalmiopsis its name. It was originally classified as a rhododendron, but then later given a genus of its own.
Illinois River Trail, Kalmiopsis Wilderness, OR, 3/2018.