Native Plants of the Southwest
By Ted Johnson, Prescott Valley, AZ
The Southwest is home to thousands of species of wildflowers, trees, shrubs, and cacti. The ID of plants you encounter on your travels in the region is a challenge. Perhaps we can help each other learn as we explore the outdoors, thus enjoying the experience to the fullest extent possible.
Saturday, March 03, 2012
Native Plants of the Southwest (17) - Mt. Ajo, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
By Ted Johnson
|Mystery: Red Flowers, Opposite Leaves, Flowers Sep. – Apr. Hummingbird’s Favorite Source of Nectar (mine too). Name?|
The trail to the top of Mt. Ajo winds past Bull Pasture to the upper reaches of Estes Canyon past fantastic views (especially when a storm is approaching), interesting vegetation, and geology. No matter if you look out far away or up close to that upon which you stand, you will be amazed at all things, both near and far. The recommended season of use is November through April. Many wildflowers can be in bloom. The peak floral display depends on rainfall but mid February to mid March is generally your best bet. The weather can carry its own suite of unexpected delights, like flakes of snow at the upper elevations. There's nothing more charming than Sonoran Desert cacti with a light dusting of snow.
There is an entrance fee of $8 for the Ajo Mtn. It is good for seven days. There is an additional fee for camping. Check the Visitor Center for the latest cost information. There is no reliable surface water on this route, but if there have been recent rains small pools may be found in rock pockets or a trickle might flow over the slick rock on the trail beyond Bull Pasture near the head of Estes Canyon. There are toilets and picnic tables at the trailhead. The hike includes 2,000 feet of elevation gain over a round trip distance of about eight miles.
The trailhead for the Mt. Ajo trail is found by taking Highway 85 about 60 miles south of Gila Bend (Interstate 8) to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Ajo Mtn. Dr. is about 17 miles south of the Park boundary, opposite the entrance to the Visitor Center. Ajo Mtn. Dr. is partially paved, suitable for passenger cars. It is 11.1 miles to the Estes Canyon/Bull Pasture trailhead. Parking is limited but I had no problems on a weekend at the peak hiking season in early February.
This week's plants include three shrubs and one tree. The shrubs are all from the Sunflower Family, while the tree is our State Tree, a member of the Pea Family. Both, good families to know as they are so large and widespread. Enjoy! The mystery plant is from a different family with red, tubular flowers, sweet to the eyes and tongue.
Chaparral Bush, Keckiella antirrhinoides (Figwort Family)
The first time I saw this shrub in full flower, I was dazzled by the display of gorgeous yellow flowers. The shrub, some two meters tall was covered in yellow blossoms, resembling a dome of light in the full sun. Looking more closely at the flowers, they are an open mouth with a fuzzy, tongue-like appendage. Hence, the name, beard tongue, which is associated with related groups in the Figwort Family, like Penstemon. If you have a tongue, you must have lips. Therefore, these flowers are described as bilabiate, or two-lipped. The leaves are small (about 1 cm long), opposite, and widest in the middle (elliptic). In dry conditions, the plant often sheds its leaves. Under these circumstances, and even more frequently, this shrub is all too easy to overlook. Unfortunately, these shrubs are not particularly common, so consider yourself lucky, should you happen upon one during its flowering period from March to May.
Blue Palo Verde, Parkinsonia florida (Pea Family)
Palo Verde trees include a handful of species in Arizona, but the Blue Palo Verde offers the most brilliant floral display. This particular species also tends to be the largest tree, found most frequently along desert washes where there is a little more water. True to its name, the stems are green, though this species is a little more bluish than its cousin the Foothills Paloverde, which has stems that are a lighter shade of yellowish green. As these trees age, the main trunk(s) tends to brown and crack. The flowers of the Blue Palo Verde are also a richer, deeper shade of yellow than its cousin, like a golden torch standing majestic and tall. It flowers earlier in the spring by just a few weeks. Finally, the leaves and fruits are distinct from the Foothills PV. Foothills PV is sometimes called Little Leaf PV, which gives you an idea of how the leaves differ. Blue PV bean pods are more blunt but wider, while the Foothills PV's pods look like a sword - long and narrow at the end. It also wraps tightly around the seeds inside, like Spandex. Each tree bears armature, but the Blue PV has spines at the base of its leaves and the Foothills PV has pointed stems (thorns). Either tree is not fun to tangle with, though the Foothills PV is more shrub-like than tree-like. Since the Sonoran Desert hills are often a perpetual brown, both species provide a little green to soften the craggy appearance of the land. What with all the differences between these species, they are very easy to tell apart. Since they grow in different landscapes (rocky hillsides versus streambeds) and flower in tag-team fashion, they extend the hiker's enjoyment of the desert before it heats up. Bees too appreciate these flowering trees, so approach with caution.
Slender Poreleaf, Porophyllum gracile (Sunflower Family)
Every family has a stinker and Poreleaf qualifies as one of the more odorous members of the Sunflower Family. You will smell it, before you see it. The herbage is brownish green, pretty much indistinct from the flowers. Disc flowers are present but ray flowers are not. Therefore, this plant does a better job of blending in rather than standing out, at least in the visual category. Consequently, you'll need to follow your nose, rather than your eyes to track it down on the rocky slopes of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, as well as portions of the Sonoran Desert further north. The odor is difficult to describe. Sort of rancid. A little rotten. Just plain odd. It will catch you by surprise. You'll be hiking along, enjoying the scenery, the birds, the cliffs, and the flowers, when, all of a sudden, you will halt in your tracks and exclaim, "What's that smell?" You won't have to look far before you find a small, scraggly shrub growing out in the open or among other shrubs. The leaves are narrow and scattered along the skinny stems. You could hike in the Sonoran Desert for years and never spot one, with your eyes, but your nose will find them every time. Another name for this little shrub is Hierba del Venado (Herb of the Deer). It is apparently browsed by cattle and deer. I wonder how it affects the flavor of the meat if it is eaten in large quantities.
Goldeneye, Bahiopsis parishii (Sunflower Family)
A classic member of the Sunflower Family, Goldeneye is a spreading shrub, about one meter tall, growing among cliffs and dry, rocky slopes. The "flowers" are about 3 cm across with bright yellow ray flowers and dark yellow disc flowers. The leaves are triangular in shape and somewhat rough to the touch. The flowers appear singly on the ends of branches. The flowering period is several months long (Feb-June), so you should have plenty of opportunities to see it, depending on the elevation you are hiking at. Unlike some shrubby members of this family, like Brittle Bush, Goldeneye shows up here and there. You aren't likely to see a mass display of them, but they are widespread, so you sure to run into it at some point. Since it has no spines, prickles, or thorns, such an encounter is likely to be pleasant, unless you have an allergic reaction of some sort. Hope not.
Posted: Tuesday, March 20, 2012
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Chuparosa is the mystery plant this week.
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