Originally Published: December 19, 2011 2:28 p.m.
The Wonderland of Rocks in SE Arizona is much more than a pile of odd and curious boulders stacked up in the most artistic fashion. It's also a place to hike on a variety of excellent trails among curious plants, many of which do not venture much further into the SW USA.
Recent fires closed the Monument for most of the summer this year. However, fires are a natural part of the forest ecosystem in the Southwest. Fires clean house, so to speak, releasing nutrients and organic matter which foster new plant growth, which enhances wildlife browse for deer and related species.
I hiked to Inspiration Point from the Park's Visitor Center where you can ask questions and purchase items such as guidebooks. This route climbs over 1,500 feet in elevation and covers about 10 miles roundtrip. The views are expansive and if you take in the Heart of Rocks Loop, you'll be sure to enjoy some curious rock formations, such as Duck on a Rock, Punch and Judy, Kissing Rocks, and so many more. Hiking in late fall, many flowers were past their prime, but fruits, cones, and foliage all contribute to a pleasant floristic experience any time of year. Let's begin with a familiar family, that of the Sunflowers with a couple of genera with quite a few species in each group.
Brickellia boasts some 60 or so species across the Southwest. This scraggly shrub continues to produce flowers well into the fall, though they are not especially noticeable. With only a handful of species occurring in Chricahua NM, I suspect the ones I ran into was the species Brickellia californica, or California Brickelbush. It liked growing in the rocks adjacent to the trail in shady spots. The leaves are shaped like an arrowhead and somewhat rough to the touch. The margins have rounded teeth. Unlike more obvious species of sunflowers, these produce no ray flowers and the color of the blooms is similar to the foliage. The stamens extend beyond the very small petals and are probably the part of the flower you see first. With so many species in the region, this is a good plant to know, at lease to the genus level.
Fleabane Daisy is even more diverse than Brickelbush, with over 100 species across the Southwest. Consequently, there are some very minute characteristics that are big as diagnostic tools. We won't go into that here, but at least the bright white ray flowers make this species stand out among the shrubs and trees where it grows in the Chiricahuas and beyond. There are only 5 species in the Chricauhuas, so using location we are able to narrow the field substantially. I suspect the species I saw was E. oreophilus. It has two types of leaves with the basal leaves deeply divided and the stem leaves much smaller than those at the base of the plant. These plants grow in rocky spots from 5,000 to 9,000 feet. These semi-shrubs flower from July into November depending on the weather in any particular year.
Shifting away from flowering plants, let's consider a conifer and a fern. The conifer is not so wide ranging, but it reaches to Big Bend NP in Texas to the east, central Arizona as its northern limit, and barely into California as its western limit. The cones of Arizona Cypress (Cupressus arizonica) are about as big as a quarter and much more woody than its close relative, Juniper. These trees grow in canyon bottoms, sometimes as tall as 75 feet. Most of the time, these trees are rather stately in their form but occasionally they appear somewhat scraggly. Their leaves (overlapping scales) resemble Junipers too, so the cones are needed for confident identification. The bark is at first smooth, but then becomes furrowed and fibrous.
Bracken fern may be the most widespread species of all vascular plants, depending on your particular classification bent. For our purposes, we'll act as taxonomic lumpers and let the experts worry about how to split it up into varieties, subspecies, or something else entirely. Pteridium aquilinum, being as widespread as it is, has been eaten by many peoples. The fiddleheads or unfolding new fronds were the parts most commonly consumed. However, recent chemical work reveals some concern over the carcinogenic substances found in these plants. Brackenfern is frequently encountered in openings in pine forests and the recent openings created in the Chiricahuas due to fire, should prove a favorable event in the lives of these ferns.
The Chiricahua Mountains include the National Monument and a wilderness area on the Coronado National Forest. Trails abound and your outdoor experience may include primitive backpacking or a more convenient car camping adventure. Ft. Bowie and the nearby Cochise Stronghold add an historical element to travel in Cochise County. Stay awhile. You'll be glad you did.
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