Native Plants of the Southwest (10) - Rincon Mountains, SE Arizona
The Rincons are diverse, rugged, and well managed by the folks at the Saguaro National Park East unit and the Coronado National Forest with offices for both agencies in Tucson. Most areas are relatively accessible with several trailheads and many miles of trails for easy day hikes or extensive backpacking trips. Any way you hike it, there is something worthwhile waiting for you in the Rincon Mountains.
My first hike was in the spring, from Miller Creek on the east side of the range to the summit of Rincon Pk. This is the shortest route to the top of the range (Trail #28). I spent one night on the trail. My second hike was in the winter, from Saguaro National Park to the summit of Mica Mtn. This was a four day backpacking trip, covering about 45 miles with some 6,000 feet of elevation gain. There's not much water out there. I came across a few puddles from rains that fell a week earlier, other than the reliable pond at Manning Camp near the Summit of Mica Mountain (8,666 feet).
Additional notable sites on this hike included Douglas Spring, Tanque Verde Ridge, and the Cactus Forest between the Ridge and the trailhead at the east end of Speedway in east Tucson. As you can imagine, with this much elevation range in such a short distance, there was plenty of variety in plant communities. I walked through the Sonoran Desert (Upland Division), grasslands, canyons, chaparral, pinyon/juniper woodland, and Ponderosan Pine forest. Consequently, there were quite a few plants to see. The one drawback from both trips was the timing. It was a little early in the spring, so there were few plants in flower between Miller Creek and Rincon Peak. The winter hike was also not a good time to see things in flower. So the plants I have selected to share with you are woody (trees or shrubs), plus a member of the Century Plant Family.
The Mystery Plant this week is a mystery indeed. Someone emailed me a picture of a plant we have not been able to ID. Leaves alternate, with long petioles, simple, deeply lobed, plant trailing along the ground, oak woodland, 4,300 feet in elevation, riparian site on Miller Creek, east side of the Rincons, sunny/open area, uncommon. Any ideas?
What a fun name for a plant. Reminds me of "ankle biter" for a small child. These little members of the Century Plant Family are not easy to spot if growing in grasses, unless their flowering stalks are present. As Century Plants, they flower once then die. It's an all or nothing proposition. However, they may spread via underground runners, so they don't rely solely on seeds to reproduce. Some species (larger cousins) may even start small plants growing on the tall flowering stalks. These vegetative off-shoots may take root when the stalk dies and falls to the ground. Odd reproductive strategy, but it must work. I ran into Shindagger, or Schott's Century Plant on Tanque Verde Ridge in December. It happened to be in full flower at the time, an odd but glorious sight. The flowering stalk was about 2 meters (six feet) tall with abundant, yellow, tubular flowers. Old stalks with dried capsules were still erect on some neighboring plants, as they often grow in clumps. It might be confused with Yucca as it lacks prickles on the margin of its leaves, though each leaf ends with a stout spine, hence the common name above. The leaf margins have fibers, so that it looks a little like it is shredded.
These shrubs are easy to spot with their beautiful red flowing bark. Their flowers too are distinctive, shaped like tiny spittoons. They are a delicate pink, then ripen into deep red fruits, the size of large peas. They taste like apples, hence the common name, which is Spanish for tiny apple. The seeds are as hard as rocks, however, and once I found worms in the batch I was eating. More protein? At any rate, the stems are not armed with spines or thorns but if you are trying to push your way through a thick stand of this stuff, you are in for a fight. They can grow to well over 2 meters in height. The branches are very stiff, so even though they lack spines, they can inflict a good deal of damage if you are not wearing protective clothing. It's best to stay on a trail if you have one. Frequently, I have observed these plants flowering in early spring only to be nailed by a later frost, killing that year's crop of fruit. Manzanita fruits are also eaten by wildlife (bears, rodents, birds). There are only four species of Manzanita in Arizona. Members of the Heather Family, they are close kin to Madrone, Pinedrops, and Blueberry.
Sometimes called Cedar, these trees/shrubs are distinct from the Old World Cedars you may have read about growing up. There are only about six species in Arizona and they are quite widespread, often growing with Pinyon Pines. They are quite hardy plants, not susceptible to many of the insect or drought issues that have hit Pine species across the Southwest in recent years. They can attain a height of nearly 10 meters (33 feet), depending on the species. Their leaves are best described as overlapping scales, quite distinct from the long needle leaves of their close relatives, the Pines. Their cones ("berries") are also quite different than the woody cones of Pines or Cypress. The "berries" are somewhat fleshy and can be eaten, though they take two to three seasons to ripen/mature. When they turn from blue to purple and begin to fall from the tree, they may even taste a little sweet. Commercially, they have been used to flavor Gin. The wood has been used for fence posts and as a fuel source. The wood is fragrant, giving chests and closets a very pleasant aroma. The bark may help distinguish some species, such as the Alligator Bark Juniper and other species which bear shredded bark.
The largest continuous stand of Ponderosa Pine in the United States is found in Arizona. Not the wasteland some think that it is. Ponderosa Pine has taken quite a hit recently between drought and Bark Beetles as they have worked in tandem across the Southwest. In the Rincons, as other Sky Islands in southeast Arizona, this tree is distinctive, important, and beautiful. The needles are long and elegant, usually in clusters of three, sometimes five. The bark of mature trees is reddish and delicately fragrant, some say like vanilla. Mature trees can reach a height of 72 meters. That's about as tall as any native tree species gets in Arizona. They can become so thick, if fires are suppressed long enough, to appear like weeds, leaving no room for undergrowth. Under natural conditions, where occasional fires keep expansive areas open as meadows, a dynamic mix of undergrowth and grasses support a diverse population of wildlife, such as elk and deer. The cones are not large but they are prickly. Squirrels eat up the seeds and campers use them as makeshift baseballs if they should happen to find many of them around camp. They are great for starting a campfire too. Creative types make crafts, such as Christmas wreaths with them. Due to its value as a source of lumber, it is the most economically important species of the yellow pines in the western U.S.