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Wed, Aug. 21

Native Plants of the Southwest (6) - Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Warner Trail

Mystery Plant Hint: Not a true fir.  Its cones hang down and have a conspicuous bract that is quite distinctive.

Mystery Plant Hint: Not a true fir. Its cones hang down and have a conspicuous bract that is quite distinctive.

The Warner Trail, on the south rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, is probably the worst trail I have ever been on in 35 years of wilderness hiking. Yet, it offers a rare and worthwhile glimpse into the natural and human history of the Southwest.

Named for a Presbyterian Minister, Mark Warner, the Warner Trail consists of two parts, a nature trail that is about 1.5 miles long and is pretty level as it skirts along the south rim of the Black Canyon and a primitive trail that is more of a gully than a trail. The latter portion is about 3 miles long and goes straight down to the river. Mark Warner was instrumental in getting the Black Canyon of the Gunnison set aside as a National Monument in 1933 by President Herbert Hoover. In 1999, President Bill Clinton signed legislation elevating the Monument to a National Park and expanded its boundaries. The Warner Trail is the only trail on the south rim that goes to the river, 2,500' below the rim. The other rim trails offer spectacular views of the Canyon and southwest Colorado.

As usual, space is limited, so I have selected four plants to illustrate the diversity of life in the Black Canyon. The first plant is a conifer and is widespread across North America. The second plant is a deciduous tree, commonly found in canyons across the Southwest. The third plant is a wildflower that is a bit unusual. It is an aquatic plant and it is also carnivorous. The mystery plant is another conifer that is seen throughout the higher elevations of the western United States.

Canyons like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, with their extreme elevation change in such a small space, are excellent locations to observe very diverse plant communities. The cliffs, the river channel, and the relatively level rim, all exhibit distinct plant and animal communities. It is difficult to take it all in, but it is worth a try. Like my daughter said about the Grand Canyon, "You can't really say you've seen it unless you venture below the rim." The Black Canyon is a little like that, a mini Grand Canyon, which allows you to experience a lot in a very compact area.

Blue Spruce is a stately tree of the mountains, specifically the Rocky Mountains as well as eastern Canada and New England. It is the state tree of Colorado. It grows up to timberline and can reach a height of 50 meters. That's pretty tall. The needles sit atop a little stalk that give the branchlets a rough feel when the needles fall off. The needles are 4-angled in cross section and are blue-green in color. The cones are relatively small and hang down from the branches, generally high up in the tree. The cones are light brown in color.

Box Elder is a riparian tree, found across the Southwest and gets up to about 10 meters in height. Its deciduous leaves are divided (compound). It has three leaflets and is sometimes confused with Poison Ivy. The flowers and fruits are quite distinct from Poison Ivy, however. It has winged fruits like a Maple. The bark is gray-brown and slightly furrowed. The wind-pollinated flowers appear in the spring. The fruits persist into October, when the leaves contribute a splash of yellow to the fall color among the conifers growing in the steep canyons across the region.

Bladderwort will only be found in the quieter waters of the Gunnison River at the bottom of the Black Canyon. Its small yellow flowers resemble those of snapdragons. The flowers protrude above the surface of the water, while the remaining part of the plant is submerged, floating quietly, waiting for lunch to swim past one of its many small bladders. These bladders have tiny hairs near their opening, which, if touched, trigger the door of the bladder to swing open, sucking the hapless mosquito larvae inside where it will soon be digested to supplement the nutritional requirements of this aquatic wildflower. It is Arizona's only native carnivorous plant and is considered one of the more complex species among carnivorous plants in general. Mountain ponds, bogs, and streams are the habitats where Common Bladderwort can be found.

There is much more to see in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The south rim has a campground and visitor center. I have never stopped at the north rim, but there are even more trails to explore there. It's not just a place for hiking, cross country skiers enjoy the Park in winter, but alas, they miss out on all the flowers. No matter when you go, you'll come away with fond memories and a camera full of photos.

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