Originally Published: October 25, 2011 6:52 p.m.
The Bell Trail follows Wet Beaver Creek before it climbs the plateau to higher grasslands. It once afforded passage for transporting cattle between warm and cool season pastures. It now offers a great place to observe native plants in a most diverse riparian habitat.
Now that we have sampled a handful of trails further afield (SW Colorado), it's time to come back a little closer to home, hiking one of the most popular trails in the Verde Valley - The Bell Trail. Permanent water in Arizona is a notable feature and certainly accounts for the Trail's popularity. Convenient access (2.3 miles east of I 17 at the Sedona Exit), a series of deep swimming holes, and ample fishing opportunities contribute to the high interest in this hike. Since the focus of this blog is native plants, we are fortunate to have so many to choose from. This group of stick-like woody plants are widespread, though you may not have noticed them much. Once you find out a thing or two about them, you're sure to appreciate them.
Crucifixion-thorn, Canotia holacantha
It's not rocket science, looking at this plant to figure out how it got its name. Weaving a crown of thorns from this tree/shrub would do some definite damage, though it would probably be no easy task. This native of the Sonoran Desert is quite conspicuous on dry slopes from Mexico to the Verde Valley and west to the eastern edge of the Mojave Desert. The flowers are tiny and not conspicuously colored. Therefore, it's the overall form of this woody plant that will get your attention, unless you bump into it. The leaves too are not evident but the green stems bear small brown capsules for much of the year. A member of the Bittersweet Family, many related plants have been used for their aromatic compounds to manufacture soaps and dyes. Some species yield commercial wood for crafts. No such luck here with this species. Give it some space and simply marvel at its toughness.
Ocotillo, Fouquieria splendens
While some confuse this spindly shrub with a cactus, it is a member of the Candlewood Family along with the Boojum Tree. It was named for a French doctor, Pierre Fouquier. The best way to organize plants is by their means of reproduction, flowers and fruits in the case of most plants living today. The flowers of Ocotillo are tubular, well designed for humming birds, which like to visit them in the spring for their rich supply of nectar. The fruits of this plant are dry capsules, neither of these characters are anything like that found in cacti. Ocotillo, may be spiny but there are many plants with spines. That doesn't make them a member of the Cactus Family. Ocotillo too are widespread across the hot deserts of North America from Texas to California. They may also be found high among pinyon pines and junipers at 7,000'. They get around. Another distinction from cacti is how they leaf out after a rain. Cacti don't do that. However, one thing they have in common with some species of cacti, like prickly pears and chollas, is their tendency to root from cuttings. Hence, you may find them used as living, spiny fences, a true barrier to would-be fence hoppers like me.
Mormon Tea, Ephedra spp.
Mormon tea is also called Jointfir, since it is related to firs not flowering plants. It bears cones, not flowers or fruits. Some eight species occur in Arizona with several others found in neighboring states. As the name suggests, Mormon pioneers used the green twigs to make tea. I have done so myself and it can be quite tasty, like an herbal tea. However, these plants contain ephedrine which is a powerful stimulant, so be extra careful not to drink too much of this stuff. Native Americans used Jointfir for a variety of medicinal purposes as well. Since they don't flower, they are recognized by thick clusters slender green stems. They are generally not thorny and the stems are more slender than the Crucifixion thorn. Plus, like the name implies, the green stems are jointed at regular intervals. Dry slopes from the Sonoran Desert up to pinyon, juniper zone is where you'll surely encounter these useful shrubs.
Juniper Mistletoe, Phoradendron juniperinum
Mistletoe is a parasitic epiphyte that grows on a variety of host plants. Interesting that a plant associated with kissing, is parasitic. Never the less, an epi-phyte is a plant that grows upon (epi) another plant (phyte). There are several species of the genus Phoradendron in Arizona. This one grows upon juniper trees, so is likely to be seen in small clusters among the branches of junipers along the Bell Trail. The Hopis used these plants for medicinal purposes and birds often feed on the fruits, helping to disperse the plants among other potential hosts. The clusters of mistletoe are easy to see, being a different shade of green among the juniper branches. When in fruit, mistletoe bear very small white berries. The flowers are quite inconspicuous with male and female flowers on different plants, making wind pollination the likely means for delivering pollen to the desired destination.