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Thu, Feb. 20

Native Plants of the Southwest (15) - Miner's (104) & Bluff Spring (235) Trails Loop, Superstition Wilderness

Mystery Plant: A distinctive shrub with wand-like branches. Confused with cacti.  Used to make a living fence.  What is its name?

Mystery Plant: A distinctive shrub with wand-like branches. Confused with cacti. Used to make a living fence. What is its name?

Each seasonal display varies widely depending on winter rains and temperatures. Whenever I have gone from the Superstitions to other destinations in the Sonoran Desert, the Superstitions have consistently had more to see. Peralta Canyon trailhead is a little over 7 miles north of US 60. The turn off is just east of Gold Canyon at mile post marker 204 and there is now a traffic light there too. The road is paved for the first mile then well-graded to the end, winding through a housing subdivision before it enters the Tonto National Forest. The first time I hiked here in 1975, it was rather remote, though the lights of Apache Jct. could be seen at night from the hilltops in the forbidden and foreboding Superstition Wilderness. My how things have changed.

The loop of these two trails can be hiked in either direction and completed in a day. I started late so made an overnight hike out of it, camping at Whiskey Springs, north and east of Miner's Needle. There were lots of puddles along the trail but few springs. However, Whiskey Springs proved adequate for my needs. I hiked north from the Peralta Trailhead into Barks Canyon. The trail then curves east into Bluff Spring Canyon where it meets the Miner's Trail (104) at Crystal Spring (dry December 2011). From there it rises gradually to the Miner's Summit with nice views of Miner's Needle. Here, the trail to Whiskey Springs takes you to reliable water about 1 mile distant. From Miner's Summit the trail drops to the flats below Miner's Needle with ever changing views of this rock feature every step of the way. Once you reach the flats, it's a pleasant stroll back to the trailhead.

We'll spend the next few weeks discussing trails in the Sonoran Desert. In spite of the limited number of plants presented each time, when you add them all up, you'll have quite a few beauties to look for not too far away. From Black Canyon City to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and from Tucson to the Colorado River, there are innumerable trails, but the plants will overlap widely, so you're bound to come across them all at one time or another. Today the focus is on Desert Lavender (Hyptis emoryi), Ratany (Krameria spp.), Desert Chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana), and Chia (Salvia columbariae). The mystery plant might look strangely familiar. Enjoy.

Desert Lavender, (Hyptis emoryi)

Most members of the Mint Family are quite aromatic and Desert Lavender is no exception. Just crush the leaves between your fingers and you'll enjoy the lavender aroma for some time. The plant itself is easy to miss, a shrub, two meters tall that is scraggly and gray. It blends in to the background even in flower as the purple flowers are quite small. Bees, however, know exactly where it is, deriving nectar and pollen from the tiny flowers. True to the family pattern, the flowers have petals that are united into a short tube and are irregular in shape (2-lipped) as you look at them in the face. They resemble the flowers of the Snapdragon Family in overall design. These flowers are clustered together towards the end of the stems. The leaves are wooly and arranged opposite each other on the skinny stems. You'll find Desert Lavender growing here and there, never in abundance, on rocky hillsides in the Sonoran Desert. The seeds have been eaten, but I can't imagine spending the effort considering the scant return on your investment, but I can't speak from experience as I have only feasted on the plant's aroma.

Ratany, (Krameria spp.)

Ratany is one of my favorite shrubs. It too is easy to overlook, being a compact gray shrub scattered across the rocky bajadas and hillsides in the Sonoran Desert. However, its flowers and fruits are quite interesting. Though small, the flowers superficially resemble those of the peas with their wings, ready to take flight like the most delicate butterfly. Due to their resemblance to pea flowers, they were included in the Pea Family for many years. Their fruits, on the other hand, look nothing like the typical pea pod. Instead they look like little balls with miniature spikes sticking out of them. Also, rather than nectar, bees seek them out for their supply of oil. Sometimes the stems are thorny. The leaves are simple, unlike the typical pea plant. I seek out these shrubs every spring just to marvel at their unusual reproductive structures. Odd? Probably just an appreciation for things less common. These small plants definitely march to the sound of a different drummer. Some species are parasitic on neighboring shrubs and Native Americans used them for dyes and medicinally. All in all, a plant worth getting to know.

Desert Chicory, (Rafinesquia neomexicana)

The Sunflower Family is the biggest plant family in the Southwest, as far as number of species is concerned. Consequently, they come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Desert Chicory is a relatively large-flowered, white wildflower that likes to grow within shrubs for a little added support. Sunflower Family plants arrange their flowers in compact heads. What looks like a single flower is actually a collection of flowers or inflorescence. In this case, the flowers are all ray flowers. No disc flowers are present. The leaves are larger toward the base of the plant and each blade is deeply lobed.

Chia, (Salvia columbariae)

Have you read the book, "Born to Run?" Chia plays a significant role in the success of the Tarahumara runners in Mexico. The seeds of this little Mint Family plant are loaded with protein, fiber, and essential oils. Unfortunately, they are not that abundant, at least as a wildflower in Arizona's Sonoran Desert. Some Indian groups burned certain areas to foster the establishment and success of the next Chia crop. Chia grows only a few inches high with small clusters of little purple flowers scattered along the square stems. Their appearance is rather distinctive. Once you know them, they are easy to spot, seemingly standing out like a miniature totem pole in the Lilliputien world of Sonoran Desert wildflowers. Most of the leaves grow at the base of the stems, leaving the flower clusters to shout out loud about their contribution to the success of long distance runners. The seeds were soaked in water to make a mucilaginous drink. YumYum. Fly like the wind, as they say. Anglos, from ranchers to miners also bragged about the energy derived from Chia and how the little seeds quenched their thirst.

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