Native Plants of the Southwest (18) - Ford Canyon Trail, White Tanks Regional Park
White Tanks is my favorite County Park in Arizona and Ford Canyon Trail, my favorite trail in the Maricopa Park system. It takes three trails to form a loop, about 8 miles in Ford, Willow, and Mesquite Canyons, with views of the city and a feeling of being far from civilization. Ford Canyon is a sandy wash with some climbing over slick rocks. The views are great and water is usually present in the "white tanks" in most of the canyons. The water may be green but it is wet.
Be aware that there is a fee to enter park. There's plenty of parking. Trails close at sunset. The best time to hike here is November to March. Bikers are frequently encountered, so pay attention. A new visitor center was constructed in 2011. Most trailheads and picnic sites offer flush toilets and drinking fountains. Expect crowds on winter weekends.
The Park is located at the end of Olive Avenue some 14 miles west of Loop 101. Follow the main Park road to Waterfall Canyon Rd. (2 miles). Take this Road 1/2 mile west to area 7 just past the Waterfall Canyon trailhead. One tree, one wildflower, and two cacti constitute the plants I want to highlight on this hike. Enjoy. Walk lightly. Pack it in, pack it out.
Elephant tree, Bursera microphylla (Frankincense & Myrrh Family)
Well known for its aromatic properties, this family is not well represented in the Southwest. The White Tanks are the northern limit of this genus, consequently you are lucky to come across one. The swollen trunk with its flaky bark is easy to pick out of the crowd, wood plants on rocky hillsides. This small tree does not respond well to freezing temperatures, especially when young. If the cold has caused it to die back, the trunk of the mature tree is likely to have several branches near the ground. The flowers and fruits are small and likely to be missed by the casual hiker. The leaves are bright green, but deciduous. They are divided with anywhere from 17 to 23 small leaflets. Used for incense in the southern parts of the Sonoran Desert, other uses such as food have not been well documented. In lean years, some ate the seeds, but in light of its limited distribution, Elephant Tree has not been much more than a curiosity to people of the Southwest, but that's OK. It's enough to simply look upon its twisted and succulent trunk and appreciate its tenacious ability to survive in this arid land.
Covena Grass, Dichelostemma capitatum (Lily Family)
Though not a grass, Covena Grass has leaves that resemble those of its distant cousin, grasses. As a member of the Lily Family, its floral parts are in threes, three sepals and three petals. Each of these parts is the same size and color. When that's the case, some call them collectively, tepals. Once you know what to look for, you'll spot the leaves well ahead of the flower stalks in February. Digging down into the rocky soil, you'll find an edible bulb. If you're not careful, the plant will break before you reach the bulb and you'll have to try again elsewhere. The bulbs don't' have much flavor and are about the size of the tip of your little finger. Some Indian groups also ate the flowers, according to Hodgson in "Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert." The lovely little blue flowers stand about a foot off the ground, clustered on the end of a slender stalk. They are widespread across desert slopes in Arizona below 4,000 feet.
Hedgehog, Echinocereus engelmannii (Cactus Family)
The first cactus to flower each year in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, this hedgehog bears large purplish flowers. Hedgehog cacti form clusters of about 5-10 stems that stand about 6 inches tall. They grow out in the open on rocky hillsides and have quite a collection of spines. Cacti spines help distinguish some species and many varieties. The spines of this species do not completely hide the stems but they are quite formidable. Like other cacti, the flowers have many tepals, many stamens, and a fruit that ripens below the tepals. In the middle of the flower is a bright green stigma divided into several branches. Cacti attract a wide variety of pollinators from bees to ants. There's not any specialization going on in their pollination biology. The juicy fruit of this species is well known for its sweet taste and high protein seeds. Since the spines fall from the fruits as they mature, rodents tend to harvest them before people have a chance. I have yet to try these tasty little morsels.
Fishhook Cactus, Mammillaria tetrancistra (Cactus Family)
Obviously, the spines of this cactus are hooked at the end, looking just like a fishhook. The spines are black and not as stout as many other cacti. The delicate pink flowers pop out of the stems here and there in the spring, sometimes forming a loose ring around the top of the stems. The fruits that follow the flowers are spineless and are bright red. They are small, somewhat elongate (club-shaped) and will hang around for some days. I have eaten many and they are delightful, much like a strawberry. These cacti prefer to grow in rocky outcrops and at the base of shrubs to limit predation and trampling, so you might have to look carefully to find them. Since they are relatively common, you should have no trouble finding them sooner rather than later.