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6:27 PM Sun, Sept. 23rd

Native Plants of the Southwest (22) - East Loop - Various Trails, Pinal Mountains, Gila County

Mystery: Notice I did not use the word “plant” this time.  How about the name of this beautiful snake?

Mystery: Notice I did not use the word “plant” this time. How about the name of this beautiful snake?

The Pinal Mountains lie at the gateway to Arizona's Basin and Range Province or Sky Islands in the southeast part of the State. They rise to nearly 8,000 feet, sporting a mixed conifer community at the summit. No designated wilderness area is present, consequently, the range is relatively civilized. A well maintained dirt road, suitable for passenger cars, takes you 20 miles from Globe/Miami to two campgrounds at the very crest of the range. Several communication towers are situated among the stately Douglas Fir trees along the summit crest. The campgrounds offer tables, fire rings and pit toilets but no water.

Three primary trailheads offer access to the trail system: Ferndell, Icehouse Canyon, and Kellner Canyon. Each lies on the north facing slope of the range and the latest wildfire was contained on the south side of the Pinals. So, these trails are heavily forested and the likelihood of finding surface water is decent, at least in the spring, the recommended season for hiking in the Pinals. Spring also offers an excellent floral display beginning along the road up from Globe, Forest Road 651. From 4,000 feet to 8,000 feet you'll see purple Four O'Clock, red Penstemon, white Yucca, and blue Lupines. I'll focus here on several trails that form a loop I call the East Loop, a 15 mile saunter.

The hike heads east from Ferndell on Tr. 204 in a mixed conifer forest with lots of shade. This short section, less than a mile, takes you past Tr. 197 at the top of Six Shooter Canyon, to a set of communication towers and a road. Look south and you'll spot a sign for Tr. 196, which drops past Squaw Spring to Pioneer Pass. Now you're back in chaparral with shady sections of Ponderosa Pine. Cross the road and follow the ridge north down to Pinal Creek and back to the road on a series of trails (214, 200, 201). Follow the dirt road west about a half mile to Tr. 197 and the bottom of Six Shooter Canyon. Now the ascent begins. It's a steady rise some five miles and 2,500 feet back up to Ferndell. These trails are excellent training ground for hiking in the Grand Canyon, where you start at the top rather than the bottom like most other mountains.

Expect to share the road or trail with wildlife too, some less wild than others. A four foot bull snake lay across the road in the riparian portion of the drive near Globe, before the road climbed through the chaparral zone. Another bull snake, we noticed half way up a road cut in the chaparral near the bottom of Six Shooter Canyon (Trail 197). In addition to reptiles, you'll probably share the path with some ninja turtle-like bikers flying down the trail. They wear armor-like suits with breast plates, shin guards, and crash helmets. These are not your typical mountain bikers, but high speed, dare devils taking advantage of the extreme drop in elevation, easy access, uncrowded trails, and non-wilderness status to enjoy a thrilling ride among the cool pines and refreshing mountain air. Therefore, stay alert. The bikers I spoke with this year (2012) reported seeing bears and I suspect I nearly stumbled upon one here on my last hike in 2008. All I heard was a crash into the brush ahead on the trail but only saw claw marks in the dirt. I can't imagine anything else making that much noise. Be aware of your surroundings at all times.

The plants I discuss below represent a diverse assortment of families, from orchids to elderberries. They include parasitic wildflowers rarely observed and woody plants with delicate flowers seen in similar habitats all over the West. Enjoy!

Coralroot Orchid, Corallorhiza maculata (Orchid Family)

Orchids bear a certain element of mystery here in the Southwest. We don't see them much and when we do, they are very different from the magnificent, tropical beauties we find at the florist. The flowers are small and the plants often blend in to the background, either because they look brown like the ground or the flowers are green like the leafy vegetation surrounding them. Coralroot Orchids (three species in the Pinals), grow in the shade of mixed conifers, especially pines like Ponderosa, and are purplish-brown in color. These root parasites have no chlorophyll, deriving their nutrients from the roots of the conifers towering over them via fungi. Take a look at this article for a better understanding of how this works: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/interesting/mycotrophic/whatarethey.shtml. The flowers are small, with a white lip, spotted with purple flecks. The pollination biology of orchids is always fascinating. According to an article by J.L. Kippings in 1971, Dance-flies (Empis) have been reported as pollinators of this particular species. In spite of their diminutive stature, orchids stand tall in the annals of Southwest floristics, due to their limited distribution, peculiar ecology, and the fact that they grow in beautiful places.

Golden Corydalis, Corydalis aurea, (Bleeding Heart Family)

As you look at this plant, what would you call it? Remember how God assigned Adam the job of naming the animals? What about the plants? Let's say that task has fallen to you and you are looking at this little flower. What name do you give it? It's light yellow, has an irregular shape, longer than wide. It has a spur, not long and pointed like a Columbine, but short and blunt. The leaves are highly dissected and a little more gray than green. It only stands about 15 cm tall. Any ideas? How about Scrambled Eggs? That's one name for this curious member of the Bleeding Heart Family, the Fumariaceae. Not red and not shaped like a heart like its relatives, this name is probably due to its coloration. What about Gold Smoke? That's probably more all encompassing, taking into account its grayish leaves and yellow flowers. Its family affiliation is unsettled with some taking it from the Bleeding Hearts and placing it with the Poppy Family. While the professional botanists sort that out, on first sight, you might think it was a Legume with its Pea-like appearance. Legume it's not, lacking the appropriate fruit. It bears a capsule, not a bean pod. It goes without saying, therefore, that it pays to pay close attention to our vegetative friends. Attention to detail, as one professor said in botany class, is essential. This means we must change our pace from hurried and worried to deliberate and reflective. From quick to quiet. You'll be please with the difference this makes in your hikes. Additionally, this plant has found a number of medicinal uses among the Navajo, according to D. E. Moerman. The Southwest Environmental Network cites a 1986 report that Gold Smoke was used to treat a variety of ailments, including rheumatism, diarrhea, sores on the hands, stomachaches, menstrual problems, and sore throats, and as a general disinfectant.

Narrowleaf Yerba Santa, Eriodictyon angustifolium (Water-leaf Family)

This plant is a good example of deliberate reflection. On an ASU botany field trip to Sedona in 1983, I remember my professor saying this was the only woody Borage in Arizona. The narrow, shiny, resinous leaves are distinctive. I remember the plant well. I came across this shrub on the Highline trail in April 2012, though it was in bud, not quite yet in full bloom. Now, a month later in the Pinals, it is in flower and a beautiful sight. But I needed more than "the only woody Borage in Arizona" to figure out what it was. Turns out, it's not a Borage at all. The message falling on ears and eyes did not match up. It's the only woody Water-leaf in Arizona. These plant families are close, yet quite distinctive. My point is, persevere. Stick with it. Someone out there knows, the books and other tools will help guide the way. Best of all, it's worth the effort to discover what you have found. Make no mistake about it, it takes effort, deliberate, reflective. I looked through the Plants of Northern Arizona by MacDougal, Epple's non-technical Flora of Arizona, and the old stand-by, K&P's, the Flora of Arizona by Kearny and Peebles. This shrub frequents open spots at the edge of chaparral and pine forests. It puts on a strong display of many small, white flowers on a shrub that stands about a meter high. It's not in flower long, but once you see it, you'll not soon forget it. I didn't.

Roundleaf Snowberry, Symphoricarpos rotundifolius (Elderberry Family)

Do specific plants bear a specific image in your brain? That is, does a plant always remind you of a place? Some places are consistently tied to a specific plant. The most obvious example in the Southwest is the Saguaro, recognized by all as the indicator plant of the Sonorant Desert. How about the Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert? Personally, Fireweed takes me back to my first hike into Mt. Whitney. Snow Plant reminds me of hiking in Yosemite. Other plants connect with a type of place, such as Bristlecone Pine and timberline. Aspens place me between Ponderosa Pine forest and timberline, next to mixed conifer forests. I could go on and on, but you get the point. Roundleaf Snowberry is abundant in the Pinals and creates the image of cool undergrowth beneath a canopy of mixed conifers or pines. This small shrub bears clusters of a few white, tubular flowers among small, egg-shaped leaves. These leaves lie in neat, paired rows, gracefully aligned opposite each other on slender, delicate stems. I just love it. I hope you do too.