Native Plants of the Southwest (40) - Seven Springs, North of Phoenix, AZ
The best hiking in Arizona is during the transition between hot and cold seasons, in part due to the vastly increased number of places to hike where the days are mild. Seven Springs occupies a transitional ecological area between a woodland and the Sonoran Desert, with a stream running through the middle of it. That makes for a win-win situation, especially in the fall when the nights are also mild and the weather is clear. Spring is usually wetter so the flora puts on a greater display of beauty. Spring or fall, this is the place to be, with easy access to a variety of trails.
This hike begins at the Cave Creek Trailhead and forms a counter-clockwise loop with Trails 4 and 246 with a tiny bit of Trail 247 at the end to connect the loop. The hike took seven hours in January, on foot. There was a major fire in this area in 2005, so the recovery is in full swing, though it is much slower in the desert than in higher elevation forests. There is usually plenty of water in Cave Creek, some in Skunk Creek, and a little at Quien Sabe Spring. I biked it in March, taking three and a half hours. The trails are very rocky, so it's not a fun ride. Plenty of water and wildflowers are in evidence in the spring depending on rainfall amounts. It would be a nice backpacking destination in season: close, wet, rugged.
The Tonto National Forest has done a great job of maintaining these trails, but you must remember this is a canyon environment and evidence of flooding is everywhere. Trail conditions vary widely from one year to the next. Parking is limited but it is free at the trailhead. There are fees for using the nearby campgrounds/picnic areas. The trail begins in a well-watered canyon with juniper trees then descends into the Sonoran Desert as evidenced by Saguaro cacti. The best season of use is November through March.
From the town of Carefree, take Cave Creek Road east to the turn off toward Horseshoe and Bartlett lakes. Stay left and take Forest Road 24 north to the Seven Springs Recreation Area and the Cave Creek Trailhead, about 10 miles. The Cave Creek Trailhead is just north of the campground. The four plants I've picked for you to look for, include two cacti and two herbs. The cacti will obviously be present all year, but frequently flowering when it's too hot to hike. The herbs will be most evident in the spring, both offering edible alternatives. But flowering seasons vary widely in the desert, depending on moisture. Even growing seasons are not constant with many species. Plants, like hikers need to be ready for anything in such an arid land. "Make hay while the sun shines" changes to "grow/hike when it rains" since it is almost always sunny in Arizona, but rain is another matter entirely.
Topo Maps: New River Mesa and Humboldt Mtn. quads 7.5'
Saguaro, Carnegiea gigantea (Cactus Family)
The state flower of Arizona, the blossom of the Saguaro, graces the hot slopes of the Sonoran Desert in May and June, followed by the sweet, spineless fruits in June and July. Generally, these fruits are high above the ground on the end of the Saguaro's "arms," requiring the assistance of long poles or more frequently, ribs of the Saguaro, to knock them to the ground where they can be gathered and used in all manner of ways from wine to preserves. Despite the fact that the Sonoran Desert is divided into seven distinct phases, the Saguaro cactus grows throughout, making it the indicator plant of the Sonoran Desert. The range of the White-winged Dove is integral to the range of the Saguaro, as it plays an important role in dispersing the seeds of the Saguaro in places where the cactus is likely to get established like underneath thorny shrubs such as Foothills Paloverde, Hackberry, or Wolfberry. These and similar woody plants, serve as "nursery plants" for many species in the Sonoran Desert, not just Saguaros. There are a number of myths surrounding Saguaro cacti, such as the growth of arms to balance the plant and keep it from falling over. I heard a graduate student tell a class at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix that when the arms fall off, a new plant takes root. That is false. Several species of cacti root when their stems rest on the ground, but not Saguaros. The ribs of the Saguaro are straight up and down, making the plane at the top of the plant flat/horizontal. This is different from Barrel cacti, which we will discuss shortly. The ribs of both species are important in that they allow the plant to expand and contract in response to water availability. The ribs increase the surface area devoted to photosynthesis, plus they offer strength to the structure of these tall stem succulents. Much more could be said about Saguaro cacti, but I'll leave you with the challenge of finding the "crested Saguaro" on the trail while you are hiking at Seven Springs. Crested Saguaros are unusual, but there is one that is quite prominent on this hike. Point your eyes toward the sky when you encounter a Saguaro and you are sure to see it.
Miner's Lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata (Purslane Family)
Miner's Lettuce is a joy to find. It frequents moist areas and is distinctive in appearance. You may see it in rock crevices where moisture is accumulated, mimicking sites with higher rainfall. Though its flowers are small, the manner in which the stems seem to penetrate the leaves, is eye-catching. This small annual has white to pinkish flowers with petals that are notched at the tip. The leaves are rather fleshy, almost succulent. It is edible and much better tasting than Dock, which is discussed below. It is refreshing, light, crisp, and crunchy. Never the less, as always, accurate identification is a must. Never eat any plant that you are not absolutely sure about. From John Wesley Powell's trip down the Grand Canyon to the book/movie, Into the Wild, plus a thousand other stories, history is replete with disastrous culinary experiments with people and plants. It's not worth guessing what you can "graze" and what you can't on your next hike. Take pictures, enjoy the views, give thanks for such blessings, so freely enjoyed in America. Many people in most countries do not have this luxury.
Barrel Cactus, Ferocactus cylindraceus (Cactus Family)
Barrel cacti also enjoy mythical status, like Saguaro cacti. Only, in this case, it involves supplying water to dehydrated survival victims. These cacti have been portrayed as gushing forth with springs of pure water, but the very fact that they survive in the desert is testimony to the fact they hold on to the water they absorb very jealously. Their insides are like watermelon rind, not the sweet, red, juicy part. The water can be separated from the cactus rind only with some effort, depending on how much water is present in the first place. Dry years or dry seasons mean drier plants. It's never the same. Cooking, grinding, squeezing, or placing the plant material in a solar still offer some means of extracting the moisture in the tissue of a Barrel cactus. Getting past its spines and digging a solar still, should you pursue that option, are formidable tasks in and of themselves. You are better off, leaving the cactus alone considering how much moisture you will lose, trading sweat for cactus juice as a result of your labor. As I mentioned above, the ribs of the Saguaro are straight. They are curved or twisted in the Barrel. Therefore, the plane at the top of the plant is tilted a little, toward the southwest. Some species of Barrel are called "Compass Barrel" for this reason. They are fairly consistent in this regard, though not very precise. The flowers of the Barrel might appear in the spring, summer, or fall. They are yellow and form a ring around the top of the plant. Bees, ants, and many others animals serve as pollinators. Saguaro and Barrel cacti are also alike in that their root systems are very shallow so they can capture light and infrequent precipitation events, which are the most common type in the Sonoran Desert.
Curly Dock, Rumex crispus (Buckwheat Family)
Dock is a perennial herb which prefers moist habitats and its leaves are edible. However, it is acidic in taste, containing oxalic acid. Therefore, you should not eat very much of it. Also, the flowers are inconspicuous. So, unless you are quite familiar with it, you should never take a chance on eating it. Where it grows, in waste places such as flood plains, it can be quite abundant. But more often than not, you'd hike right past it and never notice it, at least until its greenish flowers turn into dry fruits and turn reddish brown. This is an introduced plant from Eurasia. It is now world-wide in distribution. It obviously does what it does very well - reproduce and spread. It also hybridizes readily with related species, so the plasticity of its genetics, help it get around, contributing to its global success. There are many contributing factors to how well a species survives and spreads. Many of those factors are poorly understood or not known until the damage is done, causing serious threats to other species and, in some cases, serious losses in agricultural productivity. Never the less, Dock has found its way into the hearts and stomachs of Native Americans, pioneers who roamed the Southwest, as well as contemporary hikers.