Native Plants of the Southwest (35) - Kolob Arch, Zion National Park
As a day or overnight hike, the trail into Kolob Arch is where great views abound. Small wildlife and many different species of wildflowers will be encountered. One expectation I now have when hiking in any National Park is the collection of curious folks who visit these natural jewels. Their costume and language are sure to add their own beauty to your experience. There's lots of solitude too, as the country is big enough to swallow just about anything. Be prepared to get wet if you hike very far past Kolob Arch along La Verkin Creek, at least in the spring with the extra runoff.
Reaching the trailhead for Kolob Arch is relatively straight forward. Take exit 40 off I 15, 33 miles north of St. George or 19 miles south of Cedar City. A visitor center lies immediately off the exit. Continue about four miles east to the parking area on the left. The easy to follow trail descends a gentle ridge then follows Timber Creek past a number of designated camping spots until it reaches La Verkin Creek at the 6.4 mile mark. Hike east up La Verkin Creek past more camping spots to the side canyon leading to where you can see Kolob Arch, one of the world's largest free-standing rock arches. It's less than a mile up this side canyon to where Kolob Arch is visible.
Permits are not needed to day hike into the Kolob Arch area but an entrance fee into the Park is required and if you plan to spend the night, you'll need a separate permit. Some camping spots can be reserved online, others are available for those who walk in. I met a couple of rangers on the way out and they check for permits. Parking is limited and there are no other facilities at the trailhead.
The timing of your hike will have a bearing on which plants you are likely to notice, those that flower in the spring or summer. I've included both. We start with one of the largest families of flowering plants in the world, the Pea Family with a prairie clover and a pea vine. Peas are also very important economically, feeding people (e.g. beans and peas), feeding animals (e.g. alfalfa), and beautifying the world with a host of ornamentals (e.g. Lupine and Mimosa). Unicorn Plant or Devil's Claw is a curious herbaceous plant that is often rather robust in its growth habit. It feels sticky and smells a bit foul. Finally, I conclude with a mint, Sage. Mints delight the eyes as well as the nose, and this one from Zion NP will not disappoint you in this regard. The book, Plants of Zion National Park: Wildflowers, Trees, Shrubs, and Ferns, by Ruth A. Nelson lists many more plants, serving as a reliable reference for the serious plant enthusiast. The website for the Park offers up to date information on plants as well (http://www.nps.gov/zion/naturescience/plants.htm).
Searls' Prairie Clover, Dalea searlsiae (Pea Family)
Standing to half a meter tall, Prairie Clover is topped with a compact spike of pinkish, purplish, yellowish flowers, each one shaped like a tiny butterfly. Imagine, if they all took flight before your eyes! There are hundreds on each stem. The foliage is a light green with divided leaves that are about 4 cm long overall. Sunny spots and sandy soil are preferred by this lovely plant, which grows with pinyon pine and juniper trees. The bean pod, the signature identifying feature of the Pea Family, is as short as the flowers with only one seed per fruit. This bright flowering plant, which prefers bright spots, is sure to brighten your day as you hike to Kolob Arch.
Bush Pea, Lathyrus brachycalyx ssp. zionis (Pea Family)
Nelson describes the flowers of Bush Pea as "brilliant." No doubt it will get your attention. Each flower is many times larger than its cousin Prairie Clover. The color of each flower is a "rich rose-purple," according to Nelson. Its leaves are also divided, perhaps a little darker green than Prairie Clover. Each leaflet is sharply pointed and this plant seems to prefer sites that are a little wetter, though no less sunny. It's a more delicate plant than Prairie Clover, slightly twining. The pod of Bush Pea is proportionately larger than Prairie Clover and has as many as ten seeds. While Prairie Clover smiles brightly up at you, Bush Pea seems to sing joyously, "Here I am!"
Devil's Claw, Proboscidea parviflora (Unicorn Plant Family)
Devil's Claw is a coarse, robust herbaceous annual. Its name is easily understood as the leaves are sticky and smelly. They are large and repulsive, in fact. The flowers though, are quite eye-catching. They are about three cm long, tubular, like a Penstemon of the Snap Dragon Family. Devil's Claw, though, has a more open mouth where the lobes of the petals flare out from the throat of the flower. There is a prominent, yellow stripe running down the center of the tube, like the "yellow brick road" in Oz. The tube of the flower is rose-pink in color with two deep, purplish spots pointing toward the sky. The fruit is quite distinctive. It starts out fleshy and green. As it dries, the curved end splits into a double hook, some 15 cm long overall. According to Wendy Hodgson in, Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert, the seeds were eaten by various Native American tribes, though the River Pimas and the Tohono O'odham joked about girls who ate too many seeds as this caused them to bear only male children. The fibers of the fruits were also used in basket-making. We played with these odd looking fruits as kids in Bisbee. There wasn't much else to do in Bisbee back in the early '60s. This plant gets around. Its range extends from Texas to California. Handle with care and eat at your own risk, ladies.
Purple Sage, Salvia dorrii ssp. dorrii var. incana (Mint Family)
I, like Nelson, appreciate Desert Sage. She gives a brief overview of the group with the following: "easily recognized because of the square stem, opposite leaves, and irregular corolla, which is two-lipped." The flowers of Desert Sage are light blue, surrounded by deep, burgundy, purple bracts. The plant is a small shrub that grows at the lower elevations in the Park. On the trail to Kolob Arch, it occupies open, sunny spots with the pinyon pine trees, not far from La Verkin Creek. According to the online Encyclopedia of Life, the grey-green leaves are narrow and tapered at the base, rounded at the tip, and have a smooth and round margin. They are generally basal, that is with no petiole, and about 1-3 cm long. They have an intense but pleasant, mildly intoxicating minty aroma, with the scent released when the foliage is handled or crushed. Whenever I have the chance, I grab a few leaves and crush them between my fingers as I hike. This aromatic element really accentuates the hike to Kolob Arch. You'll not only enjoy the sights, your nose will get a tickle out of the experience as well.