Originally Published: January 5, 2013 12:25 p.m.
Aravaipa Canyon is an oasis in the Sonoran Desert of central Arizona. Webster defines an oasis with two related concepts. First, it is small. It's either green or fertile, an island surrounded by the desert, which is brown and lacking in fertility. This definition of an oasis exhibits a contrast between the oasis and its surroundings, due to the presence of water, a truly precious and unique substance. Second, it is a refuge. It offers relief or a pleasant change from what is usual, annoying, or difficult. Webster uses a great example, which I will have to repeat. "The library was an oasis of calm in the hectic city." The synonyms listed are few, but make the point: haven, harbor, retreat, shelter.
Unlike the "classic image" of the desert, the Sonoran Desert is much more green, especially in the vicinity of Aravaipa Canyon, owing to its two distinct rainy seasons, steady/gentle/widespread in winter and erratic in summer with spotty thunderstorms. Aravaipa Canyon is not a spot like a typical oasis, but a line. Regardless, it is a linear refuge because of its reliable source of water, in an otherwise parched landscape. Fish, wildflowers, wildlife, and geologic points of interest abound in this precious oasis. A short trail leads to the creek. From there, follow the creek as far as you like. Fine camping spots will be found all along the Canyon depending on what the periodic floods leave behind.
Parking is free but camping is not allowed at the west trailhead. Both east and west trailheads are on private property so be careful not to disturb the locals. Access can be easily shut down to this little jewel. There is no trail in the Canyon. All hiking is along the gravel canyon bottom and you will cross and re-cross the creek from one end of the Canyon to the other. Wear foot gear that is easy to empty of sand and gravel, which you will pick up each time you cross the stream. Online registration is easy, convenient, and in real time. You can tell at a glance if there are any open slots and the fees are nominal - well worth it. (https://www.blm.gov/az/aravaipa/hikingcalendar.cfm)
Aravaipa Canyon is about 50 miles southeast of Superior, AZ. Take Hwy. 77 past Winkleman for about 11 miles to find the turn off to Central Arizona College and Aravaipa Canyon. The pavement ends after about 5 miles. Continue another 4 miles on a good dirt road to the trailhead. There is another trailhead on the east end of the Canyon. Topo Maps: Booger Canyon, Brandenburg Mtn., Holy Joe Pk., and Oak Grove Canyon quads 7.5'
Each plant presented here for hiking in Aravaipa Canyon draws attention to the site's mesic nature. Riparian zones do not often influence the vegetation more than a few meters from the edge of the water in the Southwest. Consequently, cacti and shrubs designed for xeric sites grow within a stone's throw of these and other plants that depend on water, such as willow. Therefore, these plants will be seen in the Canyon bottom, where you will be hiking. You won't venture far from the water either. Herbaceous plants all, these species come from large families that are quite diverse. That's one attraction of riparian zones, you will experience quite a variety of plant species. The well known Poison Hemlock starts us off, followed by a grass-like plant from the Rush Family. Next we have a characteristic member of the Buttercup Family with its flowers consisting of many parts, making it a "primitive" plant in the overall scheme of things. Finally, an even more primitive plant, a fern, concludes the species which introduce the variety, beauty, and most importantly, the wetland nature you'll enjoy hiking in Aravaipa Canyon.
Poison Hemlock, Conium maculatum (Carrot Family)
Some plants stand out for their flowers, others for their fruits. Sometimes, unusually distinctive, leaves, stems, aroma, color, or overall size tip off the plant hunter so that accurate identification is achieved. Ingesting this plant could be such a tactic, but highly discouraged for obvious reasons. Therefore, the inflorescence, or arrangement of the flowers into "umbels," an umbrella-like configuration is the best place to start with this species. Not every plant with flowers in umbels is from the same family, but this trait suggests you start with the Carrot Family to save time and frustration. Beginning with this family, next consider the habitat and overall size of the plant and you should have enough information to narrow down the possibilities considerably. Poison Hemlock favors moist, disturbed sites. Sites prone to flooding are perfect. The flowers are small but clustered together in compound umbels so as to make them easy to see. I excitedly reported seeing compound umbels for the first time on a hike in the Superstitions to by lab instructor in college while taking Flora of Arizona. She took this as a sign that I was hooked on plants and, sure enough, from then on my path seemed to be set. While certain medicinal properties are recognized with this species, it is too fine a line to take any chances. Therefore, the historical reputation of this plant all the way back to Socrates as a deadly poison affecting the respiratory system of anyone ingesting it, should be respected. Look but don't touch.
Toad Rush, Juncus bufonius (Rush Family)
Named for the toad genus, Bufo, perhaps because they inhabit similar habitats (wet areas), this plant is found worldwide and exhibits a wide range of characteristics. One designation for it is graminoid or grass-like. The rushes resemble grasses superficially but the important issue with plant classification is not how things are similar but how they differ. The principle difference between rushes and grasses lies in their respective fruit types. The fruit of the Grass Family is a caryopsis or grain. The fruit of the rushes is a capsule, such as that in the poppies or orchids. What's the difference? Both are dry. But, capsules consist of more than one compartment with several seeds. Grains consist of only one compartment with one seed and no space between the seed and the wall of the compartment. What's the big deal? From the standpoint of science, evolution, plant classification, reproduction, etc., I can't say. But from the standpoint of economics, there is a huge difference, as the grains from grasses feed more people and animals than any other group of plants. So, the next time you eat anything made from flour, remember it came from a flower in the Grass Family. That's bread; tortillas; rice, cereals; desserts such as cakes, pies, donuts; and many snacks such as crackers. The next time you are hiking in Aravaipa Canyon look for the rush. Take a closer look at the flowers and fruits. See if you can tell the difference.
Arizona Mousetail, Myosurus cupulatus (Buttercup Family)
According to D.E. Moerman on the SEINET (Southwest Environmental Network) database, the Navaho-Ramah used Myosurus cupulatus medicinally both externally and internally as an aid for ant bites or swallowing an ant. The Ramah portion of the Navaho Reservation is only 1% of the total Reservation. I wonder if they have issues with ants there. I have eaten ants on a survival trip in the Superstition Wilderness but the ants were cooked, so no one was going to get bitten. Good thing, since Arizona Mousetail was unknown to me at that time. The common name must refer to appearance and location. Located in the Southwest, the flowers of Myosurus cupulatus look a little like the tail of a mouse, if you use your imagination. The flowering structure is called a scape. Wikipedia, had this to say about plant scapes, in part: "The word 'scape', as used in botany, has a similar origin with the word "sceptre." Etymologically it has nothing to do with such words as "escape" or "landscape". Its meaning is fairly vague and arbitrary; various sources provide divergent definitions. Some older usages simply amount to a stem or stalk in general, but modern formal usage tends to favor the likes of 'A long flower stalk rising directly from the root or rhizome' or 'a long, naked, or nearly naked, peduncle, rising directly from the base of a plant.' " So, the flowers arise directly from the base of the plant, along with a few narrow leaves, that are rather plump. The plant may grow in moist or dry conditions, so Aravaipa Canyon is a good bet, if you are looking for a cure for swallowing ants from a plant that looks like a mouse's tail. Like other members of the Buttercup Family, the flowers have many parts that are separate from one another. That is, they are not fused together. The pistils are many, forming many distinct achenes from the petals to the end of the "mouse's tail." Achenes are dry fruits like sunflower seeds in form and structure. It is possible that the leaves are the parts that resemble a mouse's tail. In that case, we have a plant that looks like a mouse's tail, in flower or not, functioning as a cure for swallowing ants on part of the Navajo Reservation. Will wonders never cease in the world of plants?
Sonoran Maiden Fern, Thelypteris puber var. sonorensis (Marsh Fern Family)
With nearly 20 species in the Southwest out of the almost 900 species recognized worldwide, the Marsh ferns are quite variable in minute detail. The only one though in Aravaipa Canyon is this species (the hairy maiden) and this variety, centered in the Sonoran Desert. Favoring moist sites, the stems are creeping and the leaves are evergreen. As the name suggests, the underside of the leaves is rather hairy. Botanists get rather specific with the details of some species and this one is described in the SEINET database to the level of the hairs, "Sori round, indusia tan to brownish, usually densely hairy, hairs irregularly crimped, ca. 0.2 mm...." Wow, that's detail, "hairs irregularly crimped." If you are unfamiliar with ferns, a sorus (pl. sori) is a cluster of sporangia (structures producing and containing spores), according to Wikipedia. Ferns do not produce fruits or seeds. They reproduce via spores and these spores are released from sporangia and these spore releasing organs are arranged in clusters of varying sorts. The indusia is the membrane upon which the sori sit. Therefore, never go on a hike where ferns are present without a hand lens. In fact, never leave the trailhead without it, as they say. Reproductive structures are critical when it comes to the classification of any organism, plant or animal. How do you know you have a fern and not an apple tree? By the presence of spores or apples. That's why it was said so long ago, "You know them by their fruits." As with plants, so too with animals and people. Keep your eyes open and your hand lens handy.
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