Native Plants of the Southwest (52) - New Hance Trail, Grand Canyon, South Rim
One of the challenges associated with the New Hance Trail is its tendency to suffer from frequent rock slides, general deterioration, and neglect, in part due to lack of use. However, it is an important trail, notable for its history as well as its ecology. It's a challenging hike, so all the more rewarding if you hike it Rim to River or vice versa.
Descending the New Hance Trail is no picnic. According to Ron Adkison, it is the "South Rim's most difficult trail." (Hiking Grand Canyon National Park, Falcon Guide, 2nd Edition, 2006) The trailhead is in the "middle of nowhere," one mile west of Moran Point. Parking is not allowed at the trailhead. You will see cars parked nearby along the road where it is wide enough to get off the pavement. I biked to the trailhead from Grandview Point 5.5 miles, and hiked back to Grandview Point the same day, making it a hike-ride loop.
The trail is quite obscure, very steep, and unmaintained, so several sections are not very trail-like. From Road 64 follow the path to the edge of the rim where a sign warns you to know what you are getting yourself into. Follow small cairns to the head of Red Canyon, turn right and continue north to the top of the Red Wall. Thread your way down small ledges to the bottom of Red Canyon. Follow the streambed to the Colorado River. The trail stays above the streambed for a short distance to bypass some cliffs, then follows the gravel streambed through piles of boulders of various sizes. It's under 8 miles Rim to River.
The four plants selected are outstanding representatives of the Canyon flora. They are from different families that are large and widespread. Specifically, Brownfoot is one of the more colorful and easily recognized members of the Sunflower Family. The sedge is a grass-like plant that shows up in wet, riparian sites like the Colorado River. This particular genus is distributed world-wide, so it is a good one to know as you will see it over and over but you should understand that it is not a grass in spite of its superficial resemblance. California Redbud is a beautiful tree, sought after as a landscape plant across the Southwest at lower elevations where moisture is sufficient. Finally, Beavertail Cactus is characteristic of the hottest and driest corners of North America, perfectly at home in the Grand Canyon. I hope you feel comfortable here too. Surely you will as you gain familiarity with the local flora, in the Canyon and across the Southwest.
Brownfoot, Acourtia wrightii (Sunflower Family)
In flower, Brownfoot, just about jumps out at you. It is that eye-catching and beautiful. Purplish flowers are not that common in the Sunflower Family, so if you see this color of flower on a relatively large plant (one meter tall) with flowers arranged in heads, in a dry spot in the Southwest, this would be the probable species you have found. Heads are the characteristic inflorescence or flower arrangement of the Sunflower Family. Most plants in this family, largest in North America, bear yellow flowers. The leaves on Brownfoot are large with a coarsely-toothed margin. The base of the leaf clasps the stem, another distinguishing characteristic. When things dry out and the plant shrivels up, the leaves generally remain on the plant, giving it a notable brown/dead appearance. At the base of the plant, there is a brown tuft of fur-like hairs. Often these hairs remain below the surface of the soil but may also become exposed, especially on steep, eroded sites. The plant is also called Buffalo Fur, for this reason. Like "hair" of all sorts, this material is a good source for bandaging wounds to control bleeding. I hope you don't need this information but I do hope you see this outstanding member of the Sunflower Family. You too will be glad you did.
Sedge, Carex aquatilis (Sedge Family)
Sedges have edges. That's a common way to distinguish them from grasses. Sedges also differ from grasses in that their leaves lack grass features like ligules. You may not look at them close enough to see these differences, but once you get the hang of it, you'll readily observe that the flowers and flower arrangements of sedges look different than grasses. Not all sedges have edges either, just to make it tricky. Sedges are more frequently found near water than grasses but that is not an absolute distinction. You could also ask an herbivore, should one be in the vicinity, since grasses are more often than not the favored food of herbivores. In the case of this species of sedge, there is a prominent bract below the flowering spike that is longer than the spike of flowers. Additionally, the male and female flowers are located in different spikes on the same plant. The fruits are the primary difference between sedges and grasses, with sedges bearing achenes, the same fruit as that of the Sunflower Family. The Grass Family has a one of a kind fruit, a caryopsis (grain). Again, you and I may not notice the difference, but an herbivore is sure to notice. I suppose asking them is unlikely, but observing them is easy enough. Plants offer so many opportunities to stop, drop, and know.
California Redbud, Cercis orbiculata (Pea Family)
Redbud trees flower before they leaf out in the spring, making them all the more glorious without leaves to hide the flowers. The leaves are a bit unusual for the Pea Family, being simple instead of divided. The leaves are bean-shaped and cordate at the base. Cordate means heart-shaped where the petiole is attached to the blade. The leaves too are glorious, turning yellow to red and brown in the autumn. Not a very large tree in Arizona, sometimes it is not much bigger than a shrub. The trunk is about as thick as your arm and the canopy often droops to near ground level. The purplish-red flowers resemble a butterfly, a subgroup of the Pea Family. The most unifying characteristic of the Pea Family is its fruit, a bean pod. According to the Encyclopedia of Life Online, "In autumn the branches often bear many clusters of pointed, flat, very thin pods, the upper suture has a conspicuous winged margin. In ripening, the pods are first purple and then russet-brown, each containing an average of seven hard, bean-like seeds. The mature pods persist into the next winter." Flowering for only a couple of weeks a year gives little opportunity to see Redbud in flower, a memorable sight in a memorable setting.
Grand Canyon Beavertail, Opuntia basilaris var. longiareolata (Cactus Family)
This particular variety of Beavertail cactus looks pretty friendly, lacking the large spines for which the family is well known. Unfortunately and at the same time surprisingly, the Southwest Environmental Information Network (SEINET) website description says the spines are absent. This couldn't be further from the truth, since there are plenty of spines but only the diminutive glochids. These quill-like spines easily come off the pads with the slightest brush of your hand, your clothes, or your boots. Once they get on/in you, they are very difficult to remove. Keep your distance. You may not notice them on you at first and if allowed to remain for a while, they could make you pretty uncomfortable and be quite a problem to completely remove. The description of the flowers on SEINET, on the other hand, is notable for the many terms used to describe the range of colors present on these plants. Every plant part, especially floral parts are included. The outer perianth or sepals/petals/tepals are described as olive-green-pink while the inner perianth is dark pink. Cactus flowers have many perianth parts and vary in color from the outside to the inside of the flower. The filaments of the anthers are red-pink and the anthers themselves are light yellow. The style, which rises from the top of the pistil is white, flushed with pink and the stigma at the top of the style is divided into lobes that are light cream. Other specimens include descriptions where other colors are included for vegetative plant parts such as the pads: blue-green or grayish-green. The mucilage in the pads is even described, but not in regard to its color. The texture is described as farinaceous, which is mealy or powdery. That's detail! You may not get close enough or care about this level of detail, being satisfied to read that this is a decumbent form of cactus (low growing). However, isn't it amazing how intricately these organisms are assembled? Not one little detail has been left out. It's only left to us to take notice. Such an enjoyable exercise in such a grand place as the Grand Canyon, simultaneously examining miniscule matters against a magnanimous backdrop.