Originally Published: March 6, 2013 9 p.m.
Plan for at least half a day to hike the loop in either direction. Pay attention. The trail is well marked but it is easy to let your eyes wander at all the wild scenery and miss a cairn marking the route. A wrong turn could land you in a rocky dead end, difficult to escape from. National Parks attract all sorts of people, many not prepared for the trail. Don't assume they are competent and follow them to an uncertain end. You'll have to hike some "scary" rocky ribs and slabs that are exposed and steep on this route. These sections are short but will turn back the faint of heart. Obviously, this route is not well suited to biking.
Take US Hwy 191 south of Interstate 70 and immediately north of Moab, Utah, to the Park entrance. The Welcome Center offers a great deal of information about the geology, history, and ecology of the Park. The main road through the Park ends at the trailhead to Devil's Garden (17.5 miles) past many worthwhile viewpoints, arches, and a small campground. You'll encounter many bicyclists along the road. It would be all too easy to hit one as you look at the scenery. Watch the road! Topo Map: Mollie Hogans quad 7.5'
The four plants selected to introduce you to the flora of Arches come from a diverse assortment of plant families. Some, like Dogbane hale from a notoriously poisonous group of shrubs. Toadflax is a lovely spring wildflower with delicate blossoms. Little Hogweed is an edible herb that is also an attractive succulent. Finally, Butterwort is a member of the Buttercup Family with many flower parts in each flower, though this particular member is not the most colorful one in the group. Never the less, it is a good representative of the Buttercups, a family that is widespread and well known, primarily from wetter climes, so it is nice to find one in our arid region.
Dogbane, Apocynum cannabinum (Oleander Family)
Poisonous plants often develop quite a reputation for their toxicity. While some of this information is bound to be exaggerated, it is worth heeding. If nothing else, approaching these plants with due caution is certainly warranted. The Oleander Family boasts high levels of toxicity, largely due to a variety of alkaloids. Generally, organisms which ingest a toxic part of the plant suffer grievously. Some species of this plant family were even used by bushman to dip their arrows in the sap to poison their prey. It's not all doom and gloom though. Some species were used for their fiber and a variety of drugs have been derived recently to alleviate ailments such as high blood pressure, cancer, and some forms of psychosis. This particular species is not woody. It has small white petals that are united at their base. Many other members of the Family have found their way into ornamental markets with their unusual vegetative forms or showy flowers. Not the case here. Never the less, Dogbane has bright green leaves that are about 7 cm long with a smooth margin. The plants reach one meter in height, but are usually smaller and prefer wet sites. The fruit type of many plants in this group, including this species, is a follicle. This is a dry fruit that resembles an elongate capsule. The seeds are generally winged to aid in dispersal via the wind. Riparian sites are all the more unusual for the distinctive flora found there. Dogbane, therefore, should be relatively easy to "pick out of the crowd" so to speak in the arid Southwest at Arches National Park.
Pale Bastard Toadflax, Comandra umbellata var. pallida (Sandalwood Family)
Do you remember your first time? Firsts are often unforgettable. The first ascent to 14,000 feet, the first survival trip when I ate ants, the first time I saw wild horses, moose, a mountain lion, a gila monster, a desert tortoise, and bighorn sheep in the wild will never be forgotten. Likewise, I remember very clearly my first encounter with plants as I gained knowledge of species native to the Southwest. I collected Toadflax in the Graham Mountains when doing field work for my botany degree from ASU. I was hiking down a sunny trail with a southern exposure in the Pinyon Pine belt and there it was, a lovely cluster of greenish, white flowers bunched together some 20 cm tall. I had no clue what it was but was excited to discover a new face. I noted the ecological surroundings and observed the simple, alternate leaves. Later, I saw that there were no petals, but the five sepals were petal-like and stood atop a hypanthium, which is a cup-like structure within which is found the pistil. This pistil eventually develops into a drupe, a fleshy fruit with a stony pit. This fruit turns bluish-brown when fully ripe. The stamens too arise with the sepals from the hypanthium and are hairy. The Greek meaning of the genus is "hairy man" because of the hairs growing with the stamens. This particular variety is named for its pallid or pale appearance. This is due to the heavy wax coating on the leaves. In other words, they are glaucous. This species is also partially parasitic. I am reviewing the "Manual of Montana Vascular Plants," which includes a brief description of Toadflax. Consequently, this plant is widespread, so keep your eyes open on dry slopes in Arches National Park, Montana, Arizona, and many other great hiking trails throughout the Rocky Mountains.
Little Hogweed, Portulaca oleracea (Portulaca Family)
Portulaca is an edible herb with succulent leaves. I have munched on it raw in the field. It is also eaten cooked like a potherb. Its texture is mucilaginous due to the gooey flesh in its leaves. It typically grows close to the ground in arid waste places where its small yellow flowers add a graceful touch of beauty among its bright green leaves which are shaped like a beaver's tail. This highly variable species is distributed worldwide in warm regions, but according to the Southwest Environmental Network, this species is the most winter-hardy of all portulaca species. It is considered one of the most noxious weeds in the world due to its aggressive reproductive success. This should make it a good candidate for herb gardens in the Southwest. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em as they say. Don't try to get rid of it, just eat it. You might just kill two birds with one stone.
Curveseed Butterwort, Ranunculus testiculatus (Buttercup Family)
Curveseed Butterwort is expanding its range across the drier portions of the West, which means the Southwest. It comes to us from Eurasia and now occupies disturbed sites from Canada to Arizona and California. Like other members of the Buttercup Family, it has many flower parts, therefore it is thought to be primitive by evolutionary standards. The petals are pale yellow and small. They do not last long on the plant, however. The leaves are mostly basal and somewhat hairy. These leaves are dissected and are about 1 cm long. The entire plant is little more than 10 cm tall. Interestingly, some of the descriptions for this species focus more on what is absent in this species than what is present. For example, this species does not root from the nodes along its stem. Nor does it have a bulb and tuberous roots are absent. It does have a "bur," however. This is a cluster of dry fruits called achenes. Inside each achene is a single seed with a long tail. According to the Encyclopedia of Life, these fruits are poisonous. Their abundance suggests that the land is being disturbed, often by over grazing. It is an early bloomer, often the first to appear after the snow has finally melted off. Plants have a story to tell. Landscape literacy, however, is a lost art as we have become more civilized, we have also become more ignorant of what the land is teaching us. We miss these teachable moments to our peril.
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