March 10-16, 2007
The search for the xeric ferns and companion plants of the Southwestern U.S. led us to make an early Spring trip to Phoenix and Tucson. This area falls within the eastern and northern edge of the Sonoran Desert, a vast tract extending from these sprawling metropolitan areas west to Palm Springs, California, south through the northwestern two-thirds of Sonora, Mexico, and down to the tip of the Baja peninsula. The Sonoran is the center of the three great desert regions of the United States: the Chihuahuan to the east and the Mojave to the west.
March 10, 2007
We made a bee-line to the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix to get a handle on the conditions we might expect to find in the field. The abrupt change in both vegetation and temperature (high 80’s to low 90’s daytime highs!) from the early spring we had left in Atlanta was a bit overwhelming at first, but this garden provided a wonderful preview of what we would see in the National Forests, as well an excellent collection of desert flora from around the world.
What we did not see at the Desert Botanical Garden was any indication that the Xeric ferns were displayed as a part of the desert flora, or any recognition of their potential use in the garden. Unaccustomed to such intense sun so early in the season, we decided to head for the hotel after about 3 hours at the garden.
March 11, 2007
Are there really ferns in Arizona?
Much of our plan of attack in seeking out these ferns in their native habitats was based on a scouting trip made to this area by Tony Avent in December, 2004. Little did I realize how much I would deviate from the routes traveled by Tony-beginning on the very first day! Before George realized what was happening, we were trekking a course along the north edge of the Superstition Wilderness called the Apache Trail. The road was State Highway 88, but George later thought that to be a joke from the Governor’s office when the highway transitioned to a dirt road! Prior to this point, we had made several stops along the road- some to enjoy the sheer beauty of the Saguaro forest, some to scope out rocky areas for ferns. A couple of miles past, and high above Tortilla Flat, just prior to the end of the pavement, we hit our first productive area. The landscape was dotted with Saguaro and Ocotillo, the latter coming into spring foliage from the scant encounters with moisture over the winter. We walked the rocky road cuts and the outcrops beyond the road, seeing lots of vegetation but no ferns. They were there all the time- we just weren’t focusing in on them.
Finally, they started coming into view, and once we saw the first few, we saw them everywhere: Notholaena standleyi, at least one species of Pellaea, even an Asplenium, probably A. palmeri This stop proved to be very productive, as we noted the presence of at least 4 xeric species in the area of about a square football field.
Ninety minutes of dusty road ended near the Roosevelt Lake dam and suspension bridge. We were already beginning to develop quite an admiration for Tony and the great distances he seemed to be able to cover in a day! We knew by lunch time that we would only cover a fraction of the area. One stop of note in the afternoon was to Tonto National Monument and the cliff dwellings of the Salado people. In addition to the interesting archeology, the trail up the cliff provided one of the best displays of the native flora we saw on the trip, spectacular Saguaro and other cactus species, with Selaginella sp.(probably S. mutica) covering the rock retaining walls of the switchback trail, and ferns tucked in amongst the rocks. The views back to Roosevelt Lake (the Salt River valley to the Salado people, were magnificent, but you did not envy those people their commute to the irrigated fields in the valley below!
One of our goals on this leg of the trip was to try to locate the Southern Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum capillus-veneris, that Tony had on reliable information could be found in the Lake Roosevelt area. We spent the better part of the afternoon scouring the area, looking for protected rocky streams and seeps that might harbor the plant- to no avail. We had seen the Southern Maidenhair in the wild in the Texas Hill Country 2 years before, but there had been much more water there than we were finding here. Even a look around the area where the Salt River flows into Lake Roosevelt revealed nothing. We headed back to Phoenix to pick the cactus spines out of our skin, knowing now that we would find lots of ferns, but that perhaps the Maidenhair would elude our observation.
March 12, 2007
George had already had enough of the twisty, dusty roads. As this was the day slated for Workman Creek, he decided to stay back and sort out the finds from the day before, leaving it to me to find the ferns. So it was back to the Tonto National Forest, this time in the higher elevations of the Sierra Ancha Mountains of south-central Arizona. Workman Creek is a narrow snowmelt perched at about 5500 feet – easily 2000 feet higher than the Saguaro forests where we found the ferns yesterday. It is much more reminiscent of Colorado than Arizona, with a dense canopy of Sycamore, Ponderosa Pine, and Colorado Blue Spruce. There were several areas of dense populations of Equisetum hyemale, but no ferns were observed. As there were still sizable patches of snow on the ground, I felt we must be too early to find the Southern Maidenhair, or any fern save for those with last year’s foliage. Agaves were surprisingly common here, even clinging to the smooth granite walls of a beautiful plunge-pool waterfall a short distance below highway 288, the half-paved though well maintained road connecting the towns of Globe and Young. A few ferns were found along a steep rock face overlooking the waterfall, but I could tell by their appearance that I was looking at very early Spring here, much of the foliage on the ferns being from the previous year. Workman Creek was in the past heavily mined for Uranium, and several barricaded mine shafts seeped with trickles of water. I again got my hopes up for locating the elusive Maidenhair, but they weren’t there.
With half a day gone and no ferns in the camera, I decided to head back toward Globe. Tony Avent’s scouting reports told of an excellent, steep road cut where he had located a half dozen species or more. I thought it might be easier to try to find the location on the way down, retracing his path, though I had spotted a long, 6 foot high ledge along the road on the way up, in many places covered with shriveled Selaginella mutica. This plant seemed to be a good indicator plant for the ferns- it was associated with those we found in the Superstitions and at Tonto National Monument. Just a short distance below the forest line, I found a promising spot that resembled the area described. Scrambling up the loose rock, the ferns began to appear both in the rock clefts and along the ground. Although this may not have been the exact spot Tony found, I managed to bag 5-6 species here myself: Astrolepis sinuata, Cheilanthes lindheimeri, Pellaea wrightiana, Pellaea truncata, and another Cheilanthes, probably C.lanosa
Descending further to the edge of the Pine-Oak and Oak Woodland, I made a stop at Parker Creek and poked around the Sierra Ancha Experimental Forest Facilities, seemingly abandoned on this Monday afternoon. It was here that I made a couple of startling discoveries: Bracken Fern and English Ivy, the latter escaping into the moist woods near the creek (as it does so well) at about 4000 feet elevation!
Sharply descending now into the grasslands and Sagauros, I returned to the ledge I described earlier, finding it to be well over a half-mile long, with only one spot at the lower end to pull completely off of the road. The Selaginella, though completely dry for the most part, was plentiful on the top of the ledge and spilled over onto the rocks below in many places. The ferns were there as suspected: I even found one Notholena stanleyi like the one George and I located the day before. Both species of Pellaea were there as well, clinging tenaciously well back under the ledges. Though this spot did not seem to have the great variety of ferns that the previous stop had, there was not enough time to thoroughly explore the ledge. I spent some time photographing the Saguaros clinging to the steep sides of the mountains as the afternoon shadows started getting longer, then headed back to Phoenix before George called out the search and rescue posse!
March 13, 2007
George decided that the best foray for our last day of exploring for ferns in the wild would be to the Prescott National Forest, so we headed north out of Phoenix. Highway 89 led us southwest out of Prescott and to the highest elevations we would reach on this trip, over 6000 feet. The first of our 2 most fruitful fern stops along the highway was in the vicinity of Ponderosa Park, where the dimpled (pustulated) fronds of Cheilanthes lanosa approached groundcover proportions under the protection of rocks and shade of the trees and shrubs of the forest. Further down the road, near the town of Wilhoit, we spotted a scene reminiscent of our Texas trip. Hugging the cracks between the boulders and standing in ranked attention, sporting their gray coats of protective hairs was Cheilanthes lindhemeri. Also appearing among these rocks was C. tomentosa. Perhaps we were looking at both species in separate colonies- we were just happy to be seeing these ferns at all- looking so good in such an arid place as we watched the telling smoke of a distant forest fire over the ridges. We ate lunch at a public park in the little second-home community of Yarnell, a town set amongst boulders that often exceeded the size of the homes next to them!
March 14, 2007
Today we headed south out of Phoenix to Tucson, some 100 miles away and, at an elevation of 2000 feet, 1000 feet higher. This side trip actually determined the dates of trip: a plant sale at Tohono-Chul Park on the north end of town. George made contact with Russ Buhrow, the Curator of Plants at Tohono-Chul, who allegedly had in his possession, and for sale, the coveted (by George) Jimmy Fern, Astrolepis cochisensis. Making great time on I-10, we arrived at the Park before 10 AM and had lots of time to take in the beautiful desert flora of this first-rate garden. Complete with “Rattlesnake Crossing” signs (and Rattlesnakes!), Tohono Chul provides an elegant cross section of native and cultivated ornamental plants for the home landscape. Wandering into the plant sales area, we got our first glimpse of the ferns. Amazing! George literally stopped in his tracks. Tall, 3-gallon pots of perfect specimens were just the eye candy George had been hoping for- including that coveted Jimmy Fern! Even though Russ was busy preparing for his plant sale in the coming days, he very graciously toured us all through his growing areas, even allowing George to purchase the plants he wanted the day before the actual sale was to begin. It would be remiss to leave out here that, while Russ grows much of the plant material for the sales, he also purchases plants of all types from local growers. Many varieties of rare plants were offered for sale- dazzling colors of flowering Cacti and succulents, Lithops: those stone-like plants from South Africa, and Gazanias showing vivid colors as you never see back east! Russ is able to produce some incredible ferns despite the mineral–laden water of the area with those tall 3 gallon pots that raise the perched water table and allow roots to grow more deeply in the pot. Shipping these plants in their awkward containers was to be our greatest challenge of the trip- we had expected much smaller plants in 4 inch pots!
Thanking Russ for allowing us to purchase a treasure-trove of xeric ferns at the head of the line, George and I contemplated how in the world to get them back to Atlanta without destroying them or spending a fortune in shipping. We made some preliminary arrangements, then headed for the hotel and then to the western section of Saguaro National Park, literally a few minutes from our hotel, where we enjoyed the native cactus forest, and, as the sun set, were treated to beautiful silhouettes of those amazing plants that are able to survive such rigorous conditions.
March 15, 2007
Restlessness caused me to wake up well before George, so I decided to take an early morning walk in Saguaro National Park since it was only a few minutes away. Stepping out of the hotel room- I was greeted by something I had forgotten could be associated with March- COLD! Tucson’s 1000 feet of elevation over that of Phoenix made a big difference in daily temperature fluctuations. I grabbed my raincoat and headed toward the park, where I was greeted with beautiful plants set off in beautiful light, though I was not early enough to catch the fleeting silhouette stage of the Saguaros. Spending about an hour in the early morning, I decided to head back and bring George out to see this special place as well. After a second walk, clamoring through the rocks in an almost futile attempt to find more ferns (the only one we spotted here was a Pellaea, probably P. wrightiana), we picked up our trove of ferns from the day before, hauling them back to Phoenix for a long afternoon of plant packing and a late afternoon trip to the shipping store. We would return to Atlanta early the next morning.
Surprisingly absent on this trip were any encounters with Rattlesnakes. It was certainly warm enough for them and we were surely probing around in their habitat. They are shy and not aggressive, but if you ever go looking for plants in the Sonoran, always be mindful that they are around!
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