Native plants are magic to me—roots, stems, leaves, colorful flowers all adapted to their own homes. In Utah’s national parks, there are varied homes or habitats. An environmental education ditty comes to mind “Habitat is a special place – food, water, shelter, space.”
Water is a critical part of habitat in arid Utah and plants are great indicators of water sources. The stately Fremont cottonwood (Populus Fremonti) grows along waterways and is well adapted to flood cycles. This cottonwood in the wash to Little Wild Horse canyon is inspiring every time I see it – oh the stories it’s twisted trunk and branches must hold of flood and drought, as well as the many animals who have gained food and shelter there.
Some of the most interesting water-loving plants in Zion grow in hanging gardens, where water seeps through sandstone layers until it meets an impermeable layer of stone, when the water flows horizontally and out and the side of the canyon wall. Unfortunately the trail was closed this year, so no sketching there.
Other plants are adapted to survive all the forces that dry out life-needed moisture: Heat, wind, and solar radiation. I love learning how plants have adapted to this harsher environment.
Common adaptations are hairy leaves, leathery leaves, and leaves growing vertically, so they get less sun exposure. Fleshy stems and modified leaves (spines) are the way cactus have evolved over eons to survive in drought prone areas.
There are a number of shrubs that are well adapted to the environment and require looking closely to distinguish them. Sketching is the ideal way to look closer, especial at leaf arrangement (opposite or alternate) and shape (simple, compound) and type of leaf edge (toothed, lobed, entire, etc).
Many shrubs drop their leaves in drought and seem as if they are dead. But, No! Just wait to the rains come and new leaves emerge.
Wildflowers were blooming in Zion the 2nd week of April. I pegged the red tubular flowers as Scarlet Gilia/Fairy Trumpets and did a quick sketch. Yet, later when I looked at a flower guide and my sketch, I noticed the leaves and flower arrangement were actually Utah Pentstamen. Another affirmation that sketching is a great way to remember and I.D. plants.
Plants also need specific soil conditions. Prince’s Plume grows in selenium rich soils, and it is said that Paiute people used this plant medicinally for general malaise and throat illness.
When doing group introductions on this trip, I assigned a native plant or animal to each participant, depending on the first letter of their name. Then we looked for the assigments throughout the trip. Peggy got Princess Plume! The soft ‘feathery’ plumes are one of my favorite wildflowers, though tough to sketch!
At Arches, the Evening Primrose (Oenothera caepitosa) were in full bloom. This is such an interesting plant because the blossoms last until pollinated by a sphinx moth or bees, often just for one night! The trail to Delicate Arch was a great showcase for Evening Primrose, emerging from the sandstone with the La Sal mountains in the background.
I have been teaching environmental education for many years, and one of my favorite ways to teach how pines differ from other conifer trees is that “Pines come in Packets.” They have multiple needles bound together in a fasical, versus fir and spruce which have single needles attached to their twigs. And so, I was stumped on the Watchman trail to closely observe a tree that I was pretty sure was a pine, but it’s needles were not in “packets.” On further research, I found that The Single Leaf Pinyon Pine (Pinus monophylla) is the excption to my nemonic.
Here are a few more quick sketches during hiking stops on our Exploring Utah’s National Parks trip with Adventures in Good Company. How lucky am I to connect more deeply with this place by looking and looking again, while adding color and notes in my 3’X5′ Moleskin journal?