Ferns under the Saguaros

January 1, 2009

We spent the past two days hiking on a couple of popular trails in the Rincon Mountains near Tucson.  It’s unusual for us to hike where there is a trail at all, and even rarer that we go to the busy trailheads near town, but at this time of year, cold weather and short days limit our choices to short drives and the warmest places.  Many of the rocky canyons in the saguaro-covered lower parts of the Rincons are singing and shining with running water as the snow melts in the pine-forested highlands.  The water is not a stranger here – it completes the landscape and makes it come alive.   Even small canyons like the one pictured below, where water usually only flows when it’s actually raining, shelter the “resurrection” ferns and spikemoss that are green and growing now.

Canyon in the Rincons

Canyon in the Rincons

I counted six species of granite-loving xerophytic ferns, including Notholaena standleyi, one of the most common “star ferns”, growing with one of my favorite desert shrubs, the medicinal Jatropha cardiophylla, also called limberbush (for its rubbery, flexible twigs) and sangre de drago (for its red sap):
Star Fern with Jatropha

Star Fern with Jatropha

 When identifying desert ferns, it’s important to look at the underside of the leaf, since many species have distinctive hair, scales, or – in this case – a coating of yellowish waxy farina on the lower surface.  Stems are extremely brittle, so great care is needed when handling the leaves so as not to break them off:

Star Fern Underside

Star Fern Underside

I love the beautiful pinkish-golden powder coating.  It fades to nearly white on older leaves.  The coating is characteristic of the genus Notholaena and helps keep the leathery leaf from drying out too fast.  It also reflects the sunlight to keep the leaf from buring, since the underside is exposed when the leaves are dry and curled up.  There is a dried leaf, curled like a tiny hand (still alive, just not yet revived) in the center of the photo.

Besides fernhunting, we also greeted the saguaros, admired the lush “forest” of jojoba bushes, and pointed out five species of cholla to curious hikers.


One Response to “Ferns under the Saguaros”

  1. Cath said

    so glad I found you… I love the desert ferns and want to learn more about them. I live near Piestewa Peak in Phoenix (I know – but I love Tucson) and wander through the mountain preserve here looking for ferns, dudleya and other unusual plants.

    I just started to post photos from my hikes and the first post is a photo of a fern. I am guessing that it is Astrolepis sp. after looking at your desert fern guide (thank you for that).

    Your jewelery is stunning! The copper piece “COPPER POD BELL” is graceful and mesmerizing. I would enjoy seeing a picture of it being worn.


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