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plants of the hills and mountains

Most visitors to the monument see only a small part of it—the lowland cactus forests. But above the desert in the high back country of the Rincon Mountains is another world. These highlands are accessible only on foot or horseback; and they should remain so, for they are now in the last major roadless range in southern Arizona, and as such their wilderness value appreciates yearly. Interesting scenic trails reach the high places of the Tucson Mountains, too, but to see the greatest changes in plantlife you must climb the higher Rincons.

Spanish dagger, with Rincon Peak in the background. (Photo by Harold T. Coss, Jr.)

Oak-Pine Woodland

The thinning and final disappearance of saguaros along the trail-side, although mesquite and ocotillos seem almost as numerous as on the floor of the desert, indicate that you are entering a slightly cooler, wetter environment. An occasional MEXICAN BLUE OAK or ARIZONA ROSEWOOD appears among the mesquites along the washes. The grasses that increasingly cover the ground as you climb include HAIRY, SIDEOATS, and SPRUCETOP GRAMA; CURLY MESQUITEGRASS; TANGLEHEAD; TEXAS BLUESTEM; and WOLFTAIL. Mingling with them are TURPENTINE-BUSH and shrubby SNAKEWEED.

A spectacular inhabitant of the grassland transition and open oak woodlands you are now entering is the AMOLE, or SHIN-DAGGER, whose rapidly growing blossom stalks attract attention from May to as late as August. The plants themselves, which grow crowded together in patches, consist of rosettes of succulent leaves superficially resembling bunches of flattened, green bananas. The stiff, needle-sharp leaf tips can inflict painful jabs on man and beast. During its lifetime, the plant stores food in its short, thick stem. Finally, after several years, it sends up an unbranched flower stalk that grows to 5 feet. The light-yellow flowers mature to brown, capsule-like fruits, after which the plant dies. The short stems or crowns, containing saponin, were used by Indians as soap. They also roasted the young bud stalks of some species by covering them with heated stones in pits.

Two noticeable plants of the lily family which sometimes dominate gravelly slopes of the grassland-oak woodland belt are the SOTOL and BEARGRASS, or sacahuista. The former grows from a compact crown as a dense, rather symmetrical cluster of long, thin ribbonlike leaves, usually grayed at the tips and armed along the margins with curved thorns. In early summer many small, cream-colored blossoms develop along the upper extremity of single fast-growing flower stalks 8 to 10 feet high. The bud stalks formerly were harvested and roasted by Indians. In Mexico a potent alcoholic drink, sotol, is distilled from the fermented juice of the pounded crowns. Sacahuista resembles huge, sprawling clusters of coarse grass. Flower stalks are short, producing conspicuous, open, loose sprays of small, tan-to-brownish flowers in May and June. Indians used the tender bud stalks for food and obtained fiber from the long, slender leaves, weaving them into baskets and mats.

Mexican blue oak foliage. (Photo by Harold T. Coss, Jr.)

Uncommon in the monument, but worthy of mention, are ARIZONA SYCAMORE and ARIZONA CYPRESS. The latter is restricted to the east flank of the Rincon Mountains, steep slopes, and deep canyons, where it grows with the SILVERLEAF, PALMER, EMORY, and NETLEAF OAKS; mesic shrubs; poison oak; and CALIFORNIA BUCKTHORN. Arizona sycamore grows along lower-canyon water-courses such as Chiminea and Rincon Creeks, which drain the rugged south flank of Mica Mountain and the west flank of Rincon Peak, respectively.

As you continue to climb, the open, grassy, shrub-dotted slopes change in places to sprawling thickets, called chaparral. These are made up of manzanita and skunkbush, SILKTASSEL, evergreen oaks, and underbrush of smaller shrubs. Among the common oaks are ARIZONA WHITE OAK and, on drier sites of the Tanque Verde range, SHRUB LIVE OAK. The oaks furnish protective cover, browse, and acorns for deer and other mammals and birds, and are of great value in retarding soil erosion on steep gravelly slopes.

POINTLEAF MANZANITA is especially abundant on the lower eastern flanks of the Rincon Mountains in the Happy Valley area. Early in spring the waxy, urn-shaped blossoms, the leathery, glossy, evergreen leaves, and the typical grotesquely crooked, red-barked limbs, make manzanita one of the most attractive shrubs of the chaparral.

Although SKUNKBUSH is a close relative of poison ivy and sumac, its aromatic foliage is harmless. Growing in compact thickets, skunkbush provides food and cover for birds and other small animals. Inconspicuous yellow flowers appear from March to June, and are followed by berrylike fruits which are dull red when mature.

Turpentine-bush, a member of the sunflower family. (Photo by Warren Steenbergh)

As you follow the trail higher, occasional MEXICAN PINYON PINES and ALLIGATOR JUNIPERS appear. Gradually these evergreens become more abundant, mingling with the oaks to form a pigmy oak-pine-juniper forest. Clumps of MOUNTAIN-MAHOGANY are noticeable, their feathery seed "tails" gleaming in the sunshine.

Pinyons are among the commonest and most widespread trees of the middle elevations throughout the Southwest. The Mexican pinyon, which is the species growing abundantly in the Tanque Verde-Rincon upland, may be recognized by the fact that its foliage is in clusters of three needles to the bundle. Its cones require nearly 2 years to mature and contain hard-shelled seeds or nuts which are a source of food for many birds and mammals. These pines are usually shrubby, rarely more than 15 to 25 feet high, with horizontal, twisted, low-growing limbs. Intermingled with the pinyons are alligator junipers, often mistakenly called cedars. Those in the monument are conspicuous because their platy bark forms an attractive pattern resembling the squarish scaled skin of alligators. The berrylike cones are soft and mealy, and are eaten by many kinds of wild animals.

Although the oak-pine woodland supports a heavy stand of shrubby trees over much of the terrain, there are numerous open glades and grassy hillsides. In addition to some of the aforementioned grasses, BLUEGRASS, BULLGRASS, and PLAINS LIVEGRASS provide ground cover in this belt. Following summer showers, many flowering herbs brighten the open slopes. Yellow to orange petals of PUCCOON, and the white to lavender-and-rose blossoms of MOCK-PENNYROYAL and HOUSTONIA are among those seen along the trailside.

Ponderosa Pine Forest

Just as grassland merges with oak woodland and chaparral, and these with oak-pine woodland, so you will notice, as you climb steadily higher, that these woodlands gradually mingle with the open pine forests that cover much of the Rincon Mountains above 6,000 feet. PONDEROSA PINE is the "big tree" of the Rincons, usually growing in clear, open stands. Through its high canopy of spreading branches, sunlight mottles the shaded forest floor. Its presence indicates still cooler and wetter conditions than those below. Here you will need blankets at night, though summer days are warm.

Except for grasses such as PINE DROPSEED, SCREWLEAF MUHLY, and MOUNTAIN MUHLY, ground cover is scarce. In tree-glades or on old burns, however, intermediate-type shrubs (such as BUCK-BUSH) and various herbs have established themselves. Some herbs develop into patches of colorful flowers in summer and autumn. Common flowering plants found among the pines are COLOGANIA; PEAVINE, with its large and showy, white, sweetpea-like blossoms throughout the summer; lupines; DOGBANE; and the familiar white WESTERN YARROW. Here, too, may be found GROUNDSEL, ASTER, FLEABANE, and others, often brightened by the presence of butterflies and other insects seeking nectar and pollen. Most of these forest flowers bloom in late summer or autumn, when plants in the desert, far below, are drab and dormant.

Throughout the pine forests, numerous small canyons and rocky outcrops favor the development of thickets of oak and locust, frequently growing together. GAMBEL'S OAK, a leaf-shedding white oak, ranges in size from a small shrub to a handsome tree. It has broad, deeply lobed leaves which provide browse for deer. Its acorns are consumed by deer, rodents, and birds, including wild turkeys. The NEW MEXICAN LOCUST also is browsed by deer. Rarely reaching tree size, this species is an attractive vegetative cover because of its odd-pinnate leaves and large clusters of purplish-pink flowers that appear in May and June. Locusts sprout freely from roots and form expanding thickets which encroach upon oak clumps. They provide a valuable network of soil-holding roots, important in retarding erosion. The best stands occur along the east slopes of the Rincons.

Relatively few in number, compared with the stands of the dominant ponderosa pine, the smaller CHIHUAHUA PINE grows on lower dry slopes and benches. Its needles are shorter than those of the ponderosa pine, and its cones are conspicuously persistent, remaining on the tree for several years. This Mexican species invades the United States in the mountain ranges of southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. In the monument it is found mostly in the transition areas between oak-pine woodland and ponderosa pine forest.

The Rincon Mountains are not high enough to provide a fir-forest habitat except in a few favorable locations. On the highest parts of the Rincons, ponderosa pines dominate in the warmer, exposed locations, but whitebarked QUAKING ASPENS grow in pure stands on cooler slopes and with DOUGLAS-FIRS on the north side of Rincon Peak. West of Spud Rock are abundant small groves of MEXICAN WHITE PINE.

A cone-bearing tree growing with Douglas-fir—exclusively on higher northern and northeastern slopes of Mica Mountain—is the WHITE FIR. Flattened, gray-green needles curving upward from the branches, and large, green cones growing upright on limbs near the tops of the trees identify this beautiful evergreen. On open stands, limbs of even the large trees grow from the trunk almost down to the ground. The bark is gray or ash-colored.

BRACKEN forms a green ground cover in heavy stands of pine and fir. This fern grows 3 feet tall over much of the forested Rincon highland. Among the shrubs found on the mountaintop is the SNOWBERRY, whose leaves are browsed by deer and whose berries are eaten by birds and chipmunks.

A spring, a small mountain stream, and a meadow near Manning Camp complete the picture of the higher elevations in the monument. In this bit of meadowland are found BOXELDER, NEW MEXICAN ALDER, CINQUEFOIL, CHOKECHERRY, GOLDENROD, ORANGE SNEEZEWEED, MARIGOLD, WILLOW, and a number of other shrubs, grasses, and herbs characteristic of the high mountain meadows of the Southwest.

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Last Modified: Sat, Nov 4 2006 10:00:00 pm PST

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