Monday, August 23, 2004

The Orchids of Arizona

Orchids growing in Arizona? And in the wild? This seemed like a fantastic concept to me, so I spent some time checking into it further.

Last week I drove north from Phoenix and the Valley of the Heat to meet up with my friend Mike Currie, a graduate student in botany at Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff. I’d been bugging him to go on an orchid collecting trip for a few months, and we finally found a time that worked for both of us.

From Flagstaff we continued northeast to the Navajo Nation and specifically to Navajo National Monument, an enclave administered by the United States Park Service within the Navajo reservation. The monument was a revelation for me. I’ve made dozens of trips to the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau and consider it to be one of my favorite places on earth. It is so special in part because it is so full of surprises. When you explore the canyon country you quickly discover there is much more to it than you initially imagined.

Navajo National Monument exists primarily to preserve ancient cliff dwellings of the people know as the Anasazi by the Navajo. The Navajo themselves are relative late comers (1500s) to the area, pushing out the Hopi Indians, who are believed to have descended from the cliff dwellers who built the seven hundred year old ruins that remain today.

While the cliff dwellings were magnificent, what really got my attention were Betatakin Canyon and its flora in the heart of the monument. Here there are fir trees and aspens amidst a desert ecosystem dominated by the more familiar junipers and pinions. The firs are especially magnificent. The overall population of fir trees is small, but some of them are giants in diameter. They are similar to what you would see in redwood forests--trees whose girths are simply astounding. The quaking aspens cast their magical spell over the canyon which at 7,000 feet remains cool enough for these trees to survive. After weeks in the heat of Phoenix, I’d arrived in paradise.

Firs and aspens amidst juniper and pinyon trees in a redrock canyon of the Colorado Plateau! This region never ceases to amaze.

And what about those orchids? Betatakin Canyon is home to two of Arizona’s thirty-some species of orchids. My trip leader, botanist Mike Currie, set about examining, documenting, and collecting cuttings from the endangered alcove bog orchid that he is studying for his graduate work at NAU. Once I calmed down after the surprise of seeing aspens and firs, I let Mike show me his orchids.

While he was thrilled after discovering the largest population of bog orchids he had ever observed, I couldn’t help but state that these orchids were a little disappointing. They are not nearly as showy as some of their more famous cousins. Their flowers looked more like a miniature version of the spiky flower of a yucca, then what I’d come to think of as the flashy orchid. My previous exposure to orchids came on a trip in the Ecuadorian Amazon where large showy orchids grew along the roads and rivers in abundance. Mike gave me a tutorial on the wide variety of orchids and was undeterred by my reaction. The other orchid of Betatakin Canyon, the stream orchid, is much showier. Another Arizona orchid is the fairy slipper orchid found in the San Francisco Peaks which is showy enough that it is sold commercially. But we came to see the humble bog orchid, which showy are not, was still an orchid.

In 1986 Larry Higgens and Stan Welsh, two Utah botanists, classified the bog orchids, which are only found in the American Southwest, into two species: alpine and alcove. Mike believes they are actually one species and proving this is the thrust of his study. An important part of his work involves genetic research. He will be extracting DNA from the leaf cuttings and comparing the genetic code to other cuttings he’s gathered from different populations, as well as the alpine bog orchid, in his effort to see whether or not there is a difference between the two bog orchids. His work is also part of a broader genetics study of the evolutionary relationships between species. Mike is the final student to earn a bachelors degree in botany from NAU due to budget cutbacks.

So yes, Arizona does have orchids which are not just limited to the tropics--they even grow in the harsh deserts and mountains of the American Southwest including the ever surprising Colorado Plateau region. It was refreshing to see a native Arizonan who’d discovered a passion for orchids while studying at NAU. In the great American tradition, he’s scraping by while he follows his passion and at the same time advances our knowledge about the world we live in.