Plants of the Grand Canyon

Cactus

Hedgehog cactus

Hedgehog cactus

Cactus have spines instead of leaves and have green, fleshy stems which both conserve water and carry out food production. They are are highly evolved to handle the desert environment, but many species have little tolerance for cold. In the canyon, that limits cactus to the smaller species like desert prickly pear, which is common on the Tonto Platform. Other cactus include California barrel, whipple cholla, beavertail, claret cup, fishhook, and Englemann hedgehog. Claret cup blooms with a stunning red flower after wet winters.

Grasses

Side oats, blue and black gramma, Indian ricegrass, and big galleta are among the native grasses found in the canyon. Exotics, or introduced grasses, include Kentucky bluegrass, red and smooth brome, and cheatgrass. Exotics often compete with native grasses. Cheatgrass is especially difficult because it greatly increases the fire danger once it cures during the summer.

Ferns

Ferns favor moist sites such as crevices, ledges, and boulder piles. Maidenhair and brittle fern prefer springs and seeps. All ferns reproduce from spores rather than flowers.

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Wildflowers

Globe mallow

Globe mallow

When conditions are favorable, the spring wildflower displays in the canyons have to be seen to be believed. A wet winter and early spring followed by warming temperatures appear to create ideal conditions. Red and orange flowers include globemallow, Indian paintbrush, penstemon, skyrocket, red columbine, and crimson monkeyflower. Yellow flowers are common and hard to identify but some examples are groundcherry, broom snakeweed, Hookers primrose, ragweed, and common mullein. White flowers include sacred datura, evening primrose, tidy fleabane, desert tobacco, yarrow, baby white aster, white violet, and watercress. Pink and purple flowers include Rocky Mountain bee plant, Rocky Mountain iris, Grand Canyon phacelia, toadflax penstemon, and Palmer lupine.

Freshwater Plants

Springs support miniature gardens of columbine, horsetail, watercress, monkeyflower, and rushes. The Colorado River not only supports a narrow but important riparian lifezone, the river itself contains green algae, which small aquatic animals depend on for food.

Lichens

Lichens are common in the Grand Canyon because of the vast amount of exposed rock. Lichens are tiny communities of two or more plants such as a green algae and a fungus. The fungus extracts nutrients from the rock and protects the algae from the harsh environment. In turn, the green algae uses sunlight to produce food by photosynthesis. Lichens are most common on the north sides of rocks where the temperature is lower. Lichens store water during storms and can store more than their weight in water.

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