Tracker Hike Explores the Plants of Fay Canyon and Their Many Uses
March 15, 2019
By Tom Likens
Ethnobotanist Roy Julian is seen here explaining the heritage of plants to a group of Sedona Westerners’ Trackers hikers. He understands and conveys the cultural heritage of our region’s plants which were used for many different purposes by our ancestors.
Tracker hikes with the Sedona Westerners are designed to increase our understanding and knowledge of our local area and beyond. Topics have ranged from a walking history of Clarkdale, the unique volcanism of Red Mountain north of Flagstaff, and the amazing pictographs found at places like the Rock Art Ranch near Winslow and the V Bar V Heritage Site just south of Sedona. For our Tracker hike in February, we enjoyed an eye-opening introduction to “ethnobotany” from local enthusiast Roy Julian.
What’s ethnobotany, you ask? It’s the study of how people of a particular culture or region (ethno) made use of native and domesticated plants (botany). For the past tens of thousands of years or more, humans and proto-humans have depended on plants to provide not only food, but shelter, medicines, clothing, fire, tools, weapons, and other necessities.
Roy Julian, our hike leader, has for many years developed a broad knowledge of the plants and their uses by the native peoples of the Southwest. His expertise is based on years of personal experience and experimentation. Of course, he’s read many books and articles on everything from roasting agaves to tanning hides and weaving sandals, but over the years, he’s actually done all of those things in a natural setting.
Within just a few yards of the Fay Canyon trailhead, Roy stopped to point out a ubiquitous Sedona plant, the manzanita. Spanish for “little apple,” there are actually two varieties that grow in the Sedona area. The most common is the low-growing point-leaf manzanita, but, hiking deeper into the red rock canyons, one comes across a much taller tree variety, the Pringle manzanita. Both manzanita varieties are extremely useful. Their little red berries can be eaten ripe or green, made into a jelly, or added to soups. The leaves were used by native Americans in a tea to treat urinary tract infections.
A few more yards down the trail Roy pointed out a stand of Utah Juniper. It’s the one that grows so freely everywhere (and gives many of us allergy problems this time of the year). The native Americans found many ways to use the tree for food, clothing, and medicines. Those blue berries can be ground into a tasty flour once the hard, inner seed is removed. That inner seed is unusual too. It’s a shiny, two-toned oval and was often drilled by the men of the tribes and strung on necklaces for their wives or lady friends. Drilling holes through those tough little seeds with a stone tool must have required great skill and patience. The Utah Juniper’s bark could be braided into cordage and woven into sandals. So many uses from a single tree.
Two other common plants that received special attention during our hike were the Soaptree and Banana Yuccas. These plants, along with the large Parry’s Agave that grows here, were practically an Amazon.com for the ancestral peoples, providing many grocery, clothing, and hardware items. Yes, the Soaptree Yucca is soapy – its roots can be pulverized and used as a mild detergent. The leaves can also be woven into beautiful baskets and surprisingly durable sandals. The Banana Yucca has fruits that some people think vaguely taste like a banana. Its leaves are practically all fiber, an excellent choice for making ropes, nets, and such.
Throughout our hike, Roy would pause to point out numerous other plants, often reaching into his large shoulder satchel made from elk and deer that he tanned himself, pulling out show-and-tell items made from the plants we were observing. We saw many kinds of cordage, sandals, a firestarter kit, seeds, knives, and arrowheads he had knapped from Flagstaff-area obsidian, woven bowls, baskets, and clay pots.
Roy provided us a handout that listed 26 different local plants and their uses. Importantly, 7 of them were noted as having poisonous fruits or berries, sap, hearts or leaves – so it is essential to know what you’re doing out there. Don’t start tasting every different plant on the trail – the results could be disastrous!
In all, our quarter-mile hike into Fay Canyon was a very enjoyable three hours with 50 feet of elevation gain, thus setting the bar for the slowest pace of any Westerners’ hike in 2019. Thank you, Roy, for a great Ethnobotany Tracker hike!
If you are interested in joining the hiking club, please visit the Sedona Westerners website at www.sedonawesterners.org/membership. You are invited to our next monthly meeting at 7 p.m., Thursday, April 11, at the Sedona Methodist Church, 110 Indian Cliffs Road. Written by Tom Likens.