Trackers Identify Botanical Beauties Along Woods Canyon

May 03, 2024

By Betsy Wallace

Meadows full of cream cup flowers, (Platystemon californicus), along the Woods Canyon Trail.

In early April the Trackers group of the Sedona Westerners embarked on a hike to identify various types of plants and flowers along the Woods Canyon Trail. The hike was led by Tim Lowrey, professor emeritus of biology at the University of New Mexico and emeritus curator of the UNM Herbarium, and Linda Schermer, a member of the Westerners. 

At the beginning of the excursion, we were each given a list of flowers that were seen on a similar hike on the same trail last year. The list included each plant’s common name as well as its Latin name. Although there were not as many blooming flowers as there were at this time last year, we were able to spot and learn about many small blooming flowers and plants and their medicinal, ethnobotanical, or horticultural uses. Near the beginning of the trail, the group saw large areas of white-colored creamcups, (Platystemon californicus), though the flowers were closed when we passed. 

Tim and Linda were very knowledgeable about the many species of flowers and plants in the area, such as the Wild Rhubarb, the Crucifixtion Thorn, the Fleabane Daisy and the Gila Phlox. Of particular interest were the Locoweed, or Astragalus Milkvetch, grayish green plants with small upturned maroon flowers that resembled tiny butterflies, and the Wild Cucumber, (Marah Gilensis), which had climbing and twining tendrils. When first formed, its tendrils are almost straight, but while growing they slowly wave around in a process called circumnutation. When the tendrils encounter a foothold, the end of each tendril wraps around it securing a support. Time lapse videos can be seen online of this amazing process. See:

We were informed that several of the flowering plants were poisonous. Consequently, there was a concern that cattle that often roam the area might be in danger. However, we learned that cattle just do not like the taste of the plants in question.

One of the main takeaways from the hike was information about the process of CAM photosynthesis. We learned that all cactus species in the Southwest, as well as most other succulent plants, have an unusual type of photosynthesis named Crassulacean acid metabolism, also known as CAM photosynthesis. It was first discovered in the Crassula Family hence its name. It is an adaptation that allows plants in arid or desert conditions to conserve water compared to the usual photosynthetic pathway in a majority of other plants. Plants without CAM photosynthesis capture CO2 during the day and lose a considerable amount of water in the process. CAM plants capture CO2 at night when the temperatures are lower and the humidity is higher. They then turn the CO2 into sugars during the day which gives them energy to help them grow.

When we returned to the trailhead we were greeted with a landscape of mostly white – the creamcup flowers had all opened up. All in all, the Botanical Beauties hike was a truly informational and beautiful, three-mile hike. I’d like to thank Tim who shared with us information from his more than forty years of botanical experience and Linda who provided interesting descriptions of the beautiful botanicals in our area.

Tracker hikes are special interest hikes which are often led by Sedona Westerner members who are knowledgeable about particular topics and volunteer to lead a hike. The hikes provide learning experiences of our local area and beyond. Another example of a tracker hike which I joined this season was a trip to The Rock Art Ranch near Winslow, Arizona during which participants could view ancient pictographs on cliff faces, alcoves, and overhangs in the scenic Chevelon Canyon. Other Tracker hikes have included a Walking History of Clarksdale, The Unique Volcanism of Red Mountain north of Flagstaff and visits to the local wastewater and recycling facilities.

The 2023-2024 hiking season wraps up on May 9th with our end-of-season picnic. We’ll be back on the trails for our 2024-2025 season in September. As always, the Westerners invite new members to join our hiking club. Check out our website at for more information and sign up in September as we embark on another exciting hiking season in Sedona. And if you can’t wait that long, join the Westerners today. It’s not too late - we still have a few more hikes scheduled this season and with your membership, you can join us for the Spring Cookout.

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