Escapers, resistors and evaders sound like actors from a Johnny Depp movie or Eastern Europe during the 1400s. But here in Southeastern Utah, these terms define different strategies that enable plants to survive in this glorious desert.
Though it is easy to label the landscape and climate in Canyon Country as “harsh” or “extreme,” one has to remember that plants growing here are suited to the conditions. After all, if this area changed to a lush tropical oasis, many of the wildflowers and shrubs that grace the landscape today would not be here tomorrow.
Of the three strategies, annual wildflowers and some grasses fall into the escaper category. They “escape” the conditions because their life cycle is short, generally one growing season. This one-and-done approach for plants like yellow beeplant, cheatgrass and spectacle pod may result in wildflowers carpeting the desert one year, then blooming spottily another. Seed production, which represents future generations, is the ultimate goal of these plants. Chemical inhibitors in the seed keep them from germinating prematurely if conditions are not right for growth; these seeds may lie dormant in the soil for years before sprouting.
Plants that are drought resistors are here for the long run. Represented by perennial wildflowers, cacti and certain trees, these plants typically have small, tough leaves with waxy coatings, fine hairs or spines. The minimal leaf surface provides ample photosynthetic opportunities while minimizing moisture loss. Some resistors have extensive taproot systems ending in fine root hairs that can extract minimal amounts of moisture from the soil. In extreme or prolonged conditions, some of these plants can shed leaves or cactus pads, and tolerate slow plodding growth.
Other plants evade the dry conditions by growing in moist locations. This means growing along streams or rivers, or in the lush oasis of springs and seeps. Many of these moisture-loving plants are shade-tolerant, able to grow in canyons or alcoves that receive minimal hours of sunlight per day. A few plants like scarlet monkeyflower or cave primrose seem to cling from the alcove walls in seeps, their fine root systems penetrating tiny cracks or exfoliations of the sandstone.
Some plants like willows and cottonwoods that grow along streambeds, also utilize moving water as an agent of seed dispersal. Flowing water carries away the shed seeds and deposits them on river banks or sandy islands where they germinate.
In addition to moisture, desert plants also vary by soil types. Plants like black greasewood or four-winged saltbush can tolerate alkaline soils that preclude other shrubs or perennials from growing there. Blackbrush, a member of the Rose family, grows in shallow soils over vast areas in Arches and Canyonlands. Canyon Country also hosts many endemic plants, species that occur within a narrow range of soil types and habitats. Their worldwide distribution might be restricted to just Grand or San Juan County or to a particular geologic formation.
So as the desert warms up in early spring, a parade of wildflowers and flowering shrubs takes place. Each week additional plants join in the procession giving an added splash of color to this already Crayola® landscape.