Grand Canyon plants include 1,737 known species of vascular plants, 167 species of fungi, 195 types of lichen and 64 kinds of moss. Approximately 200 species of trees and shrubs live in the national park along with 650 herbaceous wildflowers. The huge variety of Grand Canyon vegetation is primarily due to the park’s 8,000-foot range of elevation. Each level of elevation affects the climate and geology and allows different species of plants to flourish.
Grand Canyon plant life can be divided into 129 vegetation communities that include riparian, desert and forest zones. Keep reading to learn about the ways climate and geography influence these plant communities and learn which plants are only found in Grand Canyon National Park.
Grand Canyon Riparian Plant Community
The term riparian vegetation refers to plants that grow adjacent to rivers or streams. Grand Canyon plants in the riparian plant community are those growing along the Colorado River and its tributaries.
Riparian vegetation loves the heat and humidity along the canyon floor. This environment permits a wide variety of plants, trees, mosses and fungi to flourish. Ferns are the most ancient types of plants found within the park, and maidenhair and brittle ferns thrive here. Exotic tamarisk, coyote willow, horsetail, monkeyflower and Cladophora – a type of green algae – are vital parts of this freshwater community.
Desert Scrub Community
Grand Canyon wildlife just above the Colorado River corridor falls into the desert scrub plant community. As the name implies, the plants that thrive in this zone require less water and prefer more arid growth conditions.
Typical North American desert flora occupy this zone, including blackbrush, sagebrush and mesquite. While some people may imagine these plants to be boring, desert scrub vegetation can be quite colorful. Bright yellow flowering creosote bush and vibrant red ocotillo blooms dot the dry landscape beside the fluffy pale blossoms of catclaw acacia trees.
Pinyon Pine and Juniper Woodland Community
The Grand Canyon climate shifts again as the elevation crosses into the pinyon pine and juniper woodland community. This Grand Canyon geology zone extends from above the dry scrub area to around 6,200 feet. Grasses that thrive in this climate include prairie dropseed, Indian ricegrass and needlegrass.
In addition to pinyon pine and juniper, this particular Grand Canyon climate supports Utah agave, Mormon tea shrubs, snakeweed and the white-flowering winterfat plant. Spiky yucca plants also thrive in this region, including narrowleaf yucca and banana yucca, named for its fleshy banana-shaped seed pods.
Ponderosa Pine Forest Community
The Ponderosa pine forest grows at the North Rim and South Rim at elevations between 6,500 and 8,200 feet. It is the next Grand Canyon climate zone above the pinyon pine and juniper woodlands. The ponderosa is the only long-needled pine at the South Rim and attains a height of around 110 feet. Its diameter is usually two to four feet and the bark is said to smell like vanilla.
Although it is named for the ponderosa pine, the area is home to many species of plants, including:
- Gambel oak
- Arizona white oak
- Mountain mahogany
- New Mexico locust tree
- Creeping mahonia
At the top of this Grand Canyon plant community, and along the canyon rims, live other types of plants and trees. Douglas fir, white fir, aspen and mountain ash live alongside various types of spruces, yarrow and perennial grasses.
Montane Meadow and Subalpine Grassland Communities
These types of Grand Canyon vegetation zones are rare and only found on the North Rim. These areas are home to many types of grass species, while the wettest spots allow sedges and forbs to thrive. Grasses that live in these rare North Rim zones include big galleta, Indian ricegrass, three-awns, blue and black grama.
Plants Exclusive to Grand Canyon National Park
There are 12 types of endemic Grand Canyon plants, or those that are only known within the park’s boundaries. As far as scientists know, these plants do not grow anywhere else in the world.
These plants may be similar to other types of plants, but have developed specific identifiers from acclimating to the unique environmental conditions at the canyon. Some examples of exclusive Grand Canyon vegetation include:
- Agave phillipsiana: This three-foot-tall agave plant survives in hard terrain. Although it is considered extremely rare now, it was once farmed by native canyon inhabitants.
- Scented beardtongue penstemon: This variety of the common garden beardtongue plant is only slightly different from other penstemon species. However, its unique scent is only found within the national park.
- Roundleaf buffaloberry: This shrub gets its name from western settlers who cooked the berries into a sauce served with buffalo meat. It is an evergreen shrub that flowers from May to June. There is said to be a powder beneath its leaves that can cause blindness.
- Tusayan flame-flower: This tiny species of Grand Canyon wildlife is easy to overlook most of the year, as it only grows three inches high and an inch or two in diameter. However, in the fall, its leaves turn bright red, making it more visible. It is still a rare find, as there are currently only 1,000 Tusayan flame-flower plants in 10 populations inside the park.
Protected Plants and Conservation Efforts
The rarest of all Grand Canyon vegetation, the sentry milk-vetch only grows naturally in three locations on the South Rim. It has been listed as endangered since the late 1980s, largely due to one of its natural locations being trampled by park visitors. In 2009, the vegetation program of the Grand Canyon National Park’s Division of Science and Resource Management began conservation efforts that helped save the sentry milk-vetch.
You can help the National Park Service preserve the sentry milk-vetch and other endemic plants listed above. Never pick wildflowers or leaves, take care to not break branches when hiking, and be sure to only walk or drive on designated paths and roadways.
Note that a permit is required to collect Grand Canyon plant life for any reason, including research. Scientists and researchers should contact the park’s Research Permit Office at (928) 638-7447 for information about obtaining a permit.