Two weeks ago, I visited Zion National Park with Professor Bran Potter and many other geologically-minded folk. The Western Geology field course captivated me in many ways, but I must admit that I was often distracted from the rocks (which are, no doubt, beautiful and captious in and of themselves) by the charming desert plants. Cacti and various thistly things abound, not to mention an array of colourful wildflowers that rivals Sewanee’s best. One verdant friend (or frond), however, was quite unexpected and had me positively jumping for joy: Adiantum pedatum, the Northern Maidenhair Fern.
I immediately recognized this pretty species by its curved fronds, delicately winged leaflets, and shiny black stem. There was no doubt that this was A. pedatum, but I was in disbelief that such a robust population was thriving here in the middle of the Utah desert! The fern is native to Eastern North America; in Sewanee you typically find it growing in the moist, shaded soils of coves (if you’d like to see it, I would suggest hiking towards Solomon’s Temple Cave in Thumping Dick Cove). Despite this description, many of us know that plants are wont to surprise us, especially those bearing spores (which can travel long distances by wind). The steep-walled canyons of Zion provide a “zion,” a sanctuary or paradise, for many otherwise unlikely species in the Western United States, including water loving ferns, mosses, and rushes.
In keeping with the purpose of the trip, I should make a quick mention of the region’s geology, which lends a befitting connection between the East and the West. The Navajo Sandstone, a strong rock that composes the 500-foot walls of Zion’s slot canyons, acquired its sands from the ancient Appalachian Mountains. Great, westward-flowing rivers carried the mountains’ eroded refuse part of the way across the continent, then as the climate became too arid to support the rivers, a mighty wind swept up the sands and laid them down in a landscape not unlike the Sahara Desert. And today, after a geological blink of an eye, I am honored to say I have explored a tiny section of the so-called “Hidden Canyon,” and to have found there my favorite fern.