Surprisingly little attention has been devoted to the textural nature of phenocrysts of feldspar and quartz in tuff. Although many geologists have briefly alluded to “broken” phenocrysts, none have addressed their origin in any detail. Petrographic study of 117 cooling units in the middle Tertiary ash-flow province of the Great Basin, United States, provides a basis for characterization of the shapes and for interpretation of the origin of felsic phenocrysts in ash-flow tuffs. Although not proven to be wholly ineffective, breakage of phenocrysts by mutual impact in the erupting magma and pyroclastic flow is doubtful for at least four reasons. First, the statistical probability of mutual collision between phenocrysts diminishes exponentially as their proportion to vitroclasts diminishes (e.g., only 1% probability for 10% phenocrysts); collision is less likely if pyroclasts move by laminar rather than turbulent flow. Second, the coating of glass and/or melt on the phenocrysts provides a cushion that absorbs the impact force. Third, plagioclases broken by impact in the laboratory have unusual shapes unlike those seen in Great Basin tuffs. Fourth, euhedral phenocrysts of feldspar are commonplace in many Great Basin tuffs, and in some they constitute a significant proportion of the phenocrysts, indicating that mutual impact does not modify all intratelluric crystals during explosive eruption.
The two most populated categories of phenocryst shape in Great Basin tuffs probably correspond to what has been previously called “broken” phenocrysts. Somewhat less than half of the plagioclase and many sanidine phenocrysts are subhedral to anhedral. These are similar in shape, size, and composition to grains in polycrystalline aggregates within the same thin section. Kindred aggregates and discrete phenocrysts could have been derived from holocrystalline to partly crystalline material in the magma chamber that was disaggregated to varying extents during explosive eruption. More than half of the plagioclase and all of the quartz phenocrysts in Great Basin tuffs consist of irregularly shaped fragments with cuspate, embayed outlines, resembling pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, which we call phenoclasts. Inclusions of glass are common and are especially evident in larger, more or less whole crystals. Textural features of some phenocrysts in cognate pumice clasts in the tuffs reveal that they broke apart while still in the vesiculating but unfragmented magma. As the erupting magma decompressed, vesiculation of the melt that was entrapped at higher pressures as inclusions within the phenocrysts blew them apart, forming the phenoclasts.
Shapes of felsic phenocrysts in volcanic rocks provide insight into their mode of emplacement. Euhedral phenocrysts are common in ash-flow tuffs as well as lava flows. Phenoclasts, however, are diagnostic of ash-flow tuffs, because they do not occur in plinian ash-fall deposits and are rare in lava flows. These textural contrasts are useful for interpretation of generally older, but in any case altered and recrystallized, volcanic rocks. In such rocks, critical groundmass features and field relations that could provide clues to their origin have been obscured, but the shapes of relict phenocrysts are commonly well preserved.