This is my first full year living in Arizona. It has been a year full of discovery and amazement. One of the most awe-inspiring has been the blooming colors of the desert flowers. Early spring, February and March, brought a vast diversity of delicate wildflowers. Later spring, April and May, was ablaze with blooming cacti. It seemed that each week introduced a new shape and color to the desert floor, rolling foothills and mountain peaks.
Let’s Go! Learn Things about the desert flowers of Arizona…
I will admit right up front, I am not a botanist. In this post, I will do my best to identify everything correctly with its common name. The general style of this post will be a photo journal of all the colors the desert has to share.
Lupines and Poppies
The Desert Lupines were the first wildflowers to start popping up. They were heaviest along the shoulders of the roadways. In just a couple of days the Mexican Poppies started showing up. The mix of rich gold and deep purple was stunning.
Mexican Poppies, very delicate alone but together they create fields of color
Several plants in the Sonoran Desert carry the name “Parry”. The name refers to Charles Parry, a surgeon and botanist that joined the US-Mexico Border Survey following the Mexican-American War in 1855. In addition to its documentation of the new boundary, the survey report was notable for its natural history content, including paleontology, botany, ichthyology (fish), herpetology(reptiles), ornithology, and mammalogy.
Sometimes called Globe Mallow or Apricot Mallow these delicate spherical blooms were some of my favorites. An interesting fact is that the tiny leaf hairs on the globe mallow are an eye irritant, they are sometimes called sore-eye poppies or pink-eye poppies. These hairs discourage herbivores from eating the plant.
Scorpionweed, Popcorn flower, Fiddleneck
My local sources claim that these curly desert flowers come in purple, white and yellow and that each color has a different name. My research uncovered that the are all in the Forget-Me-Not family but each a different species. Here in the Sonoran Desert, the purple are called Scorpionweed, the white are Popcorn flowers and the yellow are Fiddlenecks. Fiddlenecks describe the curled up tips of the flowers most accurately.
Chia, I love these purple globes, they popped up randomly in the desert like botanical cell towers. Chia was of great importance to Native Americans of the Southwest. The parched seeds were ground to make the staple flour, pinole. Indians also placed the seeds in water to make mucilaginous poultices and beverages. Today Chia is still sold as a pudding thickener and great source of fiber.
Desert Flowers come in every color and size
There are so many I can’t begin to cover them all. Here are a few more examples:
Trees and shrubs
The desert flora provides a continuous show of shapes and colors. As one species starts to fade the next is reaching its glory. This spectacle includes the trees and shrubs.
The Fairy Duster is a short shrub that blooms in the late spring. Like many of the wildflowers, it thrives in the lower elevations and arid conditions. These beautiful wispy flowers range from pale pink to vivid scarlet.
This ubiquitous silver-green bush bursts into yellow flowers in late spring. It paints a golden background for the other colorful players.
In the month of May, another yellow flowering tree splashes the landscape. The Palo Verde, with a green bark and yellow flowers literally glows across the desert and mountains.
As the desert starts to heat up and the delicate wildflowers fade, the intimidating cactus start to show their softer side. Everything in the desert is sharp and prickly, but they are also show-offs.
The fuzzy hedgehog cactus was the first to enter the stage. These gorgeous fuschia-colored blooms called to my camera.
Cholla cactus come in about 20 different varieties. There are Chain Fruit Cholla, Staghorn Cholla, Pencil Cholla and Teddy Bear Cholla. All of them are encrusted with thorns and referred to as “jumpin’ cholla”. Because they all seem to reach out and attach to everything. The cholla bloom shortly after the hedgehogs. The range in color from rusty yellow to deep magenta.
The Ocotillo is from a family of weird looking desert plants. They grow tall (up to 20 ft) like a tree, are covered with spines like a cactus, have woody stems like a bush and thrive like a succulent. The word Ocotillo is Spanish for “little torch”. Their late spring, showy bloom illuminates the desert just like a torch. Ocotillos bloom simultaneously with the brittlebush, wrapping the desert in fields of orange and yellow.
Of course, the big kahuna in the blooming cactus world is the Saguaro. These iconic many armed cactus stand sentry across the Sonoran Desert. For a short time in late May and early June these giants wear crowns of flowers. Each bloom only lasts one day. But the mighty Saguaro arms are packed with blooms and the show goes on for a couple of weeks. It is a challenge to get close-up shots of these blossoms because the sit atop such soaring cacti. The Saguaro can grow to over 40 feet tall.
The prickly pear blooms in early summer and produces conical plum-colored fruit in August and September. Arizonans use the prickly pear fruit in everything. Soap, salsa, beer and margaritas to mention just a few.
Blooming Agaves and Yuccas
At the zenith of summer, in the month of June, another unusual family of plants joins the blooming circus. Agave and Yucca are succulents that grow a green rosette and then shoot up a flowering stem that soars over the landscape. Although the casual observer would classify these together, the agave and yucca are distinct species with unique characteristics. The agave have spiny leaves and bloom only once in their lives. Yucca on the other hand have smooth leaves that often grow a trunk and they bloom annually.
The agave called the American Century Plant lives for years, sometimes up to 100 years, hence the name. They are monocarpic which means that it will bloom once and then dies.
An Utah Agave has a fascinating bloom to watch evolve. It sends up a fuzzy yellow arrow that gradually fills out the bloom from the bottom up to its tippy top.
Soaptree Yucca have gorgeous stalks of white blooms. You can see they grow more of a trunk at their base, common to yuccas. These plants also bloom perennially so they are popular in landscape designs.
I can’t begin to share all of the blooming and flowering plants of the Sonoran Desert and Sky Island Mountains around Tucson. The best time to visit Arizona for blooming color is March, April, May. Just know that the landscape changes every week during that season and you won’t be able to see everything in bloom at once. This is a perfect reason to make your visits frequently and lengthy. I have listed below some of my favorite venues and resources to experience the Sonoran Desert flora.
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