“The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad…and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly….” ~Isaiah 35:1-2
Springtime is the best time to explore and learn about the beauty of the desert southwest. Spring comes early to the desert and brings all of the dry, dead-looking plants vibrantly back to life. An astonishing variety of wildflowers, nurtured by winter rains, can bloom in wondrous profusion and carpet the desert floor and mountainside slopes with glorious color. Some places burst forth in a rainbow of colors, while other areas become carpets of solid gold or purple. Every year, thousands of visitors time their travels through the American Southwest to coincide with the desert wildflower season. This year we have already witnessed a spectacular display.
Anyone who thinks that the desert is a barren wasteland of cactus and rocks should see the amazing array of greenery and color it has now! Property owners and builders, who usually thoughtlessly scrape away the desert topsoil to create their own landscapes, should take a walk through the virgin desert in springtime to behold all of the tiny miracles of nature that normally remain hidden to the developer’s eye. The Sonoran desert has more different plant varieties than any other desert on earth, a fact that is especially noticeable at this time of year. Once you see the desert in all of its springtime finery, you will surely appreciate it a lot more.
The varieties and duration of wildflower blooms depend on a mysterious code of rainfall, temperature, and sunlight that is unique each year. A good wildflower season is determined by the spacing of rains in the fall and winter. The rains must begin in the autumn and continue through January and February, with at least an inch each month. Desert areas that receive the most rain during this time will usually have the most color. Numerous other factors besides rain can affect the wildflower bloom. Unseasonably cold weather inhibits seed germination. Unseasonably warm weather at the time seedlings emerge can cause wilting. Excessive winds can prematurely dry out tender wildflowers. But even in the “worst” years, you will be able to find wildflowers in certain places.
Desert wildflowers can be a quick show, so enjoy them while you can. They can germinate, bloom, scatter seeds, and die within a matter of weeks. The peak wildflower season in Arizona’s lower deserts is usually in March and lasts for about two weeks, but this year they began blooming earlier. As a general rule, the flowering season starts at the bottom in the lower desert elevations and works its way up to the higher altitudes. The wildflower season may begin as early as January at the lowest elevations and last into April and May at higher elevations.
Wildflowers may be found throughout the southwestern deserts, depending on the soil type and surrounding vegetation, which are also important factors. The best locations for wildflower growth seem to be on well-drained, south-facing slopes. Some popular viewing areas in Arizona include: Picacho Peak, the Apache Trail, Tonto National Monument, Interstate 10 west toward Tonopah, the Pinal Pioneer Parkway between Florence Junction and Tucson, the Hassayampa River Preserve, the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, Estrella Mountain Regional Park, Pinnacle Peak, South Mountain Park, and the Desert Foothills area north of Phoenix.
Gold poppies and purple lupines generally dominate the spring wildflower show, but also look for yellow desert marigolds, white blackfoot daisies, red-violet owlclover, orange globe mallows, red penstemon, yellow brittlebush, pale purple brodiaea, pink filaree, and many more.
Did You Know…?
Because of the geographical position and range of altitudes in Arizona, practically every kind of wild flowering plant native to North America can be found somewhere in this state. In fact, almost 40% of the more than 2,000 flowering plants in the world are found in Arizona. The upper Sonoran desert is home to as many as 400 different species of plants.
When is a Wild Flower Not a Wildflower?
The term “wildflower” (one word) refers specifically to annuals and herbaceous perennials that appear above ground only in wetter than average years. Examples of these are desert lupines and gold poppies. The term “wild flower” (two words) encompasses all of the wild flowering plants, including perennials such as brittlebushes, cacti, and ocotillos. Many perennial desert flowers bloom every year, even in poor years for wildflowers.
Grow Your Own Wildflowers
Growing wildflowers in home landscapes is a popular pastime. If you plant your own, you will always have a wonderful show since you control how much water they get. For a traditional spring showing, you will have to plant your wildflower mix in October. But you can have a second wildflower season by planting a different kind of mix at the end of spring for a late summer show. These will be wildflowers that like hot temperatures combined with wet weather (monsoon season), rather than cool temperatures and wet weather.
Some seed companies sell southwestern wildflower mixes and/or individual seeds in packets and/or bulk quantities. Wild Seed Inc. located in Tempe, Arizona has mixtures in any amounts for yards or large-scale revegetation. (Call 602-276-3536.) A local supplier, Homan Brothers Seed, has a 4000 square foot seed processing and storage center located at 1540 W. Happy Valley Road in Phoenix, Arizona. (Phone 623-869-8457 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.) You can also check with local nurseries and at the following websites: www.homanseed.com, www.plantsofthesouthwest.com, www.wildseedfarms.com, or go to the Arizona Native Plant Society website at http://aznps.org for a complete listing of Arizona native plant and seed sources.
Take An Armchair Tour of the Desert in Bloom
Wildflower enthusiasts considered the spring of 1995 to be the best year in more than a decade. Nourished by just the right amount of winter rain and coaxed into bloom by the warmth of the sun, for a few brief weeks the Sonoran Desert was a breathtaking bouquet of vivid color. Channel 8 camera crews explored Arizona by automobile, on horseback, and on foot to capture this extraordinary visual event so viewers could enjoy an “armchair tour” of desert wildflowers at the peak of their bloom. The locations where they gathered their colorful images include: Desert Botanical Garden, Boyce Thompson Southwest Arboretum, South Mountain Park, Superstition Mountains, Saguaro National Monument, Organ Pipe National Monument, Tonto National Monument, Picacho Peak State Park, Beeline Highway, Apache Trail, Carefree Highway, and Wickenburg. For more detailed descriptions as to where they found the flowers, go to: www.kaet.asu.edu/wildflowers. “Desert Wildflowers” is a glorious celebration of spring that showcases the extraor dinary diversity of Arizona’s natural landscape. “Desert Wildflowers,” A KAET production, can also be purchased on video for $19.95 at the KAET Store of Knowledge (Scottsdale Fashion Square), Arizona Highways (1-800-543-5432), and the Desert Botanical Garden (480-941-1225).
Arizona Wildflower Hotlines
Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden: 602-481-8134 (The hotline operates March 1-April 30)
Sonoran Desert Naturalist: http://members.aol.com/Melasoma/index.html
(“Wild Flower Alert.”)
DesertUSA Wildflower Watch: www.desertusa.com
(Click on “Wildflower Reports.”)
(Statewide Wildflower Info Site.)
(Excellent desert plant site; online wildflower field guide with color photos and descriptions for identification, plus up-to-date wildflower reports and locations.)
(Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum online exhibit: “The Desert in Bloom-How, Why, and Where” covers general information, the science behind the spectacle, a 50-year history, a wildflower forecast, and photos.)
(Desert Botanical Garden website.)
(Boyce Thompson Arboretum website; take a cyber tour and print out a spring wildflower checklist.)
Wildflower Reference Books & Field Guides
ARIZONA FLORA, by Thomas Kearney, 1970. A classic work on Arizona floral identification, covering nearly 4000 species of plants native to Arizona. It is a highly technical work based on descriptive taxonomy and there are no illustrations, so it is difficult for the amateur wildflower observer to use. But it’s a good reference work if you’re serious about wildflower identification, and can be used to confirm or refine an identification made in the field or from photographs.
ARIZONA HIGHWAYS PRESENTS DESERT WILDFLOWERS, by the Desert Botanical Garden Staff, 1997. This colorful guide to wild flowers of the Arizona desert includes wildflowers along with some cacti, shrubs and trees. Also covers landscaping with wildflowers, planting guidelines, edible desert flower recipes, and more.
CATALOGUE OF THE FLORA OF ARIZONA, by Harry Lehr, 1982. 203 pages from the Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona.
DESERT IN BLOOM: IN PICTURES, by Smith-Southwestern, 1994. Nice oversized color photo booklet featuring desert flora and cacti native to the desert southwest. Beautiful photographs of the desert in full bloom. Includes a map of different deserts and where these cacti can be found.
DESERT WILD FLOWERS, by Edmund Jaeger, 1991. A reference text for specialists, with excellent line drawings and good taxonomy.
DESERT WILDFLOWERS OF NORTH AMERICA, by Ronald J. Taylor, 1998. This colorful book will be invaluable in leading you through the flora of the blooming desert. Includes an overview of desert ecology, a simplified botanical key, and an illustrated glossary, along with descriptions and color photographs to help wildflower fans identify desert plants with confidence.
FIELD GUIDE TO THE PLANTS OF ARIZONA, by Anne Orth Epple, 1997. A complete and comprehensive guide to the rich and varied flora of Arizona’s deserts, mountains, grasslands and chaparral. This user-friendly book with over 900 full-color photos identifies ferns, wildflowers, cacti, shrubs, and trees. The descriptive text includes blooming periods, elevation, and habitat.
FLOWERS OF THE SOUTHWEST DESERTS, by Natt N. Dodge, Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1976. The purposes of this book are to introduce the common desert flowers, and to give some interesting background information about the plants and how they have been used by animals, native peoples, and settlers. Black and white drawings with a 4-page color centerfold. For ease in identification, the book is arranged by color of flower petals.
NATIONAL AUDUBON SOCIETY FIELD GUIDE TO NORTH AMERICAN WILDFLOWERS : WESTERN REGION, by Richard Spellenberg. Lots of beautiful full-color photographs of wildflowers, grasses, cacti, flowering vines and shrubs in their natural habitats, including desert areas. The color plates are keyed to texts that offer physical descriptions of flowers, leaves, and fruit, along with notes on habitat, range and other background information.
NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SONORAN DESERT, by Stephen J. Phillips, et al., Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 1999. This book contains a general overview of the region’s geology, climate, human ecology, and biodiversity, plus an in-depth look at hundreds of plants, mammals, birds, and reptiles that live in the Sonoran Desert. Throughout the text are supplemental anecdotes, essays, maps, diagrams, and illustrations. An invaluable book for both experts and laymen alike, it will heighten your awareness of the desert’s beauty and complexity, and provide information on where to visit and what to expect during each of the Sonoran Desert’s seasons.
ON THE TRAIL OF THE DESERT WILDFLOWER, by Hugh Crumpler, 1994. A pictorial tribute and informative guide to the wild beauty of the indigenous plants and flowers of five unique American deserts: the Sonoran, Mojave, Chihuahua, Painted Desert, and Great Basin. A seasoned desert naturalist, the author shares facts, history and folklore about the flowers and plants in a book that reads more like a storybook than a field guide. Out of print, but available at www.cactus-mall.com’s Rainbow Gardens Bookshop.
100 DESERT WILDFLOWERS IN NATURAL COLOR, by Natt N. Dodge, Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1963. Also, 100 DESERT WILDFLOWERS OF THE SOUTHWEST, by Janice Bowers, Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1987.
VEGETATION AND FLORA OF THE SONORAN DESERT, by Ira L. Wiggins, et al., 1975. This monumental work comprises over 30 years of research in a 2-volume set. It covers plant communities, distribution, habitat, environmental factors for both woody and herbaceous plants. A major floristic work for serious floral scholars.
WILDFLOWERS OF THE DESERT SOUTHWEST, by Meg Quinn, 2000. The author, a recognized authority on plants of the desert southwest, helps even the most amateur botanist identify more than eighty-five of the most common and showy species found in the Sonoran Desert. Each species is described in detail and depicted in full-color photographs in their natural habitat. Species are further organized by color for ease of identification. Quinn also includes tips for the best locations to look for specific wildflowers.