The Sonoran Desert is a Flowering Desert
There is a very good reason why the BBC returns to the Sonoran Desert every year to film the ongoing nature series Seven Worlds, One Planet, hosted by Sir David Attenborough. This is like no other desert. It is rich and lush with vegetation, and with the right conditions, nearly everything blooms. There are three ways to experience wild flowers and two peak seasons for flowering, one in early spring and one after the monsoon rains begin in July. Wildflower abundance varies from year to year based on rainfall timing, amount of rain, and temperatures. A lot of rain in February usually means a big wildflower season in March and April.
Spring wildflowers tend to bloom from March through May. We've picked out some favorites, below.
Here, you will find as many flower blossoms by looking up at trees and majestic cacti, as looking down at the delicate flowers underfoot.
Photo by Doug Kreutz/AZ Daily Star
Flowering native trees produce dense clusters of blossoms that brightly stand out from the green desert. Mesquite trees produce yellow blossoms, Ironwood trees have purple/pink blossoms that look like cotton candy from afar. Palo Verde trees carpet the natural hillsides with shocking yellow blossoms. Desert Willow have lavendar/pink to magenta and white blossoms, and Acacia have yolk yellow blossoms. Each tree species tends to bloom one at a time in rapid succession. The colors are spectacular in the spring and later summer. You will find them painting hillsides, as street trees, and in natural open spaces.
Cacti, both tiny and giant produce spectacular flowers from tall plumes of white Yucca blossoms to the Octotillo's red-tipped slippers. Learn more at the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society website.
By Ken Bosma - originally posted to flickr
Don't forget about the great Saguaro Cactus bloom at the peak of summer. These giants produce other-worldly white blooms before monsoon season, usually from April to May. This is an annual bloom that has no rival. The majestic Saguaro blossoms resemble sea anemones and may be more than 50 feet high or at the end of a Saguaro arm reaching toward the ground. These blossoms last for 24 hours and will be pollinated by bats, birds, and insects, to transform from delicate white lillies into deep ruby red juicy fruit by June.
Parry’s penstemon (Penstemon parryi) © Janine Spencer
Where to Look for Wildflowers In and Around Marana
If you like to hike, take the Wild Burro Trail in the Tortolita Mountains past Alamo Springs (when hiking, be sure to stay on the trails to enjoy or photograph the wildflowers). Wild Burro Trail has quite a few blooms currently – especially chuparosa (Justicia California), desert globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), fairy dusters (Calliandra eriophylla), and creosote bushes (Larrea tridentata). Chuparosa can be large bushes with bright red flowers, beloved by hummingbirds. You can also enjoy the unusual crested saguaros that frequent this area.
For a nice flat and easy walk into a flowering desert, explore the Tortolita Preserve in the Tortolita Mountains and Dove Mountain neighbhorhood.
Saguaro National Park West is a spectacular place to enjoy wildflowers, saguaros, birds, and vistas small and large.
Closer to town, you can wander through the natural desert at Sanctuary Cove between sunrise and sunset, and see all kinds of birds, flowers, and views. Sanctuary Cove is only a mile or so from Silverbell Road at Twin Peaks (west of the I-10).
Catalina State Park and Oracle Park are also great places to take a hike and view wildflowers.
Brittlebush © Janine Spencer
Some of my personal favorite wildflowers are blue phacelia (Phacelia distans), with deep blue-lavender blossoms near the ground in early March; purple owl’s clover (Castilleja exserta) which have bright pinkish-purple flowers that look like small brushes and prickly poppies (Argemone pleicantha) with their large white flowers with a yellow center. Many cacti have amazing flowers; big and waxy, and in my estimation, out-competing roses for beauty. Pincushion cacti (Mammillaria grahamii microcarpa) are very small and round with a wreath of pink flowers on their heads. Many cacti flower for just a day and then close up, so keep your eyes open or you’ll miss the blooms! Saguaros (Carnegiea gigantea) have large white flowers at the top of their stems but the blooms stay open for less than 24 hours. Saguaro flowers are pollinated at night by bats and moths that can see the white flowers as well as by bees and doves during the day. Later, bright red fruits form and provide a feast for many desert birds, mammals, insects, and even people.
Many desert trees put on a good display of flowers. Paloverdes can look like giant flowers scattered throughout the desert. Desert ironwood trees have pale lavender blooms, in about May, but they don’t bloom every year. Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) is found mainly in washes and has purple flowers and can bloom from spring through fall.
Desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata) © Janine Spencer
The flower colors for desert globemallow can range from pale lavender to orange sherbet, on long stems with silvery leaves in mid to late April. Fairy dusters have a lovely, whimsical name for their little pink brushes of flowers blooming in April. Parry’s Penstemon has deep pink blooms on long stalks beginning in mid-March.
Fairy duster © Janine Spencer
Tips for Wildflower Aficionados:
Be sure to check out information on where and when flowers are blooming; one good resource is the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum Wildflower Tracking Site.
The site most frequently referred to for wildflower updates in the western U.S. is Desert USA and then look for the Arizona information link. There also are several good books related to wildflowers in southeastern Arizona.
Bring plenty of water, and a camera to capture some of the beauty you encounter.
Do not pick flowers or dig up plants, and admire cacti from a respectful distance. Some plants and flowers have little hairs or spines that are difficult to see, but are easy to feel if you touch them.
Remember that bees and other pollinators will also be enjoying the flowers.
Most spring flowers are open from late morning to early afternoon, but a few open when it is cooler.
Watch for a second burst of wildflower color after monsoon rains begin, hopefully in July.
Lupines (Lupinus sparsiflorus) © Janine Spencer