This is the year for big wildflower and cacti blooms

claret cup cactus

Claret cup (a.k.a. hedgehog) cactus

When the desert explodes with an artist’s palette of the broad color spectrum of annuals it is a phenomenon that is not soon forgotten – and this could be the year of spectacular displays. People are descending on the desert hotspots as if the flowers were solid gold and could be picked by the bucket full.

Over and over you hear the remarks, “How could such pretty and delicate flowers grow in such a harsh place?” The fact that they do is what makes the desert wildflower story all the more intriguing. Adaptation is the key word. And conditions. Desert wildflowers are picky, sensitive, patient, and demanding. Over centuries of adaptation, the flowers have learned what it takes to grow, flower, pollinate, produce seeds, and die. If one of these steps is missed, the flower will bear no offspring.

So the flower’s very existence depends on all the right conditions coming together, in just the right way, and with just the right timing. If the soft winter rains do not bring enough moisture to germinate the seeds, if spring is not warm enough, if summer flash floods wash the flower away before it seeds, if the big feet of so many wildflower watchers do not trample it into the sand…

The life of a wildflower is precarious, and with such a balance of conditions required for the flower to push its head through the sand to the sun, how do we know if – and when – is the best viewing time. We don’t. But the people who watch these things year after year do. If you want to see the wildflower bonanza at its peak, phone or visit the desert regional, state, and national park websites for the wildflower hotlines, which will tell you when the flowers are expected to approach peak and include regular updates. The best desert parks will schedule walks and talks. Don’t just sit in your camp chairs. Get out and see them. If you time it right, you won’t forget it.

But don’t head north too soon. The cacti (of which there are about 1650 species) are coming, which for most of the year languish benignly on the barren desert, stoically accepting their fate and grateful for what little favors Mother Nature bestows on them.

Then in April and May cacti begin to explode with mind-bending bursts of color, blooms that glow with an intensity as if lit with internal lights. And at what strange places these flowers appear, as if Dr. Seuss himself had come along and affixed a flower created in his own fantasy world onto an ill-looking plant in the most incongruous of places as a joke.

Cacti start the bloom cycle in the lowest, hottest deserts first, then progressively work up to the higher cooler deserts. Some begin about mid-March to early April and can bloom through much of the summer. Cacti can grow in the rockiest terrain and on steep hillsides, but rarely in washes.

Others grow in both hot and cold deserts, like several species of prickly pear, while the saguaro grows only in the hot Sonoran desert. Some visitor centers publish color brochures that help in the process of identification of the local species and local or regional field guides make good additions to your nature observation collection. And don’t forget a sun hat, sun block, snack, and plenty of water to drink. And it wouldn’t hurt to throw in a pair of tweezers and an alcohol swab just in case you brush too close to a jumping cholla. And remember that it is illegal to remove cacti from public lands and it is just good conservation to not pick their flowers or remove the fruit. Cacti need all the help they can get to survive and any action that reduces their chances of survival should be avoided.

And don’t forget a sun hat, sunglasses, sun block, snack, and plenty of water to drink. And it wouldn’t hurt to throw in a pair of tweezers and an alcohol swab just in case you brush too close to a jumping cholla. And remember that it is illegal to remove cacti from public lands and it is just good conservation to not pick their flowers or remove the fruit. Cacti need all the help they can get to survive.

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