A Walk in the Park | When does the desert bloom?

Written by by LeMoyne Mercer. Posted in December

“2:30,” said the ranger to a tourist at the visitor center.

He had answered that question a dozen times already. And it was only 9:15.

But he straightened his Smoky Bear hat and turned on his official National Park Service smile before explaining yet again in a less flippant manner.

“The official answer is it kinda depends.”


The Desert Southwest is a popular destination during the winter months. (You may very well be planning your trip right this minute.) In addition to warmth and sunshine, many of us want to brag to the folks back home that we have seen the desert in bloom. If you are really lucky, you can be there when it comes alive with color in one of those “super blooms.”

Northerners are accustomed to seasons when things grow and then die or go dormant and then, in due course, come back to life again. January in Ohio means you have zero chance of seeing anything in bloom. In the Desert Southwest, there are wildflowers in bloom virtually every month of the year even though the popular perception is that the desert is basically brown all the time. It may not be the lush bloom of semi-tropical Florida, but you may be surprised at the variety and vibrancy of desert flowers.

The best place to improve your odds is the Sonoran Desert in Southern Arizona. The Sonoran is the “green desert” because plant life there is much more prolific and diverse than in the three other American deserts—Chihuahuan, Mojave, and Great Basin. Even in the Sonoran, park rangers may get a little frustrated because people can have quite rigorous personal notions of what “the desert in bloom” means. Some, for example, won’t settle for anything less than a saguaro blossom. Which, by the way, opens at night so it can be hard to see unless you are a lesser long-nosed bat.

But there are several thousand other flowering plant species in the Sonoran Desert. People with more flexible requirements might be quite content with the blossoms of other varieties of cactus, agave, herbaceous wildflowers, shrubs, and trees. Blooms in February or March depend upon factors such as how much rain there was back in November or December and what the average temperature has been recently. And what side of the mountain you happen to be on and how far up that mountain slope you are. Which is why the official answer is, “It kinda depends.”

Last winter, Shirley and I visited Padre Island and Big Bend National Park in Texas before arriving in southern Arizona on Jan. 20. We spent the next 10 weeks just hanging out in the sunshine, waiting for the desert to bloom. There were scattered blossoms, of course, but we knew what was in store if we were just patient. Deep into our geezerdom, we have gotten increasingly proficient at doing nothing whatsoever for extended periods. Then it’s time for a nap.

Many of the ocotillo already had bright scarlet flowers when we arrived. It is hard to believe that there can be ocotillo side-by-side, one all greened up and showing off its blossoms and the other looking like a bundle of dead, thorny sticks. Didn’t they both benefit equally from the same sun, rain, temperatures, and soil conditions? Go figure. After their flowers fade, ocotillo leaves turn golden and red and drop off just like maple leaves do every autumn in Ohio. Then, after a little shower, the leaves and blossoms come back very quickly. The cycle can be repeated several times a year.

Arizonans have a saying: “It may only rain 10 inches a year, but you’ll remember the night it came.” They are accustomed to dealing with long dry spells interrupted by flash floods, in which the water runs off barren soil and rock a lot faster than it can soak in. Every little dip in the road has a warning sign that says don’t drive through here if it is raining. You have probably seen TV news coverage of what happens when drivers ignore the warnings.

Desert plants, like Arizonans themselves, are programmed to deal with no water for extended periods and then boat loads all at once. Cacti have shallow, wide-spreading root systems that suck up rain water faster than a politician can jump in front of a TV camera. They also have pulpy inner flesh for absorbing impressive amounts of water. (The cacti, not the politicians—though some of them seem a little pulpy too.) The waxy surface skin of cacti limits water loss through evaporation.

Some wildflowers also have learned to live life in a hurry. Rain, germination, blossoming, and seed production follow each other boom, boom, boom. In what sounds like a contradiction, many of these plants also have learned patience. The seeds of desert wildflowers have a thick, hard coating that delays germination until ample rainfall dissolves it. That may take decades. When the right combination of moisture and temperature is present for a super bloom, the show is simply stunning. In recent memory, there have been super blooms in Death Valley and in the Mojave Desert of Southeastern California.

When Shirley and I are not just lounging around, we have been known to walk the same desert trails repeatedly checking on the progress of the bloom. (Also enjoying the birds and other wildlife, but that’s a story for another day.) Shirley is particularly adept at remembering what was in bud stage yesterday and might be ready to pop open today.

At Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, for example, the Desert View Trail climbs a ridge, runs along the crest, and descends to a dry wash before circling back to the trailhead. The brittlebush had great masses of long-stemmed buds. But most of them dragged their feet for weeks before their blossoms opened. Meanwhile, Shirley also kept a daily watch on the little pincushion cacti, the various cholla, and a plethora of wildflowers.

In late January, there was misty rain that lasted all day. Soon there were little green shoots pushing up from between the rocks all along the ridge top on the Desert View. Then, faster than you would believe, there were patches of beautiful little blue scorpionweed. (Some wildflowers have names that don’t reflect their true beauty.) The scorpionweed was soon joined by the low-growing desert star daisy.

Down at the edge of a dry wash on the Palo Verde Trail, we noted the quick evolution of the fairydusters. The pink flowers on waist-high shrubs are wispy and delicate like miniature versions of the feather dusters your grandmother used. Or, less fancifully, they look rather like pink dandelion seed heads.

For still more vibrant color, we were always on the lookout for Mexican gold poppies, orange globe mallow, and scarlet skyrockets. Yellow is the dominant color or, at least, the color of dominant plants. Brittlebush and creosote can have hundreds of golden blossoms on every mature plant, so just a few of them in bloom stage can make an impressive show.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was established to protect and preserve the columnar species of that name. It reaches the far northern extent of its range in southern Arizona right on the Mexican border. Even there it is obvious, even to the casual observer, that it prefers the greater warmth of the south-facing slopes. Think of that—a plant that finds most of Arizona still not quite warm enough.

You might think that plants that evolved in a harsh environment would be pretty hardy. They are—once they get a good start. The saguaro cactus, for example, is very slow growing. It can take six or seven decades before it produces the first of its signature arms. Though an individual saguaro may eventually produce thousands of seeds, almost all of those seeds are destined to fall on rocky ground, get eaten by animals, or get washed away in flash floods. Survival often depends upon a seed falling or being deposited in bird droppings at the base of a palo verde, a mesquite, or an ironwood tree. There it has shelter and an outside chance to grow big enough to make it on its own. Ultimately it will crowd out and displace the “nurse tree” that sheltered it.

Though there can be wildflowers virtually any time, the peak bloom season is usually April and May. By then, of course, many snowbirds have flown north for essential conferences with tax accountants and physicians. Besides, springtime temperatures in the desert are reaching the upper-80s and 90s on their way to the 110s. Rattlesnakes and various other serpents are emerging from their winter dens. Some of us are really enthusiastic about seeing the desert in bloom but somewhat less sanguine about reptiles. (Fortunately, I have a woman who walks ahead of me to kick the snakes off the trail.) Even if you cannot hang around until April or May, you will surely find that a desert trail in the winter months is still just a walk in the park.❦