"Arizona Wildflowers: It's So Hard to Pick a Winner!"
A Bouquet of High Desert Blooms
By Ellen Jo Roberts
Desert wildflowers always amaze me with the incredible beauty generated under the harshest of circumstances. Scrappy survivors, they thrive under conditions that would wilt fussier species from other regions. Spurred on by just the vaguest notion of rain, Arizona wildflowers spring forth from dry rocky soils and burst from hard-pack caliche. They sprout from stalks 12 feet in the air, they cling to impossible cliffs, decorate spikey shrubs and cacti and fill the roadsides and dry sandy washes, carpeting the high desert with color and fragrance. They provide sustenance to wild creatures, many of whom are reliant on the pollen, fruits and seeds for survival.
Colors range from the palest of whites to the hottest of reds and everywhere in between. Creamy blooms include Yucca, Sacred Datura and Prickly Poppies. An abundance of buttery gold festoons the landscape in the form of Agave, Brittlebrush, Prickly Pear and Desert Marigold. Shocking pink Penstemons sing in chorus with a fiery brigade of Ocotillo, Indian Paintbrush and Barrel Cactus blooms.
The flashier the flower, the less it needs to concern itself with sweet scent to lure pollinators. So it's often times the quietest, barely-there bloom that fills the air with intoxicating aroma: the miniature Manzanita bloom of Sedona springtime, the Cliff Rose's wee flowers filling the air with fragrance, the high chaparral scented with the dizzying sweetness of Creosote blooms and fuzzy Mesquite flowers attracting legions of honeybees.
My favorite Arizona wildflower? It's so hard to pick a favorite! (Pun intended). So rather than choose, I thought I'd share with you a bouquet of the best...
Prairie Sunflowers (Helianthus petiolaris): Flagstaff in late summer as well as other alpine regions like Mingus Mountain near Jerome and Prescott are full of the tall golden blooms swaying in the breeze along highways and throughout open prairies.
Penstemon: Seen in red (Firecracker, Penstemon eatonii) and hot pink (Parry's, Penstemon parryi) varieties, these prairie plants thrive throughout the dry, sunny west and are frequently seen punctuating roadsides and railroad tracks. Their flowers growing clustered on a stalk are shaped like tiny trumpets, in colors that seem electric and almost unreal. A hummingbird favorite.
Globemallow (Sphaeralacea ambigua): This is my husband's favorite. Any time a volunteer takes root in our Clarkdale yard he cultivates it, waters it, shields it from the weed-whacker. Globular orange blooms dance above handsome gray-green foliage. The whole plant is a beauty, and blooms throughout the summer. It's also a relative to Chocolate, so what's not to love?
Desert Marigold (Bailyea multiradiata): For many Arizonans this cousin of the Aster is a beloved favorite. There is something slightly space age about its look, like a 1950s drawing of flowers, their blossoms hovering high above its low-growing foliage like bright yellow flying saucers.
Saguaro (Carnergiea gigantea): Around Memorial Day each year, the stately Saguaro bursts forth with clusters of thick white petals cresting each arm like crowns. Later the flowers develop into tart red fruits that once provided a staple of the Tohono O'Odham tribe's diet, harvested prior to monsoon season's midsummer start.
Prickly Pear (Genus opuntia): Speaking of tart cactus fruits, the prickly pear's golden flowers of springtime turn into the purple "tunas" of summer. The fruit is a great source of nourishment to Arizona wildlife, though humans also have cultivated a fondness. Most of the time the prickly pear tunas are commercially packaged as jams and syrups, but you can eat a ripe one right off the cactus...if you proceed with caution! A nickel's edge rubbed on the exterior can remove those pesky little needles.
Ocotillo (Fouqueria splendens): Much of the year Ocotillo can look like a spikey bundle of dry sticks, or like a forest of TV antennae sprouting out every-which-way. It conserves its energy until there is sufficient rainfall to spur on a growth of tiny tear-drop shaped leaves. Then, when the moment is right, the top of each skinny branch is decorated with a bright, red-orange lipstick-looking cluster of flowers. It's the craziest of desert plants, really, and very special to catch in bloom. If precipitation is sufficient it can leaf out and bloom nearly any time of year.
Sacred Datura (Datura Metaloides): Also known as Jimsonweed, this flower has been immortalized in the southwestern paintings of artist Georgia O'Keefe. It's related to the tomato, but also to the other, toxic, members of the Nightshade family. Though every part of this large bushy plant is poisonous if ingested, it's safe to enjoy views of its huge, trumpet-like flowers, open during the cool of night and closed in the heat of day.
Yucca: There are two common varieties of wild yucca in Northern Arizona; one grows low and is known as "Banana Yucca"(Yucca Buccata) for the green banana-shaped fruits it produces, and the other, more slender variety is called "Soapgrass" (Yucca Elata). This more delicate yucca actually has its own Arizona subspecies, Verdiensis, and it is one of my most favorite wild blooms of the state. Every May, Yucca flowers sprout up like sentinels throughout rocky high desert hills and valleys, waxy white blooms on a reedy stalk. A favorite of hummingbirds, moths and other desert pollinators, as well as shutterbugs like me. I am a sucker for yucca.
Agave (Agavi americana): Cousin to Yucca, Agave is also related to California’s Joshua Tree. Seeing an agave bloom is very special, because you're actually seeing the end of the plant's long life. Its entire existence is dedicated to this final goal-- the raising of its towering stalk and flower buds.Legend has it you can actually hear the stalk growing- it's said to add a foot a day! Agave is also sometimes called the "Century Plant", under the mistaken notion it took 100 years to bloom. Once in bloom, the plant is already on its way to expiring. Its sharp, thick grey-green spears of foliage grow in a circular rosette, home to a heart cultivated and roasted in the Mexican Blue Weber variety to be distilled into tequila and mescal. And though after blooming the plant soon withers into a hard husk, miniature offspring agaves may soon be seen surrounding it, growing fast and strong in the high desert.
Because of Arizona's variety of elevations and ecosystems, you make catch the same blooms in action in different locations during different times of the year, earlier in the low deserts and later in the high country.