Spring Comes to the Desert

Ah, spring, and the crocuses are peeping through the snow and the tulips are sending their first tender shoots through the melting crust. The daffodils are…

Whoa – hold on. That may be spring in much of the country, but not in the Sonoran Desert. Hikers here can expect to see a blaze of flowering, much of it in bright yellow, as daylight stretches out and temperatures start their inexorable climb toward summer.

After a January of good rain, as we’ve had this year, expect brittlebush

to paint whole hillsides in swaths of yellow by the end of February. The plants, which seem desiccated in fall after a summer of blistering sun, revive; their distinctive blue-green leaves form a compact mass, and they send out flowers on single thin stems.

But brittlebush is just the biggest source of yellow. There are many more, and it would take a dedicated amateur botanist to sort them out. Goldeneye, a clumpy bloomer with a flower very similar to the brittlebush, is often mistaken for it. And Lemmon’s ragwort, another shrubby plant seen at higher elevations, has flowers that are, at a glance, almost identical. Paperflower and trixis, too, have similar, if smaller, flowers.

Desert marigold, with its bluish-tinged leaves, has a single yellow flower on tall stems – but it’s a smaller plant common along roadways and trailsides and can bloom much of the year. And fiddleneck, another low grower, sends out clumps of small yellow blooms with a top that typically curved down like the neck of a violin.

Later in the spring, the palo verde trees will bloom, some with such profusion that a rain will leave the ground below carpeted in gold from the fallen flowers.

While the yellows dominate, other colors arrive with spring – pinks and purples, like the low-growing Phacelia, miniature woolystar, gilia and lupine. And owl clover, with its bristly head, can be very profuse some years, forming thick carpets of lavender.

Though it’s less common on trails than on roadsides, globemallow is another great harbinger of spring. While most are orange, the plant is a color virtuoso: flowers can be pink, lavender or almost white, sometimes side by side.

Cacti? They will bloom later, and into June. Hedgehogs – spiny clumps that resemble their namesakes – are among the first to come out, with broad magenta flowers that can be stunning. The chollas come later, and gradually: it seems sometimes to take weeks before the buds make that metamorphosis into flowers, with blossoms that can range from cream to gold. Mighty saguaros, with their almost waxlike, perfect white flowers, don’t ordinarily bloom until later in May.

  • Jeffrey Marshall

  • DFLT Board Member

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