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Desert Wildflowers

March 9, 2001

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Mexican gold poppy
Fields of Mexican gold poppy (Eschscholtzia mexicana) off Ajo Highway, mile marker 131

It was a grueling assignment -- covering the wildflower show in southern Arizona -- but somebody had to it. Who else but our own Doyenne of Dirt, who begged and pleaded producer Cindy Carpien to leave her husband and small children, pack up her equipment and camera, and join Ketzel for a quick gallop through the Sonoran Desert west of Tucson.

  • Additional Dirt on the Desert

    The first thing I have to say about looking at wildflowers in the desert is this: Get out of the car.

    Serious hortheads dropping to their knees on the King Canyon Trail in the Tucson Mountains
    Photo by Lindy Brigham

    Yes, you can see poppies, lupines, brittlebush and silver bells out the window, but there's still a ton of steel between you and the experience. You've got to breathe the air and feel the stillness before you can take in any sense of the place, and only then do you start really seeing the flowers.

    Poppy and owls clover
    Mexican gold poppy sprinkled with owls clover (Castilleja exserta)

    I'm not saying this out of any self-righteous sense of what makes an experience real, but solely out of regret. How could I even think of going to the Tucson Mountains (how I hate to admit this!) for less than 24 hours. But never mind, I got a chance to look around and have my suburban New York mind blown by one of the most otherworldly creatures on the planet, Carnegiea gigantea, the Saguaro cactus.

    Saguaro cactus
    Saguaro (pronounced saWAHRo) cactus in Saguaro National Park

    Driving (yes, alas, driving) through winding roads of these muscular, multi-story beasts -- some of them old enough to remember Wyatt Earp -- one thing became crystal clear to me. Everything in this desert is about the saguaros. The prickly pear, the ocotillo, the creosote bush, even the gloriously contorted cholla cactus are just playthings at the feet of the saguaro... reducing the wildflowers to a mere frothy brew.


    Yellow brittle with prickly pear
    Giddy yellow brittle bush (Encelia farinosa) with prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.)

    But don't get me wrong, the wildflowers are stunning, and no small miracle when you think of everything that has to go right for so many of them to bloom: at least an inch of rain at the precise time in the fall, continued drizzles to encourage roots, cooperative winter temperatures, benign winds, a good seed surplus, I'm telling you the list is endless.

    Barb Skye and Ketzel
    Horticulturist Barb Skye from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

    So yeah, it would have been amazing to have spent days in the desert hunting and pecking for wildflowers (particularly in the company of the Desert Museum's ever-delightful Barb Skye). But hey, I'm no fool, we saw a wildflower show for the record books -- including the books kept by Dave Bertelsen, a self-taught botanist who has devoted his life to the study (make that worship) of desert flora. Forgive the hyperbole, but along with the saguaros, Dave embodies the very soul of this landscape. Thanks for the view, Dave.

    Dave Bertelsen
    Botanist Dave Bertelsen on the wildflower trail

    Sources for Additional Information


  • Desert Museum Web site: The lowdown on predicting wildflower blooms
  • Desert Botanical Garden Web site in Phoenix
  • DesertUSA Web site - with eyewitness wildflower reports
  • Arizona Native Plant Society Web site: Don't miss their publications page
  • Tucson Botanical Garden Web site
  • AZ Chapter of the Nature Conservancy Web site
  • Tohonocuhul Park Web site: A charmed museum/garden in Tucson


  • Agaves, Yuccas and Related Plants, Mary Irish (Timber Press, 2000)
  • The Cactus Family, Edward F. Anderson (Timber Press, 2001)
  • A Field Guide to the Plants of Arizona, Anne Orth Epple (Falcon Press, 1995)
  • Native Plants for Southwestern Landscapes, Judy Mielke (U of Texas Press, 1993)
  • Southern Arizona Nature Almanac, Roseann Beggy Hanson and Jonathan Hanson (Pruett, 1996)
  • Two books by John Alcock (U of Arizona Press, 1994)
    Sonoran Desert Spring and Sonoran Desert Summer


  • Desert Plants, a must for the serious horthead. It's published by the U of Arizona for the Boyce Thompson Southwestern Arboretum.

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