The remarkable existence of desert plants is magnified during the spring wildflower season. In this land of little rain, plants seem to eke out an existence. Their growth is not measured in height or board feet, but by the decades they have survived. In spring, ancient trees, twisted and gnarled by the seasons, and compact, spiny shrubs are suddenly accented by a wonderland of wildflowers.
Many of these plants have been here for years. They are the perennials, those with a life span greater than one season. Many are familiar wildflowers like narrow-leaf yucca, sand verbena, Eaton’s penstemon, lupines and sunflowers to name a few. Others have also been here for years, but in a different state.
Lying dormant as seeds buried beneath shifting sands and awaiting optimal conditions to germinate, seeds of wildflowers need the right soil moisture conditions before they germinate. Though the right conditions may not guarantee success to flowering, they at least offer an opportunity to sprout and grow and race against Mother Nature’s biological clock.
The vast fields of wildflowers that bloom in May might be either perennials or annuals, plants that have a one-season life cycle. Some years, the desert is carpeted with fields of globemallow, blazingstar, woody asters or yellow beeplant, a plant the Ancestral Puebloans harvested and used as a black pigment to paint their pottery. When these plants carpet the desert floor it is an amazing sight.
Desert trumpet is another plant that heralds spring, sometimes in profusion. With its oddly-shaped stems that are narrow at the base and “inflated” towards the tip, this plant can grow in abundance after a wet winter. The tiny yellowish flowers lack petals so they are easily overlooked, but the unusual stems may persist even into winter.
Scorpionweed, with its bluish-purple flowers that are coiled in a tight cluster that resembles a scorpion’s tail, cloak clay-rich, reddish-brown slopes of the Moenkopi and Cutler formations. Their foul-smelling foliage may seem like a deterrent to herbivores or foraging humans, but Native Americans used the powdered leaves mixed with water as poultices for sprains and swellings.
In addition to the flowering plants, the prickly pear and fishhook cacti produce beautiful flowers in May. The prickly pears with their jointed, flattened stems produce brilliantly colored flowers that are havens for pollinators which are often seen plowing through the small forest of stamens within the flower. In contrast, the barrel-shaped fishhooks produce pinkish flowers protected by curved spines that resemble fishhooks and thus give this plant their common name.
But if my money is on one spring plant that’s a real show stopper, it has to rest on the rough mule’s ears. This weird sounding name refers to the texture of the leaves which reminded early botanists of the feel of their mule’s ears. The large, almost shrub-size stature of the plants produces large sunflower-like flowers that often cloaks the plant. The genus name Wyethia, is named after Nathanial Wyeth (1802-1856), better known as the “Cambridge Ice Man.”
Wyeth was a Bostonian who owned several ice businesses, but he had been bitten by the “Go West Young Man,” bug in the 1830s. He eventually led two overland expeditions to the Northwest, and helped a couple of famous naturalists, John Kirk Townsend and Thomas Nuttall, collect plants along the way, one of which was named in his honor.
Though the colorful red rocks and odd geologic formations of Canyon Country will always take center stage, spring adorns the desert with a spectacular wildflower show that is greatly appreciated and shouldn’t be missed.