Desert Of The Southwest Land Of The Flowering Cactus

Perhaps you’re among the numerous people planning to come to Arizona someday. But, if you believe this land is a desert, a picture of sand, cacti, and bleached bones, there is a surprise waiting for you.

The so-called “desert” of the southwest is a vast garden of diverse plant forms. However, in the six states comprising this semi-arid region, there are four relatively small regions of the true desert where there is a noticeable, but not complete, absence of vegetation.

land of flowering cactusPin

They are the following:

  • Painted Desert of Northeastern Arizona
  • The White Sands of New Mexico
  • The Sand Dunes of Southeastern California
  • Death Valley

Also, there may be a few more minor bald spots here and there that I have overlooked, but the Mohave Desert, according to my observations, is teeming with plants.

Southwest’s Topography Characteristics

Plant-wise, the southwest’s topography is characterized mainly by evergreen forests, meadows, desert thickets, and open grasslands. 

Ferns are common in the higher elevations, and Arizona, itself, can boast of 22 odd species of terrestrial orchids.

The term “desert,” even when used about the floors between mountain ranges, is not an accurate description of the land of the flowering cacti.

Travelers crossing the southern half of Arizona are fascinated and repelled by the grotesque spectacle of the cacti that often dominate the landscape. 

The weird shapes give no hint of the fantastic elegance they achieve in spring when adorned with jewel-like flowers that, for sheer eye appeal, of color, design, and splendor, can be equaled by a few plants.

Often there are periods of 3 or 4 years in length when, despite the sporadic showers and cloudbursts, no soaking rains fall on the land.

Such periods of shortage impose no hardship on the vegetative spirit, although it faces the specter of a gray, grim drought — for it knows how to slow down and take life easy, like the great bears of another region. The rains always come again, and energy, only suspended, awakens and nuts on a new green dress.

There are times, usually once in 8 or 10 years, when a tremendous prolonged rain comes to the land. Then, the little annuals spread their carpets of color, and their entire life cycle, from seed to flower and back to the source again, must be completed within a few short weeks before the soil dries out again.

But, rain or no rain, the cacti put forth their silken or satiny and, often, waxen flowers year after year because their stores are adequate for their needs during periods of short supplies of water.

Enchanting Cacti Blooms In The Desert

For nine months of the year, some cactus is in bloom, beginning with a half-hearted attempt by the little fishhooks in February and ending with a few late Arizona barrels in October. The season, however, starts in earnest in April.

At this time, the dreary landscape becomes dotted here and there with the purple and red flowers of the strawberry-hedgehog cacti and reddish pink flowers of beavertail in west-central Arizona. These early-April flowers give way to other species in late April.

Late April and early May turn the sun-washed desert at the peak of its flower season — into a land of enchantment and brings competition for the cacti with flowers from other plant families.

The paloverde trees adorn their spreading boughs with veils of delicate golden-yellow blossoms, completely hiding the stems in shimmering clouds of gold. Further billows of color come to the ironwood trees. These are lavender and pink and appear in late May and June.

Late April brings scarlet panicles to the waving tips of the 15 or 20-whiplike, spreading branches of the ocotillo that terminate at the base of the plant, suggesting a vase. 

At this time, the Spanish bayonet is also in bloom — its bulky stalk of bell-shaped, white flowers is protected in a cone-like arrangement of long, narrow, blade-like, pointed leaves.

Its cousin, a much taller plant, the candle of the Lord (local data), raises its towering stalk of white flowers in late May and June. June and early July wind up the season for the most critical non-cactus plants, the agaves.

From a rosette of sharp-pointed, succulent leaves, the agave or century plant sends up a towering stalk whose lateral branches support a large pad of golden or reddish florets.

Blossom Time In Arizona

Let us return to cactus flowers in late April, when an impressive number of species bloom. Though the flowers of some species are extended into July and August, the height of cactus blossom in Arizona ranges from late April until mid-May.

At this time, there are (to mention a few) tiny pink flowers on the fishhook cacti (but in greater circles in mid-July);

A few varieties of hedgehogs are:

  • The prickly pears, whose yellow flowers turn to burnt orange, brown, or red before evening.
  • The giant saguaros (cereus), whose nocturnal, white flowers remain open part of the following day.
  • Several varieties of cholla that present a wide variety of flower colors.

The cane cholla and staghorn cholla can produce flowers of any conceivable color, including white, or a combination of these, anything except true blue. I have noted a branch of a red flowering plant bearing green flowers in a few rare instances.

Perhaps chlorophyll had displaced the anthocyanins in the meant-to-be-red flowers. The organ-pipe cactus, another nocturnal cereus of southwestern Arizona, flowers in May. So does Arizona’s Queen of the Night, which is hidden under trees.

This scrawny plant flowers in June, along with a few stragglers from May, such as saguaro, cholla, prickly-pear, and pincushions. In June, the spring flower season comes to an end.

In July, August, and September, the giant Arizona barrels, with fiercely hooked spines, practically engulf the autumn season in southwestern Arizona with their crowns of red, yellow, and orange flowers. The peak of their season is the last week of August.

Except on rare occasions when the annuals spring up en masse, the desert is never covered with flowers in case cactus-land calls you and your camera – nor do the cacti spread carpets of flowers. Yet the magical effect of spring wields greatly influences the imagination.

There are, however, in some places, long stretches along the washes that are clouded over by the yellow masses of flowers of the paloverde trees. 

On the other hand, the cacti are dispersed in some places for long distances, and only sometimes do the various species or individuals of a species bloom at the same time in the same area.

Furthermore, many cacti are obscured by further growth. Only in a few regions where the ranges of several species overlap is a noticeable variety of flowers simultaneously.

You can imagine the distance you would have to negotiate and the time required to see or photograph all the species in bloom.

Arizona, The Cactus-Land

There is a suitable place and time to visit cactus-land. If you want to take a short vacation, photograph the cacti in bloom, such a place in Tucson, Arizona. 

During the last week of April and the first week of May, within a radius of 25 miles, there are several species of cacti in bloom beside the ocotillo, Encelia, and paloverde trees.

The cane cholla should delight you with hundreds of different flower colors. By a remote possibility, there may even be an early flower of Arizona’s shy Queen of the Night. But you will never find that one!

44659 by R. C. Proctor