While it may not be a banner wildflower year in the Tucson metro area due to low germinating fall and winter rainfall, the desert is still blooming and awash in color and new growth. Swing into spring and look for these 11 blooming plants at the Desert Museum and in your neighborhood!
The genus Echinocerus is a popular group of cacti to grow in pots and as landscape plants, with a Greek-derived name, echinos, hedgehog or sea urchin, referring to their spiny fruits. Distributed widely from Oklahoma to California and south into Mexico, the majority of the species are frost hardy and will flower in spring or early summer at higher elevations. They produce magnificent showy flowers and will only flower once per year, so be on the lookout!
Native to Mexico and the southwestern US, these cacti are typically short and squat and sport tubercles instead of ribs. Some species are opportunistic and can bloom multiple times throughout the growing season as long as water is plentiful. A local variety, Mammillaria grahamii, is well known for its candy-striped blossoms in the spring and during the monsoon.
The genus Aloe contains a good number of species that can be grown here in the arid southwest, enhancing the landscape with interesting leaf colors and markings, striking forms and silhouettes and in almost every case, beautiful flowers! Aloes from South Africa, Namibia, and the Arabian peninsula generally perform well here, as they are best able to withstand our desert heat. Late winter through early spring is when you can find spectacular aloe flowers blooming in our region—and attracting hummingbirds!
Fairy duster, Calliandra eriophylla
This Sonoran Desert native is low-growing shrub that produces fine foliage and delicate flowers, giving the plant a fanciful feeling. The flowers are usually pale pink to red, with occasional white to ivory flowers presenting as well. Fairy Duster blooms late winter into early spring and fall, attracting many insects and several butterfly species. However, the plant is pollinated by hummingbirds.
Brittlebush, Encelia farinosa
This common shrub of the Sonoran Desert has long, oval, silver-gray leaves that are somewhat fuzzy, with yellow flowers blooming late winter to early spring. In Arizona and Baja California, find these shrubs on gravelly bajadas or rocky slopes! Did you know many desert plants have hairy leaves or stems, including brittlebush? These hairs act like a blanket over the leaves to protect them from the heat and cold. The white color reflects the sunlight to help keep the plant cool. The hairs also help trap any moisture and reduce the amount of water lost! How cool!
Desert hibiscus, Desert Rose Mallow, Coulter Hibiscus, Hibiscus Coulteri
A desert-adapted ornamental often grown for its showy flowers, Desert Rose Mallow is a humble relative of the brilliant tropical Hibiscus plants. Native to Arizona but also found in Texas and Mexico, this twiggy plant produces large, yellow, cup-shaped flowers often tinged with red or purple at the base. Flowers bloom in the days following rains from spring to fall.
Lemmon Sage, Salvia lemmoni
The genus Salvia is enormous, and includes Salvia officinalis, the ordinary culinary herb sage. With so many other species and hybrids, it’s important to know what performs here in the desert and what wont. Lemmon Sage, native to the mountains of southern Arizona and south to Durango, Mexico, are a favorite of hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies! Their leaves give off a light aroma of mint or citrus (depending on who you ask!) and reddish-pink tubular flowers enjoy a long flowering season from spring to fall.
Lupinus inclues about 200 species of annual and perennial herbs and semiwoody shrubs worldwide. Our desert species are all annuals and can be found in nearly every habitat in the Sonoran Desert region. Lupinus sparsiflorus is particularly widespread in the Mohave and northern Sonoran Desert where we are located. They produce lovely blue to purple pea-shaped flowers, usually blooming in March. Both the Seri and the O’odham named the plant for its fascinating sun-tracking habit: the hand-shaped leaves move to face the sun all day, then fold up at night!
Silver bells, Streptanthus carinatus and Bladderpod, Lesquerella gordoni
Did you know this common desert wildflower is in the same family as broccoli, cauliflower, and radish? Yep, these are mustards that are part of the Brassicacae family! Sonoran Desert mustards are inconspicuous yet abundant. Two attractive wildflowers are bladderpod and silver bells. In our area, silver bells are usually white. Identify this reliable spring wildflower by its twisted, urn-shaped flowers with distinctive, outward-curling tips.
Desert globemallow, Sphaeralcea
This short-lived subshrub produces tiny goblet-shaped flowers about ¾ inch or 20 mm across with apricot to bright orange coloring throughout most of its range. Scattered populations of the variety rosacea, or Parish mallow, present pink, lavender, red, or white flowers. Plants flower profusely in spring and sparsely at other times following rains. Desert globemallow is common in the deserts of California and Arizona and from Utah into Mexico. The several Sphaeralcea species in the Sonoran Desert look so similar that only experts on the genus can distinguish them with confidence!
Owl’s Clover, Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja exserta
Owl’s Clover is a species in the genus Castilleja within the Orobanchaceae (Broomrape) family. This species is native to the southwestern United States but has been introduced to places like Hawaii. Although this species is variable in appearance and easily hybridizes with other Castilleja, it generally bears a brightly-colored flower cluster of shaggy pink-purple or lavender flowers that resemble clover (but they are not related). Like other related plants in the family, this is a hemiparasite which derives some of its nutrients directly from the roots of other plants! This is the reason for its small, reduced leaves, and why it always grows associated with a perennial species serving as the host plant.
Can’t get enough desert flowers? Visit the Desert Museum during March and April to wander and admire a variety of beautiful blooms! We are now open 7:30 AM to 5:00 PM every day (and until 9:00 PM on Saturdays in March 2021) and you can make your reservations in advance here.
Written by Elena Makansi.