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Desert epiphany: Springtime blooms in the Arizona desert

The blooms of ocotillo can be seen all over the Arizona desert in the springtime.
The blooms of ocotillo can be seen all over the Arizona desert in the springtime.

TUCSON, Ariz. – For the past decade, I’ve headed to Arizona in midwinter to visit family and catch a respite from cold weather. Each year, as I leave its warm, dry air to return to my snowy home, I’m told, “You really should come when the desert is in bloom. It’s spectacular.”

Each year, in response, I roll my eyes. Why would I visit Arizona when spring is in the air in Minnesota? And how can a desert, by its very nature, be “in bloom”?

I claim no grand foresight into this year’s weather; a busy schedule had prompted my later-than-usual, mid-April trip to Arizona. I was simply looking for warmth.

What I found was color. For a winter-weary Midwesterner, it was a revelation.

Ocotillo brightened the horizon, its spider-like arms topped with luscious red-orange blossoms waving in the periwinkle blue sky. Hedgehogs flashed their colors over the rocky earth: red, yellow, pink. Small neon flowers peeked out from the chollas. Prickly pear blossoms burst with stunning hues. All popped into the sepia tones of the desert as though hand-colored to order.

Ahh. Now this was the desert in bloom.

These plant names now fall off my tongue with ease, but not so with my first glimpse of the blossoms. I was at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, on the outskirts of Tucson, surrounded by more than 1,200 types of plants and 56,000 specimens on 21 acres, on the edge of Saguaro National Park. There was desert, and desert only, as far as the eye could see. Saguaros, the giant cactuses, many with multiple arms, stood like sentries on the horizon. (Its blossoms are the Arizona state flower.) Like a child learning to talk, I pointed at the blossoms and repeated their names, a lesson in the language of Southwest flowers.

There was no better place for my education than the 60-year-old Desert Museum, which puts a new spin on what most of us think of as a museum. Much of what it offers is outside, not inside, and most of it is alive. Very alive, in fact, as anyone careless enough to brush against the barbs of a cholla would discover. Alive as in rattlesnakes and scorpions. This isn’t a theme park: A trip down these paths needs caution. (Leave the toeless sandals at home.) Part arboretum, part zoo (with coyotes, bobcats and pig-like javelinas), part aviary and hummingbird sanctuary, well, you get the drift. Not your usual museum.

I walked carefully along the dusty paths, passing the occasional visitor dressed for the weather: floppy hat and sunglasses, hiking boots, a light scent of eau du sunscreen evident (the museum restrooms have sunscreen dispensers).

By serendipity – always a traveler’s friend – I had stumbled onto one of the best spring seasons in years. Higher than normal winter rainfall had boosted not only the colors but also the lushness of the blooms. Where only a few flowers would usually appear on a cactus, this year there was blossom-after-blossom, a chaotic extravagance. “It’s a spectacular year, especially for the hedgehogs, cholla and prickly pear,” said George Montgomery, curator of the botany department at the Desert Museum.

Not all the color came from cactus. The wildflowers – poppies, lupines and the like – were less showy than usual, due to the lateness of the rainfall, though by any standards they were still beautiful. Bright hues spilled out from other desert plants that a casual observer would mistake for the more prickly species. “The cactus have a certain flower structure unique to that family,” said Montgomery, as he offered a brief botany lesson in their differences, and reminded me that cactus, as succulents, store more water than other plants do and rarely have leaves.

Well, that meant my favorite bloom, the ocotillo, was not a cactus. No matter. It had caught my attention and wouldn’t let go. I’d seen the plant without flowers on earlier visits and even then I loved the wild nature of its roselike stems. Now its flowers were almost juicy with color, drawing hummingbirds to its tubular flowers, a perfect evolutionary vehicle. “Which makes you wonder which came first,” noted Montgomery, “the plant or the hummingbird?”

As I wandered along the museum path, snapping this picture and that from my iPhone (having forgotten my usual camera on the kitchen counter at home), one plant after another brought a gasp. “Oh,” I would sigh. “Click,” went the phone camera. “Oh,” I repeated. “Click.”

I was so overcome by the beauty of the ocotillo, in particular, that I returned to the museum the next day when it opened at 7:30 a.m. to photograph its wildness in the morning light. En route to the museum, I pulled off the road to snap image after image: ocotillo in foreground, in the background, all against a horizon of saguaros.

By then I’d caught the fever — desert bloom fever — and I lit out in the desert neighborhood where I was staying, hunting for color. If a bud wasn’t quite ready one day, I checked it out the next. And the next. Always with my camera in tow.

I left too early to see everything bloom. The yellow flowers of the palo verde trees had made a gentle backdrop for the other blossoms, but the saguaro buds still weren’t open, though they were due to start in a few weeks and continue into June.

Their story intrigued me. While many cactus flowers last for several days, the saguaro bloom lasts less than 24 hours. After opening near dusk, its bloom continues through the night and closes at the heat of the day.

Next year I’ll be ready.

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