Awash in yellow

Brown-Eyed Susan

Brown-Eyed Susan

March Madness strikes the Sonoran Desert too and lasts about as long as the basketball tournament.  Every year about this time, a riot of colors tinges the arid valleys and mountain slopes with yellow.   ’tis the flowering season.

A mountain park I frequent here in Phoenix almost blinds with its brilliant yellows from Palo Verde trees, the Creosote, Brittlebush and cactus like the Compass Barrel and Buckhorn Cholla.  But my favorite is the magenta flower of the Engelmann Hedgehog cactus.

Engelmann Hedgehog

The hairy Engelmann Hedgehog

For most of the year, this Hedgehog languishes in unspectacular clumps.  It spreads out in small, rounded lumps with sharp and hairy spines.  It is also known as Saints Cactus or Strawberry Cactus (red flowers).  I often see dead ones that are as black as black can be.

This Hedgehog is named for botantist George Engelmann, an emigrant to the U.S. from his native Germany.  He explored Arizona in the 19th Century and catalogued many of the cactus here.

The Engelmann was the first cactus to bloom this year in North Mountain Park, followed in short order by the Buckhorn and the Compass Barrel.  The barrel cactus is so named “compass” because it tends to list to the southwest.

Brittlebush Blooms

The prolific Brittlebush.

I was particularly struck by the vibrance of several Black-Eyed Susan bushes atop the north dam in North Mountain Park.  I did not see them growing anywhere else.

Bust is now I would describe the wildflower season.  I have seen no fields of golden Poppies.  Just a few, scattered and lonely.  Unfortunately, many measure the quality of the wildflower season strictly by the numbers of poppies.  Many other wildflowers like Fiddleneck (yellow flowers), Blue Dick and Phacelia (purple) are more abundant.

Later in the spring and summer the Saguaros will sport their white flowers.  And the Ironwood tree will be decked out in gorgeous pink blossoms.  But nothing compares to March.

Compass Barrel Blooms

Compass Barrel

If you miss March in the Sonoran Desert, you miss most of the flower season.

 

 

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Blooms

The inner workings of the Engelmann hedgehog cactus.

The inner workings of the Engelmann hedgehog cactus.

The desert wildflower season is all but over.  And to me, it fell below expectations.  Not enough rain at the right time, I hear.  But all desert color is not lost.

As the wildflowers fade along with our desert winter visitors, the snowbirds, a new phase emerges.  We are now in the cactus-flower phase.  Tree flowers are in the wings.  Some palo verde are yellow-blooming along the lower washes and the mesquite, ironwood et al will come later as will the mighty Saguaro flowers.

Yesterday, I did a solo hike in North Mountain Park.  Two weeks ago, traveling it with my niece from Nebraska, we found ourselves in the Great in Between.  Wildflowers were on their way out and it was too early for cactus.  But on this recent hike my favorite cactus flower, that of the Englemann Hedgehog, was at peak.

The waxy yellow flower of the Compass Barrel.

The waxy yellow flower of the Compass Barrel.

Not only are the blooms striking in magenta, purple and pinkish-red, the hedgehog bunches together and often produces as many as a half-dozen blooms from one little cluster.

Crossing the little north retaining dam, orange globemallow and yellow desert marigold were abloom in small numbers.  While my hike was short — only 2.7 miles — the quality was high.

 

 

 

 

A hiker’s diary: February 2013

Latest entry appears first.

A blooming Engelmann hedgehog cactus.

A blooming Engelmann hedgehog cactus.

March 28, Thursday:  North Mountain summit loop, North Mountain Park.   The best thing about hiking familiar Arizona trails this time of year is to note the many wonderful changes the desert is undergoing.  Wildflower season is past peak but still fairly strong, and the yellow-flowering brittlebush and creosote are in full bloom.  And cactus, like the Engelmann hedgehog and red-barrell compass, are also flowering.

I was shocked at the large number of these globe mallow.

I was shocked at the large number of these globe mallow.

The big surprise today was the abundant stands of orange globe mallow on the mountain’s northwest slope.  I had not seen globe mallow in such profusion before.  On the west end of the summit I ran into some scary-looking customers, carpenter bees.  The male carpenters are among the largest of bees, golden-brown and furry.  But they have no stinger, so are harmless.  At first I thought I had walked into a swarm of Africanized.  But these bees paid me no mind as I walked within a foot of the palo verde and brittlebush they inspected.

View to the southeast from the summit with ocotillo in foreground.

View to the southeast from the summit with ocotillo in foreground.

I stopped just east of the summit towers for a sandwich and headed back down toward the 7th Ave parking lot.  I figured I should’ve made it back before dark easy.  But at a point where the trails divides, no markers in sight, I went left when I should’ve went right.  I was well down the very steep and rocky National Trail when I realized my mistake but continued on, not wanting to struggle back up to the other trail.

Western patchnose along National Trail.

Western patchnose along National Trail.

Along this eastern slope just around sunset I found a beautiful Western patchnose snake, poking his head into holes, looking for supper.  The patchnoses are super-skinny and up to three and a half feet long with a beige stripe running down the back and two black stripes running down each side.  The detour cost me time, and it was dark when I finally reached the parking lot again.  I was startled to find a man and woman ambling my way, talking there on a moonless night with ony bright Sirius showing through a light cloud cover.  The trip covered almost 4 miles, compared to the 2 1/2 I had expected.  But no regrets.  Things happen like that for the best when you’re out on the trails.

What's on top of Shaw?  Rocks and ugly towers.

What’s on top of Shaw? Rocks and ugly towers.

Across from Shaw's summit at 2,149' rests North Mountain, 45 feet lower.

Across from Shaw’s summit at 2,149′ rests North Mountain, 45 feet lower.

March 1, Friday:  Shaw Butte summit loop, North Mountain Park.  My first time to the summit ascending on the steep southern route.  The trail, #306, rises 702 feet in a smidgen over a mile.

Going up to the first saddle, a glint of brightness struck my eyes from high above on the trail.  It was an Asian woman with a parasol.  When we finally passed, I told her:  “That’s a pretty sight, you coming down with a parasol and the sun shining through it like a beacon.”

Shaw Butte and towers captured at sunset.

Shaw Butte and towers captured at sunset.

Thought it would be a lonely trail but in fact it turned out to be one of the busiest segments I’d been on for a while.  I counted 33 humans and a few dogs by time I reached the top.  A group of nine, mostly hefty women, went ahead of me at a junction but soon turned around and went back down.  This time I don’t stop at the ruins of the old Cloud Nine restaurant, which looks out over downtown Phoenix from 750 feet above the desert floor.  From there, it appears you can reach out and touch the towers on the summit.  Not really.  Those towers are 313 feet above and almost another .6 miles of trail, the final segment being very steep.  Had a late lunch on the rocky summit beneath what are at least 8 ugly towers.  Great views on a beautiful afternoon. Returned on the northern route which is about the same elevation gain/loss as the south but 4/10 of a mile longer.