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.





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.





Mrs. Desert Tarantula

My idea of the tarantula is large and furry, a spider of the night.  Yesterday, hiking along the National Trail in South Mountain Park here in Phoenix I saw a spider, furry all right but small, two inches in length and it was daylight.  Hours before sunset.

Said spider was on the left of the trail in the shadows, but I picked up movement.  My first thought:  tarantula.  Thought No. 2:  It’s too small.  I tried to shoot close-ups with the Canon but they were so bad I would only show them to someone doing acid.  Eventually said spider got off the trail, moseyed upward so camouflaged in the rock I had a hard time finding it.  For data fiends like me, the sighting took place about 2:55 p.m. at an elevation of 2,200 feet, the temperature in the low 70s.

Later that night, I pulled out my National Audubon Society “Field Guide to Insects and Spiders,” and there it was on Plate 647.  A Desert tarantula.  And in all likelihood because of its comparatively large size, a female, a Mrs. Spider.  Alphnopelma chalcodes.  They run in size out here in the desert to 2-2 1/2 inches and females a 1/4 of inch longer.  Its found in Arizona, New Mexico and southern California.

It was far from awesome and said to be a common sight here in the Sonoran Desert.  But the Mrs. was my first sighting ever of a tarantula in the wild.

The looming wildflower season

Harbingers of spring: A pair of lonely poppies along Quartz Ridge Trail.

Last Saturday, on January 28, I noticed a new crop of wildflowers emerging.  I was hiking the Quartz Ridge Trail in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, coming down off a saddle about a mile and a half south of the 40th Street Trailhead.  And there they were.  A pair of golden poppies by a rock in a narrow valley shaded from the winter’s afternoon sun.  That means the full-blown season is not far away.

On the next day, the 29th, hiking the Sunrise Mountain Trail in east Scottsdale, I found even more wildflowers.  Poppies, lupine and two or three others I didn’t recognize.  One, a dainty plant with tiny yellow flowers no more than 1/16 of an inch across.  Not in great profusion yet, but still a sign of what looms in February and early March, the height of the Sonoran desert’s wildflower season.

Not only are the wildflowers starting up, but the entire desert is coming alive with green, and other plants are starting to show color.  The ocotillo along the Sunrise trail were thick with their small green leaves turning red at the tips of branches.  Some brittlebush was sporting yellow flowers.  And I saw at least one creosote with a few tiny yellow flowers

This is the beginning of an exciting time in our desert, and the weather couldn’t be better for hiking.  January was one of the warmest and sunniest I can remember.  The last few days have seen temperatures rise into the 70s.

Driving home at sunset, the fuscia, red, dark blues and purples of the western sky were exhilarating.  As I admired the heavens,  three groups of geese flew over, bearing north, following their migratory paths of many, many moons.

All of it together, the wildflowers, greening desert, sunset and geese, might make one feel a tad nostalgic with a sense of commonality.  Even in this land of angry, racist citizens, loaded guns, disparate finances and divisive politics there are moments like these that give hope to America, hope that this nation might once again pull together and reach for its great potential.  Sadly right now we are heading in the opposite direction.