April showers might bring May flowers in other parts of the country, but out here in the desert, it just doesn’t work that way — not if you’re talking about spring wildflowers.
We typically need our rain much earlier for the mass displays of flashy blooms that make Arizona famous, says Angelica Elliott, wildflower curator at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. She manages the venue’s Harriet K. Maxwell Desert Wildflower Trail, a reliable source for a kaleidoscope of wildflowers right here in the Valley.
“Rainfall is crucial for the seeds to germinate, but timing is also a huge factor,” Elliott says of the wild blooms that carpet desert hillsides and spring from rocky mountain crevasses.
Hardy Sonoran Desert sentinels such as saguaros and ocotillos have systems adapted to carry them through dry spells, but delicate wildflower seeds have to compete for moisture. The tiny seeds can lie dormant in the soil for years, waiting patiently for enough moisture to coax them into vibrant, blossoming life.
One would think that the heavy rains the Valley received in the first two-plus months of this year would help the little buggers along, but, according to Elliott, that’s not necessarily the case.
“I’ve noticed that when the rains start in October, and the rain is abundant, that’s when we typically get those spectacular, mass carpets of wildflowers throughout the state,” she says.
But rain that comes any later than December may not arrive in time to produce a banner crop of blooms — something that happens only about once every 10 years.
“Because the rainfall was late, I think it’s going to be a good year, but I don’t know about a banner year. There might be localized patches here and there, but it’s very hard to predict. Instead of mass carpets of wildflowers, we may only see throw rugs this year,” she says.
The fragile little flowers promise brilliant but fleeting beauty. Many last only a short time, giving way to other varieties fighting to produce seeds before the desert grows too hot. If it’s a good year, blooms could last into May, giving Valley residents several weekends to hunt for blooms with cameras and art supplies in hand.
Usery Mountain Regional Park in Mesa and Lost Dutchman State Park in Apache Junction are often good places to see flowers in the East Valley. Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior is also a hot spot. All of the parks offer up-to-date information on what’s blooming via telephone or their Web pages (see the sidebar for more information).
Whether or not our recent rains will benefit wildflowers may be in question, but the extra moisture will have a positive effect on the rest of the landscape.
Elliott says other striking plants, such as trees, cactuses and perennial flowers, should bloom nicely this spring, giving the desert another layer of color.