Spring in the Arizona Desert: Cacti in Bloom
The Desert Blooms in Spring
Mention deserts and the image that comes to mind for many is a hot dry land with a barren and desolate landscape that is covered with sand and is almost totally lacking in vegetation.
While this image may be true for some desert areas in the world, such as the Sahara Desert in North Africa or the Gobi Desert in Asia, it is a far from accurate description of America's southwestern desert areas.
While the desert areas that extend over much of Arizona and New Mexico as well as parts of California and Texas tend to be hot, especially in summer, and full of sand they are anything but barren.
Prickly Pear Cactus in Boom
With few exceptions, such as the white sand area of the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico which is mostly barren white sand with very little vegetation and the Death Valley area of California which are mostly barren, the desert areas of the American Southwest do support a fair number of plants an animals that have adapted to the dry desert environment.
With the coming of spring these cactus and other desert plants burst forth in bloom turning the desert into a virtual flower garden of beautiful flowers.
Prickley Pear in BloomClick thumbnail to view full-size
Cactus is King
While not known for the lush vegitation or thick forests that predominate in the eastern states of the United States, the southwestern deserts do have an abundance of their own unique vegetation.
In a previous Hub, entitled Springtime in the Arizona Deseert, I described how the winter rains bring forth an abundance of wildflowers that blanket the desert landscape in the spring.
While hardy, most of the plants that bear these flowers cannot handle the intense summer heat of the desert so they tend to sprout and bloom early in the spring when the temperatures are lower and water more abundant.
However, as the wildflowers wither and die in the increasing heat of late spring, the mainstays of the desert, the cactus and other succulent plants thrive and bloom during late spring and early summer.
Unlike the wildflower plants which need a supply of water in the ground to survive, cacti and their succulent cousins have, over the ages, evolved in ways that have allowed them to adapt to the hot and dry desert climate by holding moisture in and consuming it sparingly.
Since these plants are able to survive in the hot dry desert climate, they can afford to wait and bloom later in the spring when the days are becoming hotter. Just as the wild flowers put on a spectacular show of beauty when they bloom so too do the cacti and other succulents so that the desert is again awash in floral beauty.
Prickley Pear Cactus
The Prickley Pear is a common cactus that is found in many parts of the world.
It flowers in the spring and after the flower dies a fruit is produced which can be consumed by humans. The fruit is often made into a jam. Tourist shops in the southwest often carry prickley pear jam as one of their offerings.
The broad flat leaves of this cactus can also be cut up, boiled and eaten as a vegetable. These leaves are sometimes served with Mexican meals and are in sufficient demand among some consumers in Tucson that many grocery stores carry these leaves in their fresh produce section.
I have tried the leaves on a couple occasions at potluck luncheons at work and they have a taste and consistency similar to that of boiled green beans.
Another Variety of Prickley Pear CactusClick thumbnail to view full-size
More Prickly Pear FlowersClick thumbnail to view full-size
Saguaro CactiClick thumbnail to view full-size
Even the Mighty Saguaro Cacti Break Into Bloom in Spring
While various species of cactus can be found in desert and dry areas around the world, the saguaro is only found in the Sonoran Desert which stretches across parts of Arizona and California in the U.S. and parts of the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California.
Thanks in large part to old west cowboy movies the saguaro cactus has become widely known and closely associated with the American West despite the fact that the Saguaro is only found in a small part of the West.
During late spring and early summer, the saguaro produces white or red flowers.
The flowers produce a fruit which is popular with birds and bugs and is also harvested by the local Tohono O'odham indians in June and July and made into wine for their centuries rain ceremony.
Despite their natural majestic beauty and the way they beautify the Arizona landscape throughout the year, their flowering adds additional beauty to springtime in the desert.
Tohono O'odham Harvesting Saguaro Fruit
Saguro Fruit for Birds and HumansClick thumbnail to view full-size
Other Cacti Flower As WellClick thumbnail to view full-size
Spanish BayoneteClick thumbnail to view full-size
Other Succulent Plants
Cacti are not the only plants designed by nature to survive in the desert.
There are other plants which, like cacti, are designed to store and use water sparingly thereby ensuring their survival in the harsh dry climate of the desert.
Like Cacti, these succulent cousins also burst forth in bloom every spring. Here is a sampling of some of these plants.
OcotilloClick thumbnail to view full-size
Questions & Answers
What is the best time you can recommend for seeing cacti bloom?
The short answer is spring to mid-summer. When the weather begins to get warmer the cholla, prickly pear and some other cacti start blooming. This can be April or even late March in the case of an early spring or mid to late April in years when cooler weather persists. Saguaro cacti normally begin blooming in mid-May through June although an early spring can have some start blooming earlier in May. Barrell cacti tend to start blooming in July. If you are planning a trip to the Southern Arizona desert your best bet is probably the last couple of weeks in May through mid-June which is when you are likely to encounter the greatest number of cacti in bloom. There are numerous species of cacti as well increasing numbers of hybrid verities. Depending upon the type of cacti the flowers range from small and rather common to very large and spectacular. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Tucson Botanical l Gardens both have a large section of various species of cacti and are a great place to see many types in one place. Both have websites where you can check on current blooming times for their cacti and other plants. Of course, not all will be in bloom at the same time as different types bloom at different times starting in Spring through mid Summer.
© 2009 Chuck Nugent