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Spring in the Arizona Desert: Cacti in Bloom

Having lived in Arizona for over 30 years, Chuck and his wife enjoy the great outdoors of the American Southwest.

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

Prickly Pear Cactus in Bloom

Prickly Pear Cactus in Bloom

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.

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.

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

Sign describing Arizona Tohono O'odham Indians harvesting fruit of a Saguaro cactus

Sign describing Arizona Tohono O'odham Indians harvesting fruit of a Saguaro cactus

Sign describing the ribs and bumps that make up a Saguaro Cactus

Sign describing the ribs and bumps that make up a Saguaro Cactus

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.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the best time you can recommend for seeing cacti bloom?

Answer: 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

Comments

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on December 02, 2015:

aesta 1 - Welcome to Arizona and I hope you enjoy your stay.

The cacti won't be blooming again until spring but when they do they are a beautiful site. Another spectacular sight can be during the winter when we occasionally get a light snowfall over night. For a few hours n the early morning the snow covered cacti (especially the saguaros) is another beautiful sight - but it only lasts a few hours after sunrise as the sun quickly melts the snow.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on November 17, 2015:

We are in Arizona now and though the cacti are not in bloom, they are still beautiful. We look forward to seeing the desert bloom. I hope we see this before we go home.

hi friend from India on May 09, 2012:

A great effort and a nice hub.

John R Wilsdon from Superior, Arizona on January 22, 2012:

Such beautiful photos. The blooms on the desert are certainly spectacular. I recently learned that the term "yellow rose of Texas" refers to the prickly pear blossom.

It is a rose of a cactus. Good hub.

Stephanie Henkel from USA on November 18, 2010:

Although we've spent a lot of time visiting deserts in Arizona, we have not been lucky enough to see all the cacti in bloom. The few that we've seen are beautiful, and I truly enjoyed looking at your beautiful pictures of the ones we have not caught in bloom.

susanmarion from Bunnell on September 30, 2010:

I'm living in Florida, moved here from Tucson to be closer to my aging parents. I so miss hiking, enjoying the beauty of the desert there including the cactus. Thank you for helping me visit a little bit.

laringo from From Berkeley, California. on March 15, 2009:

Cacti are not the most beautiful plants but they do yield the most beautiful flowers. A different take on Spring but a very good pick.

Merle Ann Johnson from NW in the land of the Free on March 15, 2009:

These are such beautiful plants loved them all and thanks for such an in depth hub...I was once in Mexico in the desert watching the roadrunners....the birds you showed were so cool..I even have a hard time growing a cactus  Loved the one with the big white  blossoms although they all have their own beauty...G-Ma :O) Hugs & Peace

C.S.Alexis from NW Indiana on March 15, 2009:

This took me back to Texas! I was thinking last night about the beautiful early wild flowers there. I so enjoyed this hub and am happy to have some time to explore what everyone is writing about. This is a great hub and might inspire some folks to head for the dessert to see how beautiful it is when the cacti are blooming. The flowers are very vivid with color and you have good photos here to show. Thanks for sharing.

Wendy Iturrizaga from France on March 15, 2009:

Those cacti are awesome. It is funny we never think about deserts when we think about spring. Yet, deserts can also be very beautiful and colourful!

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