A short, easy Summer loop hike from Snow Bowl Road on the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff leads to Alfa Fia Tank.
I enjoy finding things about Arizona that are new to me after living here for a lifetime. I grew up hiking with my father and scouring the ground ahead and around me for rocks that he would help me identify. I find myself doing the same thing now with plants. Sometimes the new ones are minuscule, as this morning’s find.
I took a quick hike in the Cave Creek area, and deep in a wash were these amazingly tiny specimens. Can you spot them?
Sometimes to really see what’s out there in nature, you have to get in really close.
Yes, crawling about on hands and knees can be dirty and awkward, and I do have to watch out for spines and biting things, but the interesting things are there to be found. These tiny flowers bloom in the desert in April and are called Miniature Wool Star, Eriastrum diffusum, Phlox Family (Polemoniaceae) I don’t recall seeing them before, but they actually are very common. Often they might be larger than these, up to 8 inches in height. These were barely 2 inches off the ground.
Naturally, once all the desert plants begin producing bright flowers, the first to be aware of them are the various types of pollinators. This is a small sample of the many beautiful butterflies housed in the spacious Butterfly Pavilion within the Desert Botanical Garden.
At this time of year the Sonoran desert is filled with flowering cacti. These samples of prickly pear flowers are all from the Desert Botanical Garden, but you can encounter them throughout the Arizona desert. These hardy plants adapt to suit their location and are found throughout the state, from lowland deserts to high elevations.
Hedgehog cacti grow from seeds found within their fruit and spread by the birds and desert animals that eat them. A clump of columnar stems four to twelve inches tall makes up a single cactus. A cactus might have sixty stems in a clump. There are many varieties of Hedgehog cacti.
At low altitudes in the Sonoran desert, the most common Hedgehog is the Saint’s Cactus, or Strawberry Cactus, Engelmann’s Hedgehog, a member of the Cactaceae, Echinocereus engelmannii.
March is a good month to look for Hedgehogs in the desert, as they begin blooming at this time of year. The Engelmann’s Hedgehog produces purple to magenta blooms that are two to three and a half inches wide. This cactus blooms during the daytime and closes at night. The red fruit will mature in late Spring or early Summer.
They are said to taste like strawberries and are a favorite of small animals and birds like the curve-bill Thrasher, which can easily reach the fruit with its long bill.
At higher altitudes, the Claret Cup or Crimson Hedgehog, Echinocereus triglochidiatus grows.
Claret Cup or Crimson Hedgehog is shorter and more densely arranged than the Engelmann’s Hedgehog. They also differ in that the Claret Cup typically blooms at night and closes during the day. They are the only Hedgehog cacti with red flowers.