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.
A bee wallows in the pollen filling this yellow prickly pear bloom.
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.
A bee is making an interesting approach to the flowers on this pricklypear.
This prickly pear has lovely yellow blossoms and very long spines.
Englemann’s Prickly Pear (Opuntia engelmannii) has pink buds but yellow flowers.
This Beavertail Prickly Pear has bright pink flowers.
A delicate orange flower on a large opuntia, or Prickly Pear cactus.
A Bunny Ears Prickly Pear Cactus. Opuntia microdasys
Brilliant orange flowers cover this large prickly pear.
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.
Arizona’s iconic Saguaros respond to the seasons as do other Sonoran Desert plants, but they have a unique system for coping with desert heat and uneven moisture. During the rainy season their accordion-pleated sides expand to hold as much water as possible for the dry times ahead.
The expansion areas run between columns of spines
Once the desert temperatures reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the mature Saguaros begin to produce abundant waxy white flowers.
Blossoms crown the saguaro stem and arms
The Saguaro flowers open at night and are pollinated by bats, then birds and insects the next day.
Three-inch-long fruits quickly form where the flowers were.
Sometimes hungry birds accidentally knock the fruit from the cactus.
Birds peck open and eat the fruit.
The fleshy interior of the fruit is a rich red when ripe.
The largest cacti in the world come from these tiny unassuming seeds.