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.
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.
Once the desert temperatures reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the mature Saguaros begin to produce abundant waxy white flowers.