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.
If you drive a car on I10 in southern Arizona, you will undoubtedly see sign after sign asking “The Thing?” In fact, a miracle in advertising, the first signs begin near El Paso, TX, traveling west. By the time you arrive at exit 322, in the middle of the desert between Willcox and Benson, Arizona, your curiosity should be aroused. For a whole dollar, you can find out just what The Thing, the Mystery in the Desert, is. And you can buy an ice cream cone, or other tourist delights.
In the same southeastern corner of the state you will encounter beautiful Texas Canyon, rich in the history of Arizona Territory, the Butterfield Stage Route, ranching, and Apache country.
A few minutes driving will take you to famous Tombstone, Arizona. In 1877 Ed Schieffelin announced to cavalry stationed in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, that he intended prospecting in the valley of the San Pedro River. He was warned that he would only “find his tombstone there.” It was a dangerous time in Arizona Territory because this was Apache country. But he persisted, found silver and staked the Tombstone and Graveyard claims. Soon other rich deposits were discovered and more prospectors came and the town of Tombstone blossomed. It was a rough, tough boomtown until 1886 when fire destroyed the pump works and the mines flooded. Tombstone remains as a thriving tourist attraction, complete with shootouts in the streets, busy saloons, stagecoaches and people dressed in the best of western wear.
The Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) is an Arizona icon. They are the largest cacti in the United States and are native only to the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona and Sonoran Mexico. Although they can grow very tall, they have mostly very shallow roots. When the desert receives a good rainfall, the Saguaro absorbs as much water as possible, and the pleated sides expand to hold the moisture. The cactus is supported by woody ribs, corresponding to the pleats visible outside. The pleats are covered with long spines to protect the waxy soft skin from predators like ground squirrels and rabbits. Desert birds often make their nests inside the Saguaro, depending on the cactus’ natural ability to heal such a wound, leaving a cavity inside the cactus to be reused year after year.
How old is that Saguaro? Here is the official story from the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix: “on average and under the natural conditions existing just west of Tucson with 10 inches of rainfall annually, a saguaro often weighs less than an aspirin at age five and it may take about 10 years to get just an inch and a half tall, about the size of your thumb! Under these natural conditions it may take 20 years to almost attain one foot in height and 30 years to reach two feet tall, but by age 40 it may be up to four feet tall, by age 50 up to seven feet tall, by 75 up to 16 feet, and by age 100 almost 25 feet tall. Throughout its range and depending upon soil and rainfall, it first blooms between 40 and 75 (average 55) years old, usually starts to grow arms when it is between 50 to 100 years of age (average 70), and it may live for perhaps 200 years or more (again, no one knows for sure)”
According to that, this little one is probably 20 years old.
Known as the Tree of Life to the Pima Indians, the Mesquite (mess-KEET) is common in the deserts of Arizona. There are three native species in Arizona, the Honey Mesquite, the Velvet Mesquite and the Screwbean Mesquite. Mesquites can grow into large, shady trees and are used in landscaping as well as found growing wild.
Mesquites are members of the Fabaceae Family, one of the largest plant families. A familiar member of this family is the pea plant. The unifying characteristic of these plants is the seed pod they create, called a legume. Many legumes are able to convert atmospheric nitrogen into compounds useful to plants, through the nodules they have on their roots. Mesquites are able to do this and this makes them valuable to the other plants in the poor growing conditions of a desert. They also act as nurse trees for slow-growing plants. Birds, insects and other animals rely on the Mesquite beans as a food source and for shade and nesting. Often the Mesquites found throughout the desert are no more than a shrub, but under good conditions, they become large trees. Mesquites bloom in the Spring with creamy yellow dense, narrow clusters.
Historic records show that every part of the Mesquite had a use to the native peoples, for wood, for flour made of ground pods (pinole), the bark for baskets, medicines, and fabric. Today they are used in much the same ways. Mesquite burns slowly and is nearly smokeless, so it is popular as fuelwood. It makes an aromatic charcoal for barbecuing. Mesquite honey is very popular.
The Velvet Mesquite, Prosopis velutina, is very common in the southern part of Arizona. It is remarkable in appearance because of fuzzy, short hairs that cover the entire tree and pods, making it look velvety. The pods when ripe are narrow and brown and up to 8 inches long. This tree can grow a very long taproot, allowing it to access water deep underground. The Velvet Mesquite can get quite large, with a two-foot trunk and 30 feet tall or more. They can be found along streams or washes in shady thickets. Along some desert rivers, like the Verde and the San Pedro, dense mesquite bosques (forest in Spanish) can be found.
The Honey Mesquite, Prosopis glandulosa, has large spikes or thorns of up to three and a half inches and a sweet taste that make its beans delicious. The bean pods are mostly straight and up to 8 inches long. Its flower is a favorite of bees. It is a smaller tree than the Velvet Mesquite.
The Screwbean Mesquite, Prosopis pubesens, like the Velvet Mesquite, has rough bark that separates into long, narrow strips. The bean pod on this tree gives it the name, Screwbean, because instead of a long straight pod, the pod is tightly coiled and spirals to 2 inches.Tweets by @fanofnmtn