Beauty of the Desert: Arizona in Bloom

Spring is the most glorious of seasons in the Southwest

Growing up in Alberta I always feuded with winter, a cantankerous, disagreeable season that seemingly lasted forever. As a snowbird, I take great delight in rambling around the desert in shorts and T-shirt searching for signs of wildflowers.

Many people consider Arizona to be a land of two seasons, summer and the absence of summer. But us-snowbirds know better. Spring is the most glorious of seasons in the Desert Southwest, with days of glorious sunshine, azure skies, and carpets of wildflowers. Round these parts, we often start getting whiffs of spring in January and it goes full bore through much of February and on into May. Chew on that, Old Man Winter.

Bartlett Lake. March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Unless you’ve actually visited the Desert Southwest, any mention of the region probably conjures up images of an arid wasteland devoid of life. Nothing could be further from the truth: the landscape is, in fact, full of life—and when the desert blooms you will want to be there.

This amazing transformation usually happens by mid-March, but only during the years when winter rains have been the right amount and springtime temperatures the right range of degrees. When that occurs, a dry and seemingly lifeless desert springs to life in a glorious tapestry of purple, white, yellow, orange, and green.

Between Casa Grande and Florence. March 2015 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

More than 600 species of flowers, plants, and shrubs join the spectacle with their short-lived but profuse blossoms. Desert blooms typically appear in this order: bladderpods, Mexican poppies, chuparosa, globemallow, brittlebush, and then other various cacti species.

What a difference a year makes. As Arizona wildflower seasons go, 2018 was almost a complete bust. But 2019 has flower watchers trembling with anticipation. More flowers bloomed this January than all of last spring, and it wasn’t even close.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park. March 2010 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why such a discrepancy? Why do Arizona wildflower seasons vary so drastically from year to year? And what makes 2019 look so promising?

The short answer is the moisture. But it’s more complicated than just the amount. Timing is crucial. A truly spectacular spring begins two seasons before. Here’s why:

Spring-blooming annuals must germinate in the autumn. They require a “triggering rain” of an inch or more. Last October brought widespread, often record-setting, rains to the Phoenix area. That was the first indication the 2019 season might be something special. That likely roused plenty of little seeds from their desert slumber.

Peridot Mesa. March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

After the triggering rain, more storms are needed. Rains should total at least an inch per month through March, and more is better. The rains should occur consistently through the winter so there are no lengthy drying spells. That’s been the case for much of the state over the past few months. There was even a bonus New Year’s Eve snow gently melting across great swaths of the desert.

Another factor is temperature. Some annuals, poppies in particular, are delicate little divas that don’t like excessive heat. When thermometers push into the mid-80s, poppies start looking for the exits. Early heat waves have curtailed some recent seasons. But this year’s long streak of mild temperatures has given them a chance to flourish.

Picacho Peak State Park. March 2015 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Even with all of the right conditions in place, there’s no guarantee of an abundant wildflower season. Factors such as soil type, vegetation cover, and rodent population can affect blooming.

Usery Mountain Regional Park. March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Still, 2019 is shaping up to be a very good wildflower year. It should be above average just about everywhere, and has the potential to be spectacular in places. An event this rare should not be missed. Start making plans to venture outdoors and revel in satiny sun, balmy breezes, and a desert streaked with color.

Remember to bring your camera.


Sonoran Desert National Monument near Gila Bend. February 2019 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

Almost every person, from childhood, has been touched by the untamed beauty of wildflowers.

—Lady Bird Johnson