By Bob Difley
Spring is a snowbird’s delight – not only does the cold give way to the warmer weather, the desert itself changes “color.” Newcomers are amazed as seemingly “drab” desert is transformed by technicolor wildflowers. How is it possible?
Hundreds of thousands of seeds lay dormant beneath the barren surface waiting patiently – sometimes for years – for all the necessary conditions to line up properly and stimulate germination. Then the desert erupts with dazzling displays as if Mother Nature had gone giddily wild with her paint palate.
The intensity of the bloom is dependent on several conditions that must occur at specific times and with specific intensity. For instance, in order for the seeds to germinate, they must be nurtured by soft, soaking winter rains coming at the right intervals.
If the desert were to receive the heavy, flash-flood rains typical of summer, the seeds would instead turn their backs and go to sleep for another year, providing they weren’t ripped from the gravely soil and washed away.
Temperatures have to be right also. If a heat wave moves through in December or January, the seeds may wake up and be fooled into thinking that it’s time to germinate. But when the short daylight hours and cold temperatures return, it could mean an early demise for these eager sprouters.
However, these seeds are not easily fooled. When conditions are right, only some will germinate, while others hold back for later in the growing season or for another year. In this way they protect themselves from extinction in case of a freak freeze or infestation of plant-eating insects.
When the bloom begins, wildflower hunters must act quickly — and take into account the various factors that will change the scene in a seeming instant. Factors such as time, abrupt seasonal change, elevation, rainfall amounts, and others determine the location of the best displays.
One of the first locations wildflowers pop their heads through the ground is along highways and in washes where rain runoff has provided extra moisture to germinate the seeds. Look for the first flowers at lower elevations and south-facing hillsides, where the temperatures are warmer. Abundant stands of wildflowers can gather in shallows where rainwater collects, or under the protection of large desert trees or plants like palo verdes, acacias and saguaro cacti.
But don’t wait until the peak wildflower season or you will miss many of the early-opening flowers that may bloom for only a few weeks before dropping their seeds to await next year. Some wildflowers bloom as early as February. Cactus flowers don’t usually open until April, when many other annuals have passed.
See more photos of desert wildflowers.
You can find Bob Difley’s RVing e-books on Amazon Kindle.