DESERT WILDFLOWERS, JUST THE ICING ON THE CAKE FOR HIKERS, PHOTOGRAPHERS AND LOVERS OF THE SOUTH WEST BACK ROADS AND SCENERY…
It’s wildflower time in the Desert Southwest, that special time of the year, when desert dwellers watch the Sonoran Desert reveal its golden lining. It can vary from year to year depending on winter rains, but driving north on I-10 toward Picacho Peak, motorists can’t miss the riot of color lining that concrete strip between Tucson and Phoenix. Over the years I have seen bumper blooms at Picacho Peak State Park which have coated the sides of that picturesque peak which yell out to motorist on the freeway, hey you are missing the big show, and in those years many more visitors drive through to see the over whelming bloom. This year, the California Poppy crop, fell short.Not a bad showing says the ranger at the front desk, “there are many good carpets which are thick and rich with their golden coverings, but this isn’t one of those every nine year blooms that cover the entire mountain”, just taking your breath away as you stand in their midst. This is the year of the Brittle Bush, which always line the region’s roadways and hillsides, but this year they define the mountain ridges in the Tucson Mountains and line I-10 center median for a hundred miles up the road. One Arizona seasonal visitor carefully making his way across the state park’s hiking trail, finds the poppies and lupine “very delightful” but he had hoped for more variety for his camera lens. It’s early in the day, and many of the flowers don’t open their petals until 10-11 am but early hikers are still out in force, an entire boy scout troop lines up in single file to begin their ascent to the top of the peak. Many long lenses grace cameras on tripods, and photographers are working the low light angles trying for intimate compositions of this color blast from the desert. The rangers believe this year’s crop may have started its downside but the Civil War in the Southwest weekend (March 21-22) will probably eclipse all the weekends so far this spring, there a hundred re-enactors will battle out the New Mexico Civil War engagements of the Battle of Valverde and the Battle of Glorietta Pass plus the very quick but decisive fight between Union Troops who ran head-on in to a Confederate Patrol at the pass. As one might expect, shots were fired, a man died but the two groups ran off. and went their separate ways. Thousands of spectators turn out for the battles and the poppies, and often four-five thousand people attend. To find the best blooms in the Sonoran Desert, locals have come to expect certain places to have the best spring coats. The Pinal Parkway (State Highway 79 or it’s sister highway SR77), splitting off at the Oracle Junction north of Tucson, have long been accepted as a great place to see early blooms of Poppies, Lupine and Brittle bush. Further south but north of Tucson in Oro Valley, Catalina State Park, is a long-time favorite and usually pretty reliable. This year, Catalina State Park and Saguaro National Monument West, both are having a good year and are offering up the variety missed by many visiting Picacho State Park. Both spots require a little hiking and getting off the main road and searching out the color for your camera lens. One lesson learned can be gained by watching the winter rainfalls, and places where record rains fall may also have record blooms. Last December Tucson’s east side had a record four inches in one downpour, filling the washes, streams and rivers running east. Close by this spring, poppies filled the hillsides along the San Pedro River, between San Manuel and Benson, but one spot just south of the Redington Pass, behind Tucson’s Rincon Mountains, took this year’s award for Best of Show. There I found a fine carpet of reddish-yellow poppies and they flowed from one hilltop down the gully and onto the next hillside. It was very beautiful and camera compositions filled my Nikon from every direction…. In town, flower lovers and photographers can find good blooms at Sabino Canyon, Saguaro National Monument East, Tohono Ochul Park and the Tucson Botanical Gardens. Recently I drove out Tucson’s Ina Road west through the Tucson Mountains and through the pass toward the community of Picture Rocks. Breaking the summit one immediately recognizes the distinctive Brittle Bush lacing the roadway but at the bottom of the hill, the carpets of poppies, lupine and numerous other varieties bring you to a halt, for my hunt of wildflowers, this one spot perhaps had more variety and flourish than many of the other desert spots I surveyed. March is a time for blooming, running noses, sneezing and anti-allergic medications can be part of the search but it is also Arizona’s windy time. It can really blow passing around
the pollen, hoping to spread those seeds, further and wider, to build on future Springs and greater wildflower displays. Soon your nose will really be stuffed up by the Palo Verde blooms which coat the Tucson foothills and back roads, in two separate phases, first comes the brilliant Blue Palo Verde bloom which has a striking yellow coat followed by the second phase of Palo Verde blooms which are duller but last longer. Following this comes the second blast of color from the sunny Southwest, in my travels I found the Hedgehog Cactus was beginning to build it’s bloom and soon that purple blossom will be joined by red, yellow or orange Cholla blooms, massive displays from the yellow Prickly pear flowers and finally the white blossom of the giant Saguaro Cactus which is the distinct symbol of the American South West. Once that bloom has sprung, the desert quiets down until the summer monsoons kicked out those beautiful red Barrel cactus blossoms in August.
For VIDEO of photos from the Civil War in the Southwest, Picacho Peak’s annual celebration and re-enactments of these historic battles….click here
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