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Desert Plants

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The diversity of Arizona’s desert plants is as staggering as it is beautiful. Throughout Arizona’s deserts, the local flora is designed to thrive in an arid, unforgiving environment. With that design, comes thorns, spines, and absolutely gorgeous colors. Beans, fruits, pods, and of course, a multitude of flowers adorn this literal smorgasbord to ensure desert wildlife is kept well fed amid a sea of visually stimulating desert vegetation.  For the sake of organization we will break these desert plants into three categories; Flowering plants, cactus, and trees. Check out the desert plants list below and then plan a trip to an Arizona state park to enjoy the diversity found there! 

Flowering Plants

Arizona’s flowering plants bloom at various times of year, although the spring wildflower season is generally the best time to view unforgettably vibrant fields of color. Provided there has been ample late winter/early spring rains, Arizona’s deserts absolutely come alive from late February through April and draw in visitors from around the world to admire the splendor. Many of these flowering desert plants attract hummingbirds as well to truly accentuate a colorful springtime park experience!

Marsh Aster Aster pauciflorus

Desert Plants: Marsh Aster being pollinated by a bee.

 

 

 

 

Marsh Aster is found in riparian and drainage zones throughout Arizona. As the name implies, this forb is found within close proximity to a regular water source.

Brittlebush Encelia farinosa

Desert Plants: Brittlebush blooming in Sonoran Desert

 

 

 

 

Many of Arizona's rocky desert slopes and hillsides are alive with the yellow flowers of brittlebush in the spring. This is a very common, yet extremely gorgeous wildflower species.  

Bluedicks Dichelostemma capitatum

Desert Plants: Bluedick Flower purple bloom on desert floor

 

 

 

 

This member of the lily family has a large range that encompasses the lowest deserts up to seven-thousand feet! Bluedicks may not actually be blue, depending where you are...White, purple, and pink flowers may be expereinced throught their range. 

Chuparosa Beloperone californica

Desert Plants: Red Chuparosa blooms at Lost Dutchman State Park

 

 

 

 

The semi-succulent tubular flowers of the chuparosa are typically red, although orange and yellow variants can be found throughout the sonoran desert range. Chuparosa flowers are a favorite of hummingbirds wintering in the desert.

Coulter's Lupine Lupinus sparsiflorus

Desert Plants: Coulter's Lupine blooms amid poppys at Picacho Peak State Park

 
 
 
 

 

Typically found below 4,500 feet in central and southern Arizona, the (usually) bluish-purple flowers of this pretty annnual can vary to varying degrees of pink and even white. Flowering season is March to May. 

Desert Chia Salvia columbariae

Desert Plants: Low elevation Desert Chia blooms on desert hillside

 

 

 

 

Of the 16 species of Salvia found in Arizona, the Desert variety is by far the most widespread. The blue (or purple) flowers typically bloom from March to May at desert elevations below 3500 feet.

Desert Chicory Rafinesquia neomexicana

Desert Plants: Small white Desert Chicory blooms in Arizona wash

 

 

 

 

This small member of the sunflower family sports white flowers, is usually less than two-feet tall, and occurs in gravel or sandy areas of both the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts between 200 and 3,000 feet in elevation.

Desert marigold Baileya multiradiata

Desert Plants: Round, yellow Desert Marigold blooms at Roper Lake State Park.

 
 
 
 

 

A conspicuous desert perennial with a short life span that flowers in March and intermittently through November. Found on rocky slopes and sandy areas of the desert floor from 100 to 6000 feet in elevation.

Desert Primrose Oenothera primiveris

Desert Plants: Yellow Desert Primrose blooms in desert wash

 
 
 
 

 

Found from the desert floor up to 4500  feet in elevation, these annual herbs commonly bloom on the sandy desert floor and associated topography like hills and washes.

Desertstar Daisy Monoptilon bellidiforme

Desert Plants: A mat of Desertstar Daisy flowers in sandy desert wash

 

 

 

 

This annual herb is usually found in desert washes and other sandy locations below 3000 feet in elevation. This ground level desert plant grows in clusters adorned with small white flowers.

California poppy Eschscholzia californica

Desert Plants: CLose up photo of California Poppy blooms at Picacho Peak State Park

 

 

 

 

The california poppy is found throughout the Sonoran Desert and in great abundance during years of above-average precipitation. 

Gravel Ghost Atrichoseris platyphylla

Desert Plants: Wispy and white Gravel Ghost blooms in Arizona desert wash

 

 

 

 

Typically found in desert washes and valleys below 4500 feet, these white flowers seem to be "ghostily" floating on their tall (up to 2.5 ft.) thin stalks.

Fairy duster Calliandra californica

Desert Plants: Pink Fairy Duster blooms in Sonoran Desert

 
 
 
 

 

The thin, whispy flowers range from light pink to orange throughout the desert region. The Fairy Duster, an importand food item for a variety of desert dwelling birds and animals, is found below 5,000 feet on open hillsides and sandy washes.

Fiddleneck Amsinckia intermedia

Desert Plants: Small and yellow Fiddleneck flowers on rocky desert hillside

 

 

 

 

During years of above-average rainfall, the yellow-orange flowered fiddlenecks will be particularily abundant and found in dense patches in the upland desert. This plant irritates human skin upon contact.

Lyreleaf Jewelflower Streptanthus arixonicus

Desert Plants: White Lyreleaf Jewelflower blooms in sandy Arizona wash

 

 

 

 

This small biennial to annual flowering herb is actually a member of the mustard family. Interestingly, the white flowers turn to yellow the further east in range occourance. In Arizona most jewelflowers are white. 

New Mexico Thistle Cirsium neomexicanum
Desert Plants: Close up photo of New Mexico Thistle along a desert trail

 

 

 

 

This forb can reach a height of over six feet tall throughout its range. The thistle blooms from March through September after above-average rainfall.

Purple Mat Nana demissum

Desert Plants: Purple Mat blooms in rocky Arizona wash

 

 

 

 

A small spring annual that grows in large "mats" sporting numerous purple flowers. Present only after above-average winter precipitation in desert flats, and somewhat rocky areas near washes.

Purple Owl's Clover Castilleja exserta

Desert Plants: Close up photo of Purple Owl's Clover blooms

 
 
 
 

 

After periods of above-average rainfall, these beautiful annual forbs can produce huge swaths of color in generally open desert areas from March through May.

Rock Daisy Perityle emoryi

Desert Plants: Rock Daisy flowers blooming on sandy Sonoran desert floor

 

 

 

 

A small, delicate, annually recurring herb, the Rock Daisy is usually found in relatively open rocky or sandy desert areas.

Scorpion weed Phacelia distans

Desert Plants: Scorpion Weed flowers on rocky Sonoran Desert hillside

 
 
 

 

 

Scorpion weed usually blooms from February through June and is found typically along desert washes and hillsides between 1,000 feet and 4,000 feet.

Yellow Cups Camissonia brevipes

Desert Plants: Western Arizona Yellow Cups blooming at River Island State Park

 
 
 

 

 

Flowering best during years of above-average desert rainfall, these small yellow flowers typically occur in western Arizona between 300 ft and 6000 ft elevation.

Cactus

Arizona's diverse desert plant communities just wouldn't be complete without cacti! The varying cacti species of Arizona conjour up visions of western culture and have even become synonomous with the culture of the Grand Canyon State. Mention Arizona to anyone not living here and they will most likely have the thought of a tall and mighty saguaro or fruit laden pricly pear! Spend enough time here and you'll have memorable encounters with cacti. Unforgettable seas of red blooms atop ocotillos are nice, so is the melon scent of a saguaro flower...But then again, memories in cactus country typically involve a pair of tweezers.  

Barrel Cactus Ferocactus wislizeni

Desert Plants: Barrel Cactus with orange late summer blossoms

 
 
 
 

 

The barrel cactus is a very hardy plant and can be found from the desert floor up to 5,000 feet in elevation. Flowers appear in the late summer and may be yellow, orange, or red depending on location.

Buckhorn cholla cylindropuntia acanthocarpa

Desert Plants: Central Arizona Buckhorn Cholla with yellow blooms

 

 

 

 

Six varieties of buckhorn cholla occur throughout the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts of Arizona. Blooms take place from April-May and both flower color and spination may differ between individual specimens across the range.

Chain fruit cholla, jumping Cholla Cylindropuntia fulgida

Desert Plants: Chain Fruit Cholla at Catalina State Park

 

 

 

 

The chain fruit cholla occurs between 500 and 2,500 feet in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. The fruits are an important food item for desert wildlife and can grow continually throughout the year. Magenta flowers bloom from April to September, Although June is the peak bloom.

Hedgehog Echinocereus triglochidiatus var. arizonicus

Desert Plants: Southern Arizona Hedgehog Cactus with pink flowers

 
 
 
 

 

Found throughout much of the Sonoran Desert country of central and southern Arizona from 3,000 to 5,300 feet in elevation. Brilliant red or pink flowers appear in April or May.

Prickly pear various Opuntia

Desert Plants: Prickly Pear

 

 

 

 

The name Prickly Pear represents over 12 varieties of padded cacti found throughout the American Southwest. Several species are found throughout Arizona from sea-level up to 8,000 ft. The fruits are an importand food item for wildlife and are usually ripe during the summer. 

Ocotillo Fouquieria splendens

Desert Plants: Ocotillo

 

 

 

 

The ocotillo is common throughout the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts and prefers to grow where the soil is well drained like rocky slopes and along high-desert washes. Bright red/orange flowers bloom during spring or early fall.

Saguaro Carnegiea gigantea

Desert Plants: Saguaro

 

 

 

 

The Saguaro is a Sonoran Desert icon and also the most easily identifiable of Arizona's cacti species is not very frost resistant and prefers to live below 3,500 feet. Arizona's state flower blooms from the Saguaro from late April to June and opens only at night being pollinated primarily by bats.

Teddy bear cholla Cylindropuntia bigelovii

Desert Plants: Teddy Bear Cholla

 

 

 

This super spiny cholla species can be found below 3,000 feet in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts on warm, open hillsides, rocky washes, and sandy flats. Teddy Bear Cholla may flower twice each year, once from March to June, and again in September.

Trees

The desert trees that occur in Arizona's Sonoran Desert are very beneficial to the wildlife and other plants within their communities. The shade created by desert trees gives animals a much needed break from the summer sun and gives other plants that don't require full sunlight a chance to thrive. Trees house birds and grow food by way of beans and flowers that desert birds and animals both use to help them thrive in the harsh desert environment.

Catclaw Acacia Senegalia greggii 

Desert Plants: Catclaw Acacia

 
 
 
 

 

Found typically within chaparrel habitats, flats, and along washes below 4,500 feet, the catclaw acacia is a desert staple that flowers annually between April and October. Hikers beware of the short "cat claw" type thorns that can tear clothing and skin! 

Ironwood Olneya tesota

Desert Plants: Ironwood

 
 
 
 

 

The Ironwood is a relatively large desert tree that might grow to 30 feet or more near desert foothills or desert wash comminities below 2500 feet in elevation. Pale purple or white flowers bloom from May to June.

Mesquite Prosopis juliflora var. torreyana

Desert Plants: Mesquite

 

 

 

 

Another large desert tree, the mesquite favors drainage corridors of the Sonoran and Mojave deserts. Mesquites produce beans that are utilized by desert wildlife and yellow flowers from March to August. 

Foothill Palo Verde Parkinsonia microphylla

Desert Plants: Palo Verde

 

 

 

 

The foothill palo verde grows wildly throughout the Sonoran Desert below 4,000 feet and usually prefers the slopes of hillsides and other mountanous regions over desert wash communities. Bright yellow flowers bloon from April to May.

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