Chasing Wildflowers: Rare Enough To Treasure


The Lost Dutchman State Park is again expected to put on a nice wildflower show this year. The wildflowers, like these poppies from last year, have not started to bring their spring joy to visitors, but are expected to do so within a week. A parasalior gets a bird’s view of the wildflowers.

The Lost Dutchman State Park is again expected to put on a nice wildflower show this year. The wildflowers, like these poppies from last year, have not started to bring their spring joy to visitors, but are expected to do so within a week. A parasalior gets a bird’s view of the wildflowers. |

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photo

Tom Brossart/Roundup

Arizona wildflowers come in all sizes and shapes. Some of the best places within an easy drive of Payson are Lost Dutchman State Park, Usery Park off Bush Highway and the Boyce Thompson State Park near Superior. These will be some of the first; a bit later in March, Tonto National Monument near Roosevelt Lake will show off its color.

photo

Tom Brossart/Roundup

photo

Tom Brossart/Roundup

Seeds of purple lupin and orange poppies can persist in the soil for decades, awaiting a winter wet enough to provoke a spring outburst.

photo

Tom Brossart/Roundup

Luminous orange Mexican poppies can cover whole slopes, rolling themselves up tight at night.

photo

Tom Brossart/Roundup

Wildflowers cope with Arizona’s unreliable rainfall by growing furiously in the rare wet year and leaving millions of tough seeds in the dry desert soil. Such seeds can remain viable for decades. When it does rain, the outburst of wildflowers uses the water so efficiently, that very little gets past the root zone and into the water table.

I confess. I’m hooked, addicted, helpless in the grip of my need. Blame the poppies. Not the French Connection heroin poppies — but the tiny seeds that can wait for decades with indestructible patience in stoney desert soils for a year such as this — a mild spring following along behind a decently wet winter after a decade of drought.

Maybe this will prove one of those miracle years, which will get me through all the droughts to come.

Last year was pretty good — with once barren hillsides suddenly flushed with color, poppies and lupin and owl’s clover and Indian paintbrush hoping blindly for another wet winter.

I’ve already noted highway embankments tinted orange with the first poppies, portents to gladden the heart of any photographer.

So I’m putting the wildflower hotline at the Valley’s Desert Botanical Garden on my speed dial and packing my camera bag, ready to chase the rumors of floral outbreaks from flanks of Highway 87 to the front slopes of the Superstitions and on down to Organ Pipe National Monument.

Such areas produce a brave and defiant display in bad wildflower years, but erupt in glory in good years. The wildflower hotline will come on line sometime in March.

Those updates of wildflower outbreaks will orchestrate the weekend hurtle of those of us with a flower addiction, yearning for rocky orange hillsides, purple flushed sand dunes, and Technicolored canyons aflutter with butterflies. All spring I shall creep about on my hands and knees clutching my macro lens, search for bony cholla skeletons sprouting poppies, and seek out color-drenched foregrounds to contrast with harsh, granite backdrops.

As a result, I have accumulated a treasure of hoarded memories of hypnotic afternoons sitting on a hillside, immobilized by a wildflower display.

Of course, it could also be a flop — for wildflowers are mysterious and abide by their own rules. On my springtime forays, I have reveled in hillsides carpeted with poppies — like some overdone scene from “The Wizard of Oz.” But when I got back to the same hillside in the flush of spring the next year and the next year and the next year — I found only contortions of rock.

Maybe that’s why I love wildflowers. They’re a gift — and we can only offer up our day in hope and faith.

Each year, certain locations offer the possibility of brilliant displays. Here are some of the drives that have most often yielded good displays for me.

•The Beeline Highway on the way to Phoenix.

•Highway 79 between Florence and Oracle.

•The loop road through Organ Pipe National Monument.

•The front slopes of the Superstition Mountains, especially in Lost Dutchman State Park.

•The stretches of Highway 93 from Wickenburg up toward Kingman.

•The mostly unpaved Apache Trail between Canyon Lake and Roosevelt Lake.

•The slopes of Pichaco Peak just south of Interstate 10 about halfway to Tucson.

The long wait for the possibility of a great flower year underscores the remarkable ecology of wildflowers — especially in a largely desert state.

Make no mistake: Flowers have conquered the world. Flowers evolved over a hundred million years ago as an ingenious way for plants to con insects into becoming their reproductive allies. Scents ranging from perfumed excess to imitation carrion provide the lure and energy-rich nectar that sometimes harbors vitamins essential to preferred pollinators offers the reward. Pollination is the byproduct. Often the shape and color of the flowers all became blandishments for bees, birds, bats and beetles.

Color remains the most noticeable come-on, designed not for human eyes but for the specialized vision of certain pollinators, including the ultraviolet glow visible only to the multifaceted orbs of many insects. The flowers preferred by the workhorse bees mostly blossom yellow. Flowers that set their lures for hummingbirds prefer a lascivious red, a signal that they hold enough concentrated nectar to make a stop worth the energy the hummer must expend by hovering.

Often those flowers are shaped to deny access to bees and other insects, to make sure that only hummingbirds pick up that crucial dusting of pollen that they’ll bear directly to another red blossom of the same species, perhaps 10,000 blossoms daily.

These innovations worked beautifully. Pollinators helped spread plants across the continents. All the rest of us followed happily along in their wake.

This ancient alliance between flowers and the rest of us takes place in the desert with a special passion, where this burst of spring and late summer growth determines survival in a harsh land.

Each spring, a heart-stopping array of flowers bursts into bloom on the desert slopes too harsh for even weeds most of the year. Luminous poppies, luscious lupine, laden chuparosa, riotous brittlebush, leafy globemallow, sand-loving verbena, swaying desert marigolds, startling Indian paintbrush and demure owl clover remain merely the gaudy headliners in a wildflower cast of thousands.

Botanists and desert rats have lavished lifetimes on understanding the vagaries of these desert wildflowers, which have evolved oversized seeds that can lie in the soil for decades awaiting that perfect combination of rain and sun. Many experts say steady rains starting in October and November and continuing without any prolonged dry spells or hard freezes produce the best outpouring.

But despite all the studies and rain gauges, wildflowers remain irredeemably capricious. That unpredictability plays havoc with the creatures whose life cycles remain linked to this annual floral extravaganza. Tiny hummingbirds undertake continent-spanning migrations to remain on the edge of spring as it shifts from the tropics to the pine-scented northern forests. Bees stay in place, but convert nectar into winter supplies of honey. Moths and butterflies synchronize their metamorphosis to these seasonal displays, responding to good years with population explosions.

Seed eaters like the thirstless kangaroo rat even out this floral boom-bust by hoarding seeds in underground burrows they and their kin may occupy for generations. In the process, they can determine where grasslands yield to desert.

The other plant eaters also respond to the vagaries of the spring blooms. Elk, deer and javelina all have preferred floral delicacies, drawing enough extra energy from certain plants during certain years to increase their reproduction. Quail orchestrate the number of eggs they lay each year by the Vitamin A content of the tender green springtime annuals.

Often, flowers and their pollinators remain locked in intimate relationships on which survival depends. One of my favorite examples is the strange relationship between the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, an inconspicuous vine and an obnoxious fly — a lover’s triangle once explained to me by Boyce Thompson Arboretum Curator Dr. Carol Crosswhite.

This flower-scented butterfly, a voracious caterpillar, a vampire fly and a crafty flower give and get, like an old couple who finish one another’s sentences.

Start with the pipevine, a ground-hugging plant with small, brown, corkscrewed, pipe-shaped flowers that resemble mouse ears. Indians used pipevine to treat snakebites and in labor and afterbirth. In the wrong doses, the potent chemicals drawn from the pipevine can cause nausea, vomiting, colic, flatulence, headaches, belching and other disconcerting reactions.

All that makes perfect sense — since the plant produces those chemicals to keep from being eaten.

But the Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars have evolved a digestive tract perfectly designed to gobble pipevines. The purplish caterpillar needs the plant to survive, and turns the toxins into its own defensive chemicals. They produce beautiful butterflies with flashing, metallic blue hindwings and red spots on the underside. Oddly enough, the butterflies don’t actually pollinate the pipevines.

That job falls to an easily fooled, blood-sucking fly, which mistakes the small, flesh-colored pipestem flower for a mouse’s ear. These flies buzz into the ear-like opening of the flower, and land and slip down into the slick throat of the flower, past downward-pointing “hairs.” The trapped flies crawl down toward a distant light source — formed by the clear base of the flower where the pollen awaits. After a while, the entrapping hairs wilt — allowing the pollen-dusted fly to escape and pollinate another plant.

Of course, those strange little ecological parables that buzz around any flower don’t fully account for my addiction to the wildflowers of spring.

But it does give me something to think about as I sit on a hillside, drunk on orange.

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