Color Runs Riot

Desert blooms reveal secret of life in magenta, yellow and orange



So here I am.

Poppy to the left of me.

Cactus to the right.

Here I am.

Stuck in the middle with, well, let’s say a nice brittlebush.

Then again, maybe I’m just having a Lewis Carroll moment, complete with a hooka smoking caterpillar speaking in riddles.

So here’s a magenta bedecked hedgehog — that does all its business at night.


Tom Brossart Photo

Brittlebush in the McDowells near Scottsdale.

And here’s a trembling orange poppy — finally up into the sunlight after a 20 years sleep.

And here’s a bee-blessed brittlebush — a bundle of dead sticks miraculously resurrected to become a riot of sunflowers.

Curiouser and curiouser, exclaims the Mad Hatter of my mind. Twinkle, Twinkle little bat! How I wonder where you’re at, whispers Alice.

Ah, spring in the Sonoran Desert. I can’t get enough: Those poppies might as well be oozing opium — thick as the caterpillar’s smoke.

All I know is that at some point every spring, I find myself in this position: Mind blown, ambition at bay, sitting in a sea of color — or sometimes just a puddle. Alas, this year we didn’t get the heavy rainstorms in November or December necessary to provoke one of those once-a-decade wildflower blowouts. This year, November and December were bone dry — followed by a good soaking in January and February and a dry March and April.

So if you check the Phoenix Botanical Gardens wildflower hotline, you’ll find only scattered headline displays, with nice patches of the fickle annuals like poppies and solid but scattered outbreaks of perennials like the brittlebush.

Still, this is quite nice: From this one rock, I can unravel the deepest secrets of life. It’s all right there, arrayed up the volcanic slope — hedgehog cactus, brittlebush and Arizona poppy. Pay attention and they’ll blow your mind too by revealing the endless ingenuity of life.

They all three faced the same problem: How to survive in so demanding an environment as the Sonoran Desert. They must get by on less than 10 inches of rain a year — except for the years when it hardly rains at all. They have to withstand temperatures of 120 degrees, even in June when it’ll go all month without a trace of rain. They have to deal with droughts that last a decade. And they have to come up with some clever plan to use the bounty of that one good year in 10 to make it through the other nine.

Fortunately, they’ve each got a plan of their own.

Start with the most reliable — the hedgehog cactus, which puts out its hallucinogenic, gauzy magenta blooms every April, no matter how dry it’s been.

The cacti have bet the bank on heat and drought and sun. They transformed leaves into thorns, to both hoard water and shade their fleshy stems. The hedgehog and its cactus sidekicks like the barrels and the saguaro have turned their trunks into great, sealed reservoirs. They suck up every drop of moisture they can lay a root on then stash it away — chemically bound in a way that makes the plant pulp slimy, but hangs onto moisture for dear life.

The cacti have even evolved a specialized method for turning sunlight into energy. Most plants take in carbon dioxide, use the sun’s energy to break apart the carbon dioxide, put the carbon to use and release the unneeded oxygen.

That’s quite convenient for us oxygen addicts — since the plants created the cozy, breathable atmosphere that makes it possible for we lungers to sit around staring at hedgehog flowers.

But cacti had to figure out how to pull all that off without losing all their moisture through those open pores during the heat of the day. So they invented their own process called Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM). This allows them to take in carbon dioxide at night and store the carbon dioxide in the form of an organic acid. They actually postpone photosynthesis until the next day, with their pores tightly sealed against the fatal desert heat. So they use one-tenth as much water, but as a tradeoff, grow much more slowly.

The hedgehogs bloom sooner than almost any other cacti, due largely to their reliance on migrating hummingbirds for pollination. The deep, nectar-rich flowers lure the little hummers with a lascivious shade of red, prompting the little hovering birds to stick their whole heads into the flower — taking on a nice dusting of pollen to carry to the next flower. Bees often ignore the showy hedgehog flowers, since this most industrious of pollinators can’t see red.

So, that’s one strategy: Hang on to every drop of water so you can bloom stubbornly every year.

Just up the slope, the brilliant yellow brittlebush has hit upon another approach.

This bushy relative of the sunflower has conquered the arid world, with a Lazarus-like ability to play dead in a drought and emerge from its tomb whenever it rains. The waxy, watertight leaves are covered with a fuzz of hairs to shade the leaf surface and reduce evaporation. When the rains fail, the bush drops its leaves and withdraws all its moisture into the extensive root system, leaving the stems so dry you can mistake them for kindling.


Tom Brossart Photo



Tom Brossart Photo

Hedgehog cacti


Tom Brossart Photo


In such a condition, it goes into a metabolic idle that uses hardly any moisture, but can spring into action instantly when it rains. Normal plants in a drought mode require days or weeks to come out of it. But a brittlebush can start growing new roots and leaves within five hours of a drenching.

The plant also fills its leaves with chemically complicated resins. Cows won’t touch the stuff — although Desert Bighorn Sheep and Mule Deer rely on it to get through hard times. Native Americans relied on the resins, leaves and blossoms to make painkillers good for chest pain, toothache and arthritis — not to mention incense and varnish.

Bees love the yellow brittlebush blossoms, as does a specialized beetle and a specialized fly — both of which lay eggs on the plant so their larva can feed on the leaves.

So that’s the second approach: Play dead and make a flashy comeback.

Then you got your poppies, the ultimate opportunists. Poppies are the picky princess of this fable — insistent on having everything just perfect.

Thank goodness for seeds.

Poppies and the rest of the desert annuals spend most of their existence hidden away in the form of almost indestructible seeds.

In some areas after a good flower year, poppies and their ilk may leave behind 200,000 seeds in every square yard of soil. Those seeds can survive for nearly a century, awaiting the perfect moment to germinate. Of course, this bounty of seeds sustains a whole host of seed eaters — like ants and kangaroo rats. But even in a patch of desert that hasn’t harbored a flower in years, thousands of seeds await that perfect year in every square yard.

That perfect year rolls around in any single patch of ground about once every five to seven years, but graces the whole region at once about every 10 years.

Curiously enough, even in such a perfect year — some seeds hold back. Some seeds have a still-mysterious timer ticking away that won’t let them germinate until they’ve lain, dreaming, in the soil for a decade.

But when that great year comes along, the poppies and lupine fiddlenecks, owl clover and their cohorts can turn whole hillsides ablaze with color — even if those slopes haven’t bloomed in years.


Tom Brossart Photo

Arizona poppies last week burst out near Globe.

Then it’s a free-for-all for every pollinator out there, their own cycles of life, death, boom, bust and survival dependent on a flower’s whim.

Alas, not this year, I murmur, a blissed-out Buddha on my rock with a view.

I inhale a dose of all that discarded oxygen and let the magenta-yellow-orange soak into my eyes. For a moment, I wish I could see poppies in the ultraviolet like the bees or light up agave blossoms in the ultrasonic like the twinkling bats or experience magenta through the eyes of a hummingbird. It would, most likely, unhinge men entirely.


Tom Brossart Photo

Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior.

To quote the Mat Hatter: “There is a place. Like no place on Earth. A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger! Some say to survive it: You need to be as mad as a hatter. Which luckily I am.”


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