Just when you think the desert is spectacular, along comes wildflower season.
Set against the backdrop of red rock cliffs and spires of sandstone, wildflowers carpet the desert in technicolor.
Driving through the National Parks or hiking one of the area’s many trails, drivers and hikers will encounter a diversity of flowers. Shrubs such as cliffrose, blackbrush, and serviceberry may be cloaked with flowers and scenting the air with their sweet perfume. This “rose-scented smell” is like a beacon to attract pollinators such as bees and wasps. The lure of nectar and pollen draws the insects like flies to honey. In exchange for these important food resources, the insects provide pollination services required by the shrubs to set seeds.
At times the air is so dense with the aroma of cliffrose, that visitors will encounter the smell long before the plant comes in to view. Blackbrush, a member of the Rose family which includes cliffrose and serviceberry, covers vast acres where sandy soils overlay gravelly sites.
Mixed in with the shrubs or growing in small pockets that dot the sandstone, grow a diversity of wildflowers from sublime to spectacular.
Indian paintbrush, Eaton’s penstemon, and scarlet gilia are three red-flowered wildflowers that explode with color and attract hummingbirds and butterflies to their flowers. Only insects sporting a long proboscis can reach the sweet nectar buried deep within the tubular-shape flowers. The paintbrush employs a unique strategy by being partially parasitic. Rootlike connections known as haustoria enable the paintbrush to draw moisture and nutrients from the host plant to supplement their own requirements.
Yellow is a well-represented color in these desert wildflowers. Fields of yellow beeplant with their pendulous pods or scores of Indian blanket often carpet the desert grasslands with a profusion of flowers. These spring displays don’t happen every year, so catching them when they happen is a special experience.
The nearly shrub-like size of rough mule’s-ears with their massive sunflower-shaped flowers is sure to divert a driver’s attention or stop even the most focused desert hiker. The rough texture and size of the leaves creates the basis for the common name. The large, open nature of the flowers forms the perfect landing platform for butterflies, bees, flies, and other pollinators.
Not to be upstaged by the mule’s-ears, the night blooming evening primrose or narrow-leaf yucca engage in attracting night-flying sphinx moths or yucca moths to their flowers. Dwarf evening primrose, a low-growing plant with flowers that fade to pink after pollination, often grows along roadsides where runoff creates optimal growing conditions. The yucca, with its cream-colored flowers and dense arrangement, opens slightly in the evening to lure female yucca moths inside the flowers. The ½” long moths crawl over the anthers gathering pollen before they fly off and transfer the pollen to another flower while depositing their eggs in the flower’s ovary. As the seedpods develop over time, the moth larvae consume some of the pod’s seeds. This symbiotic relationship is important to the long-term success of both the moth and the plant.
So, enjoy the wildflowers while they bloom because many races through their life cycle before they shut down for the summer heat. Of course, a different set of flowers blooms in summer, so the wildflower parade continues until the fall grande finale.