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Desert Wildflowers: The Next Generation
by Damian Fagan

Damian Fagan's blog

The springtime parade of wildflowers begins in February and March, but will gather speed in the month of April. The diversity of flowering plants starts to blossom (pun intended) and, depending upon the winter and early spring soil moisture content, may result in spectacular displays.

Last year was such a year, where blooming wildflowers created colorful mosaics cloaking the desert. This year will not follow suit because of the lower winter moisture levels, but there should be pockets where wildflowers abound. I also use the term “wildflower” loosely, to include annuals, perennials and flowering shrubs in this mix.

Some flowering shrubs like greasewood and four-winged saltbush produce small flowers, but they are overlooked in contrast to the showier blooms of cliffrose, blackbrush and Fendlerbush.

Both cliffrose and blackbrush are members of the Rose family, while Fendlerbush is a member of the Hydrangea family. Cliffrose has small, leathery leaves with tri-lobed tips and blackbrush leaves are short and narrow. The lower-growing blackbrush may dominate vast acreages, and their ½” wide yellow flowers may bloom in profusion.

In contrast, cliffrose grows singly or in small clusters, but grows taller than its rosy relative. Cliffroses may become cloaked with 1” wide, whitish flowers; the aromatic flowers perfume the air with a powerful sweet scent. Bees and other pollinators are lured to the flowers by this scent. Interestingly, cliffroses may undergo a second blooming period later in the summer, but the blackbrushes are “one and done.”

In contrast to these flowering shrubs and many wildflowers that bloom during the day, yuccas and evening primroses open their flowers in the evening to attract moths as pollinators.

The yuccas attract small, ½” long yucca moths. The moth’s pollination strategy is unique and their life cycle is closely tied to that of the yucca. When the female moth visits a flower, she rolls pollen into a small ball and carries this pollen ball to another plant. The moth then packs the pollen into the female receptacle of the new flower. In addition to pollinating the flower, the female moth inserts eggs into the ovary of the female flower. This symbiotic action insures pollination of the flower and that her developing larvae will be able to feed upon the maturing seeds.

Another night-blooming plant, the evening primrose attracts a different group of moths – the sphinx moth. Nicknamed “hummingbird moths,” due to their large size and hummingbirdlike flight, the sphinx moth uses its long proboscis to probe deep within the floral tubes for nectar. While probing for nectar, the moth’s forehead becomes dusted with pollen. When visiting another flower, this pollen is knocked off and completes the cycle of pollination.

Although April may not be the peak month for blooming cacti, both the Whipple’s fishhook and hedgehog cacti bloom throughout the month. The hook-shaped spines provide part of the common name. Whipple honors Amiel Wicks Whipple (1818-1863), a topographical engineer who served on the U.S. – Mexico boundary survey in the 1800s and who died during the Civil War.

In contrast to Whipple’s fishhook, the hedgehog cactus has straight spines, reminiscent of those on the small mammal the “heggie” or hedgehog. In addition, the hedgehog cactus has reddish flowers, while the fishhook bears lavender-colored flowers.

Though yearly wildflower displays vary in intensity, one can always count on some plants to bloom and color this landscape in April. The flowers form a spectacular contrast to the surrounding slickrock and to each other.

Hydrangeaceae_Fendlera-rupicola Cactaceae_Sclerocactus-whipplei

Sphinx  Moth








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