many arms of the ocotillo often have leaves and
rose-like thorns. It is not a cactus.
Ariz. ó For the past decade, Iíve headed to Arizona in
midwinter to visit family and catch a respite from cold
weather. Each year, as I leave its warm, dry air to return
to my snowy home, Iím told, "You really should come
when the desert is in bloom. Itís spectacular."
year, in response, I roll my eyes. Why would I visit
Arizona when spring is in the air in Minnesota? And how
can a desert, by its very nature, be "in bloom"?
claim no grand foresight into this yearís weather; a
busy schedule had prompted my later-than-usual, mid-April
trip to Arizona. I was simply looking for warmth.
I found was color. For a winter-weary Midwesterner, it was
brightened the horizon, its spider-like arms topped with
luscious red-orange blossoms waving in the periwinkle blue
sky. Hedgehogs flashed their colors over the rocky earth:
red, yellow, pink. Small neon flowers peeked out from the
chollas. Prickly pear blossoms burst with stunning hues.
All popped into the sepia tones of the desert as though
hand-colored to order.
Now this was the desert in bloom.
plant names now fall off my tongue with ease, but not so
with my first glimpse of the blossoms. I was at the
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, on the outskirts of Tucson,
surrounded by more than 1,200 types of plants and 56,000
specimens on 21 acres, on the edge of Saguaro National
Park. There was desert, and desert only, as far as the eye
could see. Saguaros, the giant cactuses, many with
multiple arms, stood like sentries on the horizon. (Its
blossoms are the Arizona state flower.) Like a child
learning to talk, I pointed at the blossoms and repeated
their names, a lesson in the language of Southwest
was no better place for my education than the 60-year-old
Desert Museum, which puts a new spin on what most of us
think of as a museum. Much of what it offers is outside,
not inside, and most of it is alive. Very alive, in fact,
as anyone careless enough to brush against the barbs of a
cholla would discover. Alive as in rattlesnakes and
scorpions. This isnít a theme park: A trip down these
paths needs caution. (Leave the toeless sandals at home.)
Part arboretum, part zoo (with coyotes, bobcats and
pig-like javelinas), part aviary and hummingbird
sanctuary, well, you get the drift. Not your usual museum.
walked carefully along the dusty paths, passing the
occasional visitor dressed for the weather: floppy hat and
sunglasses, hiking boots, a light scent of eau du
sunscreen evident (the museum restrooms have sunscreen
serendipity ó always a travelerís friend ó I had
stumbled onto one of the best spring seasons in years.
Higher than normal winter rainfall had boosted not only
the colors but also the lushness of the blooms. Where only
a few flowers would usually appear on a cactus, this year
there was blossom-after-blossom, a chaotic extravagance.
"Itís a spectacular year, especially for the
hedgehogs, cholla and prickly pear," said George
Montgomery, curator of the botany department at the Desert
all the color came from cactus. The wildflowers ó
poppies, lupines and the like ó were less showy than
usual, due to the lateness of the rainfall, though by any
standards they were still beautiful. Bright hues spilled
out from other desert plants that a casual observer would
mistake for the more prickly species. "The cactus
have a certain flower structure unique to that
family," said Montgomery, as he offered a brief
botany lesson in their differences, and reminded me that
cactus, as succulents, store more water than other plants
do and rarely have leaves.
that meant my favorite bloom, the ocotillo, was not a
cactus. No matter. It had caught my attention and wouldnít
let go. Iíd seen the plant without flowers on earlier
visits and even then I loved the wild nature of its
roselike stems. Now its flowers were almost juicy with
color, drawing hummingbirds to its tubular flowers, a
perfect evolutionary vehicle. "Which makes you wonder
which came first," noted Montgomery, "the plant
or the hummingbird?"
wandered along the museum path, snapping this picture and
that from my iPhone (having forgotten my usual camera on
the kitchen counter at home), one plant after another
brought a gasp. "Oh," I would sigh.
"Click," went the phone camera. "Oh,"
I repeated. "Click."
was so overcome by the beauty of the ocotillo, in
particular, that I returned to the museum the next day
when it opened at 7:30 a.m. to photograph its wildness in
the morning light. En route to the museum, I pulled off
the road to snap image after image: ocotillo in
foreground, in the background, all against a horizon of
then Iíd caught the fever ó desert bloom fever ó and
I lit out in the desert neighborhood where I was staying,
hunting for color. If a bud wasnít quite ready one day,
I checked it out the next. And the next. Always with my
camera in tow.
left too early to see everything bloom. The yellow flowers
of the palo verde trees had made a gentle backdrop for the
other blossoms, but the saguaro buds still werenít open,
though they were due to start in a few weeks and continue
story intrigued me. While many cactus flowers last for
several days, the saguaro bloom lasts less than 24 hours.
After opening near dusk, its bloom continues through the
night and closes at the heat of the day.
year Iíll be ready.
N. Kinney Rd., Tucson, Ariz.