WILDFLOWERS function as the exclamation points of life in the desert.
Nothing so seems to defy the harshness of this land as a field of blooming poppies. What an incongruity to see a delicate evening-primrose emerging from the banks of a sand dune, but bloom they do.
With the right conditions, and a few millenia of evolution, these botanical wonders coyly emerge to herald the desert spring.
Of course some years are better than others.
Start talking to any Arizona oldtimer about wildflowers and they'll inevitabely bring up the blooms of '78 and '79. Poppies filled the valleys with so many golden petals that bulldozers were used to keep the roads clear, they'll tell you. There were desert marigolds with stems as thick around as a man and two stories tall, they say with a wink.
No matter how flamboyount the stories get, they always end with a "but there hasn't been a bloom like that since. You missed it--sonny boy."
Heavy fall rains and continuing winter rains this year seemed to promise another bloom of epic proportions. What seems to be unfolding, however, is the proverbial half-full or half-empty glass.
Optimists point out this is one of the best blooms in years, while pessimists lament for the good ol' days when a man could drown in flowers.
"The annual display is a bust," says Mark Dimmitt, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum botany curator. "Something went terribly wrong. There are no showy flowers to speak of. From here to San Diego there is nothing but European weeds."
Dimmitt believes the timing of fall rains might have been off for a spectacular year. He also points a finger at introduced plants, especially laymen's lovegrass (a grass introduced for cattle grazing), accussing them of pushing the native flowers out.
But not everything's grim, even for Dimmitt.
"The perennials are doing great," he says.
Dimmitt cites brittlebush, penstemmons and desert lilies as plants to keep an eye out for.
Some of Dimmitt's favorite spots to look for the annuals are King Canyon in the Tucson Mountains, along Highway 86 across the Tohono O'Odham Reservation and up the Kitt Peak road. You might also check out the Ruby/Arivaca U.S. Forest Service Roads in the Atacosa Mountains south of Tucson. Dimmitt thinks the Atacosas might be good in April for higher elevation flowers.
Meg Weesner, chief science reasearcher at Saguaro National Park, agrees with Dimmitt's assesment that a lot of the green people are seeing is just grass.
"Unfortunately, a lot of the introduced grasses seem to do so well in wet years," Weesner says.
On the bright side, she says "We have more buds and blooms on the brittlebush than I've ever seen." She also notes some things are still growing and this year might have some surprises yet.
With that in mind the park's eastern district ranger station is keeping a log for visitors to consult on what is blooming each week, says district interpreter Melanie Florez.
Florez says the best way to see the wildflower display entails covering the same territory several weeks in a row.
"You're not going to come out at one point in time and see everything blooming including the cactus." Florez says. "We're going to see excellent wild displays, but we don't have everything blooming at once."
A variety of nature walks are conducted each week at the eastern district and will include looks at wildflower activity. The schedule fluctuates and visitors should call the park to see what's going on each week, Florez says.
The weekend of March 25 and 26 will be Desert Wildflower Weekend at the park, featuring workshops, tours and a variety of programs. Intereseted parties should call for a schedule, Florez says.
Also on March 25, Saguaro National Park Western District will use its regular Saturday morning birdwalk to give a tour of King Canyon's wildflowers. The tour meets at 7:30 a.m. in King Canyon. For late sleepers, wildflower tours of King Canyon are running from 1 to 4 p.m. every Friday through April. The rangers at the visitors' center also can give directions to other places in the park good for wildlfowers.
Catalina State Park plans to conduct events of its own for bloom buddies. Wildflower walks begin March 6 and will be conducted every Monday at 9 a.m. until April 17. The 90-minute walks are meant to be a beginner's introduction and are not led by a botanist, says park ranger Kelly Stack. Nevertheless they're a lot of fun, she adds.
"At Catalina we don't get big fields," says Stack, "but we do get a large variety. If you're interested in seeing different varities as opposed to big shows, this is a good place."
Picacho Peak State Park, the place famous for big shows and fields of poppies, is looking good but not legendary, says Ranger Jerry Crenshaw.
"We do have some stuff coming out now but it's sporadic. There are no vast fields of poppies as yet."
As far as guided tours go it's "every man for himself," says Crenshaw.
For a sure bet on stupendous guided wildflower displays, check out Tohono Chul Park in Tucson or the Boyce Thompson Southwestern Arboretum in Superior. Both report magnificent displays from the combination of cultivated wildflowers amplified by natural blooms.
Starting March 13 Tohono Chul volunteers will conduct hour-long wildflower tours of the grounds on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 10 a.m.
Throughout March Boyce Thompson horticulturists will lead tours at 1 p.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There are also lectures at 2 p.m. on the arboretum's wildflowers.
Make plans now, before the summer furnace hits full blast. By early April the lower elevation flowers will be so much wilted plantlife.
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