Wildflower Blooms in the Southwest
Flowers in bloom at the Gila Lower Box Wilderness Study Area in New Mexico. Photo: Bureau of Land Management, public domain.
One of the greatest things about springtime in the Southwest is the incredible color that washes over the landscape. Whether its the California poppies springing to life, the prickly pear blossoming, or the yucca letting out a sigh of relief for moisture, the Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan desert regions are just waking up for the year.
California Poppies (eschscholzia californica) in bloom.
Photo: Alan Schmierer, public domain via Flickr.
Mojave and Sonoran Desert
The wide arid region from the Mojave of Southern California to the Sonoran desert of Southern Arizona stretches hundreds of miles, but this region's unique climate makes it a somewhat surprising hotspot for wildflower activity. Moist air driven by the Pacific Ocean can cause consistent rain and snowfall from Fall to February in this region, leading to early blooms from February through April!
This reliably wet winter leads annual wildflower species to thrive, as many start the germination process before winter. When the tempurature, moisture, and location all align, a phenomenon known as a superbloom can occur. These are estimated to happen roughly once each decade, but many factors play a role in how many flowers and which species may appear, even with ideal weather. Read more about the wildflowers of these desert regions from our friends at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum and the Mojave National Preserve.
The blooms of the Claret Cup cactus (chinocereus triglochidiatus) .
Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service, public domain.
Reaching upwards from Mexico, through west Texas and southern New Mexico's jornada del muerto, the Chihuahuan Desert stands out from others in the Southwest for its even drier climate. While annual flowering species found a niche in the wet winters of California and Arizona, New Mexico's southern plains are uniquely inhospitable in winter, when precipitation is fickle at best and completely absent at worst.
While this means brilliantly colorful annual flowers aren't usually found here (at least in spring), hardier plants like yucca, cacti, and other succulents dominate the landscape as the dry winter begins to lead into summer monsoon rains. Due to this unique climate, areas of the Chihuahuan desert can even have two separate blooms! In April and May, hardy plants begin to put on a spectacular show with their delicate flowers. Some species of trees even take part in the action. Nourished by monsoon rains in late summer, a whole new group of plants spring to life briefly in summer, where they provide a burst of color before fall. Spectacular blooms of poppies have been known to occur in July and August around the arid Organ Mountains near Las Cruces, NM. Find more about the wildflowers of the Chihuahuan Desert from the fine folks at Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
A Western wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) spotted in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest .
Photo: Patrick Alexander, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Sky Islands and the Sangre de Cristos
The deserts of the Southwest are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to wildflowers. Looming over the horizon from California to New Mexico, numerous mountain ranges break up the dry basin below.
Ranges like the Sacramento Mountains around Ruidoso, the Santa Catalinas near Tucson, and even the Sandias looming over Albuquerque are considered "sky islands," isolated pockets of forest ecosystem separated by drier, lower elevation regions. Temperatures at these heights stay low through spring, retaining snow and postponing new growth until late spring or summer. Each of the sky island regions are uniquely isolated, leading to amazing diversity in the kinds of flowers that can be found in there.
The southern reaches of the Rocky Mountains in the Sangre de Cristo Range share a similar climate, usually keeping their snowcapped peaks through spring, and thus tend to see blooms starting in summer as well.
A Note on Wildflower Ethics
While wildflower blooms seem like an unchangeable force of nature due to their sheer size and magnitude, these species (especially annuals) rely on complex ecosystems and long-term processes to survive into the next generation.
Unfortunately, this means that picking wildflowers on many public lands (especially National Parks and Monuments, and some National Forests) is a no-go.
What can be collected with or without a permit varies greatly from forest to forest, or if you're exploring Bureau of Land Management areas, so please give a call to your local National Forest or BLM office (or the Public Lands Information Center for New Mexico) to get current and accurate information.
Thankfully, those of us wanting to appreciate these beauties at home aren't without options. Many nonprofit organizations such as Native Seeds/SEARCH based out of Tucson and private nurseries like Plants of the Southwest in Albuquerque (within a stone's throw of the PLIA office!) provide seeds for native plants, wildflowers, and heirloom varieties suited to your area. Growing your own wildflowers can be a fun project, and can bring a small piece of your public lands to your backyard.