2013 Desert Wildflower Forecast

Click for a larger view of a Dark-eyed 'Oregon' Junco Male, Junco hyemalis montanus, Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O'Donnell
Claret cup cactus in bloom
Arches National Park
Echinocereus triglochidiatus
var. melancanthus
Courtesy NPS, Neal Herbert, Photographer

Hi, I’m Holly Strand.

It’s showtime for desert wildflowers in CA, AZ and NM. But in Utah’s deserts think April or May. Within those months the exact timing, type and quantity of blooms are highly variable. Flowering depends upon the pattern of precipitation from fall onward and on spring temperatures, sunlight and elevation. And of course, on the specific ecological requirements of each particular plant.

Annuals are plentiful in the desert. Annual plants germinate, grow, flower, set seed and die all within one season—often in the spring. To avoid water stress—some annuals will start their life cycle only when there is significant moisture. If it’s dry, they may stay in seed form waiting for better conditions. Likewise, many perennials—plants that live more than 2 years—can remain below ground as dormant bulbs, corms or roots. But when conditions are right, these water stress avoiders –both annuals and perennials–will flourish. When this happens we call it a “good year” for wildflowers.

I couldn’t find a wildflower hotline for Utah—so I called different parks representing Utah’s 3 different desert regions to get a flower forecast for 2013.

Nothing much is happening yet on the Colorado Plateau in and around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. It’s been pretty cold according to staff ranger Sharon Brussell. So the appearance of spring flowers is somewhat delayed. But in April we can expect to see evening primrose, twinpods and milk vetches. And in late April-early May, Princes’ plume, globemallow and yucca. The scarlet blooms of claret cup cactus will follow. If you miss what you are looking for in Arches or the Needles district, just go higher to Islands in the Sky, adds Nathaniel Clark of the Canyonlands National Park. Here–because of the elevation–flowering of similar species occurs 2-4 weeks later.

Snow Canyon is in the Mojave Desert region. Park Manager Kristen Comella told me that this is likely to be a typical year for wildflowers. Spectacled pod and lotus vetch are already out. Soon we’ll see bright yellow flowers of the Mojave’s signature creosote bush, and the deep purple flowers of indigo bush. Prickly pear and Utah yucca will soon follow. If you want to see early spring blooms on Joshua trees, go south on old highway 91 from Gunlock to see Utah’s one and only Joshua Tree forest.

To find out what’s happening in the Great Basin I spoke with Ben Roberts at Nevada’s Great Basin National Park. He says there has been a bit less precipitation than normal but it should still be an OK year for flowers. So far he’s only spotted one — Nevada lomatium. This brave little plant blooms even when there is snow still lying around. From a distance you might even think the low-lying white flowers are a patch of snow. In April desert paintbrush will appear, as will arrow-leaf balsamroot and purple sage. Wild iris, blue flax and prickly pear will follow in May.

For sources and pictures and suggestions for good desert wildflower hikes go to www.wildaboututah.org

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.

Image: Courtesy NPS, Arches National Park, Neal Herbert, Photographer
Text: Holly Strand

Recommended hikes for viewing wildflowers

Great Basin National Park (Great Basin)
Baker Creek Trail
Lehman Creek Trail
Pole Canyon Trail

Arches National Park (Colorado Plateau)
Primitive Loop

Canyonlands National Park (Colorado Plateau)
Neck Spring Trail—Islands in the Sky

Snow Canyon State Park (Mojave Desert)
Hidden Canyon
Whiptail Trails

Sources & Additional Reading

Arches Flower Guide (by color, month, name and keys)http://www.nps.gov/arch/naturescience/flowerguide.htm 

Comstock, J. and J. Ehrlinger 1992. Plant adaptations in the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau. Great Basin Naturalist. Vol. 52. No. 3

Fertig, Walter. 2010. Utah’s Mojave Desert Flora. Sego Lily, newsletter of the Utah Native Plant Society. Vol. 33, No. 2. http://www.unps.org/segolily/Sego2010MarApr.pdf

McMahon, James. 1985. Deserts (National Audubon Society Nature Guides) NY: Alfred A. Knopf http://www.amazon.com/Deserts-National-Audubon-Society-Nature/dp/0394731395

Williams, David. 2000. A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country. A Falcon Guide. Helena MT. Published in cooperation with Canyonlands Natural History Association.http://www.amazon.com/Naturalists-Guide-Canyon-Country-Williams/dp/1560447834 

Steershead & Turkeypeas

Steershead, Dicentra uniflora
Image Courtesy & Copyright Jim Cane

There is surprise and joy when discovering a flower peeking up at you from near the lingering snow. Long after winter weary eyes have devoured the early floral offerings of gardens here in the valley, our local natives are stirring higher up. As you wander thru mountain sagebrush and meadows, you may encounter scattered groups of two native wildflowers, Steershead and Turkeypeas. Both are a delight to the eyes, but difficult to find initially, as their diminutive nature keeps them hidden amid the surrounding plant litter.

Steershead, or Dicentra uniflora, lives up to its common name. A close cousin to the bleeding heart, it has four white to pinkish petals tinged light brown to purple, two of which are spurred. The longer pair bend back, while the shorter pair are fused at the tip, providing the “cow skull” appearance of the flower. Diminutive plants, they send forth leaves and a single flower from thickened, spindle-shaped tubers. Just a few inches tall, this small plant packs a lot of charm and a bit of poison for protection against plant eaters. Steershead occurrs singly or in small clusters, so it is easily overlooked.

Turkeypea, Orogenia linearifolia
Courtesy & Copyright Intermountain Herbarium
Mary Barkworth, Photographer

Turkeypeas, Indian potato or Orogenia linearifolia, on the other hand, grows in extensive colonies, making this 4 inch tall plant a bit easier to find. A member of the carrot family, Turkeypeas produces very small whiteish flowers in umbels atop a short stem. Arising from a fleshy tuber, the leaves are divided into long linear segments (hence the name ‘linearifolia’). The starchy root is edible, though small, and historically was collected in large numbers by indigenous peoples in the spring. The tubers are avidly sought by squirrels.

So as the snow melts off the hillsides, look for these little darlings. Found only here in Western North America, I’m sure they will charm you as well.

Pictures and links are available on our wild about utah website. Thanks to Michael Piep of the Intermountain Herbarium and Utah Native Plant Society.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Jim Cane
Courtesy & Copyright Intermountain Herbarium, Mary E. Barkworth, Photographer
Text: Michael Piep, Utah Native Plant Society/ Intermountain Herbarium

Additional Reading:

Intermountain Herbarium: http://herbarium.usu.edu/
Encyclopedia of Life: http://www.eol.org/pages/596191
USU Extension: http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/publication/HG_506.pdf

Anderson, B.A & A.H. Holmgren 1996, revised. Mountain Plants of Northeastern Utah. USU Extension Services. Logan, Utah.

Shaw, R.J. 1989. Vascular Plants of Northern Utah. Utah State University Press, Logan, Utah.

Shaw, R.J. 1995. Utah Wildflowers. Utah State University Press, Logan, Utah.

Welsh, S.L., N D. Atwood, S Goodrich & L.C. Higgins. 2008. A Utah Flora, 4th Ed. Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. http://www.amazon.com/Utah-Flora-Stanley-L-Welsh/dp/0842525564