Arizona Desert Flowers
Flowers and Plants of the Sonoran Desert
This Lens will talk about the flowers, with copious photos, and the uses of the plants that grow, predominantly in the Sonoran Desert, which is in the southern part of Arizona. I have been gathering this information for years, and I love sharing it with others. The plants can be used for food, medicine, shelter, clothing, dyes, and many other purposes. It is wonderful that so many good and useful natural things come in such pretty packages!
All photographs are my own.
General Notes about Flowers in the Desert
You can find flowers blooming just about every month of the year, if you know where to look. In the valleys, the wildflowers bloom in the spring after a good winter rainy season. In the mountains and in higher altitudes, they grow in summer, usually in August after summer monsoon rains.
I have seen 75 species of flowers on my own land, and I have seen flowers every month of the year.
I will present mostly spring flowers, but I'll throw in a few from other times of the year.
Prickly Pear - Opuntia santa-rita
Prickly Pears grow all over the world. Like all plants that have been named and described, it has a botanical name. In fact, I have found it has about 150 different botanical names, which are called "synonyms".
Prickly Pears have multiple uses. They are good for food, prepared several different ways. The fruit is harvested in August, and juiced. The juice is good right out of the fruit (it has to be strained), but most people use it to make cactus jelly or syrup. It was used by the Tohono O'odham (Desert People) for this purpose as well.
The young pads in spring, before the stickers form on them, are used as a vegetable. Cut off the embryonic "leaves" around the edge, and cut into strips. These must be boiled in three waters. You boil some water, add a little salt, and put in the strips, and cook for a few minutes. Drain. You do this three times. These are then mixed with other food. My favorite way to use them is in a nice meat chili. They are also served in some Mexican restaurants, and are available in jars in the grocery store.
The pads themselves can also be cooked when needed, out in the desert. Choose plants whose pads are upright, not lying along the ground. The stickers can be removed by rubbing them in sand. Then trim and boil awhile. I have never tried this.
Prickly Pear seeds can be used in soups or ground into flour.
The pads also are excellent treatment for insect stings. I have personally experienced this.
I used to go occasionally on herb walks with Peter "Bigfoot" Busnack. He was called "Bigfoot" because he had very large feet. On one occasion, he took us up into one of the lower canyons along the Mount Lemmon highway. We were walking around, gathering specimens for our plant notebooks when someone stepped on the hole that contained a Yellow Jacket nest. Yellow Jackets are nasty wasps that have a painful sting, and they're aggressive. Out they swarmed! A number of people were stung. I got 4 stings, and my daughter got 7. She actually went into shock. Peter took her to his SUV, let her lie down, and used herbal remedies from the desert to treat her. She was completely normal within minutes.
I harvested a Prickly Pear pad, and cut off the stickers, and sliced it lengthwise. I put pieces of this on my stings. They worked so well, the pain was gone within seconds! However, I failed to make them large enough to account for the venom spreading outside the area. I had a ring of pain around the place where I had put the Prickly Pear.
The Santa-Rita Prickly Pear is not the most widespread variety, but it is one of the prettiest. Its pads turn purple when it is too cold, hot, or dry. The yellow flowers of all Prickly Pears bloom in June.
There is more about the Prickly Pear and its uses on my web site: Prickly Pear.
Aloe - Aloe vera barbadensis
Aloes are widely grown in the Sonoran Desert. Most aloes have red-orange flowers. Variety barbadensis is an exception. It is the medicinal aloe, although all aloes have the same medicinal properties to some extent. This plant is VERY strong.
I once used the leaves of this plant to treat a second degree burn. I actually applied the raw leaf to the burn, and fastened it there. I combined it with BF&C ointment, a John Christopher formula. The combination took the pain out of the burn, and it healed without a mark.
According to Kerry Brasswel, only one of the six varieties of A. barbadensis, namely A. barbados miller, is particularly rich in pharmacologically active substances. This subspecies has a much less pronounced tapering to the leaves, and will, if given enough water, become convex on both surfaces. In contrast, the leaves of the subspecies known as A. vera always maintain a crescent moon cross-section. The prepared juice tastes like spring water and does not require refrigeration. If you are in the wild, and need a remedy, try any of the varieties of either A. barbadensis or A. vera.
Use the leaf gel applied as a poultice for wounds, rashes, burns, and skin problems; it promotes cell growth.
For more information on Aloe vera, please see this page: Aloe
These plants bloom in late winter.
Hedgehog Cactus - Echinocereus sp.
There are different varieties of Hedgehogs. Like other cactus, it blooms in late spring.
You can eat this raw in the desert. Cut off the outside and eat the inside. It has a nice flavor, though it tastes a little green. Do not eat it in winter; it is refrigerant and will make you cold.
The fruit, with the seeds, is edible and tastes a little like strawberries. It is rich in fats and sugar.
Use the inner flesh for a fresh sunburn. With the cactus still rooted, cut off the outer skin with the thorns then cut it off at the trunk. Apply the flesh over the burn, leaving the juice, several times. To promote healing and relieve the pain of external wounds such as cuts, abrasions, compound fractures, open blisters, insect stings, apply a thin slice as a poultice, and keep in place for about three days. Then expose the wound to fresh air and sunlight. This is a rare cactus, so please use sparingly and plant the seeds.
Claret Cup Hedgehog
This variety grows in the Mojave Desert (north of the Sonoran Desert), but is widely cultivated in our area.
This was growing in a neighbor's yard. It is my favorite color of Hedgehog flower (though the Claret Cup is a close second).
Ocotillo - Fouquieria splendens
This plant can bloom any time of the year it gets warm and can even bloom when there have been no recent rains. However, it only develops leaves when there have been recent rains. A few days after rain, the leaves fall off, leaving thorns. The bark is good for female troubles.
I like to stuff a bunch of flowers in a gallon tea jar, fill with water, and leave in the refrigerator for 18 hours. Drink immediately. Beyond that, it starts to go bad. It makes a delicate punch.
The fruit capsules are edible. The nectar can be sucked from them. The seeds are tasty, and contain 29% protein, and 19% fat. A poultice of powdered root or bark will relieve painful swellings. Drink half a cup of the inner bark tea, three times a day, as a strong lymphatic cleanser for swollen glands and to stimulate lymph circulation. Boil a two inch piece of the stem in water for half an hour, remove from heat, add whiskey, and steep covered until it is room temperature. Sip this periodically for tonsillitis, benign tumors, cysts, and bladder infections. The tea is good for sore throats and cough. Do not use if you suspect you might be pregnant, or in early pregnancy. This does not mean it is abortifacient, however.
The stems are used to make living fences. Bound together and set upright, they can protect the property from coyotes. They will sometimes take root, and will put out leaves when it rains.
Coulter's Lupine - Lupinus havardii
This plant is similar to and classified with the Texas Bluebonnet. It is a legume, and will enrich the soil. It was named "Lupine" because it was believed that, like a wolf, it would rob the soil, but the opposite is true.
These are beautiful in spring, and can also come in pink. The plant is poisonous.
Bean - Lotus humistratus
In spring, don't overlook tiny flowers close to the ground on tiny plants. I have seen this species only once.
I wrote more about these tiny flowers in my article on Bellyflowers:
They are called "Bellyflowers" because you have to get on your belly to see them!
Ephedra - Ephedra viridis
Also known as Mormon Tea, because, since Mormons are forbidden to drink tea or coffee, they used this plant to make a tea they could drink. It is good for respiratory troubles. The tea has a pleasant taste. The pharmacologically active principle has been synthesized and is sold as Sudafed, which you have to ask for from the pharmacist, because it has been widely used by people seeking to lose weight. I doubt seriously if it does much. Some people claim they get a buzz from the tea, but I never did, and I found it safe to give to my children.
Fortunately, I don't have to worry about government nannies. I know where to get the plants, can harvest them, and use them straight out of the desert.
I got this photo on the side of Picacho Peak, Arizona. This is actually not a flower, but a pollen cone. The leaves on this plant are virtually nonexistent, and the flowers, as you can see, are not complete, either. The plant is also known as Jointfir because it just looks like a bunch of joined sticks when seen from a distance.
Owl Clover - Castilleja exserta
Occasionally, these flowers will make huge mats in the spring, which are very beautiful. I have never found a really large stand of them, and I am still looking, because it is one of my favorite spring flowers, because of the color.
A close look will reveal that each blossom has a tiny yellow design at the base.
California Poppy - Eschscholzia californica
After good winter rains, these poppies will form vast fields of orange. They are absolutely gorgeous. They're poisonous, but they are good for the tourist trade, because they bring in lots of visitors. There is often a spectacular stand of these poppies near Picacho Peak. The second photo below was taken in another location altogether: Peridot Mountain, in the area of the Apache Nation east of Globe, Arizona.
Miner's Lettuce - Claytonia perfoliata
Found in shaded spots in small patches, this is a wonderful salad plant with a very nice taste. It gives me a boost of energy when I eat just a little of it when hiking. This plant isn't easy to find, and as you can see, it has tiny flowers. This photo was taken in Catalina State Park, but I have also seen it at Picacho Peak.
Bluedicks - Dichelostemma capitatum
This plant is never abundant, it would seem, so it is easy to overlook. It appears to resemble onions closely, and can be used in the same way in cooking.
Widely grown as a small ornamental tree, it comes with flowers varying in color from pale to deep pink.
Princes Plume - Stanleya pinnata
This flower blooms in late summer (August) in northern Arizona. I found this plant in Glen Canyon near Lees Ferry.
Like I said, if you know where to look, you can find flowers someplace any time of the year.
Brittlebush - Encelia farinosa
This plant is called "Brittlebush" because the stems snap off cleanly. It can form carpets of yellow in spring, as you can see below. This photo was taken in the Superstition Mountains, in Lost Dutchman State Park, to be specific. This park is east of Phoenix, Arizona.
I have many more flowers to share, so please come back soon.
Books on Desert Plants and Flowers
Available from Amazon.
Gathering the Desert
by Gary Paul Nabhan
Sonoran Desert Food Plants: Edible Uses for the Desert's Wild Bounty
by Charles W. Kane
Medicinal Plants of the American Southwest (Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest)
by Charles W. Kane
Wildflowers of the Desert Southwest
by Meg Quinn
Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West: A Guide to Identifying, Preparing, and Using Traditional Medicinal Plants Found in the Deserts and Canyons of the West and Southwest
by Michael Moore
Thank you from the bottom of my heart, to each person who is responsible for this Lens getting a Purple Star! It is deeply appreciated.