Wildflowers in Southern Arizona — 2016-07-31 through 2016-08-05

Just today, someone (MB, you know who you are) requested that I finish posting the images that I took while on a week-long trip to southern Arizona where we attended the fabulous 2016 Native Orchid Conference in Benson, Arizona.

Disclaimer #1: This is a very, very long blog entry. This blogger is not responsible if you doze off during the reading of this blog entry.

Disclaimer #2: This blogger is not a trained botanist. He is also not intimately familiar with the flora of southern Arizona, and he’s done his best to identify the flora which appear in the images. If you see something that you believe to be misidentified, please bring it to my attention (I will be grateful), and I will do my best to correct the misidentification.


Not enough can be said about the wonderful job that was done by Ron Coleman of Tucson, Arizona in setting up the NOC symposium, gathering the guest speakers, arranging for the motel and meeting sites, and providing food, drink, and snacks for our enjoyment. In addition, he and a number of others did yeoman work figuring out the best locations for the field trips. After all, Ron wrote the books on the orchids of Arizona, New Mexico, and California. I am privileged to count him and his wife, Jan, as friends.

Images of the 5 species of native orchids we saw on our trip (BTW, all new to me) were posted in previous blog entries, so there won’t be any orchid images in this one:

Malaxis porphyrea and Platanthera limosa,
Malaxis abieticola,
Malaxis corymbosa, and
Malaxis soulei.

So, let’s get started…

Disclaimer #3: These images appear in no particular order. They were all made on the NOC field trips to the Sky Islands of southern Arizona. The locations include the Chiricahua Mountains, the Santa Catalina Mountains, and the Huachuca Mountains.

According to Wikipedia:

Sky islands are isolated mountains surrounded by radically different lowland environments. This has significant implications for natural habitats. Endemism, altitudinal migration, and relict populations are some of the natural phenomena to be found on sky islands. The complex dynamics of species richness on sky islands draws attention from the discipline of biogeography, and likewise the biodiversity is of concern to conservation biology. One of the key elements of a sky island is separation by physical distance from the other mountain ranges, resulting in a habitat island, such as a forest surrounded by desert. Some sky islands serve as refugia for boreal species stranded by warming climates since the last glacial period. In other cases, localized populations of plants and animals tend towards speciation, similar to oceanic islands such as the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador.

Here is an image taken from atop one of the Sky Islands — the Huachuca Mountain range:

Huachuca Mountains -- Sky Islands
Huachuca Mountains — Sky Islands

Notice the abrupt rise from the level lowland. Also notice the white-knuckle, butt-clenching, dirt road we had to travel to get to this spot — no guard rails…

Here is another shot from a different spot in the Huachuca Mountains:

Huachuca Mountains -- Sky Islands

As I mentioned, the following images will be presented in no particular order. The first one is of a spectacular wildflower, Eryngium lemmonii or Chiricahua Mountain Eryngo. There are several eastern species that are closely related, but none are as spectacular as this one:

Chiricahua Mountain Eryngo

On our way back from the second trip to the Chiricahua Mountains, I saw this view near the Dos Cabezas (Two Heads) Mountains. I just had to stop and record what we saw:

View of the storm on the mountains in the distance

Yep, it rained a lot while we were there. It was, after all, monsoon season in the Southwest. It is these torrential downpours that bring the moisture that the orchids and wildflowers need in July and August to put on the colorful show that we saw on our trip. This rain also added a great deal of excitement from time to time. Here is a shot of a roadway covered by one of the many flash floods that we experienced. Some were much worse than others:

Flooded highway

As long as I could see the white lines in the road, through the water, I was fairly confident that I could cross without a lot of difficulty.

However, there were other occasions where the situation was a bit more unnerving:

Flash flood on a dirt road

Powerful flash flood

And this one, just down the road… After waiting more than two hours for the water level to drop, we found that the rushing torrent had left a jumble of 15-inch (38-cm) boulders across our path:

Boulder field after a flash flood

Enough of that for now. Back to the flowers. I thought these Sphaeralcea laxa or Caliche Globemallow were nice – just along the roadside:

Caliche Globemallow Caliche Globemallow

Up in the Chiricahua Mountains, we had some fantastic views. A few years before our visit, the area had been scorched by wildfire. Now, the area is greening up again, and this almost appeared to be a Springtime scene:

View from the heights of theI  Chiricahua Mountain range

I suppose most of the flora I photographed was on the two visits we made to the Chiricahua Mountains. Apparently, we hit it right at the peak of wildflower bloom. Here are a couple of shots of a very tall species we saw near the top of the mountain ridge. It is Delphinium andesicola or Chiricahua Mountain Larkspur. These bad boys had to have been 5-6 feet (1.5-2 meters) or more tall — the largest native Larkspurs I’ve ever seen:

Chiricahua Mountain Larkspur Chiricahua Mountain Larkspur

Another plant which had very striking color was vibrant Potentilla thurberi or Scarlet cinquefoil:

Scarlet cinquefoil Scarlet cinquefoil

Nearby, were two species of ColumbineAquilegia desertorum or Desert Columbine and Aquilegia chrysantha or Golden Columbine, growing right next to each other:

Desert Columbine Golden Columbine

One strikingly beautiful wildflower that was new to me (actually, I had never seen most of these pictured in this blog post) was Plectocephalus americanus or American Basketflower. I suppose many of you who live in the Southwest are probably ho-hum about this one, but it would be difficult for others of us to match the beauty of the large population of these 4-inch wide (10 cm) exotic flowers we saw just next to the trail:

American Basketflower American Basketflower
American Basketflower American Basketflower

There were two yellow flowers in the ditch beside the trail. The first of these, Echeandia flavescens or Torrey’s craglily (below left) is quite rare, I understand. It caught my eye right away, since it appeared to be a nude stem with a few 1-inch (2.5 cm) yellow flowers jutting out of the side. With a name like that, one would expect it to be growing in a crevice along a rock ledge, but here it was, right next to the trail. The other yellow flower (below right) is Lithiospermum multiflorum or Many-flowered puccoon:

Torrey's craglily Many-flowered puccoon

Near the top of the mountain, the trail broke out of the forest of Engelmann Spruce, Douglas Fir, Southwestern White Pine, and Ponderosa Pine,

Conifer forest in the Chiricahua Mountains

and provided us with some glorious views. But there were more wildflowers to be seen. One of these that we saw in pretty good numbers along the road up the mountain is Castilleja patriotica or Huachuca Mountain Indian Paintbrush. Its bright, orangey-red color is hard to miss:

Huachuca Mountain Indian Paintbrush Huachuca Mountain Indian Paintbrush

On the way back down the mountain, we stopped to photograph some interesting wildflowers that we saw on the way up. Fortunately, there was no other traffic coming or going, so we took our time. One flowering plant, in particular, that caught my attention is Allium plummerae or Plummer’s onion made a strong statement as it grew between the crack in rocks along a cliff face:

Plummer's onion Plummer's onion

This was a good stop, because there were two other flowering plants that grew within a stone’s throw of that cliff face. These two are the beautiful white and magenta flowers of Mirabilis longifolia or Sweet four o’clock and the vivid magenta flowers of Salvia greggii or Autumn sage:

Sweet four o'clock Autumn sage

They were growing side-by-side in the roadside ditch:

Sweet four o'clock and Autumn sage

When we had first arrived at the base of the Chiricahua Mountains, I had seen a number of white flowers along the roadside. This species turns out to be my favorite non-orchid of the entire trip. It is Argemone pleiacantha or Southwestern Prickly Poppy. Its paper-like white petals and bright yellow stamens really pop when the flowers are seen up close. Yep, one of my all-time favorites:

Southwestern Prickly Poppy Southwestern Prickly Poppy

Southwestern Prickly Poppy

One of the sights I had hoped to see was a Carnegiea gigantea or Saguaro cactus. Little did I know that on our way up to the top of the Santa Catalina Mountains, we would pass through a veritable forest of them. Being in a caravan on the way up, I was very frustrated in not being able to stop to photograph them. In addition, there were very few places to pull off of the winding, mountain road. So, we made sure that we had enough time to get some images on the way back down the mountain. Fortunately, there were some heavy thunderstorms off in the distance, just above the city of Tucson, Arizona, and that made for some powerful images:

Saguaro cactus on the mountain overlooking Tucson, Arizona

Saguaro cactus on the mountain overlooking Tucson, Arizona

One place we stopped, provided some interesting photographic opportunities to capture the hillsides as well as the Saguaro cactus:

Saguaro cactus with Ocotillo

The dark green, stringy plants, are Fouquieria splendens or Ocotillo. They can grow to as tall as 35 feet (10 meters). Although they have sharp thorns, they are not a cactus. They have scarlet red flowers in late summer. I can attest to the thorns, because I grabbed one while attempting to keep myself from falling into a ravine. The thorns are hidden well under the glossy green leaves.

More Saguaro cactus images:

Saguaro cactus Saguaro cactus
Saguaro cactus Saguaro cactus

Saguaro cactus in the Santa Catalina Mountains

Recently, I read something very interesting about the Saguaro cactus populations in Arizona. It seems that they are predominately all about the same age — 133 years old. In 1883, the volcano, Krakatoa erupted in Indonesia. This eruption spewed out a huge amount of ash and dust that made its way high into the atmosphere, delivering disastrously cold and stormy weather to much of the Northern Hemisphere. This accumulation of dust particles also blocked a significant amount of light from reaching the ground. In the Sonoran Desert, where these Saguaro grow, temperatures can easily exceed 104 degrees F (40 degrees C) every day for weeks in summer, when Saguaro seedlings have just germinated. The baby cactus plants are relatively fragile and cannot easily stand the extreme heat during the summer or the below freeing temperatures during the winter.

For a critical two to three years, until they grow large enough to withstand cold and drought, they demand cool summers, mild winters, and sufficient amounts of rain: a combination of weather conditions at the outer edge of normal for the Sonoran Desert. A particular summer may be relatively cool, but too dry. A particular winter may be wet, but too cold. In most years, all the baby Saguaros die. It is estimated that only 1 out of the total production of a lifetime of 40,000,000 seeds from a particular parent plant will grow to maturity. Those are not very good odds…

Back to Southwestern wildflowers…

Near the Saguaro cactus location where we stopped to take pictures, we noticed a number of Arctostaphylo species or Manzanita bushes. There are more than 100 species of Manzanita in the West and Southwest, and I am clueless about which species it is that we photographed. The interesting thing, though, about the ones we photographed is that they managed to survive a scorching fire. If you look closely, you will see that a portion of the trunk of the plant is still alive (reddish-brown) while the remainder of the plant is dead (gray). It must have developed this ability to survive ground fires over eons, enabling it to continue to thrive on the mountain sides:

Manzanita with fruit

Close to the Manzanita and downslope was an Agave chrysantha or Goldenflower Century Plant. The flowers are held high, about 15 feet (5 meters) above the rosette of thick, fleshy leaves. We had seen a number of these in bloom but were unable to stop to photograph them:

Goldenflower Century Plant

In our travels at the foot of the mountain ranges, we saw a large number of a white-flowered plants called Datura wrightii or Sacred Datura, Jimsonweed, and Sacred Thorn-apple. It is sometimes used as a hallucinogen. D. wrightii is classified as a deliriant and an anticholinergic. Settlers in California often called it “Indian whiskey” because of its ritual intoxicating use by many tribes; the name “sacred datura” has the same origin.

According to Wikipedia, “D. wrightii is sacred to some Native Americans and has been used in ceremonies and rites of passage by Chumash, Tongva, and others. Among the Chumash, when a boy was 8 years old, his mother gave him a preparation of momoy to drink. This was supposed to be a spiritual challenge to the boy to help him develop the spiritual wellbeing required to become a man. Not all of the boys survived. The Zuni people also use the plant for ceremonial and magical purposes. The root pieces are chewed by a robbery victim to determine the identity of the thief. The powdered root is used by rain priests in a number of ways to ensure fruitful rains.

D. wrightii has also been used to induce hallucination for recreational purposes. Ingestion of plant material can induce auditory and visual hallucinations similar to those of Datura stramonium [the true Jimsonweed], with the active compounds being concentrated in the seed pods and roots; concentrations vary widely between samples, and onset is slow. This makes dosage estimation difficult and adds further risk to the administration of material that already has potentially lethal side effects.”

Following are some images of the 5-inch wide (12.5 cm) flowers. I find the buds to be intriguing. The intricate folds and curves are very graceful and pleasing to the eye:

Sacred Datura

Sacred Datura flower bud

Sacred Datura plant

These plants were very common in the areas we visited. We were very mindful of their poisonous nature and didn’t chew on any of the plant parts. 😉

One last flower from the Santa Catalina Mountains — Geranium caespitosum or Cranesbill:


Now, back to the Chiricahua Mountains. We spent two days in the area, so that’s why there are an inordinate number of wildflower images from there. Here is one that really stood out in the crowd, Erysimum capitatum or Wheeler’s wallflower — quite unlike the type of person that has become associated with its name:

Wheeler's wallflower

In low-growing patches scattered here and there, were the bright pinkish-purple flowers of Glandularia bipinnatifida var. ciliata or Mexican Vervain:

Mexican Vervain

Another flowering plant that we saw large numbers of is Penstemon barbatus or Bearded Penstemon. Its bright orange-red flowers attract hummingbirds by the hundreds:

Bearded Penstemon Bearded Penstemon

Two other wildflowers in the same general vicinity are Geranium richardsonii or Richardson’s Geranium (below left) and Monarda citriodora var. astromontana or Lemon Beebalm (below right):

Richardson's Geranium Bearded Penstemon

Along the edge of the road in the Huachuca Mountains, we found two more red flowering plants — the first of which is Heuchera sanguinea or Coralbells:


and Silene laciniata or Cardinal catchfly:

Cardinal catchfly

At the base of a fallen, burned tree, we discovered this red beauty — Monotropa hypopitys or Pinesap. We have this species in the East, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any as red as this one:


Pinesap Pinesap

There are so many red flowers in the Sky Islands of Arizona that it boggles my mind.

Well, you made it this far, so I guess it wasn’t so bad. The color and variety of wildflowers in what is assumed to be the “desert” land of Arizona, blows the mind. Who knew? Why have Arizonans been keeping this a secret for so long? Now the cat is out of the bag. Maybe you will rethink vacationing in the Southwest — well except for the flash floods during the monsoon season… but that is when the flowers bloom!



  • JIm

    Hurricane Newton (now tropical storm) is dumping on the region now. Good thing the conference was done a month ago.

    September 07, 2016
  • sonnia hill

    So glad you updated your blog. Now, to flickr to fave them. So many bright colours. I love the Eryngium lemmonii and the landscapes.

    September 07, 2016
  • Luella Landis

    Lovely! Beautiful photos of beautiful flowers!
    Thank you for sharing.

    September 08, 2016
  • Meng

    Glad you finally put those together a blog entry! So many beautiful species I have never seen before.

    September 09, 2016
  • As always a super set of plants, unknown to me. The technical quality is astounding. I’d love to know which edit programme you use !

    September 10, 2016
  • Tom Mirenda

    An overdue comment,….loved this! especially since I missed the conference this year….I spent some time at the Southwestern Research station in the Chiracahua mountains back in my college years as my brother was working there studying army ants….it is an amazing place with lots a great fauna as well as flora….and some spectacular spelunking too….what a place! need to revisit very soon…thanks for reminding me of its glory.

    December 11, 2016

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