Wild Ride on a Roller Coaster, Spring 2023

Posted May 31, 2023

by Jillian Cowles

What an incredible spring this has been! Reflecting back upon the millions of wildflowers I have seen, it has been difficult to organize the material into something smaller than the Encyclopedia Britannica. Finally, I decided to divide up the material into regions. Picture a compass, with Tucson in the middle. We will be chasing a progression of wildflowers starting in February and running through May: first North-west (Picacho Peak). Additional posts will then go West (Ironwood Forest), then East (Rincon Mountain foothills), and last of all South (Santa Cruz County).

The desert is a land of contrasts: hot and cold, blinding sunlight and deep shade, delicate ephemerals and enduring rocks, tiny belly flowers and towering saguaros. So, fasten your seat belts for a wildflower ride.

Part 1, Northwest: Picacho Peak, February and March.

In over 45 years of living in southern Arizona, I had never seen Picacho Peak’s poppies in bloom. Between a brutal work schedule and over a decade of drought, I had given up on ever seeing the poppies on Picacho Peak. So, you can imagine how I felt when I first saw them this year, after an excellent winter rainfall. It was early morning in late February. Only about a dozen people were quietly walking on the trails, speaking in hushed tones as though they were in church. The Mexican gold poppies (Eschscholzia californica ssp. mexicana) were gradually opening as the sun rose higher. None had been trampled yet. As each of the millions of poppies fully opened, they reflected a radiant light. It was as though I were standing among a million tiny suns. Photographs can only hint at the beauty. It made me wish that Vincent van Gogh were still alive; perhaps he could have captured the intensity of the colors.

The east end of the park near the entrance had rivers of gold poppies flowing down from the slopes and pooling on the flats. A few lupines (Lupinus sparsiflorus) and patches of purple scorpionweed (Phacelia crenulata) provided occasional contrast.

But at the west end of the park, near Sunset Vista Trailhead, a reef of rock towered over slopes that were splashed with almost solid patches of gold poppies and blue lupines. And at the far end of the park was a sea of blue lupines.

Subsequent visits to the park in early March were still lovely. There even was a sure sign of spring: a western diamondback rattlesnake enjoying the warmth of the March sun. Unfortunately, the nice spring temperatures brought out more humans as well. By mid-March, the crowds had trampled numerous paths among the poppies. It was time to move on.

Interlude: Snow. March 2. On March 2 I woke up to snow! What the heck?! Six inches of snow in the Rincon foothills broke palo verde branches, but also provided a nice, deep soak to the wildflowers of the desert.