May typically brings the peak of wildflower season. But Mother Nature makes no guarantees, perhaps because she delights in surprises. Cabot Yerxa noted as much in his newspaper column in 1957. We hope to enjoy some of the sights — and fragrances — he describes before the calendar moves on to June. The following excerpts come from the museum’s book On the Desert Since 1913.
When rains come in quantity, the desert puts on a very colorful show of bright blossoms over its very many wide stretches of open land. Low-lying desert verbenas cling closely to the shifting sands. Encilia bursts into masses of brilliant yellow as it covers the rocky lower slopes of the Little San Bernardino Mountains surrounding our village. The ocotillo with its flaming red tops are worth the necessary miles of travel to see them in blossom. Mixed in along the encilia, usually on somewhat rocky terrain, will be found the very noticeably large flowers of beavertail cacti.
The sturdy barrel cacti, by far the largest in this desert, put forth a single ring of greenish yellow flowers, like a crown. The creosote, with a more common name of greasewood, is very widely distributed over all our Southwestern deserts. If encouraged by rain, it will fill with small bright blossoms, which stay on for several weeks. These finally change to small white fluffs containing seed, which blow away with the wind, thus starting new bushes elsewhere. The petals drop to the ground and simulate a yellow carpet.
The Indian dye plant puts forth a profusion of bluish purple flowers, which have a very distinctive odor if crushed. Desert chuckwallas, that largest and most interesting of all our lizards, are very fond of these flowers and will climb up among the branches of this bush to obtain them. But when you see a desert indigo bush in full bloom, you will be amazed at its strong blue-colored flowers, which are violet-like in shape. No one can help but being thrilled with the beauty of this bush.
Now I must mention my favorite flowering tree: It is the desert willow. The flowers are bell-shaped, often tinted pale pink, and have a faint, delicate, sweet odor very noticeable in early morning hours.
After rains come, nature will provide very many kinds of flowers in various colors. There will be desert daisies, beautiful white Rafinesque, desert poppies, desert asters, star flowers, thresh plant, desert trumpet, desert sunflowers, evening primrose, wild potato, desert milkweed, coyote melon, palo verde sage, desert mistletoe, Mormon tea, desert sand lilies, and chia.
Do not overlook chia, a quite small, straight, soldier-like, single-stem, blue-button type of flower and seed pot. The plant is usually six to 10 inches tall and produces seeds that are small but of high food value.
As the season progresses, one of the late patches of color is the strikingly deep yellow blossom of thick bladderpod bushes, which are of very noticeable size and are most common along dry watercourses. This bush has a strong, pungent odor, and it is better that you look at them rather than make a bouquet.
Should the season be wet, there will be extensive patches of lupine, with its purple blossoms, said to be poisonous to livestock, but the flowers make a bright show and last for many days.
There are very small, inconspicuous flowers clinging close to the earth called Nama Demissum [purplemat], which grow in very flat, small clusters. The color is a bright, attractive pink.
Among the larger-growing things to have flowers, you will notice the screw bean mesquite, mountain cat claw, wild tobacco plant, and honey mesquite. In favored places, you can observe the Spanish dagger, yucca, and nolina, which attain a height of 8 feet.
If you enjoy flowers and the out of doors, then pull on heavy shoes for short hikes away from the village or your parked automobile. Get out into the desert, kick around in the sand. Examine how desert plants live in a land of little rain. You will be inspired with a new appreciation of the real desert, learn much of interest, find beauty in many things you never can see while sitting on a cushion in an automobile traveling at 45 or more miles per hour, and you also will attain peace of mind.
Cabot Yerxa clearly possessed an uncommon mastery of plant identification. You might want to look up in a book or on the internet what some of the above look like. Knowing the names of what you see may bring an extra thrill of discovery, but most certainly isn’t necessary to enjoy their beauty. If this spring fails to yield a spectacular show, we can always look forward to next spring. Patience is becoming one of our virtues.