As wildflowers blanket the desert valleys and mountainsides, spring is the most beautiful time to experience the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.
February, March, and April provide the best months for viewing the fantastic Arizona wildflower displays, with March being the definite peak.
The variety of flowers is stunning, with desert trees, cactus, and shrubs all providing their own flare to the landscape. This list covers the most common Sonoran Desert wildflowers — and when you’re ready to plan where to go to peep the flowers yourself, check out this article: 6 Excellent Places to See Wildflowers in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert
Common Arizona Wildflowers – Sonoran Desert
Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)
The grand-daddy of Sonoran Desert wildflowers. For most desert flowers, to see fields of them, you must travel to very specific locations. Brittlebush is very common along most hillsides, so brilliant displays can be found in almost any corner of the Arizona desert.
A member of the sunflower family, Brittlebush is typically 2-3 feet tall with blue/gray leaves and thin stalks that can hold dozens of yellow wildflowers on each bush. They don’t like frost, so you will find them of hillsides facing the sun. It’s possible to see these blooming from February until April depending on the location.
Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus)
There are many individual species of this cactus, and are often difficult to tell apart. When I’m out hiking in the desert, I usually lump them all into “hedgehog”. This is a short cactus that forms clusters with dozens column shaped stems. We usually call any hedgehog cactus with red tinged spines as “strawberry Hedgehog”, while yellow tinged spines are called “golden hedgehog.”
The flower is usually pink or purple, with a funnel shape that can be up to 3 inches wide. You can find these in almost any part of the desert, on hillsides and on valley floors alike. The hedgehog cactus usually blooms from mid-March into early-April.
Mexican Gold Poppy (Escholtzia mexicana)
It’s not every year that this flower blooms, but when it does, it really puts on a show. Perhaps the most famous of the Sonoran Desert wildflowers, it can blanket entire hillsides during banner years. Forming as a small yellow cup made of four petals, this flower is simple yet elegant.
The Mexican Gold Poppy usually grows on rocky hillsides or slopes, and is most typically seen during March. These flowers don’t grow everywhere, so you’ll have to go to specific places like Peridot Mesa, Lost Dutchman State Park, or Picacho Peak to find them. If you wish to see the cup open, you must look for them mid-day because they only open when in direct sunlight.
Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata)
Another beautiful yellow wildflower, the Desert Marigold is somewhat similar to brittlebush in its many stalks growing from one plant. However, the flowers are slightly larger at 2 inches in diameter and have their own distinct beauty. It is not common but possible to see fields of these flowers, and are typically found in sandy soils atop mesas or in desert washes.
Desert Paintbrush (Castilleja integra)
A fan favorite, the brilliant red paintbrush grows wild in a variety environments, not only the Sonoran Desert. This flower is often found growing in close proximity to sagebrush or other desert shrubs as the it is partially parasitic to their root systems.
Chuparosa (Justicia californica)
A messy-looking bush about 5 feet in height that occasionally puts out little red tube-shaped flowers. While most of the most spectacular flowering shrubs make yellow flowers, this one adds a little different flavor when it comes out.
You may start to see these in early February and can go strong through the end of March. It seems to like the rocky hillsides where the brittlebush also thrives. The most fun part of this flower is that you can eat it and it tastes like cucumber!
Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata)
Creosote is one of the larger desert shrub, often standing up to six feet tall. It’s a highly drought tolerant plant that can survive in the hottest and driest of deserts like Death Valley. It emits a strong fragrance when it rains, often called “smell of the desert”.
It also makes tiny, rough-looking yellow flowers through the spring months. Pure stands of creosote in full bloom can turn the parched desert slopes into gold.
Scorpionweed (Phacelia distans) and Bluebells (Phacelia campanularia)
Also known as Blue Phacelia, Wild Heliotrope, and many other names, these two species are easily mistaken for one another, often resulting in arguments among wildflower affecinados. It’s likely safer to call it by its genus, Phacelia.
This is a tiny desert plant that produces tiny, blue cup-shaped flowers. You may see Phacelia in a variety of places such as sandy washes or rocky slopes.
Phacelia is also known for the harsh scent that it emits when crushed, usually by the feet of passing hikers.
Englemann Prickly Pear (Opuntia engelmannii)
With it’s flat, pear shaped green pads, the Englemann Prickly Pear is one of the easiest cactus for desert newcomers to identify. While there are a few species of prickly pear in the Sonoran Desert, this one is the most common.
However, it does tend to grow at higher elevations so you will only see them rarely among the sea of teddy bear cholla, saguaro, and buckhorn. Climb the neighboring mountainsides, and they are much more common.
These flowers are yellow and cup shaped, and shown themselves in from late March to early May. Venture out in early summer to see their sweet pink fruit.
Buckhorn and Staghorn Cholla (Opuntia Cylindropuntia)
Named for their branching segments that resemble the antlers of a male deer, these two species are common throughout the Sonoran Desert at almost any elevation.
Staghorn (Opuntia versicolor) often show a purple tone on the normally green segments, but Buckhorn (Opuntia acanthocarpa) can have this coloring as well. Buckhorn have a larger range, growing throughout the Sonoran Desert, while Staghorn only grow in the desert surrounding Tucson and down into Mexico.
To truly tell the difference between the two, the flowers are actually the best method! Inside the flower are little string-like fibers called filaments, which hold up a yellow cap called the anther. The Buckhorn has red filaments, while the Staghorn has green/yellow filaments. The actual color of the cactus petals have a broad range: yellow, red, pink, purple, apricot.
Giant Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea)
The saguaro cactus is the undisputed symbol of the Sonoran Desert, and a prominent icon for the state of Arizona. Growing upwards of 25 feet tall, and often containing dozens of upreaching arms, this cactus is a sight to behold.
Saguaro cactus flowers are big white flowers that grow on the ends of green stems. These stems grow from atop of the arms of the cactus itself, so to seem them up-close, you must get uphill from a blooming saguaro. Each flower blooms for an average of 24 hours, so don’t expect to come back the next day to snag a photo! Blooming season for the saguaro is typically April and May.
Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia bigelovii)
Frank Lloyd Wright called the Teddy Bear Chola the “dangerous blonds of the desert”. With their dark body and bright tops, these cactus look cuddly from a distance, but you don’t want to snuggle with them. They have barbed spines that snag onto passing humans and animals alike, hence the term “jumping cactus”, so you’ll need extra caution when viewing flowers up close.
While similar in form to the other flowers of the Opuntia genus, the Teddy Bear have white color with a green tinge that makes them quite unique. Come along in April after a wet year see them in force on the rocking slopes of dry desert mountains.
Cover photo courtesy of: Jake Case