In the spring, the desert around Las Vegas can erupt with a riot of colors and forms during the wildflower bloom. Every spring brings at least a few flowers, but in a good year, the desert can be carpeted with flowers. Good and bad years depend on rain, and the best flowers occur during years when there was several inches of rain during the preceding fall. It is always worth getting outdoors during March and April to take a look, but in years when there was good rain during October and November, don't miss it. When visiting the desert it is not often the quantity of blooms, but more often the quality. You might have to look a little closer, walk a little more and look among the rocks to find the treasures but I can promise you it will be worth the effort. This year I decided to focus on the Valley of Fire; these are a few of my finds. I hope you enjoy.
Desert Marigolds are one of the most conspicuous spring wildflowers across the arid lands of the southwest. They begin to flower in March and will continue to bloom off and on until November. Rain triggers additional rounds of flowering. They commonly grow on stony slopes and sandy plains and mesas and are most abundant on roadsides, where they may form dense yellow carpets. They range in elevation from 100 to 6500 feet. Their drought tolerance and long flowering season have made the desert marigold a popular plant in the horticultural world. Like many common names, “marigold” originated from the corruption of a foreign phrase. In this case, the original term was the Anglo-Saxon “merse-mear-gealla” or “marsh-horse-gowl” — the “marsh marigold.” Marigolds came to be associated with the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages, and the word is often said to be derived from “Mary’s Gold.” The term “Baileya” honors Jacob Whitman Bailey (1811-1857).
This plant stays in bloom the longest of the wildflowers and is part of the sunflower family. It can bloom for up to to six months. This plant can reach three feet tall and has large silvery leaves. During the summer, the leaves dry and fall away leaving only stems. The stems were burned and used as incense by the early Spanish explorers because of its unique sweet smell.
Inconspicuous most of the year, Desert Globemallow covers the desert with orange flowers during the spring bloom. Look carefully in the distance and you will see the whole hillside is covered with the orange blooms. Flowers are orange to red and radial, with a clump of stamens in the center. Globemallow is an upright with stems arising from the base. The plant blooms profusely in the spring and occasionally at other times of year after wet weather. The bright orange flowers are 1 ½ inches in diameter, goblet shaped and grow in clusters along the upper stems of the plant. Desert Globemallow are browsed by bighorn sheep and the flowers often attract bees. The leaves are pale greenish, three-lobed, crinkled, and covered with dense, fine gray hairs. Globemallow is a common component of desert scrub communities on flats and bajadas. The belief that the hairs of the plant are irritating to the eyes has given the name ‘sore-eye poppy’ and “mal de ojo.”
Creosote bushes are thought to include the oldest individual plants on earth. This species grows from seeds and by cloning, and some clones in southern California have been carbon dated to about 11,000 years old. This species gives the desert a characteristic musky odor after summer rains. After summer thunderstorms (localized, heavy rain storms), you can see patches or bands of bright green creosote bush stretching out across the landscape where it rained, while the surrounding landscape remains brown. The strong scent of a Creosote Bush hints at its chemical makeup and its medicinal value to the native peoples of the Southwest. Tribes used the bush as an antibiotic. A dry powder was made from leaves and used as an effective antibacterial agent for cuts, burns and abrasions. Concoctions and teas were used to treat ailments such as rheumatism, constipation, and cramps while inhaling the boiled vapors was thought to relieve respiratory ailments.
For most of the year, Fremont's Dalea (Psorothamnus fremontii) is a leafless, bone-white, many branched, mid-sized, tortured-looking shrub (like it had been stomped on and twisted up). During the spring, however, the plant makes up for it by putting on many pinnately compound leaves and big showy displays of brilliant violet-blue pea flowers. The Indigo Bush grows on dry hills and in valleys, from 2000 to 4000 feet elevation. It is a finely branched, small shrub, growing 1 to 4 feet tall. The intense, violet-blue flowers make a striking contrast with the red soil of the Valley of Fire. With velvety, royal bluish/purple flowers, the Indigo Bush deserves its other name, the “Desert Beauty”.
About a foot tall at maturity, Trailing Dalea will spread with runners from 4 to 6 feet wide. The purple spring and early summer flowers contrast the gray-green foliage and look stunning against the red dirt of the Valley of Fire. It is often used for low water landscapes in the Southwest.
White Bur-Sage and Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata) are usually considered the two most common shrubs in the Mohave Desert. White Bur-Sage, also known as Burro-Weed, Bursage or Burro-Bush, is one of the least commonly noticed. When the White Bur-Sage stands in a field of flowers, it's the flowers that get the attention, not the shrub, at least when it isn't in bloom. It's the plant hikers step around while on their way to look at something else. When you zoom in however, the flowers are actually very pretty. This plant has both male and female flowers and produces a lot of pollen. Later in the season, the flowers dry up and contain pods with the spikes or burs you can see in the picture.
The Desert Trumpet is a perennial plant of the family Polygonaceae. The plant possesses very small yellow or pink flowers (you can see the tiny yellow flowers if you look closely) and an inflated stem just below branching segments. The swollen stem of the Desert Trumpet is due to high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the solid stem and seems to be related to gas regulation. It is speculated that the inflation may be an adaptation to living in a harsh desert environment. It is known that some Native American tribes that once inhabited the surrounding areas of the Las Vegas Valley (most commonly Paiute) would remove the stalk of Desert Trumpet at the base, and then cut the inflated bulb in half, producing a makeshift pipe. A mixture of Indian Tobacco and Mistletoe would then be smoked.
Although spring and fall are the best, and coolest, times to look for wildflowers, they are present in various locations year round. If you visit Las Vegas, consider a trip to the Valley of Fire to take in the scenery.
Desert Wildflower Field Guide: http://www.desertusa.com/wildflo/FieldGuide/fieldguide.html
Flickr Mohave Wildflower Pool: https://www.flickr.com/groups/311372@N20/