It's a bloomin' good year for wildflowers

Colorful blossoms are popping up all over the Valley

Purple lupines and yellow poppies brighten an intersection near Bartlett Lake during spring 2019’s “super bloom.” The reservoir in the Tonto National Forest northeast of Phoenix draws wildflower enthusiasts from around the state.
Purple lupines and yellow poppies brighten an intersection near Bartlett Lake during spring 2019’s “super bloom.” The reservoir in the Tonto National Forest northeast of Phoenix draws wildflower enthusiasts from around the state.
[Lisa Manifold/Special to Independent Newsmedia]

Shirley Ramaley is wild about wildflowers.

Every spring, the West Valley retiree packs up her camera and her hiking gear, and hits trails across the greater Phoenix area in search of the colorful blooms that herald the desert’s transition from winter to summer

“I love the outdoors,” Ms. Ramaley said. “I have a B.S. in biology, and anything having to do with nature is what I enjoy. Wildflowers are beautiful and I prefer painting them, in watercolor, over any other subject.”

Ramaley, who has had numerous nature photographs published in children’s magazines over the years, said she goes in search of her colorful subjects about twice a week during wildflower season in the Sonoran Desert, which kicks off in February and typically peaks in mid- to late March.

Her favorite blooms? Poppies and owl’s clover. Her favorite places to see wildflowers? White Tank Mountains Regional Park, Lake Pleasant Regional Park and Bartlett Lake in the Tonto National Forest.

“I used to go to Peridot Mesa (in San Carlos), but gave up due to all the broken bottles in the poppy fields,” Ms. Ramaley said.
Lisa Manifold, an award-winning nature photographer who relocated to the East Valley from Southern California in 2018 to be near her first love, the Salt River horses, also spends much of the spring season scouring the landscape for wildflower photo ops.

“Spring, winter’s demise, colors the land east of Phoenix with vibrant blues, purples, yellows, oranges and pinks,” she said. “Pink mallow, pink-hued poppies, vibrant blue lupines, golden brittle bush and so much more!”

Her favorite blooms? Prickly poppy. Her favorite places to search for wildflowers? The Superstition Mountains, the road to Tortilla Flats (Canyon Lake), Desert Botanical Garden, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Usery Mountain Regional Park, Gilbert Riparian Preserve, Tonto National Forest; Peralta Trail in Gold Canyon, Roosevelt Lake and Bartlett Lake.

Predicting the season

Some years, like the “super blooms” of 2017 and 2019, hillsides and fields across the desert are covered in wildflowers as far as the eye can see. Other years, it’s more sparse, a pop of purple and orange here, a streak of pink or yellow there.

Angelica Elliott, Desert Botanical Garden’s assistant director of public horticulture, said two factors, rainfall and soil temperatures, typically determine what kind of wildflower season an area will experience.

For a spectacular year, the desert needs about an inch of rain per month from October to January or February, she said.

“We had a decent amount of rainfall starting in November,” Ms. Elliott said, noting that while the 2020 wildflower season won’t likely feature the thick carpets of blooms that highlighted last year’s season, she expects a good showing around the valley.

“We’ll probably have ‘throw rugs,’ those little pockets of wildflowers,” she said.

The season also should feature showings by blooms like the ajo lily, that don’t always make an appearance each year. Also known as the desert lily, the ajo lily features tall stalks with large, elegant white blooms similar to Easter lilies. Ajo lilies are primarily found in sand dunes and sandy washes in Arizona and Southern California, including the White Tank Mountains in the West Valley.

Ms. Elliott said enthusiasts also should be on the lookout for two other blooms that don’t make regular annual appearances: ghost flowers and orobanche.

Ghost flowers, so-called for their translucent, cream-colored blooms dotted with burgundy, can be found in and around washes and on rocky slopes below 2,500 feet.

Orobanche, a parisitic plant also known as desert broomrape, looks like a mushroom before flowering dark purple, Ms. Elliott said. It can be found in sandy flats throughout the state.

How long will they stay? The length of this year’s wildflower season will depend on whether it rains in March, and how quickly daytime temperatures hit and stay in the high 70s to 80s.

“If it stays relatively cool, that will extend the season,” Ms. Elliott said.

Higher temperatures trigger the plants to stop flowering and produce seeds to ensure the next generation of blooms.
Regardless of the quantity of blooms and the length of the season, Ms. Elliott encourages people to take advantage of the nice weather to get out and explore during wildflower season.

“Just go out into our Sonoran Desert,” she said. “We have beautiful vistas, beautiful wildlife and beautiful plants.”

Kelly O’Sullivan can be reached at or 760-963-1697.