Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Posts tagged “cactus

More Spring Wildflowers (this time with spines!)

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A clump of hedgehog cacti (Pediocactus nigrispinus) blooming in the deserts of central Washington

One of our favorite times of year when living in southern Utah was late spring, when the desert would come alive with a wide variety of vibrantly colored cactus blossoms (which were soon followed by delicious fruits that made superb sauces, beer, and margaritas!) Central Washington is a bit lacking in the cacti-department, but we do actually have a few species that can put on a springtime show if you know where to look. 

The most widespread species is the Columbia Prickly Pear (Opuntia columbiana), however I’ve yet to see any flowers. I am beginning to suspect that this species blooms only in certain years with the proper moisture conditions, though I haven’t been able to confirm this. 

Another species, a variety of hedgehog cactus (Pediocactus nigrispinus), is harder to find, but quite reminiscent of the stout barrel cacti of Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. Once more common in central Washington, Pediocactus nigrispinus has sadly been the target of illegal collecting and poaching, reducing its numbers to the point that it is now a threatened species here in Washington. We’ve run across patches of this cactus on two recent hikes, and the second time we were delighted to find many of the buds in bloom. This little cactus, robust but generally no more than a few inches high, has electric-pink flowers that really stand out, even when surrounded by tons of other spring flowers on the sagebrush steppe.  

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A hedgehog cactus (Pediocactus nigrispinus) blooming in the deserts of central Washington

And for good measure, a few other flowers from recent excursions:

Large yellow flowers in the sunshine

Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sp.) flowers in the Yakima River Canyon of central Washington. 

 

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Low-growing lupine (Lupinus sp.) in the Yakima River Canyon of central Washington. 

 

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Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sp.) flowers at Steamboat Rock State Park in central Washington. 

Tips on identifying specific balsamroot or lupine species are welcome! There seem to be dozens of different varieties out here, but I sure as heck can’t tell them apart…


Giants of the Desert(s)

Joshua Tree and Star Trails

Joshua Tree and Star Trails

Star trails and high clouds from Jumbo Rocks Campground, Joshua Tree National Park

Driving across the southwestern United States, one could be forgiven for thinking that all deserts are the same. However, differences in elevation, temperature, topography, and precipitation make them distinct in ways that are often hard to comprehend from a fast-moving car.

For all their differences though, both the subtle and the striking, the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts share one thing in common; the most visible symbol of each is a large, majestic, and photogenic plant perfectly suited for the harsh conditions in which it evolved to inhabit.

A spectacular winter sunset at Joshua Tree National Park

A spectacular winter sunset at Joshua Tree National Park

For the Mojave Desert, that plant is the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia). Not actually a tree but rather, as the scientific name betrays, a species of Yucca, early settlers bestowed the befuddling name upon this plant after noticing that the contorted arms resembled the prophet Joshua raising his arms to the sky in prayer.

Today, the Joshua tree is considered an indicator species for the Mojave Desert, as many other inhabitants of the Mojave (two-legged, four-legged, and winged alike) depend on it for survival. The Joshua tree grows through portions of western Arizona, southeastern California, and southern Nevada, but some of the largest and healthiest stands are protected within the boundaries of Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve.

Joshua tree sillhouette at sunset

Sunset colors at Joshua Tree National Park

Sunset colors illuminate the landscape at Joshua Tree National Park

Full moon and joshua tree

A nearly full moon hovers over a Joshua tree at sunset

For the Sonoran Desert, the symbolic plant is the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea). Despite the nearly ubiquitous use of the saguaro as a symbol of the American Southwest, this excruciatingly slow growing cactus actually only grows in a small portion of the Sonoran Desert extending from extreme northwestern Mexico into south-central Arizona.

Sunset at Saguaro National Park

Sunset from the Gould Mine Trail in Saguaro National Park. On the horizon is Kitt Peak, home to one of the largest astronomical observatories in the United States

Like the Joshua tree in the Mojave, the saguaro is an integral part of the Sonoran Desert ecosystem. Birds such as the Gila woodpecker nest within the flesh of the cactus while the fruits and flowers provide a source of food for many other species, including humans. When the end finally comes for a saguaro (which can take well over 100 years), the flesh rots away to reveal an internal structure consisting of a series of wooden ribs, which often remain standing long after the saguaro dies:

Saguaro cactus with ribs showing

A young saguaro mimics a neighbor who has seen better days

Both the saguaro and Joshua tree face serious threats; in the long term from a climate that may change faster than they are able to migrate, and in the short term from a loss of habitat due to rapidly ballooning human populations in the desert regions that these giants inhabit.