SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. - For much of the year, the Sonoran Desert is a drab sea of sand and rocks punctuated in places by giant Saguaro cactus whose green skin is bleached by the relentless sun and heat. But in spring, when the vast expanse soaks up what little moisture it’s afforded each year, North America’s second-largest desert blossoms into a Garden of Eden with rare and beautiful flora that has few equals.
Bright clumps of yellow creosote, thought to be the oldest living plant on Earth, blanket the rocky Sonoran hills in the spring, while smaller flowers, cloaked in vibrant reds, blues, purples, whites and pinks, poke out from under thick brush.
It’s a magical scene appreciated by those who venture out on the vast network of trails that snake through Scottsdale so they can experience the botanical splendour up close.
In all, more than 3,500 native plant species thrive in the Sonoran Desert and the giant Saguaro cactus, which only grows here, is the star of this flower show — its lovely white-and-orange blossom is Arizona’s state flower.
Left: Deep, rich colours carpet the desert in springtime. Right: The harsh Arizona desert is dotted with colour in the spring.
As I walk along the flower-lined trail leading from the Four Seasons Hotel up to Pinnacle Peak, I’m awestruck by the sheer size of the Saguaros, which can reach heights of more than 15 metres. Many of the Saguaros feature multiple arms; a fascinating fact when you consider the giant cactus doesn’t sprout its first appendage until it’s between 50 and 100 years old. The oldest Saguaros are the ones with the drooping arms.
Known as the “camel of plants,” the resilient Saguaro can store more than a ton of water which sees it through the desert’s driest periods.
If the Saguaro is the mightiest of the Sonoran plants, then the Prickly Pear cactus may be the cutest — its round, thick jointed stems sometimes taking the shape of Mickey Mouse ears. The prickly pear blooms with colourful flowers, ranging from cerise to purple to bright yellow, and the juice from its fruit buds produces a refreshing drink as well as syrup and jelly. The meaty flesh is edible and it’s said early settlers relied on the thorny plant for protein.
As I continue my walk along the Four Seasons’ one-kilometre trail I admire the fan-like Agave plant whose leaves blush with several colours — silver grey, bright green and purplish blue. This is the plant from which tequila is produced — maybe that’s why I find it so intoxicating to look at.
Up the trail, I bend down to photograph some Barrel Cactus and hear something slithering in the sand. A small gecko startles me as its darts across my feet and into some thick brush. The lovely Barrel Cactus holds the title as North America’s largest single-stemmed cactus and can grow to three metres in height.
Left: The Arizona desert is full of wonders and colours. Right: Plants stand out against the harsh desert landscape.
Other plant species that visually stimulate me during my walk include:
• The fuzzy Teddy Bear Cholla, which looks cute and cuddly but whose sharp, barbed golden spines deliver a painful pinch if you get too close.
• The Ocotillo, whose whip-like branches are tipped with a bright red flower.
• The golden-flowered Palo Verde, which survives between 300 and 400 years and, despite looking more bush-like in its appearance, is actually Arizona’s state tree.
• The Yucca plant, which bears beautiful white bell-shaped flowers in the spring.
• The Queen of the Night, maybe the most beautiful of all desert plants whose grey, stick-like stems can grow to about one metre. In late spring, it produces silky white flowers and perfumes the desert air with a delicate fragrance that makes a trail walk that much more pleasant.
Some may think a trek in the Sonoran Desert a gruelling task, but in the spring, it’s a walk in the park thanks to the beautiful flora that blooms there.
For information on the network of desert trails offered in the Scottsdale area, go to www.arizonaguide.com / For information on the Scottsdale Four Seasons Hotel and Resort Dessert Trail or to get rates at this 5-star property, go to www.fourseasons.com / Air Canada offers direct flights to Phoenix and the Scottsdale Four Seasons Hotel and Resort is a 40 minute drive away.