Early Summer in Phoenix

It’s easy to think of Phoenix in terms of familiar desert scenes with hot sun and lots of sand. The Sonoran Desert doesn’t look like the Sahara. Only 40 percent of Arizona is desert. Flagstaff, 140 miles north of here, gets more than 100 inches of snow in the winter. The Mogollan rim has more Ponderosa pines than Maine.

But here in the desert,  we have a large variety of small-leaved trees that make early summer–late April to the end of May–green and beautiful.

So if you think that Phoenix looks only like this:

Or like this:

You are missing some amazing parts of early summer. There are yuccas and agaves that shoot up

long spikes of flowers. When the spike is finished blooming, the plant dies and a new one takes its place. The spike is about 20 feet tall.

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We also have ocotillos, a cactus that looks like a collection of long sticks. The octotillo has small round leaves that fall off when the heat and drought get too much for it. Give it a good rainfall and the leaves come back quickly. In the spring, the ocotillo develops orange-red flowers that last almost a month. An octotillo looks like a bunch of candles in the yard.

The desert willow has purple flowers that look like orchids. They bloom in April and May when the lacy leaves are still light green. The desert willow has long, draping branches that catch the wind.

Our palo verde trees have green trunks. The tiny leaves falls off in the heat, so the tree has evolved to photosynthesize through the trunk and branches. The palo verde and sweet acacia drop tiny leaves and pollen that drifts. Older sections of town have flood irrigation from the canals. Some of the water runs into the streets and washes the pollen away Some days we have just a bit of pollen:

And some days we have so much that it fills the gutters and puddles in the streets.


Here is a green pollen-pool that looks like a leaf:

This time of year the roses are in bloom. They will start to bloom in March and bloom through early May.

Once we get regular 100-degree days , the roses go dormant. We had our first 100-degree day on the first of April. We haven’t had one since, and I’m grateful. We normally hit 100 degrees in early May.

After the hard freeze we had in late January and early February, a lot of trees died. It’s nice to see them coming back from the root. This one will be blooming again next year.

This time of year is wonderful. The nights are cool and the days are warm–well, OK, hot. The migratory birds have left to go back north, but we have hummingbirds, finches, gila woodpeckers and great horned owls that stay around all year.

The state has a huge diversity of ecosystems. Come visit and enjoy them before it gets too hot. And Happy Earth Day!

Quinn McDonald is a writer and naturalist who lives in Phoenix.

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