What’s That Flower?  Part 1

The Chihuahuan Desert is not the barren place many expect it to be.  There are many flowers blooming during all seasons except winter.  The flower shown below is Trailing Four-O’Clock (Allionia incarnata).  This flower can be seen blooming all over the park in September.

001 Hueco Tanks - 018 Picnic 12 Trailing Four O'clock (Allionia incarnata) - Version 2.jpg

Because there are so many different flowers blooming, we have chosen to organize this presentation according to the time of blooming.  There are some flowers that you may see blooming at times we have not noted.  Since we do a lot of traveling we are not always aware when some of them start blooming.


The main plants that start blooming early in the year are in the Mustard family.  The white-flowered one pictured here can be found all over the park.  The other really early bloomer is Tansy Mustard, which has very lacy leaves with tiny yellow flowers.


In the spring, the main flowers you see blooming are the cacti and the Ocotillos.  There are other flowers that bloom then, too.  One of the prettiest is the Mexican Buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa).  Mexican Buckeye is a small tree that grows scattered through the park, frequently up on the rocks.  It blooms in early- to mid-April, setting fruit very quickly.

Feathered Dalea (Dalea formosa)  can be seen blooming in mid-April.  It is a small shrub which is covered in bright purple and yellow flowers, followed by the feathery seed pods that give the plant its name.  Once the seeds develop, the bush looks rather like a gray cloud.  Apache Plume, with flowers that look like single white roses is an April bloomer.

At the beginning of April we have seen several other great flowers blooming.  The prickleleaf dogweed that blooms in summer and fall has also been blooming in early April.  We have in 2015 become acquainted with Western Peppergrass, which looks a lot like Sweet Alyssum, Fendler’s Penstemon, Trumpet Slimpod, and Wooly Bluestar.  Other flowers we have seen in very early April include Pale Trumpets, Wooly Locoweed, Canaigre (also known as Dock or Desert Rhubarb, Spectacle PodRose Heath, which is actually a daisy, and Fleabane Daisy.  It seems like there is something new blooming every day in April.  Additional flowers we have seen include Yellow Indian Blanket, Sand-Bell, Tansy Aster with it’s brilliant purple flowers, Dakota Vervain, James Rush-pea, and Riddell’s Ragwort.  Starting in late April we’ve been seeing many yellow daisies blooming, some of which are chronicled elsewhere.  One which we have not previously mentioned is the Desert Marigold (not closely related to the garden flowers we know as marigolds).

One flower that we’ve seen blooming in Newspaper Cave since late March, which was a surprise to us is the 10-petal Anemone.  It is native.  Clearly April is an exciting month for wildflowers.


Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata) can be seen blooming over a long period, starting in May.  It produces the fuzzy seed pods also visible in the picture.  It will continue to bloom sporadically almost continuously through the summer, depending on the amount of rain.  Creosote bush is possibly the most common plant in the desert.  It is called ‘Gobernadora’ in Spanish, because it regulates how close other plants grow to it.  Another interesting fact is that when you live in the desert you know when it starts to rain because the air is scented in a unique way.  It turns out that the scent is from Creosote Bush.  When you are near a Creosote Bush you can test this out by cupping your hands around some leaves, breathing on the leaves and then inhaling.  Creosote Bush has also been very useful to the pre-modern native populations as a source of pharmaceuticals.  

Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis) and the Mexican Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia mexicana) can be found blooming at the same time, although the Desert Willow will continue to bloom throughout the summer.  The Mexican Bird of Paradise was probably planted deliberately; it does not occur naturally in this area.  Other flowers blooming in early may can be seen in the photo album.

The Buffalo Gourd, (Cucurbita  foetidissima) will also  start blooming  around mid-May.  It is a large vine with gray, arrowhead shaped leaves which is related to cucumbers and squash.  The leaves apparently emit a rather unpleasant odor when anything brushes against it.  Most animals will not eat the fruit because it is very bitter.  The plant and its fruit contain a type of steroid compound that causes the bitterness and makes the plants toxic to animals that consume it.  The fruits can kill sheep and cattle that feast on it.  However, cucumber beetles can and do eat seedlings of the vine.  The nasty-smelling compounds in the plants render the beetles foul-tasting to birds and others that might want to eat them.  The only parts of the plant that do not have the bitter compounds are the flowers and the seeds.  Native Americans roasted and ate the seeds; they also used the gourd rinds for containers and bowls in the days before pottery was available.

Cat Claw Acacia (Acacia greggii) is another mid-May bloomer.  The flowers don’t look like much, but they have a beautiful scent.  But beware of getting too close: this tree has small, curved thorns which give the tree its name, and they will scratch you and get caught in your clothes.

The Mustard family (radishes, broccoli, mustard are examples) is well represented in the park.  One we have been able to identify is Spectacle Pod, named for it’s distinctive seed pods.  This photo was taken on the Pond Trail in the Mesquite forest area.  Here is a close-up photo, showing the seed pods.

Wright’s False Mallow can also be seen blooming at this time.  The flowers look very much like the Globemallows that grow all over the park.  This one is not native to the area; it is considered an invasive alien.

Four-wing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens) can be seen blooming all over the park at this time.  This is a shrub that has both male and female plants.  The female plants will later bear the characteristic four-wing fruits.

Other shrubs such as the several Sumac species in the park also bloom in the spring.  These have small, inconspicuous flowers; their fruits are much more visible. Check the photo album for more May bloomers.


In June the long parade of yellow daisies starts.  The first one we encountered is a tiny one, the Prickle-leaf Dogweed (Thymophilla acerosa).  This one will continue blooming on into the fall.  It is a tiny plant.

Another June bloomer is the Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata) .  This is one of the plants that was very useful to native people who came to this area, as a source of soap or shampoo, and as a source of fibers for various uses.  The Soaptree Yucca can be recognized by its fine, narrow leaves, edged with white.  There is no other yucca that looks quite like it.  It does not bloom every year.

One of the prolific spring bloomers is the Chocolate Daisy (Berlandiera lyrata), which can be found along the pond trail in the areas near the big cottonwood trees and where the chain trail branches off.

The Seepwillow (Baccharis salicifolia) is a shrub with masses of small white flowers and narrow, willow-like leaves that grows in areas where one can find standing water at times.  Even when the desert is dry you can tell where water accumulates because you see these shrubs.  They also bloom in June.

On the path to Tabloid Pass we came across Range Rattany (Krameria erecta), a small shrub with bright purple flowers.

Nearby we saw a plant with yellow flowers, called Scrambled Eggs (Corydalis aura).  This plant lives for only a year.  A close-up photo shows the distinctive flowers.


At this point we will skip to the flowers we see blooming in August (we have not spent much time in the park in July, but many of the August bloomers start in July).  The rainiest season here is July and August, so the park continues to have lots of flowers blooming.

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In August one of the first flowers we saw was Poison Milkweed (Asclepias subverticillata), which can be found in wetter areas.  These flowers are very attractive to wasps, bees and beetles.

In wetter areas one can also find Texas Frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora), with its distinctive small flower heads, which forms a ground cover.  The plant is known by other names in other parts of the country.

Gray Globemallow (Sphaeralcea incana) can be seen blooming everywhere in the park from June through September.  These plants can be as much as two feet tall.  They are related to Hollyhocks and Hibiscus, both of which are familiar to most people.    

Velvet Leaf Senna (Senna lindheimeriana) starts blooming in August, and can be seen throughout the park, including on the rocks.

A plant you can see blooming in several locations, which is not native to the area, is Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii).  It has huge, white trumpet-shaped flowers, and spiny fruits.  The entire plant is poisonous.  This one was seen growing out of a rock on the path to Cave Kiva.

A daisy we saw blooming in August was Sand Groundsel (Senecio flaccida).  This one was spotted growing out of the rocks over by Comanche Cave.


So now it’s September, and the yellow daisies are everywhere.

A prominent example of these is Snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae), which is covered with tiny daisy flowers, and blooms throughout September and October.

The next example is Woolly Paper Flower (Psilotrophe tagetina).

Skeleton-leaf Goldeneye (Viguiera stenoloba) can be seen growing in very dry areas.  This is another plant with smaller flowers.

Golden Aster (Heterotheca villosa) is a larger plant that can be seen in many areas of the park.  This photo was taken near Cave Kiva.

There are many other varieties of yellow daisies in the park that we have not yet been able to identify.

We will also put a caveat here to tell you that while many of these identifications are certain, some of them are not.

So now, on to other types of flowers that can be seen in September.  The first on our list is Tepary Bean (Phaseolus acutifolia), a vining plant with three-part leaves.

Spreading Fanpetals (Sida abutifolia) can be found in many locations in the park.  It is related again to Hibiscus and Hollyhock, but this plant has a trailing growth habit. 

Shrubby Wild Buckwheat (Eriogonum wrightii) is one of the edible plants in the park.  This photo was taken near Comanche Cave; there is a huge specimen growing at the entrance to Newspaper Cave (Site 17).

There is a big stand of Rock Sage (Salvia pinquifolia) growing in Tabloid Pass.  This flower is attractive to many types of insects.  The plant belongs to the same family as mint.  If you rub the leaves between your fingers you will find that they are aromatic. 

010 Hueco Tanks - 011 Warty Caltrop (Kallstroemia parviflora) - Version 3.jpg

The plant pictured above is an example of why plant identification can be very confusing.  The flowers aren’t anything special, but the leaves look a lot like the Velvet-leaf Senna pictured earlier.  However, it turns out that it is not a Senna; it is Warty Caltrop (Kalistroemia hirsutissima), and related to… would you believe Creosote Bush, the governor of the desert?  That was a huge surprise to us.

One of the most surprising finds has been Drummond’s Clematis (Clematis drummondii), which we have seen growing in the campground area, near West Mountain, and on the Pond Trail.  It does not look like the cultivated types of Clematis except for the stamens, which is what gave its identity away.  It blooms from May to September.

Melon Loco (Apodanthera undulate) is a vine we’ve seen in several areas of the park.  In case you think you are looking at an escaped Zucchini, you are close.  It is in the same family.  The fruit looks like a small gourd, and is apparently poisonous.

Not too far away from where we first saw the Melon Loco, we found this Desert Tobacco (Nicotiana obtusifolia v. obtusivolia).  It is native to the area and is a woody perennial.  The tubular flowers that are flared at the end are characteristic of tobacco.

Mosquito Plant (Agastache cana) is another member of the mint family.  It grows in wetter areas.  We have seen it near Laguna Prieta, near the Upside Down Tlaloc, and at Comanche Cave, which is where this photo was taken.

The next flower is Scarlet Spiderling (Boerhaavia coccinea), which has a trailing growth habit and clusters of tiny magenta flowers.  The photo following is of Creeping Spiderling (Boerhaavia spicata).  There are actually flowers in the photo, clusters of tiny lavendar-pink flowers that are difficult to see against the background.

We found the Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja) growing up on the rocks in many locations, blooming in September.

After the rains one can see Red Morning Glory vines everywhere in the park, along with another showy bloomer, the Desert Four O’Clock.  And last, but not least, in September one can see Feverfew, or Lyreleaf Parthenium, with its masses of white flowers growing all over the park.

The remainder of the year will be covered in Part 2.  Part 2 will discuss fruits as well as flowers.


© Susan L. Stone 2015                   rovingstones@me.com