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Just Add Water: Annual Wildflowers in the Chihuahuan Desert

Prairie evening primroses dot a pasture near Fort Davis, Texas.

My friend, John Karges, and I were talking yesterday about the amazing spring that we’re having. He laughed and said “Add water and the desert will stir itself.”

How true.

We’ve had an extraordinarily wet winter and spring this year. Deep, soaking rains and frequent snow (and ice) storms encouraged a wildflower display that few can remember ever seeing in the Chihuahuan Desert region. Big Bend bluebonnets create a blue haze on the hillsides; the delicate, white petals of prairie evening primrose look like a tissue-box explosion in pastures; and mustard plants emit a perfume so sweet it’s cloying at times.

Big Bend Bluebonnets along the River Road in Presidio County Texas.

Even the stems of the cacti are so swollen with water they look like they’re going to burst. Instead, they’ve burst with flowers, dozens of blossoms covering a single plant.

The desert is in bloom. It’s a marvelous sight to behold.

Mustard wildflowers carpet a pasture in the Chihuahuan Desert near Marathon, Texas.

But where do all these flowers come from?

Most of the time, the Chihuahuan Desert is a pretty harsh environment. It’s dry (especially in the winter) and the rain that we do receive tends to come in the summer during highly localized thunderstorms that may drench one spot but leave a broad area dry as a bone.

To cope with the heat and the unpredictable precipitation patterns, desert plants have an amazing array of adaptations aimed at holding on to moisture: small leaves, fine hairs that protect the leaf surface, and a splendidly specialized photosynthetic process.

But during years like this one, we’re reminded of the most amazing adaptation of all: being an humble annual.

Annual plants are those that go from seed to seed in a very short time. When conditions aren’t favorable, the seed just doesn’t sprout. It sits in the soil, waiting for the perfect combination of moisture and warmth that will increase its chances of survival.

Dense patches of the annual wildflower curvepod scrambled eggs were common at higher elevations in the Chihuahuan Desert.

This life cycle isn’t unusual—in fact, approximately 13% of the world’s flora consists of annuals. But if you look at the flora of a typical desert, you’ll find something very different. In the aridlands of the world, annuals can make up 40% or more of the desert flora. Think about it. Nearly half of the plants growing in a desert won’t even make an appearance until there’s some hope of surviving long enough to be pollinated and set seed.

The seed of many desert annuals can survive for years—decades even—before the conditions are perfect for growth. On occasion, they get fooled, though. A good soaking rain followed by heat, wind, and dry conditions may spell doom for an overeager annual.  Long-term survival depends on mechanisms that discourage a portion of seed from growing even when conditions are just right.

But sometimes, spring conditions are just too favorable for any plant to remain snug in its seed jacket. This is one of those years. Good rains and warm day-time temperatures have encouraged the growth of hundreds of thousands of annuals. Early in the spring, clay flats in the Big Bend region were covered with turtleback—its gray-green leaves and cream-colored flowers forming a soft carpet across the landscape. Stands of lyreleaf twistflower (you’ve just got to love the name) sent their spikes of purple, urn-shaped flowers above the grasses, and curvepod scrambled eggs had even the plant enthusiasts scratching their heads. Where did they all come from?

Naked turtleback creates a green haze in the Chihuahuan Desert of Big Bend National Park, Texas.


Naked turtleback in the clay flats of Big Bend National Park, Texas.

The desert is truly spectacular this year and every week it changes. We’re still getting rain, so the show will go on. If you’ve been putting off your annual pilgrimage to the Chihuahuan Desert, it’s time to quit procrastinating, pack your camping gear, and come on out. This truly may be a once in a lifetime experience.

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