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Plants & Animals of the Sonoran Desert

Learn about the unique animals and plants that call Greater Phoenix's Sonoran Desert home, including saguaros, desert tortoises, cactus wrens, agaves and more. 

Depending on the time of year, the Sonoran Desert will put on a show for you. As the wettest desert in the world, it's home to a wide range of plant life — distinct wildflowers, trees, shrubs and, of course, cacti. Take a closer look at what you might encounter out on the trails.

Cactus Blooms

Saguaro blossom: To see Arizona’s state flower put on a show, stay up late. The saguaro’s dramatic creamy-white blossoms open late at night and wilt by mid-afternoon the following day.

Prickly Pear: Easily identifiable and just as tasty, this cactus is named for the fruit it bears. Harvest usually occurs in August, but we recommend exploring this plant's bright pink nectar via a margarita, rather than trying to pick one yourself. 

Ocotillo: A thorny shrub with spiny branches that grows up to 20 feet high, ocotillo looks “dead” most of the year, but after a rain, fireworks of red flowers burst forth, offering food for hummingbirds.

Barrel cactus: This cactus is easily distinguished by its rounded, accordion-like body; older barrels grow up to 10 feet high. Tops are crowned by a ring of yellow, orange or red flowers.

Hedgehog cactus: A petite cactus that grows in clusters with 20 or more stems, with varied species producing brilliant magenta or crimson-red flowers. It’s usually the first Sonoran cactus to bloom.

 

Wildflowers

Desert globemallow: A favorite snack of bighorn sheep, these apricot-orange flowers pop out along the edges of stems. The leaves defend themselves with hairs that have an eye irritant.

Brittlebush: This shrub’s silver-gray foliage hosts a cloud of yellow blooms, often seen in washes along roads. Stems secrete a clear resin that Native Americans used for glue and pain relief.

Fairy duster: Also called Calliandra, this shrub produces wispy pink-orange puffballs pollinated by hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. The plant is an important food source for quail and other birds.

Chuparosa: Known for attracting hummingbirds, which are also important pollinators for this plant, Chuparosa boasts bright red tubular flowers — which are edible!

Poppies: The Mexican Gold poppies are dependent on winter rain. But, if the year is wet enough, spring may reveal these smaller subspecies covering entire hillsides. And what a sight it is.

Marigolds: One of the most conspicuous spring wildflowers across the region is the Desert Marigold. This delicate plant's superpower is shedding its leaves and decreasing its metabolism to become drought tolerant.

 

You may be familiar with some of the animals of the Sonoran Desert, such as the rattlesnake or the coyote, but there's so much more: The Sonoran Desert is home to more than 500 different animal species, including more than 350 varieties of birds. Learn about some of the critters that inhabit and thrive in the desert.

Salt River

Learn everything there is to know about Arizona's iconic Salt River, a popular spot for kayaking…

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