Gold poppies, which normally grace deserts near Tucson in the spring, are blooming now in Saguaro National Park west of the city — a day before the official beginning of winter.
The flowering poppies are showing up in small clumps and individual blooms here and there rather than in the carpets of flowers they often produce in the spring.
Botany experts say favorable rain patterns may have nurtured the early bloom.
Other wildflowers, including globemallow and brittlebush, are also blooming in some areas.
“Perennials like globemallow and brittlebush are not that uncommon to see in bloom at this time of year, if there are good rains and mild temperatures. Luckily, we had both of those conditions this fall,” said John Wiens of the Botany Department at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
“I think it is more uncommon, but not unheard of, to see annuals like poppies blooming in December,” Wiens said, noting that plentiful rains and mild temperatures during the autumn months helped annual wildflowers as well as the perennials.
He said the plants should be far enough along, with roots sufficiently deep, that “a good rain every two to three weeks should keep them going — possibly into March or later.”
What factors might limit wildflower blooms from continuing into the spring?
A deep freeze at this time won’t hurt the annuals other than nipping flower stalks and buds if they are blooming, Wiens said.
“On the other hand,” he said, “prolonged dryness of a month or more, with warm temperatures like we’ve been having, could send many of the annuals — poppies, lupines, silverbells, bladderpod and others — into a quick bloom, leaving little for the spring.”
Meanwhile, Wiens added, perennials such as sweetbush, brittlebush, globemallow, desert hyacinth, larkspur, windflower and penstemon can fare better in dry winter weather. They could still put on a good bloom into March or early April.
Mark Dimmitt, a wildflower expert and retired director of natural history at the Desert Museum, said poppies and most other annual wildflowers will continue to grow and bloom as long as there is soil moisture, or until summer heat kills them.
“The basic message is: Don’t wait until spring. It’s time to start calling parks and other nature watchers, such as DesertUSA.com, for news of local blooms,” Dimmitt said. “If the weather stays warm and wet, the display could peak in low-elevation areas in January.”
FIND SOME BLOOMS
One place to see some gold poppies and other wildflowers, including brittlebush, is near Picture Rocks Road in the northeastern part of Saguaro National Park west of Tucson.
Get on Ina Road west of Interstate 10 and drive west to Wade Road. Turn south onto Wade and follow it as it turns into Picture Rocks Road and continues to the park. Watch for a large parking pullout on the right at the bottom of a hill less than a mile into the park.
Carefully cross the road from the parking pullout and watch for some blooms in a flat expanse of desert south of the road.
Be aware that there are some blooms — but not lots of them, and no carpets of flowers at this time of year.