On Sunday we had what a I call a bonus day. We all know summer is on it’s way and a day with overcast skies, the smell of rain and temps in the 60’s, which felt chilly to us desert rats, is always a treat. It was the perfect day to take a short hike in our backyard, Saguaro National Park East. Love this park. Right now the prickly pear, cholla and saguaros are blooming. Here are just three pictures from yesterday. Will need to share more later.
We walked the Mica Trail, which is accessed from the Broadway Park entrance. It’s an easy trail to walk. This time of year you need to be aware the snakes are out and about. So be careful where you step. Sadly this grand saguaro is heading for a fall. It must weigh tons. It could block a part of the trail. Despite it’s eminent demise, nature saw fit to let it bloom again. Look at those blossoms on it’s arms. Maybe we need to go by once a week to document the final days of it’s life. It could happen in days, weeks or months. The saguaro root system is strong.
The prickly pear are loaded with flowers this year. I cannot recall a recent year where the spring desert was so full of life and still going strong half way through April. These beautiful flowers will produce fruit vital to the area wildlife and to humans. The fruit is used for candy, jellies, syrup and, drum roll please, prickly pear margaritas. The margaritas are not only pretty, they taste darn good too. Perfect Sonoran Desert drink. Prickly pear pads, nopales, can be harvested, the spines removed and become napalitos, tiny bit sized pieces for soups, salads and more. It never ceases to amaze me how much food is produced in the Sonoran Desert. Not only for animals, humans too. The flowers of the prickly pear can be found in many beautiful colors.
The cholla doesn’t want to be left out. Cholla buds is another source of desert food. The cacti produce a wild range of colored flowers.
The International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe is opening a Cochineal exhibit. We plan to see it soon. Here’s another piece of trivia about our desert. Did you know cochineal is a scale insect that feeds on prickly pears? Its body fluids contain a bright crimson, foul-tasting substance that protects it from predators. Ground up cochineal insects were used by native peoples to dye their textiles rich red or purple, depending on the processing. In Europe this color of dye was so rare that only royalty could afford it. In some kingdoms the colors “royal purple”(derived from a sea cucumber) and, after discovery of the New World, royal crimson from cochineal, were reserved for the king by law. The cultivation and export of cochineal dye, by the Spanish in the Southwest, became a major economic activity, and its source was kept secret for many years. The commercial cochineal was harvested and later cultivated from prickly pears in southern Mexico. Our Sonoran Desert species contain the same dye. (Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum)
It’s not to late to get out and enjoy spring in our Tucson desert. This year will also be a bumper crop for the saguaro fruit. Let me know your favorite cactus in the comments.