Goldilocks as Lousy Role Model

It’s pouring. With the temperatures peaking for the day in the mid-teens (Fahrenheit of course), it’s a chilly, gloomy day in the neighbourhood.

Not that I expect any sympathy from anyone north or east of here. It’s been a nasty cold and stubbornly snowy winter in most parts of North America this year. By contrast, my biggest concern has been scheduling my daily walk early enough to reduce my heat-stroke risk. Lolling under blue-sky days, we’ve see rain only three times since arriving in metro Phoenix in mid-January.

Over several winters in Arizona this is exactly what we’ve come to expect, although we don’t always get so much precipitation. But if the weather is delightfully consistent, year after year, the spring wildflowers are frustratingly inconsistent.  

The problem, according to the online experts I consult, is that the desert environment is extreme, but wildflower germination and growth require moderation: not Too Cold so that the seed or seedling freezes, but not Too Hot so that they scorch, either. In short, Just Right.

But wait, there’s more! I mean, worse! Moisture levels must be Just Right, too. A “triggering rainfall” of just the right amount (not Too Much, not Too Little), at just the right time (not Too Early, not Too Late), must be followed by rainfalls of just the right amounts at just the right intervals . . . for the next five months! As it turns out, these Just Right conditions are not the norm here in the Sonoran Desert. Go figure.

“In short, a really good wildflower bloom requires both an unusually early and an unusually wet winter rainy season.” Excellent.

The result of this demand for Just Rightness? In short, about what you’d expect from any perfectionist pursuit: A lot of activity but not much output. If the wind blows wherever it pleases, the wildflowers bloom wherever and whenever they damned well please. I’m sorry, there’s just no getting around it: They’re pretty, but pretty persnickety too.

I should know: I’ve been waiting nine years to see a spread of blooms across the desert to rival those on the tourist brochures. When I mutter about this to local experts, they just shrug. Along with the online experts, they cite a one-in-ten rule of thumb: “Spectacular shows of spring wildflowers in the Sonoran and Mohave Deserts occur about one year in every ten.”

And although I figure that means I’m about due, all experts caution against booking flights based on that one-in-ten rule. It’s a long-term average, not, you know, a schedule.

Trying to soften the blow, maybe, one site does a misguided good news/bad news routine: “Good or better displays occur in localized areas perhaps every three or four years (Ed. note: Hurray!); these may be in remote regions and go unnoticed. (Ed. note: Boo!)”

Good displays in remote regions? Now tell me: What, exactly, is the point of that?

But before I get too cranky, I hear rumblings that the tourist brochures are, perhaps, not entirely to be trusted. One local expert alludes darkly to panoramic images showing flowers that actually bloom at different times. Different times that are, ahem, weeks apart.

I have trouble believing that there can be anything but truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in advertising, but even acknowledging that possibility relieves some of the self-imposed pressure. This year, instead of wondering why my Big Floral Year is missing in action—Again!—I’ll remember the struggles wildflowers face in the desert, and just appreciate any that I do see.

And if I’m ever, you know, tempted to get picky about my own conditions for getting started on a project, personal or professional, I hope I’ll remember those cheery faces on the desert floor. I hope I won’t sit around waiting for Just Right. I hope I will, instead, participate in the occasional, but still miraculous, triumph of perseverance over persnicketiness.

Photo of spring wildflowers in Phoenix, AZ
Collage of wildflowers and spring flowers, Phoenix AZ

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8 Comments

  1. Alison

    Although people would argue the point this year – I feel the same way about tourist advertising regarding “skating the canal” in Ottawa. Seems the first question I get asked when I say I have a son in Ottawa is: “does he skate to work on the canal?? I’ve always wanted to do that!” Really?? I HAVE skated on the canal, but I came to realize it too was a fickle thing, maybe open for a few weeks? maybe when it’s -40C?
    I agree, blame it on the ad agency.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Alison – Yes, most years the canal is open for just a few weeks around Winterlude (our February festival, brr), weather allowing. It’s expensive to keep open and skatable – and as for skating to work, well, I guess that would depend where you live!

  2. Believe me, I would settle for any one of those little beauties that could survive in even indoors in this weather! Don’t you wonder how those micro climates manage to produce flowers in “remote” regions? An “island” around the small town of Tweed experienced severe drought a few summers ago while the rest of the region had more consistent rain than usual. When we have rain, the tiny hamlet of Springbrook can be counted on for a torrential downpour; I had to pull my car off the road until one such violent storm blew over. Your desert flora lore is fascinating. I will be on the alert for more and better information about these mini-phenomena.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Laurna – Yes, I know too well that north of here there is nothing yet in bloom. As we gradually lose some of our migrating birds (heading north!), I want to stand and wave my arms and say, “Not yet! Do you know what it’s like up there?” But, like the flowers, I suspect they know best.

  3. One year, John and I were sick of waiting, and drove to Savannah, Georgia to experience Spring the moment it appeared. We were too late there as the magnolias were already in bloom and almost past their prime, so we stayed a few days and then moved north, in time to catch the next magnolia blossoming, then a few days later moved north again. Over 6 weeks we saw every spring bloom as they happened. It was glorious!

    We got back to Ottawa in late April and … just in time for freezing rain…
    But — no bugs! No high pollen counts. No heat stroke.

    And you are right, Isabel, no sympathy for you down there in Arizona.
    Come back up here and take it like a man!

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – Chasing spring sounds glorious – or fall, too, for that matter. I wonder what it is about the shoulder seasons that is so inviting. The angled light? Their relative transience? I will have to make enquiries as to whether my preference for them is widespread.

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