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Flora and Fauna

If you are a visitor, the Tucson landscape can look bleak, particularly in mid-day light. However, as you spend more time in the desert, this impression is dispelled for many people. Old-time Tucsonans kind of hibernate during the mid-day; the know the desert is at its best early and late in the day.

Morning and afternoon light turns many desert plants into backlit magic.  Cactus like the teddy bear cholla glow when the sun's rays bend around the thousands of spines.  Some cactus like the saguaro and organ pipe give a red cast to the glow to further liven things up.  Even the creosote bush will light up in oblique light, especially when they are covered with their fuzzy little pods late in the springs.

Many people are surprised by the outrageous flower shows the cactus put on.  The normally prosaic prickly pear cacti put out brilliant yellow blossoms by the dozen. Stick-like staghorn cacti sport a host of smallish multi-hued flowers. In May, the saguaros are topped with the most wonderful creamy white blossoms.

In April, the hillsides are painted yellow with blooming brittlebush. In May, the entire Tucson area turns bright yellow as the palo verde trees bloom. Depending on the year, the desert floor may be carpeted with a variety of poppies, lupines, owl clover or other wildflowers.

Although Tucson's seasons are different than elsewhere, they are well defined to those who have lived here a while. There is even a bit of fall color when the leaves change on the cottonwood trees in the Rillito River and Sabino Canyon. For those who journey up Mount Lemmon in late October, there is a fantastic display of gold in the aspen groves around Marshall Gulch. Combined with the red maples in the draws around Summerhaven and in Bear Wallow occasionally, the total effect is definitely fall foliage.

Everywhere you look in Tucson there are cacti. There are certain places where there are especially fine specimens and where they are massed for the most effect for viewing and photographing.

One of the most convenient places to see cacti is the Saguaro National Monument (East). The eight-mile loop drive is paved and has convenient pullouts. The ¼ mile Desert Ecology Trail is accessible to wheelchairs.  Access to much of Saguaro National Monument (West) is also easy and features the finest saguaro forest in the world.

Tucson Mountain Park covers an enormous section of rugged mountains and contains fine stands of saguaros and many other cacti. Especially impressive are the thick stands of teddy bear cholla below Gates Pass.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has a great variety of cacti that are conveniently identified. It also sits in a wonderful forest of saguaro and has grand views into the valley.

Tohono Chul Park is located in the heart of rapidly expanding northwest Tucson. It preserves a 40-acre parcel of desert and has good interpretive aids to explain the desert and its plants. The cactus shop offers a close up view of many fine small cacti that are for sale.  This is a great place to have lunch in the charming Tea Room.

Tanque Verde Greenhouses located on Redington Road east of town has an extraordinary collection of exotic cactus from the desert southwest and around the world.  You can take a picture of a cactus or take it home.

Catalina State Park is included because the saguaro habitat is markedly different from the other areas. On the south facing slopes of the small canyons coming out of the Santa Catalina Mountains grow lush stands of huge saguaros.


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