Flowers Blossom in the Desert

The hardy desert wildflower seeds can lie, desiccated and dreaming in the desert soil for decades, waiting for the steady winter rains they need to flourish in the spring. They are testament to the gaudy persistency of life, especially flowering plants, which emerged approximately 140 million years ago. As leaves evolved into petals loaded with pollen, flowering plants enlisted both insects and the wind to spur their reproduction. This enabled them to spread out of the swamps and shorelines across the continents, occupying every ecological niche and cranny. Flowering plants have now developed some 250,000 species. Flowering grasses spread across the land, supporting all the grazing animals and farmers.

Recent studies have demonstrated that this extravagant display of flowers actually helps maintain the boundaries of the desert. Desert wildflowers only stage their fitful riot of color in wet years, remaining coiled up in seed form for decades at a time. During such wet years, flowers blossom in such abundance that they soak up every excess drop of rain. As a result, even during wet years in the desert, virtually none of the rain that falls to the desert soil makes it past the root zone of the beautiful but thirsty flowering annuals. As a result, the flowers that seem too fragile to survive at all in the desert actually help to maintain the desert, using the water that might otherwise get into the shallow water table to sustain other plants and grasses.

That makes the Superstition’s extravagant display of wildflowers all the more significant, especially the frail, moist, paper-thin petals of the poppies. Poppies come in several hundred varieties. They grow in a cluster of flowers swaying on long stems from a single plant, a pattern called inflorescence, a treasure of a word. One sort of Asian poppy incubates its unripened seeds in a milky sap, which can be turned into opium. The potent chemicals the poppies use to deter the wrong sorts of insects may also cause epidemics of fatal dropsy and blindness in places like India where poppy seed oil is used in cooking. Poppies are also used to make artists’ paints, soap, and cake. Despite their seemingly frail beauty, the seeds of poppies, lupines, and others can lie undaunted in a mere rumor of topsoil, surviving blazing summers, seed-collecting ants, and a decade of drought, yearning for just the right moment. They can cling to life’s secret for an astonishing span of time.

The 15,000-year-old seeds of Arctic lupine have been culled from frozen tundra and coaxed into germination. The Mexican poppy seeds produced on the flanks of Superstitions may lie inert for decades, awaiting the perfect, still mysterious combination of sun and rain that produces an explosion of color.