Anyone who thinks of the desert as a dusty, lifeless no-man’s land hasn’t been to one during a spring bloom (or seen one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s gorgeous paintings!) Under the right conditions, the sandy slopes and rocky hills of deserts across the Southwest can explode with hardy wildflowers.
So next time the rain gods decide to bless SoCal with a few inches, don’t be too bummed about swapping your favorite platforms for rain boots. Give that rain some time to soak into the ground, then head out toward one of SoCal’s many desert destinations for an Insta-worthy visual feast of desert flowers!
If you’re like us, you’ll want to spend as much time with those desert plants as possible – they don’t stick around long, after all. For outdoorsy folks, Joshua Tree and Anza-Borrego have campgrounds perfect for romantic getaways and family trips alike – just make sure you book well ahead of time, as spring is the parks’ most popular time. You’re not the only one who wants a good look at those rainbow blooms!
Or if you’d prefer a bed and hot shower at night, book a hotel in Palm Springs and make a pitstop in the Mojave or Colorado Desert along the way. But first, some pro tips so you can plan!
When Do Desert Plants and Cactus Flowers Bloom?
The short answer: Like most other plants, desert flowers bloom in the spring. But it gets a little more complicated. The desert isn’t exactly a paradise for green things, what with the whole no-water business. Only the hardiest species can hack it, and only with perfect cooperation between water, wind, and sun exposure. This means blooms can fluctuate year to year, occasionally giving way to “super blooms”.
Your best bet is to pay attention to weather reports and follow updates from state parks. When you’re ready, we’ve put together a list of our favorite flowering desert plants so you know exactly what to look for:
Desert Lily: Sonoran Desert
If you head to Joshua Tree, which straddles the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert (itself a part of the larger Sonoran), or to Anza-Borrego (in the Colorado Desert), you may get a glimpse of this lovely white bloom along desert roads. Once classified as part of the lily family, it’s now categorized under Agave, and can be found in Arizona and Nevada as well.
Ghost Flower: Mojave and Sonoran Deserts
Another Joshua Tree/Anza-Borrego gem, this annual desert flower owes its name to its pale, translucent petals – but there’s nothing spooky about such a gorgeous bloom! Like many of the other Mojave-an and Sonoran flowers on this list, the ghost flower can also be spotted in Arizona and Nevada.
Desert Sunflower: Mojave and Sonoran Deserts
We bet you won’t stop smiling at the wide-open, bright-yellow face of the desert sunflower. A distant cousin of the classic sunflower, this hardy, hot-weather species is as popular with bees and birds as it is with flower-lovers like us.
Barrel Cactus: Mojave and Sonoran Deserts
When cactus flowers bloom, watch out – and not just for needles! As prickly as cactus tends to be, cactus flowers are some of the most beautiful, otherworldly blooms deserts have to offer. Just as every rose has its thorn, every cactus flower has its needle… but we feel pretty good about forgiving those gorgeous gold petals.
Ocotillo: Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts
The ocotillo looks more like something out of a Dr. Seuss book than Earth. Found in patches, oases, and even front lawns from Southern California to Texas as well as Mexico, their name means “little torch” in Spanish. While they have spiky stems, they’re not actually cacti, and they’re friendly to the hummingbirds that pollinate them and drink from their reddish-pink flowers.
Beavertail (Pricklypear) Cactus: Mojave and Sonoran Deserts
Another highlight for when cactus flowers bloom, the beavertail cactus is sure to catch even the spaciest hiker’s eye with its bright pink petals.
Desert Lavender: Mojave and Sonoran Deserts
You may tend to associate the desert with warm colors like gold and orange, but the Southwest has pops of cool blues and violets, too, like the lovely desert lavender. Don’t be fooled by its delicate blooms and soft fuzzy leaves – it’s a tough plant that prefers to root in sand or gravel, and won’t even tolerate more than one dose of water per month.
We know it’s not easy to wait patiently for spring to roll around, but after a look at some of these out-of-this-world desert flowers, we hope you’ll agree the wait is worth it. In the meantime, consider a snake plant or our recommendations for the best indoor plants. You can also read about other cool plants to gift your friends and family.Shop All