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Ironwoods are the real heroes of the Sonoran Desert landscape, says Arizona travel writer

Summer temperatures are here, but it’s been a colorful spring in the Valley. The Palo Verde trees blanketed the town in yellow flowers for weeks, cactuses bloomed in the desert and it’s been a great year for saguaro blossoms. But, there’s one last tree blooming here now that our next guest says often goes unnoticed: ironwoods. 

Longtime Arizona travel writer Roger Naylor says these are the real heroes of the Sonoran Desert landscape, and he spoke more about it with The Show's Lauren Gilger.

Full conversation

ROGER NAYLOR: Well, you'll see a cascade of kind of light pink, sometimes a darker purple kind of a lilac shade just the, a fountain of the branches are covered with these beautiful shimmering blooms. If you look at them closely, they have a little pea like flowers. Some of people describe them as like tiny little orchids. They're just really beautiful, but they just add such a nice accent to the landscape. When I'm out hiking these past few weeks in the desert, it's just such a joy to be surrounded by these and to see them dotting the hillsides.

GILGER: Yeah. Yeah. They're really pretty and really delicate in this way. I didn't know what they were, but these are ironwoods. OK. And you say that these are really important to the desert ecosystem. You called them workhorses, right?

NAYLOR: Yeah. The, well, the saguaros get all the attention, the desert, but the ironwoods are the ones who do all the heavy lifting there, the workhorses. Ironwoods are a habitat modifying keystone species. You know, they actually make the neighborhood better and safer for everybody as nurse plants, you know, they provide shade and shelter beneath a dense canopy, protects young plants from harsh sun in the summer and frost in the winter. And then like soybeans and peas, they fix nitrogen in the soil making it easier for nearby plants to absorb nutrients.

The number of bird species dramatically increase around ironwoods and the tree provides forage and shelter for just a whole a bunch of animals. After the flowers are done, it produces a seed pod and those are a peanut-like delicacy enjoyed by just about everything in the desert. Birds, rodent, coyotes, you name it. You know, they may not be as majestic as saguaros, but they are desert royalty nonetheless.

GILGER: Yeah. You said saguaros in fact, are mostly here because of ironwoods, right?

NAYLOR: Yeah. You know, saguaros, I think everybody kind of knows this, that they need, you know, when they're small and starting out very slow growers, they need a little nurse plant. You know, a lot of them grow up in the shadow of little bushes or under palo verde trees or mesquites. But ironwoods provide a safe habitat for just tons of them. And especially because ironwoods are one of the few things that outlive the saguaros. So some ironwoods are thought to be 800 years older or longer. So they provide this really stable micro-environment under their branches for centuries, you know, so generations of plants come and go being protected from the sun and the frost by the ironwoods. And also again, just having a richer so oil to draw from.

GILGER: Eight hundred years old. Wow. OK. And they don't bloom every year, right, Roger. So we're kind of lucky that they're around right now.

NAYLOR: Yeah, I think, you know, it's, it's kind of weird that they kind of pick strange years to bloom. Sometimes I'll spot a few flowers on a branch but they don't bloom in abundance like this. This may come three or four times a decade where you see this kind of, of abundance. It all depends again, like everything in the desert on temperature and moisture and stuff.

But I can never quite figure out the calculus for what causes iron woods to bloom because last year I was looking for them and I did not see many blooms at all. And last year, everything bloomed because we, you know, we had so much rain and snow and everything. But I think it, you know, maybe it stayed a little chilly too long into April, the ironwoods bloom in May and maybe it just stayed a little too cool. But, and for some reason, this year, this is the year they just popped out and they have just been spectacular.

They'll drop all their leaves right before blooming. So they're just covered, you know, they're like the cherry trees. They're just covered with these beautiful pink to purple. So it's a nice range of colors that this blended beautifully with the palo verdes and the, the saguaro blooms as well. So it's just been a really nice bouquet in the desert.

GILGER: Yeah, it really has. And it surprises me every year. I wonder if you kind of recognize the order better than I do. I try to keep track. It's like the acacia tree in my front yard will bloom and then the palo verdes will start blooming and then you'll think we're done. But then, you know, the ironwoods bloom and things like that. What are your favorite blossoms that you see every year in the desert?

NAYLOR: Oh, I see every year. Well, you know, I always love the cactus flowers. I, I think, you know, cactus sort of, you know, you just look at them and they're, they're these gangsters, they're, you know, they're, they're harsh and they, they're tough and, you know, they're spiny. They don't want you near them and then they just unleash these delicate, beautiful flowers that only last a day and then they're gone.

You know, from the tiniest little the hedgehogs have these big neon purple flowers. The beaver tail, just gorgeous flowers. The prickly pear just covered with a variety of hues and, and then of course, you know, it all ends with the, the saguaros are the last of the cactus to bloom, the tallest, and they have this big snow bank of flowers and they're having a sensational year, too. I mean, this is one of the best saguaro blooms I've ever seen.

GILGER: Yeah, absolutely. So let me ask you because you mentioned the cherry blossoms in D.C., which are like this iconic thing that people go and see every year. And I always wonder this because down in the city here and when the palo verdes bloom every spring, it is just spectacular. I mean, you get these yellow flowers cascading everywhere. It's like, you know, the petals are all over the ground. It's really beautiful. Why don't we celebrate those and like make them an attraction in the way that cherry blossoms are, right?

NAYLOR: I know, right. They don't get any respect. This is our Arizona state tree and they should be something that we tout heavily. But no, I think, I think it's a couple of things. Part of it's, you know, they're, they're in the desert. We have two native palo verdes, the blue palo verde and the foothills palo verde, and then some hybrids have been added and stuff. So they're in the desert to begin with. But then they're also been added to landscaping. So they're kind of everywhere. People get used to them a little bit.

They're also a little bit of messy trees. And a lot of people with allergies are mad at them all the time and, and blame them, but they really shouldn't. That's kind of unfair because palo verdes are not wind pollinators. They rely on insects to carry their pollen. So they do contribute obviously, once the flowers dry and blow around. So I'm not saying that they're without blame, but they're not the master villain that everybody thinks they are. They're more just henchmen, they're just one, one more thing that causes a little pollen.

But I think that the primary thing why they get overlooked is the color they choose, you know, they bloom yellow and that is our, by far the most common bloom seen in the desert, the brittle bush, the desert marigold, the mesquite, the acacia, the creosote on and on. And all the sunflowers, everything blooms yellow in the desert. And I think sometimes that gets overlooked a little bit.

And that's one of the things I think that people really love about the ironwoods because all of a sudden boom, here's this big pink showcase. But yeah, I'm with you. I think the the palo verde should be appreciated a little more for putting on, you know, here in this harsh desert environment, putting on this kind of spectacular show year in and year out. They, they are consistent, every spring they pop out and that's something we should pay a little more attention to.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.