It’s not all white sand and red rock in the deserts of the Southwest! Desert plants add their splashes of color across the dry landscape of bottomlands and mesas. Some flowers are large and showy: hedgehog cactus set the table with claret cups; prickly pear serve up large yellow flowers; soaptree yucca send up a tall centerpiece stalk lined with large creamy flowers.

In the spaces between white sand dunes—the interdunal flats—the flowers are smaller, and maybe even hardier than the cacti that grow beyond the dunes or the yuccas that grow up through the dunes. Little sand verbena sprouts tiny clusters of purple petals. Centaury plants bloom brightly pink. Blazing star shoots up its tiny firework of yellow on a foot-tall stalk.

There are wildflowers in bloom in nearly every season at White Sands National Park making it so there is no single “best time” to see the desert wildflowers. Within the boundaries of the dunefield, flowers bloom later than those in the surrounding desert foothills due to the pool of cold air from the mountains that settles into the basin at night.

Annual Wildflowers
Most wildflowers begin blooming around the middle of April. The most common early bloomers in the dunefield include the sand verbena, Hartweg’s sundrops, desert mentzelia, and White Sands mustard. In mid-May, these are joined by gypsum centaury, white evening primrose, and greenthread. Some plants may continue to produce flowers throughout the summer, especially after monsoon-season rains. Pepperweed, a white-flowered mustard that is often overlooked, grows throughout the residential area and dune margins. It is the hardiest wildflower in the park and is the first plant to bloom in the spring, usually around the first of March, earlier in warmer years. It blooms throughout the summer and into the fall. Pepperweed has been seen in bloom in the Park every month of the year.

Spring Wildflowers
Spring is when all of the small wildflowers begin to bloom and the grasses and bushes begin to turn green. Soaptree yucca is the star of the spring flowers. It grows tall and can easily be spotted throughout the dunes. Its flowers are white and have the appearance of upside-down tulips. Another big contender in the spring is prairie gentian. This wildflower is easiest to spot at the beginning of the Dune Life Nature Trail. There is also a white version of the plant that will bloom next to the purple one.

Summer Wildflowers
Many wildflowers are seen in the summer but few are robust enough to bloom during the high temperatures. These plants have smaller flowers like the gypsum centaury and desert mentzelia. They can be found growing in the interdunal areas throughout the entire dunefield.

Fall Color
Even though most of the plants at White Sands bloom in the spring and summer, there is still color to be seen in the fall. The fall colors can begin to appear as early as October and last through November. This is the time when the Rio Grande cottonwood trees begin to turn a beautiful orange and the skunkbush sumacs start to turn a vibrant red. These plants can be found throughout the first five miles of Dunes Drive.

There are many more wildflowers to look for on the dunes’ edges and in the interdunal flats, dotting White Sands National Park with their seasonal colors.

Magenta Flowers.

NPS Photo

Colorado Four O’clock
Mirabilis multiflora

Large, showy, five-lobed, magenta-purple flowers open in late afternoon and close in the morning. The foliage is dark green. It has a rounded profile, growing approximately three feet high and spreading three feet in diameter. It blooms nearly half the year, from April to mid-September.

This plant has a long and varied history with many native peoples with uses that differ even among tribes. It has been used for everything from light purplish-brown dye for wool to medicine to treat rheumatism, indigestion, eye infections, and colic in babies.

Yellow Flowers.

NPS Photo

Desert Mentzelia
Mentzelia multiflora

The two-foot-tall stems of this weedy-looking plant produce brilliant yellow, star-like flowers that close during the heat of the day. It is common in sand dunes and along dry streambeds throughout the western United States. Blazing star is also called “stickleaf” because the leaves are covered with tiny barbs that grab onto the fur and pants of passers-by.

Orange Flowers.

NPS Photo

Globe Mallow
Sphaeralcea angustifolia

Mallows are wide-spread across the Southwest. They thrive as three-to-four foot tall straggly weeds in the alleys of Southwestern towns. In spring and after summer rains, foot-high plants can blanket sandy stretches of the Navajo Reservation with orange-colored blooms below red cliffs.

Their small leaves generally have three lobes but can vary in shape, from rounded to pointed. The stems are woody and have star-like hairs. The petals of the flowers open like a vegetable steamer and almost form a globe or sphere. Besides orange, the flowers can be shades of pink and red and apricot.

It is a common belief that the tiny hairs of the plants cause eye irritation—hence the name sore eye poppy. However, there are some medicinal uses for globe mallow. It can be used as a tea for bronchitis and as a poultice to reduce swelling from injuries. At White Sands National Park, globe mallow is rare in the dunefield but quite common around the visitor center and in the brushy approaches to the dunes.

Yellow Flowers.

White Sands Missile Range Photo

Thelesperma megapotamicum

Greenthread does indeed have two-to-three foot long stems that seem threadlike, or at least too thin to support its knobs of yellow flower heads. The knobby flower heads look a bit like opium poppies. The leaves of Greenthread are thin and hard to see on the stems and they sprout opposite of each other. Greenthread is found all over the western and southwestern United States.

American Indians have used the plant to make dyes for fabrics. The dyes produce yellow or brownish-orange colors.

D. Andersen, WSMR

White Sands Missile Range Photo

Gyp Nama
Andropus carnosus

The name Gyp Nama indicates that this low growing plant—only a couple inches high—doesn’t just tolerate soils high in gypsum. Rather, it may actually need the sulfur in gypsum—calcium sulfate dihydrate—to grow and thrive.

In interdunal flats, look for a small cluster, or tangled coil, of thin green leaves edged in white. The tight coil of leaves gives the impression of a succulent plant. Gyp Nama is in fact a member of the waterleaf family.

Pink Flowers.

NPS Photo

Gypsum Centaury
Centaurium calycosum

Also known as rosita, or “little rose,” centaury is a low branching plant that blossoms from April to October. Look for five pink petals arranged around a white center.

Although this plant is usually found near springs or streams, the variation that grows here is gypsum-loving and thrives in the interdunal area—the low areas between the dunes.

Pink Flowers.

NPS Photo

Purple Sand Verbena
Abronia angustifolia

The perennial purple sand verbena is a member of the Four o’clock family and is often the only conspicuous wildflower in the heart of the dunes. This low-growing plant produces pale pink to purple flowers with white centers and blooms from late April into May. Sand grains stick to its oval hairy leaves, giving it a silvery appearance. The purple sand verbena was used by American Indians as a mild sedative, which had a calming effect and was useful in reducing nervousness, anxiety, and tension.

Would you like to see some more flowers? Click on the link below.

Last updated: January 26, 2022

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