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Weekend Escape

Abloom in Arizona

In parks and botanical gardens, wildflowers are putting on one of their best shows in 25 years.

March 18, 2001|CRAIG NAKANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TONTO NATIONAL FOREST, Ariz. — The poor saguaro. Who knew the cactus had it so tough?

Tiny seeds, like 4,000 specks of black sand, fill the plant's red fruit, yet it's lucky if just one produces a mature plant. Even then the process is torturous. After a year, the seedling may be only as large as a grain of rice. It probably won't flower until it's at least 35 years old. And three more decades must pass before the plant can grow its distinctive branches and begin to lose its pole-like adolescent shape.

So imagine a centuries-old, fully mature saguaro, Cereus giganteus, standing like an elder statesman in the Arizona landscape, a star of the Sonoran Desert. Suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, youngsters a appear. Upstarts. Show stealers. Wildflowers.

In years like the one we're having, the saguaro doesn't share the spotlight; it loses it. A particularly wet winter has turned the valley east of Phoenix into a Southwestern Seurat: Stand too close and you'll see only specks of color here and there, but take a longer view and you'll see a vibrant portrait, this one of the desert in bloom.

Along U.S. Highway 60 east of suburbia, golden poppies and salmon-colored mallow blaze on hills. Bluebells and pink penstemon shimmery along the highway. Brittlebush bares all, blushing yellow in all directions. Cars pull off and passengers pile out, tramping through roadside bouquets. The saguaro can do little but stand there, arms raised to the sky like an old desert denizen held hostage by his hyper grandchildren.

I'm not much of a wildflower guy. But the display I saw earlier this month-one of the best in 25 or 30 years, experts say-caught even my attention. What started as an impromptu, nothing-planned weekend by myself in Phoenix quickly turned into two days of walks and hikes, including stops at the Desert Botanical Garden, Tonto National Forest and the Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

After a late Friday flight from Los Angeles to Sky Harbor International Airport, the weekend began in earnest Saturday at the Desert Botanical Garden on the east side of Phoenix. The garden covers 147 acres, 47 of which are open for public exploration 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Not sure where to start, I latched onto a tour group led by volunteer Barbara Long. She took us on the Desert Discovery Trail, a relatively flat, half-mile paved route that is the main loop through the garden.

Barbara told us to look beyond the showy spring blooms to see desert ingenuity at work. See past the brittlebush's yellow flowers, she said, and you'll find grayish-green leaves that naturally reflect the desert sun. Bypass the bright red fairy dusters buzzing with bees in favor of a mesquite tree, whose trunk glistens with the inky sap Native Americans used to create paintings.

T. The new Desert Wildflower Trail was closed that day (it opened March 10), but I spent a couple of hours wandering three other paths that branch off the Desert Discovery Trail. Greeting me on the first route was an old man cactus, Cephalocereus senilis, whose spines look like a white beard protecting tender new growth from the sun. There were knee-high stalks of pastel penstemon, and African aloe plants with reddish-orange blooms singing their siren song to hummingbirds. And there were more saguaros, one turned into a duplex for starlings and finches living in holes originally carved by woodpeckers.

Before going to dinner I freshened up at my hotel, near downtown about 15 minutes west of the botanical garden. It was named, coincidentally, Les Jardins-the gardens. This flower, though, was a bit wilted and more of a dandelion than a rose. But given the price, $52 a night plus tax (booked through http://www.hotelsonline.com), I had few complaints.

Les Jardins, a former Radisson that supposedly had been renovated recently. I saw few signs of refurbishing, and the hotel's public areas were ragged around the edges, but my room was fine-clean and quiet, if a bit warm and stuffy. Instead of watching TV after dinner, , I'd looked for a cooler place to spend the evening.

For convenience, dinner was at a nearby outlet of the Blue Burrito Grille, a quick-and-casual local chain, where $8 got me a decent chicken burrito, chips and a Coke. From there I set out to find a good place to read and relax for a couple of hours. That turned out to be the Willow House, a hipster cafe and "artists' cove" on McDowell Road at Third Avenue, less than a mile south of my hotel.

Each room in this converted house has been painted different bold hues (purple, mustard yellow), filled with mismatched chairs and tables, and lined with homemade bookshelves sagging slightly under the weight of eclectic fiction, nonfiction, records, art and funky crafts to browse or buy. T. Jefferson Parker's "Red Light" shared space with National Geographic magazines, U2's "The Unforgettable Fire" on vinyl and hand-painted pottery.

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