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Discover the Small Surprises of the Big, Blooming Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon may be colossal, but, surprisingly, some of the most exquisite beauty to be found there is not.

As a guide for REI Adventures, I’m continually surprised by the amazing diversity of plants that have adapted to thrive in the canyon’s harsh environment. Almost half of Arizona’s plant types can be found in the Grand Canyon, and Arizona is the state with the third most diverse flora in the country.[1]

beavertail cactus bloom

My love and awe for the Grand Canyon (see my previous REI Blog post) grows with each season spent below the rim. Each time I lead a group into the canyon, we see something new and remarkable, and the flowers and plants constantly fascinate us with their vigor, color and sheer tenacity.

A highlight of our spring backpacking trips (sign up now before they fill up!) is the abundance of beautiful blooms in every color. Many of the blooms fade by summer, but some especially determined plants are just getting started and continue to display their colors through fall.

My challenge for this post came in sifting through literally thousands of photos to select just a few that show this living wave of color. As the days get shorter and the temperatures begin to settle, these will have to tide us over until springtime when the parade will begin again. Take a look:


A member of the lily family, the Bigelow onion “hails the advent of spring in the Grand Canyon,” says my plant book. The buds look like tiny onion bulbs, and its leaves even smell of onions. (So, I guess that’s how it got its name.)


Brushing against beautiful stalks of purple sage lining the sides of trails releases its pungent aroma. Purple sage has been used as a spice, medicine and tea. Its genus name, salvus, means “healthy.”


Beautiful clusters of creamy white, fragrant blooms cover the cliff rose, found along or near the rim. The waxy leaves of this hardy shrub also release a scent described as “woodsy” by those who like it and in less poetic terms by those who don’t.


Cacti blooms are astounding in their variety and abundance. Blooms cover the Tonto Plateau in the spring to spectacular effect. Above is the Grand Canyon beavertail cactus.

Alternative content

In the above slide show, the prickly pear cactus blooms in several vibrant colors.


The hedgehog cactus blooms at the same time as its cousin...


...the claret cup.


Brown-spined prickly pear (and a very happy bee).


And a porcupine prickly pear that can’t decide which color it wants to bloom.


Moving into summer, you can’t miss the bright, red blooms of 2 abundant plants. Each beautiful and unique, they choose very different neighborhoods. Globe mallow prefers dry, rocky soil and is an encouraging sight to see along hot and shadeless stretches of trail.


Cardinal monkeyflower loves the water and grows wherever there is a creek, fall, spring or seep.


Blooming later in spring and into June, arrowweed grows along creeks near the Colorado. A member of the sunflower family, arrowweed’s nectar is a source of honey and its stems had many uses for Native Americans.


Growing all year long, sacred datura waits until the cool of evening to open its large, white blooms. Insects love this plant and include a hummingbird-sized moth, called the sphinx or hawk moth. The hawk moth pollinates datura, and then its green hornworm larvae feed on the datura’s leaves that contain powerful alkaloids. When ingested, these alkaloids protect the hornworm from predators but are potentially deadly to humans.


Another favorite of the hawk moth, pale evening primrose, is found on the sandy beaches along the Colorado River.


And finally—the little guys. This Emory rock daisy is among the many tiny flowers that are easy to miss but somehow manage to stake out a small claim in a patch of gravel or the crag of a boulder.


The notch-leaf scorpionweed is one of 20 species of scorpionweed found in the Grand Canyon.


And last, one of my favorites because of its bright profusion along the trail, fetid marigold, is also known as dogweed. Neither name seems to fit this wildflower that blooms summer through fall. My flower book calls it “cheerful,” and I agree.


[1] River and Desert Plants of the Grand Canyon, Huisinga, Makarick, and Watters, Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, Montana, 2006.

All photography by Todd Wiggins.

Posted on at 11:30 AM

Tagged: Grand Canyon, REI Adventures, Travel, backpacking, national parks and wildflowers

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