There’s a lot of beautiful flowers native to the desert. When I told friends and family back East that cactus produced lovely blossoms, they were stunned. Now that I think about it, they were stunned that I wasn’t living in a sand dune, or a casino.
Well, the first desert flower I fell in love with was globe mallow – the ordinary orange cup-shaped bloom that’s common all around the Mojave Desert. I was still very new to southern Nevada back then, so everything I saw was amazing. When you’re used to rainfall and green landscapes, the Mojave is a mighty big change. One day in an early spring, I was out at the Red Rock conservation area, just being astounded by the whole landscape, when I saw this little shrub covered in small orange flowers. This was Sphaeralcea ambigua, globe mallow, and it made me smile.
Even now, when I know that another common name for this desert perennial is “sore eye poppy”, I still love it. You might guess from the name that it’s important not to rub your eyes after touching the plant.
Like so many other desert natives, globe mallow leaves have a grey fuzz. The fuzz is called “pubescence”. This is one of nature’s mechanisms for protecting leaves from our intense sunlight and dry air. It’s the plant’s own sunscreen, or a parasol. It provides a little shade for the leaf, which is green beneath the fuzz. Believe it or not, plants can get sunburn, especially in an environment like the desert. The fuzz also slows down water loss, which you already know is a major issue in an area that only gets four inches of water per year.
I know it’s not poisonous to people (although it can injure horses), and I’ve read that some Native American tribes used it as a food, but I haven’t tried it. Nor do I intend to.
Who does eat globe mallow are the caterpillars of several desert butterflies - about five varieties, with names like “painted lady” and “skipper”. We’ve been so intent on saving Monarchs, which is a terribly important activity, that we might forget about other butterflies. They’re all essential members of our ecosystem, and I feel totally virtuous, knowing that I’ve got a butterfly habitat in my yard.
Some plants are enthusiastic about growing, and globe mallow is definitely one of them. Some people call them weeds, but that’s not right.
They’re native, they’re beautiful, and they’re here! I remember once reading that they were short-lived perennials, but I don’t know. I planted one about five years ago, and now have seven different plants, the original, plus its seedlings. More appear regularly, which I admit, I pull out when they become inconvenient. Every so often in mid-winter, I cut them all back to six or seven inches tall. They really seem to appreciate the haircut, because they return with such vigor. A lot of shrubs do respond well to that kind of occasional serious grooming. Over the winter, I cut back my rose bushes and they’ve come back with an amazing set of blossoms.
When you can cut a plant back to just a few inches tall (ok, a foot tall) and receive a beautiful floral display just a couple of months later, you’re golden!
Plant breeders have developed several different cultivars of globe mallow, and they’re all lovely. While I haven’t planted any, when I see the gorgeous deep pink and coral flowers on these new varieties, I kick myself that I don’t have any more room in my wildly overplanted garden.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plant them. If you want globe mallow in whatever color, you can get them from many plant sources. When it comes to growing conditions, they aren’t fussy. As long as you don’t give them too much water or too much fertilizer, these desert plants’ll reward you with lots of color for several spring seasons.
For KNPR’s Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O’Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Stay safe, stay healthy and enjoy your desert environment.
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