Spring is cliffrose season in our corner of Santa Cruz County, and this year’s bloom did not disappoint. 

2020 was a rough year for the native flora. Native plants haven’t been dealing with a virus, but they have been dealing with one of the driest years on record in over a decade. The lack of wildflowers and greenery this year is heartbreaking and will have long term effects on the flora of our region. On the bright side, this season was glorious for cliffrose (Purshia stansburyana). 

Philosopher Matshona Dhilwayo said “a rose in a desert can only survive on its strength, not its beauty,” but maybe our grassland roses get the best of both worlds. 

Cliffrose is an evergreen shrub in the rose family native to the Southwest US and northern Mexico. It can grow to eleven feet tall and is found in grasslands and woodlands between 3,000 – 8,000 feet in elevation. Stands often burst into flower all at once with rose white flowers blooming along the stems. 

It’s a great plant to establish in your home landscape and has medium to low water needs that can survive without too much irrigation. Cliffrose should be planted in full sun, but can tolerate part shade. It’s an excellent pollinator plant, mostly for native bees (we have several hundred species in the area) and provides nectar and pollen in a dry and often resource-scarce time of year. Its growth provides habitat for birds and food from the seed it produces after flowering.

It’s easy to confuse this plant with its similar looking cousin, Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa), but the flowers and growth differences are distinct enough to not be too difficult to identify. Both of these plants are in the rose family (Rosaceae) which means they’re related to the well-known ornamental roses you see around town (both the climbing and bush rose kinds). 

We don’t think of these ornamental roses as being drought tolerant, often because the European varieties need plenty of water to look great, but the whole family actually produces some amazing native plants in our region that are both beautiful and hardy. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the native plants in our region you have many options. You can pick up a copy of Jim Koweek’s book (Grassland Plant ID for Everyone) in most stores in the Patagonia and Sonoita area, and you can join the local chapter of the Arizona Native Plant Society and attend some meetings (email Santacruz.aznps@gmail.com to sign up). 

If you’re looking to buy plants and seeds or volunteer with any planting events, check out Diamond JK nursery by the hardware store in Sonoita, and the Borderlands Restoration Nursery (borderlandsplants.org).