Two Common Checkered Skippers feed at a Barkleyanthus shrub. Photo by Vince Pinto

The Sky Islands region is a haven for snowbirds of all types, including the human type. Relatively balmy winter temperatures and clear skies prevail often enough to lure those folks seeking solace from frigid conditions in more northerly latitudes. Among the local joys to be had in nature come February are winter wildflowers: colorful sprays of blossoms unexpectedly perking up from a dull, frost-bitten land. Winter’s gold. Although our region is rather renowned for its “spring” wildflower season, the appearance of blooms is not a given, nor are they confined to spring alone. 

A series of specific meteorological circumstances must occur to engender anything more than just a mere scattering of flowers in the period from late January (at the earliest) through mid-May (at the latest). Autumn precipitation appears to matter immensely. We had a real soaker in early October – check. Well-spaced, deep-penetrating rains need to continue throughout late fall and into early winter, keeping the soil moist enough for dormant seeds to germinate and roots to sprout. Also, check. Thus, the flowery table is set. In early December at our Raven’s Nest Nature Sanctuary I witnessed a few intrepid vanguards poking their greenery through moist soil – tansy mustard, evening primrose, and desert bells among them. As of late January, blue dicks, stickleaf, Mexican poppy, mariposa lilly, nama, and other telltale leaves have joined the ranks of would-be flowers about to invade our scenery. 

When we think of wildflowers, most of us likely picture the herbaceous annuals and perennials alluded to above. One species, though, stands out not only in its tall, shrubby form, but also in its ability to flower almost regardless of precipitation patterns. Barkleyanthus salicifolius bursts onto the floral scene as early as January, sometimes continuing through March and, rarely, into May. This large shrub in the aster family requires moist soil near streams. In February its thick, drooping, evergreen leaves are suddenly complemented by a dense patina of yellow blossoms astride the top of most mature bushes – traits that have led to its use as an ornamental plant in some areas.

The thick leaves of the shrub serve as a deterrent to would-be browsers, be they invasive bovines or native deer. The phytochemicals – including toxic alkaloids – in the foliage produce an acrid scent, strongly advertising their repellent prowess. I’ve never witnessed nipped leaves or stems on Barkleyanthus. In a cow-overgrazed riparian zone, they tend to get a free pass and flourish.

The golden flowers, as well as their honey-like aroma, lure in hungry butterflies as pollinators. Thus, the best place in all of Arizona to observe diurnal lepidopterans in February is by Patagonia Lake along the birding trail. Up to a dozen species or so ply the air around Barkleyanthus – the only nectar bar open for business. A monopoly on invertebrate sexual conduits evolved to successfully cross-pollinate the plant. Full on sweet secretions and having already helped the shrub to reproduce, butterflies are free to engage in their own copulatory delights, creating yet another generation of scaly winged wonders. Sufficiently warm days in February and beyond allow this colorful dance of shrubs, flowers, and butterflies to take place. Having the “corner on the market” as a winter-flowering shrub has been a fruitful path for both Barkleyanthus and its loyal liaisons.

Rain falling in artful patterns. Landscapes promising palettes of wildflowers. A tropical shrub that against all logic makes its own cold weather butterfly garden, surviving bitter nights in the process. Go on a warm day and witness for yourself this perfect paradigm, these winter delights that ought not to be taken for granted. Gawk, inhale, gawk again, etc… 

Vincent Pinto and his wife, Claudia, run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS LLC, their Nature Adventure & Conservation organization devoted to protecting and promoting the unique biodiversity of the Sky Islands region. RWWJ offers a wide variety of private, custom-made courses, birding & biodiversity tours. Visit: