Like many artists, I gravitated to the desert because it inspired my work. Initially I perceived the desert as formless—a symbol for abstraction. Its subtle hues, the mystique and the expansiveness were all so mesmerizing.

Now a denizen of New Mexico, I cannot deny the desert’s sacredness. It still inspires contemplation and reverie. But, moving through the actual desert—and not just the idea of the desert—I find the life that fills the landscape is what’s most worthy of my attention. Not the desert’s barrenness. In spring and summer, the floras reveal themselves through unexpected, spectacular color.

“Well! The heart of man is known: It is a cactus bloom.” 

Delmore Schwartz, from The Ballad of the Children of the Czar

Then there are the cacti and their fantastic adaptations. Cacti have transferred photosynthesis from leaves to their complex, plump stem, and they have carefully cultivated leaflessness. Hardy and fierce, they store water in their stems and sport areoles––the furry spots from which spines and flowers emerge. Their spines, which are in fact highly modified leaves, have numerous functions and forms. In addition to protecting the cactus from thirsty birds and rodents, spines provide shade and reduce airflow over the surface of the plant so as to help prevent water loss. While not all cacti have spines and some spiny shrubs appear to be cacti, one surefire cactus indicator is flower anatomy. Almost all cacti have an inferior ovary located beneath the other flower parts and boast dozens of stamens, the pollen-producing organ of the flower. An ocotillo with its spiny branches may look like a cactus, but the flower proves otherwise. It is such a bizarre sight in the landscape, to see the ocotillo’s tall, craggy branches topped with red flowers.

While some plants are pollinated by wind, others must attract animals to help them procreate. These plants flaunt flowers that offer nectar to winged migrators, fueling their various journeys. The Sonoran, Mojave and Chihuahuan deserts are on the migration path of many winged pollinators, including hummingbirds, doves, bats and butterflies.The tube-like, bright-red ocotillo and penstemon blooms attract the rufous hummingbird. Their flower structure is a prime example of mutualism––how plant and animal have evolved together.

That these plants have adapted and developed these mutualistic relationships speaks to their survival and strength. Their glorious blooms––little markers of desert beauty––do their part in the grand scheme of nature to preserve their kind, and we must do our part to conserve the land and these species.


Interview has been edited and condensed, originally appearing in Wilder Quarterly.