GV Gardeners: Spring winds blowing in the desert

This Barrel Cactus is covered with sharp thorns that help to break up the force of gusty spring winds that hit it; therefore preventing damage to the blooming plant.

Many windy days are the result of passing storm fronts. In addition, daytime heating and evening cooling of the desert floor may act to create local winds. Daytime warm air rises and is replaced with cooler air that drains through surrounding canyons, mountain passes, and arroyos.

Windblown air pulls more moisture from the soil than would otherwise evaporate in still air. Hot, dry air blowing around plants and people dehydrates them, creating acute water needs. This is where good water management becomes important.

Wildlife has learned to huddle, burrow, and hide when winds begin to rise. Plants cope with the help of built-in defenses. As an example, cactus thorns break up the force of the wind which protects the plant from damage. Many desert native plants have thin, flexible branches allowing wind to pass through. Creosote bush is a good example of this adaptation.

In certain deserts, there are plants that grow so fast that during windy periods the growing stems remain above the windblown sand, never buried completely.

Wind is essential for seed dispersal of many plants. During windy springs, Cottonwood trees along the Santa Cruz River release large amounts of seed contained in cotton-like bolls. This “fluff” with seed intact may travel for miles on wind currents.

Driving along I-8 toward San Diego during certain times of the year, it may be necessary to play “dodge-em” with huge rolls of tumbleweed which seem to appear out of nowhere. These bundles gain speed in the wind and quickly become safety hazards on desert highways. The plant is Russian Thistle which as rolling through, is scattering seeds by the thousands.

The wind can also take care of needed pruning. It blows down dead branches, weak wood, old leaves, and sometimes entire trees. To keep from losing a whole tree, reduce the canopy by careful thinning of inside branches. This allows the wind to find its way through the tree.

Pollen counts and air pollution percentages rise considerably during windy months in the desert. For the plants, it is a matter of survival of the species. However, for people, it has much to do with scratchy eyes, sore throats, runny noses, and repeated sneezing spells.

A desert is defined as having low humidity, with usually less than 10 inches of annual rainfall, high daytime temperatures, and abundant wind. Annoying as it seems, wind this time of year plays a number of important roles in the desert.

In the garden there is the rearrangement of soil and the gift of many new seed-produced plant surprises. Additionally, when gardening on a hot, windy day you may expel 1 quart per hour of toxin-laden perspiration!

Instead of April showers bringing May flowers, it can be April winds bringing May winds … or even June winds. To live in the desert is to become accustomed to the wind!

Mary Kidnocker is a University of Arizona Master Gardener who lives in the Green Valley area. Her articles are featured weekly.