The Night-Blooming Cereus: Tucson’s Queen of the Night
One of the coolest things to do in Tucson involves nightfall, an open schedule, and an unusual and scarce plant – just one of the many strange and wonderful plants that fill our desert home.
Resembling tall, parched sticks, the night-blooming cereus (peniocereus greggii) looks ordinary – some say ugly – 364 days a year. For this reason, the plant is not a common presence in Tucson gardens, but can often be found growing wild and unnoticed in the desert.
But one night a year, usually in mid to late June and between 9pm and midnight, the night-blooming cereus is spectacular. Each plant slowly unfurls one large white bloom, whose size, striking appearance and distinct scent has led to the night-blooming cereus’ nickname, “Queen of the Night.” Groups of plants in proximity bloom on the same night, allowing the plants to be cross-fertilized by the sphinx moth, peniocereus greggii’s only pollinator.
The best place to see a night-blooming cereus is at Tohono Chul Park, a few minutes’ drive from Westward Look. Named one of the world’s top 10 botanical gardens by Travel & Leisure magazine, Tohono Chul would be a highlight of any plant lover’s Tucson visit. At last count, the park’s collection of 350 night-blooming cereus plants – including a few with unusual pink blooms – is the largest in the U.S.
Each year – usually in June – the park hosts Bloom Night, a much-awaited Tucson tradition. Thousands of cereus plant watchers troop to the park, clutching flashlights to hike winding trails lit by luminarias (Mexican-style paper lanterns), and taking surreal photos of the ghostly, moonlight-white blooms. An intense vanilla-like fragrance fills the air. By sunrise a few hours later, the flowers are gone.
You can, of course, see the night-blooming cereus in other gardens, such as the University of Arizona Cactus Garden, Saguaro National Park, and the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. But you would have to pinpoint the one night a year that those particular plants pick to bloom – a stubborn scarcity that only adds to the plants’ allure.
As we post this in mid-June, Bloom Night 2013 has not yet been announced. There is only two to three days’ notice each year, which makes it tough to plan a short vacation around it. But if your Tucson visit happens to coincide with the Queen of the Night‘s yearly appearance, it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.
Tucson is a wonderful destination, especially during summer
Some visitors boast summer is their favorite season in Tucson. Yes, 100-degree days are not unheard of (but not daily occurrences, either). The heat takes time to build, and, with no humidity, our days are hot – but not sweaty – and our desert nights are very pleasant. We call it a dry heat! Tucson can be about five to 10 degrees cooler than Phoenix in hotter months.
Summer is also the season for value specials – as museums, golf courses and other attractions roll out the welcome mat. Our support team will be happy to track down activities you’re sure to enjoy.
A few tips for planning your summer excursions:
- Pack sunglasses, hats and sunscreen, and take along plenty of water.
- Set your golf game, trail ride or hike from about 6 a.m. It sounds early, but desert mornings are so beautiful you’ll want to wake up to enjoy!
- The sun’s at its peak from 1 to 3 p.m., the perfect time for lunch, a spa treatment, or a visit to one of the many galleries and museums in Tucson – including the Mini-Time Machine (exquisite dollhouses, miniatures and the like) and the Franklin Museum (for fans of classic early automobiles). Art photography lovers will relish a visit to the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.
Summer in Tucson is also the best time to appreciate the winding drive up Catalina Highway to Mount Lemmon, feeling the temperature drop and seeing cacti give way to pine trees as you ascend. With a peak elevation of just above 9,000 feet, Mount Lemmon is one of Tucson’s favorite summer spots and offers some genuinely jaw-dropping views.
Of course, one of the great pleasures of summer in Tucson is simply relaxing – lazing by the pool; nursing a cold, slushy umbrella type drink; and dreaming. Check out our current Tropical Escape package, and you’ll find at Westward Look, we’ve got that covered, too.
Tucson is a top birdwatching destination
Warblers, flycatchers, pewees, trogons – not exactly words you find in the typical glossy brochure. But to devoted birders, they’re irresistible.
The region’s many birding groups – including the Tucson Audubon Society and the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory – divide the year into five seasons, each with different species to scout. We’re now deep into spring, when songbirds stop in on their flights north; the hummingbirds are back; and owling is in full swing. The next big season for birding begins in August, as monsoon rains transform the Sonoran Desert almost overnight, making it irresistible to winged visitors (and to photographers).
But, really, anytime is a good time for birdwatching in Tucson. More than 400 species regularly visit throughout the year, making Southern Arizona one of the most rewarding North American birding destinations. This link shows you some of the bird species that call Tucson home.
Some feathered families have even taken up residence in Westward Look, nestled as we are on 80 quiet acres in the Catalina Mountain foothills. Come for a visit, and you’ll see that not only are we within a short drive of several birdwatching areas (as well as renowned parks including Tohono Chul), but our Sonoran Spa is the perfect place to put down the binoculars and recover. You may even meet some of our long-term residents!
What to pack, what to wear in Tucson
Tucson is many things, but the bastion of formalwear it is not. Like most western U.S. cities, Tucson is a laid-back town. The casual culture here has even spawned its own dress code: “Tucson casual.” What is Tucson casual? In the most general terms, it’s comfortable clothing that is neither ratty nor formal. It’s what you would consider “country club casual” in many places.
Tucson’s take on country club casual includes the guayabera (pronounced why-a-BEAR-uh), also called the “Mexican wedding shirt,” also known as Tucson’s unofficial men’s shirt. There are versions of the guayabera all over the world, but they’re very popular in Cuba, Mexico and the Philippines (where they are called “barong” shirts). Typically, the guayabera is made from linen or cotton with four pockets, two panels of embroidery or pleats and a hem, so it’s worn outside pants.
Tucson casual includes sandals (please, men, no socks with the sandals!). It can even extend to nice shorts for lunch (they’re frowned upon for nighttime dining; Paul Newman got away with it here, but you may not). Leather loafers are also popular. Polo shirts, short-sleeved button-down shirts and nice T-shirts paired with a jacket are considered Tucson casual.
Women don’t seem to struggle too much with the concept of Tucson casual. For women, a simple blouse and skirt will suffice as will a full-fledged ranch-style prairie skirt and peasant blouse. Well-kept jeans, slacks, capris, sneakers, designer heels, boots sandals – they all are Tucson casual, too.
For those who want to dress western, cowboy hats and boots with starched jeans are common here. While men might shun the formal business suit and tie – especially in the hotter months – don’t forget about Arizona’s official tie: The bola, which has its own range of casual to very expensively decorated versions and often comes decorated with the official state gemstone, turquoise.
If you’re going somewhere that requires “Tucson casual” and you have second thoughts about what you were going to wear because it’s either too formal or too casual, don’t wear it. Be comfortable, look nice and you will be Tucson casual.
Tucson knows … all Mexican food is not created equal!
Want to get some Mexican food in Tucson? Well, you can’t throw a taco farther than you can find a Mexican restaurant in Tucson. Most of the local restaurants serve Sonoran-style Mexican food, which isn’t always available outside of the Southwest. So what you think of as Mexican food may not be on menus here, which are based on the traditions of the large state just across the border: Sonora, Mexico.
What’s Sonoran Mexican food? Typically, it’s dishes with refried pinto beans, not black beans, which are more typical of Mexico City-style food. Given the Sonoran Desert’s vast stretches of land, northern Mexicans tended to keep more cattle than the rest of the country. So, traditional dishes used more beef, mostly grilled, reflecting the ranchero lifestyle. That’s what “carne” means. Carne asada is the Mexican barbecued beef – thinly sliced skirt steak, served in soft tortillas with your choice of condiments. Carne seca is dried, spiced beef often used for machaca when mixed with such ingredients as peppers, chiles and eggs.
Sonoran Mexican food uses more flour tortillas than the rest of Mexico, where corn is more plentiful. The popularity of flour tortillas gave rise in the northern part of the country to the ubiquitous burrito, which is often filled with machaca. Thank Sonora for the creation, also, of the breakfast burrito, which is featured on our GOLD breakfast menu with Pepper Jack cheese and choice of chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage) or bacon. Flour tortillas are also used for quesadillas, which are on the menus at GOLD and the Lookout Bar & Grille with chicken, peppers and cheese folded inside the grilled tortilla.
One favorite specialty in Tucson is the early summer green corn tamale, which takes the tender young cornmeal made into masa (dough) into which kernel corn, green chiles, cheese and an olive is usually stuffed, then wrapped in corn husks and steamed.
Finally, there is the famous Sonoran hot dog. There’s some dispute as to the inventor, but many credit Tucsonan Daniel Contreras, whose red hair gave rise to his nickname and the name of his chain of restaurants, El Güero Canelo. For the uninitiated, a hot dog is wrapped in bacon and enveloped in a soft Mexican roll topped with pinto beans, tomatoes, onions, jalapeño sauce, cheese, mayo, ketchup and mustard. Numerous curbside stands serve them in Tucson, in addition to brick-and-mortar restaurants.
And what’s a heaping plate of Sonoran Mexican food without an ice-cold cerveza or stiff margarita … well, that’s a blog in itself! ¡Salud!
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