SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA WILDFLOWERS– BEAUTIFUL BUT SOMETIMES DANGEROUS
From March to April of this year, thousands of visitors flocked to the deserts, pulled off along highways, or traversed mountains to stand among expansive fields of flowers— known colloquially as the super bloom— to catch a glimpse of the scenic sensation. For one blissful month, traditionally barren landscapes of the California desert came alive with vibrant orange poppies, delicately-curved fiddleneck flowers, lilies, and primrose.
WHAT IS A SUPER BLOOM?— Super bloom is a common term used to describe the time when wildflower numbers surpass those seen during a typical spring. Last year’s wet fall and winter season delivered enough rain to reach the seeds and bulbs that have been lying dormant beneath the soil and to California’s drought (for the time being). The result— an explosion of flowers in fields across the state.
After reading about the wildflower blooms early in March, I packed up the car and drove towards the hills of Acton and then farther to the desert surrounding Red Rock Canyon State Park to see which wildflowers we might find. What we discovered was an abundance of brilliantly colored flowers and hordes of people stopping anywhere these flowers grew to photograph the underrated beauty of desert flowers growing amidst red sandy rocks.
AFTER THE FLAMES— Less than a year after California mountainsides were devastated by widespread wildfires, mustard, poppies, and native flowers are blossoming in full force. Chaparral lands are full of shrubs and plants that have adapted to fire. In the forest, fires are actually a mechanism for regeneration. Some species, such as the jack pine, even rely on fire to spread the seeds which are trapped inside of their durable cones until freed by the heat of the flames. While the immediate aftermath of a fire highlights destruction, fires have the ability to spread seed far and wide. When a period of heavy rains follows a season rife with wildfires, it’s the perfect formula for massive blooms!
WHEN REGENERATION BECOMES A PROBLEM— Drive across California and it’s likely you’ll encounter fields of wild mustard towering over the heads of anyone less than seven feet tall. While wildflowers like poppies are native to California, mustard is an invasive species that was introduced to the Pacific coast by Franciscan Padres, who scattered seeds of the fast-growing plant in order to navigate the path between San Diego and San Francisco.
Mustard is one of the first plants to spring up after a fire and while their bold, yellow color offers a striking contrast to the black-charred aftermath of a fire, invasive mustard can be dangerous. Not only is dried mustard quick to catch fire, but shallow-rooted plants like these cannot hold soils as well as native shrubs. This compounds the threat of erosion in burned areas. Presently over 300 species of nonnative plants, like mustard, can be found in California’s Santa Monica mountains— an area recently affected by the highly-destructive Woolsey fire.
Not all wildflowers present the same problems that mustard and thistle do. California Native flowers like the poppy and the fiddleneck (photographed below) offer a beautiful but fleeting insight to nature’s resilience after drought and fire.
IS IT TOO LATE TO CATCH WILDFLOWERS? Though the blooms have begun to fade in popular locations like California’s Anza Borrego and Carrizo Plain, wildflower season is still among us. Right after the flashy forerunners of the super bloom, many impressive natives, trees, annuals, and shrubs will begin to flower. For those looking to experience the beauty of California’s spring wildflowers, there is no better resource than the acclaimed Theodore Payne Wild Flower Hotline. Since its founding in 1983, the hotline has recorded free weekly updates about the best spots to see wildflowers from March through May.
As the mountains around my home begin to dry, I am hopeful that the beauty I encountered at the start of Spring will carry me through another hot, dry summer. What wild beauty from your region will you carry with you this year?