Up The Road: Wildflowers, The Most Ephemeral Desert Beauty

Feb 8, 2017

This week I encourage you to consider heading up the road to the California deserts this spring, especially if you’ve never been during a rain-induced “big bloom.” The phenomenon is fairly rare. Drought-adapted wildflowers and other desert plants need very specific conditions to risk blooming, to risk producing seed or otherwise reproducing. This may be an excellent year to enjoy this surprising wildflower display, a sequential, sometimes truly spectacular display of ephemeral beauty. It all depends. More on that in a minute.

This subject first caught my attention many decades ago, the year my family headed south to the desert for spring vacation, a week of camping and hiking in the company of local botanist Wes Dempsey and his family, who went to our church. Being a child, what I remember are rock-throwing contests—kill the can, you know that one—and roasting (burning) marshmallows and telling scary stories around the campfire just before we had to creep out into the pitch-black night to crawl into our sleeping bags. You know. Kid stuff. But I like to think that some of what we learned out in the desert that week later nudged me toward biology in college, botany and ecology in particular. Who could know how well learning to look closely, to focus attention on detail, would serve me, later? I sure didn’t.

Joshua trees with wildflowers, Joshua Tree National Park
Credit Photo by Rennett Stowe

There’s much to be gained by being a careful observer. Take, for example, Mary Austin’s description of the desert’s powerful night sky in her 1903 book The Land of Little Rain. It’s clear she knew the land intimately, and was humbled by the relationship: “For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives compensations,” she wrote, “deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars. . . . It is hard to escape the sense of mastery as the stars move in the wide clear heavens to risings and settings unobscured. They look large and near and palpitant; as if they moved on some stately service not needful to declare. Wheeling to their stations in the sky, they make the poor world-fret of no account. Of no account you who lie out there watching, nor the lean coyote that stands off in the scrub from you and howls and howls.”

Rain is part of what makes a memorable desert bloom, but not just lots of rain. It has to come in the right amounts at the right times, so the moisture soaks deep into the soil and stays there long enough to seep into hard seed coats. Too much rain, though, can wash seeds away or cause them to rot. Temperatures in the Mojave Desert—and big spring blooms are largely, though not exclusively, a Mojave Desert phenomenon—have to be warm, too, coming, again, at just the right times. So once you decide where you and yours want to head up the road to seek out desert wildflowers, be sure to call or check the websites of relevant parks and reserves ahead of time, to check on conditions. Because of local microclimates, even in years of average rain some areas may put on a dazzling flower show, so it’s always wise to check in. The flower shower usually peaks in early March at low elevations, but the timeline shifts about two weeks for every 1,000-foot gain in elevation. The Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants  offers the best week-by-week regional flower report around.

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve: Macro view, micro view
Credit Photo by Eileen Inca

Try to come on a weekday, to avoid the worst of the wildflower-crazed crowds. Also, give yourself plenty of time to explore trails and otherwise just wander. There’s a lot to see. People are often surprised to learn that plant and animal life in the desert is so abundant, and quite diverse—more than 2,000 native plant species, for example, including grasses, annuals, perennial herbs, shrubs, and trees. When such glorious variety is in full bloom, fully appreciate it.

And just where should you go to revel in the desert flower frenzy? Wonderful for a day trip in a good year is the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve west of Lancaster, with meandering trails, benches for resting, and picnic tables. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park east of San Diego is often spectacular, with great plant variety and vast expanses. Ditto for the Mojave National Preserve in the high desert, and also Joshua Tree National Park and other natural areas near Palm Springs. Then of course there’s Death Valley National Park southeast of the Sierra Nevada, some 3.4 million acres of scenery to die for. Like many areas, 2016 was the best wildflower year in a decade. Will 2017 trump that?