This spring's wildflower bloom so far has disappointed, but in most years Southern Californians fulfill an annual ritual when they drive to the region's interior deserts and inland valleys for a glimpse of the Golden State's annual floral spectacle. As striking as the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve may appear at springtime, many may not realize that any modern-day wildflower bloom, no matter how spectacular, pales in comparison to the show Southern California's native forbs once staged each year.
Before urban development encroached on open countryside -- and before invasive annual grasses crowded out native flora -- wildflowers blanketed hillsides and plains throughout the Los Angeles area.
In 1847, a soldier stationed in Los Angeles noted an impressive wildflower bloom on the outskirts of the city. "In the plain itself, the richest and most brilliant wildflowers flourish which far transcends all art," wrote J. W. Revere in "A Tour of Duty in California." "All colors, all shades of colors, all hues, all tints, all combinations are there to be seen. And the endless variety bewilder the senses. Perennial incense ascends to heaven from these fragrant plains."
Revere was describing the coastal plain of the Los Angeles Basin, today an expanse of strip malls, suburban homes, and industrial warehouses.
Sifting through descriptions such as Revere's, as well as earlier observations by some of the first European explorers in California, ecologist Richard Minnich in "California's Fading Wildflowers" has pieced together the forgotten story of springtime Southern California ablaze with wildflowers -- a story also told through a Huntington Library exhibition, "When They Were Wild: Recapturing California's Wildflower Heritage."
Diarists with the 18th-century Anza and Portola expeditions noted wildflowers seemingly everywhere. Among the earliest descriptions of the region's wildflowers is (possibly) the nickname sailors in the Manila galleon trade gave to the land: "tierra del fuego," or "land of fire." Some interpret the label as a metaphorical description of California's bright gold poppies in full bloom. (A less romantic reading might note the possibility of actual wildfires.).
According to Minnich, Southern California's springtime bloom faded as invasive species and an expanding city displaced native, flowering plants. Wildflowers retreated to ever-more distant fringes, to the point that today they're best found in nature preserves, separated from metropolitan Los Angeles by mountain ranges.
In 1876, the Los Angeles Basin's bloom was still showy enough to impress an Austrian prince on an extended stay in the city. "The fields in and about Los Angeles are particularly rich in flowers," wrote Archduke Ludwig Salvator. "Thus in March they appear to be cloaked in red; in April in blue; while in May they resemble passes of pure gold."
Three years later, botanist J.F. James described a similar scene. "In the vicinity of Los Angeles...the plains surrounding the city, the hills, and the valleys are one mass of gorgeous, brilliant flowers." James reserved special praise for the California poppy. "Never have I seen such a brilliant mass of color," he wrote. "I have one patch in my mind now which, seen on a bright clear day, was, with the sun shining full upon it, too dazzling for the eye to gaze upon."
One field of poppies above Pasadena became a famous tourist attraction. Often referred to as the Altar Cloth of San Pasqual -- a reference to a revered 16th-century Spanish friar who knelt among wildflowers to pray -- the poppy field attracted photographers and sightseers for decades, and the Mt. Lowe Railway added a Poppyfields station where passengers could stop to collect bouquets. Regional boosters often co-opted visual images and written descriptions of the poppies to paint Southern California as a terrestrial paradise. Like most wildflower fields, however, the Altar Cloth of San Pasqual did not survive. Today, the suburban homes of Altadena squat where poppies once shimmered in the springtime sun.
Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and institutions whose collections inform the great narrativein all its complex facetsof Southern California.