Chasing the Bloom

Desert dandelion in the San Jacinto Mountains | Photo by Chris Clarke

Record rains fell on the California deserts in the 2004-5 wet season. In August 2004 a storm roared down Furnace Creek in Death Valley, tearing out three miles of road, killing two motorists and carrying two 24-ton concrete outhouses 200 feet downhill. The next six months weren't any drier. The desert's dry lakes filled with blue water, the usually-dry Mojave River ran steadily through downtown Barstow, and from January through May a record-setting carpet of bloom covered the desert landscape in yellow, pink and purple.

We didn't get quite so much rain last winter, and thus the bloom this year isn't as spectacular as it was in Ought-Five. But even an “unspectacular” desert bloom can be pretty darned good, and now's the time to go see it.

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You've got a chance to witness some good floral displays no matter where you go in the California desert this week, even in places not usually known for their bloom. Driving along Route 58 between Boron and Mojave this past weekend, for instance, I was surprised to see a thick orange carpet of goldfields lining the usually open ground between clumps of burrobush. Along roadsides and in developed areas throughout the western Mojave you're likely to find a lot of desert dandelion, which is both tougher and more attractive than its domestic namesake.

Venture farther east or south and your options are likely even better. On a hike in the northeastern part of Anza Borrego Desert State Park a couple weeks ago, I spied about two dozen species in bloom including the little gold poppy, which resembles its cousin the California golden poppy in all respects but for its petals, which are no more than a quarter-inch long. Purple lupines and brown-eyed primroses were blossoming in abundance as well. Though it's been a couple of weeks since my hike, flowers are still going in the park's higher elevations and in canyons. The park's spiny, 12-foot ocotillos are in full bloom right now, and blooming chuparosa is attracting clouds of Costa's hummingbirds -- the smallest hummingbird in the US. The low desert's cacti have been blooming for about a month, and you can still catch them. Check for updates at Anza Borrego Desert State Park's website.

Though I failed to find much in the way of flowers along the northern edge of Joshua Tree National Park when I drove eastward along Route 62 two weeks ago, the southern entrance to that same park is now awash in bloom. David Lamfrom, the California Desert Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, reports that the approach to the Park's Cottonwood Entrance from Interstate 10 east of Indio is flanked by thick displays of goldfields, Canterbury bells, poppies and chia. “If you walk out into the chia,” says Lamfrom, “when you brush against the plants they release an intoxicating cloud of mint aroma. It's really marvelous.”

There are one or two popular wildflower viewing spots that aren't having a banner year in Spring 2011. At the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, a combination of factors have blunted the profusion of poppies, which usually reach peak bloom in mid-April. Rather than a solid carpet of blazing orange, the poppies will be blooming here and there over a delayed season. That's not to say that the reserve isn't worth a visit; according to the Reserve's website, there are plenty of other species in bloom, from “grape soda” lupine to owl's clover. So it'll be a bit more purple than usual at the Poppy Reserve.

The low desert's cover of brittlebush, a large aromatic shrub that covers itself in yellow daisies in early spring, has taken something of a beating in the last few weeks as two early hot spells pushed temperatures into triple digits. But at Whitewater Canyon Preserve, nestled in the San Bernardino Mountains among the giant windmills of San Gorgonio Pass, you can still catch this remarkable plant in action. Called “incienso” by the Mission-era Spanish for its aromatic dried sap, brittlebush is a distinctly pleasant shrub to hike through. At Whitewater, it's accompanied by bush poppy and keckiella.

If you'd rather try to see brittlebush earlier in its bloom, you can always head north and uphill. The Mojave National Preserve reports that brittlebush is still doing quite well there in the middle elevations, along with chia and desert dandelion and a number of flowering cacti. The Mojave National Preserve is a four-hour drive from Los Angeles, so you may want to make this trip an overnight excursion. As Zach Behrens reported here earlier, the Mojave National Preserve Conservancy is hosting a Star Party this Saturday evening at the Preserve's Hole In The Wall campground; you might consider taking advantage of the free camping, spend an enjoyable night looking through giant telescopes, then walk the Preserve on Sunday morning looking for wildflowers. (Full disclosure: I'm a member of the Conservancy's Board of Directors, will be at the event, and plan on a Sunday morning hike on the Barber Peak Loop trail. If you do come, introduce yourself and consider joining me on the hike.)

Want other ideas for places to see wildflowers? Southern California has hundreds of them, from the Owens Valley to the Santa Rosa Mountains. The Theodore Payne Foundation has been an invaluable resource for native plant lovers for years, and their spring wildflower hotline provides week-by-week reports of what's hot in desert bloom. They also offer information on coastal wildflower displays for the less-aridly inclined among you. Check 'em out.

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