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Miss The Anza-Borrego Bloom? The Mojave's Flowers are Just Getting Started

Spectacle pod blooming in the Mojave Desert | Photo: Louise Mathias
Spectacle pod blooming in the Mojave Desert | Photo: Louise Mathias

Carpets of desert flowers are currently filling Anza Borrego Desert State Park, and so are crowds of flower-seeking visitors. But the bloom won't end with Anza Borrego. As spring begins in earnest and the desert warms, a wave of bloom is heading north toward the Mojave Desert.

Even with the abundant rains most of the desert got this season, continued bloom is never a sure thing. There's always the chance that a sudden warm spell will dry the flowers oout, or a cold snap freeze buds before they open. But if the very beginnings of the Mojave's bloom are any indication, the high desert is in for a colorful spring.

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At this writing, the contrast between low desert and high is pretty stark. The Colorado Desert's bloom extends all the way to its northern edges, as for example in the eastern Coachella Valley.

Verbena and desert sunflowers near Indio | Photo: Louise Mathias
Verbena and desert sunflowers near Indio | Photo: Louise Mathias

Meanwhile, over much of the Mojave Desert, there are indeed flowers in bloom, but they tend so far to stick to the little islands of protected microclimates underneath larger shrubs like creosote bush.

Flowers cluster at the base of a creosote bush | Photo: Chris Clarke
Flowers cluster at the base of a creosote bush in the Sheephole Valley Wilderness | Photo: Chris Clarke

Not that there's sparse color in the Mojave. Those creosotes are bearing their own diminutive yellow flowers, and other shrubs are putting on a show as well: especially bladderpod, a reliable source of bright yellow even in the driest desert springs.

Bladderpod in bloom | Photo: Chris Clarke
Bladderpod in bloom | Photo: Chris Clarke

But even in the Mojave, the bare spots between the shrubs are beginning to show some color. Around Joshua Tree National Park this week, it doesn't take much exploring to find one of the desert's most delicate flowers: Eschscholzia minutiflora, a close relative of the California poppy whose flowers are usually less than a half inch in diameter.

Escholzia minutiflora, the miniature California poppy | Photo: Chris Clarke
Eschscholzia minutiflora | Photo: Chris Clarke

Look for these poppies especially along roadside berms, the edges of dry washes, and other places where their taproots can send themselves well down into the desert's gravelly soil.  

As long as you're on your stomach admiring the poppies, you might as well look for some woolly daisies too: their bright yellow blossoms are starting to punctuate the Mojave's hillsides now, but they're small enough that you could easily miss them if you're not careful.

Wooly daisy | Photo: Chris Clarke
Woolly daisy | Photo: Chris Clarke

There are other lone flowers coming up through the Mojave gravel as well, like the spectacle pod in the photo at the top of this post, desert sunflowers, and the the surprisingly complex flowers of desert salsify. 

Desert salsify | Photo: Chris Clarke
Desert salsify | Photo: Chris Clarke

You can also find increasing amounts of small flowers like the wild heliotrope, Phacelia distans, here shown at many times life size: 

Phacelia | Photo: Chris Clarke
Wild heliotrope | Photo: Chris Clarke

... as well as occasional thick patches of Cryptantha angustifolia, more easily referred to as the desert popcorn flower.

Popcorn flower | Photo: Chris Clarke
Popcorn flower | Photo: Chris Clarke
Eremothera boothii | Photo: Chris Clarke
Eremothera boothii | Photo: Chris Clarke

Other plants currently blooming in the Mojave include desert dandelions, blazing star, and, here and there, the evocatively named ghost flower. Along the southern edges of the Mojave, you can also find Eremothera boothii, a little annual member of the primrose family, in full bloom. Its flowers are worth a close look.

Desert lilies rise through a carpet of verbena, popcorn flower, and other blossoms at the Desert Lily Sanctuary | Photo: Chris Clarke
Desert lilies rise through a carpet of verbena, popcorn flower, and other blossoms at the Desert Lily Sanctuary | Photo: Chris Clarke

How soon might a more carpet-like display come to the Mojave? Not long, if current conditions in the Chuckwalla Valley are any indication. That valley, tucked into the east end of Joshua Tree National Park, is generally considered to be part of a transition zone between the Mojave and Colorado deserts. Its roadsides are ablaze in color from the yellow daisies of brittlebrush to the cooler hues of purple sand verbena.

A desert lily in bloom | Photo: Chris Clarke
A desert lily in bloom | Photo: Chris Clarke

And right about in the center of the valley, in a small botanical preserve managed by the Bureau of Land Management, a truly wonderful display is taking place right now.

The Desert Lily Sanctuary, established in 1994 as part of the California Desert Protection Act, encompasses about 2,000 acres of sandy-soiled, ironwood-forested transition zone that happens to preserve some of the best habitat for Hesperocallis undulata, a.k.a. the Preserve's namesake, the desert lily.

Even on a warm day, the Sanctuary is a nice place to explore, as long as you be sure to bring sufficient water (a gallon per person is a good start) and protection from the sun: a broad-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shorts and light trousers, and so forth. There's a small parking lot outside the fence along the paved road, but a somewhat rugged dirt road along the north boundary of the Sanctuary will get you farther toward the back of the plot.

Desert lilies don't populate the entire Sanctuary, though that's hardly a flaw, given the gorgeous mixed bosques of ironwood and mesquite and palo verde with washes weaving through them. But fortunately for those of you disinclined to venture far from the pavement, some of the best stands of lilies are right up along the road. They're about two feet tall on average, enough altitude to distinguish them from the carpet of flowers that surrounds them

In the Mojave proper, north of Joshua Tree, desert lilies are only a couple of weeks behind, which indicates that much of the southern Mojave will be full of color in a couple of weeks. And then comes the Mojave Trails National Monument, the Mojave National Preserve, and parts north.

In other words, the desert's gone out of its way to be flexible in 2017. If you can't squeeze in a trip to the desert to see blooms this year, you might want to rethink the way in which you're living your life. 

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