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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Winter showers (and showers and showers) bring a bounty of wildflowers

Wildflowers in a neighborhood in Glendale, Calif., on Feb. 20, 2023.

By Jill Cowan

Torrential downpours this winter sent California residents fleeing from floods and mudslides. Blizzards dumped snow in the mountains, trapping locals in their homes for weeks. Hulking trees crashed into homes and severed power lines.

After such a disastrous start to the year, it may be a while before nature can fully recompense Californians for their struggles.

But the succession of atmospheric rivers did deliver relief from a prolonged drought. And it left behind other rewards that are only now emerging: The state is awash in color, from the Eastern Sierra to Malibu, from the deserts near San Diego to the meadows north of Sacramento.

“This is how we feed our souls,” said Heather Schneider, a rare-plant biologist with the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

California is experiencing a “super bloom,” an explosion of floral color across hillsides and valleys that occurs only after a particularly wet season. The last time the state experienced the phenomenon on a widespread basis was four years ago — and with California’s boom-bust cycles of precipitation, it is anyone’s guess when the next one will come.

In dry years, many annual wildflower seeds lie dormant in the fragile layers of soil where their parents dropped them, waiting for rain so they can germinate. If enough water arrives, those flowers burst through, in an almost alchemical combination of moisture, temperature, timing and location.

California poppies in recent weeks have turned rolling hillsides into flame-orange canvasses in the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles. Carpets of yellow goldfields and purple phacelia have unfurled at the Carrizo Plain National Monument, the largest intact grassland in the state’s Central Valley, about 70 miles west of Bakersfield. The flowers are so densely packed across wide swaths of land that recent satellite images look like they’ve been touched by a painter’s brush.

For scientists like Schneider, who has been periodically visiting the Carrizo Plain for research, this year’s flower bonanza is a prime opportunity to study ecosystems similar to those that may be lost to development or agriculture elsewhere. This year, she said, the sustained precipitation and colder temperatures were likely to give her and other researchers more time to study wildflowers than in past wet years.

Different flower species thrive in subtly different conditions. And botanists have predicted that this year’s wildflower season could extend through the spring and into the summer, particularly at higher elevations.

“I kind of think of it in waves of color,” Schneider said. Yellow is typically first, she noted. Then purple.

As with many attractions in the state of nearly 40 million residents, too much attention can create problems. Super blooms — a term that emerged around 2016 and does not have a scientific definition — became more fraught with the rise of social media.

In 2019, a handful of locations turned into destinations for flower seekers trying to capture photos of themselves that could go viral. The best-known example that year was a lush poppy bloom in Lake Elsinore, about 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles, that attracted hundreds of thousands of people.

The most popular slopes were on the side of an interstate freeway, and there was no parking lot because there was no park.

Visitors stopped on the side of the roadway and filled adjacent roads, grinding traffic to a standstill. A California Highway Patrol officer was struck and killed while he was working to manage traffic related to the bloom.

Officials in Riverside County likened the situation to a natural disaster.

This February, after an initial series of storms soaked the state and speculation about another super bloom percolated, Lake Elsinore leaders tried to get ahead of similar chaos by announcing that Walker Canyon, the area that had been overrun in 2019, would be closed off.

Natasha Johnson, Lake Elsinore’s mayor, noted bare patches of ground among the orange blooms as she walked up the Walker Canyon trail about a week after county and city officials announced they would shut access this year. Johnson said the gaps in the bloom were the result of heavy pedestrian traffic four years ago.

“By allowing the massive crowds that happened in 2019, the bloom is seeing impacts,” she said. “What you’re seeing isn’t as spectacular.”

Jonathan Reinig, a natural resources manager for Riverside County, said last week that park rangers positioned near the entrance to Walker Canyon had continued to turn away as many as 50 would-be poppy visitors per day.

“The local public opinion is overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “They’re not having, quote-unquote, ‘their’ poppies trampled by these outsiders.”

But the closure does mean that fewer people were able to enjoy the Lake Elsinore super bloom. Evan Meyer, director of the Theodore Payne Foundation, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that focuses on native plants, said officials should find ways to get more people outdoors rather than keep them away.

“What we need is foresight and planning to develop a very well-thought-out strategy to make sure people get to experience this amazing gift from nature,” he said. “If we don’t, we’ll see more situations like Lake Elsinore, which is really sad.”

In recent weeks, there have been lines to enter some of the most popular parks for wildflower viewing, such as the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. The California State Parks system, which includes the reserve, ramps up staffing each spring to accommodate crowds, officials said. Park staff members and volunteers have also worked to educate visitors about keeping the sensitive plants safe.

The super bloom conditions are also helping flowers flourish in home gardens. After years of drought, an increasing number of California residents have ripped out their lawns and sprinklers and replaced them with native plants.

Over about 15 years, Chris Elwell, 56, and his husband have filled the yard of their century-old craftsman in Los Angeles with native shrubs, grasses and bulbs, including calochortus, which, Elwell noted with delight, is now flowering — purple and white and yellow.

“What else is neat is that things are blooming longer,” he said, “so I’m getting to see them together.”

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