Despite its lush, tropical garden appearance today, Los Angeles is actually semi-arid, closer to desert than oasis. Through the marvel of modern irrigation, we’ve been tricked into believing otherwise. Left to its natural state, LA gets next to no rain for six months out of the year, with its average of nearly 15 inches usually coming during the winter months. But in California, averages rarely tell the true story. More often, years are either wet or dry, alternating in cycles of about a decade. As most everyone has heard by now, California has been in a severe drought for the last five years, and for several years LA has seen only 5 or 6 inches of rain. This winter was a different story. Relentless rains in January and Februrary dropped that much in a matter of weeks, and the landscape began to transform.
Steady winter rain that soaks the ground causes seeds that have lain dormant for decades to spring into bloom as the weather warms. If the weather gets too hot too fast, or dry winds without rain sap them of moisture, they’ll go to seed early and begin the long wait for the next ideal season. Blooming en masse helps the flowers attract more bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds than the desert normally sees. Successful mass pollination ensures future super blooms will be possible.
Because they require the perfect alchemy of conditions, not all areas experience super blooms at the same time. Last year, el Niño rains brought major blooms to Death Valley and the western Mojave grasslands, with the salt flats of the Badwater Basin carpeted in desert gold sunflowers and the rolling green hills of the Antelope Valley undulating with bright orange poppies and contrasting purple lupine.
This year, the pattern migrated south. The hillsides of Walker Canyon near Lake Elsinore burst into orange and purple blooms in early March. Visible from the 5 freeway, the view caused massive traffic jams as people slowed to take pictures from their cars or exited up the rural canyon road, itching to get closer. Ninety miles to the southeast, the usually sleepy Borrego Valley in Anza-Borrego State Park had its own moment in the spotlight this spring when color began erupting out of the dusty soil. Dozens of species of wildflowers began appearing in a rolling bloom, with new sets sprouting as earlier blooms withered.
For those who know the desert, who have seen how tan and parched it can get, the explosion of color is magnificent. But if you’ve never been to Anza-Borrego, never seen it in its usual costume of muted greens and earth tones, you may not realize just how remarkable a sight it is. NASA satellite images have even shown that the colorful washes of flowers are visible from space.
Tourists flock to the super bloom epicenters, but there are flowers to be seen all over the California deserts. Though not having a super bloom this year, the dense Joshua tree forests of Mojave National Preserve are still teeming with lovely flowers, like the delicate peachy orange of the globe mallow or the vibrant blood red of the claret cup cactus, strikingly growing from rocky outcrops.
Because such flowers are perennials, the plants can survive on the normally scarce desert water, drawing it up from underground sources with their deeper roots. In comparison, many of the super bloom species are ephemerals, lasting only one season and spending most of their life cycle lying dormant as seeds.
California was settled by people from the East, who assumed that the land should be green. But in California as in much of the West, cycles of drought and deluge are the natural state. Even in drought years, the land is able to support vegetation, drawing water up from vast underground aquifers. Along with the palm oasis, the cottonwood tree is the great marker of water in the Colorado desert, and in higher elevations stands of juniper and pinyon pine signal hidden springs fed along fault lines.
Native Americans were well aware of these water sources and planned their trade routes to follow them. The Mojave trail, which later became a wagon road for settlers in the mid 19th century, traveled west from the Colorado river past a series of natural springs before turning south, following the Mojave river upstream towards its source near the Cajon pass. Unusually, the Mojave river flows mostly underground, except for a few spots where dense bedrock forces it to the surface. Heavy snows in the San Bernardino mountains in wet years feed the river and its aquifer, and the cycle begins again.
The higher elevations will continue to see blooms into late spring, but in most areas the super bloom has now faded. Outside our studio windows, the hills of Los Angeles and the surrounding areas have begun to return to their usual golden brown. As spring rolls into summer and the heat parches the land, wildflowers give way to wildfires. Along with drought, fire is seen as the ultimate threat to our survival in California, but in many ways it is a part of the same natural cycle, preparing the land to make the most of the rains to come.
Fire clears dry brush to allow new plants the room to grow, and its ashes fertilize the soil. The seeds of some plants, like the giant sequoia, even require the heat of fire in order to germinate. Like the desert wildflowers, their seeds can lie dormant for years waiting for the right conditions. Just as the fires clear the way for new growth, so the dry years will save our seeds for the super blooms to come.