.Painted Hills: Winter showers bring ‘super bloom’

As the onslaught of this year’s winter rains begin to subside, many botanists are saying this year could be the year of a super bloom, an event where regions receive greater than average numbers of wildflowers, particularly in the desert.

While the southern part of the state might be inundated with wildflowers in normally dry and dead deserts, this does not mean that the North Bay will be without some brightly lit hillsides and marvelous views.

California State Parks, at parks.ca.gov, has recommended Bay Area residents visit Mount Tamalpais, China Camp, Trione-Annadel and Sugarloaf state parks. There, residents will see some striking views of California poppies, Henderson’s shooting stars, blue dicks, trilliums, buttercups, calendula and countless more of the nearly 400 wildflower species in the region.

Naturalists and rangers at Marin County Parks recommend visiting Mount Burdell in Novato, and Ring Mountain, where one can see truly rare wildflowers in May, such as the Tiburon Mariposa Lily, only found at Ring Mountain Park.

Caitlin Cornwall, senior project manager for the Sonoma Ecology Center, recommended walking around Lake Suttonfield right outside of Glen Ellen.

“I went there last weekend,” Cornwall said, “and saw lupines, blue dicks, buttercups, popcorn flower, fiddle neck, hound’s-tongue and poppies.”

Cornwall also recommends visiting Jack London State Historic Park and North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park.

In Napa, city park ranger Erin Perna recommends driving out to Westwood hills to see large blooms of common fiddle neck flowers.

“It’s an orangey yellow wildflower that was growing in some pretty large areas that I haven’t seen grow in that magnitude,” said Perna. “So I wouldn’t be surprised if that ends up being its own sort of super bloom.”

While many flowers are already out, enjoying the small bits of sunlight between the storms, this does not mean that wildflowers will be plentiful this year. As Cornwall explained, since the North Bay has had so much precipitation over the course of the entire winter, it has given many faster growing grasses and invasive species the chance to crowd out native early blooming wildflowers, and just hide them from sight.

According to Cornwall, “the best years for wildflowers [in the North Bay] are years where we get almost no rain until late, like February, but of course those are bad years for water.”

However, with every species needing particular environments to thrive, residents will likely see many flowers blossom across the North Bay, though potentially just later in the spring season.

As Shannon Burke, interpretive naturalist for Marin County Parks, said, “The early blooming species have been a bit late this year, presumably due to colder temperatures, but where they are blooming, things like milk maids and warriors plume have been carpeting woodland areas.”

Burke went on to say, “The leaves that are pushing out right now of later blooming species are prolific, so it looks like once things warm up, we should get a fantastic bloom in April and May.”

This surge of plant growth, Burke pointed out, means that many animals across the North Bay and the state will be well fed this winter.

“The abundance of leaves feeds everything from rodents to rabbits to deer, as well as insects, including a great number of caterpillars—which are a crucial food source for songbird nestlings. And of course the carpets of wildflowers will support important pollinators like native bees, moths and beetles,” said Burke.

As the rains begin to ease and the wildflowers bloom, this also means a large number of tourists will likely drive from all over the state and country to Southern California to see the Mojave Desert light up with a potential super bloom.

With the presence of a greater number of people, the danger to damaging the wildflower blooms is even greater.

These desert super blooms are so rare and fragile that if one were to step on one area of wildflowers, that area could become devoid of flowers for years, seeing as the desert soils, when a bloom occurs, are much less resilient to trampling feet.

This does not mean, however, that people should be less considerate of the local blooms here in the Bay Area. Wildflowers in the grasslands of the Bay Area often grow in vernal pools where groundwater rises closer to the soil. In such a place as a vernal pool, especially like the ones created by recent rains in the desert, there is a greater vulnerability to trampling.

As Hannah Kang put it in Bay Nature in 2019, “Severe compaction, as might happen by a person running or jumping, or by lots of people walking over the same route, breaks up vast underground networks that move nutrients around. The social trails made by people attempting to get glamor shots in flowers can end up creating plant islands isolated from the bigger underground network.”

With concern growing for these wildflower blooms and humans’ impact on them, along with some towns being overcrowded in previous super blooms in Southern California, places such as Lake Elsinore and Anza-Borrego State Park are beginning to prepare for the waves of super bloom visitors. The town of Lake Elsinore, for one, is dissuading visitors from coming to their small town. Anza-Borrego State Park is preparing for the onslaught.

“Our staff, they’re very prepared [across the state] for this influx of visitors,” said Jorge Moreno, information officer for the Southern District of California State Parks.

The first known use of the term “super bloom” (sometimes spelled superbloom) was in the 1990s in Death Valley. Alan Van Valkenburg, a park ranger in Death Valley, said in a National Park press release in 2016 that he had “kept hearing the old timers talk about super blooms as a near mythical thing—the ultimate possibility of what a desert wildflower bloom could be.” Since this press release, the growth of the term “super bloom” has been used to describe larger than average wildflower blooms, often in deserts.

However, in ecological terms, botanist and UC Riverside professor Richard Minnich has said repeatedly throughout the years, the term means nothing. As Minnich said in 2019, “It’s all in the eye of the beholder.”

Perhaps, then, instead of taking the long drive to admire the colors of the Mojave Desert this spring, the residents of the Bay Area could stay at home, enjoying the marvels that linger under trees and grasses of the local wilderness, taking in the beauty of nature this area has to offer.

1 COMMENT

  1. This has been a better year for California wild flowers. Sadly, even as they bloom, the moronic grazing programs that rob both the tax payers and the wildlife are fully under way.
    Unless you thing spring’s bloom is meant to feed goats and cattle instead of help pollinators, RETHINK the myth of beneficial grazing.

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