ANZA-BORREGO DESERT STATE PARK — Margie Malone had never seen anything like it: purple monkey flowers, tiny white popcorn flowers and yellow poppies with blossoms no larger than a nail head, all blooming in the desert sand at her feet.
"I had no idea that flowers so small and so delicate could exist out here," said Malone. "I thought we'd walk for miles and miles and find maybe one cactus in bloom."
Malone and her mother, Maria Wolter, were among a busload of people who traveled Saturday to the desert in eastern San Diego County to look for spring wildflowers. The all-day trip, sponsored by the San Diego Natural History Museum, was led by three plant experts: Geoff Levin, the museum's curator of botany; Pat Flanagan, a longtime desert naturalist, and Tom Oberbauer, a field-trip leader for the San Diego chapter of the California Native Plant Society.
Many people visit the desert on their own to look for wildflowers each spring, but a group trip in the company of experts has several advantages, according to Levin. "One thing we do is take people places where they can see a lot of flowers they might not find themselves," he pointed out. "Many desert flowers are small and inconspicuous, and unless you get down on your belly," you can miss them.
"Another thing we do is talk a lot about the adaptations of various plants to the desert environment--how they cope with the irregular rainfall, the heat and the wind."
It also can be difficult to try to identify plants from a book. "It's easier to find out what they are by having someone tell you," Oberbauer said.
That's exactly why Malone, 26, signed up for the trip. A printing and graphics coordinator for the Chart House restaurant chain, she moved to San Diego from Michigan 18 months ago and is "trying to educate myself on the native plants of the area. It's just a hobby-interest I have. I'm a real beginner.
"But I thought this would be a better introduction than a book on desert wildflowers. I'd rather learn what they are first and then look in a book and say, 'I saw that.' "
Susan and Cal Williams came along for a different reason. Susan, 34, works as a stockbroker at E.F. Hutton, while Cal, 30, writes software for Overland Data in Kearny Mesa. But they sometimes lead weekend outings to the desert for the Sierra Club "and a lot of the people on the outings ask us, 'What plant is that?' " said Cal.
"I know the cactus and agave, but that's about all I know. This trip gives me a chance to bone up on what the other plants are."
Not everyone who goes on the excursions is bent on learning how to tell creosote from brittlebush. William Finch, 65, a retired Caltrans worker who now lives in Penasquitos, said he's "not especially interested in plants. But I've come (on the museum's desert trips) for three years in a row.
"It's nice to get away from the fog and cloudiness of San Diego. And the blooming plants can look spectacular."
This year the group disembarked from the bus near the mouth of Indian Canyon, a few miles south of Vallecito County Park on county road S-2. The plants in every direction were decidedly muted and dry looking, but Levin, Oberbauer and Flanagan remained optimistic as they each led a small knot of people up a dirt road toward the canyon.
Levin explained that the best time to find blooming annuals is from mid-March to mid-April. That's "the narrow period of time" when desert plants are able to take advantage of lingering winter moisture and increasingly warm spring temperatures to explode into bloom. "Many of the cactus bloom a little later because they can store up water and aren't quite as dependent on blooming early," Levin added.
"Sandy places are good places to look for wildflowers, even in dry seasons, and the reason is that water can percolate down through the sand and get to the roots of the plants" more easily than it can in rocky or hilly areas, he added. "You'll also frequently find a lot of annual plants living beneath a smoke tree or a creosote bush, where soil and organic material collect. It's a favorable environment."
To illustrate his point, Levin knelt next to a big creosote bush and pointed out the blue blossoms of a phacelia and the yellow flowers of a ground cherry that were visible in the shade beneath the larger plant.
Levin pointed out that plants adapt to the desert's low rainfall--which in the southern part of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park averages only about three inches a year--in various ways. Annual plants survive much of the year as seeds and sprout only after it rains. But cactus store water in their thick trunks and stems and use it as needed.
Unfortunately for the cactus, the water inside them tends to draw large, thirsty animals. "Water is scarce in the desert and plants are a good source of it," said Levin. The spines on cactus and many other desert plants probably evolved as a defense against being eaten by animals, he noted.