It's easy to miss, but out there among the strip malls and subdivisions, Orange County is showing signs of spring.
Although no match for the sheets of solid color that blanket other Southern California areas, local wildflower displays carry their own rewards for those who know where to look.
And while rainfall totals are still below average, some local park rangers and plant experts say this has been the best wildflower season since the bonanzas of 1983 and '84, both in variety and number of blossoms.
"This is the best spring in the past 3 years, since I've been here," said Richard Dyer, supervising park ranger at O'Neill Regional Park in Trabuco Canyon. "In the last week and a half, the blooms have really opened up."
Among the flowering plants brightening the park are California poppies, lupine, Indian paintbrush, black sage, Mariposa lilies, mustard, lemonadeberry, prickly phlox, Our Lord's candle and popcorn flowers. Oak trees are also in bloom, trailing long tassels laden with yellow pollen.
The display has come despite less-than-average rainfall: This season to date, 8.42 inches of rain have been measured in Santa Ana; the yearly average is 11.29 inches. Last season's total at this date was 7.91 inches.
"This year has been better than last year" for wildflowers, said Fred Roberts of UC Irvine's Museum of Systematic Biology. "The reason for that has been the cooler winter."
Last year, a warm winter with frequent Santa Ana conditions dried the soil and made for poor conditions. With lower temperatures this year, more moisture has stayed in the soil.
Santa Ana winds came to the county last week, but the weekend's modest rain helped heal the effects. "What the rain will do more than anything else will be to keep (the season) from dropping off really fast," said Pete Jenny, supervising ranger at Santiago Oaks Regional Park in Orange.
"There's a lot of stuff happening out here," said Jenny, who listed fiddleneck, ground pink, wild hyacinth and Mariposa lilies among the dozens of wildflower species blooming.
This is an ideal time to visit, he said, "because things are still going strong, and with the rains they'll be strong for a while."
Caspers Wilderness Park, above San Juan Capistrano on Ortega Highway, offers some of the best wildflower viewing in the county for those willing to walk. One area, about a mile's hike along the east ridge of the park, was the site of a controlled burn last year.
The area now boasts Mariposa lilies, monkey flowers, wild hyacinths, Indian paintbrush, ground pink, California bells, popcorn flowers, shooting stars, poppies and prickly phlox.
"There's flowers along the trails too, but you have to go to the burn area to really see a lot," said Donna Krucki, a groundskeeper and naturalist at the park.
For less hardy visitors, many of the same flowers can be seen--although not in the same abundance--along Loskorn Trail on the park's west ridge.
Another colorful burn area is visible from Ortega Highway a few miles below Caspers, on private O'Neill Ranch property. Burn areas in Southern California's foothill areas come back strongly in spring for several reasons, according to Geoff Smith, a biology professor at Fullerton College and immediate past president of Southern California Botanists.
Plants of the chaparral community "not only tolerate fire, but tend to thrive after a fire." Some annuals, called fire followers, have seeds that need heat from a fire to germinate, while ashes from the fire provide nutrients for the new growth.
"Chaparral and foothill areas have sort of adapted to the frequent fires," Smith said. Fire, as much as rain, is part of the life cycle in the hills.
When UC Irvine assembled a checklist of the county's flowering plants back in 1968, biologists counted 733 types. But even then, the survey noted, some plants were in trouble--not only because of development but also because of cattle grazing and the displacement of native plants by exotic species that escaped from cultivation.
Urbanization, of course, has since accelerated, while the invasion of non-native plant types continues to be a problem. Pampas grass, for instance, plagues Upper Newport Bay, while artichoke thistles are a nuisance in some foothills.
Roberts of UC Irvine said the university has assembled a new checklist of flowering plants that will be released next week. Some plants on the old list were not found this time around, including species that once were common in lowland areas, such as Huntington Beach, that are now highly developed.
The university is also compiling a complete flora for the county, with illustrations, but Roberts quipped that "the way things are going, by the time it comes out (in about 3 years), it's going to be a historical work."
Grassland areas, the most ideal for wildflowers, have been the most impacted in the county.