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NORTH COUNTY FINDS

It's Show Time in Julian as Wildflowers Blossom : Tradition: The annual Julian wildflower show has been a featured event in the mountain town for 64 years.

May 10, 1990|KATHRYN BOLD

This month, 83-year-old Lelah Porter will head out to the Julian countryside to gather the wildflowers that paint the landscape purple and gold.

She has practiced this ritual for more than 25 years as one of the official pickers for the Julian wildflower show, which starts Saturday.

"Every year there are different people who pick, but flowers stay flowers," Porter said.

Indeed, the wildflower show has changed little during the 64 years of its existence, in part because Julian itself has resisted the hurried growth that has wiped out open space in other parts of North County.

Members of the Julian Women's Club pick the flowers and invite city folks to come up and see their harvest. Visitors will find a colorful smorgasbord of desert primrose, monkey flowers, tidytips, mountain iris, yellow gold fields, gooseberry, mountain dogwood and several hundred other species of wildflowers.

The week before the show, five or six pickers spend three days collecting flowers, covering five climate zones from the Borrego desert to the mountaintops of Julian.

Each spring brings a different mix of flowers depending on the weather.

"It's surprising. Sometimes you find flowers in different locations where you've never seen them before," said Mildred Redding, a Julian resident since 1935.

Despite the image that flower-picking might carry and the age of some of the people who do it, making it as an official Julian picker requires stamina and knowledge.

"It's fun, but it's work," said Redding, who is in her 80s. "We do a lot of hiking. Sometimes the wind's blowing, and we have to be careful not to step on rattlesnakes or poison ivy. We have to watch where we put our hands so we don't get bit by a rattler. We kind of shake the bush so the snakes have time to escape."

Indeed, over the years the pickers have developed their own sort of lore as well as intimate knowledge of land that most of the public never sees, knowledge that gets passed down to the next generation of pickers. Redding, a picker for 20 years, taught her daughters and grandsons how to pick.

Typically, a seasoned picker will be paired with a newcomer to show her the ropes. Those who imagine a romantic romp through flower fields are quickly disillusioned.

"We start out by telling them to wear good stout boots, because they'll be walking through cow fields and crawling under barbed wire fence and over fences," said Marion Moore, 55, a picker for 14 years. "We teach them not to pick everything in sight, to be selective.

"One time I was out picking with a woman and she asked, 'Is this squaw bush or poison ivy?' I was busy in a different corner of the field so I wasn't really paying attention. Later, I discovered she'd picked a whole arm full of poison ivy. I haven't heard the end of it yet."

Among the other things they must know: Just the perfect stage of blossom so that the wildflowers will be in full bloom during the show. That means picking buds just on the verge of blossoming.

They also must know how much to pick, never picking a patch bare. And, although they share much of their knowledge, Moore said, "if we find something really special, we don't tell anybody where we found it."

Once picked, the wildflowers are wrapped in dry newspaper. Wet paper steams them.

When they get back into town, they clip the bottom of the stems and put the flowers in a solution of water, plant food and sugar. Redding insists it's the sugar that "gives them extra pep."

"You learn through the years how to keep the flowers fresh," she said.

Except for identifying the blooms by their common names and placing them in buckets, members do little to improve on nature.

The pickers never know what blooms will pop up. Each year is different.

"With the season's late rain, we'll have wonderful mountain flowers, but the rain came too late for the desert," Moore said.

Scouring the pastures and hills for flowers becomes a kind of treasure hunt. Each delights in finding a rare or favorite bloom.

"One of my favorites is the fairy lantern," Redding said. "It's a little white flower that looks like a little lantern. When the petals fall off, the seeds look like lanterns, too."

Some prefer to pick in the desert, others in the mountains.

"It's a thrill finding something unusual, like a snowdrop bush, or a flower we hadn't seen the year before that we thought had disappeared," Moore said.

But the pickers don't pretend to be botanists. Although they can identify most flowers by their common name, a few blooms leave them baffled.

"Sometimes we come across flowers we can't recognize. If we can't name it, we just put a question mark on it and someone's sure to tell us," Redding said.

Botany students and teachers from Palomar College who come to the show help identify the mystery buds.

"Someone will say, 'That's an Indian Paint Brush' and another person will call it something else," Moore said. "Each year, some names get changed. We leave the name up until we're proven wrong."

All of the flowers in the show are indigenous to the area.

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