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OC SPOTLIGHT : FLOWER POWER HOUR : County Parks Folk Are Predicting Spectacular Displays This Season

March 18, 1993|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition.

For Orange County, this spring's wildflower season is shaping up as one of those classic good news/bad news stories.

The good news is, all the rain that fell this winter should make for the best wildflower display in years. The bad news? That same rain caused extensive storm damage to trails and roads in several local parks that promise good flower shows, making them inaccessible for now.

Closures include the west end of Chino Hills State Park (Telegraph Canyon and the West Ridge Trail), the inland reaches of Crystal Cove State Park, and all of Whiting Ranch Regional Park and Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park. Reopening of the parks depends on the severity of the damage and the availability of heavy equipment for repairs; in some cases, it could take a couple of weeks.

Fortunately, there are still several stellar local spots to take in nature's spring show, which has just gotten underway in most places and should peak in the next two weeks before fading by late April. Santiago Oaks Regional Park, Oak Canyon Nature Center, Caspers Wilderness Regional Park, Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary and the Environmental Nature Center are all candidates for a fine day's outing among the blooms.

For those willing to head outside the county, for a day or longer, some terrific shows are predicted. Death Valley is expected to have the best season in decades; other desert areas closer to home, including Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the Living Desert reserve and Joshua Tree National Monument, show promising signs of strong wildflower displays.

Areas that aren't too heavily visited during the spring include the Santa Rosa Plateau in Riverside County, which is a good bet because of its native grasslands and other rich habitats, and the backcountry of Santa Catalina Island, accessible on tours from Avalon.

Park rangers and naturalists are almost uniformly enthusiastic about the spring flower displays.

"It's really going to be quite spectacular this year," said Raul Herrera, park ranger at Santiago Oaks Regional Park. "We're enjoying what's up already."

Two factors point to a strong wildflower season, according to botanist Tony Bomkamp, field trip chairman for the California Native Plant Society. One is the rain that fell in January and February; the other is the seed bank left by last season's relatively strong display.

"Last year was actually a pretty good season, and it left a fairly good seed bank," Bomkamp said. "You've got two pluses, so it's a double whammy. (This season) should really be good."

The flowers are actually a little later than expected this year, mostly because the low temperatures of January and February slowed things up.

"I kind of expected stuff to come up early, because of the early rains, but early rains haven't translated into early flowers, mostly because it's been so cold," Bomkamp said. The warm spell that arrived with March, however, should push things along now.

A few notes are in order. Anyone expecting flower-carpeted hillsides on the order of "The Sound of Music" is going to be disappointed, at least within the county. Some deserts occasionally achieve such dense blooms, and the Antelope Valley is famous for its fields of poppies, but Orange County has to make do with more modest pleasures.

Fields of wild mustard will blanket some hillsides in a rich yellow, but it is not a native, having been imported by the padres to demarcate El Camino Real. The county's native grasslands, which once supported rich stands of native flowers in spring, are almost extinct, having been buried under development or forever altered by the introduction of non-native grasses during the cattle-grazing era.

Locally, wildflowers are more scattered, although some patches will be swathed in brilliant color. Annuals are popping up throughout the backcountry, in the oak woodlands and along streams, on old burn areas and in the native hillside scrub communities (chaparral and coastal sage scrub). Perennials and shrubs are also in bloom.

Because of drainage patterns, flowers are often thickest along the roadways, and a drive through the local hills can reveal many areas of native color: try Ortega Highway (drivers, keep your eyes on the road) and Santiago Canyon Road.

Parks with natural areas are among the best places to go hunting for flowers, because there are well-marked trails and, often, nature centers with information on what to look for. Santiago Oaks Regional Park in Orange, with plants of several county habitats, is an excellent place to start. Rangers there keep an updated list of blooming flowers in the park and also maintain a recorded wildflower hot line (see accompanying story, Page 16).

A walk along the park's nature trail with Bomkamp a week ago turned up more than 40 plant species, many already in bloom and others ready to flower. Among the plants in flower: fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, wild cucumber, sticky monkey flower, purple nightshade, California peony, baby blue eyes, blue dicks, blue-eyed grass and fiddleneck.

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