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Hues and Views

Head to the hills and discover a bumper crop of wildflower beauties.

March 19, 1998|JUDY WILLIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ground cherry, golden current, panamint, Bermuda buttercup, ground pink, mild maids, sugarbush, wild cucumber and globe mallow. These may sound like the newest flavors at the blender bar or the latest in herbal tonics to cure your inattention syndrome. But they're the names of some of the wildflowers you can discover this spring, as areas of Southern California explode into color.

Wildflowers are nature's reward for winter's deluge. This year's record rainfall, interspersed with sunny days, has yielded a bumper crop of these beauties. For the casual city-dwelling observer, wildflowers are most often seen in large clusters along foothill freeways in patches of bright violet lupine, sunny yellow and orange California poppies (our state flower), or the dappled yellow of wild mustard.

For first-timers or experienced flower aficionados, this is a great year to explore the hills. Guided walks are available through botanical societies and park services. There are also designated flower preserves that display acres ablaze in color. But as experienced seekers know, in the wild one needs to search out individual species, much as bird watchers keep eyes peeled for their elusive quarry.

To satisfy your urge to see nature's color palette condensed in a five-acre area, the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants is the place to go. Once you have thrilled to the great concentration and diversity of the native California wildflowers growing on the foundation's Flowerhill and learned to identify a few, your subsequent hikes and walks will be all the more rewarding. In addition, you can purchase seeds and create your own wildflower paradise next year.

The Payne Foundation is a nonprofit organization offering public access to its 23-acre native plant sanctuary, which includes a nursery selling California native plants and seeds, a bookstore with wildflower guide books, and an educational facility offering classes, workshops, field trips, speakers bureau and horticultural consultations.

In addition to the native plants and wildflowers cultivated there, birds are also given sanctuary, so take time to look from the visual extravaganza at your feet skyward to catch a glimpse of red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, sparrows, and at night, owls.

Theodore Payne was born in Northamptonshire, England, in 1872, and with botany degree in hand, came to Los Angeles at age 21 where he secured a position as gardener to a famous Polish actress, Helena Modjeska, at her country estate in Orange County.

In later years, he owned a nursery specializing in the native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers that he believed were being lost at an alarming rate to agriculture and development. His work resulted in a commission from the Los Angeles City Council to plant a wildflower garden in Exposition Park, where he labeled 262 species.

The Theodore Payne Foundation, named in his honor, was originally located in a nursery in the Los Feliz area. In 1966, it was moved to its current home, a donated 21-acre site in Sun Valley's La Tuna Canyon.

In early February, Payne Foundation Director Michael Kristiansen was enthusiastic about this season's floral potential. He had discovered three flowers open that morning.

What about potential damage to germinating flowers from El Nino's drenching rains? He was unfazed. This, he said, is generally not a problem because most native chaparral and wildflowers have deep roots, not the delicate root hairs of nonnative flowers. He predicted that a long, wet winter combined with a mild spring would create a dazzling display this year.

The most important influences on wildflowers are heat and rain: ideally, half an inch of rain per week with warm, sunny days. So why does a certain combination of rain and heat produce the best in chaparral and wildflower color, variety and quality?

Kristiansen explained that our atmosphere has nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide. In summer, chaparral plants are in hibernation. Rain dissolves the nitrogen, providing an intravenous-like infusion through the roots to the plant. Rain also liquefies other organic nutrients in the ground. Nitrogen activates chlorophyll in the leaves, producing the hillside carpeting of green. Heat accelerates this chemical reaction, thus enhancing growth.

Another advantage of a wet winter is that wildflowers, in good years, produce more seeds. Without rain, seeds lie dormant (in some varieties up to 50 years). These long-dormant seeds make for great surprise blooms after fire and drought years when there finally is a suitable growing season.

Fire-followers is the name given to unusual wildflowers such as blue phacelia, the small popcorn-like white cryptantha, and whispering bells found in areas that have suffered a brush fire.

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