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Gold Rush Country

In the Antelope Valley, a Mother Lode for Poppy Lovers

May 18, 2003|EMILY YOUNG

Joni Mitchell was right: We never know what we've got 'til it's gone. But unlike the paradise that wound up as a parking lot, we'll always have the wildflower fields of the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. The sanctuary, 15 miles west of Lancaster, is 1,745 acres protected from urban sprawl and agriculture and a place where Southlanders can glimpse California's living gold.

Although the California poppy once thrived throughout the state, the western Antelope Valley is one of the few places where the native wildflower still carpets the ground in spectacular orange drifts--under the right conditions. From roughly mid-March to mid-May, thousands of people make the spring pilgrimage up Highway 14 to revel among the poppies.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Eschscholzia californica's designation as the state flower, so even more folks may be heading to the reserve in hopes of striking it rich. Be warned: Early rains coaxed some poppies to bloom the first week of March, and no one is guaranteeing how long the 2003 floral show will last.

Milt Stark, the 81-year-old president of the all-volunteer Poppy Reserve/Mojave Desert Interpretative Assn., allows that more precipitation might extend the season further this month. Other factors include temperature (warmer is better), winds (strong gusts cause the flowers to close) and soil (preferably moist).

"This year I've seen poppies growing where I've never seen them before, like the Leona Valley hillsides," Stark says. "When it comes to wildflowers, you can't predict where or when they'll bloom." For diehard poppy fans, he noted good patches at other locations just outside the reserve, along 110th Street West and 170th Street West.

If you should miss the gold rush, however, don't despair. The reserve (www.calparksmojave.com/poppy) also features red maids, purple phacelia and yellow encelia as well as blue lupine, pale creamcups and yellow coreopsis. Just don't pick any of the wildflowers; it's illegal.

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