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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

Wild about desert wildflowers

Two Anza-Borrego Desert State Park visitors get an early start on a viewing season expected to yield a riot of color.

March 01, 2009|Hugo Martin

BORREGO SPRINGS, CALIF. — The rumors of the lilies seemed to be just that -- rumors.

With my 10-year-old daughter, Isabella, in the passenger seat, I scanned the sands of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park from behind my bug-splattered windshield. The plan was to catch the dawn of this year's desert wildflower bloom in the state's largest park, more than 600,000 acres of sand, rock and cactus east of San Diego.

After a series of winter storms, the desert was primed for a huge bloom. "It should be a really good year," said Briana Ross, spokeswoman for the Anza-Borrego Foundation and Institute. "The extra rain is going to really draw the blooms out."

Isabella was on a school break so I brought her along and equipped her with a note pad and a digital camera.

We made a contest of the visit: Whoever spotted the greatest variety of flowers and shot the best flower photo would be declared the winner. She was excited at the prospects of outdoing her daddy.

At the Anza-Borrego visitor center near Borrego Springs, a park ranger told us that the sand verbena, a pink-magenta annual, was blooming near the east end of Henderson Canyon Road. The ranger had also heard that the desert lily, a white starburst flower, was in bloom farther east along the Borrego Salton Seaway.

We picked up a wildflower brochure -- only $1 -- and jumped into the car.

The desert is a master of disguise, portraying itself as a lifeless wasteland, devoid of color and sound. It's just the opposite. Among those billions of grains of sand are countless hibernating seeds just waiting for a dose of rain and sun to spring to life, triggering a riot of swaying flowers, buzzing bees, flapping birds, howling coyotes and hopping hares.

The riot had yet to begin. It was a whisper but getting louder.

Along Henderson Canyon Road, the verbena colored the desert with paint splashes. Scattered among the verbena, we spotted pale pink dune evening primroses. Ladybugs and bees danced from bloom to bloom. We did the same, looking for the best arrangement for our photo contest.

"Look at this weird thing," I said, pointing to a short, olive-colored plant with long wavy leaves.

"Yeah, it's about to bloom, look," Isabella said, pointing to a picture in her brochure of a desert lily.

Having shot all the verbena we needed, we headed east toward the Salton Sea, looking for blooming lilies. Instead we came upon stands of ocotillo, the shrub-like cactus with the long slender branches that shoot skyward like bottle rockets. The ends of the branches are adorned with crimson flowers. Birds chattered as we shot close-up photos of the blood-red blooms.

We began driving back to the visitor center, disappointed that we didn't see any lilies, when I spotted a flash of white on the shoulder of the road. I pulled over and backtracked a few yards. In a small clearing, surrounded by verbena, a single desert lily, white and perfect, tilted its face toward the sun.

"I found a lily! I found a lily!" I crowed. Isabella rolled her eyes at my juvenile display.

Although the desert was freckled with fat lily buds, ready to burst, that was the only blooming lily we saw.

When we stopped for lunch in Borrego Springs, I spotted a blooming chuparosa, a shrub with bright red tubular flowers, sprouting next to an empty storefront. "That doesn't count," Isabella said. "That was planted there." She checked it off her list anyway.

Later, we hiked into Plum Canyon, where we spotted several desert apricot shrubs bejeweled with pink flowers with yellow anthers.

That night during dinner, I paged through Isabella's pink note pad and scrolled through the photos in her camera. She had checked 10 flowers off her list and snapped about a dozen great photos, including a gorgeous shot of an ocotillo bloom set in front of tendrils of dark green branches and a turquoise sky.

She won the contest, but we agreed to a rematch next spring.

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hugo.martin@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Wild about flowers

ANZA-BORREGO

Where to start: Anza-Borrego Visitor Center, 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs

Peak viewing time: The first and second weeks of March

What you'll see: Sand verbena, ocotillo, desert lilies, chuparosa

Info: (760) 767-5311, www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638

DEATH VALLEY

Where to start: Furnace Creek Visitor Center, 328 Greenland Blvd., Death Valley

Peak viewing time: Mid-March to early April

What you'll see: Desert gold, evening primrose and phacelia

Info: (760) 786-3200, www.nps.gov/deva/index.htm

THE FLOWER FIELDS

OF CARLSBAD

Address: 5704 Paseo del Norte, Carlsbad

Peak viewing time: Last week of March and all of April.

What you'll see: Ranunculus blooms, roses and other varieties

Info: (760) 431-0352, www.theflowerfields.com

ANTELOPE VALLEY POPPY RESERVE

Where to start: 15101 Lancaster Road, Lancaster

Peak viewing time: Mid-April

What you'll see: Fields of California poppies

Info: (661) 724-1180, www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=627

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE

Where to start: Kelso Depot Visitor Center, near Kelbaker and Kelso-Cima roads, Kelso

Peak viewing time: Late April through May

What you'll see: Joshua tree, primrose, desert lily, rabbit bush, creosote, yucca beaver tail

Info: (760) 252-6108, www.nps.gov/moja

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