California poppies on Portal Ridge in the Antelope Valley in 2011. Flower… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Right about now, tiny goldfields and purple mat should be erupting in carpets of color on the desert floor at Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks. The gentle hills of the Antelope Valley poppy reserve should be turning bright orange with thousands of California poppy blossoms.
But so far this spring, wildflowers in local deserts and mountains are in short supply. Even the rainstorm that swept through Southern California last weekend won't be able to rescue what flower watchers say is turning out to be a disappointing year.
"I have a feeling that if anything does happen, it's going to be a late season and a short one," says Helen Tarbet, a field ranger who leads wildflower walks at Figueroa Mountain in the Santa Lucia District of Los Padres National Forest.
Indeed, it has been a very dry year in California. In the Southland, the drenching winter rains critical for wildflowers to start germinating never materialized. The mid-March storm brought less than an inch to 4 inches of rain to Southern California, Santa Barbara area and the vicinity, but rainfall totals are still below normal for this time of year, according to the National Weather Service.
Statewide, the snowpack measured continues to be well-below last year's record-setter.
"The pretty abysmal snowpack levels we have this year are going to impact a lot of recreational experiences," says Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the state's Department of Water Resources. Late rains in the Sierra could help, but the roaring waterfalls at Yosemite and the white-water courses of the Kern River probably will be less robust than usual.
Desert wildflowers might be one of the earliest harbingers of the low-water year.
Joshua Tree National Park received no winter rain in December and January, when plants need it most, says ranger Joe Zarki. Even the park's namesake trees aren't putting on much of a show. Zarki says a moderate number of Joshua trees are blooming in the western side of the park and should remain in bloom for the next two to three weeks.
The funky winter weather in Southern California — hot some days, cold the next — has had an odd effect on wildflowers at 4,500-foot Figueroa Mountain, Tarbet says. Annuals such as sticky-leaf monkey flowers and prickly phlox that shouldn't bloom until April appeared in January and are done flowering for the season. And chocolate lilies and shooting stars that should be appearing now are absent.
"I think the flowers are super, super, super confused," Tarbet says.
Wendy Langhans, who tracks wildflowers in the Santa Clarita Valley and hosts a weekly outdoor report on radio station KHTS-AM (1220), says little rainfall makes plants hunker down and avoid expending the energy of putting out a lot of flowers. "If a human being is starving, that person isn't going to be lifting weights," she says.
But the dismal wildflower forecast doesn't mean there won't be anything to see. Flowers and shrubs are in bloom, just not in that drive-by-fields-of-color kind of way. This season requires folks to leave their cars and spend time looking around on foot to appreciate what's blooming.
For example, even though Joshua Tree reports scant flower coverage, the park's most recent wildflower report identified more than 90 species blooming in the southwestern end of the park near the Cottonwood Visitor Center.
Betsy Knaak, executive director of the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Assn., advises desert flower hunters to look for more reliable hardy perennials that erupt in late March and early April.
"People will see the palo verde trees covered with yellow blossoms and magenta blossoms on beavertail cactus," she says. Ocotillo and other cactus and shrubs, plants better adapted to low-water years, will bloom later too.
"The best approach is to follow regional wildflower reports that detail specific trails and parkland areas where flowers are showing color," she says. And sign on to a wildflower walk where rangers and naturalists will know where the blooms are hiding.