By Jim Bishop.
Carrizo Plain National Monument is located in the southeastern corner of San Luis Obispo County. For decades, I’ve heard about the spring wildflower bloom there after good winter rains, but the rains and our schedules have never worked out for a visit. Late this winter, early photos of the Carrizo wildflowers were posted on the California Native Plant Society Facebook page. People in the know said this was going to be one of the best blooms in decades, and after Scott heard me talk about how the photos postings kept getting better and better, he decided to schedule a quick visit. Scott flew on a small private plane accompanied by Jennifer Morrissey (SDHS publicity chairperson) and Terry Gardner, who helps with our website and with setup at our monthly meetings. I drove up the day before, spending most of the day in L.A. traffic. Still, I was able to make a few short stops to look at the green hillsides above Santa Barbara with sprinklings of wildflowers. The next morning, I picked up my fellow travelers at the San Luis Obispo Airport and we headed to Carrizo.
Carrizo straddles the San Andreas fault and all of the rain that falls in the valley stays in the valley. In wet years, the very alkaline Soda Lake forms in a shallow depression at the bottom of the plain. Most of the soil in Carrizo was deposited over eons of runoff. This, coupled with the very hot summers and low rainfall, makes most of Carrizo unfertile. Carrizo has remained one of the last natural grasslands in California; due to the harsh growing conditions, there are no native trees and few non-native plants have been able to get a foothold on the plain. In wet years with the right weather, native wildflowers carpet the valley with an incredible floral display. At one time, all of the central valley had similar vegetation. In fact, here is John Muir’s famous quote about the central valley just a little over 100 years ago: “At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine, forty or fifty miles wide, five hundred miles long, one rich furred garden of yellow Compositae.”
Luckily, this was a very wet year. As we approached the plain from the north, there weren’t many wildflowers except a few lupines growing under oak trees, but shortly after passing the monument entrance sign, the fields and hills covered with flowers came into view. Our first stop was on a hillside overlooking Soda Lake. There, we saw large expanses of yellow flowers surrounding the alkaline lake. On the hill were desert delphiniums in pale blue and purple, goldfields, tidy tips, golden phacelia, hillside daisies, and many others.
We didn’t linger long. Our destination was the Temblor Range. Most of the photos online had come from this area and we were in pursuit of one flower I’d never seen, Caulanthus inflatus, the desert candle. We made a quick stop on the far side of the lake where we saw more yellow and gold flowers, plus California poppies, a native mauve-flowered mustard, owl’s clover and purple phacelia. We stopped for lunch in a small valley on the side of the Temblor Range where one valley slope was covered with the host plant for the primrose sphinx moth caterpillar, the morning primrose (Eremothera boothii), white with pink highlights on nodding inflorescences. By now, we were close enough to make out the various colors of flowers on the hills above us. For some reason, particular species seem to prefer one hill over the other. This creates a quilt-like appearance with one hill being yellow, another orange, one blue, one purple and several green hills.
We quickly ate our lunches and headed into the hills. A very narrow, dusty, and steep trail path led us straight up through the wildflowers. We stopped frequently along the way to take photos of each new flower we found…chia, pink Lavatera, giant purple lupine, tiny blue lupines, orange wind poppies, blue dicks, Chinese houses, white pincushions, and the countless varieties of the yellow Compositae species that John Muir mentioned. Just as we were considering leaving, we found the elusive desert candle. There weren’t a lot of them in this area—just a few popping up here and there. Still, with their round tapered trunk that fades from bright green to yellow at the top and their crowns of deep magenta small flowers, they were unmistakable. Desert candles are such an oddity, and it’s hard to believe that they’re in the same family as cabbages and mustards. We were lucky to see them, and all of the other beautiful Carrizo sights, before losing daylight and quickly heading down the hill for our drive back south home.
One Caluanthus inflatus, desert candle, pokes out above a sea of yellow hillside daises and a dash of purple phacelias