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GOING WILD WITH NATIVES: Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Golden fiddlenecks as far as the eye can see at Carrizo Plain National Monument.

By Linda Jones.

When Spanish galleons sailed up the coast in the 1700s, the explorers called Alta California “la tierra del fuego,” not because the land was literally on fire (although the Native Americans regularly set fires to promote growth of preferred plants), but because of the flaming golds and oranges of the landscape. Although the primary function of the Spanish expeditions was to record pasturage and other resources useful to missions, they also recorded the abundant wildflowers. Juan Crespi (a member of the 1769-1770 Portola expedition) described fields in bloom with different kinds of wildflowers in a profusion of colors.

For years to come, writers never ceased to describe the many wonders of Southern California. Theodore S. Van Dyke’s description in 1886: “Standing now upon some hillside that commands miles of landscape, one is dazzled with the blaze of color, from acres and acres of pink, great fields of violet, vast reaches of blue, endless sweeps of white.” Coastal wildflower areas were lost to pastures of black mustard and oats by the turn of the 20th century, but inland areas continued to have wildflower fields—although, with time, these became farther and farther away from more urban areas.

Now, much of this vast flower-filled landscape has been lost to agriculture, development, and exotic species invasions. Yes, we still see our local hills clothed in bright yellow in spring, but this is mostly exotic mustard, not native wildflowers. Richard Minnich points out that almost none of the diminishing wildflowers are protected outside of state and national parks (California’s Fading Wildflowers). The Endangered Species Act, which has saved many species from extinction in the US, focuses on protection of individual species, not broad landscapes of mixed species where our wildflowers grow. As a result, we're most likely to witness the impressive annual displays of native wildflowers in bloom if we visit a state or national park.

I visited three such wildflower displays this year: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, and Carrizo Plain National Monument. It was a once in a lifetime experience to see these areas in full bloom and a revelation of how much we have lost of our wildflower heritage.

When Anza-Borrego blooms, it is such a contrast with the usual beige, sandy landscape. In bloom, the desert is full of eye-popping color: bright yellow of brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) and common goldfield (Lasthenia gracilis); deep lilac of desert sand verbena (Abronia villosa ssp. villosa); bright white of the alien-looking desert lily (Hesperocallis undulata); and, above it all, the red and green of ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens ssp. splendens).

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve visitors enjoy hillsides splashed with golds and oranges.

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve north of Los Angeles must be a poster child for some of the early descriptions of California wildflowers. Located in the western Mojave Desert, golden poppies (Eschscholzia californica) cover miles of hillsides, interspersed with yellow swaths of California goldfields (L. californica). Walking through the fields, you'll find smaller wildflowers like lupine (Lupinus spp.) adding color on the microscale.

Carrizo Plain in San Luis Obispo County was perhaps the biggest surprise. What a show: mile after mile of fields of golden fiddlenecks (Amsinckia spp.), followed by miles of yellow with bands of purple, and big patches of baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii). The surrounding hills were splattered with more of the gold flowers. An astounding super-bloom indeed.

Starting next February, be sure to look for wildflower areas to visit. The impressive displays of exploding colors are well worth the effort!

Linda Jones is a Master Gardener learning about, and interested in, native plants.

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