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GOING WILD WITH NATIVES: Enjoying Desert Wildflowers

Phacelia spp.

By Bobbie Stephenson.

This is February and the spring bloom in the desert is gearing up! March is probably the best time to visit the desert to see vast spaces filled with luscious wildflowers, but wildflowers were already showing up in January. With this season’s rains, native floral displays are expected to be awesome. The winter rains in 2017 resulted in a “super bloom," one that exceeds typical spring blooms. We don’t know yet if 2019 will be a “super bloom,” but there will certainly be flowers to see!

Spring conditions in the desert occur a couple of months earlier than on the coast. When the daytime temperatures are consistently in the high 70s and 80s, the flowers burst open. Flowers bloom at the lower elevations, for example on alluvial fans and along arroyos on flatter land, early in the spring and at high elevations later. Some people don’t even realize that we have desert habitats in San Diego County; they only think of the coastline, beaches, and inland as far at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. However, San Diego County dips down on the east side of the mountains into glorious desert.

Fishhook cactus.

The closest place to see desert wildflowers is Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. You can go there, enjoy the wildflowers, and get back to San Diego in a day. The largest state park in California, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park spans almost the entirety of San Diego county, from north to south, on the east side of the mountains. Some of the park spills into Imperial and Riverside counties. Areas to visit include the Visitor’s Center and nearby Borrego Palm Canyon, especially if you are not an experienced hiker. However, go along any road on the east side of the mountains or into the community of Borrego Springs, and, if there has been enough rain spread out over the winter and spring, you will see desert wildflowers. More experienced hikers and 4-wheel drive enthusiasts might want to try visiting some of the more remote areas of the park.

Further away, Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, consisting of Mojave Desert Grassland habitat, is a state-protected reserve with the most consistent blooms of California poppies, our state flower. The reserve is west of Lancaster in northern Los Angeles County and is administered by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Other wildflowers, as well as poppies, can be seen there.

Mimulus biglovii.

On the DesertUSA website, you can find updates on the wildflower blooms at various desert areas, such as Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, as well as desert areas further afield, like Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave Desert National Park, and even the deserts of other southwestern states. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park also has its own website for wildflower updates that tells you exactly where the best wildflower displays are in the park.

Be safe in the desert – even spring can be hot and dry. Practice these tips as suggested by Anza-Borrego Desert SP: Know your physical limitations; carry plenty of water and drink it; wear sturdy footwear and a hat and use sun protection; never hike alone; tell someone your trip plans; use a map (GPS systems may be out of range in some areas); make sure your vehicle is well-maintained and carry extra water, shovel, tool, flares and blankets; and stay with your vehicle, with the hood up, if it breaks down.

Bobbie Stephenson is the Newsletter Editor and current Vice President of the San Diego Chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

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