Thursday, March 16, 2017

Wildflowers of Death Valley

Last year, during the spring of 2016, Death Valley experienced a "Super-bloom."  It's not every year that the desert bursts into glorious bloom, and some sources say perfect conditions for peak wildflowers only occur once every decade or so.  Death Valley's most recent super-bloom before 2016 was in 2005. 

Desert Gold (Geraea canescens) in Death Valley National Park

This year, abundant rain and ideal conditions have created a super-bloom farther south in the Colorado Desert; a great spot to see desert wildflowers right now is in the area of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  Unfortunately, it doesn't look like I'll have a chance to get all the way down to the desert to see the blooms this year.  But all is not lost: I have plenty of wildflower photos from last year to share with you!  If you get a chance in the next month or so, take a trip to Southern California's deserts to see the blooms yourself!

Gravel Ghost (Atrichoseris platyphylla)

Many of the desert's most brilliant wildflowers are annuals, short-lived plants that germinate, grow, flower, set seed and die within a few short months.  They can also be called ephemerals, meaning they only last for a short time.  This life strategy allows plants to take advantage of short windows of favorable conditions in the winter and spring, and avoid the harsh, dry conditions of summer.  When drying winds and singeing heat hit the desert, seeds of ephemerals lie dormant in the soil, waiting for just the right moment to spring to life. 

Desert Five-spot (Eremalche rotundifolia)

In order for the desert to produce abundant wildflowers, conditions must be just right.  Rain must be consistent through the fall, winter and spring.  A half-inch of soaking rain is needed to begin the germination of annuals by washing the protective coating off of the seeds.  Then, gentle rain needs to fall intermittently in order to allow the tiny seedlings to flourish.

Mojave Aster (Xylorhiza tortifolia)

Temperatures must be high enough to warm the soil and promote germination of annual seeds, and there must not be too much wind.  Excessive wind dries the top layer of soil and desiccates small seedlings.  Desert plants are well-known for their ability to protect themselves from harsh conditions, and many have waxy coatings, tiny hairs or spines to shield themselves from the wind and prevent desiccation.  But ephemeral wildflowers lack these defenses, and dry up quickly in windy conditions.

Desert Dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata)

Masses of wildflowers blooming in the desert attract pollinators, like bees, hummingbirds, butterflies and moths, that would otherwise not visit the desert.  And pollination is the key to successful reproduction, the ultimate goal of every species.

Apricot Globe Mallow (or Desert Globe Mallow) (Sphaeralcea ambigua) - My personal favorite!

Different elevations in the Mojave Desert produce different wildflowers, starting with blooms at low elevations (below 3,000 feet) as early as mid-February.  (Though this year, I saw very few blooms in Death Valley in February.)  Low elevation flower shows, such as the display of Desert Gold that sometimes flanks Badwater Road in Death Valley, will continue through March.

Booth's Primrose (Camissonia boothii)

In April and early May, the flower show generally continues at higher elevations, between 3,000 and 5,000 feet.  In Death Valley, the drive to Dante's View atop the Black Mountains and the drive over Jubilee Pass are good places to look for wildflowers later in the spring.  By the end of May and into June, wildflower hunters will have to climb mountain slopes above 5,000 feet to find blooms.

Golden Evening Primrose (or Yellow Cups) (Camissonia brevipes)

250 species of spring annuals occur in the Mojave Desert, according to the Audubon Society.  And of those species, eighty percent are endemic, found nowhere else in the world.  Let that be a reminder to you of how special these protected places are!

Notch-leaf Phacelia (Phacelia crenulata),

When hunting for wildflowers, remember to tread lightly and take only photographs.  Removing any plant parts, including flowers and seeds, is illegal.  Our deserts seem tough as nails, but they are in fact fragile ecosystems.  Deserts have taken much abuse over the years, as uninformed people flock to off highway vehicle recreation areas and tanks crawl across government-designated military bases and weapons testing areas.

Desert Dandelion

My hope is that after one has spent time in the desert - particularly during the spring among the wildflowers - he or she might come to appreciate what special places our deserts are.  There's nothing quite like seeing an otherwise barren land carpeted with wildflowers.

Carpets of Desert Dandelion!

Happy desert travels!

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