The first Clarkias are coming into bloom around LA and—as their common name ”Farewell to Spring” implies—this represents the beginning of the end of an incredible spring for California native plants. I say that with one major caveat: Spring hasn’t even started in the high mountains, which are still buried under feet of snow. So don’t worry; you still have plenty of time to admire spring flowers in the higher elevations!* But here in the lowlands, the long hot days push the earlier flowering plants to seed, and before we know it, summer will be upon us.
Spring in Southern California exists outside of the typical northern hemisphere boundaries. Leaves begin to emerge from dormant plants in fall, and our first flowers typically bloom in the middle of winter. (I’ll save this for another blog post, but it’s strange to think how the seasons from one specific part of the world are superimposed across the planet in our increasingly globalized culture. Think about snowy Christmas decorations in the middle of the Australian summer!) But however you define it, this California spring has been one for the record books. I want to share a few of the wonderful wildflower habitats that I’ve had the privilege of experiencing this season. Words can’t do justice to the incredible plants and places that I’m describing here, so I encourage you to scroll to the bottom of this post for photos of some of the scenes I’m describing. You can also check out at my Instagram page @vegetablekingdoms where you’ll find many more wildflower photos.
Over the holidays, I spent a wonderful day in the Verdugo and San Gabriel Mountains with my friend Alex Hall. Alex is a climate scientist at UCLA, as well as a TPF board member. We spent a day botanizing as we planned our Elements of a Garden podcast, where we discussed environmental issues through the lens of his beautiful garden in Mid-Wilshire. (If you haven’t listened yet, it’s freely available at the link above and on all major podcast platforms. I learned so much chatting with Alex, and if you can check it out I hope you’ll feel the same inspiration I did after speaking with him.) On that December day in the local mountains, winter felt like spring as we found our way to one of the northernmost populations of Mission manzanita (Xylococcus bicolor), which was in full bloom in La Tuna Canyon. Higher up in the San Gabriel Mountains, we saw few flowers, but the abundant water in all of the seasonal streambeds foreshadowed blooms to come.
On an early March weekend, I took my daughter to Anza Borrego, where we sat in awe of the carpets of Sand verbena (Abronia villosa), punctuated by gently swaying wands of Arizona lupine (Lupinus arizonicus). Water was abundant there as well, and the impressive mats of algae growing in normally dry washes were so green that they were almost hard to look at. Along the way, we saw incredibly dense hillsides of poppies and other wildflowers flanking the 15 freeway, which were already well on their way to becoming a true superbloom. We took a quick trip up into the hills near Fallbrook to find the chaparral lit up with California lilac, monkey flower, and much more. We could have spent weeks exploring the incredible diversity of that area.
A memorable botanical experience for me this spring was in Baja California where I joined a group of botanists, horticulturists, and conservationists for a weeklong expedition through the diverse habitats of our Southern neighbor. It was a whirlwind trip, traveling from the thick, cacti and Dudleya-dominated maritime succulent scrub habitats of the northwest coast to the Boojum (Fouquieria columnaris) and Cardone (Pachycereus pringlei) groves of the central desert, to the stark gulf coast desert, and the remote, coniferous high country of the north.
We saw so many wonderful plants flowering on this trip: feathery deep reds of Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica), spiky yellow clubs of Shaw’s agave (Agave shawii), and delicate crowns of flowers on various species of Fish hook cactus (Mammillaria spp.) amongst so much more. At our last stop in the Sierra Juarez, snow still clung to the ground and the manzanitas were just breaking bud. I woke up early from a frigid tent to wander up a scrubby grove of Peninsular oak (Quercus peninsularis) sandwiched between giant granite boulders. A mountain lion had recently done the same, leaving its impressive footprint in the melting snow.
My favorite trip of the year involved the entire TPF staff. This season was just too good to pass up, so we closed the nursery for a day to bring the entire team out to the Carrizo Plain. I can’t think of a better work retreat for native plant people. The hills of the Temblor range, flanking the eastern edge of the Plain, were a kaleidoscope of colors, with Hillside daisies (Monolopia stricta) crashing against Tansy-leaf phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia) and Purple owl’s clover (Castilleja exserta.) Those swirling blocks of color, representing millions (or perhaps billions?) of flowers have to be one of the most impressive biological events on Earth.
In the alkali flats at the northern edge of Soda Lake, robust shocks of indigo blue Valley larkspur (Delphinium recurvatum) rose above an unbroken expanse of California goldfields (Lasthenia californica). Further south, thistle sage (Salvia carduacea), San Joaquin blazing star (Mentzelia pectinata), and Desert candle (Caulanthus inflatus) stole the show. As exceptional as the wildflowers were, my favorite part of this trip happened at night, sitting around the camp with the TPF staff, listening to the wind rustle through the oaks, contemplating the long journey through space and time of the starlight that shined on us, and imagining what LA would be like without lawns, but seasonal carpets of wildflowers instead.
The bounty of this spring didn’t require distant travel. Ten minutes from my home, along dirt Mulholland in the Santa Monica Mountains, the silver bush lupines (Lupinus albifrons) have flowers stalks as long and fragrant as I’ve ever seen. Masses of California brittlebush (Encelia californica) can be admired up close from the trailside or viewed across the valley, where dense yellow patches accentuate the topography of the sandstone hills. It’s been so fun to watch the change happen in my backyard. Months ago, snowdrifts of white Ceanothus flowers perfumed the air alongside Sugarbush and Phacelia. Deerweed and Farewell to Spring are just beginning to flower as I write this. I can’t wait to see what unfolds in the weeks ahead.
In the city, gardens overflowed with life this spring. There are too many great spaces to recount, so I’ll save that for another article. Our Native Plant Garden Tour was the biggest ever this year. You can relive the amazing gardens featured on the tour through the website, which will remain up in perpetuity, providing a time capsule of this exceptional spring. Don’t forget to check out our Wildflower Hotline, which provides information on where to find wildflowers to plan your own adventures. It’s fitting that the 20th anniversary of the tour and the 40th anniversary of the Wildflower Hotline happened on such an incredible spring.
We live in a biodiversity hotspot, and seasons like this really drive that home. If you made it this far, you might be wondering if I’m going to wrap up this article with a takeaway message. I’d like to, but it can’t easily be put into words. It has something to do with the mystery, beauty, excitement, and wonder of nature and the community of people who let that guide them to make the world richer and more hopeful. It’s a feeling of deep gratitude for the resilience and abundance of life. And optimism, knowing that the billions (trillions?) of flowers that bloomed in California this spring are becoming seeds, which will lie in wait for the next wet winter to repeat the cycle again. Onward to summer, farewell to spring!
*The Wildflower Hotline will end for the season on June 2nd, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be blooms to find throughout the summer and well into fall. The High Sierra, upper elevations in the Transverse Range, and other high elevations habitats will likely just be starting their bloom in June. And even in the lower elevations, summer brings a whole other suite of blooming plants: Buckwheat’s, Asters, and California fuchsia to name a few. There’s still plenty of time to explore during this magnificent season. Happy wildflower gazing!