Flowers are erupting in the California desert, covering dry, hard soil with a profusion of poppies, brittlebrush, dune evening primrose, and desert sunflowers. It’s a gorgeous sight to see, and hundreds of people are flocking to witness nature’s glory for themselves.
But if you’re a bloom-seeker, choose your destination carefully. While many of southern California’s deserts are awash in color after this winter’s intense rainfall, not all deserts are going through the same vibrant transformation.
Death Valley, for example, isn’t looking particularly lively this year. But tourists are still flocking there with floral fantasies.
“If you’re coming to Death Valley looking for flowers you’re going to be disappointed,” says Linda Slater, Chief of Interpretation at Death Valley National Park. “There are almost no flowers in Death Valley this year.”
That’s a stark contrast from last year, when desert gold flowers blanketed the park for 30 miles, creating a glorious display that garnered national attention and actually inspired the first use of the term ‘super bloom’.
This year, Slater has had to disappoint many people who—inspired by news reports of gorgeous blooms in other desert areas—have made the long trek out to Death Valley only to find that there are no flowers easily accessible or nearby.
“Death valley is still a beautiful place to come in the spring, even if the flowers aren’t spectacular this year. The weather is wonderful. But if you’re looking for flowers, please go somewhere else.” Slater says.
But all hope is not lost. The disappointed tourists should try heading further south on their next trek. Flowers are blooming in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and so many people are stopping to take pictures of the orange blanket of poppies near Lake Elsinore that it’s causing traffic jams.
Precipitation patterns are to blame for the decorative discrepancy between the dry areas. While California was pummeled with storms this winter, the rainfall was not distributed evenly. Parts of southern California got soaked, but Death Valley remained characteristically bone dry.
The remarkable desert flowers that people admire are typically annuals, meaning they only live for a single season. And they want to make their short lifespans count. Seeds lie in wait in the desert soil for years—even decades—waiting for the right conditions before they start to germinate.
In order to bloom, Slater says, flower seeds need to get regular waterings by winter storms over the course of a season. That helps the seeds sprout and grow. This doesn’t have to be much. In an area that only gets about 2 inches of rainfall a year, even a quarter inch of rain or less every month is enough to keep the cycle going once a good soaking (half an inch) has gotten the process started. While Death Valley did get some rain later in the season, it didn’t get enough early on to entice the seeds to throw off their protective shields and start growing.
If the rains are properly distributed and the temperatures are just right—warm, but not hot enough to bake all that moisture right back into the air—the tiny seedlings can reach their full potential.
When conditions are just right—good temperatures, regular waterings, and few dry, dehydrating winds—then the seed bank stored in the desert floor can spring into action, with seeds rushing to take advantage of the opportune climate conditions while they can. That leads to what Death Valley last year termed a ‘super bloom’, or a huge amount of flowers all blooming in a very short time period.
So how super is a super bloom? Usually, everything falls into place about once a decade. Before the 2016 bloom that took social media by storm, Death Valley had dressed up like a garden only a few times in the past few decades—once in 2005 and once in 1998—so it was really right on schedule.
But there are no hard and fast rules on timing. Depending on location and rainfall patterns, the United States could see multiple ‘super blooms’ over the course of a few years—if different deserts happen to hit the jackpot at different times, like Death Valley last year, and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park this year. Or we could have a dry spell and go through a wildflower drought for years as well.
Either way, these flowers won’t last long. If you’re interested in checking out the blooms for yourself, be prepared, and maybe call the place you’re interested in visiting before you hit the road. There’s even a wildflower hotline set up in California to help you out.