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A wonderful wildflower year?

Last spring was terrific. This winter it poured. We're not taking any bets, but 1993 could be truly any bets, but 1993 could be truly spectacular. Here's why ... and where

It was unprecedented: on a single day last spring, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park visitor center logged some 7,000 guests, the majority on hand to witness one of the most spectacular wildflower shows in years. Thanks to a well-timed break in Southern California's 6-year-old drought, the normally brown alluvial plains that rise from the desert floor were a riot of color. For naturalists and amateur flower fanciers alike, the display seemed almost too good to be true. For those who missed it, take heart; this year it looks as if the flowers might just do it again.

Indeed, most of the premier wildflower sites around the West--from the Painted Hills in central Oregon to Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve in Southern California--are expecting spectacular blooms. The reasons? Abundant seeds in the ground from last year and, of course, heavy winter rains.

What is a wildflower?

Of North America's 23,000 kinds of flowering plants, about half would be considered wildflowers. Although they differ in color, size, life cycle (most are annuals but some are perennials), and species, all wildflowers are indigenous, grow fairly low to the ground, and are, well, pretty. In case you were wondering, there is no strict botanical definition of a wildflower, nor is it a technical term.

Ecologically, wildflowers succeed where most other plants simply can't compete, thriving on hills, in valleys, and across grasslands where arid or impoverished soils can't support trees and shrubs. But living on the edge can be risky; if winter is dry or if spring is a scorcher, seeds either lie dormant or race from germination to flowering in a couple of weeks. A few days of unfavorable weather can scuttle a season, which makes predicting wildflower bloom a tricky undertaking.

Determining where to find wildflowers can be as difficult as predicting when. A hillside that was great last spring might be a dud this year, paling in comparison with fields across the valley or over the mountain. The location of a bloom can be determined by factors as fickle as grazing patterns or the site of a cloudburst.

Peak bloom dates can vary by as much as a month and can last from one to six weeks. Mild, sunny spring weather with a little rain tends to stretch the season. If the flowers at your favorite site have passed their peak, head upslope; if they're not yet blooming, head downhill. A thousand feet in elevation can make all the difference.

A rosy future?

The life of a wildflower is tenuous enough, what with the unpredictability of the weather. But today, wildflowers face an even bigger challenge--"progress." Agriculture, grazing, mining, and commercial development all occur on prime wildflower habitats. Often, the presence of such endeavors is enough to push native wildflowers over the edge. It would be ironic were it not so tragic that the some 2,000 kinds of introduced weeds--imported both as garden plants and, accidentally, in the hulls of ships along with grain and other crops--now outnumber endangered natives.

Of course, it was not always thus. A century ago, John Muir wrote the following entry in his journal. If you know California, read it and weep.

"The Great Central Plain of California, during the months of March, April, and May, was one smooth, continuous bed of honey bloom, so marvelously rich that, in walking from one end of it to the other ... more than 400 miles, your foot would press about a hundred flowers at every step. |The flowers~ were so crowded together that, had 99 percent of them been taken away, the plain would still have seemed to any but Californians extravagantly flowery."

Muir's test for extravagance was prescient. In fact, today some 99 percent of the Central Valley has been converted to croplands, pasturelands, and cities. Most of the flowers are long gone.

Part of the problem is that we take wildflowers for granted. Previous societies hadn't the same luxury. Native peoples in the Northwest, for example, relied on camas bulbs as winter survival food. In fact, tribes often went to war over fields of the hyacinth blue flowers, which once filled the Willamette Valley, as well as lowland prairies in Puget Sound. One can only imagine how these people must have felt as they watched early settlers plow up the fields and, as a final indignity, send out their hogs to root up the bulbs. Now most of the Willamette Valley's wet meadows, and much of its camas, are gone.

At the other end of the spectrum, there have been victories. Many of California's remaining vernal pools (95 percent have been destroyed) are now protected, and you can visit these botanically unique habitats this month on the Carrizo Plain. Another promising success story there appears to be a large-scale four-year experiment in managing land to favor native bunch-grasses and flowers over imports such as foxtail.

To keep tabs on rare and endangered species, every state has a natural heritage program. These programs, which were started by The Nature Conservancy and are now (in most cases) fully funded by the states themselves, do a great job of tracking plants that are threatened.

And then there's the direct approach. The National Wildflower Research Center in Austin, Texas, has worked to reintroduce native plants of all kinds back into the landscape. While some of its work is based in the lab--for example, researchers have identified which plants make the best hosts for the partly parasitic Indian paintbrush and have discovered ways to make bluebonnets perform better in the field--the NWRC is perhaps best known for its highway beautification projects, in which native seeds are sprinkled alongside and down the center of highways from Wyoming to Texas.
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Author:McCausland, Jim
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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