Where the wildflowers are.
RECIPE FOR A GREAT SEASON
In the Columbia Gorge, the 50-plus-mile-long channel carved by the Columbia River through the Cascade Range, a high percentage of the wildflowers are perennials. As such, they need average-or-above summer rain to build up roots for the following spring's display, plus a warming trend around flowering time. Normal winter rainfall is assumed.
East of the Cascades, winter snow cover has to fall on already-wet soil. If it falls on dust and stays frozen, the following spring's bloom won't be as good.
Columbia River Gorge 1992 * 1993 *
Because so many habitats collide in the Columbia Gorge, a diverse array of wildflowers abounds. It's only 50 miles from the lush rain forests near the Bonneville Dam east to the arid grasslands, and just 5 to 6 miles from the 100-foot-elevation river to 4,000-plus-foot Cascade peaks.
To get there. From Portland, take Interstate 84 east to Cascade Locks and cross into Washington and onto State Highway 14. Annual plectritis, bluebells, paintbrush, and sunflowers are plentiful near Table Mountain (there's Pacific Crest Trail access at Bonneville Dam). Heading east, you'll see balsam root and groundsel on Dog and Wind mountains near Home Valley, and camas and lupines between Bingen and Lyle. To return, take U.S. Highway 97 south at Maryhill, cross the river to Biggs, Oregon, then head back west on I-84.
To find out more. About 8 miles west of Biggs, you can take a self-guided trail at The Nature Conservancy's Tom McCall Preserve in Rowena. Naturalists are on hand 11 to 4 weekends through May. To find out how the flowers are faring, call (503) 228-9561.
When you travel, take along Wildflowers of the Columbia Gorge, by Russ Jolley (Oregon Historical Society Press, Portland, 1988; $19.95). This excellent field guide includes a fine map.
Painted Hills: John Day Fossil Beds 1992 * 1993 ***
Minerals in the soil paint these hills all the time, but the added brocade of flowers makes them truly spectacular in spring. Yellow John Day chaenactis grow on the flats and in the dry ravines that crease the otherwise barren hills. Balsam root, penstemons, and a host of other flowers can also be found.
To get there. From Portland, head southeast to the center of the state on U.S. Highway 26. The Painted Hills are 3 miles west of Mitchell and 6 miles north of U.S. 26 on Lower Bridge Creek Road. A park ranger is available through spring.
To find out more. For a wildflower status report, call (503) 987-2333.
RECIPE FOR A GREAT SEASON
It takes soaking rains that start in fall and return every three weeks or so through March to get things going, then enough spring warming to encourage flowering without burning blooms out.
Or so went the conventional wisdom. Then came the dry winter of 1990-91 followed by the March miracle rains. Within a month, flowers were blooming everywhere, but not always in the expected combinations or proportions. On the Carrizo Plain, for example, snapless snapdragons that hadn't been seen since 1952 bloomed heavily.
Late rainfall favors ephemerals, such as goldfields, annuals that can go from seed to flower to seed again in five to six weeks. Rainfall that starts early favors flowers such as California poppies, which benefit from a longer growing season.
Antelope Valley 1992 * 1993 **
This wedge of high desert, probably the best place to see poppies in California, includes the l,700-acre Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve with its 8 1/2 miles of trails.
Last year, the poppies weren't so great here, but visitors were wowed anyway by the filaree, gilia, goldfields, owl's clover, and red maids. The last great poppy show came two years ago, when there was early rain--as there has been this year.
To get there. From Interstate 5 north of Los Angeles, take State Highway 14 to Lancaster, then drive west 15 miles on Avenue I (it changes to Lancaster Road) to the reserve. Continue west and back to I-5 on State 138, which passes more flowers in and around Gorman.
The poppy reserve visitor center is open 9 to 4 daily; admission costs $5 per car. Call (805) 724-1180.
To find out more. Take along A Flower-Watcher's Guide to Spring-Blooming Wildflowers of the Antelope Valley, by Milt Stark. The book is available for $11.95 in Lancaster bookstores and at the visitor center.
Anza-Borrego 1992 *** 1993 ***
Though the Anza-Borrego desert floor is at its prime in March, the slopes bloom into April and beyond. Desert dandelion, primrose, sunflower, and verbena grow profusely here, as do cactus with Popsicle-colored flowers.
To get there. From San Diego, take Interstate 8 east, then State Highway 79 north to Julian. Watch for flowers east of Julian along State 78. The visitor center at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is open 9 to 5 daily (follow signs); call (619) 767-4684.
To find out more. The park publishes a wildflower information brochure. If you want to avoid the crowds at the visitor center, look for a copy at many businesses in Borrego Springs.
Carrizo Plain 1992 *** 1993 ***
This dry prairie, sandwiched between the Temblor Range and La Panza Mountains southeast of San Luis Obispo, features an alkaline lake and some of California's few remaining vernal pools. Go there to see California poppies, goldfields, larkspur, lupine, owl's clover, popcorn flower, and tidy tips, to name but a few.
To get there. From Interstate 5 at Buttonwillow, take State Highway 58 west 45 miles to California Valley. Soda Lake Road heads south along the west side of the plain. Two miles south of the nature area's signed northern boundary, take the spur road west to its end, then walk up a short trail for a sweeping view of the plain.
To find out more. For a wildflower status report, call The Nature Conservancy's Carrizo Plain office at (805) 475-2360.
Mount Diablo 1992 *** 1993 ***
The blend of spring wildflowers that cover this East Bay landmark includes classic natives like California poppy, Indian paintbrush, lupine, narrow-leafed goldenbush, and owl's clover. All are visible from the road, but to get into the best of them, you should hike any of the park's 180 miles of trails.
To get there. From Interstate 680 in Danville, take Diablo Road east 4 miles to Mount Diablo Scenic Boulevard, then turn left and drive into the park ($5 day-use fee). Rock City (kids love to play in its sandstone caves), Mitchell Canyon, and North Gate Road have some of the mountain's best wildflower sites. It's an 8-mile hike to the top from the trailhead at the end of Mitchell Canyon Road.
To find out more. If you want to hike, pick up a map ($4.50) at either the north or south gate. To join a wildflower walk led by a naturalist or to get a flower status report, call (510) 837-2525.
Pope Valley 1992 * 1993 ***
Within this roughly 2-mile-wide and 10-mile-long oak-studded valley, located between the Napa Valley and Lake Berryessa, you'll find huge spreads of meadowfoam, owl's clover, and phlox (white and pink), along with a mix of less common blooms. Most of this is private land, but you're welcome to picnic or hike on miles of trails in Wantrup Wildlife Refuge, which is owned by the Napa County Land Trust.
To get there. From Napa, head north on State Highway 29 about 20 miles to St. Helena, then northeast about 7 miles on Deer Park Road (which turns into Howell Mountain Road) to Pope Valley. Just past Pope Valley, take a left on Pope Canyon Road and then a right on Hardin Road to get to the Wantrup Wildfire Refuge. Call ahead: (707) 965-2225.
RECIPE FOR A GREAT SEASON
Rain should come by November or December, then repeat every three weeks or so until spring. But even if this happens, it takes a mild spring with a little rain to really keep things going.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument 1992 ** 1993 **
As far south as it is, Organ Pipe still has fine early April bloom. Expect plenty of globe mallow, lupine, Mexican gold poppy, and owl's clover, and lots of belly flowers among the cactus. Displays can be extensive, but monument naturalists recommend the "throw rugs"--smaller patches--with equal enthusiasm.
To get there. Take State Highway 85 south from Phoenix or State 86 west from Tucson. Start your tour at the monument's visitor center (monument admission costs $4) on State 85 just north of the Mexican border. Allow 4 hours to cover Puerto Blanco Drive, a 53-mile graded road. For a 2-hour tour, take Ajo Mountain Road, a higher-elevation loop to the east. Visitor center hours are 8 to 5 daily. For information, call (602) 387-6849.
To find out more. For bloom information on wildflower sites throughout Arizona, call the Desert Botanical Garden's hotline at (602) 481-8134.
RECIPE FOR A GREAT SEASON
Evenly spaced, soaking winter rains, no flooding, and a warm (not hot) spring seem to do it. In the north, some seeds also need winter chill.
Central Texas 1992 ** 1993 ***
Like California, Texas is home to about a quarter of all varieties of native flowering plants in the continental United States and Canada. Although Austin, Colorado, Fayette, and Washington are considered the state's premier wildflower counties, Blanco, Gillespie, and Llano, west of the capital city of Austin, also put on great shows. A drive west will take you past field after field of bluebells, evening primroses, phlox, and, above all, bluebonnets, the state flower.
To get there. From Austin, take U.S. Highway 290 west to Fredericksburg, stopping at the well-flowered Johnson State Park and LBJ Ranch along the way. From Fredericksburg, head north to Llano on State Highway 16 (take the Willow City Loop on the way), then back to Austin on State 71, which leaves State 16 just south of Llano.
To find out more. When in Austin, visit the National Wildflower Research Center just east of town; seeing labeled wildflowers here makes field identification easier. For $2, you can pick up a list of native wildflowers that grow in your part of the United States. The center will even provide you with landscaping information and advice, and sources for seeds and plants. For more information, call (512) 929-3600.