California’s desert wildflowers burst into bright ‘super bloom’

Following the ideal combination of rain, sun and wind, blossoms abound.

  • California poppies, the state's official flower, begin to unfurl in the morning at Walker Canyon, a conservation area near Lake Elsinore in Riverside County, California. A so-called superbloom, driven by heavy winter rains and mild spring temperatures, has transformed Southern California's deserts with shocks of color after a five year drought.

    Andrew Cullen
  • A man photographs California Poppies with his cell phone at Walker Canyon, a conservation area near Lake Elsinore in Riverside County, California.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Purple arroyo lupines and blue dicks interrupt a field of California poppies along the popular wildflower trail at Diamond Lake, a man-made reservoir in Hemet, California.

    Andrew Cullen
  • A hiker inspects a a tidy tip flower at Diamond Lake in Hemet, California.

    Andrew Cullen
  • At least a dozen varieties of wildflowers including California poppies, California goldfields, and arroyo lupines bloom around Diamond Lake in Hemet, California.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Popcorn flowers, white, and rancher's fiddleheads, yellow, grow among other wildflowers at Walker Canyon in Lake Elsinore, California.

    Andrew Cullen
  • The superbloom has become a verifiable tourist attraction in Southern California as hundreds of people come out to hike and photograph — themselves as well as the flowers. Thick fields of California poppies like this one at Walker Canyon are particularly popular, sometimes stopping traffic along the adjacent freeway.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Palm trees demarcate a small grove near a field of California poppies at Walker Canyon. Most of the year, these hills are dry and brown chaparral desert.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Wildflower enthusiasts watch and photograph a rattle snake, lower right, at Walker Canyon. The snakes are common in some of the most popular areas for viewing the superbloom.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Thousands of people have descended on Southern California's wildflower fields, and the impact is evident. Stands of flowers are flattened by selfie-seekers and new trails through the flowers are created daily.

    Andrew Cullen

 

After their vivid Death Valley bloom last spring, California’s desert wildflowers are performing an encore this year. Poppies, arroyo lupines, rancher’s fiddleheads and other flowers are dousing the deserts of southern California in vibrant hues. This spring’s action is centered in the southeastern corner of the state rather than at Death Valley. Blooms have coated the ground at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park — south of Palm Springs, where an influx of flower peepers has caused traffic jams — as well as other nearby parks and open areas. Death Valley itself isn’t experiencing a redux of last year’s flowery fireworks: Such displays usually happen about once per decade there. But the conditions about 200 miles south, near the state park, were optimal for a big bloom this year.

Desert wildflowers spend most of their lives as dormant seeds, waiting for years or even decades for the right combination of rain, sun and wind to sprout. They require gentle and abundant rainfall throughout the winter and spring for nourishment and to wash off protective seed coatings. Once enough rain has fallen, warm spring sunlight stimulates growth. If harsh winds don’t dehydrate the young plants — which could stunt or even kill them — the result is a “super bloom,” a profusion of wildflowers in excess of a typical year’s bounty.

Why would desert wildflowers blossom all at once? One reason the plants may have evolved to erupt in periodic super blooms is because it’s an efficient way to reproduce: the concentration of flowers can attract an army of pollinators that might otherwise fly on by.

The bloom isn’t expected to last long. Most of these flowers are called ephemerals,” named for their fleeting blossoms. If you’d like to see them in person, before the desert returns to its less ornate state, plan your trip for the next week or two.

Andrew Cullen is a freelance photojournalist based in Los Angeles.

—Emily Benson