California Is Swooning Over a Heavenly Super Bloom of Wildflowers
When I first moved to Southern California, I was struck by the Friday afternoon conversations in which colleagues discussed their weekend hiking plans the way New Yorkers would talk about where they might have brunch. Almost everyone hiked, and they were eager to extol the merits of favorite trails.
I soon came to understand that this reflected something larger: the importance of Californians’ relationship with the outdoors. The climate was not a punch line, but a reality that shaped lifestyles. Only after years of reading history did I appreciate the extent to which the natural world has always been intrinsic to California’s identity.
So the exuberant embrace of this year’s “super bloom,” an exceptional show of wildflowers coloring normally barren hillsides and desert valleys, makes perfect sense. The wildflower hotlines and daily website updates, the Instagram selfies in poppy fields, the pilgrimages to find the rare ghost flower, represent the latest iteration of traditions that date back to the 19th century, when thousands of hikers took to the Southern California foothills every weekend.
This super bloom has offered a particularly welcome respite, a reminder that the increasingly extreme climate conditions can produce beauty as well as destruction, wondrous golden fields as well as mudslides and wildfires. The conditions necessary to transform millions of long-dormant seeds into an explosion of flowers generally occur about once a decade; they are drought followed by abundant rain, temperatures not too hot and not too cold, and an absence of strong wind. Parts of the state had abundant displays of wildflowers in 2005, and again in 2017, after several years of severe drought had cleared out invasive plants that can choke the delicate flowers. This year’s bloom is more widespread — purple and yellow sprays along freeway medians, golden poppies covering hillsides that glow orange from miles away, and desert valleys filled with dozens of species, some not seen for decades.
Poppies filled the landscape in this year’s super bloom.CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times
To live in a state that includes three deserts and vast cities built in semiarid climes, a state where the intransigent politics of water are omnipresent, is to appreciate the wonder of a muddy desert wash and the profusion of color in a what is usually a brown landscape.
“A stream! In the desert!” marveled a hiker in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park last week as she observed the rushing water alongside the popular Palm Canyon trail, so treacherous after heavy rains that it was closed for three weeks. “All life in the desert revolves around water, as you will discover along this self-guided trail,” reads the brochure for the Palm Canyon hike. The weekend the trail reopened, the park soon ran out of brochures as thousands trekked through.
Californians of all ages, shapes and ethnicities have flocked to Anza-Borrego, in eastern San Diego County, to witness a super bloom of quantity and quality not seen in decades. State police direct traffic, nearby businesses chipped in for extra trash cans and portable toilets, volunteers set up temporary kiosks to hand out bloom maps. The largest state park in California, Anza-Borrego includes a big chunk of the Colorado Desert that is home to more than 900 plant species. Park officials expect the average number of annual visitors, 600,000, to jump by at least 50 percent this year.
Young people pack up their children and head to the park to wander through fields of purple lupine and orange asters, redolent with the sweet scent of sand verbena. Old people pack up their telephoto lenses and rise early to beat the crowds, hiking the washes in search of the perfect desert lily and the rare five spot.
From California’s earliest days, hiking, camping and outdoor excursions have been a way of life. In the 1860s, groups began to vacation in camps on the Russian River in a tradition they called the “paseár.” In 1864, at the urging of Frederick Law Olmsted, a large swath of the Sierra including Yosemite Valley became essentially the nation’s first national park. In 1892, John Muir founded the Sierra Club to protect the park. In 1903, Muir camped out for four days with President Theodore Roosevelt in Yosemite, by then officially a national park and a symbol of California.
Even then, East Coast intellectuals quick to dismiss California as a cultural wasteland marveled at its natural beauty. Visiting San Diego in April 1905, the writer Henry James found the culture nonexistent but the natural world unlike anything he had seen elsewhere.
Writing his sister-in-law, James put down words that describe what thousands would experience more than a century later: “The days have been mostly here of heavenly beauty, and the flowers, the wildflowers just now in particular, which fairly rage, with radiance, over the land, are worthy of some purer planet than this.”
Miriam Pawel, a contributing opinion writer, is the author of “The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation.”
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