In Northern California, wildflowers are spring's showoffs

Published: Sunday, Mar. 28, 2010 - 12:00 am | Page 1I
Last Modified: Monday, Jan. 24, 2011 - 9:55 am

Mother Nature is working overtime with her paintbrush.

From broad strokes to delicate details, bright bursts decorate the California landscape. Gold, yellow and orange are ablaze under the springtime sun, courtesy of well-timed winter rains. Splashes of pink, blue and purple color hillsides and canyons along with shimmering, earthbound clouds of white.

Wildflowers capture our imagination, spur our wanderlust. Growing next to highways and rural roads, they pop up seemingly overnight – and fade almost as fast.

In a flora-rich state, we drive (and drive …) in search of that once-in-a-lifetime vista, hoping we haven't missed the elusive peak of bloom. Then we hike and climb for a still-better view.

We're lucky. California probably has more varieties of wildflowers than any other place on Earth. That also makes us a little greedy. Each year, we want a better show.

But this spring looks like it could be special.

"They're all over," said Glen Holstein of the California Native Plant Society. "There are so many great places to see wildflowers, it's hard to name them. Any area that's not under intensive development will be full of flowers.

"We've already had a number of flowers come out early. With this mild weather, they should last well into May or June. The season will extend into summer in the foothills, mountains and along the coast."

Other experts are cautiously optimistic.

"We're just getting the hot weather we need for the bloom to really come out," explained Ellen Dean, curator of the UC Davis Center for Plant Diversity. "I'm assuming it will be a great year, but it's still a little too early to tell."

Holstein added: "The main problem: It's also a good year for grasses. That's competition for the wildflowers."

Also a perennial threat to California wildflowers is invasive nonnative species – weeds.

"The best situation – a dry winter and late rain. That keeps the grasses from coming up, so there's more room for flowers," said Holstein, who has been active in CNPS since 1968. "So far, we've had nicely spaced rains. That helps."

California ranks as America's wildflower capital with more than 7,000 kinds of plants, Dean said. "About 1,000 of those were introduced from elsewhere. Alaska and Texas have larger areas (for wildflowers), but we have greater diversity and also more (native) plants that can be found only in California."

When naturalist John Muir explored California in the late 1800s, vast fields of wildflowers stretched across the Central Valley.

Even today in parts of the Valley, vast seas of goldfields, tar plant and other blooms seem to roll over hundreds of acres.

"Those are our wildflower prairies," Holstein said. "There's nothing else like it, nowhere on Earth."

On the hunt

Photographer Carol Leigh has been hunting California wildflowers since the 1980s. In 1996, living in Nevada City, she started her Hotsheet to share locations and tips. It's available at http://

"All photographers are interested in wildflowers," she said. "It's looking like a wonderful year."

The California poppy, our state flower, seems plentiful. "At some spots, it looks like somebody flung a big bag of Cheetos on the hillsides," Leigh said. "There's so much of that fluorescent orange that people love. It goes together so well with purple lupine or magenta owl's clover."

Among this season's Hotsheet hot spots: Mount Diablo and its Mitchell Canyon Trail, Table Mountain near Oroville and Bear Valley west of Williams.

"It's very rural," Leigh said of Bear Valley, "but there are just fields and fields of flowers. It's lovely. I highly recommend it."

The key ingredients for an amazing wildflower year in the north state appear to be there: abundant water and seed. Besides well-timed rain, a great wildflower year needs a pretty good one the year before to deposit enough seed for a massive bloom. Then, mild sunny days coax out the flowers – that is, unless they get blasted by too much heat.

That keeps wilderness expert John McKinney from making predictions – no matter how positive the signs. McKinney, who has written more than 20 guides to hiking and West Coast wilderness, recalls another almost-perfect wildflower season shortened by untimely summerlike days.

"I went out to Antelope Poppy Reserve (near Lancaster) with a ranger," said McKinney, who then wrote a weekly column in the Los Angeles Times. "It was windy and freezing cold. I was huddled up in a parka, but I could see all around us millions of poppy buds. I thought, this is going to be spectacular."

So he wrote his column about the remarkable sight about to unfold. Unfortunately, in the few days between his trip to the reserve and the story's publication, a heat wave torched Southern California with temperatures in the high 80s.

"All those poppies got fried," McKinney said. "They never had a chance to open. So much for predictions."

McKinney hedges his wildflower-hunt tips by recommending areas with dependable blooms. That includes many state parks and recreation areas, where wildflowers have long been cradled and nurtured.

Among McKinney's favorites in Northern California: Mount Tamalpais and Henry Coe state parks.

"Wildflowers can be so unpredictable," he warns. "My advice: Always call ahead."

Try a guided tour

As refuges for these precious gems of nature, many state parks and recreation areas offer guided wildflower tours through mid-May. Every weekend, rangers will take groups along Buttermilk Bend trail in South Yuba River State Park, about 70 miles north of Sacramento. (The trail starts near the park's famous Bridgeport covered bridge.)

In many ways, this trail winds through a microcosm of spring forces. Free- flowing and loud, the south Yuba River rushes with snowmelt. Above, the steep hillsides are blanketed with orange California poppies and yellow bush poppies.

"Look up, you see poppies," Leigh said. "Look down, you see poppies. It's spectacular. Not many people know about this place. To me, it's like a wonderful surprise."

Tucked along the trail are other surprises: dark purple zigzag larkspur, succulent dudleyas, wild hyacinths. They look like garden escapees but are happy natives.

At the other end of the state park, the Independence Trail (off Highway 49 near Nevada City) "lifts up" the wildflowers for easier enjoyment.

"The trail is set down in an old flume for mines," Leigh said. "It's wheelchair-accessible, too. The wildflowers grow alongside the trail. They're right there in front of you. You can easily see them up close without bending over. It's great for kids."

Dean and UC Davis colleagues have been out scouting – the Center for Plant Diversity is continually adding to its world-renowned herbarium. So far, the collection of dried plants and flowers has more than 250,000 specimens, which will serve as a resource for research as well as DNA.

"So much of Northern California has not been explored very well because the property was held privately," said Dean, who is working this spring to document rare plants in the Cache Creek wilderness and the Walker Ridge area in Colusa County. "It's important to get out to these unexplored areas that are just now opened up to us."

Last weekend, Dean traveled to San Luis Obispo County and was wowed by the roadside display.

"It was really hard to drive along roads in San Luis Obispo and not get out of the car," she said. "There were huge splashes of purple. It was just gorgeous."

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