The earth tones of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park near San Diego have been transformed by swaths of purple, yellow and white. Hillsides in Southern California are covered in poppies.
Meanwhile, at one of Northern California’s best-known places for wildflowers, Jepson Prairie Preserve, docent Doug Wirtz has to search to find a patch of them in a sea of green grass.
How could Southern California have what naturalists are calling the biggest wildflower bloom in years while Northern California is just beginning to see scattered wildflower growth? Both parts of the state received heavy winter rain after years of drought, creating what should be ideal conditions for wildflower blooms.
Part of the difference lies in climate, as warmer Southern California temperatures caused flowers to bloom sooner. But the bigger reason, experts say, lies in the difference in terrain – the southern part of the state has less grass than the northern part. And grass competes with flowers for nutrients.
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“Blame it on the invasion of European grasses … Before they were here, Sacramento had a lot of flowers,” said Richard A. Minnich, a UC Riverside professor and author of “California’s Fading Wildflowers: Lost Legacy and Biological Invasions.” “They literally suffocate the flowers.”
Minnich’s book describes how California was once covered in wildflowers. The book contains an 1868 quote from naturalist John Muir saying the Central Valley was so full of wildflowers in the spring, “your foot would press a hundred flowers at every step.”
While wildflowers in the Central Valley are not as plentiful now, they can still provide a colorful antidote to otherwise green and brown prairies. Area naturalists are holding out for the possibility of a better than usual year for blooms. The Sacramento area is probably 2-3 weeks away from peak blooms, they say.
Some of the best places to see wildflowers in the region are in the rolling hills along Jackson Highway in eastern Sacramento County and the open spaces west of Davis. Jepson Prairie is in the latter area, just off Highway 113 near Dixon.
Another popular place is the North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve near Oroville. But wildflower enthusiasts might think twice before going this year. For one thing, Table Mountain’s higher elevation means later blooms than in the valley. Another reason is that Table Mountain is in danger of being “loved to death,” according to Bruce Forman of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the preserve.
Plants are getting trampled and cars fill the reserve’s parking lot and line its country road each weekend, he said. The crowds led the state to cancel the weekend tours it held previously at Table Mountain.
The state plans to add its first trail to the reserve to help mitigate damage, but that’s at least three years away, Forman said.
About 50 people showed up at Jepson Prairie last weekend for the year’s first tour, said Wirtz of the Solano Land Trust, a Fairfield nonprofit that owns the preserve. The larger-than-usual crowd was likely drawn by reports of “super blooms” in the desert, in addition to the perception that Northern California’s wet winter would produce big blooms, Wirtz said.
Jepson Prairie is one of the better places for wildflower blooms because its rolling terrain made it less attractive for farming, leaving its soil intact for optimal flower growth, said Glen Holstein, a retired environmental consultant from Davis.
The Solano Land Trust protects Jepson Prairie with fencing, including a section that is locked. The section open to the public has a trail and the trust encourages visitors to use it.
Wirtz says visitors should take the trust’s weekend tours, which start every Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m. through May 14. Through the tours, visitors can learn about the flowers. Ten years ago, Wirtz started volunteering as a docent for the Solano Land Trust simply as a hobby after retiring from the Fairfield Fire Department. He didn’t have a lot of interest in wildflowers then, but his passion grew as he learned more about them.
He learned how specialist bees collect pollen from select flowers, such as the Yellow Carpet and Horned Downingia. He said such knowledge only comes through close observation, which is why you’ll often see the docents walking with their heads down.
While Northern California may not get the colorful fields of flowers found in the south, plenty of wildflowers are around for that kind of observation.
- Jepson Prairie Preserve, (4845 Cook Ln, Dixon) offers wildflower tours every Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m. through May 14.
- Railtown 1897 State Historic Park (10501 Reservoir Road, Jamestown), in the foothills east of Stockton, has a “Wildflower Train” departing at 3 p.m. on April 8, 9 and 15 with park naturalists and rangers pointing out the different flowers in bloom. Tickets cost $20 for adults and $14 for children ages 6 to 17 and can be purchased at www.railtown1897.org.
- Daffodil Hill farm (18310 Rams Horn Grade, Volcano), which was scheduled to open last week with more than 300,000 bulbs. The farm is expecting big weekend crowds and recommends visitors come in the middle of the week.
- South Yuba River State Park (17660 Pleasant Valley Rd, Penn Valley) offers family-friendly guided wildflower walks at 11 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday through May 14.