26 March, San Diego Deserts--
As the desert floor warms up and the flowers there reach their peak and begin to fade, it's time to look at higher elevations for continued bloom. Our group found a bonanza last Saturday on a hike from the Culp Valley campground down the California Riding and Hiking Trail to Hellhole Canyon in the Borrego Valley.
There were flowers to be seen all along the trail, but the astonishing sight was the combination of mountain meadow wildflowers like yellow goldfields (Lasthenia) and white cream cups (Platystemon), mixed with blue phacelias, covering acres of sandy ground against the rugged desert landscape. At times the heady fragrance of the flowers was almost overpowering.
One hiker we met reported that he had seen over 70 species in bloom along the entire trail, and I can believe it. Unfortunately, there is some hiking involved, as the most abundant flowers are two miles or more from the campground, along a sometimes rather rough trail. However, for those who are able to make the trek, it's well worth it.
The Culp Valley campground is on the north side of the Montezuma Grade road which runs from Ranchita to Borrego Springs. A sad sight along this stretch of road is the view of some of the vast area burned in last year's Banner fire.
It's not too early to start your desert visits for wildflowers this spring--the desert is green with early growth, the showy perennials like brittlebush and ocotillo are getting into full swing, and the sand-loving annuals in the Borrego Valley and elsewhere are starting their bloom, though they have not yet reached the mounding full coverage of the best years (see our earlier wildflower reports).
The storm that brought two inches of rain to San Diego this weekend also made a delivery to the desert side of the mountains, which means that the desert wildflower display which made a rather slow start will be able to continue to grow and improve for some time to come. If weather continues moist and cool, the blooming season may be able to continue well into April.
Our party found abundant flowers in the Borrego Valley, Plum Canyon, Blair Valley, Box Canyon, and the roadsides north of Sweeney Pass. Blooms petered out as we continued south toward Ocotillo. The Imperial County part of our trip looked dismally dry, with not even creosote bushes in bloom.
Borrego Valley (the reliable DiGiorgio Road area)--sand verbena, brown-eyed evening primrose, and dune evening primrose. A few early sunflowers were evident, as well as occasional leaves of desert lily. Given continued rain and a delay of summer heat, I am hoping that the full mix of flowers will be able to develop over the next month here and in the sandy flats to the east.
Plum Canyon (between Scissors Crossing and the Tamarisk Grove campground, two weeks ago, not visited this trip)--climbing up and over the hills to the south we saw many different small annuals growing in the shelter of shrubs, including two species of phacelia, desert poppies (Eschscholzia minutiflora), buckwheat, popcorn flowers, purple mat, whispering bells, and more.
At Box Canyon, though it seems a bit early, the agaves are shooting up and one was in full bloom. The ground on the upslope side of the road is covered with leaves of some bulb, and there was a single wild hyacinth (Dichelostemma pulchella) in bloom, as well as an abundant tiny plantago.
In some places we saw the early leaves of bulb plants that will be in bloom a few weeks from now. Desert lilies (Hesperocallis undulata) are showing leaves, but we did not see any with flower stalks yet. A new desert lily spot for me was along Highway S-2 between mileposts 36 and 37, where we had stopped to photograph ocotillos.
At this moment, however, the plant growth has not reached the point where you'll be able to do your botanizing strictly from the seat of your car. The 60-mile-an-hour eye simply cannot see everything that's out there. You're going to have to get out and walk. You will be richly rewarded, as there are flowers everywhere, at least in the northern part of the desert.
For flower reports from Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, see their Wildflower Updates.
One warning: check the weather forecasts before you go! It looks like we may still be in store for a few more storms this spring. While rain on the coastal side of the mountains does not necessarily mean there will be rain in the desert (after all, that's why it's a desert!), the same storm systems may produce high winds in the desert. This can be a driving hazard, especially to high-profile vehicles--we saw a jeep that either been blown into the hillside or actually rolled, on our way down the Montezuma Grade this weekend. High winds also mean that you'll need to have a jacket or windbreaker with you.