Wild Things : * The much-needed rains that fell earlier this winter should result in a rainbow of color in Orange County.

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California poppies, Indian paintbrush, lupine, lemonade berries, black sage, Our Lord's candle and popcorn flowers.

Thanks to the rains that fell earlier this winter, Orange County is looking forward to colorful displays from these plants and others in what promises to be a second straight strong wildflower season after the dismal displays of previous drought-plagued years.

The drought isn't over, but timely rains have helped bring the hills to life. Last year, it was the "March miracle" storms that saved what had been another dry season and led to the most spectacular local wildflower show in years. This year, a series of storms highlighted by the February deluge could create an even better bloom for the county's wild plants.

"It's going to be spectacular," said John Bovee, ranger at Santiago Oaks Regional Park in Orange. The park already has small and isolated displays of blooming wildflowers, but Bovee expects the season to really take off in the weeks ahead.

Late March and April is the peak blooming season for most of Orange County's undeveloped areas, with the season starting a bit later and lingering longer at the higher elevations. "April and May is when it really gets rolling around here," said Ray Munson of Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary in Modjeska Canyon, which is at 1,400 feet.

Donna Crucki at Caspers Wilderness Park reports that shooting stars and Indian paintbrush are blooming in some areas of the park, but so far the displays are relatively small and isolated.

Meanwhile, down near sea level, Debra Clarke at the Environmental Nature Center in Newport Beach reports that much of the small reserve is already in bloom, with California poppies, blue-eyed grass, ceanothus and sage among the native bloomers.

Orange County wildflower lovers have a couple of new areas to explore, and both are reportedly beginning to bloom. The spectacular new Whiting Ranch Regional Park is in Lake Forest, and Aliso/Woods Canyon Regional Park is in Laguna Niguel.

Outside the county, the deserts are reportedly enjoying one of the most spectacular wildflower seasons in years. You must move fast, however; Anza-Borrego Desert State Park reports that the display is at its peak, and may last another two weeks--if the weather doesn't get any warmer.

"If it gets any hotter than this, it may shorten the season," one ranger reported. Temperatures were in the mid-80s earlier this week.

A brief guide to some native Orange County blooming plants:

* California poppy. An herb with stems up to two feet high with four satiny, showy orange petals that are up to 2 1/2 inches long. The flower is found on grassy slopes and flats below 2,000 feet.

* Ground pink. A very low annual with slender stems, two to 4 1/2 inches high, with very fine opposite leaves. The flowers, up to an inch long, are lilac or purplish with a dark-spotted yellow throat. It is found on grassy slopes in open coastal sage at low elevation.

* Shooting star. A slightly sticky perennial covered with soft, short hairs; the stalk grows from a few inches to a foot or more tall. The white-to-pink petals bend sharply upward. the plant grows in grassy, damp areas.

* Purple nightshade. A perennial herb several feet high with thin, oval leaves and flowers are saucer-shaped, about an inch across, and deep violet with white-encircled green spots in the center. It is found in coastal sage and openings in chaparral.

* Lupine. A stout, erect annual eight to 24 inches high with purple-blue pea-shaped flowers about half an inch long, arranged on either side of the stem. The pods are covered in short hairs. It is found along roadsides, on burn sites and in disturbed areas below 1,500 feet.

Parks can be ideal places to observe wildflowers because of the easy access, well-marked trails and, often, assistance in identification from nature centers and park trails. Some parks have marked nature trails as well.

County regional parks where flowers can be found include Carbon Canyon in Brea, Santiago Oaks in Orange, Irvine in Orange, O'Neill in Trabuco Canyon, Whiting Ranch in Lake Forest, Aliso/Woods Canyon in Laguna Niguel and Caspers above San Juan Capistrano.

State parks include Chino Hills in eastern Orange County and Crystal Cove near Laguna Beach. Other areas include Oak Canyon Nature Center in Anaheim Hills, Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary in Modjeska Canyon and the Environmental Nature Center in Newport Beach.

Duathlon. Orange County's Duathlon in Exile series starts its second season Sunday at the Irvine Spectrum. The race begins at 8 a.m. with a 5-kilometer run, continuing with a 20-kilometer bike ride and finishing with another 5-kilometer run. Entry fees are $35 for individuals, and $70 to $90 for teams.

The series, sponsored by SBR triathlete shop in Irvine, continues April 12 and May 17. Information: (714) 733-2727.

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