Wildflowers Transform State's Desert


Researcher Jim Andre can hear people hooting and hollering outside his window. Never mind that his lab is in a remote stretch of the East Mojave, home to rocky outcroppings usually as barren as an asphalt parking lot.

All that has changed this year. Suddenly, the driest parts of California's desert are exploding with wildflowers, making it a botanist's playground.

"There are botanists and friends and buddies of mine out there on their bellies screaming when they find something new," said Andre, director of Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center near Kelso. "It's like the ultimate Easter egg hunt."

The blossoms also have attracted scores of students, shutterbugs and regular flower-loving folk who have descended upon California's desert since the winter storms to witness what many experts are calling the bloom of the century.

Telephone hotlines and World Wide Web sites tracking the best places to see wildflowers are springing up as fast as the flowers. The National Science Foundation in Washington recently awarded emergency grants for field studies. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, about 90 miles northeast of San Diego, was one of the first parks to report full-bloom and now reports 10,000 visitors a day.

"So many things are bursting out of the ground. There's an opportunity to study plants that come up once every five or 10 years, to study competition, define species, an endless list," Andre said.

"But the buzz goes beyond scientists. Everyone gets excited about wildflowers. I think it goes pretty deep into the human psyche, the human spirit. This is a desert, and suddenly there's such a burst of life."

The springtime brought flowers to many coastal hillsides, an expected part of the California scenery. But researchers say the usually spare desert is sprouting in a startling way, from plains of creamy primrose in Anza-Borrego to rare, towering sunflowers in Death Valley to violet verbena carpeting sand dunes near the windmills in Palm Springs.

On a recent day at Joshua Tree National Park, Sharon Gorman walked far from a road or trail, a lone figure moving among banks of yellow desert dandelions and desert poppies. She marveled at the carpet of purple mat, the white chicory flowers poking out of turpentine bushes--and a host of other flowers.

"I don't know what half of them are called," said Gorman, an assistant professor of music in Arkansas who was spending her spring break in Southern California. "And I have to admit I was anthropomorphizing a bit. Something about the beautiful, soft-edged flowers surviving among the bitter cactus and hard rocks."

The display that seemed so spectacular to Gorman is just a pre-show to the spring's headline event, said Joshua Tree ranger Deanne Chatterton.

"We're just one-third in bloom. Everything is going to just burst," said Chatterton, who pointed out a beavertail cactus about to blossom with deep magenta flowers, buds on the Joshua trees and Mojave yucca and the first of the large yellow primrose, a rarely seen plant that this year will dot sandy flats with papery blooms.

Although the abundance of the desert flora can be traced to the general scientific principal that showers bring flowers, there are more complicated mysteries afoot.

Botanists said they have found flowers that usually only appear after fires--plants usually only seen in dry years. After rains in September, some spring flowers appeared in fall. Fall flowers came up in winter. Most of this topsy-turvy mix is continuing to bloom as the spring regulars join in.

Even the color pattern long favored by nature--yellows and whites first, followed by blues, then pinks and later reds and oranges--has given way to a desert painted with catch-as-you-can color.

"There doesn't seem to be any simple formula that X amount of rain equals Y response," said Al Muth, director of the Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center in Palm Desert.

"Look at the sand verbena," he said, referring to the violet blooms cascading down sand dunes along Interstate 10 and blanketing Palm Springs and the rest of the Coachella Valley. "We've had other years with this much rain and the verbena wasn't there."

Such mysteries can be tantalizing to botany students. But the unpredictability often makes desert annuals a poor choice of study for graduate students who need to produce papers. Studies need to be replicated, and a masters or doctorate candidate could while away years waiting for a certain flower to reappear.

However, the exuberance of this year's bloom has even science students disregarding caution. Three studies of desert annuals have begun at the research center near Kelso.

Tanya Finney, 25, a graduate student at UC Irvine, is studying population variations in phacelia, a light blue flower.

"If you want to study annuals, this is the year," she said. "I've got this system of questions I'm interested in answering, and now I have all these big blue flowers that are perfect for cross-pollinating."

The wildflowers are expected to continue through mid-May and, with a little more rain this month, could keep going until summer.

But the flowers are just the first item for those interested in things that buzz, creep and fly.

Jack Levy, a research scientist based at Palomar Mountain, studies Martin's swallowtail, a very rare black and yellow butterfly. There's more of the caterpillar's food this year, and he wonders if there will be more butterflies too. There are also other species of butterfly that remain in the chrysalis state and only come out in years when there's an abundance of food.

Muth studies lizards. Lizards eat insects, insects eat flowers. Muth is envisioning hefty, chubby lizards fattened up on the bounty started with the wildflowers. He predicts more lizard eggs and clutches of baby lizards.

"I've spent most of my life chasing lizards. For me this could be a really good year," he said.

But friends and students of lizards, butterflies, insects, birds, tortoises and the rest of the intertwining pageant of life that tracks back to the wildflowers will have trouble matching the enthusiasm of flower lovers.

Mary DeDecker, 89, a grande dame of botanists, said she has waited a lifetime to witness such a season.

She has written two books on California's desert flora and even has a flowering shrub named after her (the DeDeckera shrub). She was thrilled two weeks ago when she stood next to a rare species of sunflower in Death Valley that towered over her 5-foot 4-inch frame. She also spied the minuscule blossoms of the seldom-seen Gilmani, one of the belly flowers, so called because observers have to lie on their bellies to see them.

Since then, DeDecker has been sidelined in Bishop by a mild stroke, but is badgering her doctors to let her get back to the desert.

"It's the best I've ever seen it. Things are blooming that normally don't bloom," she said. "I want to be out there looking because there so much to learn. And because it's so pretty."

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