Ground cherry, golden current, panamint, Bermuda buttercup, ground pink, mild maids, sugarbush, wild cucumber and globe mallow. These may sound like the newest flavors at the blender bar or the latest in herbal tonics to cure your inattention syndrome. But they’re the names of some of the wildflowers you can discover this spring, as areas of Southern California explode into color.
Wildflowers are nature’s reward for winter’s deluge. This year’s record rainfall, interspersed with sunny days, has yielded a bumper crop of these beauties. For the casual city-dwelling observer, wildflowers are most often seen in large clusters along foothill freeways in patches of bright violet lupine, sunny yellow and orange California poppies (our state flower), or the dappled yellow of wild mustard.
For first-timers or experienced flower aficionados, this is a great year to explore the hills. Guided walks are available through botanical societies and park services. There are also designated flower preserves that display acres ablaze in color. But as experienced seekers know, in the wild one needs to search out individual species, much as bird watchers keep eyes peeled for their elusive quarry.
To satisfy your urge to see nature’s color palette condensed in a five-acre area, the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants is the place to go. Once you have thrilled to the great concentration and diversity of the native California wildflowers growing on the foundation’s Flowerhill and learned to identify a few, your subsequent hikes and walks will be all the more rewarding. In addition, you can purchase seeds and create your own wildflower paradise next year.
The Payne Foundation is a nonprofit organization offering public access to its 23-acre native plant sanctuary, which includes a nursery selling California native plants and seeds, a bookstore with wildflower guide books, and an educational facility offering classes, workshops, field trips, speakers bureau and horticultural consultations.
In addition to the native plants and wildflowers cultivated there, birds are also given sanctuary, so take time to look from the visual extravaganza at your feet skyward to catch a glimpse of red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, sparrows, and at night, owls.
Theodore Payne was born in Northamptonshire, England, in 1872, and with botany degree in hand, came to Los Angeles at age 21 where he secured a position as gardener to a famous Polish actress, Helena Modjeska, at her country estate in Orange County.
In later years, he owned a nursery specializing in the native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers that he believed were being lost at an alarming rate to agriculture and development. His work resulted in a commission from the Los Angeles City Council to plant a wildflower garden in Exposition Park, where he labeled 262 species.
The Theodore Payne Foundation, named in his honor, was originally located in a nursery in the Los Feliz area. In 1966, it was moved to its current home, a donated 21-acre site in Sun Valley’s La Tuna Canyon.
In early February, Payne Foundation Director Michael Kristiansen was enthusiastic about this season’s floral potential. He had discovered three flowers open that morning.
What about potential damage to germinating flowers from El Nino’s drenching rains? He was unfazed. This, he said, is generally not a problem because most native chaparral and wildflowers have deep roots, not the delicate root hairs of nonnative flowers. He predicted that a long, wet winter combined with a mild spring would create a dazzling display this year.
The most important influences on wildflowers are heat and rain: ideally, half an inch of rain per week with warm, sunny days. So why does a certain combination of rain and heat produce the best in chaparral and wildflower color, variety and quality?
Kristiansen explained that our atmosphere has nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide. In summer, chaparral plants are in hibernation. Rain dissolves the nitrogen, providing an intravenous-like infusion through the roots to the plant. Rain also liquefies other organic nutrients in the ground. Nitrogen activates chlorophyll in the leaves, producing the hillside carpeting of green. Heat accelerates this chemical reaction, thus enhancing growth.
Another advantage of a wet winter is that wildflowers, in good years, produce more seeds. Without rain, seeds lie dormant (in some varieties up to 50 years). These long-dormant seeds make for great surprise blooms after fire and drought years when there finally is a suitable growing season.
Fire-followers is the name given to unusual wildflowers such as blue phacelia, the small popcorn-like white cryptantha, and whispering bells found in areas that have suffered a brush fire.
On the afternoon of a gentle climb up Flowerhill, cool breezes blended delicate perfumes of wildflower blossoms with spicy sage. Despite the abundance of yellow-blossomed mustard plants (the nonnative bane of native-plant purists), there were several of Mother Nature’s best treasures vying for attention in this wildflower showcase.
Arborist Sylva Blackstone, a foundation guide, was challenged to keep us clustered together. Like puppies bounding after butterflies, one of us would suddenly spy a new flower and, separating from the group, chase over to it with cries of, “Sylva, what’s this called?”
Her sense of humor kept pace with our impetuous bursts as she pointed out the coreopsis, lupine, phacelia and blue dicks among at least 20 varieties of blooming wildflowers.
One observant member of our group delighted in discovering single tiny blossoms camouflaged among the mustard or rye grass--a miniature bouquet as a prize for her visual scrutiny.
To get a jump on the season’s wildflower displays, the Payne Foundation publishes Flowerfax. It started earlier this month and will be faxed to subscribers each Thursday evening through the last Thursday in May. The newsletter announces sightings of the earliest blooms, which occur in low desert areas, and continues with reports of subsequent displays of orange, gold, purple, blue and lavender covering the valleys, hidden canyons and little-known coastal vistas. Updates detail the species in bloom, locations, directions and informational phone numbers for these areas.
Another way to keep current is by calling the Payne Foundation’s free 24-hour Wildflower Hotline at (818) 768-3533, now in its 16th year, and this year featuring the voice of TV actor Joe Spano as announcer.
In addition to the joys of Flowerhill, special events, classes and workshops are held throughout the year at the Payne Foundation, with springtime offering some of the best.
The Poppy Day Celebration on April 4 offers visitors the opportunity to learn about birds, insects, mammals and their habitats. Self-guided tours of the five-acre Flowerhill in full bloom can be followed by strolls through the grounds and demonstration areas.
On April 11, an excellent adventure awaits those who sign up for the Wildflower Bus Tour of Antelope Valley Spring Flower Fields. Expert Payne Foundation guide, botanist and seedsman Ed Peterson joins forces with Antelope Valley historian and wildflower guidebook author Milt Stark to take a jaunt across the valley’s sandy expanses and gentle slopes to see an amazing diversity of blossoms.
In this westernmost edge of the Mojave Desert, the 1,758-acre Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve offers short, looped trails through splashes of vibrant orange and yellow poppies with patches of bright blue lupine, yellow coreopsis, blue dicks, red maids and owl’s clover woven in the carpet of orange.
As you drive past the ranchlands surrounding the reserve, look for flowering Joshua trees, desert dandelions, tidytips, filarees, fiddlenecks and cream cups.
Ready to branch out on your own or with a tour leader? One way to prepare is to attend the slide presentation by wildflower enthusiast and author Milt McAuley about the “jewels” of the Santa Monica Mountains on Sunday at the Sooky Goldman Nature Center at the Santa Monica Mountains’ Franklin Canyon Ranch Site.
When you do set out, your best bets for wildflower viewing in the Santa Monica Mountains include Circle X Ranch and the Nicholas Flats area of Leo Carrillo State Park.
Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa boasts as many as 66 species (not all in bloom simultaneously) and La Jolla Canyon in Point Mugu State Park offers tapestries of dazzling California poppies. Look for waves of white daisy-like coreopsis and red Indian paintbrush along the coast and green-bark ceanothus blooming throughout the mountain range.
If you still need encouragement to hit the trails, think about your own sense of spring. When the question “What does spring mean to you?” was posed to a third-grade class at Vieja Valley School in Santa Barbara, the responses included, “trees blossoming,” “bright colors,” “moist soil,” “new life” and “butterflies bursting from chrysalises.”
Spring is nature’s showcase, and all these associations may be enjoyed on a walk through the wildflowers.
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Local Trails Lead Way to Floral Treasures Theodore Payne Foundation Nursery and Bookstore: 10459 Tuxford St., Sun Valley. Wednesday-Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Information: (818) 768-1802. Wildflower Hotline: (818) 768-3533.
Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. From the Antelope Freeway near Lancaster, head west on Avenue I (which becomes Lancaster Road) for about 15 miles to the reserve entrance on the right (north) side. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily from mid-March through mid-May. Cost $5 per vehicle. (805) 724-1180.
Circle X Ranch, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Take Pacific Coast Highway to Yerba Buena Road near the Los Angeles County line. Circle X Ranch is five miles up Yerba Buena.
Nicholas Flat, Leo Carrillo State Park, an area containing a meadow, stream and pond with oak forests, has two access points. The first, a strenuous trail recommended for experienced hikers, is at the entrance station to Leo Carrillo State Park. The second, an easy trail, may be found by taking Decker Road to Decker School Road, which dead-ends at a gate. An easy 1/8-mile trail to the pond begins just past the gate. (805) 488-1827.
Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa Site, near Newbury Park in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Take the Wendy Drive exit off the Ventura Freeway and follow it to the end. Turn right on Potrero Road, left at the stop sign and left at Pinehill Street.
National Park Service Lecture Series: “Wild About Wildflowers,” by Milt McAuley. (818) 597-9192, Ext. 201. Sunday, 2-4 p.m. Free. Sooky Goldman Nature Center at the Franklin Canyon Ranch Site. Take the Coldwater Canyon exit off the Ventura Freeway. At the intersection with Mulholland Drive, turn right onto Franklin Canyon Drive to the center.
Call Ahead Before heading out to explore wildflowers, call the National Park Service Visitor Center for trail closures due to rain-related erosion. After a heavy rainfall, the National Park Service recommends that hikers stay off the trails for at least 48 to 72 hours to prevent the deep rutting and trail surface destruction that leads to further erosion.