After failing to appear in bone-dry 2002, the California poppy has returned with a fiery flourish to the western Antelope Valley, one of the last regions that still boasts vast fields of the official state flower.
Thanks to a few hard winter rains, swaths of wild, bright-orange poppies have begun shooting up along some of the gentle hillsides west of Lancaster. Motorists have already begun stopping along such thoroughfares as Johnson Road to appreciate the poppies and other bold wildflowers that collectively lend the desert a near-psychedelic visual hum during its fleeting spring blooming season.
Most famous of the flowers are the poppies, which usually bloom each March. Officials at the 1,760-acre Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve say the plants could still use a good storm or two to ensure a banner blooming season. But this year's showing is already an improvement over last spring, when negligible rainfall resulted in dun-colored hills and a nearly flowerless season.
"Last year was absolutely the worst -- the driest year on record," said Milt Stark, president of the Poppy Reserve/Mojave Desert Interpretive Assn. "We had no flowers at all."
Without the poppies, the region was robbed of one of its biggest tourist draws. The busloads of gawkers -- who come from as far away as Korea -- stayed home.
Local chamber of commerce officials say that gas stations, hotels and restaurants lost out on immeasurable business. The Poppy Reserve's seasonal interpretive center closed early, collecting a fraction of its normal gift-store sales.
Only Lancaster's annual California Poppy Festival had a decent turnout. But that was thanks to city officials who scrambled to air additional advertising after TV news stations erroneously reported the event had been canceled.
In contrast, the mood at the reserve this week was giddy -- even though its hills thus far have seen only a smattering of poppies, yellow Bigelow's coreopsis and purple red-stem filaree. Employees and volunteers were readying the visitors center for its opening day Saturday, promising to guide people to the best place to see poppies.
Stark, 81, worked his cell phone, trying to arrange a special event for April 6 -- the 100th anniversary of the poppy's status as official state flower.
A resident of the Antelope Valley since the 1920s, the former probation officer fell in love with the area's wildflowers at the age of 8.
He can still recall first noticing their intoxicating smell on a walk home from elementary school.
Although the California poppy is not considered a threatened species, the large, dramatic fields of them that once wowed early settlers have been slowly disappearing over the decades, Stark said.
It is not a new phenomenon: In 1914, naturalist Charles Francis Saunders wrote that the California poppy "is not nowadays to be found just anywhere; one may travel an entire spring day and never see a poppy."
Even though Stark complains that many of the valley's prime fields are now covered with houses, he and the other founders of the 27-year-old reserve are credited with saving a few of the wide, vibrant vistas of color that Saunders described as "actually painful to some eyes."
"We have some areas with very large displays of wildflowers, but in terms of the poppy, I really can't think of any other areas that have such extensive displays," said David Magney, a board member of the California Native Plant Society.
This year, the poppies are a sign that nature finally blessed the valley with rain after so many dry and dusty months.
The drought was more an annoyance than a crisis, although it did wreak havoc on groundwater supplies here, forcing one local water district to buy extra water from the California Aqueduct.
"There's nothing we can do to control Mother Nature," said Steve Malicott, president of the Antelope Valley Chambers of Commerce. "But it looks like she's cooperating this year."
The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is located on Lancaster Road between 110th Street West and 170th Street West, west of Lancaster. Its visitors center opens Saturday and remains open until mid-May. Parking is $4. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. For more information, call (661) 942-0662, or visit www.calparksmojave.com/poppy/. Lancaster's 2003 California Poppy Festival takes place April 26 and 27. For more information, call (661) 723-6077, or visit www.cityoflancasterca .org/Parks/poppy_festival.htm.