Flowers gone wild

The show is on Anza-Borrego State Park is a bloomin' color feast


February 17, 2005

With football season over and baseball season more than a month away, there is another season in full swing wildflower season. Sand verbena and evening primrose are now gracing the floor of the Anza Borrego Desert.

JOHN GIBBINS / Union-Tribune
Right now, the desert is a photographer's dream. Carpets of blue, yellow, white and pink flowers fill the horizon. Here, desert sunflower.
The land is rife with fossils, from mammoths to crabs and clams, but in the early spring, especially after record rainfalls such as those we've had this year, it is the flowers that run wild and steal the show.

"This year's wildflower season is one of the best we've had in 10 years," said Brian Cahill, public information officer for Anza-Borrego-Desert State Park. "The flowers have blossomed into fields of color, including sand-hugging verbena, which in some places covers acres of the desert and that's just what you can see from the car."

Wildflowers in the desert come in two types (to the casual connoisseur). There are those that seem to bloom in colonies and spread across low-lying, easily accessible spaces. Others are hidden in canyons and crevices and can be seen as you hike up to areas that harbor palm oases and brilliant pockets of life. So what you will see depends on how much effort you're willing to put into it.

The largest desert state park in the United States, Anza-Borrego offers more than 600,000 acres to explore, so don't try to maneuver your way through it all alone.

Your first stop should be the visitor center, where there's a large selection of wildflower and desert books with pages of pictures, maps, and desert life. There are fun souvenirs too, such as paint-by-number wildflower T-shirts.

The center is staffed with volunteers and park employees who have up-to-date information on everything from to where you're most likely to see the yellow-throated monkey flower to the most recent time and location a bighorn sheep was spotted.

The abundance and length of each wildflower season is dependent on many variables, from the mildness of the weather to the rainfall to the invasion of caterpillar moths, which can bring an abrupt end to the season.

To predict and "read" the wildflower blooms, the park has a park interpreter, Tish Wagoner. For the past three years, Wagoner has acted as the park's prophet, although she acts less on divine delivery and more on nose-to-the-ground evaluation.

Wagoner drives through the park each Wednesday, assessing the growth levels and soil condition to help predict each season's peak. Her reports are published with pictures on the park's Web site, handed out with $1 maps at the visitors center, and you can even hear the report directly from Wagoner on the wildflower hotline before you head out there for weekend viewing. "This way we know we have a good, consistent report and where to find the most gorgeous wildflowers," said Cahill.

Desert chicory blooms in geometric precision with fork-like points at the end of each petal; Spanish needles bare delicate sharpness to the sky; and golden butterscotch brittlebrushes line up in rows to dance in the desert breeze. The air is sweet and clean and you can drop to your knees in the sand tracing the scent from blossom to blossom.

"This is an escape," said Cahill. "We are an hour and a half from the nearest stoplight, the air is fresh, and the weather is mild this time of year."

Pack a picnic the park has plenty of space to lay out lunch and enjoy the show or stop off for food in Borrego Springs.

Cahill advises bringing plenty of water, sunscreen and hats. What should you look out for? "The cholla cactus."

If you or your kids should have an unfortunate run-in with one, "As strange as it sounds, a pocket comb works best for getting out spines or tweezers always work."

Sounds like you should stick to smelling the flowers.

 Gretchen Lees is a San Diego writer.