Posted 3/10/2005 6:56 AM     Updated 3/10/2005 10:48 AM

A blooming sight in the desert

"Drop everything! This is a once in a lifetime show: Get here right now!"

So said a timely ranger-to-ranger alert sent early this month from Joshua Tree National Park to George Montgomery, curator of botony at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, urging people to partake of a once-a-decade, off-the-scale exhibit of a flowering desert.

The arid region of southwest California and southeastern Arizona is putting on a drop-dead gorgeous display this year with fields of pink sand verbena and yellow goldenrod in Death Valley: seas of orange poppies in the hills east of Los Angeles at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve; sky blue lupine in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park east of San Diego; and blooming Joshua trees in Joshua Tree.

This year's bloom is early and broad-based, Montgomery says, with about 50 species of desert wildflower revealing their extravagant beauty throughout the Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan desert regions and other areas of the West.

"Places that normally see a little scattering [of flowers] have good spots of color; areas that are dependably good are superb this year," Montgomery says. "Overall it is a banner year."

TRACKING THE BLOOM BOOM

Each year there is a crucial dance between the rain, sun, wind and plants; without those necessary elements, the flowers simply do not attend.

"We had good autumn rain," Montgomery explains. Large areas of the Mojave received more than 500% of expected seasonal rainfall and still counting.

"Then those California storms kept the seedlings going," he continued. In February, moderate sunny days without drying winds opened the blossoms. Continued, abundant rainfall has extended the season.

The bloom is peaking in the lowest elevations such as the sea-level floor of Death Valley and the hills of Anza Borrego. Interested flower-gazers should be able to catch swathes of sweeping color through April as the blooms rise into higher elevations.

Desert wildflowers engender an excitement that is hard for non-desert dwellers to comprehend. Finding a landscape transformed from sculptured, barren cliffs and sand into expanses of green mixed with vibrant colors is equivalent to an Irishman catching a leprechaun, and almost as rare. Peak blooming areas may lie along isolated roads separated by hundreds of miles, then disappear with a heartbreaking evanescence.

This seasonal bloom only happens for a handful of days every decade or so. For those with the luck or the fortitude to capture a field awash in bloom, there is little to compare.

The air may be heady with pungent, herbal scents or sweet with whiffs of intoxicating perfume.

Carpets of deceptively plain belly-busters invite a nose to miniscule-stamen exploration. Don't forget a magnifying glass.

Brian Cahill, public information officer for Anza Borrego, can't get enough. "It is just off the scale," he says. "Even the old-timers who have been here 30 years have a hard time remembering it being this good. It is so amazing to see these desert hills covered in green, after five years of drought."

Where to Go

Head west from Tucson on Arizona 86 to see roadside displays of Mexican gold poppy, owl clover, evening primrose, several other kinds of mustards and fiddleneck, an 18-inch-tall orange flower that clusters like a scorpion's tail.

Oregon Pipe Cactus National Monument is beginning to show lupine, poppies, fields of butter-yellow mustard bladderpods and football-field sized washes of lupine. "Lay on your belly and a see a sea of blue," advises Montgomery, the Arizona botanist.

"Joshua trees should be blooming in the next week or so," adds Bremer, whose site hosts a wildflower watch where pictures and sightings are posted throughout the season. "Around Lake Mojave and Lake Mead, it is starting to flower up big time. There is some flowering at Valley of Fire and along I-15 going into Utah. Big Ben Park is starting to show some flowers, and it should do real well over the next month. There are a lot of poppies, Arizona lupine and other wildflowers all over the place between San Diego and L.A., but especially at the poppy reserve. You should be able to catch them over the next three weeks. Then, of course, there is anything along the Colorado River between Yuma and Laughlin. And the sand dunes along Route 8 by Yuma, there are supposed to be a lot of flowers around there."

Death Valley's web site predicts blooms through April, saying this season should be "one of the best wildflower blooms in modern history."