Deserts in Bloom

Late-winter rains in California and the Southwest have nature-lovers and sightseers holding their breath. This could be the best spring in years for seeing wildflowers.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada

The vistas here in this land of desert and rock feature deep canyons and striated rock formations. But the most impressive sight is yet to come. At some point next month, the gray floor of the desert will be set ablaze by carpets of wildflowers, in riotous shades of purple, yellow and red.

[Slildeshow image]This plant, called the desert five-spot, took Stan Sesser's breath away, with its complex beauty contained in such a tiny package. Photo by Stan Sesser.

Aficionados maintain that witnessing desert wildflowers is one of the most rewarding experiences in nature. Fall's dramatic leaf color change is guaranteed to happen every year. Desert wildflowers are far less predictable. If good spring rains are lacking, which was largely the case in 2006 and 2007, the flowers don't appear. When nature does cooperate, for two weeks or a month the desert looks as if it has been streaked by a giant paintbrush.

This year is shaping up as one of those lucky years, due to a series of storms that swept California and the Southwest in January, followed by more rain in February. "I'm hoping it's going to be terrific," says Patrick Leary, a professor of plant biology at the College of Southern Nevada, who teaches a course in desert plants. "You suffer and wait and pray for a good year and when that year comes, you have to be out there every available moment. And then it's gone."

Adding to the allure, these wildflowers bloom in abundance in only a few spots in the world, including the deserts of Western Australia, Iran and southern Namibia. But Americans can leave their passports at home. In a good year, desert wildflowers are in abundance a short drive from some of the nation's major Western cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas and Tucson.

There is a positive side to the flooding that has taken place in the deserts of the western U.S., the potential for spectacular wildflowers.

Virtual Viewing

Flower devotees and national and state parks give online blooming updates.

California Wildflower Hotsheet
Users post their predictions about the best places to go and the peak of the season.

Desert USA Web
Jim Bremer's site covers wildflowers in five Western states.

Death Valley National Park
Includes a link to the latest wildflower update on the park's home page.

Photography by David Senesac
Mr. Senesac, a Silicon Valley engineer, photographs desert wildflowers and displays them on his Web site.

Desert wildflowers attract followers of singular devotion, spawning a growing number of Web sites. David Senesac, an engineer who lives in Silicon Valley, is one such fan who has his own site displaying photos from his viewing trips. He put 8,000 miles on his car in just over two months to see the stellar California blooms of 2005.

This year, he's planning to witness the wildflowers in the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, about 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles. More than nine inches of rain has fallen so far this season, more than the area usually gets in an entire year. "That large amount of rain is likely to repeat an event I last saw in 1991, which they called 'the Miracle March,'" he says. "It was one of the greatest blooms ever in Southern California."

Mr. Senesac calls the Mojave Desert, which extends from Southern California into Nevada, southwest Utah and northwest Arizona, one of the most impressive flower zones in the world, "where species from nearby areas like the Sierra Nevada mountains have somehow found a niche in the desert environment."

Carol Leigh, an Oregon writer who also conducts photography workshops, is another wildflower enthusiast who shares her interest by sponsoring a Web site, the California Wildflower Hotsheet. As an alternative to what she calls "Chamber of Commerce reports," which always hold out hopes of a good bloom, she says, her site encourages people to post their predictions about the best places to go. "Be sure to check the local foothills for fiddleneck and mustard. If it warms up enough, there may be some poppies and lupine, too! Good shooting to all!" says one recent posting on Fresno County.

While hotels in remote spots like Death Valley can book up quickly during the peak of the blooming season, in Red Rock Canyon accommodations aren't a problem. The peacefulness of the area, which consists of 200,000 acres of the Mojave Desert, happens to be a half-hour's drive from the Las Vegas Strip. Greater Las Vegas has more than 150,000 hotel rooms, more than enough to accommodate the gamblers as well as the 5,000-or-so wildflower addicts who come to Red Rock each day at the peak of the season.

[Click to see the map]A mid-February walk down the trail to Pine Creek Canyon, one of Red Rock's prime wildflower viewing areas, gave not a hint of what is to come. The grays and browns of the desert floor were punctuated only by the greens of cholla and prickly pear cactuses, blackbrush and some scattered clumps of grasses. Enthusiasts of desert wildflowers say that it's this contrast between the normal drabness of the desert floor and the vivid colors of the wildflowers when they bloom that provides one of their primary attractions.

Plant biologists say that desert wildflowers are uniquely adapted to the dry, hard soil. Death Valley, for instance, is one of the driest areas in the U.S. -- and one of the best for wildflowers. The desert floor gives the flowers all the space they need to thrive when the rains come.

The wildflowers spend almost all their life cycle as seeds, and these seeds nourish the desert wildlife. "If you look at the animals who live there, they are all seed eaters," says Stan Smith, associate vice president of research and a specialist in desert plants at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. "There is no vegetation to graze on that would get them through the fall." The birds, small mammals and other animals return the favor by spreading the wildflowers through their droppings.

Then there are the pollinators -- the bees, flies, moths, beetles, butterflies and birds that allow the wildflowers to reproduce. That's the explanation for the dazzling colors of the wildflowers, which are designed to attract pollinators. "The pollinators have got to make their population grow, and there's a narrow window of time for these plants to flower," says Prof. Leary.

The white flowers can be found in the dark by the moths and bats, which come out at night. Hummingbirds go for bright oranges and reds. Yellow attracts bees.

The increase in Web sites devoted to desert wildflower viewing is making it easier to find remote spots. I found one in Utah on a trip through the Southwest in 2005, which turned out to be one of the best wildflower years in the Western U.S. deserts of the past century. On state highway 24, the road that approaches Capitol Reef National Park from the east, the desert was paved with yellow beeplant and purple scorpionweed, and there wasn't another car around.

Tom Clark, the chief of resource management at Capitol Reef, says heavy rain this year should produce an even better wildflower season than 2005. The prime area to see flowers like sego lilies and larkspur this year will shift from highway 24 to the park itself, in the Strike Valley, and the canyons of the Waterpocket Fold for paintbrush and daisies. He predicts the peak viewing period will be early May and the bloom will stretch into June. (The nearest cluster of motels are in the town of Green River, about an hour's drive.)

For Death Valley, however, predictions are that the bloom won't approach the spectacular show of 2005. Charlie Callagan, the park's naturalist, says that rains so far have been enough to anticipate only "localized hot spots" around mid-March, such as golden evening primroses and scorpionweed near the eastern park entrance on highway 190, about a three-hour drive from Las Vegas.

For those who consider the American Southwest too close to civilization, David Charlet, a biology professor at the College of Southern Nevada, has an alternative selection that's a bit more adventurous: the deserts of northwest Iran, near the borders of Iraq and Turkey, in May and June. "They have 7,500 species of plants, which rivals all of California," he says. "Everywhere I went there were spectacular displays."

Iran can't supplement the attraction of wildflowers with that of casinos, however, which can be found within a 10-minute drive of Red Rock Canyon. Jed Botsford, Red Rock's lead outdoor-recreation planner, says that the area, which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, gets a lot of "windshield tourists" -- people who get bored with gambling and sign up at their hotel excursion desk to see Red Rock through the windshield of a tour van. "You hear them say, 'I wish I knew about this earlier, because I would have spent my four days here.'"

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