Spring awakens desert's beauty
The wildflower season is in full bloom, drawing droves of tourists, painters and nature lovers to Anza-Borrego, Joshua Tree and Mojave.By Mary Engel
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
March 22, 2008
BORREGO SPRINGS, CALIF. — Jeff Sewell's paintbrush chased the slanting light across a field of desert sunflowers. Gold. Ocher. Flecks of palest yellow. Then the sun sank behind the San Ysidro Mountains, and the only field left glowing was the one on Sewell's canvas.
Even so, the seascape painter from San Juan Capistrano could hardly bring himself to pack away his easel.
"This is like something I've never seen," he said, waving at the carpet of wildflowers laid out before stark hillsides of dirt and rock. "It's a whole new planet."
The two dozen painters in the second annual Borrego Springs Plein Air Invitational, which got underway Sunday, didn't seem to mind that this spring's wildflowers don't match the legendary 2005 bloom. The inaugural gathering, after all, met in 2007, a drought year, when Anza-Borrego Desert State Park got a mere three-quarters of an inch of rain. "They got skunked last year," Sewell said.
This year the 600,000-acre park, which stretches from Riverside County's southern border through San Diego County almost to the Mexican border, has received about 4 1/2 inches of rain since July 1. That's far less than 2005's record 13 inches, which led to record numbers of wildflowers and wildflower oglers, but it's enough to give this crop of plein-air painters -- artists who capture outdoor images in natural light -- a broad palette of yellows, pinks, whites and blues. (Each artist at the event creates two paintings a day through Friday, and the works are displayed and sold at numerous community receptions throughout the week.)
If 2005 was an A+ year, wildflower aficionados are grading 2008 a B or B+.
"It's a beautiful, charming season," said Mary Ekelund, a Wisconsinite who retired to Borrego Springs in 2003. "The number of flowers isn't everything."
Ekelund volunteers for the park, the Anza-Borrego Institute and the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Assn. Avoiding the fields along Henderson Canyon Road that set Sewell to swooning, she guides visitors to quiet, out-of-the-way places without crowds.
She recently led a group of five women from La Jolla -- the youngest was 81 -- up a gentle slope through Sunshine Canyon, rewarding them with glimpses of pale yellow ghost flowers and the pink tufts of fairy dusters.
Wildflower season is to Southern California deserts what fall's changing leaves are to Ekelund's native Midwest, but less predictable and more intense.
"Where we live near Lake Superior, we have the same madness for a few weekends," said Ekelund, who still spends summers there. "But here you've got San Diego and Los Angeles so close," and the crowds keep coming.
Crowds earlier this month prompted the weekly Borrego Sun to editorialize against cars stopping in the middle of roads. But by mid-March, the first caterpillar had been spotted picnicking on carpets of wildflowers, a sure sign that the season is peaking -- or moving north.
On the hour-and-a-half drive north to Joshua Tree National Park, the yellow swaths of dune evening primrose and desert sunflowers give way to a kaleidoscope of desert Canterbury bells, mallow, chia, chuparosa and desert chicory -- indigo against apricot next to deep purple, scarlet and white. Scores of tourists from Japan, Germany, Canada, San Diego, Los Angeles and nearby Twentynine Palms line up at the park visitors center.
Drive-by wildflower viewers stop at marked pullouts, read interpretive signs and snap digital photos of the nearest clump of color. Die-hard flower enthusiasts strike out in search of blooms like birders with their life lists.
Bigelow's monkey flower? Check. White pebble pincushion? Check. Purple mat? Bladderpod? Desert lily?
The timing of rain is almost as important to good wildflower years as the amount, said Linda Slater, a ranger at the Mojave National Preserve, northeast of Joshua Tree. The rain that has fallen on Southern California deserts through the winter and into the spring have been adequate and, more important, evenly spaced.
"Starting in November, we've had rain every single month," Slater said. "It's as nice a year as I've ever seen here."
The stars of a desert spring are the annuals, ephemeral plants that need rain to sprout. An early rain can cause some seeds to germinate, but if enough well-spaced rains don't follow, the plants remain stunted and put out a flower or two at best, Slater said.
In good years, well-spaced rains cause annuals to erupt among the widely spaced desert perennials, the year-round plants that have adapted to the inhospitable environment by storing water in fleshy tissue protected by thorns, establishing deep roots or shedding leaves and appearing more or less dead much of the year.
In a good spring, these perennials join the show. Joshua trees put out waxy white blooms. Long-stemmed yellow flowers wave above silver-green brittlebush. Ocotillos, typically as bare as bundles of kindling, put out stubby green leaves along branches tipped by lipstick-red blossoms that disappear as quickly as the rain.
After a few weeks, the annuals die, leaving behind seeds for the next year. Or years. The tough little seeds of desert wildflowers have evolved to wait things out. This year's blooms have waited since 2005, a relatively short span in desert time.
The 1.6-million acre Mojave National Preserve, in southeastern California between Interstate 15 and Interstate 40, is typically the last of Southern California's desert parks to bloom and the least visited.
With the season just getting underway there, the Kelso Depot information center is seeing about 300 visitors on weekends, up from its usual 50 but far fewer than the crowds at Anza-Borrego, Joshua Tree or Death Valley National Park. "Mojave preserves that sense of isolation and being out in the desert alone," Slater said.
Anyone seeking isolation in the other desert parks will have to wait out the wildflower season.