Chasing the desert lily

With a map and determination, a mother and daughter find an 'elusive' bloom

BORREGO SPRINGS, Calif. On a perfect California morning with blue skies, purple mountains and snake holes the size of silver dollars, we stalked the desert lily.

My daughter Emily, 19, and I were in Borrego Springs, about three hours southeast of Los Angeles, for some mid-March R&R and to fulfill her desire to see the desert.

It was a lucky year for a first look: The desert was abloom in one of the most spectacular shows in years.

I chose Borrego because I had camped at nearby Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in college. So we rented a sporty convertible in Los Angeles and set off, one hairpin turn short of a road movie.

Even I was surprised how beautiful and sleepy the Borrego Springs area remains. The road drops several thousand feet the last 25 miles, and, with each tight turn, there's more of the Colorado Desert spreading like the Great Plains below. This was where the Colorado River used to empty into the prehistoric sea. The river is miles to the east now, leaving only desert and canyons. And the sea has shrunk into the Salton Sea, a dying lake about 30 miles east of Borrego that's at the center of one of California's biggest ecological fights.

Borrego Springs is still just a main drag with a few good and not-quite-so-good motels, a hometown taqueria, a local bar and steak joint, a supermarket, and a few other miscellaneous shops and restaurants. The town's popular with hikers, motorcyclists and RVers who enjoy the mountains, canyons and starry nights.

But for us, it quickly became all about the lilies.

After stopping by the state park headquarters on the north side of town, we drove the grid of desert roads to see the "crescendo" of color, as one park naturalist described it. And, she said, if we would just head down a certain road and count four telephone poles down and four back, and march 150 feet or so into the desert, we would see the desert lily! We assumed that meant the lily was like looking for rare orchids. It could have been a dandelion, and we would have been impressed with ourselves to find it.

We dutifully followed the directions and quickly came to the "crescendo" area. There was, indeed, a sweep of pink sand verbena, yellow desert sunflowers and brown-eyed white evening primroses as far as the eye could see.

It was beautiful.

And the scent. We were never sure if it came from the millions of flowers or the distant citrus groves. It was subtle, teasing, a light blanket of fragrance.

Now that we had seen the crescendo, we were on a roll. We tracked the spot on the map and counted telephone poles four up, U-turn, four back on the other side.

Wait, do we count the one on the corner?

Are all the poles supposed to be on the right?

Is that a telephone pole or a tower?

And how big were lilies? Three feet or 3 inches? We had only a brochure photo.

We estimated the proper place, got out and tromped 150 yards into the desert.

Nothing.

No lilies.

No crescendo.

Hardly even a pianissimo.

Just snake holes.

Failures.

Surely all the bloom-seekers but us would find a desert lily. Discouraged, we headed back into town, stopping for a quick pick-me-up at the Kiwanis grapefruit shack, where we could buy a bag of grapefruit on the honor system for $5. We only wanted two, so we made a donation and ate them by the car.

Our next stop was the small shop run by the local naturalist society. As I was buying a 4-inch, hand-carved roadrunner and other souvenirs, the woman behind the counters asked, "Have you seen the desert in bloom?"

"Oh yes," I replied. "Right out on the Henderson Road. A crescendo!"

"And," she said, "what about the desert lilies?"

Trapped, I admitted defeat. Apparently we were too stupid to count telephone poles.

"Oh," she said, whipping out a map and a felt-tipped pen from behind the counter as quick as a car salesman with a contract. "I was volunteering at the park desk earlier this week and told them about the lilies. Maybe they misunderstood and gave you the wrong road." Drawing another road on the map, she made pictures of little telephones poles four of them.

"My husband found them," she said. "He has his coffee out there every morning."

We headed back to the pool to rest up for the hunt.

The next morning, we found the road and counted four telephone poles, made a U-turn and then stopped at where we thought her X marked the spot.

Emily struck out across the gravelly, sandy terrain, sidestepping pink sand verbena and snake holes. I wondered how I would explain to her siblings that she died of snakebite after her mother allowed her to march through the desert in a T-shirt, cotton skirt and slip-on sneakers. Shouldn't we be wearing boots? Wasn't March when the rattlers came out of their holes to shed? Weren't they the angriest then?

No matter. She was a seeker. She was stalwart. And suddenly, a football field or so into the desert, she yelled, "I found it." Stanley was no prouder finding Livingston. At her feet was a plant about 18 inches high with lily-shaped flowers on a tough stalk, serrated leaves coming out of its base. Rather elegant.

And now, of course, we saw them everywhere.

"Hey, there's another one," she cried. And there. And here.

We walked gingerly amid the snake holes back to the road and our happy little convertible, spotting scattered lilies amid the dunes.

Oh, what bragging rights. We were awesome. We were explorers. We were the most clever of lily stalkers.

We were so clever, in fact, that we had no trouble spotting the one right next to the car.

How do flowers bloom in the desert?

According to local experts, many of the flowers of the Colorado Desert are annuals.

Perennials just are not tough enough for desert conditions.

But the annuals drop their seeds at the end of the bloom cycle, and depending on whether there's adequate rainfall the next year, bloom - or not.

To learn more, check out www.blueplanetbiomes.org/desert.htm

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