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News / Nation & World

Tropical storm’s rains great news for desert wildflower fans

By Jeanette Marantos, Los Angeles Times
Published: September 11, 2023, 6:29am

Tropical Storm Hilary’s historic rains are great news for wildflower lovers — if you’re into shy desert blooms like the arcing spikes of fringed amaranth (Amaranthus fimbriatus), pops of purple from trailing windmills (Allionia incarnata) or golden, odiferous clumps of cinchweed (Pectis papposa).

But don’t expect the summer downpour to create another lush superbloom of poppies and lupines this fall. “Those plants we enjoy in the spring are called winter annuals because they need cold conditions to germinate,” said botanist Naomi Fraga, director of conservation for the California Botanic Garden. “They need wet and cold conditions to bloom.”

Certain parts of the desert, however, are full of opportunistic seeds that evolved to burst into bloom after any good summer rain. “There should be some amazing sights to behold in the desert this fall,” said Evan Meyer, executive director of the Theodore Payne Foundation. “I suggest that people look at the rainfall figures to see what (desert) areas had the highest rainfall, and then go check them out, because it’s going to be a very special, transformational moment.”

Still, Meyer said, this fall bloom won’t be like what we see in the spring along the more coastal foothills of Southern California.

“There won’t be millions of wildflowers, the kind enjoyed by the average flower chaser in California,” Meyer said. “It will take more homework to find the really great stuff (in the desert).”

Fraga specializes in searching for small, easy-to-miss flowers of the desert, and her excitement was evident when she posted a long thread on X (formerly Twitter) highlighting the flowers she hopes to see in the East Mojave and Sonoran deserts, where plants have evolved to respond to summer monsoonal rains.

“The summer monsoon brings up a whole different suite of wildflowers than we see in the spring,” she wrote. “There are not as many species, but they are still stunners!”

Fraga said she’s very excited to see the fringed amaranths bloom. “It produces really beautiful fringed fruits. … They’re not particularly palatable (to humans) but their seeds are important to our restoration work.”

Warm-season grasses like blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), with their fuzzy caterpillar-looking seed stalks, should start greening up those desert areas by early October, Fraga said, and perennial shrubs like the purple Schott indigobush (Psorothamnus schottii) and butter-colored spiny senna (Senna armata) could see a second bloom. But Fraga is particularly fond of the smaller, easier-to-miss flowers, like the dusty green rattlesnake sandmat (Euphorbia albomarginata), which, like its namesake, creeps close to the ground with white, tiny saucer-shaped flowers.