I have heard many things about super blooms, ranging from how incredible they are to how colorful they can be. Due to the fact that I had only ever heard about them and never experienced one before, I was a little skeptical of how “super” these once in a lifetime events will actually were. Fortunately for me, I was invited to take part in a wildflower tour not too far from my home in Davis and I agreed to tagging along to see what was there for myself. I had no expectations whatsoever of the area since I had never been there, but all I knew from the people leading the tour was that this was going to be a “good year” for seeing flowers in bloom.

When we first arrived, I could already see the huge patches of color created by the blooming wildflowers.

The San Joaquin Desert Hills

The central valley of California is well-known for being a sea of agriculture and producing most of the state/country’s food crops. What most don’t realize about this entire stretch of land is that it is in fact, by definition, a desert. When moist, warm air blows onshore, it rises over mountains and cools down, causing moisture to condense and fall as precipitation. As this system continues to move east across the coastal range dry air descends and gets warmer, promoting evaporation and eventually creating what is known as a rain shadow. This effect is what causes deserts to form and there are many examples across the state that are a result of rain shadow including the Mojave desert, the eastern Sierra Nevada, and the Imperial Valley.

As I hiked up the hills, the landscape became more desert-like. (Photo Credit: Alex Nguyen)

The area I visited is named Right Angle Canyon and is labeled as an area of critical environmental concern. This location was established in order to conserve and protect the unique arid ecosystems of the San Joaquin Desert and the rare plant and animal species that inhabit them. Right Angle Canyon is also part of the Moreno Shale, which supports numerous San Joaquin Desert endemic plant species, as well as several Mojave Desert disjunct plant species. What makes this area even more incredible is that the Moreno Shale also contains fossils of large marine vertebrates from the late-Cretaceous period, including mosasaurs and plesiosaurs, from when the San Joaquin Valley was an inland sea.

Since this area is very similar to the Mojave Desert, it exhibits the same types of floral diversity and bloom patterns. Thankfully this year was a very wet and cold year, allowing this area to acquire the needed rainfall in order to produce a “super bloom.” This area had not seen a bloom of this magnitude in about seven years, and because of that this trip was something I will never forget. Despite the vast amount of flowers and other plants, there were not quite as many insects as I had hoped to see. I only saw maybe two to four different butterfly species and a few different beetles that I was not expecting to find but was happy that I did. Majority of what was buzzing about in the flowers were honey bees, bumble bees, and native bees. Even with the lack of insect activity, I was by no means dissatisfied with the hike up and down these “painted” hills.

California’s Native Desert Wildflowers

The area I visited is home to a number of different native and endemic wildflowers, many of which only bloom annually and require a very good wet winter in order to bloom in large numbers. There were a number of wildflower species I found on this trip and I was very excited to be part of something like this for the first time ever in my life. The colors of flowers ranged from red to green to purple and most of them were in very high numbers. Some of the pink and purple flower species I found included crinkled onion (Allium crispum), red maids (Calindrinia menziesii), tansy leafed phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia), Great Valley phacelia (Phacelia ciliata var. ciliata), blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) and the common phacelia (Phacelia distans). The most dominant color of flowers I saw was by far the orange and yellow ones, which included species like Devil’s lettuce (Amsinckia tessellata), forked fiddleneck (Amsinckia furcata), Lemmon’s poppy (Eschscholzia lemmonii ssp. lemmonii), common monolopia (Monolopia lanceolata), needle goldfields (Lasthenia gracilis), and tidy tips (Layia platyglossa).

The fiddlenecks were by far the most abundant flowers here but the other species scattered among them added a nice contrast to the area.

The San Joaquin Valley and its bordering hills are climatically and ecologically a desert, receiving a yearly average of only 5-9 inches of rain. Like all deserts, the annual plant growth is solely dependent on infrequent, major rainfall, and during periods of drought this area is dry and barren. During years with above average rainfall however, the desert explodes with color and flowers end up covering many parts of the landscape. Due to many factors, these large blooms of native California wildflowers are becoming increasingly uncommon and scarce. Whether its prolonged drought, human development, or invasive  plant and animal species, these species are blooming at a much more infrequent rate than years past. California’s wildflowers are slowly fading away due to development of habitat and weed invasion, so protecting areas like these is becoming increasingly important in order to have these events occur in the future.

Tidy tips (Layia platyglossa).

This trip was an exciting and very colorful adventure and finally getting to see an example of a super bloom was something I will never forget. I saw more than I could have ever imagined in the canyon, mainly in floral diversity, but there were a number of insects I had never seen or collected before. I am becoming more and more appreciative of what kind of floral diversity I have been finding on my adventures. The insects will always be where the flowers are so I am excited to see what makes an appearance when the field season/spring season is in full swing.

Panoche pepper grass (Lepidium jaredii ssp. album), a San Joaquin Desert endemic.