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Having just returned from the Mojave Desert, there is not much to report in the way of wildflowers this Spring. Death Valley National Park had one of the driest Winters on record, with just 0.03 inches of moisture recorded at the park headquarters at Furnace Creek. Still, in the hidden reaches of the Black Mountains in an unnamed canyon, enough moisture had fallen to nurture several blooms of this showy but ill-smelling bush.

Rock Nettle, Eucnide urens, Black Mountains, Death Valley NP

More on those flowers in a future post.

I would like to share a discovery I made earlier in March. Mrs. Ed and I were visiting Missoula and happened to wander into Fact and Fiction one of those rare remaining indie bookstores. Among their quirky collection of books was one I just had to get: WILDFLOWER WONDERS: The 50 Best Wildflower Sites in the World. The author, a British photographer and travel guide, Bob Gibbons, has been all over the planet finding the most interesting if not showy wildflower sites.

The book features all sorts of fascinating areas; including 28 in Europe, 5 each in Africa and Asia, 3 in Australia and New Zealand, and 9 in North America. These exotic places vary from the Burren in Ireland, the Machair of the Outer Hebrides and my personal favorites, the Kwongan heaths of Western Australia and the Fynbos of the southwestern Cape Region of South Africa. Little does Mrs. Ed know that these two have been high on my list to visit for many years!

Of course lists of the “BEST’ of anything are subjective, and no one has developed a scientific metric for measuring the most beautiful wildflower meadows. But the author has gotten around this old planet a heck of lot, and has a keen eye for botanical beauty.  Burton says “this is a personal selection of the places I find to be most flowery, spectacular and inviting to visit. The broad criteria I have used are spectacular beauty and (botanical) diversity coupled with reasonable accessibility (from good roads).”

Burton goes on to discuss why some places are so flowery. After all, most natural places have some wildflowers blooming throughout the growing season. But the author is describing what we call in the southwestern deserts large carpet blooms, where an area is literally covered in a carpet of several species of wildflowers for days or weeks. These types of blooms, where the period of intense flowering is forced into a brief period  after a season of either heavy snowfall or rain, followed by a Summer season of great dryness. These criteria are met in mountainous regions in the northern hemisphere and Mediterranean climates across the world.

The 50 Best Wildflower Sites are too numerous to even summarize here, but it’s worth taking a look at Burton’s nine picks here in North America, where they all fall conveniently in the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coastal states and I have had the luck of visiting many of them.

North America’s Best Wildflower Sites

1- Anza-Borrego State Park, California
Anza-Borrego, just east of San Diego, at more than half a million acres in size is the second largest state park in the United States and is a very diverse desert and mountain landscape. The park is basically the western extremity of the Colorado Desert, a subset of the Sonoran Desert, but has botanical influences from the Mediterranean climate found on the coast.

The park is justifiably world famous for its occasional large carpet blooms in February and March after wet Winters. Our two trips to Anza in 2009 and 2010 were rewarded with remarkable displays.

A hillside of Little Gold Poppies, Coyote Canyon, Anza-Borrego SP

Sand Verbena covered much of the valley floor, Anza-Borrego SP

Desert Lily, Borrego Badlands, Anza-Borrego SP

All is not well in Anza-Borrego unfortunately, with California budget cuts forcing the closure of many of the park’s services as well as the pernicious spread of exotic weeds such as Sahara Mustard. Some experts have gone on record to say that the large carpet blooms may be a thing of the past, if some means are not found to halt the spread of invasive species.

2 - Tehatchapi Range and Antelope Valley, California
This area northeast of Los Angeles, which I have yet to visit, is at the intersection of several ecological communities, the southern Sierra Nevada Range, the southeastern Coast Range and the southernmost Great Central Valley, the western extremity of the Mojave Desert and the northern reaches of the Transverse Ranges. The area is famous for the incredible displays of wildflowers in Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve and the immense Tejon Ranch, managed in part by the Tejon Ranch Conservancy.

You can keep track of the progress of the blooms in this area and throughout California by monitoring the Wildflower Hotline at the Theodore Payne Foundation.

3- Carrizo Plain National Monument, California
This remnant grassland of the great Central Valley of California, located southeast of Paso Robles, was protected as a Bureau of Land Management national monument by President Clinton in the waning days of his second term. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, wrote in his book My First Summer in the Sierra, of walking for miles through fields of wildflowers in the Central Valley as he made his way from San Francisco to Yosemite in the 1880s. Now little remains of the flower fields Muir once saw after more than a century of agricultural development there.

The Carrizo Plain became widely known outside of California after the Big Bloom of 2005 where photos of the outrageous wildflower displays circulated on the Internet. Many of the color combinations of wildflowers encompassing huge areas of land, were so strange as to appear faked. But they were real, with huge numbers of Goldfields, San Joaquin Blazing Stars and Laceflowers covering the Temblor Mountains and the valley floors.

Wildflowers and the Temblor Range, photographer unknown, Carrizo Plain NM

The Carrizo Plain was on my list to visit this past month, but the bloom was non-existent due to the very dry Winter.

4 - Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains, California and Oregon
The Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains area of southwestern Oregon and Northwestern California are an odd jumble of mountains created from deposits scraped off of the ocean floor as the North American Plate moves to the west. These mountains get tremendous amounts of rain and support an astonishing amount of floral diversity, some 3,500 plant species, including one of the largest collections of coniferous trees on the planet.  Much of the area is covered by national forest and some protected wilderness areas, such as the Marble Mountains Wilderness in California and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in Oregon. The southern reaches include the magnificent Redwood National Park and State Park complex.

Rhodendron bloom, Jedediah Smith SP, California

Coastal Redwoods, Sequouia sempervirens, Lady Bird Johnson Grove, Redwood NP

Columbia Windflower, Anemone deltoidea, Redwood NP

Wild Iris (?), the Oregon Coast

I had known about the diversity of trees but not the diversity of wildflowers in the region, many of which are endemics. Bob Gibbons recommends trails near Mt. Ashland for easier flower viewing.

5 and 6 - Crested Butte and the San Juan Mountains of Colorado
The town of Crested Butte is found high up in the central-western portion of the Colorado Rockies, and is scheduled to host the 25th Annual Crested Butte Wildflower Festival this July.

Both Crested Butte and the San Juan Mountains in the southwestern portion of the state benefit from a great flows of moisture coming across the lower desert regions originating out of the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California, both in the Winter months and during the Summer thundershower season. This moisture nurtures a large collection of subalpine and alpine wildflowers here in the Southern Rockies. The major wildflower areas are on the San Juan National Forest with more remote sites found in the Weminuche Wilderness, the place where Mrs. Ed and I spent our honeymoon backpack trip 34 years ago.

7 - Waterton and Glacier National Parks, Alberta and Montana
Bob Gibbons lists only one area in Canada on his best list, Waterton National Park, in southwestern Alberta. Although it is part of the larger Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, Gibbons spends only a few sentences on the Glacier portion.

Both parks are a southern geological extension of the main Canadian Rockies, and as a result are distinct from the rest of the mountains further south in Montana.  Floristically the parks of a mix of the northern-most plants found in the Southern Rockies in the United States, and the beginning of many Sub-Arctic/Arctic species (sometimes called circumpolar species) found further north. Also the main range of the Rockies with the Continental Divide is very narrow here, allowing a mix of prairie species from the east and more moisture loving plants from the Pacific Northwest.

Boadwalks below Mt. Clements on Logan Pass lead to wildflower fields, Glacier NP

Fields of Yellow Asters and Indian Paintbrush on Logan Pass, Glacier NP

Waterton is the smaller of the two parks, but has more lowland foothills prairie habitat adding to its floral diversity. Plant diversity actually begins to drop off as you move further north into the Canadian Rockies toward Banf and Jasper National Parks. Glacier has more subalpine and alpine habitat along the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and the aptly named Garden Wall.

Sticky Geranium and other wildflowers in foothills prairie, just south of Glacier NP

The subalpine habitats are also unique here since they are actually gardened, although the gardeners are not human. Ursus arctos horribilis, the great Grizzly Bear, helps maintain these flower fields by actively digging in them for ground squirrels, large succulent marmots, and the bulbs of alpine flowers such as Glacier Lilies. The huge claws on the Grizzlies’ front paws are evolved perfectly for this task.  Meadows in most places have burrowing creatures that churn the soil which redistributes nutrients, but nothing can move the huge amounts of earth like nature’s own rototiller, the Grizzly Bear.

Bearhat Mountain towers over meadows at Hidden Lake, Glacier NP

Indian paintbrush and Penstemon on Logan Pass, Glacier NP, photo courtesy of Dan Buffalo

Crowds can be a problem here along the divide, so good planning such as using the park's new shuttle system to reach Logan Pass for hikes is essential during the Summer months.

8 - Olympic National Park, Washington
The large protected area of Olympic National Park has similarities to the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains further south. Both areas get staggering amounts of rainfall, are very diverse botanically and both ranges are geologically distinct from the Cascade Range which rises to their east. The Olympics are higher in altitude, with more sub-alpine/alpine habitat which has been isolated from other such habitats by the expanse of lowlands around Puget Sound since the end of the last ice age.

The Olympic alpine habitats are also distinct from those in the Cascade Range in that they have never evolved with large alpine grazers. That is until humans introduced Mountain Goats in the early 20th century.  The goats wreak havoc on the succulent alpine vegetation and the Park Service has been attempting to eradicate them for the last few decades, with limited success.

Hoh River Rainforest, Olympic NP

The Olympics have good road access to the heavily forested valleys on the park’s perimeter, but mostly trails and only one road (at Hurricane Ridge) accesses the interior alpine areas. We don’t have any wildflower pics from our last trip to the Olympics, but the Hoh rain forest was certainly spectacular.

9 - Mt. Rainier National Park
The author Bob Gibbons calls Mount Rainier National Park “Possibly the most flowery place in the world.” And he should know; he has seen a lot!  Gibbons goes on to say “if you only visit  one site to see North American mountain flowers, then this should probably be it.”  Indeed, John Muir, who was instrumental in helping designate Mount Rainier as a national park in 1898, said that “wildflowers encircle the mountain like a wreath.”

Flower filled trails at Paradise, Mount Rainier NP

Glacier Lilies, Tatoosh Range in the background, Mount Rainier NP

The huge Winter snowfalls and rich volcanic soils make for high biodiversity with more than 900 species of higher plants found in the park. Summer crowds can be expected at Paradise on the south side of the dormant volcano, with somewhat fewer people at Sunrise on the northeast side and the East Entrance along the Stephen Mather Parkway.

The great staff at Mount Rainier post the status of the latest blooms on their park webpages, found here.

Crimson Columbine, Mount Rainier NP

Alpine Heather, Mount Rainier NP

For the fit and determined wildflower hiker, the 80 mile-long Wonderland Trail encircles the 14,000 foot volcanic peak, visited one spectacular alpine bowl (called "parks") after another. I have done a few sections, but have never done the whole trail.

Whew! That's a lot of flower filled places!
Time to start planning a few trips for this Summer to Glacier-Waterton.  So has anyone been to Kwongan heaths or the Fynbos of the southwestern Cape lately?  

And what is happening in your gardens?

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