March 1, 2008

Flowers going wild

Filmmaker finds desert in bloom

California golden poppies bloom in the desert sun at Joshua Tree National Park on Wednesday. Experts predict that a rare combination of weather - drought conditions followed by this year's winter rains - will mean a spectacular wildflower season throughout San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
Eric Reed/Staff Photographer

Lauren McSherry, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

AMBOY - This time of year, most drivers speeding through the desert at 75 mph probably don't notice the colorful wildflowers erupting from the sand.

But one man does, and when he spots an unusual blossom, he stops.

Filmmaker Peter Rhalter has been documenting desert blooms since 1998.

When he's out scouting flowers, he can be found lying on his belly somewhere out in the desert landscape, carefully zooming in on a boldly colored blossom with his video camera.

"A lot of the most interesting shots come right at ground level," he said.

Instead of relying on a tripod, he uses a ping pong ball to balance his camera.

Rhalter works with his wife, Melanie, who writes the scripts for their films. The couple have made documentaries about Grand Canyon, Death Valley and Yosemite national parks. Their film on desert wildflowers, "Season of the Sand Blossoms," is sold in a number of national park gift shops.

Even after spending 10 years filming desert blooms, Rhalter - who often makes the trek out to the Mojave and Death Valley from his Los Angeles home - still stumbles across some flowers he can't identify.

"I like to shoot first, ask questions later," he said.

In those instances, once out of the field and back home, he will consult a botanist about proper identification.

Just south of Sheephole Pass, on Amboy Road, a profusion of colorful wildflowers stretched across the desert. The desert bloom had arrived, and Rhalter pulled over to document it.

Acres of hip-high purple lupine were running riot, interspersed with the satin-like petals of yellow Mojave poppies, the delicate white blossoms of brown-eyed evening primrose, the spongy flower tops of white pin cushion and the spiny indigo orbs of chia sage.

Tucked under the branches of the creosote bushes were lavender sprays of desert phacelia.

In the parking area at the top of the pass, Joyce Stephenson, 86, of Riverside pointed out a cluster of wildflowers to her husband, Martin, 87. They have driven to the High Desert every year since the 1940s for the bloom.

"We've never seen so many different blooms at one time," Joyce said.

A few miles north of Sheephole Pass, desert marigolds, similar to yellow daisies, coated the length of a pitch-black lava flow. Amboy Crater loomed in the distance, with what Rhalter speculated were pink sand verbena covering its southern flank. In the distance, splashes of yellow punctuated the mountainsides.

Richard Minnich, a plant ecology professor at UC Riverside, predicts this year's bloom will be phenomenal throughout San Bernardino and Riverside counties - and could be the best -witnessed in the last 30 to 50 years.

"Boy, it's getting good," he said. "It takes rare conditions for them to break out."

The previous years' drought conditions, coupled with the timing of the winter rains this year, wiped out the invasive European grasses, called bromes, that are usually so prolific and aggressive that they squelch the native wildflowers, Minnich said.

"The bad plants had their butts kicked, and the wildflowers are having their moment," he said. "It will take many, many years for the bromes to reinvade their former territory."

Toward the end of the day, when the afternoon light became best for filming, Rhalter drove north toward the Kelso sand dunes in Mojave National Preserve. It was clear the bloom had yet to reach the preserve's higher elevations, but Rhalter pressed on.

At the base of the dunes, he pointed out the green leaves of dune primroses preparing to bloom. Abruptly, he headed off the trail, returning to hunting mode.

"I saw some color," he said. "It's a primrose, for sure."

Flower questions? The Theodore Payne Foundation operates a wildflower hot line covering Southern California between March 7 and May. Call (818) 768-3533.

Dune primrose near Zzyzx, February 24, 2008