January 19, 2010

Rain too late for wildflowers

Yuma Sun

You may have been hoping that this week's forecasted rains would produce a bounty of colorful wildflowers in the Yuma area this spring.

But, alas, you'll have to wait until at least a year from now.

The rain will no doubt benefit the area's native trees and cactuses, say U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials. But it comes too late for the wildflowers that, in wetter years, blanket the desert and even pockets of Yuma in hues of purple, pink, yellow and white.

"We have to have rain in the fall and early winter to germinate the (wildflower) seeds, and it's been drought conditions," said Lori Cook, spokeswoman for the BLM's Yuma Field Office.

Rain is forecast in the area Wednesday and Thursday as a Pacific storm moves from California into Arizona.

Wildflower seeds stored in the soil begin germinating in the fall and need periodic rain from then through winter to blossom early in the new year, said Karen Reichhardt, a BLM botanist in Yuma.

"It's just like if you plant a garden. You have to water pretty regularly for the plants to grow."

In wet years, commonly seen wildflowers in the desert and in Yuma include the desert sand verbena, a low-growing plant with small lavender flowers; the desert sunflower, sporting large white flowers; and dune primrose, a tall purplish grass that grows in bunches at roadside and in disturbed soil.

In early 2009, the Yuma area had a good season for wildflowers on the heels of a wet winter that included heavy rains over the previous Thanksgiving holiday.

But this week's rain is not all wasted. Cook said it will benefit the area's native mesquite, cottonwood, willow and ironwood trees as well cactuses.

"They'll take it anytime they can get it."

And in the short term, she added, the rain will forestall dry conditions that can lead to wildland fires, which are not uncommon in Yuma County even in January and February.

Reichhardt said hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts who venture into the desert in the weeks and months ahead will still be able to see color. In bloom will be the area's hummingbird bushes, also know as chuparorsas; brittle bushes, palo verde and ironwood trees and cactuses.

"We just won't have the carpets of wildflowers."