February 6, 2010

January showers bring March flowers

K Kaufmann
The Desert Sun

A bee gathers nectar from blooming flowers on a brittlebush in a vacant lot in Palm Springs on Friday. Experts say that recent and forecasted rainstorms should ensure a strong desert wildflower show in March. (Michael Snyder The Desert Sun)

It's going to be a good — and possibly even spectacular — year for wildflowers in the Coachella Valley.

Just not yet.

The yearly bloom — to be celebrated with a Wildflower Festival on March 6 in Palm Desert — is a function of temperatures and rain, and both sides of the equation have yet to reach a tipping point, experts say.

“The ground (is) covered with green sprouts waiting for the first warm spell,” desert ecologist Jim Cornett said. “The first time we get three days of 76-degree weather, then we'll start seeing some blooming.”

Buds also are out at the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument in Palm Desert, which will host the Wildflower Festival.

“We're starting to see the flower heads coming up,” said Dani Ortiz, interpretive ranger at the monument. “We'll have everything. We cover 52 species up here.”

The warm weather needed to nudge those first buds open could still be two to three weeks out, said Ken Clark, senior meteorologist for Accuweather.com.

“We don't start warming up until March,” Clark said. “We're going to get more rain.”

At this point, the more the better, say Cornett and other naturalists in the region.

The valley's January downpours have somewhat made up for a dry autumn, but another good soaking is needed.

“Depending on rain, the peak will be a little earlier, the first week of March,” said Michael Rodriques, regional interpretive specialist at Anza- Borrego Desert State Park.

“If it rains a lot more, it will extend (the season). That would give us a stellar year.”

At Joshua Tree National Park, Joe Zarki, chief of interpretation, is hedging his bets, forecasting “a decent wildflower display” on the way.

“There won't be quite the rich carpets. The flower concentrations are going to be scattered and a little spotty,” Zarki said.

The place to watch will be Edom Hill in Cathedral City, north of Interstate 10, which has a unique combination of low elevation, sun and soil seen nowhere else in the California desert, Cornett said.

“The intersection of Date Palm and Varner will be the first place you're going to see plants blooming,” he said. “It's a south-facing slope; it has a thin veneer of wind-blown sand. It's warm, and the loose soil makes an excellent germinating medium.”

At both Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree, wildflower season is expected to last into late March and beyond as blooms march up the mountains, moving to higher elevations as temperatures warm.

“We'll see a lot of flowers in late March and April, even into May in the higher elevations,” Zarki said.

Rodriques' recommendation is simple: “Look everywhere because there will be flowers everywhere.”