April 6, 2013

Few flowers, but Joshua trees blooming

Joshua Tree blossoms. (James Cornett,
Special to The Desert Sun)
Written by James Cornett
Special to The Desert Sun

It is one of our worst springs and one of our best.

If you are looking for wildflowers this spring you’re in trouble. We are in the second year of a two-year winter drought and wildflowers are very few and very far between. Around my house this is one of the worst springs ever for wildflowers.

On the other hand this is one of the best years for Joshua trees in bloom. This past week, while traveling between my Joshua tree study sites scattered across the Mojave Desert, Joshua trees everywhere were blooming in profusion. From Joshua Tree National Park to Red Rock Canyon State Park in the western Mojave Desert and from Walker Pass just east of Lake Isabella to Utah and Arizona, Joshua trees were in bloom. On Cima Dome, in the Mojave National Preserve, it is the best Joshua tree bloom in 25 years.

How can this be? We’re in the second year of drought yet Joshua trees seem oblivious to the current conditions. When water is in short supply most desert plants become dormant, either by remaining as seed or dropping their leaves. Producing anything, particularly flowers, is out of the question in times of drought. Yet Joshua trees are having a banner year with some large trees producing more than two dozen inflorescences in less than two months.

At first I thought that areas where there were a profusion of Joshua trees in bloom might possibly reflect the occurrence of an intense but localized shower. The extra water that became available to the Joshua trees stimulated them to bloom the following spring. But this year Joshua trees are blooming everywhere. The bloom is so pervasive that it almost seems like they have communicated this year’s blooming plan to all Joshuas in the Southwest.

The next step in our Joshua tree research will be to see if there is any correlation, even a negative one, between broad rainfall patterns and Joshua tree blooming. The data is being tabulated. For now just enjoy the blooming trees.

I started off this column by talking about our disappointing wildflower season. However, this past week I encountered three areas where there are sufficient patches of blossoms to warrant getting your camera out. Be prepared for a drive. The first is along Highway 190 as it descends down into Death Valley National Park. I saw hundreds of notch-leafed phacelia, dozens of the white-flowered parachute plants and numerous rock nettles. The highway between Death Valley and Pahrump, Nevada, has many miles of dense concentrations of desert sunflowers.

Closer to home are the brown-eyed primroses, lupines and several other species in fair abundance along North Amboy Road as it descends to the town of Amboy.

For all of these locations there will be good blooming for about one more week.

James Cornett is a desert ecologist living in Palm Springs.