I missed seeing them this year. It is not that I did not go looking for them. I typically see them near Gorman as I travel south to Los Angeles along I-5. But this year, they were not really there to be enjoyed, except in small isolated blooms deep in the fields. I even checked the state natural reserve in Lancaster. Not many there this year either.
I am talking about California Poppies. This delightful little flower is the state flower, and it usually is evident along the highways in the spring of each year. Each bloom is not very big, maybe 1-2 inches in diameter with several sprouting together out of one plant. They are a vibrant yellow gold color that screams for attention in the hills. They typically share the hillsides with cream puffs, lupine, and other wildflowers.
This year, however, the January temperatures were too low and the annual rainfall was too minimal to produce a great batch of California Poppies. Typically, the highways are littered with them. And hills and hills of them are evident at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve SNR in Lancaster, off Highway 138. I have been there many times to view these natural wonders. The Reserve offers 8 miles of trails through the hills amongst the flowers. My dad and I visited there several times, just to enjoy the flowers and take some pictures.
When they are in bloom, they are magnificent:
“Simply to see a distant horizon through a clear air—the fine outline of a distant hill or a blue mountain top through some new vista—this is wealth enough for one afternoon.” Thoreau
I am always amazed and delighted when the flowers come back every February to May even as I am puzzled about how their appearance can be so varied each year. I have always known it is tied to the rains—or lack there of. One year, the rains came, but the grasses sprung up earlier and thicker than usual and choked out the flowers. Lots of things can happen to impact the blooms. Recently I read “Called Out” an essay by Barbara Kingsolver and her husband Stephen Hopp in her book Small Wonder—and it addressed this exact phenomenon. In that essay, they were talking about the wondrous displays of wildflowers in the Arizona desert and explaining how they keep blooming year after year, but the same explanation applies to California Poppies as well.
Simply put, Kingsolver said, “God planted them.” She then offered a more scientific explanation. Apparently the plants ensure their own survival through the variety inherent in their seeds. Some seeds bloom faster or longer than others, or need more water than others, or are content to wait for years before blooming than others; the seeds are not all the same! Some years might be impressive, others not so much, but the next year is always a possibility. More officially, “Desert ephemerals. . . [stash] away seasons of success by varying, among and within species, their genetic schedules for germination, flowering, and seed-set.” Each year, more blooms are likely because each species has a “blueprint for perseverance” that guarantees that wildlflowers—like the California Poppy—“will go on mystifying us, answering to a clock that ticks so slowly we won’t live long enough to hear it.”
I appreciate knowing there is a scientific explanation to support my hope that the poppies will keep blooming year after year. And I applaud the wonder of nature every year when they do bloom. I can only imagine how magnificent the sight was for John Muir over 100 years ago, when it was not hills and hills of gold, but miles and miles of gold.
Here is how Muir described it:
“One shining morning a landscape was revealed that after all my wanderings still appears the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the Great Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine forty or fifty miles wide, five hundred miles long, one rich furred garden of yellow Compositae. And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flowerbed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant it seemed not clothed in light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city.”
Wouldn’t that be wondrous to view? Still, I will be content to see whatever flower show blooms each year. I am hopeful 2014 will be a good year once again. What are your favorite wildflowers?