Desert Is Teeming With Wildflowers After Record Rainfall

Lee Poulsen
Tue, 08 Mar 2005 10:29:05 PST
Well, Death Valley made the front page of this morning's L.A. Times.  
It's a picture of a guy wading in a lake 282 feet below sea level  
(lowest point in North America). (Also the hottest and driest place in  
North America.) Normally this is a really weird region of mostly salt  
flats including an area called the Devil's Golf Course because it is so  
broken and cracked and blazingly hot in the summertime. The  
accompanying article has another picture of a couple canoeing on this  
lake, and the article says people are windsurfing on it as well. It  
says the park officials are directing wildflower seekers to the 40-mile  
stretch of road between Salsberry Pass near the southern end of the  
park and Badwater (the lowest point) for the most spectacular blooms.  
Apparently they've already received more rain than in any other year in  
almost a century of record keeping, 6.19 inches, and the rainy season  
isn't quite over yet. However, they've reached the upper 80s F  
yesterday and today and could hit 91 tomorrow. However the nights are  
still cool, in the 50s F. And the really hot weather doesn't stick  
around until later. I went camping there about 7 or 8 years ago in  
mid-April and the daytime temperatures were only in the upper 70s.  
However, they expect the blooming to peak in a week or two.  Go to the  
link below to see the photos and map included in the article.

--Lee Poulsen
Pasadena area, California, USDA Zone 9-10


Brief, Beautiful Rebirth

Desert Is Teeming With Wildflowers After Record Rainfall
  By Louis Sahagun
  Times Staff Writer

  March 8, 2005

  DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK — The wettest year on record here has  
transformed this forbidding wilderness of scruffy mountains and buckled  
earth into a vividly unfamiliar world of wildflowers and reflecting  
pools, triggering ecological cycles not seen before on so large a  

  Against a background of snowcapped peaks, the region's contoured  
badlands and splintery rock towers are festooned with bright yellow,  
pink, white and deep purple blossoms spreading out in all directions.  
With the wildflowers have come pollinators, including sphinx moths as  
big as hummingbirds.

  Another surprise: Badwater, usually the site of a salty pond nearly  
encircled by massive gray cliffs, features a lake five miles wide — and  
kayakers and wind surfers gliding over its whitecaps.

  "It's not Death Valley at all," visitor Wendy Cutler said. "I'm  
calling it Full of Life Valley."

  In some places, even the rocks are blooming. Water is forcing mineral  
salts to the surface, where they erupt in snow-white splotches on  
sulfur yellow hills.

  The dazzling panoramas are drawing huge crowds of tourists, and some  
scientists, eager to take in the scenery before the millions of desert  
flowers die in the harsh summer sun. Among the visitors was First Lady  
Laura Bush, who vacationed here late last week and hiked more than 10  
miles with an entourage of friends and Secret Service agents, park  
authorities said.

  "It's our best bloom in history, and the flowers are getting better by  
the day," said park naturalist Charlie Callagan, who accompanied Bush  
on several hikes. "I'm telling folks, 'Hey, you may not see it this  
good again in your lifetime.' "

  Rainfall in this 3.3 million-acre expanse averages less than 2 inches  
a year. In some years, there is no rain at all.

  But this rain year, which is measured from July to June, "we've  
already had 6.19 inches of rain — a record — and we're only eight  
months into the season," Callagan said.

  A destructive storm in August killed two people and washed out some  
park roads. That was followed by the wettest period since recordkeeping  
began in 1911. But for the most part, "we've had the good kind of rain,  
the kind that is gentle and tends to soak into the soil," said park  
ranger Alan Van Valkenburg.

  All the rain has dissolved protective waxy coatings off millions of  
seeds that had lain dormant for years in terrain where ground-level  
temperatures can soar as high as 200 degrees.

  Now, more than 50 varieties of wildflowers — including desert gold,  
notch-leaf phacelia, gravel ghost, desert star and desert five-spot —  
are grabbing footholds in this unforgiving desert to sprout and shine  
wherever water collects: alluvial fans, ravines and alongside park  

  No one can say with certainty how great the unprecedented rainfall's  
ultimate impact will be on Death Valley — the hottest, driest and  
lowest place in the United States. Long-term ecological shifts are  
unlikely, given that summer temperatures climb to 130 degrees in the  
shade. But short-term changes are underway. Though no new species have  
been spotted so far, the rains are likely to trigger population blips  
among a variety of species.

  Vegetarians of all kinds — stately bighorn sheep, tiny desert shrews  
and bulky chuckwalla lizards — are eating more fresh greenery than they  
ever had in their lives. Sphinx moth caterpillars, imposing horned  
creatures the size of an index finger, are browsing on brown-eyed  
evening primrose flowers.

  Birds such as the Say's Phoebe, distinguished by its gray throat and  
cinnamon belly, have been feasting on insects attracted to the flowers.  
More seeds mean more rodents and the birds of prey, snakes, coyotes and  
foxes that pursue them.

  The bloom is expected to peak within the next week or so, when  
temperatures are to hit the mid-90s. Naturalists are predicting that  
swarms of caterpillars and grasshoppers will follow.

  "But it is important to remember," Van Valkenburg said, "the plants  
will disappear once our normal patterns of heat and dryness kick in."

  Nonetheless, botanists are flocking to Death Valley and desert regions  
across the arid Southwest in hopes of finding plants that have taken  
advantage of the unusually wet weather to extend their ranges.

  "It's an opportunity of a lifetime to fill in distribution gaps and,  
perhaps, discover new species in locations that had been regarded as  
botanical black holes," said Ilene Anderson, a botanist with the  
California Native Plant Society. "Seeds go into hibernation in dry  
times. But for many species, we don't know how long that cycle lasts."

  In the meantime, Terry Baldino, the park's assistant chief of  
interpretation, has hired more employees on an emergency basis to keep  
up with the thousands of visitors arriving each day with the urgent  
question: "Where is the best place to see wildflowers?"

  Lately, he's been directing them to a 40-mile stretch of road at the  
southern end of the national park between Salsberry Pass and Badwater.

  A favorite pullout in that area is Ashford Mill, where grass and  
wildflowers have given a green and yellow tinge to usually barren  
landscapes. On Sunday, a stream of tourists wandered over the terrain,  
planting tripods on sandy slopes to photograph the historic bloom.

  Steve McKinney knew something special was happening in front of the  
lens of his vintage cherrywood 4-by-5 camera. But he faced a nagging  
problem: the delicate device kept wobbling in gusts of up to 20 mph.

  "Regardless, I'm going to keep shooting," he said with a laugh. "  
'Cause you never know. One picture might turn out."

  Other visitors included Vernon Crawford, 67, of Bakersfield, who could  
not help but ponder the novelty of an abundance of flowers in a place  
he always regarded as "nothing but death and desolation."

  "Now, it's a Garden of Eden," Crawford said. "The thing I marvel at is  
how long these seeds had to wait for a perfect rain so that they could  
burst into all these flaming colors."

  A few yards away, Anish Desai, 30, and his wife, Kinjal, 27, stood  
with their arms around each other and tears in their eyes, awestruck by  
the vista unfolding before them. "This is pure beauty," Kinjal said.  
"It's an experience that can never be repeated."

  Los Angeles attorney Marnie Lassen, 31, put it another way: "It's hard  
not to think of these flowers as so many millions of bright yellow  
faces smiling back at us."

  About 40 miles to the north at Badwater, not far from places with  
names like Coffin Canyon and Funeral Mountains, adventurous souls  
enjoyed the enormous shallow lake covering the lowest point in North  

  Nothing lives in this lake. Most kayakers returned to shore encrusted  
with white salt.

  Standing knee-deep in the brackish water, Keri French, 49, shook her  
head in amazement over "the sound of waves in a miniature ocean in the  
heart of Death Valley."

  Not far away, Dan Morache, 33, attracted attention by kite-boarding  
over the surface of the lake that seemed to change by the hour from  
calm and mirror-like to rough and murky.

  "I wanted to be the first person to kite-board Death Valley," Morache  
said, packing up his gear. "It feels pretty good, too. This may not  
happen again for another 100 years."

  Then there was Death Valley business manager Dave Rhinehart, who has  
found an improbable new use for his river kayaks, 282 feet below sea  

  "Once you get a quarter of a mile from shore, it starts to feel like  
you're out on Lake Superior," he said. "Then you stick a paddle in the  
water and discover it's only 2 feet deep."

  "Tip over? No problem," he said. "You simply walk home."

Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times


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