It’s almost that time of year: wildflower season. Last weekend I attended a pre-wildflower hike to see which species had begun to bud and flower. Wildflower season, beginning in March in Southern California, can be shockingly beautiful, depending on the amount of rainfall we receive in the winter and early spring. Wildflowers are one of the greatest outcomes that rain brings. Another factor that affects the flowers that bloom is fire. While it can have devastating effects, fire is important to our ecosystem, and it often allows certain species to awaken from long periods of dormancy and bloom.
With our state in a multi-year drought and having had back-to-back intense fire seasons, this year’s bloom may be a bit more subdued than in rainier years; however it is still sure to turn heads. I really recommend you find some time to get out and see the bloom, either here in Orange County or further a-field in the deserts like Anza Borrego, where the showing is truly spectacular.
So what sort of species can you expect to see? I’ll give you a short list of the local natives that come out in full force come springtime.
I have to start the list with my absolute favorite flower, the California poppy or Eschscholzia californica. As our state flower, this bright orange bloom never fails to please.
Another flower I enjoy is from the violet family, Violaceae. Commonly known as Johnny Jump-ups, these yellow flowers have little brown stripes on the lower petal.
A gorgeous blazing-red flower you see during the spring is Wooly or Wooly Indian Paintbrush, and during the spring it simply glows. From the Castilleja or paintbrush family, Castilleja foliolosa is hemi-parasite. That means that this species can photosynthesize, but sends out a root to tap other nearby species’ water supply.
A fire-follower often seen blooming the spring after a burn is Whispering Bells, or Emmenathe penduliflora. These tiny bell-shaped yellow flowers require smoke to break the seed’s dormancy pattern. They achieved their name from the rattling noise their dry leaves make in the breeze.
Next are two flowers from the Lily family, or Lilliaceae. The first is called the Mariposa Lily or Calochortus splendens, a common, pale purple flower that blooms low to the ground. Second is a flower commonly called Blue Dicks or Wild Hyacinth, Dichelostemma capitatum. These skinny little flowers can create fields of bluish or lavender blooms. They’re a relative of the onion, and apparently a part of the plant was eaten by the native populations of California – though I don’t recommend any readers rush out to try them.
In the Fabaceae family, the Miniature Lupine, or Liupinus bicolor, is a common California species. These blue and white flowers grow in among grasses, and despite their beauty are often overlooked. This species is already out in abundance on the hills in Orange County.
A very cool plant from the Agavaceae family is the Chaparral Yucca or Yucca wipplei. Yuccas are ridiculously cool plants, which are only found in North and Central America. They are pollinated by a moth from the genus Pronuba, called the Yucca Moth. Chaparral Yucca is very large, and the white flowers grow in clusters around a thick stalk.
Blue-eyed grass, Sisyrinchium bellum, is our native iris. From the family Iridaceae, this grass blooms into pretty little purple flowers, about the size of a penny, with bright yellow centers.
Owl’s Clover is another very cool hemi-parasite. These cute little purple blooms have little white and yellow tips, which look like little tiny owl faces, hence the name.
Finally, a terrible non-native invasive weed that people often mistake for a beautiful wildflower is Black Mustard. A weed brought over by the conquistadors, which has since taken over, Brassica nigra is a tall, leggy, yellow-flowered plant that creates a mono-culture in our local habitat, and is usually the field of chest-high dead sticks people see while hiking during the winter.
Want to learn more? Check out the Orange County Native Plant Society’s Web site: www.occnps.org.
Also, on March 24, don’t miss your chance to see the wildflowers of Orange County, right in our own backyard. Irvine Ranch Conservancy (IRC) will be leading a hike at Quail Hill to help you enjoy and identify the gorgeous wildflowers in bloom. You can be certain there will be many of the species I mentioned above. Register for the hike at the IRC Web site: www.irvineranchwildlands.org