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Storms, bright sun, lower temperatures, brings early wildflower bloom to Anza Borrego

Recent unusual rain storms have brought out wildflowers in the California desert.

(CN) — Anza Borrego Desert State Park consists of hundreds of thousands of acres of open desert, scraggly mountains and cool oases, many of which are only accessible by dirt roads where you might be more likely to see one of the park’s Desert Bighorn sheep than to see another person, in a huge swath of the Colorado Desert encompassing parts of eastern San Diego County, and parts of Imperial and Riverside counties.

People come to the park in part to be able to experience a sense of quiet serenity that comes with that much open, sparsely populated places, that’s why it’s odd to hear cars wizz past after slowing down to take a quick look at the colorful flowers dotting the desert floor, especially in January.

A field of yellow sunflowers and purple sand verbenas bloom out of the desert floor in Anza Borrego Desert State Park on January 20, 2023 because of fall and winter rainstorms.(Sam Ribakoff/Courthouse News Service)

“Just seeing four or five cars while we’re out here is busier than we normally are,” said Dan McCamish, the senior environmental scientist for the Colorado Desert District of the California State Parks, while standing in a desert canyon peppered with bright yellow, purple, and white wildflowers, not far from one of the park’s more accessible paved roads.

Wildflowers, and people coming from all over to see them, are nothing new here. Dennis Stephen, the regional interpretive specialist at the Colorado Desert District of the California State Parks said that the normally 1,100 to 1,600 people come into the park per day during the normal wildflower season, which is usually closer to the end of the February and lasts until the end of March before the heat of the desert kills the flowers. But because of the recent unusual rain storms stretching back to September and October, and low temperatures in the park coupled with sunny days, the wildflowers have come a little early this year, and with them, hundreds of tourists hoping to see them. 

“It’s always about the right climate, the right weather conditions,” McCamish said. “The sun really triggers the flowering mechanism. It gave us a bonus two months [of wildflower season].”

Sunflowers bloom out of the desert floor on a couple of months earlier than normally because of earlier winter storms in Anza Borrego Desert State Park on January 20, 2023. (Sam Ribakoff/Courthouse News Service)

That right mixture of rain, and sunny, but not hot, weather, combined with the hard work of native harvester ants, who disperse wildflower seeds, which have adapted to survive dry on the desert floor until the right weather conditions arrive contributed to an explosion of vibrant wildflowers, mostly in the canyons, mountains and the southern portion of the park.

Areas like June Wash, where McCamish said miles of pink wildflowers and “belly flowers,” so called because they’re so small that you have to get on your stomach and look through a magnifying glass to see them, have sprung up since late fall in an area that’s normally pretty dry.

McCamish said that locals told him that they haven’t seen it rain during that season, or seen a wildflower bloom that early, since the late 1990’s.

Where McCamish and Stephen are standing in Coyote Canyon, closer to the central part of the park, close to the town of Borrego Springs, the scene, and the colors of the wildflowers, are somewhat different.

On the desert floor below the imposing Santa Rosa Mountains in the distance, less direct rain water means a less dramatic congregation of wildflowers. Instead, micro-climates of rain in parts of the area provided the opportunity for yellow sunflowers, purple sand verbena and white dune primrose to sprinkle themselves among patches of the full time fauna residents of the desert, brush, cacti and ocotillos.

A field of yellow and purple wildflowers dot the desert floor of Coyote Canyon at sunset in Anza Borrego Desert State Park on January 20, 2023. (Sam Ribakoff/Courthouse News Service)

Because Coyote Canyon is close to the park’s visitor center, and much more accessible to less experienced trekkers and adventurers who might be up to navigating the park’s extensive dirt road system, or its mountains where more wildflowers can be found, “people have seen the rain California has gotten and that probably raised people’s expectations,” McCamish said, but the spotted blooms, and the sturdy brush, cacti and ocotillos are definitely beautiful in their own right. 

“Every one of these is a habitat for something and it’s been here for a very long time,” McCamish said about the desert fauna, like the migratory birds that use the desert plants to rest in and the wildflowers, whose nectar insects and birds feed on, which are then eaten by hawks. 

Plus, McCamish said, there are many more “nameless attractions” that Anza Borrego has to offer, like hiking, Indigenous petroglyphs, the dark, star filled night sky and quiet solitude.

If you do go to Anza Borrego just for the flowers though, McCamish and Stephen suggest you bring plenty of water, a jacket, because, if you don’t know, even hot deserts get very cold at night, food, a GPS and a four-wheel drive car if you’re planning to go into the outer reaches of the park because the conditions of the dirt roads change rapidly. Don’t go alone, they added, and tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to get back, because stretches of the park do not have cell or internet service. You can always go to the park’s visitor center in Borrego Springs and ask the park rangers where the flowers are and how to get there as well.  

Oh, and please don’t mess with or take the wildflowers, it’s a crime to tamper or remove plants, or anything else, from a state park. 

“To be sure to see them, I would be out here before the middle of February,” McCamish said, bending down to inspect an already wilting sunflower. 

As the rain storms subside and the days get hotter, the wildflowers on the desert floor will begin to die out first, while the flowers deeper into the mountains will survive longer. 

“It’s a long and slow process, but the desert can be a shock. In a matter of weeks they can be gone,” McCamish said. 

This year's earlier wildflower season could affect the regular wildflower season's growth, McCamish said, but it all depends on if the region gets more rain in February. 

Look at the next two weeks forecast, Stephen said, “and if it says 75 and sunny, get out here now.”

Purple sand verbena wildflowers blossom out of the desert sands in winter in Anza Borrego Desert State Park on January 20, 2023.(Sam Ribakoff/Courthouse News Service)

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