The hunt begins

RAIN + SUN = WILDFLOWERS

That’s one of the truisms of life in a Mediterranean climate such as ours. The official water year as measured by NOAA runs from 1 October through 30 September, and along the central/northern California coast most of the rain falls from December through March. The rest of the year, April through the summer and most of the fall, is the long dry season.

Plants that have evolved to live in Mediterranean climates respond quickly to water when it is available. For many annual plants, this means rapid growth in the spring when the soil begins to warm up and the days are getting longer, followed by a burst of flowering as the plants complete their life cycles. Once the rain stops falling there is no water except what is stored in the ground, out of reach for most shallow-rooted plants. The annuals take advantage of the short window between the end of the heaviest rains and the onset of yearly drought to bloom and have sex (i.e., set seed). From 2011-2015 there was moderate to severe drought through most of the state and spring wildflower blooms were anemic and less-than-spectacular. In April 2016, after the El Niño rains of the previous season, some friends and I went down to southern California to check out the bloom. We had made a day trip of it, and it was a very long day that didn’t allow for much meandering or poking around. This year we had read from several sources that the heavy winter/early spring rains followed by sunshine would result in a very strong superbloom and managed to squeeze in a 3-day trip, which allowed us to visit more places and change our plans at the last minute if we heard about something interesting to see.


Day 1 (Thursday 23 March 2017): Shell Creek Road 

Shell Creek road is the little road that runs north-south from the hamlet of Shandon to the northwest corner of the Carrizo Plain. The roadbed runs along a little creek that meanders through rolling hills dotted with oak trees. It is really pretty when covered with grasses and wildflowers in the spring, although it will be hot, dusty, and brown for half the year. This is where we caught our first glimpses of the superbloom in action.

Wildflower bloom along Shell Creek Road in San Luis Obispo County
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Wildflower bloom along Shell Creek Road in San Luis Obispo County
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The dominant color of the landscape is yellow. A quick thumb-through of any western wildflowers field guide will confirm this. We do have a plethora of yellow flowers in California. In fact, one of the hypothesized reasons California is referred to as “the golden state” is the flood of yellow that carpets hills and valleys in the springtime. The other hypothesis I’ve heard is that “golden” refers to the color of the hills during the long dry season. Both of these seem feasible to me.

So who’s responsible for all this yellow?

The main culprit is the aptly named goldfields (Lasthenia californica). They are very common members of the daisy family, the Asteraceae, and are found in most regions of the state except at higher elevations in the Sierra Nevada.

Goldfields (Lasthenia californica) along Shell Creek Road in San Luis Obispo County
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Another goldfield look-alike is a flower with the strange common name of Bigelow’s tickseed. Its real name is Leptosyne bigelovii. It’s a California endemic, found only in the southern half of the state. I looked at a lot of photos, mine and others’, trying to learn how to distinguish between the tickseed and goldfields, and hope I have it right.

This is Bigelow’s tickseed:

Bigelow’s tickseed (Leptosyne bigelovii) along Shell Creek Road in San Luis Obispo County
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

See the differences in flower morphology? I’ve got samples of each species (I hope!) drying in the plant press, and should be able either to confirm or refute my identifications once I can take a look at them. It’s always a good idea to calibrate my intuition whenever I can.

A third yellow flower, which occurs throughout the coastal mountains but we saw only at Shell Creek Road, is the delightfully named coastal tidy tips (Layia platyglossa). This is the kind of common name that makes me smile. You’ll see why.

Coastal tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) along Shell Creek Road in San Luis Obispo County
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Perhaps the tidy tips form large dense patches more readily at other locations, but this year we saw them mostly interspersed among the goldfields. They are conspicuous enough that I think I would have noticed them if I’d seen them last year. From a macro perspective the white petal tips lend a more creamy yellow color to the landscape, compared to the unrelenting blinding yellow of the goldfields. I had never seen them before, and there’s something about those white tips that just tickles my fancy. How could I not be enchanted?

Goldfields (Lasthenia californica) and coastal tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) along Shell Creek Road in San Luis Obispo County
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

As lovely as it was, Shell Creek Road was only the first location we wanted to visit that day. Our ultimate destination was the Carrizo Plain National Monument, in southeastern San Luis Obispo County. More about that shortly.

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