Bloom or bust: Historic rains are fueling another California super bloom – but it’s under threat

Washington Post photo by Alice Li
Wildflowers cover the hillsides at Carrizo Plain National Monument in Santa Margarita, Calif., as part of this year’s epic, statewide “super bloom.”

During the depths of California’s latest drought, much of the Golden State was brown. But hidden beneath the parched, cracked – and sometimes charred – earth, life was waiting to emerge.

The torrents of rain that cascaded across California this winter broke records, flooded fields and washed over hillsides. That same water also seeped into underground seed banks, nourishing long-dormant flora. The result: epic, statewide “super blooms.”

The sudden transformation of California’s landscape from dry and apparently barren into kaleidoscopic fields of wildflowers has captivated the country and drawn thousands of revelers. It’s a phenomenon that has become increasingly rare. The super bloom, like so many of nature’s most magnificent expressions, is under threat.

A changing climate regularly plunges the state into prolonged droughts, depriving plants of necessary rain. And sprawling human development has already paved over many habitats that used to reliably burst into spectacular shades of yellow, purple and blazing orange.

Today, the super blooms are a reminder of how much of California once looked – and they are multicolored beacons of hope for those trying to preserve the natural areas that remain.

“We have a culture that is disconnected from the natural world, and this is an entry point,” said Evan Meyer, executive director of the Theodore Payne Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes native plants. “Nature is screaming through a megaphone, ‘Look how amazing I am, come and connect with me!’ And it’s important that people connect to this, because if you don’t have a connection, you’re not going to care when it gets destroyed.”

The Washington Post traveled the state, interviewing botanists and flower lovers, to document what some have said is the best super bloom in years. Here’s what we found.

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The super bloom capital: Carrizo Plain

Hundreds of years ago, the valleys of Central California were blanketed in blossoms.

Cities and suburbs, farms and freeways now fill much of that land. But the Carrizo Plain National Monument offers a window into a time before industrial agriculture and urbanization.

Framed by the Caliente and Temblor mountain ranges, the vast plain sits 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles and is the largest native grassland left in the state. This year, it’s the super bloom capital of California.

For some botanists, “super bloom” is a vexing term. There is no scientific definition, only the eye test – you know it when you see it. And you can see Carrizo Plain blooms from space.

The monument’s dusty topography has erupted in color: yellow from the hillside daisies, goldfields and tidy tips, whose ends are frosted white; purple from the phacelia and wild hyacinth; azure splashes from the lupine and baby blue eyes.

“It’s quite special when you get these very colorful hillsides that look like someone splattered paint on them,” said Naomi Fraga, director of conservation programs at the California Botanic Garden. “It’s this invisible biodiversity that’s living as seeds in the soil, but it’s always present.”

The most important ingredient for a good bloom year is precipitation, both the amount and the timing. The massive winter storms, followed by weeks of consistent rainfall, created ideal conditions for many annual wildflower species to bloom simultaneously.

It is a virtuous and colorful cycle: When plants flower, they’re able to spread seeds and replenish the soil seed bank, an ecosystem’s natural subterranean storage system, setting themselves up for the next big bloom.

But because the plants rely on water, a future full of megadroughts poses an existential risk to regular super blooms, even though seed banks can survive dormant for decades.

“This could be the best bloom for the rest of our lifetimes,” said Meyer, whose organization maintains a popular wildflower hotline. “Especially with climate change, we really don’t know.”

This uncertainty pushes Meyer and fellow flower lovers to appreciate this year’s bloom more than ever. Driving along a precarious mountain road in the Caliente range, Meyer stopped the car and hopped out to admire stands of desert candles, plants with tall inflated stems and maroon petals that are rare sights in this landscape.

“They look like travelers from another planet,” he said excitedly. And, in a way, they were.

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After blazes, blooms: Big Basin

Just a few years ago, wildfires turned this majestic patch of forest into a graveyard.

The image of charred redwoods and Douglas firs, like groves of burned matchsticks, is seared in the memory of Beatrix Jiménez-Helsley, the natural resource manager for the Sempervirens Fund land trust.

In 2020, the CZU Lightning Complex blazes tore through more than 86,000 acres in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, including this site near Big Basin Redwoods State Park. When Jiménez-Helsley visited a few months later, she found the forest floor strewn with ash; parts of the ground still smoldered.

But even then, a comeback was underway.

As the resilient redwoods resprouted above, seeds hiding in the soil below were seizing their moment. These species, known as fire-following plants, rely on flames, heat or smoke to trigger their growth. After wildfires, they are early signs that life still goes on. And their blooms – against a burn-scarred backdrop – can be breathtaking.

In April, fire followers like blueblossoms dotted the area, taking advantage of ground that is nutrient-rich from burned biomass and clear of competition for sunlight.

This natural relationship between fire and flora is the product of millions of years of adaptation – and human intervention. Over centuries, California’s Indigenous communities perfected the art of prescribed burns, which promoted healthy ecosystems and helped prevent megafires by burning off combustible vegetation that fuels the most destructive blazes.

The vast expanses of wildflowers that Spanish colonizers and naturalists like John Muir rhapsodized were not swaths of pristine wilderness – they were more like gardens, the result of Indigenous management practices meant to encourage land productivity, said M. Kat Anderson, an ethnobotanist and author of “Tending the Wild.”

“You can’t talk about the wildflowers without talking about California’s Native people,” Anderson said. When admiring super blooms, “what we’re looking at are remnants of cultural landscapes. . . . We’re seeing remnants of what was, at one time, common in California.”

The warming climate and more than a century of strict fire suppression policies, which punished sacred burning practices, have made wildfires hotter and more devastating, which could imperil nature’s delicate harmony.

But in the charred forest near Big Basin, Jiménez-Helsley can still look to the fire followers for hope. Even after all humans have done to alter their environment, the wildflowers are still coming back, in turn bringing pollinators. The pops of color are hallmarks of a healthy habitat.

“Now it’s so alive,” Jiménez-Helsley said of the forest. “It is so good to see that they’re still doing what they’re wired to do.”

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Island of flowers: Antelope Valley

When Spanish sailors in the 18th century first laid eyes on the California coast, they declared it la tierra del fuego, the land of fire. They had arrived as a giant super bloom – flaming orange poppies, which would later be named the state flower – glowed from the hillsides.

But by the 1970s, the poppies were so threatened that the state government and a group of concerned citizens, led by “the Great Poppy Lady,” Jane Pinheiro, were working to establish a preserve to ensure the blooms would live on.

That effort became the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, north of Los Angeles, an island of native flowers among encroaching development and creeping invasive species. Even after the 1,800-acre park was founded, the pace of growth persisted, bringing cookie-cutter suburbs, vast solar farms and nonnative plants that crowded out other species.

“The tragedy is that the poppy, California’s state flower, is no longer common, to the point that reserves have recently been created to protect it,” wrote Richard A. Minnich in his 2008 book, “California’s Fading Wildflowers.”

But in good years, the reserve still reliably serves up super blooms, and its namesake poppy carpets the fields, providing an important oasis not far from one of the nation’s largest metro areas.

“Being able to go out in nature is vital for our mental health and our well-being,” said Lori Wear, a district interpretive program manager for California State Parks. “It’s a calming influence. It can lower your blood pressure just viewing beautiful vistas like that.”

As many as 100,000 people visit the reserve and the surrounding poppy fields in super bloom years, Wear said. On a recent blustery afternoon, crowds gathered, some stepping off a tour bus, to stroll through the flowers and pose for pictures among the poppies and yellow-crowned fiddlenecks.

Pam Barajas, a 30-year-old who lives in the area, brought her 3-year-old daughter, Luna, hoping to impart in her a love for the outdoors.

“Making sure we protect this for the next generation to come is what’s important to me,” she said, looking to Luna, who was gazing at the patches of bright orange. “I want her to be able to go outside and not think this was only something that happened years ago.”