Wildflowers put on colorful display in Orange County

Limestone Canyon and Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in Orange County has a kaleidoscopic landscape of colorful flowers in bloom.
Limestone Canyon and Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in Orange County has a kaleidoscopic landscape of colorful flowers in bloom. Susan Valot/KPCC

Forget April showers. May flowers are already here.

The hills of Limestone Canyon and Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park are emerald green, like Ireland. Vultures swirl in the breeze over the canyon. Bees bob from flower to flower. Mustard flowers coat some of the hillsides with bright yellow. But to spot other colors — blue, purple, red, orange — Senior Park Ranger Vicky Malton says you have to keep your eyes peeled.

"They're not just fields and fields and fields like you see in a landscape, you know," says Malton. "They can be a little tiny flower that you could miss if you keep walking. So take the time to stop. Look around you. And it's amazing that there might be seven or eight of them that you don't really notice until you stop and look."

On this stop, along Vulture View Road, a couple of rangers are helping us look.

"Right behind the buckwheat is a black sage. It's got bumpy leaves," says Supervising Park Ranger Ron Slimm as he points to some native plants tucked beneath the splashes of spring color.

Slimm turns his attention to a plant in the middle of the dirt road. It looks like chamomile before it blooms, with its stems topped by small, yellow-green bulbs. He says it's "pineapple weed," which smells like fresh pineapple when you squeeze it.

Slimm says for him, a wildflower tour is about making emotional connections between people and plants.

"If you can make a connection with them and the plant, rather than 'This is morning glory. This is lupine,'" Slimm says. "See, the pineapple plant, you smell it and like, 'Oh wow!' And the next time they come out, what do they want to do? They want to do that for somebody else. So they've got their friends, 'Oh, look at this plant right here. This is called pineapple weed. Pinch it and smell it,' you know. And so that kind of thing perpetuates and then all of a sudden there's a link between that person and a plant, even though I think the pineapple weed is a non-native. It's still — it just gives them some kind of a relationship, so to speak."

That relationship goes beyond smell, taste or color. A lot of the wildflowers are rooted in folklore.

Slimm gently touches the purple blooms of the lupine. The blooms are stacked on the stem like a corndog on a stick. Mixed among them is a tall flower — a single stalk with a milky head of blooms. It's "Our Lord's Candle," a native yucca.

"The reason why they named it that is when the Spaniards came here and they saw these up on the hillsides, it looked like an altar candle," Slimm says.

Look out across the green canyon and those scattered candle-like flowers give way to the bright yellow of mustard, which has folklore of its own.

"When Father Serra went from San Diego to San Francisco to plant missions all along the way, they were also planting mustard seed because they wanted to be able to follow their trail back because there would be a golden highway. You know, there is," Slimm laughs. "It's really big now."

He's talking about the way mustard invades the hillsides.

If you choose to invade Orange County's open space this year to peak at the wildflowers, you have a bit longer to do it. Senior Orange County Parks Ranger Vicky Malton says so far, it's been a pretty good show, though not as spectacular as right after the 2007 Santiago Fire.

"They've been coming in different seasons almost," she says. "I think because we've had the hot, then the cold, then the hot and the cold, that they're blooming at different seasons. So I think our season's going to be longer."

She says that'll happen especially if we keep getting rain showers here and there.

For now, lupines, morning glories, California poppies, stork's bill filarees, even sticky monkey flowers are flashing their colors on Orange County's hillsides.

You can grab a docent-led tour if you don't want to head out on your own. Or you can stay home and check out some of Orange County's wildflowers online:


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