Environment & Science

Why the wildflower 'Super Bloom' was a super bust in SoCal

Patches of goldfields, an annual flower, are visible in Carrizo Plain National Monument on April 11, 2018. The area has far fewer wildflowers than in 2017, during the so-called
Patches of goldfields, an annual flower, are visible in Carrizo Plain National Monument on April 11, 2018. The area has far fewer wildflowers than in 2017, during the so-called "Super Bloom."
Flickr creative commons/John Kehoe

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A year ago, the #superbloom took Southern California, and the Internet, by storm. This year, not so much. What changed? 

"No rain, no flowers! You have to have the rain," said Tim Becker, the director of horticulture at the Theodore Payne Foundation for wildflowers and native plants.

Last year, Downtown Los Angeles got four inches more rainfall than average. And it fell consistently: December, January and February were all very wet. This year, DTLA is 10 inches behind average for the season, and the rainfall has been very sporadic.

The types of flowers that can cover large fields, lending themselves to Instagram — California poppies, daisies, goldfields and lupines — tend to be annuals. That means they germinate, flower, seed and die in a single year. These flowers need consistent, soaking rains to bloom en masse, according to Becker.

"The optimal situation for all those huge wildflower fields is to have consistent soil moisture so they can germinate," he said, "and that's why you're going to see much fewer wildflowers this year."

The Bureau of Land Management, manages the Carrizo Plain National Monument in San Luis Obispo County. That's the the site of some of the most spectacular wildflowers displays in 2017. By February of this year, The BLM was lowering expectations for the season.

Carrizo Plain tweet

“The ground is very dry this year. There just hasn’t been the moisture, so it is still brown,” Monument Manager Johna Hurl said in a post on the agency's Facebook page on February 16. “There are no wildflowers, in fact there aren’t even any buds!”

Hardcore wildflower enthusiasts like Becker say there are still plenty of flowers to see, if you're willing to get out of the car and work a little harder. 

"It's more of a treasure hunt, as opposed to, 'I can take a picture at any point and there will be massive blooms,'" he said.

And, he says, the fires do offer some opportunity after the destruction.

In some burn areas, like La Tuna Canyon Road in Los Angeles, flowers are blooming that you can only see after a wildfire.

Why? Because their seeds need heat or smoke to germinate. 

In case you forgot how exuberant last year's bloom got. Here's a reminder:

The Metropolitan Water District had to close the wildflower trail at Diamond Valley Lake in Hemet, California for several days to avoid damage to the area after thousands of people came during the superbloom last spring, many of them wandering off trail in pursuit of photographs, selfies, and a more intimate wildflower experience, March 30, 2017.
The Metropolitan Water District had to close the wildflower trail at Diamond Valley Lake in Hemet, California for several days to avoid damage to the area after thousands of people came during the superbloom last spring, many of them wandering off trail in pursuit of photographs, selfies, and a more intimate wildflower experience, March 30, 2017.
Andrew Cullen