Welcome to Saturday Morning Garden Blogging, and it’s time for a short trip to the Mojave Desert to hunt for wildflowers.
Winged Purple Phacelia
It has been nine years since the first of our trips to Death Valley National Park in search of Spring color and I remember that first year distinctly. It was February in the Northern Rockies with cold winds blowing dust around the snowless streets of the capital city. I was bored to death with my routine at work and life’s Winter routines in general. Go to work in the dark. Sit in front of the computer for 8-10 hours. Go home in the dark. Repeat until you go completely mad.
One evening, NBC news featured a short piece on the remarkable wildflower bloom in the southern deserts and especially Death Valley National Park. I was transfixed by the huge splashes of bright color across the desert landscape. The next day at work, I was even more miserable than normal, knowing that something remarkable was happening in the Mojave Desert, just a twelve hundred miles south of town. A friend and co-worker said, “You look miserable. You should go”. I left four days later.
I tried to get Mrs. Ed to go, but she had already scheduled a trip back East to visit her mother. I briefly considered kidnapping her, driving to Death Valley and then sticking her on a plane headed East in Las Vegas, but realized it would be too contentious.
“Where the heck are we going? To the airport, my dear, I reply while stomping the accelerator and heading the truck south on I-15. What airport? McCarran, with a short detour to Furnace Creek”.
After seeing the enormity of the Big Bloom of 2005, I realized I probably should have done it. A once in a lifetime event.
But enough of historical reminiscing. How do you plan for wildflower hunting in the desert and how successful was the latest expedition?
Planning for a desert wildflower expedition begins in the Fall, by paying attention to weather reports at the national and regional scale. Will an El Nino start during the autumn months? Will any storm system dump rain on the southwestern desert parks?
A map of the extent of the rain storm in February in the eastern portion of Death Valley NP
By late Fall, you can tell if a major El Nino event has started, one effect of which is dragging wet storm systems across the western United States. If one occurs, there’s the possibility of a big bloom come February or March. If not, smaller blooms are still possible. The annual wildflower seeds require two or three drenching rains to set them up to sprout and bloom. A light rain or just one more substantive rain in the Fall is not enough. Last year parts of the Death Valley area got two drenching rains, one in August and one in October, so the stage was set for a smaller bloom.
Death Valley National park is a huge park, at 3.4 million acres, it’s the largest park in the US outside of Alaska, and has exactly two weather stations; at Furnace Creek and Scottys Castle. Rain storms can easily miss both of them. Also if you wait for reports of a bloom to appear on the wildflower blogs like Desert USA or the Theodore Payne Foundation, it may be over before you even get there, especially for those of us like myself that live two or three days travel distant from the desert parks.
One solution to this problem is to follow the Morning Report which is posted almost every day on the Death Valley National Park’s website. The Morning Report chronicles the daily weather conditions, and the road conditions throughout the park. If the backcountry roads in one region of the park are washed out, you know it has rained hard enough for wildflowers to bloom there in the following weeks.
A good collection of guidebooks to the wildflowers of the Mojave Desert. The yellow Falcon Guide to the Mojave Desert Wildflowers is especially good.
In the last year or so, Death Valley has followed the lead of some other national parks and has started to post news and wildflower updates on their Facebook page. In early March, following a downpour in February that dropped six tenths of an inch of rain at park headquarters at Furnace Creek, reports of wildflower blooms near the park's east entrance began to appear on Facebook. That was all we needed to know to pack up and drive south!
The park's East Entrance sign. The wildflowers were out of sight to the right
Few flowers could be seen near the entrance sign, but the reports encouraged visitors to walk forty yards to the north and over a large gravel berm (bulldozed to protect the road from flash floods) to see the major part of the bloom. Sure enough the bottom of the wash was filled with thousands of Golden Evening Primrose flowers, and a lesser number of Purple Phacelias.
Wildflowers are scattered across the wash
Golden Evening Primrose
Luckily, we arrived in mid-morning and there was little wind to rustle the blooms. There is nearly always some wind in the desert, so early morning is your best bet for calm conditions for photography.
While we were there, a small commercial tour of visitors from Las Vegas stopped by the entrance sign. I wandered over and encouraged them to walk the forty yards north to see the bloom. "Can't do that", one replied. "We are on a tight schedule". Oh well...
More Purple Phacelia. Some plants were the size of small bushes.
Scattered among the Primrose and Phacelia were a handfull of other species such as the delicate white flowers of Gravel Ghost.
Trumpet Flowers are named for their oddly shaped stalks and have tiny white blooms on their tops.
The stalks of Trumpet Flowers
Virtually hidden below the rocks, were a few small purple blooms of Monkey Flower.
Bigelows Monkey Flower
Further down the wash and a short ways up another side canyon, we nearly ran over a small handful of Death Valley's signature bloom.
A lone Desert Five Spot
After spending a day exploring the blooms in the eastern wash, we drove west to Panamint Springs in the park to do the short hike to Darwin Falls. Darwin Falls boasts one of the few flowing streams in the park, and had had a big flash flood in the Fall of 2012. Much of the undergrowth, which used to obscure the twenty foot high falls had been washed away.
Some smaller plants had recovered along the stream, such as this rare orchid. Mrs. Ed was lucky enough to get a pic of this large Hummingbird Moth, which zoomed back and forth visiting the blooms.
A Streamside Orchid and Hummingbird Moth
A couple of days later, on another canyon hike, we came across this interesting plant, Coyote Tobacco. Like its cousin, Indian Tobacco, it could be dried and smoked by the local Native Americans. It has small, white trumpet-shaped flowers.
After a day of canyon hiking, there's nothing better than a hearty dinner cooked in the dutch oven. We certainly don't starve in the desert!
Dutch oven baked enchilada casserole
As you might expect, the sunrises and sunsets in Death Valley can be the most beautiful parts of the day, like this sunset from one of our last camps.
Sunset at Mesquite Springs
On the very last evening there in the park, we were treated to the full moon rising over the Grapevine Mountains to the east.
In all it was a wonderful trip to one of the most spectacular national parks.
Another Note: Just in the last couple of days, there are reports of a large area wide bloom of Joshua Trees, the odd monocot yucca-like tree found in the Mojave. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the bloom may be one of the biggest in the last several decades. The Mojave National Preserve reports that the huge forest of Joshua Trees on Cima Dome in the northeast part of the preserve are all in bloom, a rare occurrence.
We saw a portion of the start of the bloom three weeks ago in the Virgin River Gorge southwest of St. George Utah.
If you are anywhere near Las Vegas or points southwest of there, I would certainly try to get a look at this unusually large bloom!