Fans re­gard this Cal­i­for­nian desert state park a peren­nial par­adise for flower lovers.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - By DEBOraH NEtBUrN

TOM Ch­ester is stand­ing in the middle of Anza- Borrego Desert State Park in Cal­i­for­nia, ig­nor­ing the ma­jes­tic scenery.

The tow­er­ing Santa Rosa Moun­tains, the wide vis­tas and the clear blue sky are not what in­ter­ests the 64- year- old re­tired as­tro­physi­cist. In­stead, he keeps his eyes trained to the ground.

He’s look­ing for flow­ers. He’s col­lect­ing data.

“Garaea canescens, Cryptan­tha an­gus­ti­fo­lia, Pec­to­carya het­e­ro­carpa,” he says, rat­tling off a list of plant names to his part­ner in botany, Kate Harper.

She nods along. “All right, ok,” she says, mak­ing men­tal notes.

Ch­ester turns away from his list and scans the desert floor one more time. The plants may be small, but their buds are ready to burst.

“I think we are fi­nally tak­ing off here,” he says.

De­spite a dis­ap­point­ing El Nino, which has brought none of the promised rain to this far western edge of the Sono­ran Desert, Ch­ester and his small band of plant en­thu­si­asts counted eight species of flow­ers just start­ing to bloom on the sandy wash off Hen­der­son Canyon Road, in­clud­ing desert lilies, brown- eyed prim­roses and hairy desert sun­flow­ers.

Later, Ch­ester will add the day’s ob­ser­va­tions to his com­puter plots, en­ter GPS points on his species dis­tri­bu­tion maps, and send es­ti­mates of the size of the bloom to his fel­low botanis­ers for their re­view.

Some peo­ple like to look at wild- flow­ers. Ch­ester likes to mea­sure them.

“If you don’t track it numer­i­cally, you can’t re­ally com­pare year to year, or even know for sure where you are in the bloom cy­cle,” he ex­plains.

Ac­cord­ing to his cal­cu­la­tions, the Anza- Borrego an­nual bloom had just be­gun.

Death Val­ley’s su­per- bloom may be the botan­i­cal hot spot for flower tourists this year, but Anza- Borrego Desert State Park is a peren­nial par­adise for flower lovers. The 640,000- acre park is home to more than 1,000 species of plants. In a good year, knee- high fields of an­nual flow­ers rise out of the sandy desert floor in the spring, stretch­ing for a mile out to­ward the base of the moun­tains.

Hard- core wild­flower fans from across the world be­gin track­ing the state of the Anza- Borrego bloom in Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber. By Jan­uary, the early on­line re­ports are posted, with ger­mi­na­tion rates and rain­fall tal­lies.

For those who pre­fer to do their flower stalk­ing by phone, the park runs a 24- hour wild­flower hot­line that tells call­ers the best places to find flow­ers in the park on a given day, as well as the state of the year’s bloom.

Back in the early 1980s, tourists could buy a 20- cent ( RM0.80) post­card, add their ad­dress and have park em­ploy­ees alert them when they thought the peak was com­ing up.

But pre­dict­ing the mo­ment of peak bloom is a tricky busi­ness. The desert is like a liv­ing, breath­ing or­gan­ism, and its plants – par­tic­u­larly the fa­mous ones on the desert floor – are tem­per­a­men­tal. They are af­fected not just by rain, but by tem­per­a­ture and wind as well.

As the year be­gan, Ch­ester and his fel­low botanists had high hopes for this year’s bloom. A storm in early Jan­uary de­liv­ered a healthy two inches of rain to the desert, prompt­ing mil­lions of seedlings to emerge a few weeks later.

Paul John­son, who’s been work­ing in the park for 43 years, said he ex­pected 2016’ s bloom to be “out of this world.”

“We had the high­est vol­ume of an­nual ger­mi­na­tion I’ve ever seen,” he said.

But the rain was fol­lowed by a cold spell, with tem­per­a­tures 10 de­grees below nor­mal, and the flow­ers didn’t grow. The promised El Nino del­uge never came and an un­timely heat wave in Fe­bru­ary forced the flora to make a de­ci­sion: Ei­ther bloom now or risk los­ing a seed- mak­ing sea­son.

“We’re see­ing a fas­ci­nat­ing adap­ta­tion,” John­son said. “The vol­ume is tremen­dous, but they are pyg­mies. The plants are in a race to get their flow­ers out.”

Ac­cord­ing to Ch­ester, they are bloom­ing at one- tenth to one- half their usual height.

Flower peep­ers – a term lo­cals use to de­scribe vis­i­tors who pre­fer to see desert flow­ers from the com­fort of their cars – might be dis­ap­pointed by the 2016 bloom, but Ch­ester and his crew find beauty even when the flow­ers are small.

“To be awed by the desert, you have to get down on your knees,” Harper says. “It’s all there.”

Harper is six- feet ( 1.83m) tall, 65 years old, and dressed in black leggings and a hot pink top. She makes a cer­e­mony of pre­sent­ing first- timers with a light­weight jew­eler’s loupe that pro­vides 45- power mag­ni­fi­ca­tion.

“May you see the desert with new eyes,” she says.

Ch­ester, who is slight with a trim gray beard and white hair peek­ing out of his sa­fari hat, warns new­bies on his botaniz­ing trips that the group might eas­ily spend an hour in a sin­gle spot, itemis­ing the plants and plot­ting GPS points.

A tire­less re­searcher who spent 21 years work­ing on satel­lites at Nasa’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory, Ch­ester now makes the 90- minute trek to the desert ev­ery three or four days from Novem­ber through April to col­lect data for his plant re­search.

Though early- morn­ing hours are usu­ally the most com­fort­able time in the desert, Ch­ester never starts be­fore 10. “I’m an as­tronomer,” he says. “I’m a night guy.”

He is ac­com­pa­nied on his An­za­Bor­rego trips by a ro­tat­ing cast of plant en­thu­si­asts. Harper, how­ever, is a con­stant. The two are now col­lab­o­rat­ing on a sci­en­tific pa­per about the flora of the Borrego desert.

This day’s trip also in­cludes Fred Mel­gert and Carla Hoe­gen, a Dutch cou­ple who spend half the year in Borrego Springs and pro­vide fre­quent wild­flower re­ports on the Anza- Borrego Desert Nat­u­ral His­tory Assn.’ s web­site. Nancy Ac­cola, a re­tiree who fell in love with Cal­i­for­nia flora af­ter mov­ing to Te­mec­ula from the Bos­ton area, has come along as well.

“Peo­ple who are at­tracted to this are mem­bers of the same tribe,” Harper says. “It’s re­ally about ex­plo­ration.” – Los An­ge­les Times/ Tribune News Ser­vice

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