SUPERBLOOM LIGHTS UP STORMY COUNTY
Water, water everywhere. Let those flowers drink it up.
This winter's relentless storms damaged homes, wrecked roads and flooded fields, and those hit hardest by the devastation might be struggling to find a bright side.
Wildflowers can't repair storm damage, but they might provide a ray of hope.
The county is popping with blooms of all shapes, sizes, colors and funky names.
As early as February, shooting stars, footsteps of spring, sun cups and checker blooms, part of the “wildflower parade that happens every year,” were already blooming at Ford Ord, said Bruce Delgado, a botanist with the Bureau of Land Management at Fort Ord National Monument who is also the mayor of Marina.
Flowers bloom every year in Monterey County, which has some of the most diverse flora in the nation, from early in the rainy season until December of the following year. “It's just one big long cycle,” said Delgado.
And sometimes, if the weather is just right, we get a superbloom — a burst of wildflowers that have been laying around as seeds, just waiting for the right conditions.
Back in February, Brian LeNeve with the Monterey chapter of the California Native Plant Society told the Herald, “Right now, with the amount of rain we've got so far, I don't think it's going to take much rain in March to make a superbloom.” LeNeve has worked with the organization since the 1980s and served as its president for several years.
Last week, LeNeve updated his prediction. “It's happening right now,” he said. “It's as good as I've ever seen it in 40 years.”
Recipe for a superbloom
“Superblooms don't happen that often,” said LeNeve. “It takes a lot of individual things to make a superbloom.”
First, you need seeds. Wildflowers dump thousands of them onto the ground every year.
“Every plant can make just a
ton of seeds,” said LeNeve. “My favorite genus is the genus Clarkia (annual plants that are part of the evening primrose family) and each seed pod can have a couple of hundred seeds in it. And a plant can have 10 or 15 seed pods on it. So it can produce 1,000 seeds per plant.”
Wildflower seeds fall onto the ground, then wait for sun and water to help them sprout. They might have to wait a long time, but plants are patient. LeNeve said fallen seeds can be viable for decades — “20, 30, 40 years” — just waiting for the perfect conditions.
Next, you need persistent dry conditions followed by rain. “When a lot of rain ends a drought, those are great years for superblooms,” said Delgado.
But not just any rain will do.
Rain in January and February are helpful. But the rain in March — when the sun is out and the air and ground warm-up — is what really counts.
If March rains are followed by sunshine and warm temperatures, more seeds will germinate, or sprout. More sprouts lead to more fully grown plants. In a superbloom year, LeNeve said that up to 10 times more seeds might germinate than in a normal year.
One factor that could interfere with a superbloom is a supergrass growth. “The grass loves the rain just as much as the other wildflowers do,” said Delgado. “So if you get a lot of rain, many of these European grasses will just choke out all the space that would otherwise be available to a superbloom for native wildflowers.”
Even if the grasses do sprout, there are plenty of places in the area where the land is too “hostile” for grasses to grow. Places like vernal pools (seasonal pools of water), the Pinnacles volcanic rock formations, high elevation areas and serpentine soils. Native plants have adapted to these harsh habitats and will bloom and thrive there.
Variety leads to variety
“There's close to 2,400 different species in Monterey County, it's just an incredible, diverse county,” said LeNeve.
That diversity comes from the county's huge variety of habitats. “We have redwood forests, we have pine forests, we have oak woodlands, we have sea shores, we have semi-alpine, we have semi-desert,” said LeNeve. “All these areas have different plants that grow in them and consequently Monterey County has the biggest flora of any county in the state, and a bigger flora than most states do.”
“Variety is why we have such a variety of beautiful wildflowers,” said Delgado. “Variety of habitat, variety of soils, variety of weather, variety of rain pattern — variety.”
LeNeve encourages everyone to take a day off from computer screens and technology and go smell the roses, or look at them at least.
“Get out there and see it,” he said. “This is a once in a decade (event.)”
“Just spend a day out there and just look at the flowers, because it's truly an amazing bloom and truly an amazing variety of flowers that Monterey County has,” he said. “I just can't express it enough.” Plus, he said, you don't have to work too hard to see them — you can observe the blooms from your car along county roads. And observing expansive fields of blooming flowers is actually better from a distance.
LeNeve has suggestions for excellent views.
Locally, “Fort Ord is a spectacular area,” he said. Fort Ord is on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Hiking trails are accessible just off the Monterey-Salinas Highway. And the corridor between Salinas and Monterey is good for viewing from the road.
To the south, “One of my favorite areas is Highway 25 between Highway 198 and Pinnacles National Park.” And Fort Hunter Liggett, a military base just southeast of King City, is another good spot.
Finally, “If I had to pick one place, it's not in Monterey County, it's called the Carizzo Plains,” said LeNeve. “When there's a superbloom it's about 20 miles long and about 10 miles wide of just solid flowers.” And it's breathtaking, he said. “When it blooms up, put it up against anything in the world.”
Delgado added that, “In a couple of months high elevations will start to turn on, like in the Ventana Wilderness and off Highway 1 going into Los Padres National Forest.”
Around May and June, Garrapata State Park is a great place with access to some hihigher-elevationlowers. “Garapata State Park is known for being a tremendous wildflower place most years,” he said, “but especially in year like this year, it's going to be great.”
Some of these areas, like Highway 198, were still closed because of flood damage as of Thursday, so make sure to check road reports before heading out on an adventure. And remember that flowers don't have specific timelines — the “parade” of flora in bloom changes every day.
Wildflower enthusiasts and newbies alike can learn more and can chat with the pros at the Monterey chapter of the California Native Plant Society's annual wildflower show. The group displays over 700 different taxa at the event.
LeNeve said it's a good place to go to find out where wildflowers are currently blooming, and it's a great opportunity to learn more about native plants. “Odds are if you've seen something out there and don't know what it is, and you come by the show, you can figure it out, what it is,” he said.
This year's show is on April 22-23 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Carmel Woman's Club on the southwest corner of San Carlos Street and Ninth Avenue in Carmel.