Following three consecutive atmospheric rivers, much of California’s drought-ridden landscape is now drenched. Although these storms resulted in flooded highways and downed trees, one silver lining is the possibility of a “superbloom” that may hit California’s arid interior this spring.
Superblooms are a relatively rare occurrence, even in a state renowned for colorful wildflowers and diverse plant ecosystems. Following heavy winter rains, annual or short-lived perennial flowers will bloom briefly—and all at once—in the spring. The event, which last happened in 2019, creates cascades of native flowers in regions across California, turning rolling hills and valleys rainbow-colored.
Sometimes these blooms are big enough to be seen from outer space—and it’s absolutely breathtaking.
“When flowers are so abundant, you can’t really look away. You’re overwhelmed by the color, by the display, by the abundance,” said Naomi Fraga, director of conservation at the California Botanic Garden. “It’s quite a phenomenon to observe.”
A true superbloom is hardly guaranteed this year. Fraga noted that they typically only occur during an El Niño year, often in desert regions, although years with above-average precipitation can lead to above-average displays.
It’s not all sunshine and roses, either. California’s splendiferous blooms might be in jeopardy, and it all comes down to two key factors: climate and people.
I am so incredibly grateful for this California rain, but I am also anticipating the inevitable... The dreaded conversations about the "superbloom". You might be saying, what the heck Naomi, you are a botanist, don't you love superblooms? 🧵https://t.co/TGpGRTWSz2— Naomi Fraga, PhD (@naomibot) January 5, 2023
Drought Conditions Challenge Wildflower Growth
In September, climate experts warned that Northern California was headed into a “triple-dip” La Niña, in which drought conditions were expected to extend well into a bone-dry winter. This pattern disrupts California’s natural Mediterranean climate, which features steady winter rainfall before a dry summer. Disrupting this cycle can cause plants to sit dormant, leaving fields brown and desolate.
Superblooms are fickle, and changing weather patterns could easily alter soil moisture and temperatures in the coming months. Other environmental shifts induced by climate change also have the potential to extend the drought and suppress plant growth, jeopardizing wildflower habitats across the state.
“No single storm event will end the drought,” said Sean de Guzman, a manager at the California Department of Water Resources. “We’ll need consecutive storms—month after month after month of above-average rain, snow and runoff to help really refill our reservoirs.”
Insta Influencers and the Trampled Superbloom
The other major challenge to California’s blooms? Humans.
The term “superbloom” grew in popularity in the 2010s, resulting in a glut of influencers trekking out to remote parts of California, trampling delicate flowers and damaging ecosystems in the process.
“In promoting these locations where massive blooms take place, there isn't a lot of additional information about how these are actually very fragile ecosystems,” Fraga said. “Trampling them or laying on them with a blanket—that has a tremendous impact on whether or not flowers can actually be perpetuated in the future.”
Parts of California have experienced a sharp decline in wildflower diversity since 2000, and experts warn that the state cannot afford to lose more acres of wildflower habitat to erosion, development, agriculture or climate change. Some scientists even say that superblooms would be a more common phenomenon, were it not for aggressive human intervention.
“As a community, collectively, we should treasure superblooms, but we should also take extra care for them because they are and can be easily degraded,” Fraga said.
How To Safely Enjoy the Superbloom
The blooms are beautiful, and there are many ways to enjoy them without endangering California’s wildflower habitats. The first step? Changing how we view the blooms, away from mere Instagram backdrops to important ecosystems that need careful preservation.
“It seems to be a one-way transaction, where people are looking to get something from visiting the superbloom for themselves,” Fraga said. “But think about how you can also give something back to the superbloom—what can you do? Can you volunteer for the park and help on a weeding day? Could you educate yourself and be a better steward?”
A terrific thread from Naomi Fraga on the dark side of wildflower superblooms. By all means, seek them out, but show up in a way that honors these magnificent ecosystems. #Regeneration https://t.co/1hpszjSix4— Scott D. Sampson (@DrScottSampson) January 5, 2023
Consider not traveling to bloom regions where lots of tourists may swarm, such as around Lake Elsinore, where visitors clogged roads during 2019’s Poppypalooza. Botanists urge visitors to stick to trails, and avoid laying on the flowers—no matter how pretty they look. If all else fails, some regions even offer live cameras and satellite imagery of particularly lush blooms.
Liz Lindqwister can be reached at [email protected]