Super Spring in California?

“There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” – Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

A year ago, I traded the Blue Ridge for the Santa Cruz mountains, thunderstorms for summer fog, and barbecue for breakfast burritos. Don’t get me wrong, I have fallen in love with the wild wonder of northern (some may protest, north-central) California, but I am still getting used to the brazen drama of this sunny state.

If I aim my headlights south to Big Sur’s famous Bixby Creek Bridge, I can perch on the shoulder of a sheer cliff face and train borrowed binoculars on the Pacific horizon to spot sea lions, otters, and migrating gray whales. A cruise northeast through honey desert hills ferries me and the bighorn sheep to El Capitán in Yosemite Valley. Four miles uphill from my house, I can hike trails through ancient redwoods, counting off the curious, bright yellow banana slugs by the dozen.

The dramatic landscape encourages rhetoric that’s equally as high stakes. It’s not cloudy, it’s “May gray.” It’s not rain, it’s an “atmospheric river.” If you refer to San Francisco as “San Fran,” you will be expelled from the state. Welcome to “The City.”

I’ll admit when I first heard about the California “super bloom,” I was skeptical. Last year, a late winter snowfall blanketed the golden hills. The icy layer sunk into the ground and germinated hundreds of wildflower seeds all at once, indiscriminate of species. That led to a simultaneous explosion, a cataclysm of colors. In days, the landscape went from blank grassy hills to a watercolor painting—a bloom so big it was christened “super” by national headlines. All hail the wildflowers and get your butt to the wild west. Even astronauts and aliens had tickets to the show.

There is no scientific consensus on the definition of a superbloom. In the wide western states, the intensity of the annual emergence depends on elevation, precipitation, and coordination. Low-lying desert flowers forecast the wild gardens higher up, where petals pop up late into May. This year, despite a winter of atmospheric rivers (read: rain), the various wildflowers seem to have settled back into their normal rhythm, claiming their own time, taking turns to unfurl their beauty.

And it is still breathtaking.

Orange poppies crowd the sandy, rounded cliffs like a stadium full of sports fans poised to watch the surfers. Purple lupines teeter in the offshore breeze. Warm, sunny mustard grass sprinkles the meadows. Though it’s not native, ice plant (also known as Hottentot-fig) thrives in the salty sunshine, forming a thick mat of tiny purple fireworks.

The flowers emerge on their own agenda, delicately layered between pollinator life cycles and bird migrations.

“Honeybees and wild bees depend heavily on such ‘weeds’ as goldenrod, mustard and dandelions for pollen that serves as the food of their young. By the precise and delicate timing that is nature’s own, the emergence of one species of wild bee takes place on the very day of the opening of the willow blossoms.”

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Native and not, the flower families operate on a timeline independent from our own. All through the wet season, wild seeds wait patiently, buried in the insulated dirt, snoozing until the sun triggers their eruption. Some bloom only briefly, and others will hold on through July. It’s comforting to me that they follow their own clock. If given mastery of such a thing, we would surely mess it up.

But we still have more impact on the flowers than we can handle. Our tendency toward growth and destruction has impaired the integrity of their seasonal senses. Human-caused climate change has made rainfall less predictable. We have fragmented wildflower habitats with mining and agriculture and shifted global levels of temperature and sunshine.

As spring slides into summer and the sun sits in the sky a little longer, the ephemeral flowers will fall away, the ground will reabsorb them and safeguard their seeds for next spring. And I will learn the lesson I forget to remember each year: their beauty is fragile but defiant. They don’t need us, thank god, but to encourage their artistic display, we should probably leave them alone.

I walk along the bright cliffs, through baby blue, orange, and pink, and release control to the perfect timing of the wildflowers.

RCC National Environment Leadership Presidential Fellow – Molly Herring –
University of Santa Cruz

RCC Presidential Fellow Molly Herring is pursuing a Masters in Science Communications from UC Santa Cruz. She recently graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill with a double major in Biology and Global Studies and a minor in Creative Nonfiction. She has been published in Oceanographic MagazineCoastal ReviewThe Marine Diaries, and Cellar Door.