A good wildflower year depends on at least three things: Well-spaced rainfall throughout the fall, winter, and spring, sufficient warmth from the sun and lack of drying winds.
Rain is Key
Gentle rain that soaks deeply into the soil is essential for a desert floral display. To begin, a rainstorm of a half inch or more is needed to wash the protective coating off wildflower seeds and allow them to sprout. For plants to continue growing, rainstorms must come at evenly-spaced intervals throughout the winter and spring. The best blooms are triggered by an early, winter-type rainstorm in September or October, followed by an El Niño weather pattern that brings above average rainfall to the Desert Southwest.
Warming Things Up
Wildflower seeds that sprout with cool winter storms often remain small and low to the ground until the springtime sun starts to warm the soil. They may not look like they are growing, but a strong root system is developing below the surface. As the temperatures get warmer, the well established plants then put on a growth spurt and start to bloom.
Harsh Desert Wind
Frequent springtime windstorms without additional rain can bring about a quick end to the spring bloom or even prevent it from happening by killing off delicate sprouts. Dry, moving air dehydrates exposed surfaces of all living things, including human beings. Desert plants often have waxy, hairy, or spiny leaves to baffle the wind and retain precious moisture. Humans can carry and drink water as needed, but the wildflowers must grow and bloom before they dry out, or late-spring heat arrives, in order to leave seeds scattered on the desert floor to produce the next generation.
Death Valley is famous for its spectacular, spring wildflower displays, but those are the exception, not the rule. Only under perfect conditions does the desert fill with a sea of gold, purple, pink or white flowers. These tend to average once a decade, with the most recent superbloom years being 2016, 2005, and 1998. Although there are years where blossoms are few, they are never totally absent.
Typical Bloom Windows
In Death Valley National park, most of the showy desert wildflowers are annuals, also referred to as ephemerals because they are short-lived. Oddly enough, this limited lifespan ensures survival here. Rather than struggle to stay alive during the desert’s most extreme conditions, annual wildflowers lie dormant as seeds. When enough rain finally does fall, the seeds quickly sprout, grow, bloom and go back to seed again before the dryness and heat returns. By blooming enmasse during good years, wildflowers can attract large numbers of pollinators such as butterflies, moths, bees and hummingbirds that might not otherwise visit Death Valley.
Where: Lower elevations on alluvial fans and foothills.
This year was an above average bloom year. Monsoon rains from the previous summer, coupled with a cool winter and spring showers, contributed to beautiful flowers. Wildflowers showed up late this year (Valley floor: late March-early April, Mid Elevations: April, High Elevations: mid-May-June) but put on quite a show. The best blooms were at mid and high elevations, including along Daylight Pass Rd, North Highway, Big Pine Rd and Emigrant Canyon Rd. Some of the most common flowers observed included: desert gold, various species of phacelia, desert paintbrush, globemallow, lupine, mariposa lillies and brittlebrush.
Although we received rain in July, it came too early; rain is usually required in the fall to produce a large bloom. This fall was not only dry, but also hot, with above average temperatures in November. However, several rain events in December thoroughly wet the soil, which was good news for wildflowers, leading to an average bloom this spring.
A dry fall, with rain/snow starting the last week of December 2020, led to very sparse blooms at low elevations in the spring.