Hills greening up around Laughlin, March 2010

The Mojave Desert in Southern Nevada is greening up!  With the desert wildflower season just around the corner, everyone wants to know how brilliant it will be.  Before the first of the year, the prospect looked dim.  2009 was the latest in a long line of extremely dry years.  Only 1.5” of rain was received last year in Southern Nevada – only 25% of the average yearly Mojave rainfall, which is 4”.  But good rains received in January, February and into March raised our hopes. The spring bloom outlook for 2010 is very favorable, due to almost a full year’s rainfall in the first few months of the year.  The National Weather Service has recorded 3.24“in the Las Vegas area as of this writing.  They have also named it an El Nino year.  Folks will remember El Nino years as great for wildflower blooms. I last visited Death Valley in an El Nino year and recall the entire area awash with a carpet of desert dandelions and other yellows.  Friend and botanist, Dr. David Charlet, says that all we need is a little heat to get the blooms going.

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So what can we expect to see and when?  The first spots of color that I’ve seen (mid-March) were on the road out of Laughlin, heading toward Las Vegas. Joshua trees up the hill from the Colorado River valley were just breaking bloom.  Joshuas don’t bloom every year, but it looks like this year we’ll be lucky.

Phacelia

The peak blooming times for most flowers should be from now through April.  The bloom should progress from lower elevations to higher and not necessarily from south to north.  Blooms will be seen earlier on south-facing slopes, too, where it is warmer.  Areas of bloom may be patchy, reflected by where the rainfall hit.  Because this is the most rain we’ve received in years, we may be lucky enough to see flowers that haven’t appeared in a long time.

What are the flowers you might see?  Fall and winter rains are beneficial for smaller annual plants, and late winter – early spring rains benefit the larger, perennial plants the most.  In Southern Nevada, we did not receive fall rains, so that might affect the number of annuals we see.  Still, the rains were not so late that we won’t see a good variety of them.  Our rainstorms occurred in late winter and early spring, so we should see quite a few perennials and shrubs blooming.

Indigobush

It all starts with the brown desert landscape taking on a greenish glow.  (Unfortunately, in some areas, that green isn’t always due to native plants, but to invasive weeds.)  Next, a few blooms pop here and there, then soon there are large pockets of colorful flowers.

Indian paintbrush

They range from small flowering plants (belly plants) and forbs to cactus and large shrubs.  Colors can be in a range from vivid gold to scarlet red to pure blue.  Brilliant flowers can be on trees, too, like the desert willow and the gorgeous western redbud.

A landscape of desert globemallow

Early bloomers include brittlebush, phacelia and desert globemallow.  Globemallow, also called sore- eyes poppy, is timed to bloom when the desert tortoise emerges (it’s one of their favorite plants).  I’ve seen a few domestic desert tortoises out, but the official prognosticator of spring, Mojave Max, is not out yet.

Las Vegas bearpoppy
Some of my personal favorites are bearpoppy, indigobush, beavertails, sand verbena, astragalus, mojave aster, and all of the penstemons, especially the fragrant Palmer’s penstemon, or wild snapdragon.   At higher elevations, like Mt. Charleston, you will see prince’s plume, prickly poppy, penstemons and lupines, among others.
Scarlet bugler penstemon

It’s guaranteed that you’ll see a lot of yellow daisy-like flowers.   I’ve given up on trying to identify them, and follow my former botany professor’s advice, calling them d.y.a.s, or damn yellow asteraceaes.  There are just too many yellow daisies in the desert to ever be able to identify.  You may also know these flowers as d.y.c.s (damn yellow composites) or d.y.d.s (damn yellow daisies).

Brittlebush (dya)

For those of you who like to know what flowers you are seeing, there are many wonderful field guides available to help you identify the flowers.  Guides with color photographs are the best for beginners.

Students of phenology can plan their trips according to known bloom times for most plants.  Here’s a website to help with that:  http://mojavedesert.net/wildflower/blooming-periods.html.  But you might want to be ready to hop in the car at a moment’s notice, because some bloom times might surprise us.  Follow the “Wildflower Watch” on the Desert USA website to see what’s blooming when, and contribute your sightings, too.

When you go, be sure to pack plenty of water, as well as hats, sunblock, and emergency supplies.  Tell someone where you’re headed and when you expect to be back.  And of course, take along a good camera to record that fantastic color. But, please, don’t pick the flowers – leave them there for other folks to see.  Some rare plants can really suffer if the seed source is removed.  Also, be careful when pulling off the road to see flowers.  A bumper sticker that says “I brake for wildflowers” is no excuse for stopping suddenly in the middle of the road.  Practice wildflower viewing etiquette!

Forest Service sign on Mt. Charleston

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