A couple of months back I spent the day with Dr. Mike White and Laura Pavliscak of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy doing some planning for the upcoming field season. At that time the situation looked bleak. Both the San Joaquin and Antelope Valley sides of the ranch were brown, and devoid of the germination of seedlings needed for spring wildflowers. Pretty much the only germinating plants that I saw was a meager amount of poppies in the lower Mojave Desert and a thin band of green at around 2000-3000 feet in elevation in the Tehachapi Mountains.
For a student with a funding limit of two years working on the flora of an area as large as Tejon Ranch (nearly 500 square miles) this is just about the worst-case scenario for an upcoming field season. One thing that many people don’t know about botanists is that many of us are avid weather watchers.
Some of us check the weather forecast obsessively, reading the technical discussions issued by the National Weather Service, crossing our fingers for any signs of rain. And so, in January and February, I kept a close eye on the Doppler radar and long-term forecasts, wishing for the life-giving precipitation necessary for a floriferous spring.
The California water year started in October of last year and in that month, according to the Grapevine Peak weather station on Tejon Ranch, 0.36” of rain fell. On November 22, Tejon witnessed a large rain event with 1.48” falling in a single day, giving a monthly total of 1.56.” December was fairly dry with only 1.06” of precipitation. The dearth of precipitation in January was notable with a whopping total of 0.88.” The situation in February was even worse with only 0.41” of rain falling through the 27th of the month. Then, on February 28th things started to change with 1.09” falling in the 24-hour period. Early-March was fairly dry until March 30th when 1.51” fell in a single day giving a monthly total of 1.87.” As April comes to a close, the grand total for the month is 2.97”-making this the wettest month of the year so far. Summing this all up: Grapevine Peak has received 10.2” trough May 1st, nearly 60% of which has fallen in past two months!
You might be asking, what does this all mean for the plants? Well, as you might have guessed from the photos in this post, things are looking pretty good. Botanists often wax on about what weather pattern is best for spring wildflower shows. The conversation revolves around the timing and quantities of precipitation events. Some weather patterns seem to favor non-native grasses over native forbs, and the timing of cold weather seems to be important. A weather pattern that favors a good bloom in the Mojave Desert may not provide for a good show in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and vice-versa. The bottom line is that nobody truly knows.
What is clear this year is that this weather pattern has created an incredible bloom of diverse wildflowers in the Antelope Valley and the adjacent eastern foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains. On the other hand, the San Joaquin Valley currently looks a lot more like mid-August than mid-April. The contrast in diversity and abundance of wildflowers in different parts of the ranch is astounding. Whether these observed patterns are the products of the inherent properties of the plants that occur in different parts of the ranch or differences in microclimates resulting in variation in precipitation patterns is unknown.
I, for one, am amazed at the ability of the plants in the Mojave Desert to respond so quickly to spring rains. I have visited numerous places that are now covered with carpets of wildflowers where there was nary a seedling in February. Back in 1991, late-arriving rain in March produced a huge show of wildflowers in the Mojave Desert and this event has been termed the “March Miracle.” While, I am still searching for a catchy phrase for this year- how does “Amazing April” or “Astonishing April” sound?
Hey you! Don’t eat too many of those wildflowers!