California’s Wildflower Bloom Falls Short of Superbloom Status Despite Heavy Rains


Vibrant carpets of yellow, orange, and gold flowers have started to transform Southern California’s expansive deserts, the captivating bluffs of the Bay Area, and even the surrounding areas of Los Angeles International Airport. But does this impressive display of color meet the criteria for a “superbloom”?

The term “superbloom” is open to interpretation with no universally accepted definition in the scientific community. It typically refers to phenomenon when the desert areas of California and Arizona suddenly burst into dense fields of wildflowers. This happens when dormant seeds in the soil germinate and bloom simultaneously, a process that mostly follows seasons with higher than average rainfall, about 30% or more, according to a recent study shared by Naomi Fraga, director of conservation programs at the California Botanic Garden, located in Los Angeles.

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However, according to Fraga, the blooms this year do not qualify as a superbloom due to the lack of diversity in the blossoming flora, particularly in places like California’s Death Valley, despite the ample winter rains. The wildflower display this year isn’t as large or dense compared to previous years.

The concept of superblooms, Fraga explains, conjures an image of such an extraordinary bloom, it’s considered a rare occurrence. Such an event was witnessed last spring in Southern California’s Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, where early April visitors were treated to mesmerizing orange hues of California’s state flower. However, this year, the fields were devoid of those iconic orange blooms, with officials noting that the chance for such a breathtaking display was narrowing with time.

Even the landscape of Death Valley, one of the planet’s driest places, is speckled with gold from emergent sunflowers following an especially wet winter and spring. Whether this qualifies as a superbloom is subjective and, according to Evan Meyer, executive director of the California-based nonprofit Theodore Payne Foundation, “really in the eye of the beholder.”

Typically, April is the peak month for spring wildflowers. However, in places of high elevation, wildflower blossoms can spill into the later spring months. Fraga clarifies that superblooms are more about geography than timing. “Spring in the mountains hasn’t started, and in the low desert, it’s past its peak,” added Meyer. As temperatures climb in the desert, the blossoming flowers can quickly dry out.

The topic of climate change and its impact on the superbloom is still a matter up for debate amongst experts. Although climate change is causing erratic precipitation patterns, this might not be directly reflected in wildflower activity. Seeds can stay dormant in the soil for decades, even centuries, and the full effects may unfold over an extended period.

Fraga highlighted that Southern California received unusual heavy rain last summer, deviating from their typically dry summers. This probably caused flowers to germinate out of their usual season. Adding to this anomaly, this year’s winter temperatures were higher than average, which allowed many flowers to maintain their bloom into the spring season. “That made for a very unusual bloom,” Fraga noted.