The many wildflowers of North America

Wildflowers pop up like weeds in the spring.

Among them are bluets, bedstraws, and twinflowers; meadow beauties, blue-eyed grasses, and arrowheads; Indian pipes, Jack-in-the-pulpits, and goldenrods; turtleheads, eriogonums, and toothworts; purple chinesehouses, pussy-paws, and scarlet monkey flowers; California poppies, creamcups, and Queen Anne's lace.

It's estimated there are at least 32,000 kinds of flowering plants that grow wild in America north of the Rio Grande.

All 50 states produce varying crops of wildflowers, but California's annual output, due to a benevolent climate and drenching winter rains, is nothing short of amazing.

It's a display that's second to none.

When welcome winter rains come and the sun shines brightly between storms, Californians and visitors alike are treated to enormous and dazzling spring shows of wildflowers in a hundred hues, blooming from one end of the state to the other.

They grow almost everywhere, from sea to desert to foothills to rugged mountain canyons.

Historians say that the Pilgrims were probably the first non-Indians to see the sweetly fragrant little blooms called trailing arbutus that poked up through the melting snow.

It was more commonly known as mayflower, both then and now, and is still one of America's favorite harbingers of spring.

In March, the fields and foothills of southern California rival the sun's glow as great masses of the common yellow mustard, or one of its many close relatives, come into brilliant bloom. It's one of the earliest and most enduring wildflowers. The size of the yearly crop depends on substantial winter rains and bright days of warming sun.

Fields and rolling hills along Interstate 5 between San Diego and Los Angeles , for example, are often aglow in spring with vast stands of canary-colored mustard, tall as a Texan.

The mustards are one of the largest and most important plant families, with 200 genera and 1,800 species.

Many vegetables are members of the mustard family, among them broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, radish, rutabaga, kohlrabi, horseradish, turnip, and watercress.

Numerous varieties of the pretty little lupines thrive in California as well. Of about 150 native American species, almost all are confined to the Western states. California alone boasts some 134 species and varieties, but who's counting?

Some lupines prefer moist soil while others flourish in fields, on arid slopes, or out in dry desert areas. They're often 1 to 2 feet high, but some are 6 inches or less. The delicate little flowers, growing in several rows on a single stalk, appear in many hues - white, yellow, pink, lavender, blue, and purple.

Quite often lupines of varying colors will grow in the same area. They're also cultivated widely as a garden flower.

The beautiful Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus subcarnosus), the state flower of Texas, is a lupine. This attractive plant is seen by few lupine lovers since its growth is limited to patches of sandy soil in the southern part of central Texas. It's sometimes mistaken for the prolific, wide-ranging common bluebonnet. The Texas bluebonnet is usually a foot or less in height and grows in large colonies, as do many California lupines.

The rampaging California poppy, appropriately the state's official flower, often grows stalk by stalk with lupine, creating a dazzling display of blue and gold. It's one of the best-loved Western wildflowers.

The poppy grows abundantly in valleys and foothills along the Pacific Coast and in parts of the Rockies, covering huge areas with stands of the large orange-hued blooms, which shut as night falls.

When cultivated, California poppies may vary in color, flowering white, cream , or pink.

Several wild poppy varieties grow in valleys and foothills up to altitudes of 2,000 feet on the seaward side of the high mountains. The plants produce many deeply dissected, bluish-green leaves growing on erect stems from 9 inches to 2 feet in height, each topped with a single flower.

The blooms are from 1 to 4 inches across, in colors that range from vivid orange to copper to straw to bright yellow.

Another strikingly handsome wildflower is the Matilija poppy, which frequents washes and canyons, usually at altitudes from 1,000 to 2,500 feet, along the southern California coast. The impressively tall plants, from 3 to 4 feet or more in height, have smooth bluish-green leaves and delicately fragrant blooms.

The showy flowers are from 3 to 5 inches across, and the snow-white petals have lovely frilled edges.

Visitors from the snowbound states flock to the Western deserts in spring to see all the different varieties of wildflowers in gorgeous bloom. Anza Borrego Desert State Park in eastern San Diego County covers nearly a half-million acres. It is California's largest state park and is an ideal place to view the unique beauty of desert wildflowers.

If the combination of winter rainfall, weather, and wind is right, the spring flowers will be lushly abundant. If not, they may grow chiefly on protected sand hills and in shallow washes.

One infallible indicator of desert rainfall is the ocotillo, a large, spiny-stemmed bush that grows through the huge Anza Borrego park. In spring great clusters of brilliant red flowers appear at the tips of the stems. If the ocotillo's stems are green, it's a sign that rain has fallen recently in that area.

It's quite commonplace to drive through the park and see the color of the ocotillo stems change from brown to green and back to brown again within a mile.

Fortunately, rainfall isn't the only source of life-sustaining moisture in the mammoth desert park. There are many springs that support numerous types of desert plants and wildflowers as well as wildlife.

When the beneficial rains of winter pound down, even the seemingly desolate Death Valley region and the encircling Mojave Desert lands of southeast California and western Nevada come alive with broad carpets of wild blooms in almost every color under the sun.

Springtime visitors to these pleasantly warm desert zones often spot fields of purple-hued phacelia, desert gold, primroses, dazzling yellow dandelions, lavender-petaled daisies, fiddlenecks, and many other varieties, plus blossoms on such nonflowers as beavertail cactus and Joshua trees.

Two excellent places to view California wildflowers are the Coachella and Antelope Valleys. Both are a springtime riot of eye-popping colors. Besides laundry-day white, the thousands of blooms pop open in many beautiful hues, notably yellow, orange, red, pink, lavender, blue, and purple.

Soaking winter rains and warm temperatures in the Coachella Valley - such well-know resort communities as Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and Rancho Mirage are here - bring out incredibly colorful displays of wild blossoms.

Look for bluebonnet, purple sand verbena, red trumpet flowers, many-colored mallows, Spanish needle, creosote bush, buttercups, and wild daisies.

There'll also be several varieties of cactus blooms, with lovely flowers of cream, yellow, pink, or purple.

Antelope Valley, at the western end of California's vast 12.5-million-acre Mojave Desert, is another popular area that many wildflower lovers flock to every spring. When rain and sun conditions are right, the desert wildflowers grow thicker and faster than weeds.

Not all wildflowers are found in remote, hard-to-get-to places, however.

Cabrillo National Monument, a 144-acre park and historic old lighthouse on the elevated tip of Point Loma, only 10 miles from the heart of downtown San Diego, is a good place to keep an eye or two open for stands of spring wildflowers. During March and April the hillsides are often vividly splashed with black-eyed Susans, Indian paintbrush, monkey flowers, sea dahlias, and sweet-smelling chaparral broom.

In the spring visitors from overseas as well as many states come to the little mountain town of Julian, about 60 miles northeast of San Diego, to see and photograph the brilliant show of wildflowers that blanket the nearby hills and valleys.Then there's the excitingly colorful week-long exhibit of wildflowers presented each May by the Julian Women's Club.

The annual wildflower showing is a true spectacular with as many as 300 different types of wild blooms to delight flower fans - from western redbuds to mule fat and white yucca blooms.

There are hundreds more, enough to rival a dozen flowery rainbows.

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