Death Valley in bloom: How driest spot in America becomes awash with color

The barren National Park is typically void of flowers or greenery. But every 10 years or so 'super blooms' of wildflowers fill the desert, say park rangers.

Death Valley is the hottest place on Earth and the driest place in North America, averaging 115 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and less than two inches of rain a year. Typically the area is barren, filled with only rocks and dirt. It is almost impossible to find a living shrub in the national park, much less a field of wildflowers. 

But some hardy wildflowers persist, and periodically bloom in this dry desert. And this year, thanks to rains from El Niño, the desert is afire with color.

Park Ranger Alan Van Valkenburg says he has lived in Death Valley for over 25 years, and has witnessed some “incredible blooms.” Still, he says he was curious to see a fabled "super bloom."

“It’s very rare to have a good bloom in Death Valley,” Mr. Van Valkenburg explains in a National Park Service video. “You always get flowers somewhere in Death Valley ... but to have a big bloom like this, which we hope will become a super bloom, which is beyond all your expectations, those are quite rare. Maybe once a decade or so.”

Why are super blooms so rare? Van Valkenburg says the area needs perfect conditions for all of the seeds to bloom at once. 

The National Park Service (NPS) attributes three key factors to a good wildflower year in Death Valley: well-spaced rainfall, sufficient sun warmth, and minimal drying winds. 

Desert flowers need initial rains to wash away seeds’ protective coating and allow them to sprout, and then continued gentle rain and ample sunlight through the fall and winter assure growth. Water is already scarce for these flowers, so any dry, gusty winds only dehydrate the flowers further.

The last two super blooms occurred in 1998 and 2005, which, like this year, were El Niño years. NPS says El Niño encourages super boom conditions because it increases rainfall during flower season

But even if conditions in Death Valley meet all of these requirements, desert flowers in the area are ‘ephemerals,’ meaning they are naturally short-lived. 

“Oddly enough, this limited lifespan ensures survival here,” explains NPS. “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.”

NPS says visitors will be surprised by the diversity of species thriving in Death Valley right now.

“Death Valley really does go from being a valley of death, to being a valley of life,” says Van Valkenburg. “But it’s so brief, it’s not a permanent thing. It’s just temporary. Here for a moment, then it fades.”

All the more reason to visit the national park during a bloom, he says, especially considering there is no way to predict when the next one will occur. 

“If you get a chance to see a bloom in Death Valley, especially a super bloom, you should take the opportunity to see it because it could be a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

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