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Travel [1401.21]

Record Showers Bring 2005 Wildflowers

(this article first appeared in our 2005 holiday newsletter)

2005 started off wet, in fact it was the second wettest year in Los Angeles since the National Weather Service began keeping records in 1877. L.A. was actually soggier than Seattle this year! Since we had to endure so much rain anyway, everyone was rooting for Mother Nature to give us a record breaker, but alas we ended up just short of 1884’s 38.2 inches.

Newspaper articles, TV reports, and dozens of wildflower websites extolled the magnificence of this year’s wildflower blooms. We had never been wildflower viewing before, figuring they’re basically, well, just weeds in bloom. But since the record rains could have produced once-in-a-lifetime displays this year, we had to go.

We’ve been fortunate to have visited Japan during cherry blossom season. The sight of cherry trees completely covered in blossoms is unbelievably beautiful. But what is really incredible is having a breeze blow the blossoms off around you in an endless cherry blossom "blizzard." You almost cannot breathe, the experience is that overwhelming. It’s no wonder poets have written about cherry blossoms for centuries.

So our expectations for the desert wildflowers may have been set a tad high. It turns out they do not have that "knock the wind out of your lungs" type of beauty. The first view of them is definitely the best, that is, seeing the fields of wildflowers from afar. Once you get closer, you have to work a little to fully appreciate them.

First, you do have the get over the fact that they are, indeed, weeds, and most of them don’t even smell nice (some far from it). We did find one field that smelled almost intoxicatingly sweet, but that turned out to be the blossoms from an orange grove next door.

To really appreciate wildflowers, you need to get close enough to see the individual blossoms. On closer inspection, a uniform field of yellow contains plants with blue, purple, red, or white blooms mixed in, not to mention different shapes and sizes of plants and flowers for each color.

Cactus flowers are also exciting. Much of the thrill comes from the knowledge that while you’re closely examining the blooms, one misstep, perhaps a strong gust of wind, could send you tumbling. You do not want to face plant into a cholla bush; the needles can pierce a boot sole.

A wildflower's blossom is relatively small compared to its branches and leaves. Also, in general the plants do not crowd together, to avoid competing for resources. The result is, what appears from a distance to be a thick field of flowers can look disappointingly sparse up close.

It turns out this is a version of the phenomenon discussed in James Pomerantz’s scholarly work "The Grass Is Always Greener: An Ecological Analysis of an Old Aphorism" and further expounded on in the Straight Dope. Basically, if you look at your feet, you see through the vertical blades of grass to the less green aspects, like stalks or the ground. Take a gander over at your neighbor’s lawn and you just see the blades, so it seems way greener. Ok, maybe it’s hokey, but the fields of wildflowers definitely looked better when viewed while crouching. Just watch out for the cholla!

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