Thursday, February 20, 2014

Out of the Valley of Death: A bit of life hangs on

Desert Gold near Ashford Mill
A visit to Death Valley generally comes with an expectation that conditions are going to be dry. The valley floor may average no more than 2 inches of rain in a normal year, and this year is far from normal. California is in the grip of an unprecedented drought, and few storms have broken through the unusually persistent high pressure belt this year. There have been exceptions, but my experience has been that February wildflower shows in Death Valley are rare, and this year I expected to see exactly zero flowers during our exploration of the valley.
Golden Poppy near Exclamation Point
So call this the most pleasant surprise of our trip. In the same way that a thirsty person appreciates even a drop or two of water, we were excited to see a scattering of just a few flowers in just one location within the largest national park outside of Alaska. The spot is below Jubilee Pass in the south part of the park, and just up the hill from Ashford Mill. The road here is paved, but the majority of visitors to Death Valley do not go this far south.
I don't know this diminutive flower
There have been years when the entire slope of the alluvial fan above Ashford Mill was covered with Desert Gold and other flower species, notably during El Nino years. It is a memorable sight to see the flowers growing in such profusion, but there is something about the flowers that manage to bloom when the conditions are so marginal that the continued existence of life is in question. These flowers stand alone in stark contrast to the barren soil and rock where other seeds hide beneath the surface. Those other seeds have somehow decided to wait for some future wet year instead of gambling on the pitiful amount of water in the ground this year.
Sand Verbena
 These hardy individuals are beautiful in their rarity.
Sand Verbena
As we walked across the alluvial fan surface looking for the outcrops of the Pahrump Group, it became clear why some of these flowers were able to bloom. They tended to congregate along the paved roads (runoff from the pavement gives a bit of a boost), and in low hollows where water could accumulate, and where the plants would be protected a bit from the drying hot winds.
Phaecelia
It's a bad water year. I don't foresee a big bloom unless the meteorological conditions change radically in the next few weeks, and that doesn't seem likely. So please enjoy the brief gift of a bit of color from these few hardy survivors!

1 comment:

Anne Estoppey said...

Hello Gary and thank you for sharing these great wild flowers pictures and your comments. I can't wait to hit the deserts again, next week in Utah. Will try to take pictures of the flowers there... Cheers, Anne