Following the 2017 “Super Bloom”

Biologists and nature lovers from around the world, and even NASA satellites, are focusing their attention on this year’s extraordinary wildflower “Super Bloom” from the deserts of Southern California and Arizona, all the way up to our local Cascades – the best recorded in decades.

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Now I’m not one to be much interested in the names of flowers and plants, but I am a science geek and love to know the WHY of things.  So as it began to become clear that we were experiencing a dramatic, exuberant wildflower year on our trails this spring and early summer I spent a little time seeking out what I could learn about the cause of the phenomenon – actually known in technical parlance as a ‘super bloom’[1].

First reports of a unique and special explosion of wildflowers came in the deserts of California and Arizona – just look at this photo from KQED, a San Francisco public media station:  https://ww2.kqed.org/science/2017/04/14/photos-your-pics-of-californias-super-bloom/.  Even Death Valley reported an ephemeral explosion of flowers.  NPR, the BBC, PBS, Mercury Valley News, the Smithsonian, Nat Geo – everybody was reporting on the displays.  Even NASA got into the act, with dramatic high-res satellite imagery of California’s flower displays from space shared by Planet Labs – a start-up founded by three ex-NASA engineers blowing up news sites, Facebook and Instagram.  (For some examples see this PBS story:  http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/heres-californias-super-bloom-looks-like-space/. )

I wasn’t really clued in that something extraordinary was underway until my third late-spring hike on my favorite Alpine Lakes, Rainier and Teanaway trails, and friends on my favorite hiking facebook pages were recording stunning flowerfields all over Washington too.

What’s going on here?  A similar story emerges in all the various news reports and science blogs.   From the deserts of Arizona and California to the Cascades, a particularly wet fall and winter season was followed by a cold snowy winter that locked more moisture into the ground.  Annual plants, as most wildflower species are, have seeds that lie dormant from the fall through the winter and early spring, sprouting when water and warm temperatures encourage seed germination.  Moderate spring temperatures and abundant moisture have supported good extended plant survival and growth, and the resulting plants responded with a particularly vigorous bloom.

The lessons?  (1) the next time we bemoan the long wet fall and winter, keep in mind that sometimes Mother Nature comes up with a special reward for our endurance!  (2) Get out there and smell the flowers!

[1]super bloom is a colloquial term used to define an explosion of wildflowers that exceeds typical spring blooms.

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