'The Borrego Valley is a harsh place to make a living," says Anza-Borrego Desert State Park's Brian Cahill. "Creatures have to be opportunistic to survive." For wildflowers, a two- to six-week window of opportunity comes each year as winter ends and spring begins. Due to heavy rains and mild temperatures, however, park officials expect an earlier and more abundant wildflower season this year. Thousands of desert lily deep bulbs have been in the ground several years waiting for their chance to bloom. Spaniards called the plants "ajo (garlic) lilies" because of the taste of their bulbs, which Native Americans used for food. When the plants bloom in the next few weeks, their cream-colored, funnel-shaped flowers will give off a delicate sweet scent, according to Cahill.
Anza-Borrego Park tentatively lists the dates of this year's wildflower bloom as February 1 to April 30. Drivers through the park, says Cahill, will be able to see at a glance twenty acres of desert floor blanketed in magenta-colored sand verbena.
But hundreds of other species will be on display. "If you drive along at 55 miles per hour to see the flowers," says park interpreter Tish Wagoner, "that's like looking at a tidepool from the freeway. You're going to see a lot more if you go study the pool -- the same with our wildflowers. People need to get out of their cars."
Wagoner describes the fillaree as a "pinkish-purple 'belly flower,' because you have to get down on your belly to look at it." Other flowers that capture her attention are the phacelia of the heliotrope group, the dune evening primrose, the brown-eyed evening primrose, Spanish needles, desert dandelions, the spectacle pod, and lupine. Anza-Borrego Park's website lists additional species: brittlebush, ground cherry, baby ocotillo, wishbone, sacred datura, barrel cactus, the rock daisy, and desert apricot.
"I've never seen the desert looking so green," Wagoner tells me during our mid-January conversation. "It's a combination of grasses and seedlings that are going to come up and blossom. The seedlings are waiting for the sunshine. We've had 8.11 inches of rain to date, which is more than twice what we had all last year."
But some blooms are already out. "We never expected any flowers in January," says Wagoner. "Some were blooming in December." How long might the season last? "I have no idea this year. We haven't had high temperatures yet, although they say we're going to hit the 90s soon. We're hoping that isn't damaging. Too much heat can disturb the seedlings."
Even the tiny fishhook cactus is already flowering. "They have little crowns of flowers," says Wagoner. "Most cacti don't bloom until March or April."
I ask Wagoner if Anza-Borrego is unusual among deserts. "Anza-Borrego is called a 'rain shadow desert,'" she says, "because we're so close to the mountains that the rain gets caught on them, and we don't get much of it here." So the flora of Anza-Borrego is both like and unlike that of other desert regions. As evidence of the differences, Wagoner cites an absence of the tall saguaro cactus, famous in Arizona. "We say it doesn't know how to swim," she remarks in reference to its rarity west of the Colorado River.
Bees love the wildflower bloom in Anza-Borrego. "But so do Sphinx moth caterpillars," says Wagoner. "In mid-March last year we had beautiful wildflowers -- all these Sphinx moth larvae hatched and the roads were virtually undulating in caterpillars. There were millions of them. Then we got two weeks of intense heat and our wildflowers disappeared. The caterpillars are born to feed on the wildflowers."
The black-tailed jackrabbit is one of the few mammals that eat the wildflowers. "The cactus blossoms do get eaten by little rodents that can get in between their spines," says Wagoner. "But we don't have deer down this far. We get the peninsula bighorn sheep, but they eat the tender shoots of shrubs rather than wildflowers."
What are the best places in or near Anza-Borrego Park to view the wildflowers? "Mostly the washes and the foothill areas," says Wagoner.
Jerry Schad's Afoot and Afield in San Diego County mentions over 80 cross-country trips in the park. But he tells me that Borrego Palm Canyon is one of the better places to go. "Later in the season," says Schad, "another good place a little higher up, about 1500 feet, is Plum Canyon south of Highway 78. You can drive in a ways, park, and then walk."
At the higher elevations in Anza-Borrego Park, such as the 2500-foot Culp Valley, says Wagoner, one finds species not present on the valley floor: creosote bush, brittle bush, rose mallow, rock pea, and the poisonous dwaule or deadly nightshade. The word "dwaule" comes from the Dutch dwaul, meaning "to wander" or "to be delirious." -- Joe Deegan