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Don't let this season's lackluster bloom in the desert discourage you from seeking out spring wildflowers. Some of the most colorful and diverse displays of native flowers can be found right in our own urban back yard, on the pine-clad bluffs of Torrey Pines State Reserve.

Good to excellent displays of wildflowers typically occur in the reserve starting sometime in February or March. This year's late and spotty rainfall may have set the stage for a reasonably good bloom in April and May.

The 20 or more kinds of plants obviously in flower along the Torrey Pines trails at any one time are only a part of the more than 350 different plants identified throughout the entire 1750-acre reserve. These, in turn, represent approximately 20 percent of all the known plants native to San Diego County. The county itself, some 1600 times larger in area than the whole reserve, is widely regarded as being the most geographically and botanically diverse county within the continental United States.

Even without its wildflowers, the reserve protects some of the finest stands of rare Torrey pines, native to only this site and Santa Rosa Island, off the Santa Barbara coast. Two severe droughts occurring within the past 20 years, accompanied by bark-beetle infestations, have killed many of the larger Torrey pines, but new seedlings are thriving. Take a close-up look at a Torrey pine and you'll discover its unusually long needles -- up to nearly a foot in length -- arranged in bundles of five. These were prized by the Kumeyaay Indians for basket-making.

The tight little network of meandering trails over the eroded bluffs will take you nearly everywhere in the reserve. It's important that you stick to these trails and eschew shortcuts and cross-country travel. The thin soils are easily eroded without the protection of untrammeled vegetation. Choose the Guy Fleming and Parry Grove trails for the best wildflowers, or head to overlooks such as Razor Point, Yucca Point, and Broken Hill for the best vistas of plunging cliffs and the ocean horizon.

Torrey Pines State Reserve is open from 8 a.m. to sunset. Avoid the more crowded weekend if you can, or else get an early start on Saturday or Sunday morning. The reserve's museum makes a worthwhile stop, with natural history exhibits and notebooks full of captioned wildflower photographs to browse.

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