White-lined sphinx moth caterpillars ravage the evening primrose outside Borrego Springs.
  • White-lined sphinx moth caterpillars ravage the evening primrose outside Borrego Springs.
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By early April, the Anza-Borrego superbloom was all but over. Yellow puffs of blooming brittlebush still dotted the mountains on approach, and orange-petaled spindles still tipped the ocotillos’ tall tendrils, but the carpet of flowers on the valley floor was tattered and faded. Even so, there were souls willing to make the pilgrimage.

“We stopped up in the mountains on our way here,” says Ann, on holiday from England with her husband Chris and visiting her daughter Carrie, who lives in San Diego. “Carrie didn’t think it was anything special, but the stuff right by the side of the road was phenomenal, and nothing I had seen before. I’m sotted with flowers. We go on holidays where I do perhaps 500 yards in a day, mostly on my knees with a loupe” — a small magnifying glass such as a jeweler might use — “looking at individual flowers.”

Now she is in the ocotillo forest south of Borrego Springs, peering into blossoms while Chris takes close-ups with a Panasonic bridge camera. “I think the very best photos are if you can get right down inside the flower,” says Ann, “because then you show it to people and they say, ‘What is it?’ It’s a whole other world.”

Chris has no plans to share his photos on social media. “You could put a couple on Facebook,” offers Carrie. “He’s never done anything on Facebook,” answers Ann. “I think we ought to pick, say, 20 photos from the whole holiday and put them in a book.”

North of the city along Henderson Canyon Road, Carlsbad botanist Jim Bartel, here with his brother and their wives, is pleased to discover a fanleaf crinklemat — “an underappreciated ‘belly plant’” — poking through the damp grains. He, too, takes a closeup; he, too, has no plans to post it anywhere.

“I don’t know why we do it,” he says. “We like being out here. Whenever it’s a good year, my wife and I come out. We’ll drive off to Death Valley for the wildflowers.”

“California is a dry state,” offers his brother. “It’s easy to appreciate a giant redwood any day of the year. For this, you have to work at it.”

Some sand verbena and desert sunflowers are hanging on, thanks to moisture held in the sandy draw. But no amount of moisture could have preserved the evening primrose. “We were walking through, and we just happened on this spot. Right now, there are hundreds of caterpillars on these plants. But in a day or two, they’ll have stripped these plants bare. We just watched them scampering across the sand, heading from one feast to the next.”

The caterpillars are the huge and gaudy forerunners of the white-lined sphinx moth, and it takes only a moment’s steady inspection before their amazing numbers and industry begin to register. They really do scamper and whip themselves about as they feed; they have none of the coastal caterpillar’s sleepy deliberation. The days are getting hot and death is coming. On the ground below, an orange beetle drags the stiff carcass of some distant relative into the shade.

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