November fires bring May flowers.
In the wake of wildfires—followed by lots of rain—Los Angeles might be treated to an extraordinary display of wildflowers this spring.
It’s too soon to predict whether there will be a super bloom as remarkable as the one that covered the region in 2017. But if the weather doesn’t get too hot and if rain continues to fall over the next couple of months, odds are favorable that a rainbow of blooms will carpet Southern California’s hillsides, mountains, and deserts.
“We’re optimistic that it’s going to be a good one,” says Mark Mendelsohn, a National Park Service biologist stationed in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
The show will be especially dazzling in the chaparral and coastal sage scrub habitats torched by the Woolsey Fire in November. The 97,000-acre inferno chewed through 88 percent of National Park Service lands in the Santa Monica Mountains.
“Flowers after fire are spectacular,” says Stephen Davis, a biology professor at Pepperdine University.
For some species of dormant flowers that bank away seeds in the soil, fire is a cue to sprout. It signals that the canopy above the soil is about to be decimated, meaning the seedlings will have less competition for sunshine.
The heat will melt and crack their thick, waxy seed coats, allowing the water and oxygen they need to germinate to seep in. Sometimes the chemicals in the smoke are a cue.
These pretty but short-lived “fire followers”—like Plummer’s mariposa lily, cliff aster, and blue dicks—are typically only seen in the spring immediately following a wildfire.
Other species that were reduced to ash already dropped their seeds and will resprout from the underground parts that survived the blaze.
“It’s a miracle of nature,” Davis says. “We call it the rejuvenation of the chaparral.”
It’s not just the fire. Rain is a key ingredient, too, and it has been abundant so far during the current wet season. Since October, the start of the water year, 12.04 inches has fallen in Downtown Los Angeles—almost double the average of 7.5 inches.
“This year we’ve gotten quite a bit of rain by our standards, and that makes the chaparral and the wildflowers very happy,” says Los Angeles city park ranger Albert Torres.
In verdant Griffith Park, bigpod ceanothus (a white lilac) is already in full bloom, and invasive mustard is starting to sprout.
“It’s early for blooms around here—Fern Canyon has a butterfly garden and nothing was blooming yet,” says Casey Schreiner, editor of Modern Hiker. “But our native plants are loving the rain. There’s a ton of new growth happening right now, even in the Woolsey Fire burn scar. I was up in Upper Las Virgenes last week and saw lots of new growth on the oaks, sagebrush, and black sage.”
Desert USA reports that in Joshua Tree, the park “has a green floor virtually all over,” and is dotted with “at least a few belly-flowers” and “early flowers of indigo bush, desert lavender, and other shrubs.”
But for a really magnificent spring wildflower display, the weather needs to cooperate for at least several more weeks.
“Right now they’re already looking good with how much green they have, but that stuff could die really quickly, if we get our hot weather again,” says Mendelsohn. “It definitely depends on our continued winter-like weather.”
If the rain keeps coming, areas with meadows or grasslands like Paramount Ranch, Circle X Ranch, and Chesebro Canyon—especially in places that burned—will look “really nice in late spring,” he says.
“Malibu Creek State Park will be really, really hot, because it burned quite a bit, and there’s a high diversity of species there,” he says. “That will be the crème de la crème.”