Why There Won’t Be A Superbloom This Year

9:55 minutes

A desert landscape filled with blooming pink and white flowers.
Sand verbena and primrose growing in California. Credit: Dr. Naomi Fraga

In California, wildflowers are in bloom.

Last year, there was a superbloom. Though there’s no official criteria, a superbloom is when there is an above average number of wildflowers blooming, mostly in desert regions of California and Arizona. It’s an explosion of color in regions that typically have sparse vegetation.

About a month ago, a few news articles hinted that maybe, just maybe, we were in for another superbloom year. Turns out we’re not.

Who decides when there’s a superbloom anyway? And why did this year turn out not to be a superbloom after all?

To answer those questions and provide an update on the state of California’s wildflowers, SciFri producer Kathleen Davis talks with Dr. Naomi Fraga, director of conservation programs at the California Botanic Garden, and research assistant professor at Claremont Graduate University.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Naomi Fraga

Dr. Naomi Fraga is the Director of Conservation Programs at the California Botanic Garden and a Research Assistant Professor at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California.

Segment Transcript

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Let’s continue with our theme of all things spring. We’re talking about wildflowers. Head out to California and they are blooming. Last year, you may have heard about a superbloom, which is when colorful wildflowers cover the barren desert regions of the state. About a month ago, I was excited to read a few news articles hinting that maybe, just maybe we might be in for another superbloom year. It turns out that we’re not quite there yet.

But it made me think, who decides when there’s a superbloom anyway? And why did this year turn out to not be a superbloom after all? Joining me now to answer those questions and update us on the state of California wildflowers is my guest, Dr. Naomi Fraga, director of conservation programs at the California Botanic Garden and research assistant professor at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. Dr. Fraga, welcome to Science Friday.

NAOMI FRAGA: Thank you for having me.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: It’s great to have you. So, explain to me, what is a superbloom actually?

NAOMI FRAGA: Well, there’s no strict definition of a superbloom. It’s really a term that’s used to describe an above average wildflower year. And so, what is an average wildflower year? Well, that’s really hard to describe. So it’s very difficult to actually quantify a superbloom status.

When we look at the landscape, what we see in a superbloom are hundreds or thousands of acres of wildflowers simultaneously blooming. And so the landscape just explodes into color. And we oftentimes have lots of different species co-flowering, and it’s just a huge, beautiful biological event.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: I mean, who makes the decision, then, if there’s a superbloom or not? Is there some sort of, like, regulatory superbloom council out there?

NAOMI FRAGA: Right. Yeah, all of the botanists, we huddle in a room and form a committee. No, based on people’s past experiences with wildflower displays, we can kind of assess what is pretty typical in the environment and what seems more extraordinary. And so while there is no formal declaration as to when a superbloom happens or when a superbloom is not happening, I think last year, we all agree that there was a superbloom, or for the most part, botanists agreed.

For one is, we came out of a very significant drought. And so getting those series of atmospheric rivers was just really filled up our souls, you know, and also the flowers did as well. And so I think the superbloom is as much of a biological phenomenon as it is sort of a cultural and an emotional connection with nature.

And so while this year maybe doesn’t rise to the same scale or intensity of the flower bloom last year, it’s still going to be incredibly beautiful. We’ve still got a fairly significant amount of precipitation in California, which means we’re going to have a really nice bloom year. And a really nice bloom year is very super to many people. And so, you know, superbloom or not, it’s still a wonderful time to get out and explore flowers.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So despite it not being a superbloom, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t, as you say, some very beautiful and abundant wildflowers to see this year. Can you kind of talk us through what some of those species are?

NAOMI FRAGA: Yeah. There’s a lot of different plants out there blooming right now. One of the plants that I’ve seen quite a bit of is desert gold. Its scientific name is Geraea canescens and it’s in the sunflower family. This is a plant that’s very characteristic of the Mojave Desert and it’s into the Sonoran Desert as well. It is making huge, gold fields, and it’s really incredible.

Another plant that I have seen blooming is the brown eyed primrose and the yellow sun cups. These are both in the evening primrose family. They’re both in the genus chylismia. The desert gold and the primroses benefited both from our summer storms and our winter storms. And it’s really been an unusual phenomenon where some of these spring wildflowers actually germinated in the fall season in response to the summer rain and have overwintered, and are still going seven months later here in the spring. So there are many very large and robust blooms out there.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And I hear that you have a favorite wildflower, which is the monkeyflower. That’s not something that I’ve heard of, I have to say. What are monkeyflowers? Tell us a little bit about them, why they’re your favorite.

NAOMI FRAGA: Yeah. Well, it’s a group of plants that I study, so monkeyflowers are in the lopseed family Phrymaceae. And they compose a very rich group of plants that live primarily in California in Western North America. And so there are over 100 species, and I study a group of monkeyflowers, many of which are rare. And even though they’re considered rare, many of them make their own what you might call, mini superblooms. They’re very small plants, maybe some of them stand only an inch high.

They’re in this category that we call belly flowers. That means you have to get down on your belly to see them up close. And so in years where we have average to below average rainfall, we oftentimes don’t get very large displays of them. But in years of above average rainfall, we can get whole carpets of these monkeyflowers. So it’s really pretty spectacular.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So I’m going to put my cynic hat on for just a second. Wildflowers are obviously really beautiful and it makes it easy to care about them when they look so nice. But what is the role of wildflowers in the ecosystem? I mean, should we care about them beyond their aesthetic purposes?

NAOMI FRAGA: Wildflowers, while they are clearly a beautiful component of ecosystems, they also play a really important role especially to wildlife and pollinators. So in the Mojave Desert, we have this keystone species called the desert tortoise. The desert tortoise’s primary diet is wildflowers. And it forages on desert plantain and desert primrose and bushmallow, and all these really incredible wildflowers that people like to ogle at.

But also, they’re really important to pollinators as well. And as we know, pollinators are really at high risk with respect to climate change and other land use changes. And wildflowers provide really important pollen and nectar sources for them.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And even though your expertise is in California, I would imagine that those benefits extend across the country, Midwest, East Coast, South, all those places.

NAOMI FRAGA: Yeah, really, across the globe. I mean, wildflowers are essential components of ecosystems and they provide really important resources to wildlife. And they also provide us with a sense of place. I mean, the California poppy is such a characteristic plant that people think of when they think of California. And so they really help us understand where we’re living.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So, what role does climate change play in wildflower blooms?

NAOMI FRAGA: Well, these wildflowers are really dependent upon rainfall and cues from temperature as well. And so with changes in precipitation patterns and increases in temperature, we might see that some wildflowers would be greatly affected where the right cues are not there to trigger their germination.

We’re also seeing some unusual patterns. Earlier, I mentioned that some of these wildflowers are germinated in the late fall, which is really unusual, and that they have persisted through the winter season. So that is such an unusual phenomenon because most of those wildflowers usually germinate like in December and not in August.

And also, the temperatures were so mild, they didn’t get cold enough to kill off those wildflowers that they persisted over the winter months. So that was just something unusual that I had not personally observed before, that I’m really interested in seeing if I could find evidence that that has occurred before.

But then also, with increased drought, we might not see some of these wildflowers for five or more years. And so they have mechanisms to deal with that. They can lay dormant in the soil, so they form a really massive seed bank. And they can live many decades waiting for just the right conditions. But those conditions might drastically change between the time in which they were born and when they might be able to germinate.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So what can we do to protect these wildflowers?

NAOMI FRAGA: Well, there’s a lot of things that we can do. One of the most essential things we need, really, is land protection. These plants need habitat. They need land to exist on. And so ensuring that we have areas conserved and preserved for their protection is really essential.

In Southern California, a lot of development has already occurred and we have whole preserves dedicated to these wildflowers, like the Antelope Poppy Preserve is dedicated to the California poppy. Carrizo Plain is an incredible place to see wildflowers. And so when people go and visit these already protected places, it’s really important that we ensure that we steward those lands and provide the utmost respect to these ecosystems, and we don’t trample on them, and we don’t impact their reproduction. Because they need to produce fruit, set seed in order for them to continue in future generations.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Well, that’s all the time that we have. I would like to thank my guest, Dr. Naomi Fraga, director of conservation programs at the California Botanic Garden, and research assistant professor at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. Thank you so much for joining us.

NAOMI FRAGA: Thank you.

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