Wildflowers: Fizzle or fantastic?
By Science Director Emeritus Michael White, Ph.D. and Biologist Mitchell Coleman, M.S.
Here we are at the start of another wildflower season!
The plants found in Tejon Ranch grasslands are mostly annual species, meaning they germinate from a seed in the soil, quickly grow to maturity, reproduce (dropping their seeds for future cycles), and die, all in the same year. In many parts of the country, including parts of California such as the high Sierra Nevada, vegetation goes dormant in winter. However, in parts of California with a Mediterranean climate, fall and winter precipitation actually start this annual growth cycle, and we see germination of many annuals not long after water begins to hit the ground.
A mix of annual grasses and forbs in the White Wolf area of Tejon Ranch. The small white-petaled plants are popcorn flower, the yellows are fiddlenecks, and the pinks are redstem filaree. These annuals are often the first to germinate after a precipitation event.
These annual plants include both grasses and the broad-leaved plants called forbs that produce our showy wildflowers. In our San Joaquin grasslands, almost all the native plants we see are forbs (although there are also non-native forbs), while virtually all the annual grass species that occur here are not native to North America. Throughout Tejon Ranch, native wildflowers (forbs), like popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys sp.), fiddleneck (Amsinckia sp.) and blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum), are a part of the native biodiversity that we are charged with enhancing. Wildflower blooms are also some of the most popular resources for visitors to the Ranch.
A fiddleneck in the Old Headquarters area of Tejon Ranch. Fiddleneck is generally one of the first native forbs to germinate after a precipitation event.
Winter is the time Tejon Ranch Conservancy staff start speculating on the spring wildflower bloom. We wait anxiously for news of further precipitation events rolling in from the Pacific, which tend to increase the amount of rainfall in the southern part of the state. More rain means more flowers, right? Well, not always.
A very dry year can certainly depress the wildflower bloom, but one interesting aspect is that the timing and patterns of weather (rainfall and temperature) can affect the abundance of grasses versus forbs, and thus the wildflower display that we see in the spring. In years when weather patterns favor grasses over forbs, we may have a lot of annual plant growth, but have poor wildflower displays (even with lots of rain!). Research suggests that early rain, for example during October and November, encourages annual grass growth, whereas when fall months are drier, we see more forbs.
A mature blue dick on the Antelope Valley side of the Ranch.
So, what will this year’s spring bloom look like? The safe answer is “let’s wait and see.” Thus far, we have had a wet January and February. Things are now greening up quickly on the Ranch, but we are still early in the season. However, if we were betting people, we’d say, “Dust off your cameras and wildflower field guides, and hang on for a colorful annual ride!”
Want to see wildflowers on Tejon?
It's still a smidge too early to guess when and where wildflowers will be. To keep informed about the wildflowers and when opportunities exist to see them on the Ranch, like our page on Facebook, join our mailing list, and check our calendar regularly.