Magazine article Sunset

Where the Wildflowers Are

Magazine article Sunset

Where the Wildflowers Are

Article excerpt

The following nine Western locations ought to have good blooms this year. One flower (*) represents an average-or-worse year, two (**) mean a good year, and three (***) are for stellar bloom, the kind you might expect only every decade or two. For each area, we've also included a recipe for a great season. Our ratings and predictions are based on weather conditions at press time and the advice of about a dozen naturalists. When you visit, remember to respect private property, use backroads when you can, and take along a guidebook (the Peterson field guides are good) to help identify the flowers.

Pacific Northwest

RECIPE FOR A GREAT SEASON

In the Columbia Gorge, the 50-plus-mile-long channel carved by the Columbia River through the Cascade Range, a high percentage of the wildflowers are perennials. As such, they need average-or-above summer rain to build up roots for the following spring's display, plus a warming trend around flowering time. Normal winter rainfall is assumed.

East of the Cascades, winter snow cover has to fall on already-wet soil. If it falls on dust and stays frozen, the following spring's bloom won't be as good.

Columbia River Gorge 1992 * 1993 *

Because so many habitats collide in the Columbia Gorge, a diverse array of wildflowers abounds. It's only 50 miles from the lush rain forests near the Bonneville Dam east to the arid grasslands, and just 5 to 6 miles from the 100-foot-elevation river to 4,000-plus-foot Cascade peaks.

To get there. From Portland, take Interstate 84 east to Cascade Locks and cross into Washington and onto State Highway 14. Annual plectritis, bluebells, paintbrush, and sunflowers are plentiful near Table Mountain (there's Pacific Crest Trail access at Bonneville Dam). Heading east, you'll see balsam root and groundsel on Dog and Wind mountains near Home Valley, and camas and lupines between Bingen and Lyle. To return, take U.S. Highway 97 south at Maryhill, cross the river to Biggs, Oregon, then head back west on I-84.

To find out more. About 8 miles west of Biggs, you can take a self-guided trail at The Nature Conservancy's Tom McCall Preserve in Rowena. Naturalists are on hand 11 to 4 weekends through May. To find out how the flowers are faring, call (503) 228-9561.

When you travel, take along Wildflowers of the Columbia Gorge, by Russ Jolley (Oregon Historical Society Press, Portland, 1988; $19.95). This excellent field guide includes a fine map.

Painted Hills: John Day Fossil Beds 1992 * 1993 ***

Minerals in the soil paint these hills all the time, but the added brocade of flowers makes them truly spectacular in spring. Yellow John Day chaenactis grow on the flats and in the dry ravines that crease the otherwise barren hills. Balsam root, penstemons, and a host of other flowers can also be found.

To get there. From Portland, head southeast to the center of the state on U.S. Highway 26. The Painted Hills are 3 miles west of Mitchell and 6 miles north of U.S. 26 on Lower Bridge Creek Road. A park ranger is available through spring.

To find out more. For a wildflower status report, call (503) 987-2333.

California

RECIPE FOR A GREAT SEASON

It takes soaking rains that start in fall and return every three weeks or so through March to get things going, then enough spring warming to encourage flowering without burning blooms out.

Or so went the conventional wisdom. Then came the dry winter of 1990-91 followed by the March miracle rains. Within a month, flowers were blooming everywhere, but not always in the expected combinations or proportions. On the Carrizo Plain, for example, snapless snapdragons that hadn't been seen since 1952 bloomed heavily.

Late rainfall favors ephemerals, such as goldfields, annuals that can go from seed to flower to seed again in five to six weeks. Rainfall that starts early favors flowers such as California poppies, which benefit from a longer growing season. …

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