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WILDFLOWER FLOURISHES AND FLOPS

SONORAN DESERT: LOWER COLORADO RIVER VALLEY

Wildflower location map Most of the flower displays shown here were at the following localities:
1: The Coachella Valley (Palm Springs, Banning Pass, Indio, etc.)

2: Eastern San Diego County, esp. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

3: El Gran Desierto, including the Pinacate volcanic field

4: The Mohawk Dunes, a northern extension of the Gran Desierto.



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Tecolote campground in the Pinacate in March of a normal, dry year.  Ocotillo almost always flowers but there were no annuals this year.

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The same area in March of 1998, one of the wettest years on record

Yuma Rainfall (inches):
 SEPOCTNOVDECJANFEBMARTOTALQUALITY
1964 0.062.470.91000.1403.58GOOD?
196500.240.220.090.560.380.041.53POOR
1966000.581.670.410.170.062.89POOR?
19670.040.0300.020.2500.070.41POOR
19681.9701.450.6500.270.334.67GOOD?
19690000.0600.560.821.44POOR
19700.230.011.660.6700.560.823.95FAIR


Wildflower patches were few in 1970. The areas shown here probably received extra rain from isolated showers or runoff that collected in drainages.

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A wash full of Mimulus bigelovii (monkeyflower) in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA.

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El Gran Desierto dunes

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Some washes in the Pinacate supported stands of annuals. These two had different soil textures and were covered with either Baileya pauciradiata (desert marigold) or Oenothera deltoides (dune evening-primrose).

Yuma Rainfall (inches):
 SEPOCTNOVDECJANFEBMARTOTALQUALITY
19710.020.02 0.020.010.04 0.030 0.14 POOR


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This is what a year with almost no rain looks like. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Yuma Rainfall (inches):
 SEPOCTNOVDECJANFEBMARTOTALQUALITY
19721.27000.150001.42POOR
197302.490.190.060.030.500.954.22GOOD


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Banning Pass near Palm Springs is on the extreme western edge of the Sonoran Desert. Storms funnel through the pass from the coast and drop perhaps twice as much rain here as Palm Springs gets in the rain shadow of the San Jacinto Mts.

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A hillside covered with flowers. Mt San Jacinto is across the valley.

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This hillside is coarse loose gravel; almost the only perennial vegetation is the teddy bear chollas seen among the flowers. The yellow ones are Coreopsis bigelovii and the blue are Phacelia campanularia (desert blue bells). The deep blue is difficult to capture on film.

Algodones Dunes
The Algodones Dunes in California west of Yuma, Arizona were carpeted with dune evening primrose.

Mohawk Dunes
The Mohawk Dunes east of Yuma were also wet and colorful, with more sand verbena than primrose. See more images of the desert and other places at the Ramblin' Cameras website

Yuma Rainfall (inches):
 SEPOCTNOVDECJANFEBMARTOTALQUALITY
1974000.0500.6400.120.81POOR


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Even in dry years some places may get lucky. In 1974 the Coachella Valley (e.g., Palm Springs) received just enough rain to grow some flowers on the dunes. The dark green mounds are Russian thistle (tumbleweed), a pernicious exotic weed that in wetter years can smother native wildflowers.

Yuma Rainfall (inches):
 SEPOCTNOVDECJANFEBMARTOTALQUALITY
19750.100.1300.1400.010.210.59POOR
19760.1500.030.440.031.220.021.89POOR
19770.310.350.390.640.030.010.041.77POOR


Yuma received little rain in the winter of 1976-77. But in September 1976 the remains of Hurricane Kathleen dropped several inches of rain in the desert to the west. The result was stunning.

Anza-Borrego Rainfall (inches):
  SEP OCT NOV DEC JAN FEB MAR TOTAL QUALITY
1977 SPECTACULAR


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Aerial views of the Palen sand dunes near Desert Center, CA. The white patches are Oenothera deltoides (dune evening-primrose).

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On the ground the scene was incredible.

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Hayfield Dry Lake west of Desert Center, CA filled with water from Hurricane Kathleen. The next spring the lake bed was a nearly impenetrable mass of Argemone munita (prickly poppy) three feet tall. I have never seen flowers in this lake before or since 1977.

Yuma Rainfall (inches):
 SEPOCTNOVDECJANFEBMARTOTALQUALITY
19780.460.2400.581.380.780.183.62SPECTACULAR


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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park had a banner year. The first photo is a hill of Eschscholtzia parishii (relative of California poppy); the second is a hill of Mimulus bigelovii (desert monkeyflower).

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Banning Pass exploded again in 1978. This hill is accessed by the Verbenia (sic) Avenue exit of I-10. Coreopsis bigelovii and Phacelia campanularia.

Yuma Rainfall (inches):
 SEPOCTNOVDECJANFEBMARTOTALQUALITY
197900.580.370.702.120.020.173.96GOOD?
19800000.080.540.730.391.74POOR
19810000.090.200.100.691.08POOR
19820.0400.1100.270.141.181.74POOR


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The Pinacate turned very green in 1982; there must have been more rain here than in Yuma. But there were very few showy-flowered species among these carpets of annuals so little color developed except for the verdant green.

Yuma Rainfall (inches):
 SEPOCTNOVDECJANFEBMARTOTALQUALITY
19830.1600.462.090.520.540.193.96GOOD


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The dunes of the Gran Desierto were almost completely covered with annuals in 1983. I was too late to catch the color. 83res1t.jpg (37094 bytes)
Field of annual globemallow (Sphaeralcea cf. coulteri) on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation west of Tucson.

Yuma Rainfall (inches):
 SEPOCTNOVDECJANFEBMARTOTALQUALITY
19840.230.2100.950.14001.53POOR
19850.2100.531.570.070.140.042.56FAIR?
19861.230.400.530.190.070.280.142.84FAIR?
19870.350.010.110.230.080.3200.10POOR
19880.041.620.270.620.340.030.032.95FAIR?
198900.44000.6000.131.17POOR
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No annuals, but ocotillo almost never fails to bloom.

Yuma Rainfall (inches):
 SEPOCTNOVDECJANFEBMARTOTALQUALITY
1990000.0300.1800.080.29POOR

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In many years the Pinacate receive little or no rain. This is the normal condition for this extremely arid region of the Sonoran Desert.

Yuma Rainfall (inches):
 SEPOCTNOVDECJANFEBMARTOTALQUALITY
199100.9500.010.840.210.772.78POOR?


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In 1991 the Pinacate received just the right amount and timing of rain to sprout skeleton weeds (Eriogonum spp.). These plants are only a few inches tall and grew only where a layer of volcanic cinders mulched the fine silty soil below.

Yuma Rainfall (inches):
 SEPOCTNOVDECJANFEBMARTOTALQUALITY
19920.600.110.050.580.410.811.564.12FAIR?
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The Pinacate had a fairly wet year but most of the annuals were inconspicuous species. A lavender tint can be seen from the few Nama demissum (purple mat) showing through the taller plants. Compare with photo of the same site in 1998.

Yuma Rainfall (inches):
 SEPOCTNOVDECJANFEBMARTOTALQUALITY
199300.0101.651.691.220.384.95GOOD?
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Another wet year, but little seems to have come of it. This scene on the edge of the Gran Desierto is green with seedlings, but we haven’t found anyone who saw flower displays.

Yuma Rainfall (inches):
 SEPOCTNOVDECJANFEBMARTOTALQUALITY
19940.120.030.89000.260.121.42POOR
19951.44001.020.480.020.223.18GOOD?
1996000000.110.050.16POOR
19970.410000.450.0100.87POOR
19981.80002.430.041.980.086.33SPECTACULAR



This was by far the best year since 1979. In late September 1997 Hurricane Nora crossed the Baja California peninsula, travelled up the Gulf of California, came ashore near Puerto Peņasco, and its remnants continued to drop significant rain all the way to Death Valley. Then El Niņo took over and soaked the same area all winter. The whole Sonoran and Mohave deserts exploded into flowers.

Coachella V - Ingram
The Coachella Valley around Palm Springs California put on a great show. Shown here are purple sand verbena and yellow desert sunflowers. Image contributed by Stephen Ingram.

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A gravel plain near the Kofa Mts, western Arizona. Phacelia crenulata (caterpillar weed) with Rafinesquia neomexicana (desert chicory).

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El Gran Desierto east of San Luis RC, Sonora. Huge areas of this sand sea were carpeted with Abronia villosa (sand verbena) from November 1997 through March 1998. This photo was taken in March after half the sand verbena had dried out! In February the purple carpet was interrupted by the white of Oenothera deltoides (dune evening primrose) and Hesperocallis undulata (desert lily), and the yellow of Baileya pauciradiata (a desert marigold relative).

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Sand dunes in flower south of Laguna Salada, northern Baja California.

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The Mohawk Dunes in southwestern Arizona after the display was fading with March heat. (It’s difficult to catch flower displays at their peak since they usually last only a couple of weeks. To see sand verbena at its peak, go to the Baja California wildflower history page.)

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A field of Sphaeralcea cf. emoryi (a desert globemallow). This species grows most abundantly in the fine soil of dry lake beds. Nearly hidden among the taller mallows is Nama hispidum (sand bells) which is also restricted to fine-textured soils.

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The show in the normally parched Pinacate was mind-boggling. Most of the color in these images is Nama demissum (purple mat). The yellow flowers in the first image are Mentzelia multiflora (blazing star) and mostly Encelia farinosa (brittlebush) in the other three.

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The green patch in the background of the first image is Playa Diaz, a normally dust-dry lake bed completely devoid of perennial vegetation in the Pinacate. It flooded several times during this El Niņo year and by February it was as verdant as a golf course. In March it turned yellow with annual flowers (last two images). The dry lake in the foreground has a different soil and is carpeted with a single species, the perennial Tiquilia plicata.

Yuma Rainfall (inches):

 SEPOCTNOVDECJANFEBMARTOTALQUALITY
1999????????POOR
2000????????POOR*

* Winter 1999-2000 was extremely dry. But there were a few isolated storms that triggered small areas of wildflower blooms.


SURPRISE! Almost the entire 450-mile stretch of Interstate 10 between Tucson, Arizona and Palm Springs, California was parched and brown this winter. But an isolated storm brought rain to a tiny patch of sand dunes west of Blythe, California. These images were taken on December 27, 1999 at the Wiley's Well exit. The sand verbena (lavender) were past their peak and drying out, but the evening-primroses (white) and desert sunflowers (yellow) were just beginning to flower. There was a similar patch of wildflowers in the remote center of the otherwise shriveled Vizcaino desert in Baja California.
After a nearly rainless winter, a major storm in March drenched much of the Sonoran Desert. Such late rains do not trigger germination of annuals in the desert of southern Arizona or California, but the same species respond differently in more arid subregions. Puerto Lobos is on the coast of Sonora at the boundary between the Lower Colorado River Valley and Central Gulf Coast subregions. The past few years have been so dry that many of the shrubs were dying from drought. The March rain triggered mass germination of annuals and perennial shrubs (below). This area should have turned purple with lupines in April, but it is so remote that most likely no photographer was there to document it.

Mass germination of seeds

Seedlings close-up