Thursday, March 3, 2016

Super Bloom in Death Valley

I was visiting family in Los Angeles when someone said “super bloom.”  Turns out that the expression refers to an intense flowering in Death Valley. In November of 2015 heavy rainfall in the desert set the stage for an eruption of flowers in the National Park.  Los Angeles news sources featured nearly daily accounts that described this year’s flowering as a once-in-a-generation event.  Even though it meant a five-hour drive through dense traffic, we decided not to miss it. 

Demand for viewing the super bloom had exhausted the supply of rooms in the Park’s three hotels, but we were able to reserve two nights at the Shoshone Inn just outside the southeast entrance.  Shoshone, population 31, is a remnant of what was once a mining area.  The town features the Inn, a general store and Post Office, the Crowbar Restaurant & Saloon, an RV park, and a thermal spring.  Maps of the area show access to the eastern side of the National Park via California Highway 178, but the November rains that set off the super bloom also washed out sections of the road, requiring an hour’s detour north to Death Valley Junction.

We stopped first at Zabriskie Point, a spot named for a mining administrator in the early 20th century, now best know for the 1970 film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.  Even sharing the view with a large group of Road Scholar tourists could not diminish its beauty.  The “point” itself is a sharp upcropping of blonde schist framed by dark-colored deposits of volcanic lava and backdropped by the blue silhouettes of the Panamint Mountains. No flowers yet, though.

At Furnace Creek a Park Service Ranger offered us advice based on where the most intense colors had been reported and directed us south on California 178, passable as far as the Badwater salt flats.  As we drove, the eastern side of the rocky surface of the valley floor softened with an overlay of yellow flowers.  Closer inspection revealed that the carpet-like appearance was loosely woven, intermittent plants rising above the desert floor.  A wildflower guide purchased at Furnace Creek helped us identify the yellow flowers as Desert Gold, a plant that displays bright petals and seeds on a spindly, brown stem.  We also saw the violet-cupped Desert Five-Spot and Purple Mat, with its tiny, star-figured blossoms.

At Badwater a Ranger led a walking tour of the salt flats that fan out from the highway.  Many of the questions she fielded concerned the flowers rather than the salt formation.  From her explanation we learned that a super bloom actually has two stages.  The heavy fall rains rinse away a thick seed covering, setting the stage for the flowers that we saw in February. But this initial gambit must be followed up by subsequent moisture that allows the early flowers to survive and for other species to erupt.  The Ranger expressed concern that without a rain before the first of March, the “super bloom” would not fully develop.

Wonder what happened.