Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Photo Essay: The Wildflower Blanket at Tejon Ranch



Back East, we call wildflowers "weeds."

But out in the West, wildflowers are an event. And in seasons that are too dry like this one, or too wet like the past two since I moved to LA, finding more than just a few sporadic outcroppings deserves a celebration.

After all, people travel far and wide to see wildflowers in places like Anza-Borrego (where camera-toting tourists abound) and Death Valley.

I have yet to see anything worth the drive at the Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve. But I've got my eye out.

So I was surprised to see Tejon Ranch - the largest contiguous parcel of privately-owned property in the State of California - blanketed by wildflowers this weekend, when I wasn't even expecting to see any there. I wasn't even there for the wildflowers, but rather, a cultural history tour of the San Joaquin Valley - whatever that meant. I just knew we'd be carpooling in 4WD Conservancy-owned vehicles, which meant offroading somewhere new, and therefore worth a day trip.



But it was with great pleasure that I welcomed fields of Owl's Clover (Castilleja exserta), in abundance...



...the white-tipped, pink and maroon puffballs that are common to the nearby Antelope Valley, and can extend as far as the neighboring Mojave Desert.



The yellow-speckled fields in the lower elevations can be attributed to fiddlenecks (likely Amsinckia eastwoodiae)...



...whose yellow and orange-tinged petals might confuse the distant spectator into mistaking them for the California poppy...



...or even varieties of daisies or mustard.



Upon close inspection, other species and colors can be discovered, that aren't necessarily as visible from afar...



...like the California native Bird's eye gilia (Gilia tricolor)...



...and other purplish blooms...



...like the Red maids (Calandrinia ciliata) which aren't very red...



...and the wild hyacinth (Dichelostemma capitatum)...



...also native to California.





If you see a swath of purplish blue or bluish purple on the hillside in the Tehachapi Mountains, San Joaquin or Antelope Valleys, or anywhere in northern Los Angeles County / southern Kern County up along the 5, it's probably Benthem's Lupine (Lupinus benthamii)...



...the "wolf" of wildflowers...



...which populates higher elevations than the fiddlenecks...



...but still not the tops of the ridges that surround Tejon Ranch.



The bluish lupine, however, contrasts against its surrounding fields...



...white with an abundance of the popcorn flower (genus Plagiobothrys).



A member of the forget-me-not family Boraginaceae (the same family as fiddlenecks), the popcorn flower's exact species is difficult to identify, since more than 40 of them can be found in California alone.



One species that's difficult to even find in the field at all is the threatened striped adobe lily (Fritillaria striata), which, endemic to California as well, grows in adobe clay soils...



...but its perennial distribution has been depleted by livestock grazing (primarily cattle), an activity prevalent at Tejon Ranch. Those that don't get eaten get trampled.



At first we only found a few of these lilies, making sure to stay on the road to take a look at and photograph them, tiptoeing gingerly around the ones that had sprouted in the grass median between the tire tracks in the road. And then on our way back down from the ridge, we happened upon an ample supply of them in one field, on a north-facing slope, where we rolled down our car windows and breathed them in, the most stunning olfactory experience of our excursion.

The wildflowers are perennials, genetically programmed to reappear year after year. Their livelihood, however, depends greatly on available moisture, sun exposure, soil quality, and other environmental conditions, so their annual appearance is not guaranteed. Far from it: you know it's spring in California when wildflower hunting season opens, and the reports start rolling in, and if you're lucky enough to encounter some of them, the sneezing begins.

But it's not always, not every year, not everywhere.

Stay tuned for a more thorough visual tour of our cavalcade through Tejon Ranch.

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