Yellow brittlebush flowers.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KATE ANDERSON
A vibrant crush of color blankets much of the Coachella Valley every few years as wildflowers of varying shapes and hues reach skyward, coaxed from the earth after an unusually wet winter.
On these special years, the desert landscape becomes nature’s canvas for only a few weeks, its subtle shades of brick, beige, and brown temporarily muted by a chromatic crescendo known as a “superbloom.” A natural phenomenon that periodically occurs in semi-arid regions, superblooms manifest when specific factors combine: a perfect storm of rain, heat, and mild winds.
According to desert ecologist James Cornett, author of Indian Uses of Desert Plants and several books about wildflowers, the kaleidoscopic carpet over the valley earlier this year was just shy of superbloom status with one exception: the jagged canyons of the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. “In my memory, it was one of the best years for wildflower displays in the Indian Canyons,” he says, recalling a virtual sea of white pin cushions, specifically Fremont’s pin cushion (named after one of California’s first senators), covering the rising slopes of Andreas, Murray, and Palm Canyons.
The distinctive flowers of the wild heliotrope in bloom.
Hartweg’s climbing milkweed.
Brittlebush dotted both sides of the access road that winds from the Indian Canyons entrance to storied Palm Canyon, a scenic, 15-mile-long wonderland awash in California fan palms and perennial streams flanked by rugged gorges. Barrel cactus blooms were on full display, illuminating the canyons with their bright yellow rings as desert mallow supplied pops of orange against the rugged patinaed terrain.
Where Palm Canyon fans out into a generous wash, dark purple mat and monkey flowers anointed the typically subdued landscape in regal splendor. “There are at least 50 species of flowering plants in the Indian Canyons alone when the conditions are right,” Cornett says.
Nestled between the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountain ranges, the Indian Canyons generally receive a fair share when the rains come. “Because the canyon area is in and immediately next to steep mountain slopes, you get all this orographic precipitation. As the air swirls around, it’s forced upward over the mountains. When it rises and cools, it condenses, and you get rain. The closer you are to the mountains, the better the chance for precipitation amounts that could trigger a superbloom.”
Cornett lives in Andreas Hills — a stone’s throw from the Indian Canyons in South Palm Springs — where he recorded twice the average rainfall at his home. “I have an official rain gauge in my backyard,” he says, “and we got about 6 inches just in the winter months alone. That’s double what we would normally receive.”
The unusually cool temperatures throughout fall, winter, and even into spring suppressed evaporation normal in typical years, allowing moisture to sink into the soil where wildflower seeds lay dormant. “If it’s too warm, most of the rain simply evaporates,” Cornett says.
Wind is a factor as well. “If it’s windy all the time, that tends to desiccate the landscape,” Cornett continues. “This winter was less windy than past winters; less wind means less evaporation and, therefore, more water to saturate the soil.”
Yellow brittlebush flowers blanket the desert floor during superblooms.
Desert verbena carpet sandy areas, especially dunes and washes, with clusters of aromatic pink-purple flowers after abundant winter rains.
Analyzing long-term rainfall statistics recorded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at Palm Springs International Airport, Cornett estimates that valleywide superblooms occur about every decade or so, usually beginning in January and lasting approximately six weeks. “Our bloom this year didn’t appear until March, much later than usual due to an abnormally cold January,” he explains. “By the first week of April, it definitely was starting to peter out.”
With an almost guaranteed El Niño cycle on the horizon, Cornett predicts above-average rainfall for the 2023–2024 winter season — welcome news for wildflower aficionados. “Superblooms in the Coachella Valley are almost always associated with an El Niño,” he confirms, his words pulsing with excitement. “In my view, the most impressive flower we see valleywide during a true superbloom is the Canterbury bell.” With light purple blooms about an inch and a half in length — which for desert flowers is considerable, Cornett attests — Canterbury bells favor the alluvial fans and hillsides of the Indian Canyons.
Springtime in Murray Canyon reveals a bright yellow expanse of blooming brittlebush, desert marigold, and apricot mallow, a native perennial herb that grows in the Southern California deserts.
However, superblooms are more than stunning to behold; they’re the backbone of global desert ecosystems. According to Cornett, when the flowers die, they go to seed and ultimately become buried in the top inch of soil creating a rich seed bank ready for the next significant drenching. In the meantime, these seeds nourish insects and small rodents that then support larger predators.
“Essentially, the seeds are waiting for another El Niño or wet year with double the rainfall,” Cornett says. “But while they’re waiting, kangaroo rats, pocket mice, and white-footed mice dig up and consume the seeds. Therefore, the snake, hawk, or owl that eats the rodent is basically kept alive by the seed bank.”
In short, those tiny seeds are a big deal in harsh environments. A robust super bloom year can sustain desert life for a decade or more, Cornett contends. Enter the harvester ant — a particular species prevalent in the Coachella Valley that relies on the seed bank for subsistence. In periods of extreme drought, these harvester ants may be the only food source available to other desert creatures, such as the side-blotched lizard, which sustains the next link on the food chain, then the next, all the way to the top.
Silver bush lupine.
The ancestors of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians understood the value in even the smallest of seeds. Deeply connected to the natural world, the Cahuilla’s use of desert flora for medicinal and spiritual purposes is well documented.
“There are at least 50 species of flowering plants in the Indian Canyons alone when the conditions are right. ”
Seeds from the chia wildflower were ground into flour, mixed with other plant-seed flour or water, then patted into cakes or made into a thick gruel. Beaver-tail cactus buds and fruits were boiled, roasted, or sometimes eaten raw after rolling them on the ground to remove tiny spines known as glochids. And chicory plants provided tea and flavor enhancement for other food sources. Medicinal applications of desert lavender included relief from headaches, fevers, inflammation, and respiratory ailments.
Wildflowers hold significance even in today’s modern world, often employed to honor the spirits of Cahuilla ancestors.
Fragile and fleeting above ground, resilient and generative below are these elusive wild blossoms. Whether a solitary stalk or part of a once-in-a-lifetime superbloom, wildflowers are the essence of flash and function, their short-lived beauty eclipsed by a much greater purpose: seeding life among the sand and rock.
This story originally appeared in Me Yah Whae: The Magazine of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Fall/Winter 2023.