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The Blooms in Anza-Borrego

Purple and yellow flowers bloom in the Anza-Borrego Desert, March 16, 2008.
Kevin Baird
Purple and yellow flowers bloom in the Anza-Borrego Desert, March 16, 2008.
The Blooms in Anza-Borrego
What's in bloom at the Anza-Borrego Desert? A park ranger joins the show to talk about the flora and fauna of the region.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Some people take a trip to Anza Borrego Desert every year to see the wildflowers. It's a yearly treat to usher in springtime in Southern California. But even if you've never seen the desert bloom, this may be a very good year to start. Our wet winter weather is ushering in a bumper crop of wildflowers. Joining me now to tell us about this wildflower season is my guest Park Ranger Jeri Zemon, who works at Anza-Borrego’s Desert State Park. And, Jeri, welcome to These Days.

JERI ZEMON (California State Park Ranger, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park): Thank you, Maureen. Thank you for inviting me.

CAVANAUGH: Now is this the peak of the wildflower season right now?

ZEMON: Not yet.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, wow. Okay.

ZEMON: It’s just starting. Things are greened up but the weather’s still a bit cool and we need a few days in the eighties to really get the peak going.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Now how do the wildflowers grow in the state park? Is it like a field of flowers?

ZEMON: In some places, especially in the sandy dune areas, yes, it is like a field of wildflowers once it gets going. And then in the canyons, it’s more going up the canyon hillsides, that kind of thing. So it just depends on the terrain.

CAVANAUGH: Now could you describe a few of the flowers that we might see when we visit the Anza-Borrego Desert?

ZEMON: Sure. There’s the lavender or pinkish sand verbena which grows kind of prostrate on the ground and spreads out. There’s the yellow brittle bush. There’s also the dune primrose, which is a yellow, bright yellow, kind of sunflower type of…

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

ZEMON: flower.


ZEMON: So there’s just a lot of variety.

CAVANAUGH: Now what are some of the features of these flowers that make them unique to the desert?

ZEMON: Well, the really special ones are the desert annuals and these are ones that spend most of their lives as seeds, living in the soil, just waiting for the right conditions. They can wait decades…


ZEMON: …for the right conditions for them to really kind of germinate and bloom.

CAVANAUGH: How much do the rains affect the blooms then? I mean, are these flowers – have they been waiting a long time?

ZEMON: Yeah. Yeah, some of them have. They’re – Particularly the desert annuals. The shrubs and the cactus will bloom almost every year but just depends on the rain how profuse the blooms are going to be. But the desert annuals are the ones that depend entirely on the rainfall, so at least a couple inches of rain to get them going. But this year with the El Nino, we’ve had actually over seven inches of rain…


ZEMON: …to date. Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: So how does that compare to the last few years?

ZEMON: Oh, it just – it’s amazing. We’ve had three years of drought and now all of a sudden all this rain. So it just changes everything, you know, for the spring season.

CAVANAUGH: Now, it’s important that the rains – not only that we’ve had a lot of rain here in San Diego but they’ve actually gotten over the mountains, right?

ZEMON: Exactly. Yeah. There’s the rain shadow effect, and the mountains that are west of us that kind of keep us separate from the rest of San Diego County…


ZEMON: …create the rain shadow effect so most of the time the rain doesn’t even reach us. The clouds will kind of cleave the mountains and maybe drop some snow in Julian and Ranchita and it doesn’t really make it all the way out east. But this year, with the low pressure, the storms have been making it out here.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Park Ranger Jeri Zemon, who works at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and we’re taking about wildflower season out in Anza-Borrego. I wonder, Jeri, since you’re out there and you deal with it all the time and you see how it goes from, you know, the wintertime to the buds in the springtime, what is it about the desert environment, do you think, that makes seeing this array of colors so really thrilling?

ZEMON: Well, it is the array of color against the stark landscape, the sand, the red hillsides just create a great contrast to the bright flowers. It’s just an amazing bouquet that just comes to life.

CAVANAUGH: How is it that these flowers thrive? Is it all Mother Nature? Is there any human help?

ZEMON: It’s all Mother Nature. It’s just – it’s a phenomenon basically that is just seen in deserts.

CAVANAUGH: What about wildlife?

ZEMON: The wildlife out here is amazing. It’s, you know – just this morning, I saw lots of quail, jackrabbits, cottontails, the roadrunners. Lots of different kinds of birds right now are getting more active with springtime. And then the mammals, the coyotes, and of course the Bighorn Sheep, which is an endangered species and that’s what Borrego means, is actually the Spanish word for the Bighorn Sheep. And people, if they’re lucky, will actually see the Bighorn Sheep in the hills surrounding us and in Borrego Palm Canyon while they’re out hiking, things like that…


ZEMON: …it just depends.

CAVANAUGH: Now when are the best weather conditions to actually see the wildflowers?

ZEMON: Ah, that’s the million dollar question everybody’s asking us.


ZEMON: We’re getting lots of phone calls and lots of people visiting us asking about the best time and the weather. Right now, the – today is gorgeous but there’s still some clouds in the hills above us so not all the things will open up on overcast days. Yesterday, we actually had rain but now it’s going to be getting sunnier again so it’s going to be good. But the temperatures, I think, this week are going to just be in the maybe high sixties and seventies so probably it’s going to take a few days of eighty degree weather to really get the bloom going. Not to say that it isn’t worth coming out right now. It is. There’s a lot of variety right now, a lot of different species, a lot of color in the lower elevations but it will definitely spread out and there’ll be more blooms as the weather gets warmer, like I say, in about the eighties.

CAVANAUGH: Well, why do you need a couple of eighty-degree days? What does that do for the…

ZEMON: Well…

CAVANAUGH: …the bloom?

ZEMON: …that’s a good question. And, I mean, that’s a secret of Mother Nature that I don’t think anybody really knows but I think one answer is that things are kind of synchronized in nature and you have to get – the reason for the flowers are really to attract insects. And so insects really don’t start getting…


ZEMON: …moving until it gets warmer. Just think of warm summer days and all the insect activity that you have. And so – and you have to have warm nights, too, actually to get the insects going. So that’s going to be the trigger to get wildflowers to open, attract insects, and some birds and even, you know, bats in some places to pollinate the flowers and by pollinating the flowers, they’re going to help the flowers set seed for the next generation, and that’s really the purpose of wildflowers.

CAVANAUGH: I see. I want to ask our listeners, you know, if you’d like to join the conversation and tell us about the wildflowers you have seen out in Anza-Borrego, give us a call, 1-888-895-5727. I know, as I said in the beginning, some people go out every single year. It’s just a rite of spring to go out and see the wildflowers in the desert. I’m wondering, Jeri, can you stay in your car and just drive around to see the flowers?

ZEMON: Yes, you can. It actually is possible along Henderson Canyon Road where it meets up with what’s called Pegleg Road, which is S-22, Salton Seaway in that direction. At the base of Coyote Canyon, going down DiGeorgio Road, you can actually stay in your car and see the field of flowers and not have to get out. But it’s so must better when you get out and walk around. You just see so much more.

CAVANAUGH: And so, okay, so let’s say there’s a novice, somebody who hasn’t ever been up to see the wildflowers at Anza-Borrego, how do – how are they going to start out doing that?

ZEMON: Good question. The first thing to do is to go to our visitors’ center in Borrego Springs. It opens from nine to five daily. You want to get there early because the parking lot will actually start to fill up, sometimes by eleven o’clock when we start getting really busy. They have a nice brochure, it’s a wildflower guide, for a dollar. They also update our wildflower – every week they update a list of wildflowers, and also you can simply go online to, t-h-e-a-b-f, that’s Anza-Borrego Foundation and that’s our partner organization and they actually update the wildflower list for us with our input. And we also have ranger-led interpretive programs. I’m leading one tomorrow. We have volunteer naturalists. We have the Botanical Society here, and they are actually going to be leading walks. It’s something new, weekdays, and you’ll actually meet at the state park store, which is a separate building down in the village of Borrego Springs. And the volunteers are going to actually lead specific – it just changed daily to the locations. For, I think, a little fee you can go out with them and see wildflower locations as well.

CAVANAUGH: Wow, you’ve got this covered.

ZEMON: Yeah, we try.

CAVANAUGH: What should people wear?

ZEMON: Good question, also. Definitely you want to wear a hat to protect you from the sun. Even when the sun isn’t directly out, you can still get – it can still get blustery out here so it’s good to protect yourself that way. You – most people, you know, want to wear shorts and short sleeves, especially when it gets warmer, but I think it’s a good idea to wear long pants and shoes, not just sandals because if you are going to be walking out amongst the flowers, there’s prickly things, of course, like cactus and spiny things like mesquite that can get caught on you and actually scrape against you, which I call that a desert massage. But just to prevent that, if that’s helpful. And, of course, sun screen, you want to have sun screen on. So those are the main things.

CAVANAUGH: Now if you don’t want to take a guided tour, which it actually sounds pretty good to me, but if you don’t want to and you want to sort of head out on your own, are there trails that people can take for sort of every skill level?

ZEMON: Absolutely. Yeah. We have really easy trails. There’s a couple located near Tamarisk Grove Campground that are real easy which will have a lot of cactus blooming later in the season. There’s a beautiful trail that goes up Borrego Palm Canyon from our main campground and that’s a three-mile round trip but you don’t have to do the whole thing. You can just go a short distance. There’s a nice, easy trail between the visitors’ center and the campground, lots of things are already blooming on that trail right now, a lot of colorful things. It looks like a little Easter parade, I think. And then also we have – you can just go out and explore up the roads and the washes on your own if you feel more ambitious. And you continue up Palm Canyon past the designated trail, it gets pretty rugged but for people who want to do that, there’s that kind of thing. So it just depends. But, again, coming into the visitors’ center is the best thing. Also, I’ll mention that we have 500 miles of dirt roads that people can explore by Jeep. Some you can do by two-wheel drive but most you need four-wheel drive. It’s really important, especially during this rainy season to find out the road conditions in advance. Either call us up or come into the visitors’ center and find out what the road conditions are like…


ZEMON: …and then you can really get out and explore the desert.

CAVANAUGH: Right, so you don’t get stuck in some kind of – yeah.

ZEMON: Exactly, yeah, we don’t want that.

CAVANAUGH: Now you can look at the gorgeous flowers but you can’t pick them, that’s right.

ZEMON: Absolutely. You cannot pick flowers in any state park in California because they are the next generation of flowers.

CAVANAUGH: And what is the penalty, do you know?

ZEMON: Well, give us the citation – it can be an infraction or misdemeanor. I don’t know the exact amount. It may vary as far as the court fees and things like that.


ZEMON: It’s probably not a real heavy citation but it’s, you know, again, it’s – it’s a terrible thing because those are the flowers produce the seeds for the next generation so that’s the main thing…


ZEMON: …to worry about.

CAVANAUGH: Jeri, do you know how many people visit Anza-Borrego in the springtime generally to look at the flowers?

ZEMON: Prob – I don’t know the exact number.


ZEMON: But in a year like this, I’m imagine (sic), you know, tens of thousands possibly.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah. And does the town of Borrego depend on this for its tourism dollars?

ZEMON: It really does. This is the time of year when the town of Borrego, all the restaurants and the hotels fill up and they really do depend on it, so they’re happy to see the rain and the flowers coming out. And, really, that’s true of most state parks in California. They say for every dollar spent in the state park, two dollars are spent in a local community. So state parks are a vital part of the local economies throughout California.

CAVANAUGH: And just so we know, you go out there to see the wildflowers, you can go to Borrego and have a meal, take a rest, see the sights.

ZEMON: Oh, absolutely. It’s a full-service town. Gas station. We have a small market, actually have a farmer’s market on Friday. And, yeah, there’s some really nice resorts here, different levels, and, you know, the swimming pools, golfing, tennis, all that kind of stuff is available as well. And there’s also a company that is – that’s actually a concessionaire of the state park and they actually – It’s called California Overland, and they will take you out in their vehicles if you don’t have four-wheel drive, and you can explore the desert that way as well.


ZEMON: So just there’s a lot of things to do out here. I think people think the desert is a big wasteland and they’ll be so surprised to see the diversity and all the color and things to do out here.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s get back to wildflowers. I just have a couple more questions for you. Does it – Because of these late spring rain – I’m sorry, late winter rains, are we going to have a sort of a late season for the wildflowers?

ZEMON: It is kind of delaying it so far, you’re absolutely right, Maureen. No, usually around the fifteenth we’re going to have a bloom—of March—beware the Ides of March.


ZEMON: You know, you can usually count on the flowers to be in full bloom but I think with this weather staying cool, it is sort of delaying the peak of the blooms so far. You know, we don’t know what Mother Nature’s going to bring us. It could start warming up next weekend and really trigger the big bloom. But, again, you know, just go to that website or, you know, call the park and you can find out the current bloom conditions.

CAVANAUGH: And how long does – when you get the peak, how long are – can you actually go from the peak to seeing some wildflowers in Anza-Borrego?

ZEMON: You know, again, it depends on the weather, anywhere from maybe a week to two weeks. If it gets really hot and windy and then also the caterpillars start coming because the butterflies that…

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

ZEMON: …pollinate eventually lay their eggs and become caterpillars. They start eating the wildflowers, so it can really disappear pretty quickly. It just kind of depends how hot it’s going to get later this spring.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us that hotline number again.

ZEMON: Okay. Oh, actually there’s a wildflower hotline, too.


ZEMON: I should get that number. I don’t have it in front of me. But the – I’ll give you the number for the Anza-Borrego Visitors’ Center, which is 760-767-4205 and the website for the Anza-Borrego Foundation is And then there’s a California State Park website which is California…

CAVANAUGH: That’s all we need right now, Jeri, because we can link to – on our website…

ZEMON: Yeah, exactly, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …and we will for people.

ZEMON: Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: Park Ranger Jeri Zemon, thanks so much for telling us all about the wildflowers.

ZEMON: Oh, my pleasure. I’m looking forward to seeing you out here, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And if you’d like to post your comment online, Thank you for listening. Join us tomorrow right here on KPBS.

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