Breathtaking to behold at any time of year, the rugged and wild terrain of the San Gabriel Mountains is taking on a colorful new dimension as the season of wildflowers begins.
Longer days of spring also mean more hours of light for hiking, and there’s hardly a better way to witness wildflowers than by hitting the trails to take a firsthand look. Helping to narrow down the search is native plant expert, Orchid Black.
Set to shed light on the flowery debut with a two-hour tour of new blooms at the Eaton Canyon Natural Area on April 8 at 9 a.m., the longtime board member and newly elected president of the California Native Plant Society’s San Gabriel Chapter shared her observations of what’s going on now in nature’s garden.
“It’s kind of a dry spring,” Black said. “Things are blooming quickly, and it’s not a big bloom, but it’s always worth going out in the spring in California.”
Black offered at least five good reasons why, all of them found at Eaton. One example is among the brightest and most easily identified of blooms, the California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica).
Famous as California’s state flower, this particular poppy is distinguished by broad orange petals. Also known as the Tufted Poppy or Foothill Poppy, it can be seen dusting the hillsides of the lower foothills while a smaller yellow-hued poppy, the Eschscholtzia caespitosa, calls higher elevations home.
Also sprouting up now is the Sticky Monkey Flower (Mimulus aurantiacus). Its light orange, tubular blossoms are said to resemble a monkey’s face, while “sticky” refers to its stems. Growing up to four feet high and widespread throughout the state, the Sticky Monkey Flower was once used by native tribes to heal cuts and scrapes.
Reaching similar heights, the Bush Sunflower (Encelia californica) is a short-lived plant sporting bright yellow petals, making for an ephemeral, dazzling display.
On the blue end of the spectrum, the Common Phacelia (Phacelia distans) is also known as the "Caterpillar Flower," so-called for buds which are rolled up like a hairy caterpillar, said Black. Measuring one to two feet high, it can be identified by clusters of dark blue, bell-shaped flowers and hairy stems.
Although it normally heralds the beginning of summer, the Farewell to Spring (Clarkia amoena) is currently showing off its beautiful cup-shaped flowers with four pink petals tinged by fuschia. They can grow one to three feet high. Named for famous American explorers, Lewis and Clark, Clarkia Amoena were a food source for native peoples, who harvested the seeds and ground them.
“When I lead my walks I always try to discuss ethnobotany and traditional uses of plants,” Black said. “One thing that has always made plants interesting to me is how they can be used.”
She also shared advice for those who desire to wander to loftier heights to spot wildflowers, recommending the Mount Wilson and Bailey Canyon Trails.
“Last year I saw the Mountain Garland Clarkia [on the Mount Wilson Trail],” Black said. The Mountain Garland consists of multitudinous blossoms in an array of pink and purple shades.
While flowers are blooming quickly in parts of the San Gabriels, it’s another story at other wildflower hot spots. Serious enthusiasts can get updates by calling the Theodore Payne Wildflower Hotline.
Often popular this time of year, the Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve isn’t sporting any blossoms as far as anyone knows, Black said. However, recent rains may improve the scene just in time for CNPS’s field outing planned for April 14, which is the same day Black said she will open the grounds of her new house in Sierra Madre for the .
“It’s spring, so a lot of things are happening in the native plant world,” Black said. “It’s a great time to get outside in California--it’s a beautiful place.”
Whether taking a guided tour or exploring new paths, wildflower hunting is a great reason strap on the hiking boots and hit the dusty trail. Learning more about the natural world not only enhances one’s knowledge, it also adds another enjoyable facet to hiking.
Wherever you choose to roam, enjoy the view.