Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 23, 2017

The California Super-Bloom of ’17

It’s winding to a close. Following a winter in which most of California received the greatest amount of precipitation in recorded history, the natural thing happened: Plants of every variety took advantage of the abundance of water, turned green and bloomed … in staggering profusion.

Mariposa lilies Brad Nixon 6559 (640x480)

The pattern itself is normal: Winter is our rainy season. “Rainy” is sometimes only a relative measure, since portions of California are desert. The entire state, though, after years of drought, received record precipitation. Plants are thriving, blooming. Hillsides and canyons that are customarily covered only sparsely with dry chaparral are thick with lush vegetation.

Santiago Oaks Brad Nixon 6547 (640x470)

People have been flocking to parks, forests and open spaces to see this brief, intense “super-bloom” that may not be equaled in a human lifetime.

It’s a narrow window. The timing of a “bloom” relies not just on rainfall but elevation and a variety of other conditions. I was in Joshua Tree National Park in mid February, and the bloom hadn’t begun except in its very low regions. By the time of a mid-April visit to the Anza-Borrego Desert — below 1,000 feet — most of the delicate wildflowers were finished, although the cacti and Ocotillo were still showing off.

Ocotillo Brad Nixon 6626 (640x480)

The Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) exemplifies the response of desert plants to rainfall. When it’s dry, during most of the year, they look like this:

Anza Borrego Brad Nixon 457 (640x480)

That Ocotillo is alive. It’s waiting. When it rains, those stick-like trunks are wreathed in green leaves, tipped with brilliant red flowers:

Ocotillo bloom Marcy Vincent 7361 (640x461)

One didn’t have to hike far or look too carefully this season to see floral displays more brilliant than I’ve seen in nearly 30 years of visiting Anza-Borrego (click images for full view):

Nor did one have to venture into near-wilderness to enjoy the spectacle. City and county parks, oceanside bluffs and ordinary vacant patches of land were replete with greenery and flowers, as here at Santiago Oaks Canyon, just minutes from the suburbs of Orange County.

Shooting photos demonstrated the significance of the bloom as well as its beauty. In several days of photographing hundreds of flowers, I rarely framed a closeup that didn’t reveal insects — bees, beetles, butterflies and scores of other species — feasting on the bounty (click to enlarge and see the bugs).

Obviously, the increased supply of water is critically important to all of us living things, and the deep snowpack (there’ll be skiing until July in the Sierras), fuller reservoirs and increased groundwater matter to humans, animals and birds as well as plants and insects.

Enough narration. Here’s a gallery of blooms from the super-bloom of ’17. Click to see full views and captions:

One final note. The California biosphere includes trees called Bristlecone Pines (Pinus longaeva), some of the most ancient living things on the planet, often thousands of years old.

Bristlecone pines Willard Nixon 0322 (640x480)

One of them is the single-oldest living organism on earth; estimated age: 5,000 years.

There aren’t many of these ancient trees, located in western mountains between 5,600 and 11,200 ft. elevation.

Bristlecone pines Willard Nixon 0319 (640x480)

Pictured above is a grove of Bristlecones in the White Mountains of California, east of the Sierra Nevada, just north of Death Valley near the Nevada border. The town of Bishop, in the valley below, is the nearest rainfall station maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Between October 2016 and now, Bishop has received 8.81″ of rain. Not much? In the previous year, it received 2.92″ in the same period: 68% of the “normal” 4.26″. That is a drought. For the current season, Bishop is at 207% of normal.

In 5,000 years, an old Bristlecone must have endured many hardships: not just drought but heat, cold, lighting, fire — even earthquakes. Its time will come, as it must for us all. Perhaps not yet. It may not have the resplendent, glowing image of a gloriously blooming flower that comes to mind for the “super-bloom,” but it’s powerful in a way that is difficult to comprehend. 5,000 years. Before there was Stonehenge, the pyramids or the first written legal codes, before Gilgamesh ruled in Uruk, a tree rooted on a mountainside, and it’s waited for snow and rain to fall for all the time since.

Bristlecone pine Willard Nixon 0340 (480x640)

Check NOAA’s precipitation chart here for a statistical look at the remarkable season the California-Nevada region has experienced.

A tip of the cap to blogger Nature Inspired Mom, whose recent blog post reminded me about Santiago Oaks Regional Park. I was happy to see it blooming, rather than in the middle of a drought-stricken summer, as on my previous visit.

If you can identify any of the flowers I have not, please leave a comment.

I have more to show from the Anza-Borrego Desert, including more flowers, unexpected desert plants, a dramatic canyon and even … flowing water. Stay tuned.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Bristlecone photos © Willard Nixon 2017. Ocotillo bloom © Marcy Vincent 2017, all used by kind permission. Click here for Ocotillo bloom photo on Click here for the image on


  1. Interesting. I saw the opening lines in the email, and expected to see something akin to the Namaqualand flower displays we get back home (see Google Images on Namaqualand). Not quite the same, but still fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nick, thanks for introducing me to Namaqualand. Have you been there for that blooming? Breathtaking. There ARE some places in California that approach; the California Poppy Reserve, north of LA, is perhaps the best-known: fields of poppies (the state flower). We, however, were in the desert for much of the time. The mere existence of so much greenness alone is a startling difference from the ordinary. A question of relative change, I guess. Great to hear from you, and thanks for a look at another slice of the world.


      • I’ve been close by for something similar, but not quite in the league of the photos I linked to. Still spectacular.


  2. I’m no help with desert flowers but these were a delight to view. Enjoy the bloom!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful pictures. Thank you for posting. I’ve never been to a place that has a rainy season as opposed to a damp, warm, sunny one and hadn’t realised what the effect would be.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The superbloom has been an amazing event to witness in California this spring.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes. I’ve wanted to skip all work for several weeks and just look at the scene!

      Liked by 1 person

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