Flora magazine
The official magazine of the California Native Plant Society


Take Your Breath Away

Desert Highlights After Rain

Winter 2024

By Julie Evens and Peter Brommer

The Mojave Desert is known for its incendiary-like temperatures and arid summer conditions. And yet, even in this parched environment, wet areas exist in basins, arroyos, and washes. They serve as crucial habitats, providing water and refuge for a host of biodiversity including birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, as well as short- to long-lived plants.  

Many of the annual plants produce hundreds, thousands, even millions of seeds. The seeds rest dormant for years, waiting for the opportunity to enjoy a large reproduction event. The storms that pummeled California last winter provided such an opportunity. They allowed our hardy photosynthetic friends to exhibit a grand display of color palettes as they emerged from the thirsty sands once again to take your breath away.

Beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris); Image: Julie Evens

The peak bloom allowed the CNPS Vegetation Program to collaborate with the Bureau of Land Management to conduct surveys in wet zones throughout the Mojave and the southeastern Sierra Nevada. CNPS ecologists were able to collect these stunning images while at work on the BLM’s Assessment Inventory and Monitoring Strategy, and statewide fine-scale vegetation mapping. 

Three plants in the sunflower family covered the hillsides in prolific numbers. They include the desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata), desert scalebud (Anisocoma acaulis), and Bigelow’s coreopsis (Leptosyne bigelovii). All are common desert species, but Bigelow’s coreopsis is found only in southern California. All three blanketed the desert floor and hillsides in various shades of pale to bright glowing yellow 

Left to right: Golden desert poppy (Eschscholzia glyptosperma) found along the Mojave River wash near Baker; Image: Pete Brommer; Desert scalebude (Anisicoma acaulis) was seen along the Scodie Mountain Range and found in southwestern U.S.; Image: Julie Evans; Desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata) in Afton Canyon; Image: Mike Heine;

Other native plants that shared the spotlight this season include the desert golden poppy (Eschscholzia glyptosperma) and desert five spot (Eremalche rotundifolia), along with annual herbs. Some perennial plants with showy blooms characteristic of the Mojave Desert include Mojave woodyaster (Xylorhiza tortifolia var. tortifolia) and beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris var. basilaris).  

The Red Rock Canyon monkeyflower (Erythranthe rhodopetra; CRPR 1B.1), is an annual herb that was abundant within its approximately 50-square mile range this year. Seriously threatened, it is only found in the El Paso Mountains in Kern County. (It more recently evolved or “radiated” from Erythranthe palmeri.)  

The monkeyflower’s ephemeral bloom in desert washes was a dramatic showstopper in early April. It quickly faded and spread seeds that reside underground in the desert sand until they receive the signal to begin their next cycle of life. Each generation is imperative to the persistence of the threatened plant, which is why years of heavy rain are so important for this boom-and-bust survival strategy.  

Left to right, top to bottom: The Red Rock Canyon monkeyflower (Erythranthe rhodopetra) is found only in the El Paso Mountains in Kern County; Image: Pete Brommer, Mojave woodyaster (Xylorhiza tortifolia) is an endemic subshrub in California’s Mojave Desert and beyond; Image: Julie Evens, Desert five-spot (Leptosyne bigelovii) along the Mojave River wash near Baker; Image: Julie Evens, Botanists hike through the wind and fire-swept hillsides near California City; Image: Mike Heine

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