There is a trend to append the word “super” to various natural phenomena. For instance, a few times a year, it’s not just a full moon, but a “super moon.” About the same time the moon at perigee got special branding, desert wildflowers also occasionally started to receive elite status. They just don’t get it anywhere near as often.
Because of an unusually wet winter, parts of California were elevated to “superbloom” status this spring. Since the fall, the Carrizo Plain, located about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, received just under 4 inches of rain — 2½ times what it gets over the course of a normal winter.
The difference in the scenery is striking. Soda Lake is one of the area’s distinctive features. In a typical year, the closed, briny basin is more salt than water. When I visited, there was no question it was a lake.
But I was there for the flowers. Most of them have been waiting six years to put on a show.
The Carrizo Plain became a national monument in 2001 because it is a fine example of what California used to be. Hundreds of years ago, about three-quarters of the area now within the state borders used to be grassland. Only about 5 percent remains today. Carrizo Plain, which covers about 400 square miles, is the largest single expanse of native grassland.
Before this spring, I had only seen the plain in “normal” years, but even then, I thought it was beautiful. Rolling hills stand like towering walls on the west and east sides of the plain.
In 2017, I brought nature photographers together to inspire people to protest President Trump’s efforts to revoke the status that protected the Carrizo Plain. There are active oil fields just over the Temblor Mountains that serve as its eastern border. Tens of thousands of public comments later, his administration relented.
The last time I was here, there were patches of goldfields in bloom among the grasses. This time, however, was truly a superbloom.
While there are some flowers that bloom every year, most wait for just the right conditions. And in a state that’s dealing with prolonged drought, those conditions can be many years apart. The seeds remain dormant until then.
First, you notice how many flowers there are. In numerous stretches of the plain, blossoms stretch as far as the eye can see. Alongside one solid patch of yellow, I met a regular monument visitor who said the area is more typically bare dirt.
Then you notice how many different types of wildflowers are in bloom. Goldfields, lupine, Mojave sun cups, phacelia, fiddlenecks, poppies, and on and on.
I found the variety most striking. Each type of flower had its own color. Large patches of one type would grow next to a large patch of another. From a distance, it looked like someone threw paint. The rolling hills looked like they were colored by children using every crayon in the box.
Sensory overload eventually steps aside for the creative process. What’s the best way to document this spectacle?
I move from more traditional landscapes involving clear patches of flowers in the foreground stretching to distant mountains to more abstract images where I concentrate on the unusual play of colors on the hillsides. From the top of a mountain, I look back down on the plain where various concentrations of flowers look more like spilled paint.
I cherish every moment. In the 20 years I have been a photographer, this is only the fourth truly “super” bloom here, and only the first I have had the pleasure to witness. I’m thankful the area is protected. And, weather permitting, I hope to see this amazing splendor again.