Drought is kind of a dirty word. It’s a dry, dusty, parched, scary, dirty word for most Californians. I feel for the farmers and ranchers and fish as we survive through epic drought conditions.
Although the important discussions press onward about impacts of drought on people (which I think is an extremely important discussion), I’m taking a second to think about it from a wildflower perspective. Yes, drought means limited water, but what’s that decrease mean for one of California’s oldest residents – the flora.
This isn’t a sad story, there are both winners and losers in the case of the winter of 2014. Notably, annual grasses that often germinate early and complete their lifestyle by April or May have been heavily culled by long periods without rain. The lack of those plants has allowed for more open and bare ground to show itself into the spring. Those spaces in between are where the annual wildflowers typically appear. Now, since it’s been a poor year for the grasses, many of the early germinating annual wildflowers have also survived in low density. So who’s the big winner – perennials. The perennials which are established are able to harvest more sunlight (less direct shading from neighbors), harvest more water from the soil (less fine roots from annuals), and provide showier blooms. This may be a truly fantastic year for the later flowering perennials who are likely benefiting greatly from a dry winter and a wetter spring. Additionally, we may actually get better groundwater recharge (per inch of rain) since there are fewer living resources trying to harvest the rain from the soil column, which should translate to a nice growing year (and establishment year) for oaks and perennials with tap roots.
So, although annual wildflowers may be a bit less showy, there are many fantastic perennials that may just surprise us this year. And on that note – here’s a desktop of buttercups (Ranunculus occidentalis) which hopefully will inspire you to get out to those meadows this month. Please feel free to download and use this image as a desktop calendar – Sunday’s are in yellow.