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Climate and Environment

Winter Wildflowers Are Popping In Anza-Borrego. How To Visit And What To Know

Purple flowers pop out of sand dunes with a desert peak in the background.
Purple sand verbena blooms in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park earlier this month.
(Courtesy Sicco Rood)
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The desert in and around Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is experiencing a highly unusual mid-winter bloom. That's likely thanks to the healthy dose of rain that came in early September with Tropical Storm Kay.

"It's that really deep soaking rain that really helped the desert and helped germinate a lot of seeds," said Sicco Rood, a research associate at UC Irvine's Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center in eastern San Diego County.

Jim Dice, who manages the center — part of UC's statewide Natural Reserve System — said he's only seen a bloom like this once before in his 30 years living in Borrego Springs.

"What's different this year is the sheer diversity of all the wildflowers," Dice said.

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Chinchweed, sand verbena, desert sunflowers, dune evening primrose — "the whole gamut of spring wildflowers seems to be going off," Dice said.

Winter Light + Wildflowers = Photographer's Dream

Rood, a photographer, has been posting stunning photos of purple verbena, desert sunflowers and dune evening primrose on the research center's social media accounts.

Rood said winter is his favorite time of year to photograph the desert, in part because it's cooler, but also because of the low angle of winter sunlight.

"You get more golden colors and more interesting shapes and atmospheres," he said.

Rood's photography evokes the stillness of the desert, which he says is both purposeful and hard-learned. "I don't want to add more turbulence … add to the confusion that is already everywhere in society," he said. Rood said his photography improved when he learned to empty his mind and be still.

"I'm always trying to be as open and receptive as I can so that something unusual or spontaneous can pop up," he said.

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Are Invasive Weeds Next To Bloom?

It's unclear whether this early bloom will affect the usual spring wildflower season.  

"The desert doesn't reveal its secrets easily," Rood said. "Each year is different and each time something unique will happen that we haven't seen before."

The desert doesn't reveal its secrets easily ... Each year is different and each time something unique will happen that we haven't seen before.
— Sicco Rood, research associate at the Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center

A more immediate concern, Rood said, is invasive weeds.

"There's a good chance if we continue to get rain that some of the invasives will kind of cover up some of the flower areas," he said.

One particularly invasive plant, Sahara mustard, has been spreading through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park for decades. Dice, the research center manager, said a lot of effort had been put into pulling the weed out of popular wildflower areas after an especially bad year in 2011.

The drought has also helped keep Sahara mustard under control in recent years.

But Dice said it's hard to know what this year's weather conditions will mean for invasive and natural wildflower blooms in the months ahead.

"Everybody thinks we just predict this," he said. "But it really is unpredictable."

How To Visit

Where to go and where to stay: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is located in San Diego County about 90 miles east of Oceanside. The park includes several campgrounds, and there are hotels in nearby Borrego Springs.

Where to find wildflowers: One of the best spots is along Henderson Canyon on the eastern side of the park, which you can reach from Borrego Springs. Wildflowers can also be spotted in sandy washes and slot canyons.

Wildflower etiquette: It's simple: Prioritize the wildflowers over Instagram. Don't traipse through the flowers for that perfect shot. And never pick wildflowers in a state park — it's against the law.

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