When spring rolls into town, the trails we love to hike often take on a completely different character. Hillsides turn from brown to green, dormant trees start stretching their leaves out from buds, and ephemeral explosions of wildflower color dot the landscape and disappear like fireworks in the fields.
This is the time of year when your botanist and naturalist friends go nuts, trekking to far-reaching corners of the state to seek out rooted creatures with seemingly unpronounceable Latin names. Their enthusiasm may be a little intimidating to the day hiker or fitness-minded trail runner, but surely every one of you has seen some beautiful flower on a recent hike and wondered, “what is that thing?”
We here at Modern Hiker are big fans of the annual California wildflower show, but we also know it can be tough or confusing to track down easy-to-understand information about the colors you see on the hills and in the canyons. So we decided to compile some of our favorite sources here in the hopes that we can help some more hikers start leveling up their botany skills.
Where to Find the Wildflowers
Let’s be honest – sometimes, all you want to do is look at some pretty colors while you’re hiking. Last year we rounded up our 5 Favorite Wildflower Hikes in Southern California, but because conditions change from year to year (and day to day), you really have to stay up to date with groups that keep their eye on the state of wildflower blooms.
- The Theodore Payne Foundation’s Wild Flower Hotline – this reader-submitted flower update covers most of Central and Southern California and is often a good place to start your search. The Wild Flower Hotline is a free Microsoft Word document and PDF file that’s produced every Friday from the beginning of March through the end of May and usually includes great descriptions with photos and specific trails. You can also contribute your own photos and reports by emailing the Foundation at [email protected]
- DesertUSA’s Wildflower Reports – DesertUSA kicks off their wildflower reports in January, which gives people plenty of time to start planning their trips as well as researching early predictions on which areas look like they’re experiencing the right conditions for good blooms. As their name implies, DesertUSA focuses on desert wildflowers – and they cover a region from Southern California through Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas and north into Nevada and Utah as well. Their reports are updated frequently – sometimes several times a week – and they’re also broken up into states, regions, and even specific desert parks.
- What’s Blooming in the Santa Monica Mountains – This list focuses on the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Here, the reports are divided into different parks and even specific trails within those parks. It does appear that the person who was fully invested in this project has moved away from the region, so reports and updates can be sporadic – but readers can also submit information to this report to help keep it up to date.
Park Specific Sites – Many of the better-known wildflower viewing areas have their own park-specific reports, with varying degrees of regularity and specificity. If you do know you’ll be in one of the parks, it’s always a good idea to check with their wildflower reporting team for the most up-to-date conditions in their area.
- Joshua Tree National Park’s reports are released every Friday from mid-February to the beginning of May. Their PDF reports are easy to read and well-organized, often with beautiful photography.
- Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has two great reporting options. The reports done by the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association are updated almost every day and are chock-full of gorgeous photos. You can also get reports delivered to your inbox from the Anza-Borrego Foundation by joining their email list.
- The Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve will usually update the front page of their site with the most recent wildflower conditions there.
- Death Valley National Park has a landing page with general wildflower info, but to get updated information you’ll have to head to their Facebook Page. Colorful reports and lots of photos are posted on Fridays.
- The Bureau of Land Management also has spartan pages for the Eastern Sierra and Carrizo Plain National Monument, as well as a page of general information on most of their California holdings. This is best used as a way to plan future trips and gather information to call the local rangers for more up-to-date information.
How To Recognize Wildflowers
Once you’ve gotten the taste for wildflower-peeping, eventually you’re going to find that you want to know what it is you’re looking at. That way, when you’re telling your friends about your last hike and showing off all your amazing wildflower photos, you can say more than “here are some nice orange flowers, and look at those pretty bushes with the blue cluster thingies, too!” Knowing the common names for our plants – both native and invasive – will instantly improve your Outdoorsperson Skills by at least a power of three. Knowing the scientific names for the plants is even better (but don’t worry about getting it all at once – one step at a time, I say!). Here are some of the best ways to ID our wildflowers.
- Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area – the same guy that runs the citizen-reported bloom updates for the Santa Monica Mountains has also amassed an enormous database of plant life in the Santa Monica Mountains. This site’s Flower Finder will help you narrow your search down based on the plant’s characteristics, and then you can get information on more than a thousand different species and check out more that 7,500 photographs to see if you’re on the right track. In the field? You can also download a pocket-version of the web site for your iOS device (note: it’s free, but it’s a HUGE file, so download it before you leave your home wifi connection!)
- California Academy of Sciences Wildflower Database – while this database search function is limited in its scope, it is definitely one of the easier sites to navigate in this field. Search by color and number of petals and see what comes up – then you can see the scientific name, photos, and habitat range.
- DesertUSA’s Desert Wildflower Field Guide – if you’re in the desert, DesertUSA’s wildflower field guide is one of your best bets for identifying wildflower blooms. Organized primarily by color, this site presents large color photographs of all their blooms, along with common and scientific names.
- California Native Plant Society Facebook Group – an online community ranging from experts to novices, this is a great place to get information on plants that you can’t seem to track down anywhere else. The group’s knowledgable and vocal members will often get you the accurate information in just a few posts, and let you know whether it’s native or invasive. The group is also a wonderful place to get news on native plant issues all across the state, see some gorgeous photography of natives in the wild, and even learn more about gardening with native plants – just make sure you read their post guidelines at the top of the page before you start sharing your blurry plant photos!
- CalPhotos – This free service from the University of California, Berkeley searches through almost 245,000 images of plants to serve up some beautiful full-color photographs. Once you think you know the common or scientific name for the plant you’re looking for, this will give you a much better idea of what you saw in the field.
Where to Learn More
Now that you’re able to recognize wildflowers and native plants in the wild, you may want to start learning a bit more about the plants, too. Whether you’d like to start plotting your ID’d plants to share your observations with other citizen-scientists or maybe get some ideas for replacing your thirsty plants with drought-tolerant natives, these resources and sites are great places to visit. I speak from experience here – putting native plants into a garden or even in containers on a patio is a challenging but intensely rewarding experience that definitely adds another layer of enjoyment when you’re out hiking. Anyone who’s hiked a trail with me in the past year knows I now spend a good deal of time touching and smelling all the fragrant plants I can ID. There’s nothing like a good whiff of black sage to keep you going on a steep incline!
- Hahamonga Cooperative Nursery – A community nursery based in the Arroyo Seco, this relatively new addition to the world of Southern California native plants is a tremendous resource for learning about how to garden and grow natives as well as learning about the rich cultural history of these plants for indigenous communities. The nursery hosts plant sales, volunteer events, and a variety of classes.
- Las Pilitas Nursery – This nursery based in Santa Margarita and Escondido has a huge database of native plants, searchable by common and scientific name. Plant descriptions usually have tons of photos (and sometimes video) and equally colorful written commentary. They also have a TON of online guides, including recommendations for easy plants for beginners, lessons on how (and when) to properly plant natives, common problems with native plants, and recommended plants for your yard depending on what type of soil you have and how much sun you get. A GREAT place to get lost!
- The Theodore Payne Foundation – In addition to their Wild Flower Hotline, the Theodore Payne Foundation is also an amazing online encyclopedia of native plants. You can also search by common or scientific name, and each plant has recommendations for soil and sun conditions, as well as whether or not they’re good in containers or on slopes. The TPF’s database is a bit more formal than Las Pilitas’, but the benefit of being a bit drier is that you get a very uniform standard across all their plants as far as information is concerned. The Foundation’s Sun Valley nursery holds informative classes year-round, and is staffed by very knowledgable native plant lovers. (There’s also a short and easy, dog-friendly trail right above the nursery grounds!)
- Tree of Life Nursery – This San Juan Capistrano-based nursery is the largest native plant supplier in the state of California. Their web site features well-designed PDFs on every native plant they sell, which include full-color photos and recommended companion plants. Their site also has many features and guides, including a year-round primer on what plants are usually blooming and a collection of 30 beginner native plants for Southern California gardeners.
- Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden – This Claremont garden features more than 2000 taxa of California native plants as well as classes and a native nursery.
- The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden – Perched in the hills above Santa Barbara, this sprawling and stunning botanic garden boasts a rich network of trails that take you through just about every climate zone in the Golden State. They also have multifaceted classes and events, teaching visitors everything from how to grow their own gardens to setting up a graywater system on their home. A must-visit if you’re in town.
- California Native Plant Link Exchange – Are you ready to get REALLY into learning about plants? Because the CNPLX is a veritable never-ending rabbit hole of awesome information. Look up a plant and you’ll get a page with photos, info on different cultivars and related species, their natural distribution organized by plant community regions and California counties, AND see what nurseries currently have the plants, seeds, or bulbs for sale. Want to go even further? You can also find out what plants grow well with other plants – even depending on what county you’re growing in.
- iNaturalist – Now that you’re armed with all this information, don’t you want to share it with others? iNaturalist is a web site and mobile app that lets you take photos of the things you observe in nature, geotag them, and share them on their site. Then you can see which species live where, when they’re blooming, and even sort by place … so, for instance, you can see all the birds, bugs, fish, and plants that have been spotted on the Los Angeles River, or which plants have been seen in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. You can add any form of life you spot to this database – from tiny cacti to bighorn sheep. This is also a really effective way of scouting out regions ahead of time, so you know what to look for when you’re hiking.
There you have it – more than enough information to start you on your path to becoming a master trail botanist.
Did we miss anything? Do you have a favorite plant related resource? Leave it in the comments and we’ll keep adding to this post!