My own unforgettable experience occurred in 2005, the year Death Valley National Park—the hottest and driest place in North America—burst into show stopping bloom. Spurred by incredible photos of the display, friends and I packed our camping gear and left Los Angeles at dusk. We spent the night in a gravel overflow lot, surrounded by other “bloomers” from across the country. The crowd was amped and giddy, like concert goers awaiting a once-in-a-lifetime show.
At dawn, the curtain of darkness was raised, revealing vivid fields that stretched in all directions. Jaws dropped. Shutter fingers twitched. We spent hours amid the blossoms, bending low to discover unexpected details: the scalloped petals of a pale gravel ghost—like the work of some pixie with pinking shears—and the five red dots that give the delicate desert fivespot its name. Each time I looked up, countless flowers waved back in greeting.
In a matter of weeks, the bloom had faded. It would be more than a decade before Death Valley put on another show as amazing as this one. That unpredictability is a big part of the appeal of “super blooms” (the colloquial term applied to these rare, stunning displays). It also testifies to wildflowers’ patient survival strategy. Like demanding celebrities, they refuse to make an appearance until their exacting requirements are met.
“That’s the amazing thing about annuals,” Elliott says. “Their seeds can lie dormant in the soil for decades, just waiting for the right temperatures and rainfall.” In a perfect season, germination kicks off in early autumn with a triggering rain and cool temperatures. After that, the plants require steady, ample winter rainfall to grow, followed by temperate spring weather to stimulate blossoming. Even if all the check boxes are ticked, a freak freeze, an untimely heat wave, high winds—even hungry herbivores—can cause a promising bloom to fizzle. “Instead of massive carpets, you might get little area rugs,” Elliott says. “It’s hard to predict.”
Even in years when the desert fails to produce phenomenal displays, it always offers something exceptional to those willing to look closely. For some wildflower devotees, this can mean communing with a single plant. “One of the most beautiful things I’ve witnessed in the outdoors was the birth of an evening primrose at a campground in northern Arizona,” says photographer Colleen Miniuk-Sperry, coauthor of Wild in Arizona: Photographing Arizona's Wildflowers. “I watched the first blossom unfurl over 45 minutes. It was the most profound experience.”