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Sierra Nevada Wildflowers

Wildflowers are heralding spring’s arrival. Manzanita, an early starter, bloomed in the Red Hills in February. Now, those in Twain Harte have heady bouquets drooping from each branch. Table Mountain is awash in color sporting Goldfields, Blue Dicks, and Applegate’s Paintbrush. My favorite is a meadow or hillside with the vivid orange of California Poppies among a sea of blue lupine. It is hard not to take a second look and admire the delicate, showy and incredibly diverse blooms that illuminate the natural settings of Tuolumne County.

Elevation plus this year’s warmer temperatures and shortage of rainfall not only impact the number of wildflower blooms but also how long they bloom. Here the first flowers of spring arrive in the woodland foothills (500-3000ft) in February and reach their peak in April and May.  You have to wait until May, June and July for peak wildflower color in mixed coniferous forests (3000-5500ft). Visit subalpine locations (5500-8500ft) in July and early August for the spring wildflower explosion. At elevations of over 10,000 feet, you can experience peak blooming periods from April through August. Wildflowers are often blooming in the Sonora Pass Area through August and into early September.

Wildflower species grow in particular locations because soil composition, texture, temperature, moisture and sunlight affect each species’ needs. Only certain plant species can survive in the serpentine soils of the Red Hills; some, such as California verbena can’t grow anywhere else in the world. Some wildflowers, like Hartweg’s Iris and Crimson Columbine, will grow only in shaded woodlands and forests. Yet others, like Fivespot and Sky Rockets (Scarlet Gilia) prefer sunny, open areas. Scarlet Monkeyflower, several Paintbrush species, White Meadowfoam and others are distinctly riparian, living only in wetland areas.  Other species such as Yarrow, Mountain Mule Ears and certain Penstemon species thrive in dry, open, rocky areas.

Competition, particularly from invasive weeds, limits wildflower success. The removal of competition is one of the reasons why wildflowers are so abundant following forest fires.

Perhaps you would like to have wildflowers growing in your home garden. If so, there are a number of things to keep in mind. The first is, don’t plant now; the water situation is dire and wildflowers are more successful if they are planted at the start of the rainy season.

To increase your success, go out and observe wildflowers in their natural habitats. Use a guidebook to identify specific species and then take note of the microenvironment where each grows. Try to reproduce these conditions in your own garden, including companion plants and color schemes.

You can choose to plant seeds, live plants, or dormant clumps of mature perennial plants. Don’t try to dig wildflowers from their native habitat and replant them in your garden. It is illegal to do so unless you have permission from the land owner and the plant most likely will not survive if they are not in a dormant state. Be sure to remove competing weeds and plants.

Get out into nature sometime over the next 5 months and view the spectacular bounty of spring first-hand. Visit a natural setting and see how many different wildflowers you can identify. It is said that you can spend hours examining one small meadow if you are careful to look past the loudest and most populous species to find those less noticed. Be sure to avoid the temptation to pick the flowers.

With the advent of recent rains, wildflower viewing should be spectacular in April on Table Mountain, in the Red Hills and along the West Side and Dragoon Gulch trails. Hit the ditch trails and railroad grades along the South Fork of the Stanislaus in May and head into higher meadows or canyons in the summer.

Kathi Joye is a Master Gardener who enjoys hiking in the hills of the Sierra Nevada.