By Ruth Nolan
Stories of the rare “superbloom” in Death Valley National Park, exploding colorfully across one of the world’s hottest, driest and lowest regions, have traveled far and wide as late winter transitioned into early spring this year.
Inland residents have the special privilege of living within easy driving distance of Death Valley, and legend has it that this year’s bloom is especially beautiful, following a historic monsoon rainfall in the northern Mojave Desert in October.
Many well-known desert personalities and authors have eloquently publicized the aesthetic influence of desert wildflowers.
The late Coachella Valley artist John Hilton penned a humorous and memorable essay for the old Desert Rat newsletter (circa 1930s-1950s) about the intoxicating power of seeing and walking through the swaths of deep pink sand verbena that carpet fields and sand dunes throughout the Coachella Valley in the spring, their abundance depending on rainfall levels in winter months. In fact, many of Hilton’s most treasured Coachella Valley landscape paintings have sprinkles of sand verbena in them.
Yes, desert wildflowers are beautiful – and especially given that they don’t bloom abundantly every season, and that when they do, their stunning appearance is so short-lived. Soon, the lengthening days of spring and the early summer onset in Death Valley, where temperatures soar high above 100 degrees day after day for months, will burn the yellow and purple wildflowers away and they will be just a faint memory on the raw, scorched landscape. Beyond appreciating the sensory and fleeting beauty of the flowers, which in itself is quite a thing to behold, why should we care about the deeper importance of desert wildflowers?
Native Americans living in our deserts have long relied on plants as critical components of survival, especially as food. Many of the wildflowers you’ll see blooming, not only in Death Valley, but in Joshua Tree National Park, in the Coachella Valley and in the higher-elevation chaparral transition zones of areas such as the Santa Rosa Mountains, have long been important food sources for the Cahuilla, Serrano, Chemehuevi, Timbisha Shoshone and other desert tribes.
I recently observed part of an ongoing yucca harvest workshop involving native desert participants at the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center in Banning. The day I visited, mothers, daughters and other women were busy preparing beautiful, cream-colored yucca blossoms – tinted with green and magenta hues – for a delicious yucca blossom salad, which resembles macaroni shell pasta salad, but tastes much richer and a bit sweeter. This is just one of many ways yucca flowers have been used for centuries in traditional foods, while many everyday items such as sandals and soap have been made from other parts of the plant.
Most people associate the ominous presence of barrel cactus with danger: The sharp, curved barbs can indeed inflict a lot of damage to human skin and body parts. However, the barrel cactus, which grows throughout California’s deserts, produces abundant blossoms – both yellow and bright pink – that have been used by desert Indian people as a food source, like yucca blossoms.
In her memoir, the late Cahuilla historian and culture bearer Katherine Siva Sauvel wrote of her childhood memories of harvesting barrel cactus flowers, a nutritious and sweet snack, from Devil’s Garden, an area near Palm Springs.
Desert wildflowers matter. They mattered in the survival of our desert’s Indian people for centuries, and they matter now.
They are a measure of adequate rainfall that’s crucial for replenishing desert aquifers for human consumption and for the rare riparian areas that provide drinking water for desert animals and sustenance for the many plants that provide life in a land that can be unforgivingly harsh.
This year’s superbloom in Death Valley and the rest of our deserts has given those of us in the Inland region a bit of an uplift in a long, nervous time of ongoing severe drought, which has been only minimally eased this winter by an El Niño that never really showed up with the downpours we had expected.
With the flourishing of wildflowers this spring, we’re blessed with an extra dose of natural beauty that lifts the human spirit and gives us the hope of replenishment, both natural and aesthetic, all from one of the world’s most unlikely places, which we are fortunate to call part of our desert backyard.