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Flowers
Photo by Alysa Bagenaru

Nature: Flower Up

Desert Companion

It’ll be an uphill trek if you want to get an eyeful of Nevada’s summer wildflowers — but they’re worth it

If you think of wildflowers as a spring phenomenon, meaning July’s too late to enjoy them, think again. There are still plenty of beautiful flora to be seen in Nevada — if you know where to look. So we emailed a few questions to someone who does: botanist Janel Johnson of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. We begin with a term we’ve heard a lot in the media lately.

 

Did Nevada get a super bloom this year?

No, we didn’t, because of the timing of the rains this winter. Super blooms are usually made up of annual plants, those that live less than one year. Desert annuals are well-adapted to the unpredictable cycles of drought and flood. Their seeds sit dormant in the soil until the right combination of water and temperature coax them into growing.

To get a really good bloom of desert annuals, the seeds need lots of rain in the autumn so they can germinate and start growing over the winter. Then, when the weather warms up in the spring, they’re ready to start blooming right away. We had a dry fall and winter, with the rain and snow falling in February and March, so the seeds didn’t get started at the right time. The cold, wet spring also made the flowers bloom two or three weeks later than usual in many areas.

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When is wildflower season in the state?

Thanks to our mountains, wildflower season lasts all spring and summer. Wildflower blooms can start in the southern valleys as early as February, and the flowers follow the warming weather northward and up the mountains until the alpine flowers are blooming in July and August. Desert flowers usually have a race to finish blooming before the soil dries out, but flowers in wetlands often bloom later because they have easy access to water. Our state flower, sagebrush, doesn’t begin blooming until September.

 

Where can people see wildflowers during the summer?

The best places are typically up in the mountains. Trails and recreation areas in our national forests and Great Basin National Park offer great wildflower viewing later in summer. For the adventurous, our state and federal wildlife refuges, such as the Sheldon Antelope Range and Ash Meadows, offer great wildflower and wildlife viewing opportunities — but few amenities. 

I gave a talk in Carson City recently and had photos from the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge (along the state’s northern border), and only two of 25 people had heard of it, and no one had been there. It’s a stunning place full of interesting flowers and wildlife and volcanic rocks.

 

How do desert plants survive with so little water?

There are two main ways — either by escaping drought or enduring it. Plants that escape drought grow during the wettest parts of the year, then, during the heat of summer, they dry up, leaving behind either tough roots or seeds to grow during the next wet weather. The seeds can survive for years until the weather is just right, then they all grow at once, resulting in a super bloom.

Plants that endure drought often have thick, waxy leaves (like yucca), or dense hairs to reflect sunlight (like sagebrush), or no leaves at all (like cactus). They usually also have long roots.

 

What’s the most important thing to remember about wildflower hunting in the wilderness?

Desert and wetland soils are easily damaged by feet and tires. Desert soils are often protected by communities of lichen, moss, and algae that hold the soil in place during strong winds and rain. When they are damaged, the soil can blow or wash away, which makes it harder for our native plants to grow. Stay on existing trails and roads to avoid damaging sensitive habitats.

When visiting parks and refuges, it’s usually illegal to pick wildflowers.

Many are tiny, so be prepared to get down on the ground to see them up close. We like to call them “belly flowers” because you might need to lie on your belly to get a good look.

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