By Joanna Hoffman
Wildflowers are abundant in California from February through July. Flowers bloom at different times during these months. They first appear in the desert, shocking the brown and barren landscape with vibrancy and life. Later on towards June and July, wildflowers grace the Sierras with yellow, red and blue in a melange of beauty and overpowering scent. Wildflowers grow in the cracks of sidewalks all over the Bay Area, shoot up across marshlands and beaches, and appear in almost any place they find an opportunity to access some water, soil, sun, and means of pollination. California wildflowers allow vast populations of insects, birds and other animals to flourish. It makes me joyous to see a field of glowing orange poppies, spiced with purple lupines and pink clovers.
Flowers evolved 130 million years ago. When they first showed up, they reproduced primarily via the wind. Creating enough pollen to ensure survival necessitated a lot of energy for flowers, so they evolved to count on insects for pollination. The chances that an insect will successfully deliver pollen from one plant to another are much higher than the wind blowing pollen across the sky. Plants changed petal formation, scent emission, patterning, and even color to attract insects to carry their genes on to the next generation.
Pollination and Speciation
Wildflowers are pollinated by butterflies, bees, wasps, beetles, bats, birds, other animals, water, and the wind. Some wildflowers have evolved so that they can be successfully pollinated by several of these organisms (these are called generalist species), and some can only be pollinated by one or a few species (we call these specialists).
There are more almost six thousand species of flowers in California. About 20% of these are native to California. California’s wildflower diversity is due to its rich habitats that range from desert to high mountains, from coastal ranges to inland valleys. These ecosystems host unique species due to differences in latitude, elevation, precipitation, and soil type. A variety of conditions translate to a variety of species that are able to flourish throughout the year.
The color, shape, size, patterns and texture (on leaves, flowers, and stems), number of reproductive parts, smell, and any unusual feature should be noted when identifying a wildflower. Aside from the physical appearance of the flower, its proper identification will be based on where and when it is found. Is it along a creek? Is it amidst many other flowers of the same variety, or is it with other species? Is it February or June? All of these questions will help you to determine the species of a lovely wildflower blossom.
We are so lucky to live in California, especially the Bay Area. Everywhere we go, from the peaks of Mt. Diablo to the shorelines of the Bay Trail, we are bound to see splashes of spring wildflowers. Take advantage of this spectacular place, bursting with diverse habitats, and go exploring for wildflowers today.
Flowers (top to bottom): Baby Blue-eyes (Nemophila menziesii), Farewell-to-Spring (Clarkia rubicunda), Gilia (Gilia capitata). Photos courtesy of California Academy of the Sciences Online Wildflower Guide.