Campus Queries: What are super blooms, and what do they mean for the environment?
A set of flowers blowing in the wind is pictured. Most of the plants involved in super blooms are annual plants – those that only flower once in their lifetime, according to Felipe Zapata, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. (Shengfeng Chien/Daily Bruin staff)
April 25, 2023 10:22 p.m.
Campus Queries is a series in which Daily Bruin readers and staff present science-related questions for UCLA professors and experts to answer.
Q: What is a super bloom?
A: A super bloom is a flowering event in which an unusually high number of wildflowers bloom around the same time, resulting in carpets of flowers lining the hills and valleys of deserts, said Ioana Anghel, a doctoral student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. California experiences many super blooms across the state because of its multitude of dry, arid regions, she added. The blooms usually begin in February, peaking in March and April, according to Afar magazine.
Most of the plants involved in super blooms are annual plants – those that only flower once in their lifetime, said Felipe Zapata, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Lupins, poppies, nightshades, primroses, sand blossoms, chia and sages are some of the most prevalent plants that can be observed in the blooming landscapes, he added.
Super blooms mainly occur in desert climates after periods of heavy rainfall in the winter and early spring, Zapata said. This winter’s abundant storms primed California’s deserts for a uniquely impressive bloom, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Dry, arid climates are most conducive to super blooms because they tend to have a higher proportion of annual plants, Anghel said. Annual plants have adapted to these climates by hiding their seeds in the soil when it is too dry for them to grow, she added.
At any given time, seeds are stored underneath the desert sands and can remain dormant there for many years waiting for sufficient rains, Zapata said, adding that the number of seeds which grow each year varies depending on the amount of rainfall. During super blooms, the dormant seeds will take advantage of favorable conditions such as heavy rainfall to flower and create seeds for the next generation, he added.
Q: How do super blooms affect the greater environment?
A: “It’s actually a fairly dramatic change for the ecosystem,” Zapata said. “You will see that the desert is going to be completely alive.”
He said the sudden increase in flowers and leaves leads to an increase in resources and food for insects and for animals that depend on plants. The animals that interact with these plants may in turn experience population booms, said Mary Van Dyke, a doctoral student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
“Three years ago, … I was in the desert when that (the superbloom) happened,” Zapata said. “The amount of butterflies was amazing, … and the road was covered in caterpillars.”
Q: How are environmental changes affecting super blooms?
A: Normally, California experiences sufficient rainfall for a super bloom to occur every couple of years, Zapata said. However, recent changes in rain patterns mean proper super bloom conditions may instead start to occur every five or six years, he added.
As the world is becoming increasingly hot and dry because of climate change, he said this could lead to fewer rains and, as a result, less frequent super blooms. Another effect of climate change has been changes in seasonal weather – winter and early spring are typically the rainy seasons in California – which could cause off-season super blooms from off-season rains, he added.
The interruption of natural areas for the construction of housing or roads is also contributing to the increasing rarity of super blooms, Anghel said.
“When they talk about explorers coming to California for the first time, they would see this everywhere in the Central Valley,” Anghel said. “It’s a celebration that this is happening here, but also kind of an awareness that this will become more and more rare the more we eliminate natural areas.”
Q: Where are the best locations to observe the super bloom this year?
A: The closest places to view a super bloom are Sage Hill at UCLA and in the Santa Monica Mountains, Zapata said. To see a more expansive carpet of flowers, Joshua Tree National Park, the poppy reserve in Antelope Valley and Carrizo Plain National Monument are some of Zapata’s favorite spots, he said. Anghel said she also recommends visiting Diamond Valley Lake and Owens Lake.
While it may be necessary to travel in order to admire the more extensive fields of orange, yellow and purple flowers, there is also evidence of the super bloom around LA, Van Dyke said. Many annual plants still grow on the UCLA campus, such as orange poppies, she added.
On average, the flowers last a month after they bloom, Zapata said, adding that the super bloom has already begun to move north as the weather in the south becomes too hot to support the plants.
“When most people travel to the desert, they believe that it’s just rocks and sand,” Zapata said. “But if you stop and look, there’s thousands of species and thousands of flowers. This year is going to be one of those years that you will appreciate how much diversity and life the desert really has.”