March 6, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Death Valley Comes Alive

As if resurrected from the dead, forgotten seeds burst forth in a celebration of life in the hottest place on earth.

Death Valley, California, holds the record for the hottest place on Earth. Summertime temperatures up to 134° F have been recorded. It is also the lowest place in North America, reaching 282 feet below sea level. Most visitors will find an abundance of rocks, dirt and sand, with only the hardiest of desert plants scattered about. But when conditions are right, a living “miracle” happens: delicate plants spring up, carpeting the landscape with color. After ten years since the last “superbloom” as it is called, those conditions arrived subsequent to heavy rains in January.

Rare "superbloom" in Death Valley, Feb. 17, 2016

Rare “superbloom” in Death Valley, Feb. 17, 2016, by David Coppedge

Seeds of flowering plants will sometimes lie dormant for many years, decades sometimes, just millimeters or inches below the sun-baked soil. Scientists are not completely sure how they “know” when conditions are good, but they all spring up together as if on cue. Sufficient rains may act to leach away inhibiting molecules from within the seeds, but there are undoubtedly several factors in play. Death Valley only gets 2″ of rain a year on average. Sometimes it doesn’t rain at all, PhysOrg says. A few flowers bloom in off years, but glory breaks loose in a superbloom year, which occurs once a decade or so. The last one was in 2005; before that, in 1998. In those years, there was enough rain to fill much of the playa with water, resurrecting Lake Manly a little bit (a prehistoric lake that got up to 600 feet deep after the Ice Age).

The predominant species near Badwater (lowest point in the Western Hemisphere) is the desert gold sunflower, a large, showy yellow flower on a flimsy-looking stem. How this delicate flower bursts through hardpacked rocky soil is amazing.

Desert gold sunflowers (Garaea canascens) proliferating in Death Valley, Feb 17, 2016

Desert gold sunflowers (Garaea canascens) proliferating in Death Valley, Feb 17, 2016

About 20 species of wildflowers are participating in this year’s celebration, mostly white and yellow but others with purple, pink and red tones. Surprisingly, it was a good superbloom year in the southern hemisphere, too, as we reported a few months ago (11/02/15). Chile’s Atacama Desert, known as one of the driest environments on earth with only 0.6 inches of average rainfall, became a riot of colors, mostly reds, pinks and purples, after unusually heavy rains.

Desert five-spot (Eremalche rotundifolia) in Death Valley, Feb 17, 2016

Desert five-spot (Eremalche rotundifolia) in Death Valley, Feb 17, 2016

In Death Valley, the bloom moves to higher elevations as the season progresses. There are actually two celebrations of life going on. The flowers are dependent on pollinators. It takes a large army of insects to pollinate all the blossoms that cover many acres. Somehow, they also show up on time in sufficient numbers so that the plants can set seed which will wait patiently, once again, for just the right conditions, maybe ten years or longer.

More rain is forecast this week in California; it if hits Death Valley, the bloom may last longer. For news on the superbloom, see the Death Valley National Park wildflower update. The Desert USA website contains information on additional locations in southern California where wildflowers are beginning to show up.

The world doesn’t have to be beautiful, but it is. It doesn’t have to be intricate, but it is. Everything could be gray and slimy, just enough to get by. Instead, we have a world of “useless beauty” that rightly inspires our imagination and draws us to its Creator. There’s hardly a better example than wildflowers.

We hope you enjoy this mini-report on a true wonder of nature. The Editor had a chance to see this superbloom and also the ones in 2005 and 1998. Now he hopes to capture other wildflower displays around southern California. You can see some of his bounty on his Flickr page.

 

 

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