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Did social media invent the 'super bloom'?

Marissa Ortega-Welch
Visitors from all over the country pulled over on the roadside in Joshua Tree to experience this spring's wildflower blooms.

The hype may feel new, but Californians have been excited about wildflowers for a long time.

I’m from San Diego and I grew up going to the desert, but I’d never heard this term “super bloom” until a couple of years ago. Yet this spring, my friends in the Bay Area, as well as friends-of-friends, and parents-of-friends were all taking road trips south to places like the Carrizo Plain and Walker Canyon to see the “super bloom” of wildflowers. Not to mention, the media was churning out article after article on the topic; first about where to go to see the “super bloom” and then about how “super bloom” tourism was hurting the very flowers people had come to see. One town even had to shut down access to its flower fields because it was unprepared to handle the hordes of tourists. Since when did we have to close freeways because too many people wanted to look at poppies? Where did this frenzy come from?

Because I’m a grinch, I was skeptical of all of this hype and I had some questions. I decided to take my own road trip down to Southern California, to find some answers and — selfishly — see some flowers.

I head to UC Riverside to meet Dr. Richard Minnich, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. When I walk into his office, he is fondly looking at photos from a 2005 trip to Death Valley, when the desert was a sea of yellow flowers. He says he still remembers how good it smelled. Was it a “super bloom”? “No,” he laughs. “ I’d rather call it the ‘once in a lifetime’ bloom.”

Credit Marissa Ortega-Welch / KALW
Ecologist Dr. Richard Minnich of UC Riverside looks at a photo he took of Death Valley in 2005 during what he called a "once in a lifetime" bloom.

Minnich says the media didn’t use the term “super bloom” back then and he doesn’t know where the term originated. The earliest occurrence I could find was from a Death Valley National Park press release, in which Ranger Alan Van Valkenburg said he remembers hearing “old timers” using the term in the ‘90s to mean “a near-mythical thing.”

Minnich says regardless of where it came from, the media’s glommed onto it in the last few years to signal an incredible bloom of flowers. Since it’s not a scientific term, there’s no official definition for it (so if you want to call the field of yellow mustard flowers you see along the freeway on your way to work a “super bloom,” go for it).

There are, of course, environmental conditions that create a really good wildflower bloom. Minnich says a couple hundred years ago, all it took was a good, rainy winter. Minnich wrote a book, California's Fading Wildflowers: Lost Legacy and Biological Invasions and he studied records of wildflower blooms in the state going back to the 1700s. He says California has always been famous for its flowers. Spanish explorers wrote in their travel logs about the East Bay hills that were covered with poppies. Naturalists like John Muir described the phenomenal wildflower blooms in the Central Valley. After the Gold Rush, new arrivals to the state sent letters to their family back east boasting of how flowers in California bloomed in January. “From San Diego up to San Francisco,” Minnich says, “it bloomed every wet year and it was very impressive everywhere.”

But in the 1800s, Europeans introduced non-native grasses to the state. Now those invasive plants dominate the landscape. During a wet winter, the grasses grow like gangbusters and choke out native wildflowers, in some cases, even preventing them from germinating.

But in very dry years, the grasses die back, since they haven’t evolved to survive drought the way native California plants have. Then the next wet year, Minnich says the wildflowers “will take off because there's no grasses around to interfere with them and you'll get a great burst of bloom.” This is less likely to occur in Northern California, where we have a lot of invasive grasses and get a good amount of rain. But down in Southern California, which can have many dry years, that’s where you get a so-called “super bloom.”

Minnich says this hype around wildflowers is nothing new, though. “As soon as newspapers formed around here, people would talk about the flowers.” He shows me an article from the Riverside Press and Horticulturist newspaper in 1905, about tourists that descended on a poppy field after a rainy winter. “They were gathering the beauties by the handful and the armload,” the paper wrote. Two days later, the paper ran a follow-up article, “Spare the poppies!” The paper warned, “If the crowds of people and children who are engaged in pulling up these beautiful flowers do not show more discretion, the poppies will not be there next year.”

So there was poppy panic, even back then! If the excitement is nothing new, then why do I feel like the recent hype just appeared out of nowhere?

To find that answer, I drive down to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, to meet Betsy Knaak, Executive Director of the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association, a non-profit that runs a nature center in town and leads programs about the area. The day I visit, the nature center is crowded. The docents have to keep printing more copies of the wildflower maps they’re handing out to tourists.

Credit Marissa Ortega-Welch / KALW
Anza-Borrego State Park rangers field tourist questions during the park's spring wildflower season.

Knaak has been working and living in Borrego since 1979. She can remember quite a few good wildflower blooms in years past, but in the last decade, the area saw a string of years with very little rain and very few wildflowers. Meanwhile, something else blooming: social media. In 2017, Borrego had a good rainy winter after all those years of drought, and the wildflowers were spectacular. People posted some photos on the web, the photos were shared, and before you could say “Al Gore invented the internet,” over thirty thousand people flooded into the tiny town of Borrego Springs to see for themselves.

“It was very crazy,” Betsy tells me. “2017 really caught Borrego Springs and the park by surprise. Coming off of those many years of drought, things had changed so much. We just did not realize how quickly word spread.”

In Borrego Springs, a town that has no stoplights, traffic came to a stand-still. Restaurants reportedly ran out of food. There weren’t enough bathrooms or drinking water for all the visitors. For a town that was used to nature tourism, it simply didn’t have the infrastructure in place for the twenty-first-century version of a good wildflower season.

“We used to think we were so on top of things,” Knaak says. Starting in the late 70s, visitors could leave a self-addressed stamped postcard with the nature center. And then two weeks before a good wildflower bloom, Knaak and her staff would stamp it with a rubber stamp that said “peak bloom expected in two weeks” and mail them out, snail-mail style. Knaak found one of these postcards recently that accidentally didn’t get mailed. “Sorry about that, whoever that was,” she laughs.

Credit Marissa Ortega-Welch / KALW
Betsy Knaak, Executive Director of the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association, shows one of the postcards her staff used to mail out to spread the word about wildflower blooms.

Knaak’s nature center has gone from having a few hundred people a day during a good wildflower season to a few thousand. This year though, unlike 2017, the town and state park were prepared. When it became clear there might be another “super bloom” of flowers and visitors this year, local businesses had a meeting to plan. During my visit, traffic is flowing freely and restaurants are serving food.

Knaak says, as long as the town is prepared, she likes that the wildflower blooms bring people to the desert. It helps new people learn about the park. Borrego Springs is a retirement community; she especially wants young people to fall in love with this place.

Yet there are downsides to this “super boom” of tourism. Flowers get trampled. There’s the carbon footprint of all of us driving here. I still have one more questions: is the “super bloom” hype a good thing or a bad thing?

If the goal of nature tourism is for more people to be stewards of the environment, are the thousands of people visiting the “super bloom” going to translate into thousands of people invested in protecting it? Or are they are just there for the Instagram pic? 

Credit Marissa Ortega-Welch / KALW
Eva Barry of Ventura County says she was encouraged to come to the desert to see the wildflowers from posts on an Anza-Borrego Facebook group.

The Grinch in me believed the latter, but everyone I talk to proves me wrong. I talk to hikers on the trail in Anza-Borrego as well as tourists pulled over on the roadside taking photos in Joshua Tree. I meet people from all over the country. Everyone definitely says that social media helps them know when and where to go see wildflower blooms - they cite not just Instagram, but Facebook groups, websites like AllTrails.com and DesertUSA.com, even Yelp - but they also express a desire to have a genuine experience in nature, beyond just taking photos.

While hiking on a trail in Anza-Borrego, I see a group of four young women posing for a photo on a rock. Finally, I think, I’ve found my Instagram queens, people who are just there to take selfies and post on social media. But when I go up to talk to them, it turns out that three of them had purposefully left their phones in the car! They are all students from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on spring break.

Credit Marissa Ortega-Welch / KALW
Joclynn Ransom, Julie Weber, Robin Pearson, and Sophia Ray came to Anza-Borrego State Park on their spring break to see the wildflower blooms.

“Sometimes if you're so focused on taking pictures, you can't actually enjoy the moment,” Julie Weber tells me. Her friend, Robin Pearson, does have her old grandfather’s film camera with her, complete with the 1970s-era floral strap, and she is using that to take photos.

When I ask them if they are going to post their trip photos on social media, they have different answers. Sophia Ray isn’t sure. I think it's more just like a memory that I can keep to myself,” she says. The others say yes, absolutely. This is their spring break, after all!

Driving home from the desert, I realize that the answers to my questions are more complex than I had imagined. I look at all the grasses on the hillsides in the Central Valley and I think about what I’ve learned from Richard Minnich. A few hundred years ago, these hills would have been blooming with wildflowers instead. He calls it “an ecological tragedy that we’d lost this legacy of wildflowers.”

And I think of all the people I’ve met who traveled long distances to see something that has become a rare occurrence. Most were tipped off by photos on social media but wanted to go experience the beauty of desert wildflowers for themselves, in person. Perhaps as long as visitors know how to minimize their impact and towns are prepared for the increase in tourism, that isn’t such a bad thing.