It’s wildflower time in Sonoma County
It's early yet, but splashes of color that have recently appeared amid bright grasslands and shaded local woodlands tell of glorious weeks to come, as spring takes hold and this year's crop of wildflowers bloom into life.
Even in a region with the comparatively temperate climate we enjoy on the North Coast, the shift into wildflower season somehow offers reassurances that the harsh days of winter are behind us. The promise and potential of foliage that will soon sprout blossoms inspires us to contemplate new beginnings, while the plants that already have opened and spread their delicate petals can't help but charm.
“It's so delicious to see the flowers,” said one avid fan, retired Santa Rosa High School Spanish teacher Phil Weil. “I get very excited.”
There's something forever surprising about the vibrant, varied colors and diverse forms in which wildflowers are found - from bell-shaped to star-patterned, spiky to open-throated, almost voracious in form.
Though delicate and graceful in appearance, they are at once fragile and robust, surviving even in small soil deposits on exposed rocks or in other niche locations.
And yet, their predictable reappearance makes it “rather easy to reconnect with them,” said Sonoma County resident Reny Parker, who has combined her passions for native plants and photography into a well-known photographic guide to wildflowers of the North Coast.
Weil, 70, similarly thinks of the region's wildflowers as familiar friends, and on a recent hike at Annadel State Park pointed out the early arrivals.
From tender white milkmaids to sunny buttercups, cornflower-blue hounds tongues and purple, comet-shaped shooting stars, the early birds had begun to make their arrival along the Cobblestone Trail, a popular, predictably rocky, dirt path up a wooded slope at the north end of the park. Situated beneath some Coast live oaks, a thin patch of feathery maroon Indian warriors was just beginning to fill in.
Weil was hunting for, and eventually found, a single slender stalk with three green chrysalis-shaped checker lily buds that would soon burst open into mottled bell-shaped flowers sometimes called mission bells. They look “like a Tiffany lamp” when viewed from underneath, he said. Days later, he found some already blooming at Jack London State Park.
Weil also looks for one of his all-time favorites, the St. Helena Fawn Lily, along the Oat Hill Mine Trail out of Calistoga, though the prized Mariposa lily more often awaits him at Austin Creek State Recreational Area closer to the coast.
Abundant open spaces around Sonoma County and environs offer opportunities galore to enjoy the seasonal pageantry - on your own or with an expert's guidance. Guided wildflower walks are commonly scheduled in March and April by Sonoma County Regional Parks, Jack London State Park, LandPaths, Bouverie Preserve, Pepperwood Preserve and others.
Published and online resources are readily available, as well, including Parker's helpful, locally focused guide: “Wildflowers of Northern California's Wine Country & North Coast Ranges.”
“We are so fortunate to live in an area with a huge diversity of plants,” Parker said. “For me, spring is synonymous with wildflowers.”
Beginning with native shrubs that begin flowering in January, the annual wildflower season lasts months, peaking in March and April when “waves of color - red, pink, blue, yellow - catch your eye,” she said.
And though wildflowers are hearty and tenacious even in drought, they are likely to be especially profuse this year, thanks to winter storms and the sunny, mild weather that followed, said Master Gardener Phil Dean. He has for years led wildflower walks hosted by county parks.
Dean, a west county resident, said he nonetheless favors Hood Mountain Regional Park in the Sonoma Valley because of several rare wildflower species that can be found there, including the silver mound bush lupine and an unusual neon-purple flower called the Sonoma penstemon, which is found almost nowhere else.
“Overall, it should be a strong year for wildflowers,” he said.
Weil, a longtime hiker, said he's a late-bloomer when it comes to wildflowers, though the spare time afforded him by his retirement six years ago has allowed him to study up and find deep satisfaction in scouting and photographing these sentinels of spring, learning where to find certain favorites around Sonoma County and environs.
“My wife will say, ‘You don't need any more pictures of the trillium, or whatever it is,' ” Weil said with a grin. “I just want to do justice to the flower.
“I get very excited when I see flowers growing where they haven't been before. They're growing, and they're flourishing.”
And though they inevitably fade with summer, Parker said, “as long as their habitat remains intact, they will bring equal pleasure the next spring.”
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary. firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.