Super blooms are actually ecological powerhouses

The gorgeous flora taking over California plays a key role in the environment


Photo taken by Mara Hankins


Locked underneath California’s drought-parched soil, seed banks of dormant wildflowers long awaited the proper conditions to emerge. When a statewide average of 27.6 inches of rain fell this winter, an equivalent of 78 trillion gallons, enough to fill Lake Tahoe twice, the cracked, fire-stricken and thirsty earth of the West Coast absorbed what might be a once-in-a-century occurrence. The precipitation staved off desertification and dwindling reservoirs in the state. Then, cooler-than-average temperatures and conservation efforts that preserved vital open space combined to allow the mass, spontaneous super blooms seen across California.

Super blooms leave the state’s hillsides awash in a rainbow of colors, this year’s being the first since 2019. Tourists have flocked to hiking trails, hillsides and meadows along the coast to see in-person flower clusters so large they can also be seen from space. NASA’s Landsat Satellite 9 has photographed blossoming grasslands in the Carrizo Plain National Monument from orbit, capturing its breathtaking extent. 

The term “super bloom” is not a formal scientific name, but the ecology of the phenomenon is widely studied by scientists. Over 900 species of wildflowers call California home, and according to National Geographic, their presence is an indicator of an ecosystem’s overall health. Their nectar nourishes pollinators from bees to butterflies to bats, invaluable in an agricultural powerhouse of a state like California. Expansive, interconnected root systems anchor soil, protecting habitats from erosion and terrestrial degradation. Wildflowers promote numbers of small, often threatened species in an ecosystem and can even encourage the return of declining populations.

According to Joan Dudney, an assistant professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California,Santa Barbara, the super blooms that have been few and far between in the past few decades would have been commonplace centuries ago. Now, they are threatened by invasive species and climate change.

“What we’re seeing today, I think, 300 years, 400 years ago would have seemed like a little blip, like, ‘Oh, what a cute little hillside,’ versus now it seems like this incredible event,” Dudney said. “That’s kind of a tragedy, actually, that we’ve lost so much of the diversity and such a big extent of the range in which these species used to occur.”

The wildflowers of California are considered ephemeral species, organisms with short lifespans dependent upon the cycling of seasons. One of the most common plants found blooming this spring is Sahara mustard, characterized by tall, thin green stalks crowned with bright yellow clusters of flowers. As abundant as they are, Sahara mustard is actually invasive to the state and crowds out native plants. When the lifecycle of these flowers comes to an end, they will become large swaths of brittle, dry bushes. Hills of blossoms will turn into hills of prime fire-starter in an already fire-prone state. Even though precipitation this year came close to shattering all-time records, climate change threatens to make weather patterns more erratic in the coming years, and a long period of drought, little rainfall and therefore fewer wildflowers, looms. 

“We have a culture that is disconnected from the natural world, and [super blooms are] an entry point,” Evan Meyer, executive director of a nonprofit benefiting native plant conservation, said in an interview with the Washington Post. “Nature is screaming through a megaphone, ‘Look how amazing I am, come and connect with me!’ And it’s important that people connect to this, because if you don’t have a connection, you’re not going to care when it gets destroyed.”