You can tell a lot about a place by its name. Death Valley, as its title suggests, is appropriately arid and desolate – most of the time, at least. However, right now the driest and hottest place in North America is experiencing its largest explosion of floral life in 11 years, after unusually heavy autumn and winter rains, thought to have been brought on by the weather pattern El Niño, provided the perfect conditions for wildflowers to flourish.
Located in eastern California, Death Valley covers around 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) of the Mojave Desert and the Great Basin, and includes Badwater Basin, the lowest point of elevation in North America at 86 meters (282 feet) below sea level. Annual rainwater at this spot is normally just 4.8 centimeters (1.9 inches), although it is thought that as much as 7.6 centimeters (3 inches) may have fallen in just five hours last October, as autumn storms swept the valley.
This was followed up by above-average rainfall throughout winter, enabling dormant seeds of local wildflowers to take root, resulting in an early spring bloom. Many flowers in the region are well adapted to the valley’s harsh conditions, with seeds that are able to remain in this dormant state for several years while they await the right conditions to begin germinating.
Normally, the flowering period of these plants – which occurs annually for some species and less frequently for others – is short-lived, which is why they are referred to as ephemerals. However, in previous El Niño years, Death Valley has sprung to life with an abnormal density and variety of colorful flowers, with this so-called "superbloom" lasting throughout the spring and into summer.
The last of these occurred in 2005, with this year’s event eclipsing anything that has been seen in the region since then. Rainfall levels over the coming months will play a major role in determining how long this superbloom lasts and which flowers become visible, although it is likely that the composition of flora throughout the valley will vary as the spring progresses, bringing about transformations in the desert landscape.
For instance, at present, flowers such as the yellow desert gold, the purple and red desert five-spot, and the white gravel ghost can be seen in abundance throughout the region. However, from mid-April, other flowers like the aptly-named desert paintbrush are expected to come into bloom, decorating Death Valley with a new array of colors.
Image in text: The desert five-spot is among the wildflowers currently decorating Death Valley. National Park Service/Dianne Milliard