Spring 2017 on Coastal San Diego County

by Tom Oberbauer, Vice President CNPS-San Diego

Encelia californica (California encelia) with the city in background 

Lest one gain the impression that the wildflowers this year were confined to the desert, I want to describe two coastal areas as well. In mid-March, I figured that Point Loma was getting close to flowering. Previous years following good rainfall seasons, the tidepool side of Point Loma will have displays of Eschscholzia californica (California Poppy), Encelia californica (California Encelia) and what used to be called Coreopsis maritima, now Leptosyne maritima (Sea Dahlia). So, on the last day that I visited the desert, late in the afternoon, I drove to Point Loma and down on the tidepool side 5 minutes before it was going to be blocked off at 4:30 pm. The afternoon light was magical on the landscape and the flowers. The Encelia californica was blooming wildly. 

Leptosyne maritima on Pt Loma

Other people were there, including families with small children. Before long, a woman who must have been a volunteer walked by and said I needed to leave because the ocean side part of the park was closed. I turned around and headed back but continued to photograph because the colors and clarity and subtle golden hue of the light were spectacular. Then a uniformed ranger asked me to leave because the entire park was now closing as it was 5 pm and he followed me to my car. I told him that I had been going there for more than 40 years and I had not seen it this good before. He said come back tomorrow. I told him the light was amazing. I drove back up to the top and pulled off at the intersection to photograph more when he came again and told me I was not in a parking spot. I finally drove home vowing to come back.

A week later, I was able to go back there in the middle of the day. Some students had started spring break so there were quite a few families around. Near the beginning of the Bay Side Trail, the Encelia was growing in a great mass. I had photographed that view years before following another good rainfall season and it was included in the CNPS California Gardens Book. This time, the light wind caused the flowers to move in waves across the top of the now yellow shrubs. Up on the little mesa to the northwest of the lighthouse, the Encelia was waving like a field of wheat but with yellow and brown flowers. The centers of the flowers are brown which affects the overall pattern of the vegetation color, but the yellow ray flowers are so prominent it over shadows any of the brown centers.

Linanthus dianthiflorus on Point Loma 

I drove down to the tidepool side again. I stopped and photographed more. It was really sublime. Nuttallanthus texanus (Toadflax) was in flower near the Linanthus and the Poppies. I ran around with my camera and even parked down near the tide pools so I could walk up along the road to photograph the yellow sides. After I felt like I could not get any more big views, and my time was running out, I drove back. I went there one more time. I walked from my house and back, nearly 8 miles, and saw the flowers were still going. My wife and I took my mother-in-law, a 91-year-old lady from Madeira Island, and she even enjoyed it. It is also notable that the hummingbird-sized White Lined Sphinx Moth that is so prevalent in the desert on wet years also became very numerous in the Point Loma area, spreading from the natural areas into the surrounding urban landscape. 

Torrey Pines State Reserve was the other location for flowers along the coast. The Guy Fleming Trail extends in a loop around some groves of Torrey pines. Pines had 3- and 4-inch long segments of new growth on their branch tips as a result of the good rainfall we had this season. As I walked around the north side of the loop, a grove that existed there supported large clusters of the Leptosyne. Unfortunately, most of the trees in that area succumbed to the drought and though it seemed that they were alive and standing, they were all clearly dead. Guy Fleming had planted numerous trees in the park and it created a higher density than existed naturally. A number of trees died in the late 1980s from bark beetle infestations and these died from drought though they had been here for decades. 

Floral diversity at Torrey Pines State Preserve

On the ocean side slope, a mix of flowers was beginning to bloom; Poppies, Lasthenia, Abronia maritima (Sand Verbena), Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia (Sun Cups), and even Layia platyglossa (Tidy Tips), which are not seen that frequently anymore though they used to cover all of the sand areas around Ocean Beach and Mission Bay. Walking farther, Linanthus dianthiflorus was growing in clusters and clumps along the side of the trail. The flowers were quite diverse growing together on the slopes above and among the trees that were still living. The fact that these flowers are here at all is a tribute to the volunteer work that has been done to remove weeds from Torrey Pines State Reserve. It is through the work of volunteers that Ehrarta erecta (African Veldt Grass) is not widespread and overrunning the park. Nice clusters of Poppies also existed there. Farther down the trail and around the corner, the flowers were more continuous. I went around the corner and back to my car. The flowers were good, but I think at that point they were not yet at their peak.

Leptosyne and Pinus torreyana at Torrey Pines

I still wanted to go back and see how the flowers were progressing. More than a week later, I found time to go back to Torrey Pines Park again. At the beginning of the Guy Fleming Trail, a nice cluster of Leptosyne maritima was in flower near the base of Pinus torreyana trees, with broad yellow flowers gently swaying in the breeze. I walked farther and encountered more Leptosyne, more than were there when I visited the area before. This time, I walked the route in reverse order from my normal path. 

The Camissoniopsis and Eschscholzia flowers were more abundant than the week before. As mentioned regarding Point Loma, coastal forms of Poppies are more yellow and have smaller flowers than inland forms, though they sometimes have a darker orange center. Some of the Poppies here looked like the Camissoniopsis in size and color. Flowers were literally spread on both sides of the trail. The Abronia, Camissoniopsis, and Poppies were the most common on that stretch. They were growing out of the reddish sandy soil from the Torrey Sandstone rock formation which makes an interesting color contrast on its own. All along the trail, the intensity of the flowers was remarkable. The Linanthus, as well as Phacelia distans (Wild Heliotrope), Cryptantha maritima (White Hair Cryptantha), Acmispon glaber (Deerweed) and others grew in tight clusters. The gentle movement of the air and the afternoon light created a unique atmosphere. 

The impression of the Torrey Pines area this year was not so much that of continuous patches of flowers but a diverse mix of species growing together. The flower displays for the spring of 2017 will go down in the log books as a memorable season, not soon to be forgotten.