California poppies in the Antelope Valley, April 2010

Broad strokes of brilliant, Caltrans orange shimmer on the horizon. We already know the source of the vivid color. But it doesn’t diminish our delight as we draw near.

Thanks to a perfect convergence of rain and sunshine, our native California poppies are blooming with amazing profusion throughout the state. But it’s hard to believe they can be any more beautiful — and impressive — than in the Antelope Valley this spring.

Giant swaths of the flowers are a radiant orange, rising in waves in the flats and on the hillsides like a mirage on a super-heated highway.

Indeed, the sight reminds me of something I wrote for Horticultural Magazine nearly 20 years ago:

“Legend has it that sailors plying southern California’s coastline during the 1700s set their course by a spectacular sight — a hillside above what is now Pasadena that turned coppery-gold with thousands of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) each spring. The color was reportedly so bright that navigators could spot the flowers from 25 miles away.”

California poppies, and a few tiny lupine, mass for their close-up.

While I’m not sure about 25 miles, we could certainly spot the brilliance from 10 miles last week.

We were on our way to the Eastern Sierra for some R&R in the high country. From Interstate 5, we took Hwy 138 east. Most of the year, 138 is a boring ride, a desolate two-lane country road lined with a whole lot of nothing.

But this being a wet spring, the hills were still green. And the flowers. Oh, the flowers.

As soon as we left the interstate, we began to see scattered poppies. Then a few goldfields, which are aptly named, tiny yellow button asters. Then more poppies. Then more goldfields. Then finally, we were immersed in both.

We knew the Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve Park was near. We saw a cluster of parked cars in the distance. We turned off the highway. But we never made it to the preserve. We simply pulled over and stepped right into a stand of poppies and goldfields that rolled off in every direction.

It was cold. The wind was bone-chilling. But it didn’t matter.

Lest we not forget the goldfields.

As for the poppies, it was interesting to see how differently they grow on these windswept plains. On the Central Coast, our poppies adorn the sides and tops of sprawling, mounding foliage that can reach 2 feet tall. In the Antelope Valley, the blue-gray plants are compact. They bear tight, ferny leaves that rise only a few inches off the ground, causing the legions of flowers to bloom at a uniform height. The expanses feel smoother and more carpet-like.

More rain had fallen by the time we drove back through later in the week. The fields were an even more impossibly vivid orange, with even more flowers in bloom. How lucky we are, that we still have these open spaces where our wildflowers can bloom with such abandon. And how lucky we were, to have chanced upon them at their peak of abundance.

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