Someone recently pointed that my Instagram feed had a lot of flowers, and it’s true—I seem to be fascinated by them. Not just any flowers though, but the wildflowers that bloom all across Southern California every spring. The wave starts down in San Diego, especially beautiful in the Anza Borrego Desert, and then gradually heads north. The slopes around Los Angeles’ freeways turn bright yellow, and later purple and red. My favourite (and indeed, most Californians’ favourite) is the California poppy that blooms a brilliant orange, with the flowers unfurling for the sun, and wrapping themselves up again in the evening.
An organisation called the Theodore Payne Foundation sells wildflower seeds, including packets of California poppy. I sprinkled them as per the instructions in early spring, hardly daring to believe I’d actually see this incredible flower in our own garden, but come late spring we have a joyous corner of our property, glowing orange with all the blooms.
And when you hike in the mountains in spring, it looks different every couple of weeks as different plants bloom. For a while, the hills were scattered with the blazes of bright red toyon berries. Now, the giant yuccas are in bloom, with eight foot or taller stems hung with sprays of white flowers. It won’t be long before it all dies down and the summer heat truly kicks in. It’s not long before the hills turn from green to brown, and once again, the region goes from wildflowers to wildfires. In fact, we’ve already had several, one recently started by a weed trimmer.
Fire chiefs in the region have warned that this fire season could be as bad as last year — the time of the terrible Santa Rosa fires, and images of flames going up the hill near the 405 freeway to the Getty Museum, where they actually started planning on relocating the priceless art it contains.
The fires seem to emphasise how ephemeral wildflower season is — that even in a region that’s not covered by snow, there’s only a brief period in the year when everything seems to be alive. The poppies in the garden are already bleaching to yellow, and it won’t be long before the petals drop.
This period just before summer is characterised by morning clouds called a marine layer, which stacks up against the mountains to the north of LA. Americans have memorable terms for everything, and this phenomenon is known as June Gloom. If it comes early, it’s May Grey, and if late, it’s either No-Sky July or Fogust.
Recently, three of us went for a hike to a place called Smith Mountain up in the San Gabriel Mountains. We started under a dreary May Grey, but as we drove up, we broke out into the sunshine. The hike took us past various wildflowers to a viewpoint over the valley, and we actually looked down onto May Grey, and now it was a brilliant white, like a cloudy lake held in place by rocky walls. I don’t look at those cloudy skies the same way any more.
There have been recent studies that have shown that being outdoors and in nature has a deep therapeutic value. I’ve found that consciously anchoring one’s sense of the passing of time to cycles of nature — whether May Grey or wildflowers — slows things down a little, and make the ride a little less overwhelming.
Every day I stop before I go out and stare at our corner of California poppies, and I know that one of the reasons they are so beautiful, is that they’ll be dead in just a few weeks.
Gautam Raja is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, US.