Carrizo Plain: a glimpse of California back in time

I drove through Carrizo Plain in late April on the way to the Bay Area for some book and art events; I stopped, I walked around, I took photos, and my jaw dropped.

Fields of hillside daisy (Monolopia lanceolata) on the valley floor.

Hillside daisy patches.

Thousands of acres of hillside daisy lighting up Carrizo Plain and the Temblor Range.

My timing to visit the broad valley and surrounding South Coast Ranges in southern California was off, I had missed the peak according to all accounts on the Internet and social media. So I was not sure what I was going to encounter. Perhaps the Superbloom had dried up?

No--it was amazing. In fact the best wildflower display I have ever seen in the California Floristic Province. It was epic. Prehistoric. What California might have been like before European Contact 300 years ago.

I grew up in California and spent decades exploring the Golden State, searching out wildflower displays, observing and trying to see what the grasslands and oak savannas might have looked like. And I was quite pleased to drive into Carrizo Plain and experience something I had not seen before.

Purple owl's clover (Castilleja exserta).

Purple owl's clover on the plain at sunset.

My first visit to Carrizo Plain was in the mid 1980s when it was a forgotten and barren landscape that no one cared about. Arid grasslands, dry brown hills and plains, some recovering from failed dry farming attempts in the 1930s, abandoned, drought-ridden, with scattered empty farmhouses like a diffuse ghost town. But a beautiful place, giving crucial hints about how the great San Joaquin Valley might have appeared a thousand years ago. A land subject to cycles of droughts and rainy phases, holding many endemic species such as the blunt-nosed leopard lizard (Gambelia sila) and giant kangaroo rat (Dipodomys ingens).

When I traveled to the Carrizo Plain decades ago, Soda Lake was regularly filled with water and attracting sandhill cranes. After that, a dry phase of many years emptied the lake and drought seemed to prevail for years on end. The sandhill cranes left.

So I am overjoyed to see Soda Lake filled to the brim with rainwater in a new wet cycle, that has produced phenomenal blooms and attracted visitors to enjoy and newly appreciate the barren plain--the wasteland--that has come alive with surprising color now.

Larkspur (Delphinium sp.) overlooking Soda Lake.

Soda Lake full of rainwater.

Richard Minnich, ecological historian at UC Riverside, posits that much of the early California grasslands may have had vast and abundant wildflower displays similar to Carrizo Plain this year, that stretched from San Diego to San Francisco. The invasion of Eurasian annual grasses and forbs since outcompeted them, and today we see mostly lush green annual grass covering the hills and valleys, instead of the more open fields of wildflowers in between bunch grasses.

Minnich quotes Crespi's diary for May 7, 1770 as the Spanish expedition made its way north along the California coast into the Santa Ynez River area near Santa Barbara:

"We...[kept] on a northwesterly course over very grassy level land [empastada] near the shore. We shortly passed the point here, and in the distance made out another that formed still another bight [between Point Conception and Point Arguello]. At once after setting out, we commenced to find the fields all abloom with different kinds of wildflowers of all colors, so that, as many as were the flowers we had been meeting all along the way and on the Channel, it was not in such plenty as here, for it is all one mass blossom, great quantities of white, yellow, red, purple, and blue ones; many yellow violets or silly flowers of the sort that are planted in gardens, a great deal of larkspur, poppy, and chia [Salvia columbaria] in bloom, and what graced the fields most of all was the sight of all the different sorts of colors together." (Richard A. Minnich. 2008. California's Fading Wildflowers: Lost Legacy and Biological Invasions. University of California Press. Page 44.)

Native bunchgrasses of bluegrass (Poa secunda) grow around vernal pools in Carrizo Plain.

Long awns catching the sunset light of nodding needle grass (Stipa cernua).

The native annual grass foxtail (Festuca microstachys) growing in the Temblor Range mixing with introduced Mediterranean annual grasses. The native fescues have spikelets more at right angles to the culm than the introduced species.

Another Festuca microstchys going among the goldfields (Lasthenia californica) and tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) of a drying vernal pool in Carrizo Plain.  These native annual grasses are often overlooked but much have been more common before Spanish arrival.

Deep blue color of lupine (Lupinus bicolor).

I have never seen such large patches of Lupinus bicolor, the scene reminded me of early 20th Century paintings by California Impressionists, such as Edgar Payne (1883-1947).


  1. I cannot believe that this was California full of natural and mesmerising beauty. These are lovely pictures of California and thankful to you for providing this information.

    1. I am glad you enjoyed the photos, this is an amazing area. A glimpse into California long ago...


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