Despite record-breaking low temperatures still shocking the Midwest, South and Northeast of the United States, spring is actually right around the corner. As temperatures warm, wildflowers will pop up across the country, from California's deserts to the hills of New Hampshire. Some areas lay claim to a specific kind of wildflower, like the bluebonnets of the Texas Hill Country, while others will feature a diverse medley of colorful blooms.
Besides being beautiful to look at, wildflowers are valuable to scientists studying climate because of the wide range of environmental triggers that spark their bloom—everything from snow melt to precipitation, depending on species and location. According to David Inouye, an ecologist at the University of Maryland, "you have these different species responding to different environmental cues, so you can be looking at the effects of snow pack and temperature and precipitation and gain insight into the whole community."
Studying native plants also gives scientists a clue to how the climate has changed over the years: Scientists in Massachusetts, for example, were able to draw conclusions about climate change by using a baseline of bloom dates from the 1800s meticulously recorded by none other than Henry David Thoreau. After comparing Thoreau’s observations, written between 1852 to 1861, with current bloom dates, the scientists noticed that the flowers were blooming earlier than when Thoreau was writing.
Inouye, who has been studying wildflowers in the Rocky Mountains for four decades, says that spring has been coming earlier each year, triggering an earlier growing season. But in the Southwest and California, where wildflower blooms are largely dictated by precipitation, the trend is different. Lack of precipitation means that desert wildflower seeds, which are mostly annuals, won't germinate—instead of a desert full of colorful flowers, we might end up with a desert of dormant seeds.
While research suggests some species will be able to migrate to avoid the effects of climate change, Inouye told the Union of Concerned Scientists there is "little doubt" that global warming will eventually cause the extinction of some wildflowers. Bruce Hamilton, Deputy Executive Director of the Sierra Club, agrees. "There's going to be some winners and some losers in any climate change scenario," he says. "Some heat-intolerant species are going to suffer and others could potentially expand their range." Changing bloom times—and disappearing wildflower species—might also have an impact on migratory birds and insects, which depend on wildflowers for pollen and nectar.
Because wildflower blooms are dependent on so many factors, their peaks are notoriously difficult to predict (even without the extra challenge of a changing climate). It's best to check expected bloom dates before making a trip—some sites have a tracker that alerts visitors to bloom status, while others will post photos of the current bloom. Here are seven places to help you break out of the winter doldrums and take in some colorful flowers.
Antelope Valley, California
Peak Bloom: Mid-April
Primary Flower: California poppy
California's Mojave Desert might seem an unlikely place to see blooms of wildflowers, but each spring, the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve—located in the desert's western tip—explodes into a sea of orange California poppies. It's the largest and most dependable bloom of the species—California's official flower—in the state. While the color and intensity of bloom changes each year, flowers are usually at their height mid-April, though they can be seen as early as mid-February and as late as the end of May.
Crested Butte, Colorado
Peak Bloom: Mid-July
Primary Flower: Mixed
Inside Colorado's Gunnison National Forest lies Crested Butte, dubbed the state capital of wildflowers. Each summer, the area erupts in color as a variety of mountain wildflowers bloom from June to August. Wildflower varieties include the death camas (a tall member of the lily family), elephant head (a small flower with tiny pink blooms) and alpine sunflowers, which grow throughout the mountains of Colorado. At peak bloom in mid-July, the area hosts a wildflower festival, featuring hikes and workshops geared toward wildflower enthusiasts (classes range from photography to wildflower medicine). This year's festival is scheduled for July 13-19, and is expected to draw visitors from around the country.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Tennessee
Peak Bloom: Late April
Primary Wildflower: Mixed
Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountain National Park is home to over 1,500 wildflower varieties, making it a world-renowned hotspot for wildflower pilgrimages. In late winter and early spring, ephemeral wildflowers like trillium—named ephemeral because of their short growing period—bloom en masse across the park's forest floors.
Ephemeral wildflowers have a short growing period because they capitalize on the period of time before deciduous trees begin to sport leaves. Without the leaves blocking valuable sunlight, the flowers enjoy a short but vigorous bloom, peaking in late April. Some ephemeral flowers known to bloom in Great Smoky Mountain National Park include trillium (10 different species can be found in the park), lady slipper orchids and violets.
To make the most of the peak wildflower bloom, the park hosts a yearly wildflower pilgrimage—this year scheduled for April 21-25—where visitors can enjoy guided walks, photography workshops and educational seminars. If you miss the spring bloom, the park maintains its color through the summer, as wildflower varieties such as black-eyed Susans take the place of the spring flowers.
Hill Country, Texas
Peak Bloom: Early April
Primary Flower: Bluebonnet
Forget the yellow rose—when it comes to a Texas flower, head to the state's Hill Country in central and southern Texas to catch a glimpse of the bluebonnet. Texas' state flower, the bluebonnet was a favorite of Lady Bird Johnson, who loved wildflowers so much she founded an organization to assure their preservation in America's natural landscapes. Bluebonnets are common along the side of highways in Texas, and the 600-some miles of pavement through the Hill Country offers a perfect chance to view the flowers.
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Peak Bloom: Early August
Primary Flower: Mixed
Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state is home to over 100 varieties of wildflowers. Its subalpine meadows feature some of the world's best wildflower viewing; one such meadow is named Paradise for its beautiful displays. But the meadows aren't the only place in the park to find wildflowers, since the area’s forests also provide habitat for a variety of native flowers. Peak bloom can be hard to predict because local wildflowers depend on a variety of triggers to bloom, but flowers are usually flourishing by mid-July, with meadows peaking at the beginning of August.
Sugar Hill, New Hampshire
Peak Bloom: Early June
Primary Flower: Lupine
The lupine, a perennial plant that belongs to the pea family, blankets the New Hampshire countryside each June with its violet (and sometimes pink) blooms, ushering in one of New England's most spectacular summer sights. To celebrate the lupine season, the small town of Sugar Hill hosts an annual festival throughout the month of June, featuring lupine walks, a marketplace with local artisans, concerts and a photography contest. The lupines bloom for only a few weeks, usually disappearing by the end of June.
Anza-Borrego State Park, California
Peak Bloom: Early March
Primary Flower: Desert wildflowers
Anza-Borrego State Park, located east of San Diego, is the largest state park in California, housing 12 separate wilderness areas and 500 miles of dirt roads. The park is primarily desert, but that doesn't mean it isn't home to some incredible wildflowers—when conditions are just right, the desert bursts into a colorful landscape of yellow, purple and red. The bloom lasts only a few weeks, and is highly dependent on precipitation and temperature—this year, it began in late February, due to unseasonably warm temperatures. Wildflowers native to Anza-Borrega include the desert sunflower, which is blooming now for the first time in several years, the yellow desert dandelion and desert lavender. In recent years, the invasive Sahara Mustard plant has threatened Anza-Borrego's native wildflowers—visitors are encouraged to pick the weed if they see it growing.