The ragtag group of travelers had crisscrossed desolate sand dunes and labyrinthine badlands. They’d baked under the relentless sun, their tongues thick with thirst and desert dust. They’d slaughtered their oxen and abandoned their wagons and cursed the “short cut” that had led them there. And still they walked, their footfalls the only sound in the lifeless landscape.
“Every step I expected to sink down and die,” a weary woman later wrote.
When the settlers finally scaled the impenetrable wall of the Panamint Range, one was said to have looked back toward the canyon and proclaimed, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”
Then they trudged on toward California gold country, too preoccupied by the exhausting journey still ahead to devote much thought to the miracle of their survival.
Survival is a rarity in that part of the desert, a place characterized by hellish extremes. Death Valley is the lowest and driest spot in North America and the hottest in the world. Blockaded by ragged mountain ranges and carpeted only by bare earth and sand, the valley behaves like a gigantic convection oven. Superheated air wafts and whorls through the basin, scouring the landscape, daring life to defy it.
But life finds a way.
Never is that more apparent than in a month like this one. A rare and spectacular series of circumstances has transformed the barren basin into a chaos of color: the delicate white of “gravel ghost,” the yellow glow of “desert gold.” There are “purple mat” and “evening primrose” and “sand verbena” and more than a dozen other wildflower species transforming the area “from being a valley of death to being a valley of life,” park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg said in a video explaining the phenomenon.
It’s a once-in-a-decade flowering known as a “super bloom,” and it’s happening right now.
“It could be a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Van Valkenburg said.
Flowers can be found at Death Valley pretty much every year, even when the conditions are far from ideal. But Death Valley hasn’t seen a bloom like this one since 2005, park rangers say. And though the valley isn’t quite as forbidding as its name would imply — more than 1000 kinds of plants are found in the park; rare, silvery pup fish swim in the shallows of its Salt Creek; bighorn sheep wander in isolated bands across the rocky mountain slopes — it is a testament to nature’s resilience and a fluke of good fortune that anything can turn this desert into a garden.
The types of flowers that appear during a superbloom are known as “desert ephemerals,” since they are so short-lived, according to the National Park Service. Their brief lifespan is a survival strategy; rather than battle the relentless heat year after year, the flowers’ seeds lie dormant underground. This keeps them safe from the blistering heat that bakes the desert during the summer, when temperatures can easily reach 120º F during the day and a balmy 90º F at night, and the withering drought — Death Valley sees an average of just 2 inches of rain a year, and in 1929 it got no rain at all.
One upside of the hot, dry conditions is that they keep the seeds from rotting as they shelter beneath the soil, waiting for the right moment to sprout.
A winter like this one provides that moment.
An autumn storm brought 0.7 inches (a deluge by the desert’s standards) to the valley in October. The storm was devastating at the time, setting off flash floods and damaging one of the visitors’ centers. But it also prompted park rangers to begin speculating about a super bloom like they hadn’t seen in more than 10 years.
The rainstorm washed the protective coatings off of the dormant seeds, the NPS explained, allowing them to sprout. Then, the “godzillo” El Niño climate cycle that has chilled and drench parts of the West Coast (though perhaps not enough) brought more water to the parched landscape. The continued watering kept the nascent plants alive as they waited for spring to come.
With the arrival of warmer weather — temperatures in Death Valley have been in the 90s this month, according to the Arizona Republic — the plants finally began to flower.
“I’ve lived in Death Valley for 25 years,” Van Valkenburg said in his video about the super bloom, “and I’ve seen lots of blooms, lots of wildflower blooms in Death Valley, and I kept thinking I was seeing incredible blooms. I always was very excited. Until I saw one of these super blooms.
“And then I suddenly realized there are so many seeds out there just waiting to sprout, waiting to grow,” he continued. “… When you get the perfect conditions, the perfect storm so to speak, they can all sprout at once.”
The colorful plants now carpeting the desert won’t last long. Ephemerals’ survival strategy is to grow fast, reproduce quick and then die off as soon as the weather becomes unbearable again. This is why the desert flowers tend to be short and delicate — there’s no point investing a lot of time and energy in growing a stout stem and huge leaves when a heat wave could roll in and kill you at any moment.
The brilliant blooms, on the other hand, are extraordinarily useful; they attract the insects that will pollinate the plants, ensuring that their genes get passed on. In some plants the bright coloring also acts as a kind of sunscreen. In a flower called the desert five spot — a dainty violet bloom with red and green leaves — the red coloring comes from a chemical anthocyanin that acts the way melanin does in human skin, according to a post from the Park Service.
Speaking about the super bloom, there’s a sense of urgency in Van Valkenburg’s voice. He knows the display is not long for this world: “It’s here for a moment,” he said, “and then it fades.”
Soon, the valley will begin to heat up, and parching winds will come roaring back into the basin. The flowers will dry out, then disintegrate, leaving nothing but brown husks and scattered seeds behind them. The landscape will look like its name again: dusty and desolate, with signs of life few and far between.
But the seeds will still be there, sunk in the soil, waiting for the next rain.