It's that time of year again when brilliantly colored wildflower blooms across the country draw visitors with promises of spring — and the chance to capture a whimsical flower field photo.
Whether you've experienced a "super bloom" (the occurrence of a higher-than-average amount of wildflowers blooming within a short stretch of time, typically following a wetter-than-normal rainy season) or have only seen one in pictures, the appeal is evident: There's a certain joy of witnessing flowers paint the hills.
The sight of this natural phenomenon is enough to — as Fred Clarke, an acclaimed orchid-grower and general manager of the Flower Fields, a 50-acre ranunculus bloom attraction near the coast in Carlsbad, Calif., says — "strum your heartstrings."
But destructive visitor behavior at popular super bloom sites proves that beauty can be a double-edged, selfie-stick-shaped sword. When poppy-peepers descended on Lake Elsinore and the Walker Canyon area of California in droves last year — an estimated 150,000 people in just one weekend — plucking up poppies, wielding selfie sticks and trampling the delicate blossoms, the mayor declared a "poppy apocalypse" and shut the whole thing down.
So, what's all the fuss about stepping on a few flowers, anyway?
With millions of wildflowers bursting from the desert sands or the hillside soil, you might assume there's no harm in losing a few — when visitors intentionally pick them or accidentally crush them underfoot. But the impact of each damaged flower is far-reaching — into the ecosystem and into the future, especially when you consider the cumulative, literal footprints of hundreds of thousands of people.
"If one person steps (off the trail) 2 feet and steps on flowers, and then the next person steps 2.5 feet, and then the next person 3 feet, and the next person 4, then 6, then 10 feet," Clarke explains, it's not long before "the whole area is trampled."
In California, desert plants are hardy in many ways and have adapted to survive harsh conditions that include below-freezing temperatures and extreme heat, says Colin Barrows, the conservation coordinator at Friends of the Desert Mountains, a nonprofit organization in California's Coachella Valley. But they're certainly not built to withstand the weight of a human. If we're not careful, our seemingly innocent frolic in a field could be game over for the wildflowers we encounter.
RELATED: Wildflowers are back! Great spots near Austin to see them
"A lot of desert wildflowers grow for only a very short period of time and may bloom for only a few hours," Barrows explains. They have a brief window within which to attract pollinators. So, if someone comes skipping along and steps on them then, Barrows says, "it's doubly tragic." The flower is crushed, and the seed is expended. "They've lost their chance to survive. ... They'll never be able to reproduce. That plant will never contribute to the next spring bloom or super bloom."
It's not simply a matter of aesthetics. "The flowers are an integral part of the ecosystem and the natural community," says Dennis Stephen, regional interpretive specialist for the Colorado Desert District of California State Parks. When wildflowers are crushed, "those flowers aren't able to contribute to the overall ecosystem, which includes the caterpillars that feed on the flowers, the hawks that feed on the caterpillars. ... So, there's a ripple effect."
But Stephen, Barrows and Clarke are not suggesting that you stay away. On the contrary, they encourage anyone who’s able to get out and experience the springtime display while keeping in mind these expert tips.
WHERE TO GO
There are innumerable wildflower trails to explore. Check the Wildflower Viewing Areas page of the U.S. Forest Service website for inspiration on where to go petal-peeping across the country.
"If you can do so safely, a good way to look for wildflowers is to drive along the road," he says. "Sometimes the roadsides are home to some of the best wildflowers, and driving is a great way to see a lot of flowers in a short period of time."
WHAT TO BRING
You'll need sunscreen, hiking boots to ensure traction and protect your feet from prickly plants and poisonous critters, and plenty of water. Barrows suggests bringing a magnifying glass, too.
"Everybody likes a big field of poppies or lupine. But to me, the more pleasurable experiences you can have looking at wildflowers are getting up close and personal with the flowers," he advises. "Look for the kinds you don't usually see — the tiny flowers that are the size of a pinhead, for example."
Studying flowers in detail helps you appreciate their diversity. And each flower is trying to attract specific pollinators, so if you look closely you'll see every flower has a unique character. "Some want to be pollinated by bees, some by hummingbirds, some by moths or butterflies. You can actually see those interactions happening when you take the time to look at individual flowers."
DON'T BE SELFIE-ISH
It's natural to want to be part of and share this wildflower phenomenon. But don't let your social media visions cloud your judgment.
"In a super bloom year, it becomes this lifetime — life-changing, for some people — experience to see these flowers." Visitors "want to go out and have that sort of Instagram moment lying in a field of flowers or the 'hills are alive' (’Sound of Music’) moment where they're running through the fields." Instead of doing that and damaging flowers, Barrows suggests visitors "find an established trail and stick to it" to lessen their footprint.
You can have your flower photos safely from the trail and respect the fragile environment and fellow visitors, too.
"Tread lightly. You're not the only person out there," Clarke says. Being mindful can go a long way in preserving the natural beauty for this season and beyond.
"The resources are here for everyone to enjoy," Stephen says. " 'Don't doom the bloom.'"