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Beyond the Bloom: Superblooms in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Beyond the Bloom

Superblooms in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Our resident biologist and natural resource manager Beatrix Jiménez-Helsley takes us beyond the bloom and into the science behind it to show us the rarer side of the superbloom. Beatrix explains why the much-anticipated superbloom is waning in some habitats and just getting started in others—a phenomenon that just may be the saving grace for redwoods and the species that rely on them as our climate continues to change.

All photos by Orenda Randuch


“Superbloom” may conjure images of fields bursting with bright orange poppies, purple lupine, and yellow mustard flowers that can be seen from space, but for nature, this fleeting beauty means so much more. For many native plants adapted to California’s conditions, a superbloom is the culmination of natural phenomena aligning at just the right time to support the next generation. Phenomena like fire to release dormant seeds and plentiful rains in winter followed by warmer, longer days signaling it's safe to expose precious pollen. But those conditions aren’t uniform across the state.

Bushy green foliage gives way to a meadow filled with bright green grasses surrounding a splash of light lavender from the beginnings of a lupine superbloom as Beatrix approaches for a closer look below the edge of the dark green recovering forest dotted with the gray remains of trees that will not, by Orenda Randuch
Bright green grassy hills meet in a mini canyon covered in the dark green of a shrubby plant community below a blanket of coastal fog veiling the tops of the hills, by Orenda Randuch

Here in the Santa Cruz Mountains, diverse habitats formed by elevation, geology, sun exposure, and water, just to name a few, create microclimates–pockets where conditions can be markedly different than those nearby. So as superblooms in warmer areas are ending, others are just getting started. “Our region was delayed due to the frost and rain we had into early spring. Seeds in the soil need warm temperatures in order to know conditions are good to sprout,” Beatrix explains.


Protected in San Vicente Redwoods lies a mixed ecosystem of meadows, forests, ponds, and streams fed by a high water table creating springs, seeps, and wet meadows. Shaded by the recovering redwood forest and cooled by plentiful waters, the superbloom here is delayed despite the warm day above the blanket of coastal fog. The superbloom’s usual suspects of poppies and lupine are just beginning to color the fields. The 2020 CZU Fire returned nutrients to the soil, opened up space and sunlight, and awakened fire-following seeds lying dormant in the earth. Blooms are expected here, but the superbloom has not fully blossomed just yet.

A pond edged in reedy wetland plants reflects the surrounding bright green shrubs and the dark green recovering redwood forest reaching up to a bright blue sky, by Orenda Randuch
A slope of bright green grasses filled with royal blue and white and rusty red wildflower blooms climbs to the forest comprised of recovering dark green foliage juxtaposed with the gray wood of trees that died in the CZU Fire all standing below a clear blue sky, by Orenda Randuch
Awash in shades of green, a spring meadow filled with grasses and dotted with shrubs and small trees is ringed by a redwood forest of tall dark green trees that recovered from the fire and the gray standing skeletons of trees that could not withstand the blaze, by Orenda Randuch
The crown of a redwood tree whose branches and trunk seem almost completely covered in fuzzy green growth as it recovers from the 2020 CZU Fire, by Orenda Randuch

The superbloom’s usual suspects of poppies and lupine are just beginning to color the fields. The 2020 CZU Fire returned nutrients to the soil, opened up space and sunlight, and awakened fire-following seeds lying dormant in the earth. Blooms are expected here, but the superbloom has not fully blossomed just yet.

Fresh spring green stems rise to bright orange poppy blossoms below even taller grasses rising up to meet the sun in front of an out of focus layer of shrubs and the dark green forest beyond, by Orenda Randuch
Towers of royal blue and white lupine flowers, pink and white owl clover blossoms, and grasses appear almost like a mosaic of color and texture, by Orenda Randuch

“With the changing climate, we’ve been experiencing extreme weather events which can impact the conditions the plants had evolved to adapt to,” Beatrix says.

Looking down, her face mostly obscured by the bill of her Sempervirens Fund trucker style hat, Beatrix kneels in the grass hands carefully examining a blade, by Orenda Randuch

“Wildflowers are essentially a wild plant with flowers. The flower is the reproductive part of the plant and will produce a seed,” she points out. And every step of the way the plant is supporting other species around it with its leaves, flowers, and seeds. She hikes carefully through the meadow, skirting ponds and seeps in search of some of the wildflowers often overlooked during a superbloom that should not be underestimated.

Beyond Basic Blossoms

“I’m fascinated by large, lush, deciduous shrubs,” Beatrix says. “So much effort in one year.”

Beatrix and her colleague pass between a massive warty-leaved ceanothus with bright blue blossoms on the left and a large California wild lilac ceanothus with light purple flowers on the right as they walk out of the forest’s shade and into a sunny meadow toward a big Coast whitethorn ceanothus with white flowers ahead, by Orenda Randuch

Pushing toward the upper limits of their height range, towering fire-adapted ceanothus are thriving after the CZU Fire, which means the plants and the wildlife these three different varieties support can thrive too. Their lovely fragrance scents the air, attracting hundreds of insects including bees and butterflies and below ground they are fixing nitrogen in the soil which benefits the plant community long after the fire.

Beatrix’s hand points to the “Warty-leaved Ceanothus” entry in The Plants of the Coast Redwoods book which helps to identify the three types of ceanothus growing nearby, by Orenda Randuch

Identify the three types of Ceanothus

Warty-leaved ceanothus (Ceanothus papillosus) can be identified by its dark blue flowers and bumps on its leaves, by Orenda Randuch

Warty-leaved ceanothus (Ceanothus papillosus) can be identified by its dark blue flowers and bumps on its leaves

California wild lilac (Ceanothus thyrsifloras) has lighter colored blooms and smoother leaves, by Orenda Randuch

California wild lilac (Ceanothus thyrsifloras) has lighter colored blooms and smoother leaves

Coast whitethorn ceanothus (Ceanothus incanus) has white flowers and thorns, by Orenda Randuch

Coast whitethorn ceanothus (Ceanothus incanus) has white flowers and thorns

Hiding along the meadow’s forested edges, the generous western thimbleberry's large leaves offer shade and shelter while its big white blossoms await pollination to provide food in return. “Western thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), have large leaflets which can provide shade and cooling for the soil and water on the forest floor,” Beatrix illustrates, "and they produce edible berries many creatures can forage,” she continues, “they provide food, shelter, and habitat for resident species”.

A thicket of western thimbleberry on the edge of the forest fills the frame with its large green leaves and big white blooms, by Orenda Randuch
Six big but delicate bright white western thimbleberry blossoms surrounding yellow pollen above large green leaves in front of an out of focus background of green and white shapes of the thicket, by Orenda Randuch

California phacelia (Phacelia californica) can grow in many plant communities but its seeds are photodormant: they can only germinate in darkness. “Pollinators love it!” Beatrix says. “I once walked through a field of them in the understory of a post-fire evergreen forest, and there were sooo many bees–you heard the ‘buzz’. Its long-lasting blooms attract many bumble bees, beetles, and hover flies which help to naturally control aphids and other plant pests.”

California phacelia stems stretch up from sage green leaves to complicated displays of dark purple petals curling down almost like claws and topped with fluffy lavender colored petals, by Orenda Randuch

“Broad leaf lupine (Lupinus latifolius) is a member of the pea family so each fertilized flower becomes a fuzzy little pod of seeds which provide food to creatures as well as help to begin the next generation of these nitrogen-fixers which help restore habitats by returning nitrogen to the soil and benefits all surrounding plants,” Beatrix notes.

A broad leaf lupine seemingly boasts all of its stages of flowering and seeding simultaneously with deep blue flowers tinged with white, bright purple flowers, buds about to open, withering flowers, and fuzzy green seed pods, by Orenda Randuch

Fernald’s iris (Iris Fernaldii) is endemic to western parts of Northern California where its typical blooming period is considered to be April. Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana) typically blooms later in the year from about May to July. In a nearby region, the irises are thought to have hybridized. “These irises are a great example of the biodiversity here as well as the role microclimate conditions can play making bloom periods less predictable, “ Beatrix points out. “Not only are we seeing both iris types here but both are blooming at the same time.”

White petals with yellow lines running from the base down the center of a Fernald’s iris, by Orenda Randuch
A Douglas iris flower with yellow lines running down the center of its long petals and purple lines branching off to pool in color along its edges at the end rises from a tangle of growth including two more iris buds preparing to open, by Orenda Randuch
Fifteen white Fernald’s iris flowers emerge from ferns in a shady forest understory, by Orenda Randuch
Bright yellow redwood violet flowers each with four petals stand above the mix of green leaves covering the shady forest floor, by Orenda Randuch

Neither red nor violet, bright yellow redwood violets (Viola sempervirens) can be seen popping up amongst the redwood sorrel's pale lavender flowers and clover-like leaves that carpet the redwood forest understory as early as January and usually last through May where they host many butterflies.

While identifying some species can be incredibly nuanced, Beatrix points to the two purple dots on either side of the white flower for which two-eyed violets (Viola ocellata) get their name, “other local violets don’t have those,” she says.

Two white flowers, each with a dark purple dot on both side of their yellow centers like eyes, by Orenda Randuch
Beatrix gently points to a leaf petiole, like a stem, on a branch of manzanita, by Orenda Randuch

At first glance the small withered flowers, few and far between, may seem the antithesis of a superbloom but it's perhaps the most exciting botanical sight of the visit. Beatrix closely examines the leaves and points to where they emerge almost directly out of the branch, “There’s little to no petiole, “ she says, “they’re Santa Cruz manzanita!” she exclaims. The incredibly rare and endangered Santa Cruz manzanita (Arctostaphylos andersonii) is known to exist on this remote area of San Vicente Redwoods but its a seeder rather than a resprouter like other manzanitas, so fire kills it. Beatrix checks the leaves of nearby manzanitas for stems, their flowers giving way to edible berries, and several pass the leaf test confirming we’re standing amidst a growing population of rare natives whose berries and flowers support dozens of birds, bees, butterflies, and moths.

Beatrix gently feels a manzanita leaf between two fingers above a bunch of new green berries while she searches the plant for botanical clues to confirm it’s the rare, endangered Santa Cruz manzanita, by Orenda Randuch
A magenta wood rose flower displays its bright yellow pollen in front of six magenta buds and two mature black branches showing off their prickles, by Orenda Randuch

"Every rose has its...prickle. Sorry, Poison," Beatrix laughs. Although both defend a plant from being eaten, prickles—as seen on this wood rose (Rosa gymnocarpa)—are modified epidermis and softer than thorns which are modified shoots like stems or branches.

Hanging from a slender green stem, the downturned flower of a globe lily’s pink petals would indeed make a lovely lantern for fairies if it could glow at night, by Orenda Randuch

This globe lily (Calochortus albus) has many common names but Beatrix prefers fairy lantern, “I love the little dainty fairy lanterns. I like to imagine them glowing at night.”

Growing from a bed of brown leaf litter on the forest floor, the six pointed petals of a pale purple Pacific starflower shines like a star for which its named as it catches the sunlight, by Orenda Randuch

Pacific starflower (Lysimachia latifolia) can bloom through July and grows in shaded wet areas like creeksides, moss, and mossy rock faces. “They like soil rich with organic matter, so its presence can be an indicator of the nutrients replenished by the fire,” Beatrix says.

Small purple flowers surrounding yellow caches of pollen burst up from the grass but these blue-eyed grass wildflowers are neither grass nor blue, by Orenda Randuch

Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) isn’t truly a grass but its blooms can be seen amongst grasslands and woodlands as late as July where there is some moisture and then these drought-adapted natives die back to the ground and lie dormant for the rest of the summer.

Bushy yerba santa with delicate purple flowers so pale they are nearly white thrive in the post-fire meadow beyond which the skeletal remains of dead trees still standing in the forest are a stark reminder below a slightly gray sky and a distant layer of fog, by Orenda Randuch

Yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) has been thriving in many parts of the CZU fire’s footprint. “This fire follower can grow quickly after a fire taking advantage of the new space and sunlight but it will get shaded out by taller plants as they recover and catch up,” Beatrix explains.

Although people don’t generally appreciate its fragrance, its flowers attract many insects like butterflies, moths, and especially bees.

The back end of a black and yellow striped bee pokes out of a delicate trumpet shaped yerba santa flower, by Orenda Randuch
Light green stems of California oat grass crisscross the frame ending with purple seed pods, by Orenda Randuch

Even native grasses like California oat grass (Danthonia californica) bloom this time of year and can support more insects than non-native grasses. “Native grasses are food for insects, which are food for insectivorous bats and birds, small mammals and reptiles, which support raptors and other mammals that use grasslands as their hunting grounds,” Beatrix points out.

Robust light green common cow parsnip stalks rise up to an umbrella comprised of tiny white flower bunches, by Orenda Randuch

Common cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum) can be confused with the dreaded invasive poison hemlock. “I love seeing this native deciduous perennial because when I first see it I’m like ‘ugh, poison hemlock… wait, never mind it’s cow parsnip!’ They both grow tall and have big white umbel inflorescences, except hemlock is a very invasive non-native plant,” Beatrix shares.

Crevice alumroot (Heuchera micrantha) can bloom pink, white, or greenish through the summer. Regardless of the color, native bees and hummingbirds love the flower’s nectar. “Look for them on moist, rocky banks and cliffs,” Beatrix suggests.

Several long thin crevice alumroot stems with delicate perpendicular branches support tiny white blooms stand out against the dark green foliage behind them, by Orenda Randuch
A poison oak branch laden with shiny green leaves in threes holds out bunches of tiny ivory colored buds, by Orenda Randuch

Tiny ivory buds will soon beckon pollinators to a plant that most humans prefer to stay away from—poison oak. “Poison oak is so cool because it has a variety of growth forms depending on its habitat and can blend in with oak leaves, so you’ll notice different leaf margins between plants. Hence its name Toxicodendron diversilobum,” Beatrix points out which roughly translates to “diverse lobes” referencing its ability to diversify its leaves to mimic an oak. But those same leaves that induce rashes in humans offer a great source of phosphorus, calcium, and sulfur to wildlife like deer and squirrels above, and shelter to birds who eat its berries and germinating seeds and growing seedlings especially in areas recovering from fire. So, we tip our hats to this native wildflower–from a distance.

Species Survival

The very conditions that may be delaying the expected superbloom here are exactly what can offer refuge to species of plants and wildlife alike. With year-round water, shaded forests, and a plethora of native plants a great number of species are supported in this microclimate. And as temperatures continue to rise, pockets like this can remain cooler and wetter than surrounding areas so redwoods and the myriad of native species like these they support can continue to survive here.


“It makes me so happy to see a post-fire landscape with high ecological diversity. Being here and seeing the birds, plants, insects, ponds, and the community coming to life is so mesmerizing. It’s life functioning as part of an ecosystem.”

Carbon Sequestration

Redwoods are known for their unparalleled ability to pull carbon dioxide from the air and store it in their vast, long-living and decay resistant wood but these meadows are also storing carbon beneath the earth. “Native plants have adapted to this habitat and co-evolved with other species here. Their root systems are often deeper to survive droughts and more robust to link with the plant community through fungal partners than their non-native competition. Each of these native wildflowers is storing carbon underground in its root systems and helping to fight climate change,” Beatrix explains.

Bluish purple lupine blooms accented with bright white rise from textured green grasses dotted with pink owl clover blooms and stretch across a meadow edged by a mixed evergreen forest standing against a clear, bright blue sky, by Orenda Randuch

Fire, Flowers, and the Future

This portion of San Vicente Redwoods is just a dozen or so acres of the more than 12,000 acres of protected lands where we are chronicling the natural resources to help them be resilient for the changes ahead. “We hope to bring prescribed fire to these grasslands, and work on tackling the invasive plants,” Beatrix says of stewardship plans to care for this microrefugia and the biodiversity it supports so there will be flowers far into the future.

You can help to support work like this by making a gift to Grow the Forest.

Snake in the Grass: non-native rattlesnake grass heavy with seeds resembling a rattlesnake’s rattle and out of focus blue, purple, and yellow native wildflowers behind. Prescribed fire can help reduce non-native plants while enriching the soil and stimulating native fire-adapted plants, by Orenda Randuch

Snake in the Grass: non-native rattlesnake grass heavy with seeds and native wildflowers behind. Prescribed fire can help reduce non-native plants while enriching the soil and stimulating native fire-adapted plants.

All photos by Orenda Randuch.

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