California Desert in Bloom

Mar 24, 2024

California Desert in Bloom

Mar 24, 2024

How a quick detour became a highlight of our trip to the Coachella Valley Indian Wells Tennis Tournament.

Desert in Bloom

Indian Wells in March is a veritable paradise of 75-80° weather, blooming citrus trees, an effortless blend of thriving Mediterranean and desert plants and world class tennis. This year, however, there were some unusual winds, rain and even bee swarms that affected the tournament schedule. 

We decided to use this intermission to explore the area and drove out to the Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve located on the trace of the San Andreas Fault.  The preserve itself is a miracle of an ecosystem where majestic California Fan Palms are thriving in a swamp of sulfurous water in various otherworldly formations. It is also home to multiple native plants like Honey Mesquite, Goldenbush, Arroweed, Desert Holly, Cattle Spinach and many others.

Unfortunately, most of the trails were closed for rehabilitation due to the previous season rains, so we ended up driving around – which is how we came across some beautiful spots of blooming desert flowers.   Even though it was far from a super bloom (a bit early), it was still amazing to see this arid land spring back to life in vibrant colors with the snow covered San Jasinto Mountains in the background.

Most of what we saw were vast expanses of purple Desert Sand Verbena (25 species in western North America and 8 native to California!) and Silver Lupin with occasional blotches of yellow Brittlebush and white Burrobrush.

Up close, you can see how the desert plants maximize the use of water: their leaves are small and often covered in hair or wax. Some have succulent water-storing stems.  I was madly taking pictures hoping to identify them later using the most excellent Matt Ritter book, California Plants: A Guide to Our Iconic Flora. Shown below are a few I encountered:




Pincushion Flower (Chaenactis fremontii) -- native to Mojave and Sonora, it is one of the most conspicuous spring wild flowers and a valuable source of food for desert tortoises.








California Figwort (Scrophularia californica) – with slightly fragrant flowers attracting local bees, butterflies and birds.








Scorpion Weed (Heliotrope phacelia) – beautiful, but, as the name implies, dangerous – can cause rash. 




The wildflower season is just beginning and, given the amount of rains we have had lately, another super bloom season is in the making. You don't need to drive to Coachella Valley to enjoy it. Plenty of places locally in Napa County:  Moore Creek Park in St. Helena, Alston Park in Napa, Oat Hill Mine Trail in Calistoga and Bothe-Napa State Park.

Get out your Audubon Field Guide to Wildflowers and go!

Napa Master Gardeners are available to answer garden questions by email: or phone at 707-253-4143.  Volunteers will get back to you after they research answers to your questions.

Visit our website: to find answers to all of your horticultural questions.

Photo credits:  Natasha Mantle