Topanga has received just 5.54 inches of rain so far this season. The rainfall totals for the rest of the Santa Monica Mountains range from just under six inches at the top of Decker Canyon to a measly 3.61 inches on the coast at Carbon Beach.

This is not a good year for wildflowers. Many are late to bloom this year, and the season will be extremely short, unless April brings an unexpected rain shower, but even during severe drought conditions, the sap rises in spring and at least some flowers bloom. 

Greenbark ceanothus is one of the key plants of the Santa Monica Mountain chaparral. Its deep roots help it weather drought years and its flowers are an essential resource for native pollinators.

Plants that can store water and nutrients below ground in roots and bulbs have the best chance of flowering this spring. Deep-rooted green bark ceanothus is currently in bloom throughout the canyon. Wild cucumber, also known as manroot for its huge tuberous roots, can weather drought more readily than most plants, and some natives, like miner’s lettuce, and several of the lupine species, have evolved to grow and bloom quickly, taking advantage of even limited rainfall. That’s a strategy that has enabled invasive mustard to colonize the Santa Monica Mountains, but this year even this aggressive pest plant is suffering from the lack of rain. 

Other plants cope with drought by turning miniature—putting all of their energy into perhaps one blossom on a plant that may be only a couple of inches tall, in an effort to produce seed for next year. Some wildflowers never appeared at all this spring. Their seeds will remain in the soil, waiting for more auspicious conditions to germinate. 

It was a treat to find beautiful ephemeral chocolate lilies blooming this spring. This native member of the fritillary family only blooms for a few weeks even in a good year. It was an unexpected pleasure to find it in a year with so little rain.
Padres shooting stars are another ephemeral spring flower. They are usually one of the first wildflowers of spring, taking advantage of the first rains and blooming as early as February. This year, they were sharing their northern slope with the chocolate lilies.

However, there are places that shelter wildflowers even during a drought year. We recently found chocolate lilies and Padre’s shooting stars blooming on a sheltered north slope of a favorite trail. Rare and ephemeral even in a good year, finding these beautiful flowers in a season when so few flowers are blooming is deeply moving: an affirmation of the power of nature to endure and persevere.

Hummingbird sage thrives near creeks and seeps, under the shade of oaks and sycamores.
Coulter’s lupine takes advantage of the first rain of the season to germinate and grow quickly, blooming and producing seeds for next season.
Indian paintbrush, or Castilleja,  is hemiparasitic, drawing on the roots of other plants for resources, that gives this vivid lava-red wildflower an edge during a drought year.
This Parry’s phacelia is tiny, just a couple of inches tall. In a good year it’s ten times larger, but the strategy for this plant is to produce at least some seeds as quickly as possible, with the limited resources available to it.