PHOTOS: Wildflowers and Butterfly Populations Super Bloom in Unison

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Painted lady butterflies, some of about 1 billion that are swarming through the skies of Southern California during their migration north from Mexico, feed on apple blossom flowers in Glendale on March 13, 2019. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Super blooms of two kinds are blossoming in California, thanks to well-timed El Niño rains in the desert: wildflowers and painted lady butterflies.

The California Super Bloom

Tourists are making pilgrimages to super bloom meccas like Anza-Borrego State Park near San Diego. And they're getting a special treat: Millions of painted lady butterflies are swarming the new swaths of flowers, said Art Shapiro, a professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis.

It's a pleasant surprise after butterfly populations in California hit concerning lows last year.

"Last year was the worst year at my study sites for butterflies at all elevations, from sea level to tree line, that I have ever observed in 47 years," Shapiro said Wednesday.


Monarch butterflies in particular saw a nearly 90 percent drop in population in California. Shapiro has gotten calls from people who have seen the painted ladies and mistaken them for monarchs, which is easy to understand since they share the same striking orange coloring.

“The migration of the painted lady is, if anything, more spectacular than that of the monarch, but people don’t know about it," Shapiro said. "What I can tell you is that I’m already getting messages from people who are seeing oodles of painted ladies down in the Southland saying, ‘This is wonderful! The monarch has been saved! Did we do it, or did they save themselves?’"

And then he tells them: "They’re not monarchs, they’re painted ladies”

The super bloom benefits painted ladies because the insects overwinter (similar to hibernating) in the desert, meaning when there is more rain, they have more plants on which they can lay their eggs — creating the perfect storm for a population boom.

A super bloom of wild poppies blankets the hills of Walker Canyon on March 12, 2019, near Lake Elsinore, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The last wildflower super bloom was in spring 2017 after several years of drought. According to Casey Schreiner, founder and editor of Modern Hiker, the term "super bloom" didn't exist until the last few years; it's a word made up to mean a bunch of flowers.

California native plant seeds can live for a long time without sprouting. They are fragile and resilient at the same time, Schreiner said Friday, because they need certain conditions to bloom — but once they have them, they really thrive.

Schreiner said the tourism onslaught at Anza-Borrego in 2017 — thanks to social media — was so unexpected that restaurants ran out of food and bathrooms were out of service. He said it's important people stay on trails and don't disturb the plans because wildflowers like the golden poppy, for example, don't seed until after they bloom — so the flowers that people are picking or trampling now likely won't grow back next year.

For more information on where to find a super bloom near you, visit the Theodore Payne Foundation. The Chamber of Commerce in Borrego Springs also has a wildflower hotline.

A woman takes in the view of a ‘super bloom’ of wild poppies blanketing the hills of Walker Canyon on March 12, 2019, near Lake Elsinore, California. Heavier than normal winter rains in California have caused a ‘super bloom’ of wildflowers in various parts of the state. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)