Inspired by nature


... a UC resource for vegetation management in Southern California

Where did all the wildflowers go?

    Southern California used to be carpeted with wildflowers. No I don’t mean a plant here and a plant there, hillsides were covered in colors each spring, like the banner above, possibly even more spectacular. Most of these wildflowers were gone by the early-mid 1900’s, due to the introduction of invasive species.

The short version of a long story

    Native Americans have lived in California for at least 10,000 years, possibly longer. Their trade routes were surprisingly long, yet travel was slow, thus there was little potential and incentive for significant plant introductions, especially weedy plants with little value. At the time of the spanish arrival Native American populations in California were estimated to be several hundred thousand people and could have been much higher, and food plants were likely traded extensively. Several locations in California still bear the name that was given to them by the Native Americans. Aquanga in Riverside is not a derivative of water from spanish, Ivanpah in San Bernardino County is not named after a person named Ivan, and Jurupa, Malibu and Mojave are all Native American words.

    The Franciscan missionaries introduced the first European weeds. The missionaries brought European grasses, annuals and mustards to the new territory, some of which were useful as food sources, others as forage and some were accidentally introduced. In the early 1800’s there were more livestock in California than there were people, with more than 800,000 head of livestock, and most of the invading plants were sparse or only locally abundant and some exotics likely spread without the assistance of grazing. Grazing at the time was without fences, concentrated near the coast and well over carrying capacity (a concept developed in the 1900’s). During a large multi-year drought in the 1840 hundreds of thousands of livestock were either slaughtered or died due to lack of forage.

    It wasn’t until the late 1800‘s and early 1900‘s that botanists began to realize the coming invasion. In addition the invasion was complex, having occurred in different areas at different rates with different interactions with grazed lands. Grasses in the genus Bromus were introduced sometime before 1860, but it was not until the 1920’s that they were becoming the dominant plant in Southern California. Even some of the older folks who grew up in Southern California in the 1920’s and 30’s remember summers with barren fields where dried dead grasses now dominate.

    Many early records of the vegetation of California suggest wildflowers were the dominant vegetation type in the inland valleys. Several early explorers described the lack of good grazing lands in the California interior, places which are now exotic grasslands.

    Wildflowers were likely the dominant herbaceous vegetation type in the Los Angeles region. In Orange County, an early explorer Pedro Font wrote “among the infinite variety of flowers, such as tulips [likely poppies] and others of very diverse colors and very pretty, with which from now on the fields, groves and valleys of those lands begin to be clothed.”--February 1770. The description seems unambiguous a covering of spring wildflowers. This cloth of flowers does not exist in Orange County today, it is covered with European weeds.

Wildflowers Almost Everywhere

In Pomona the exotic filaree (Erodium) was “relieved by bright orange rugs...solid beds of brilliant poppies,,, there were lavender colored lilies, bright-red cardinal flowers, pretty crucifiers, vast bunches of violets, cream-colored bellflowers...”--1888

Theodore Payne (of the wildflower foundation of the same name) said “the endless miles of wildflowers in the San Fernando, San Joaquin and Antelope valleys” are what inspired him to collect seeds.

Newspapers reported “Immense fields of poppies...(at) the mesa lying at the base of Mt. Cucamonga”--1890

“The Box Springs hills [in Riverside] are covered with masses of golden poppies”--1891

“...the floral display increases, until, at its height, distinct bands of color, blue or orange may be traced in the landscape for many miles”--1888 Lindley and Widney

Today these wildflower fields are rare or in many cases absent in their entirety.

For more information see Richard Minnich’s informative and extremely descriptive book California’s Fading Wildflowers.

Quotes taken from the same source.

California’s Perennial Grasslands: How extensive were they?

Some ecologists have written extensively about the historic vegetation of California. This seems like a trivial matter, however it can save time when understanding what vegetation we can restore. Restoration is the art and science of what is practical, it is also much easier to attempt to restore a community that historically existed then one that was never present. If we think an area was coastal sage scrub and try to restore to that vegetation type, but in fact it was never coastal sage scrub we are fighting an uphill battle. If we are under a misguided notion that many of the inland valleys in Southern California were perennial grasslands and we try to restore to that condition, are we fighting an uphill battle?

Frederick Clements noted grasses growing along fence lines as he traveled to California by train. He surmised that the historic vegetation in California was perennial grasslands filled with bunchgrasses like needlegrass (Stipa/Nassella). He believed those bunchgrasses had been reduced, by livestock grazing and invasive grasses, to the safe havens along the railroad tracks. He also found remnants of these grasslands in small refuges in the desert as further proof of the extensive grasslands that had been reduced to isolated patches.

A Lack of Evidence for Inland Valley Grasslands

There are several problems with this idea. “Remnant” grasslands in Southern California are very rare especially in the inland valleys. In other ecosystems that have been converted by invasive species and land management activities the species that have been displaced are still present in some form or another. For example, in southern Arizona where perennial grasslands have been converted to shrublands there is historical evidence of those perennial grasses and the grasses are still present on the landscape. The repeat photos, right, still have some perennial grasses in them even though the vegetation is currently dominated by shrubs, especially in the hills. There are other examples of this from New Mexico, Texas, Nevada and the California Deserts.

Second, the early herbarium records, which are by no means a complete record of historic California vegetation, show a somewhat compelling story of landscapes with wildflowers. I am in the process of compiling all early records of two invasive annual grasses ripgut brome, red brome, a native bunchgrass (needlegrass) and two native wildflowers (California poppy and tidy tips). I chose tidy tips partly because it is shorter than a bunchgrass and if a grassland was present it would be somewhat obscured by the taller grasses. All these species are popular and widespread.

The preliminary data shows that before 1930 wildflowers were quite abundant, more so than they are now. It also appears that the invasive bromes were not as well collected as the native wildflowers until the 1930’s. Which is also when botanists started to notice the invasion. More research needs to be completed to figure out some of the details but I think the outlines of the story are emerging.

Wildflowers Not Grasslands

I believe it is fair to suggest the inland valleys of California were covered in wildflowers and grasses were present, but they were not grasslands. They are considered grasslands now, unfortunately it is invasive exotic grasses that dominate the flora.


Chris McDonald, Natural Resource Advisor with the University of California, Cooperative Extension.

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On this page:

Short Version of CA Natural History

Wildflowers Almost Everywhere

California’s Perennial Grasslands

A Lack of Evidence for Grasslands

Wildflowers Not Grasslands



Santa Rita Experimental Range

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