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Midvale Journal

Utah’s historic snowpack creates a colorful flower display in Canyonlands

Jul 07, 2023 01:04PM ● By Genevieve Vahl

Utah’s historic snowpack has gained much recognition for the most snow on record for the state, ever. Ski resorts relished in endless feet of snow that never seemed to stop. As seasons have shifted from winter into spring and now into summer, that snowpack is gushing down canyons, flooding neighborhoods and refilling the desperate Great Salt Lake, at least a little bit. While also bringing a colorful surprise emerging from the ground.  

Canyonlands National Park, just south of Moab, is amidst a superbloom bringing color and lush flora to the desolate landscape. “The only year I remember with a comparable wildflower year to this one was 2005,” said Mary Moran, a retired Vegetation and Water Technician who has lived in Moab for the last 35 years. 

“Above average rainfall and precipitation,” has brought thousands of native plants out of dormancy, said Neal Dombrowski, a horticulturist and botanist at Red Butte Garden. The high water saturation in the ground has allowed seeds to germinate. “These plants are producing seeds year after year and they don’t get the right conditions to grow,” Dombrowski said. “The seeds are waiting in the soil for that perfect condition, which in this case, is above normal precipitation, and they all germinate at once.” 

“Just about every seed I think possible germinated,” said Robb Hannawacker, an interpretive park ranger in Canyonlands National Park. 

There were curious patches of dense flower coverage while other areas saw regular desert floor. “Part of why is soil drainage,” Hannawacker said. 

“Different wildflowers have different soil preferences; some are very picky; others are not,” Moran said. 

The patchiness of the bloom, Moran said, is also based on the plants’ ecological counterparts. “There’s also the factor of pollinators, and whether they are abundant enough and in temporal sync with the flowers of that species.” 

Although the water is greatly welcomed in this state of ongoing drought, “drought defines the desert,” Hannawacker said. “If we receive too much moisture, it is likely that nonnative vegetation may have a competitive edge.” Like cheatgrass. The same high water saturation allowing the vast array of native wildflowers to emerge allows cheatgrass to make “a near monoculture,” Hannawacker said. “Cheatgrass and other nonnative annual grasses have short lives starting from seeds in the spring, then growing quickly, outcompeting native wildflowers (spoiling that area’s superbloom).” While also creating greater likelihood of offseason wildfires from their drying and dying coupled with human ignorance. “When burned, cheatgrass is like gunpowder, creating unnaturally early season wildfires that are intense, fast and widespread,” Hannawacker said. 

“The invasives can crowd out native species, encourage dominance of nonnative generalist pollinators over specialized ones that some natives rely on and carry wildfires in systems not adapted to fire,” Moran said. “I see biodiversity loss on this planet as a threat equal to that of climate change.”   

Regulations in and around the park like no legal livestock grazing and strict enforcement of off highway vehicle travel helps keep intact essential ecological players to counter attacks from invasives. “These regulations help to protect our biological soil crust that is a pivotal component of a healthy Colorado Plateau desert,” Hannawacker said. What looks like black, lumpy crust on top of what would be the orange sand of the desert, microbial and cryptogamic organism structures keep the desert winds and rains from washing all the sand away. 

“Living soil crusts are found throughout the world. In the desert, these crusts are dominated by cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), but also include lichens, mosses, green algae, microfungi and bacteria,” Vegetation Specialist Jane Rodgers wrote for the National Park Service.  

Loose soil particles are joined together by the cyanobacteria leaving behind a sticky sheath material when activated by rains, forming intricate webbings of fibers across the desert floor in otherwise highly erosion-prone areas. “Basically, they hold the place in place,” Rodgers said. “These sheaths build up in soil over long periods of time. Not only do they protect the soil from blowing away; they also absorb precious rainfall (reducing flash flood runoff) and provide a huge surface area for nutrients to cling to.” 

Crypto and native flowers work synchronously together. The layer keeps the soil and nutrients intact for native plants to thrive while acting like mulch in preventing desert weeds like cheatgrass from taking over. 

Although regulations are in place, unfettered, unregulated human activity can be a major risk to this essential desert keeper. Walking off trail, livestock stomping through, motor vehicles going wherever, can ruin these decades-old soils in a matter of seconds. “Under the best circumstances, a thin veneer may return in five to seven years,” Rodgers said. Hannawacker and Rodgers both avidly promote staying on designated trails, walk single file if you find yourself in a crypto field and stay on roads within the parks. “To get that photograph, it’s tempting to walk on decades-old biological soils to get closer, but please do not,” Hannawacker said. “Your footprints invite more footprints, then more footprints and so on.” Those disturbed areas invite invasives right in, outcompeting native wildflowers. “It’s remarkable how well these microbial structures prevent cheatgrass from establishing, where many native species benefit from biological soil crust,” Hannawacker said. 

“The desert will thank you for this in years to come, with bountiful wildflower displays in the crusted areas, as well as with land kept in place and a healthy ecosystem,” Rodgers said. Just as populous as the native wildflowers are the fields of thriving crypto, keeping our desert intact.

“Every good flowering year has at least some difference in its mixture of abundant species because every species responds differently to different weather patterns,” Moran said. The superblooming desert globemallow specifically took the reins this year. “This year it’s globemallow heaven,” Hannawacker said.  

Also known as the apricot mallow for its namesake’s bright orange color, the bowl-shaped flowers could be mistaken for the desert floor until further inspection, where hundreds of the plants clustered in fields sway in the breeze. These are an early colonizing species, ones to first take over disturbed areas after things like wildfires and abandoned mines, serving as a great revegetation plant that suppresses invasive species. They require full sun, providing habitat for pollinators like native bees and butterflies with its rich source of honey and nectar. Also serving as food to the bighorn sheep, livestock and desert tortoise. The stems were used by the Yavapai people to make trays for drying saguaro fruit or slabs of pounded mescal. The Shoshoni people used the plant to apply to cuts, swellings or rheumatisms, decoctions taken internally for upset stomachs, colds and as treatment for infectious diseases. As seen in Canyonlands, globemallows are found in sandy, rocky or gravelly soil, in sandy washes and rocky hillsides as well as along roadsides. 

The Canyonlands visitors center had a plant identifying display of the other native wildflowers in bloom. As a reminder, “within a national park, it is illegal to collect anything, such as wildflowers,” Hannawacker said. “These are the reproductive parts of plants, and the primary resource for thousands of local pollinators.”   

“There’s an abundance of flowers and they are blooming for longer because of the available water, especially with our weather forecasts lately with a little bit of rain here and there which has prolonged the blooms,” Dombrowski said. 

“I'm excited for the park visitors who may be creating their own extraordinary memories when they visit these natural areas,” Hannawacker said. λ