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Record heat destroys annual California poppy bloom

The south-facing slopes are unexpectedly devoid of orange.
CA Department of Parks and Recreation
The south-facing slopes are unexpectedly devoid of orange.

The weekend's unseasonable record heat has prematurely "cooked" the color right out of the annual bloom of California poppies in the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, which is normally covered in orange blossoms right about now.

"We're astonished to find that our big bloom of desert-adapted, ruggedly persistent poppies has been all but cooked away by the unseasonable heat we've had over the last week," the reserve posted in a Bloom Status dated March 15.

Until this past weekend — when temperatures in the reserve soared into the mid-eighties — the early bloom was considered the densest poppy crop seen in a decade.

Now, the sun-facing southern slopes of the reserve are covered in "desiccated orange petals ... left shriveled on the stalk," the reserve posted.

The northern slopes still have a few poppies hanging on, the Bloom Status update noted.

“We’re perplexed,” said State Park Interpreter Jean Rhyne.

She said the flowers had just put out fresh petals before last week's heat.

"It was like our season was just about to explode," she said.

Then, a week of hotter than usual weather moved in and dried out most of the orange blossoms.

Rhyne thinks it may have just been bad timing since the heat hit the plants while they were still young. She explained that more mature plants can often survive into late May, handling much higher temperatures.

The poppies, known for their cheerful bright orange hue, became the official state flower in 1903, beating out the Mariposa Lilly, the Matilija Poppy.

The species goes by many names, including golden poppy, California sunlight and cup of gold; the plant's scientific name is Eschscholzia californica.

Native to both the United States and Mexico, these plants are usually well adapted to the desert.

Char Miller, director of the environmental analysis program at Pomona College, said they grow a deep root system that allows them search far and wide for nutrients.

They also have the ability to lay dormant in the soil during dry years, according to Dr. Giles Waines, the director of UC Riverside’s Botanic Gardens.

Given the spring rains, experts at the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve expected the plants to have enough soil moisture to last through a month of hot weather.

But this week's heat was apparently more than these plants could bear.

"Heat waves are always a variable factor that can quickly alter any prediction," officials posted on the Reserve's website.

This story has been updated.