Sun brings out the flowers Early season varieties now blooming in Bridgeport area | TheUnion.com
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Sun brings out the flowers Early season varieties now blooming in Bridgeport area

Gardeners weren’t the only ones throwing up their hands in disgust at the rain last month. Barbara Pixley, Bridgeport wildflower docent, was doing her fair share of grumbling at weather forecasts. April and March’s calendar was a cross-hatch of cancellations. “We’ve never lost an Easter weekend to rain,” said Pixley.

Pixley leads guided wildflower walks on the Buttermilk Bend Trail every Saturday and Sunday and private tours during the week. She’s crossing her fingers that the “plot” against the walks is over and May will bring plenty of warm, not hot, sunny days.

The good news: for those of you who haven’t made a trip to Bridgeport yet this year, the wildflowers that are in bloom now are early season varieties, ones that you should have already missed. If the sun cooperates and doesn’t reach scorching temperatures, wildflowers should bloom through May and if you make a point of going several weekends through the month, you should get a full spectrum of early, middle and late flowers.



“This is one of my favorite places in the whole world,” said Pixley to a group of about 20 Meadow Vista Garden Club members. You can’t miss Pixley, a tall woman almost as colorful as the wildflowers she adores: dressed in a “gold country gold” vest, lilac hat, sparkling diamonds and with well- manicured nails. She has been a State Park docent since the early ’90s, leading wildflower hikes at Bridgeport in the spring and history tours at Empire Mine.

The tours she gives take about one to two hours, depending on the group’s size, abilities and the questions and interests. “This is not a marathon. This is a stop and smell the flowers walk,” Pixley explained to the relief of the mostly senior group.




Buttermilk Bend trail is always a hike worth taking, but spring is when it is in its prime. It’s lower elevation and slope exposure usually mean flowers begin in March compared to higher Sierran terrain that doesn’t begin to thaw until late May.

The gentle, narrow trail – about 2.5 miles roundtrip – overlooks the South Yuba River canyon and all its grandeur. It’s perfect for kids, families, couples, and even has some wheelchair access. Dogs must be on a leash.

There are several theories behind the origin of the trail’s name. Some say it was after an old miner who owned goats in the area; others say it was for a portion of a mining flume that ran across the trail. I can’t help but wonder if it had anything to do with the river’s spring appearance; mad, swollen and foaming with storm runoff and snowmelt.

Red bud trees are in magenta bloom right now along with numerous other flowers: Lupine, Tufted poppy, Buttercups, popcorn flowers, Fiddlenecks, Blue Dicks, Indian Pinks, Iris, Fairy Lanterns, Canyon Dudleya and Bird’s Eye Gilia to name a few. Every week, docents change the interpretive signs according to the flowers in bloom so that visitors can lead their own self-guided tours.

Pixley’s interest in plants goes beyond their outward appearance. She’s a history lover and delves into their use by Native Americans and later western settlers. Wild plants were a medicine chest to earlier inhabitants and she is fluent in all their many uses.

This year, the popular walks started in February, earlier than usual after some misleading warm days gave the illusion of spring. Then came the deluge of storm after storm. Wildflowers emerged slowly and without the sun, poppies and redmaids refused to open. “The ground has to be warm enough to warm their little bodies up,” Pixley explained.

Pixley remembers the great flood of ’96 when high water nearly took out the bridge. However, that year didn’t have such a menacing effect on the wildflowers, said Pixley.

Velvety dark iridescent Pipevine Swallow Tail butterflies and bees took turns ravaging the flowers while Pixley coaxed them to keep working. “This is a very sexy tour,” Pixley says, referring to the flowers’ reproduction cycles, but this year she fears too many rainy days may have disrupted the timely schedule of pollination.

“One of the worries is that if flowers don’t get pollinated we just won’t get a good bloom next year,” said Pixley.

Another threat to the native flowers of Bridgeport is the invasive introduced plant species that are ongoing pests. Pixley points to a bush with bright yellow flowers, Scotch Broom. “See that vomit yellow plant over there. The plant is eating the west. It is just devouring Nevada County.” At least once a year, volunteers work to eradicate Scotch Broom, vetch and star thistle from Bridgeport but the insidious plants are well established and have been here since the early pioneers first carried their seeds on wagon wheels.

The group rounded an exceptionally lush bend in the trail before opening up to sun, more butterflies and bursts of color.

“The Indians considered this a spiritual place and I do, too. Just drink it in.”

Free Docent Guided Wildflower Walks are held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday (weather and flowers cooperating) through Memorial Day. Meet at the Buttermilk Bend trailhead in the north parking lot, across the river and over the bridge (not in the visitor center parking lot!) Bring water, comfortable shoes, camera, wildflower book and notepad. Wildflower books and drinks are available for sale at the visitor center. Donations are always welcome to help support this and other programs at the South Yuba River State Park. For more information call the park at 432-2546.

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Laura Brown lives in Nevada County. Her e-mail is laurab@theunion.com

Other great places to view wildflowers

Spenceville Wildlife Area – 12.5 miles west of the Hwy 49/20 intersection in Grass Valley via Hwy 20 to the Beale Air Force Base Road (Hammonton Road) Turn left (south) drive 3.8 miles to Smartville Road. Turn left again, drive 1.8 miles to Waldo Road then left again onto Spenceville Road. Trailhead parking is another 2.3 miles.

Empire Mine State Park – the visitor center has a plant list for the Hardrock trail. 273-8852.

Hell’s Half Acre – the junction of Rough and Ready Highway with Ridge Road.

McCourtney Road

Independence Trail – off Hwy 40, 5.5 miles northwest of Nevada City. Trail blooms through late May. Dogs must be on a leash.

Canyon Creek Trail through Shenanigan Flat – the treasure of the trail is Scarlet Fritillary. The seven mile trail takes four hours round trip. The trail is located 29 miles from Nevada City on Hwy 49. It is located oat the north end of the bridge over the North Fork of the Yuba River. Turn left and park in the parking area just downstream. Be considerate of miners.

Purdon Crossing to Edward’s Crossing – winding four-mile trail has great plant diversity. Treasure is the rare Lewisia cantelovii and the Fawn Lily.

Loves Falls Trail Ð 15 minutes from Hwy 49 on the Pacific Crest Trail. Blooming time is May through June. Turn onto Wild Plum Road (a road sign indicates the campground) at the east end of Sierra City, just after the Yuba River Inn Motel. The trailhead for Loves Falls is one mile just before the bridge and a little beyond the parking area and picnic tables.

Humbug Trail – six-mile roundtrip, 1,000 foot descent to Yuba River out of Malakoff Diggins State Park.

Bear Valley on Highway 20 and Bowman Lake Road – meadow wildflowers in May and June. White Dogwoods and Bleeding Hearts are treasures.

Check out “Wildflower Walks and Roads of the Sierra Gold Country” by Toni Fauver for more information about the above trails and a full list of delightful trips to take this spring.


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