Wildflowers brighten everyone's day. Maybe it is their color after drab, rainy winters, or their wacky combinations of shades and shapes. It’s like solving a puzzle when I find wildflowers blooming in certain months of the year, an inner celebration when I finally spot the one flower I’ve been searching for. It fills my heart.
This winter I have been writing about wildflower hikes for Modern Hiker, and have been in awe of the wildflowers blooming in the Bay Area. In California deserts, a 2019 super bloom is just getting underway. Casey Schreiner, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Modern Hiker, recently shared the hashtag #nowildflowerswereharmed to promote sensitivity when traveling and hiking to see wildflowers.
I began using the hashtag on Instagram to affirm that I hike on durable surfaces, like compact dirt and established trails, and I leave the wildflowers as I find them. But I feel like there is more to say, so I am writing this post to talk about wildflower ethics and why it is important to be mindful of wildflowers when we hike.
Wildflowers ethics can feel confusing. Many of us have memories of running in wildflower fields, picking wildflowers, or having our parents plunk us down in wildflower fields. What changed? What is the big deal? It is just a few flowers, right?
When folks share pictures of themselves, pets, family, or friends going off-trail and into wildflower patches, it influences others to do the same. A common rationalization is “Everyone is doing it, so we assumed it was okay.” But a picture can have a long reach, and, I believe, can lead to a normalization of treating wildflowers this way.
What’s wrong with going off-trail and into wildflower fields?
Going off-trail can cause short and long-term damage to wildflowers. As Stephanie Garcia, spokeswoman for the Texas Park and Wildlife Department, notes, “If the flowers are trampled, it reduces or eliminates their ability to reseed themselves for next year.”
When wildflowers are damaged, it impacts the insects and animals that depend on them for food and shelter. The U.S. Forest Service says, “A critical chain of events is triggered for years to come once wildflowers are lost. We don’t often realize it, but wildflowers support entire ecosystems for pollinators, birds, and small animals on a micro scale.” In the Bay Area, we know that the federally threatened Bay checkerspot butterfly depends on native wildflowers like the California plantain (Plantago erecta) at Edgewood Park to survive. Watch the super bloom video below to see how insects rely on wildflowers at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Trampled flowers can lead to trail closures and can impact other visitors hoping to see full, untrammeled wildflowers. This observation from the U.S. Forest Service blew me away: “Removing wildflowers from our national forests and grasslands prevents other visitors from enjoying our natural heritage.” The flowers are for everyone. Nature is for everyone. When we pick flowers and damage flowers, we are robbing others of the experience flower by flower.
It is against Leave No Trace principles, which guide us in a responsible and environmentally-friendly way outdoors. Three principles that apply to wildflowers are plan ahead and prepare, travel on durable surfaces, and leave what you find. Plan ahead to understand wildflower rules and etiquette, and consider picking a hike that does not have so much foot traffic to help spread out impact. Travel on durable surfaces, like established trails, to protect the flowers. Leave the wildflowers as you find them: Do not pick them.
Come on, it’s just a few flowers. What’s the big deal?
I believe our actions have ripple effects on ourselves and those around us. Not just followers on social media, but our family, our friends, and even our pets. We don’t live in bubbles, we are influencing each other all the time, in big and in tiny ways. Even if you are alone in a field, you are reinforcing a behavior, positive or negative, in yourself. I think that we’re human beings that crave love and approval and to be heard, and I think our subtle messages count. I think there are ways to appreciate beauty and be sensitive to that beauty.
What about picking them?
“All living organisms need to reproduce. Digging up wildflowers, picking wildflowers, or collecting their seed will reduce a plant's ability to reproduce and will adversely affect its long-term survival in that location,” says the U.S. Forest Service.
Friends, I will let you in on a little secret. California poppies die rather quickly after being picked, as I learned at a recent wildflower talk. #notworthit
California Penal Code Section 384a states that picking flowers on public lands without a landowner’s consent is considered a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine, up to 6 months imprisonment, or both. Landowners who pick flowers on their own private land are exempt.
You’re bumming me out. Why all the negativity?
I don’t mean to bum you out, or discourage you from seeing wildflowers. It’s not my intention. I’m actually super excited about the upcoming wildflower season and believe everyone should get out and see them!
I believe you can be excited for wildflower season and at the same time be sensitive to protecting them.
What can we do to help?
Stay on durable surfaces and official hiking trails. If you see people going off-trail into wildflower fields, please don’t follow their example.
Please keep your dog on a leash to help protect the flowers.
Clean your hiking boots to help prevent the spread of invasive plants.
Use a general location in social media posts to help prevent overcrowding.
Use the hashtag #nowildflowerswereharmed to show your support for wildflowers and that you followed LNT principles while hiking and picture-taking.
Stephanie Garcia, spokeswoman for the Texas Park and Wildlife Department advises, “take pictures from the edge of the flower patch.” Better yet, share a creative, behind-the-scenes look at how you captured your photos while staying on the trail to help show others how it can be done.
As social media and hyper connectivity change the way we experience the outdoors, we have a responsibility when it comes to seeing wildflowers and sharing wildflower photos. A law professor once told our class we should never write an email we would not want to see on the front page of the newspaper, and I believe the idea holds true for our actions in the outdoors.
We need to ask ourselves, “Is my action something that I feel 100% good about myself and the environment in doing? If my action was broadcast in front of the world, would I feel confident and at peace if many other people did it too?”
Wildflowers are for everyone, and we need to help each other by modeling the kind of protective actions that will preserve blooms for future generations. Instead of loving wildflowers to death, let’s love them to life.