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Where to see spring wildflowers in San Luis Obispo County

Remember long ago when mom and dad would round up all the kids, jump into the station wagon and head for the hills — cruising along with the windows down and a soft breeze filling the car with the sweet smell of wildflowers?

With gas prices the way they are, traveling the backroads for fun really isn’t reasonable anymore. But as residents of San Luis Obispo County we are fortunate to have some of the most sought-after landscapes in California — and not too far away.

Tucked within our hillsides and pastures of green grasses are tapestries of yellow, blue, purple and gold. The wildflowers appear from February until May when they have received enough moisture from our winter rains, with the variety and abundance depending on the amount of rain received.

So I grabbed my wildflowers guides (collected from local nurseries, library and garage sales), and headed to Highway 58. Along the way I knew I was not going to be disappointed because the hillsides were dotted with laurel green native bushes and bush Lupine (possibly Grape Soda Lupine Lupinus excubitus or Silver Bush Lupine Lupinus albifrons).

I also saw what appeared to be Scarlet Buglar (Penstemon centranthifolius) growing adjacent to the roadway. It is a bushy plant with small bright red tubular flowers along the upper portion of the stems. Having no place to pull over to confirm my find, I continued to Shell Creek Road.

Upon my arrival the pastures burst forth with small saucer-shaped Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophila menziesii), stunning yellow Goldfields (Lasthenia chrysostoma) and creamy white tipped Tidy Tips (Layia platyglossa). There were probably some bright golden yellow Leafy Stem Coreopsis (Coreopsis calliopsidea) mixed in with the bunch but I will be the first to acknowledge that I am not a wildflower expert.

But that is the fun — taking your guides, a sack lunch, bottle of water and trying to figure out exactly what is in bloom!

A few tips to identifying wildflowers: You need to look at the bloom, number and shape of the petals and their color. Does the color change from the center to the end of the petal? Is the stem square-shaped or round? Smooth or fuzzy and sticky? Finally, look at the leaf structure. Many times I am able to identify a plant by the number and shape of the leaves rather than the bloom.

If you do go to view the wildflowers, remember to stay as close to the road as possible as property next to Shell Creek Road is private. Portions of the roadway are open range, which means cattle have the right of way and you will need to drive with caution.

If you are looking for something with a little more color, than head out to Bitterwater Road off Highway 46 East. In just a few miles you will be awed by fields of golden Fiddlenecks (Amsinckia) that seem to stretch for miles. Far off in the distance there are mosaics of lavender purples, sky blues, stunning yellows, and deep rich golds.

Bronze-colored tumbleweeds add another layer of beauty to the waves of colors swimming in the hills. Even the waist-high grasses that shimmer along the roadside play with the gold of the Fiddlenecks growing throughout. Occasionally there are small fields of Lupine (Lupinus spp.) and a few California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica) but not as much as I have seen in the past.

While traveling Bitterwater Road you will see artistic ranch gates, a few working windmills, and an occasional sculpture of a bison. As with Shell Creek Road, portions of the road are open range and all adjacent property is private.

I know it is tempting, but the wildflowers are best viewed as Mother Nature’s paintings on landscape rather than up close in this area.

Tami Reece is a 30-year gardener and food preserver living in Paso Robles. Email her if you know of a unique and beautiful garden at rosepetalranch96@gmail.com.