Unseasonable weather yields more beauty in the Las Vegas Wash
Dynamic urban life in the Las Vegas Valley creates a unique habitat for plant and animal species in the desert southwest. As Las Vegas and the surrounding cities grow, urban runoff increases and feeds the Las Vegas Wash, which provides a vital wildlife oasis in an otherwise seemingly barren Mojave Desert. Combined with an increased rainfall and longer spring, a wide diversity of plants now bloom and thrive at the Wash, providing lush habitat for desert creatures such as reptiles, small mammals, birds and insects.
The unseasonable weather this year has increased the wetland and riparian areas dominated by bulrush, cattails, and sandbar willow frame the banks of the Wash while tall cottonwood trees stretch skyward. The rare western harvest mouse can be found creeping beneath this canopy while the American coot bobs playfully near Wash banks. Native mesquites, catclaw acacia, creosote bush and other upland plants are seeing a dramatic increase in seed thanks to the record rainfall this winter.
Despite the abundance of plants and animals at the Wash, the annual debut of spring wildflowers may be considered a crowd favorite. Although the time of bloom may differ year to year due to temperature and rainfall at the Wash, spring wildflowers always provide an enjoyable show for enthusiasts and casual observers alike. Spring also is an ideal time for Las Vegas Valley residents and visitors to take part in Wash activities such as bird watching, hiking and outdoor learning. Clark County Wetlands Park provides paved hiking trails, bird-watching blinds and man-made ponds. The ponds demonstrate how important riparian plants can be as they filter Wash water before it returns to Lake Mead.
The 2010 spring wildflower season kicked off in March, providing visitors to the Wash an opportunity to see desert chicory, an annual wildflower that often grows up through the branches of existing shrubs. It can reach 6 to 24 inches in height, blooms between February and May and is found in areas with gravelly and sandy soils. Indigo Bush, which gets its name from purple flowers that bloom in April, is usually difficult to spot, but increased rainfall this year produced blooms easily seen from a distance. May brought the Yerba mansa to bloom, a creeping perennial wildflower spread by rhizomes and found in dense patches. It likes to grow in areas where the soil is moist. The funnily-named mulefat bloomed in June and is a large shrub often mistaken for a willow. It can grow to 12 feet in height and blooms anytime between February and December. Summer bloomers include desert willow, creosote bush and mesquites. The bloom of these heat-hardy plants shows there’s nothing to fear from sizzling summer temperatures.
The Wash plays a vital role in the Las Vegas Valley while it serves a dual purpose as an urban run-off channel and diverse ecological system. Participation in the bi-annual Wash Green-Up is an excellent way the public can show its appreciation by helping to plant native species, enhance wildlife habitat, and prevent soil erosion in the Wash. Volunteer effort is essential to the sustained health of the Wash and efforts are currently being made to gear up for the 2010 Fall Green-Up.