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12/11/2015 9:05 AM

Will El Niño Bring an Abundance of Texas Wildflowers in the Spring?

The short answer: A very qualified yes!
El Niño usually means above normal rainfall for Texas during the late fall through early spring. Above normal rainfall during this time period will usually enhance the germination of our spring wildflowers and promote the growth of large healthy plants that produce more blooms. However, above normal rainfall alone will not guarantee an above normal spring bloom.
What is El Niño?
An El Niño weather system results from a disruption in the trade winds along the equator in the Pacific. This disruption creates a long stretch of warmer waters towards the western edge of South America. Usually strong westerly trade winds push this area of warm ocean waters westward towards Indonesia. This shifting of trade winds and ocean heat is part of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO).
The stronger El Niño systems have more impact on global weather by influencing the paths of jet streams and flow of water vapor especially during the winter months:
The pacific jet stream drops farther south and becomes more persistent resulting in an amplified storm track along the southern part of the United States and northern Mexico. This change in the path of the Pacific jet stream usually means Texas will receive above average rainfall. Currently a strong El Niño that could be one of the strongest if not the strongest has begun and is expected to peak in January/February then transition to neutral conditions by late spring or early summer.
How Does an El Niño Impact Texas Wildflowers?
There are three critical phases in the development of a Texas spring wildflower show; fall, winter and spring. Here is how El Niño might impact each of those phases.
Most of our spring wildflowers in Texas germinate in the fall and then winter over till spring. Therefore, the possibility of a better than average wildflower season in the spring begins with the amount of rain in the fall. The timing of the fall rains must happen before the weather turns too cold for seed germination. Usually a strong El Niño will bring above normal rainfall to most of Texas, so when there are El Niño conditions present in the fall we expect above normal rainfall. However, this does not always happen because the interaction of other weather factors. Moderate El Niño conditions were present during August and September and yet the rain did not fall. Even when the conditions moved to the strong level in the first part of October, the rain still did not come. Part of this is because El Niño has more impact on weather systems during the winter months.  When the rain did come in October, it came with flash flooding and river flooding. Although long soaking rainfall is probably the best, flooding events can play a part in the “raking and plowing” of the land just as wildfires help clear the land of dead vegetation. Flash floods in the Hill Country can result in new seed loads being moved around as well as removing some top soil to expose seeds from previous years. This movement of the seed load can lead to some interesting wildflower displays. 
As of November 23, 2015, the 30 day and 60 day departure from normal rainfall showed most of Texas with slightly above to well above normal rainfall. This is far more encouraging than the September through mid-October rainfall which was well below normal. Due to warmer temperatures or actually a later than normal first freeze, much of the rainfall in November was probably helpful in either encouraging seed germination or helping existing seedling growth. Along the walking/hiking trail near where I am, it was evident that seedlings were spreading in greater numbers than I have seen since 2010. However, also evident was the spread of winter grass and other vegetation. Too much “other plant growth” can hinder germination of wildflower seeds. So the good news is that enough rain has fallen over the top wildflower areas prior to the first freeze to support a solid growth of wildflower seedlings, but growth of other vegetation might have hindered some wildflower seed germination. The areas with less winter grass and less competing vegetation will likely do better. Also areas that drain well and have the best soils for wildflowers will likely excel. 
During the winter the bluebonnet rosettes (seedlings about the size of your hand or salad plate) will mostly work on building deep and healthy root systems. This is true of many of the other winter annual and biennial wildflowers that germinate in the fall. Some of the May and June wildflowers will germinate in late January or February. So good winter rainfall is also important for a good early and late spring wildflower show. Even days of cold winter temperatures are important for some temperate plants to bloom in the spring through a process called vernalization.  The strong El Niño this winter could bring cooler winter temperatures along with above normal rainfall. This should help toward a bonanza spring bloom. However, too much rain in some locations particularly those areas that do not drain well could be detrimental. 
The popular Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) and the (Lupinus subcarnosus) are early spring flowers, so lingering cooler temperatures might delay a bloom a few days, but long wet days of overcast skies in March might prove to be disastrous if it results in “damping off” diseases. Warming sunny days in March with some soaking rain showers will help more than lots of rainy days with little sun. This is where El Niño might not be helpful if it continues to direct the cooler and wetter storm track across Texas without allowing some warming sunny days. Again, areas with good drainage and the best soils will likely do better than low lying areas that do not drain well or do not get enough sun. 
In my reports I try to be a bit more conservative than the “data” suggests. I have been doing these reports now for over 10 years, and this year is the first year we have had an extremely strong El Niño in place during the fall and early winter months. Along with the El Niño we have two unusual anomalies; the “warm blob” along the pacific coast of the US and the “cold blob” in the north Atlantic near Greenland. How these anomalies will interact with the current El Niño is not fully known. I think this spring wildflower show will bring some very interesting surprises in where the spring wildflower show will debut and how it will progress. The flash floods last May and in October along with the wildfires likely have changed at least some of the landscaping. The increased rainfall along with the late November freeze have already resulted in an abundance of “green” in my area. Some of this “green” is due to increased wildflower seedlings, but some is due to winter grass.  Personally, I am eagerly looking forward to what will likely be an excitingly different script for the 2016 Texas Wildflower Show. 
Stay tuned for my upcoming eBook reports:
Early February 2016 - Texas Wildflower Report with rainfall analysis, early predictions for each of the major areas in Texas and suggested routes.
Early March 2016 – Texas Bluebonnet Reports for Brenham, Ennis, Hill Country and South Texas.
You can review last year’s reports at
Texas Wildflower Report Photos: I have an extensive gallery of photos from past year’s that will give you not only an idea of what can be found in each area but also many times an exact location - . Prints from many of these photos are available for purchase – just complete the form below the image.


El Niño
Cold Blob
Warm Blob
Winter Outlook