This is the first part of a three-part series on wildflowers and blooms in Southern California that focuses on almond tree blossoms in Kern County. Next up? The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve.
Every spring, the celebration starts. You can call it an annual gathering, with an invite date set to the final days of February, and with the exception of a few late attendees, every party goer is right on time. Yes, social events have been curtailed in most states, but I’m talking about a different kind of shindig here — the kind that prompts its 20-some feet guests to thrust their branches up and out, bud and bloom. Florets begin to unfasten and unfurl in whites and flamingo pinks, and though this might be more of a quiet affair, the explosion of color is decidedly loud.
I’ve driven past Central Valley’s almond-growing acreage many times, though I’ve never once stopped in time to smell the blossoms. I was tempted many times, by signs touting raw, organic almonds and endless, sun-drenched forests dotted with miles and miles of trees pruned into vase-like shapes. After all, almond trees in California — a $7.6 billion industry — are some of the most profitable crops in the nation, and much of the almonds you’ll consume through nut milk, granola bars and almond butter will be grown here. But aside from delicious fruit, these almond trees offer up a striking spectacle every year. That’s exactly why I nodded yes when my friend Kristin told me to schlepp over to her neck of the woods to see the almond tree orchards in bloom. What can I say? I’m a sucker for whatever drama nature has to offer.
On a cloudy Sunday afternoon, Anton, Kristin and I find ourselves in the map-dot community of Buttonwillow, wending our way past row after row of almond trees. Some of them have already shed their pinkish-white petals, but the further we drive into the thick of these farms, the lusher these trees get. “Keep going,” Kristin instructs us, and we crawl along. There’s no one behind us, and plenty of cars parked off to the side of the road. Some are here for a purpose (we spot many dressed-up individuals and families posing for photographs). But it also seems like the blossoms have coaxed passing motorists out of their cars, too.
Finally, when we reach a stretch of orchard that’s still very much in the throes of bloomfest, we meander off the road, park and step out. I was expecting to roll into nature’s silence — you know, the kind that you only get to hear when you’re deep into the woods or out on a countryside farm. Instead, the air is flooded with a loud buzz. It’s the predominant sound here, intensifying and dropping, which the cadence of a singer practicing scales. In the distance, I can see white bee boxes stacked on top of one another, marked with numbers. Honeybees, of course! They’re annual visitors, too — and very, very important ones at that.
Every year, almond growers bring in hives of bees to forage for pollen and nectar, flitting between flowers and fertilizing them. When that happens, the nuts will set, and fuzzy green almond hulls will ripen over time, hardening throughout the summer months. But the timeline for their work is short. If blossoms aren’t pollinated within that narrow window, the kernels won’t emerge. There’s a lot of pressure on these little fuzzy workers, and a large percentage of those that venture out into the fields never come back. In fact, it’s becoming a crisis of sorts — bees are dying at an alarming rate. Though the exact reason is unknown, the American Beekeeping Federation in this NY Times piece pointed to “parasites, pathogens, pesticides and poor nutrition.”
There’s a lot of pressure on the farmers, too. The odds aren’t exactly on their side. Only 30 percent of those flowers actually turn into almonds. And that’s exactly why it requires an army of bees to cover millions of acres of almond tree orchards, and why hiring them from beekeepers often comes at a steep price — $200 per colony versus $30 per colony for something like apples. (One more thing I learned recently? Beekeepers are sort of the freelancers of agriculture, which is something I can relate to in my field. They often make cross-country trips with their hives, ready to put them to work.)
“Are you guys OK with bees?” Anton asks, and I immediately nod. I’ve been in the company of tens of thousands of bees before, and I’ve learned so much about them for a story I wrote a couple of years ago. Granted, I was in one of those beekeeping suits, but I still feel like I’ve developed a certain kind of appreciation and love for them. I try not to let the buzzing bother me as we walk deeper into the orchard, and I let myself take in the moment and its beauty.
Though we’re on the cusp of spring, the scene here feels like a winter wonderland. White petals dot the tree branches like specks of snow and blanket the ground, sticking to the bottom of our shoes. The trees are spaced apart in a way that’s so meticulous, neat and calculated. So when you look down any one aisle, it feels like looking through an infinity mirror receding to the abyss. Endless, yes. And then there’s the smell — light, with a hint of lilac and creamy vanilla, and an undertone of slightly foul oud suffused throughout. It’s the kind of scent that would make some sniff in every last drop of it and force others hold their nose.
“I found an almond!” Anton’s voice is full of child-like excitement as he rolls an almond hull between his fingers. I see him fiddle with it for a while before he snaps it open and frees the nut from its hard shell. The almond inside is small, its skin shriveled and wrinkled as if from old age. It looks too tough, too dried out to eat, although I’m very tempted to. Anton looks for another almond, and I try to capture the blossoms behind the lens of my camera. We spend the rest of the hour inspecting the flowers up close, taking photographs and enjoying each other’s company under the canopy of almond trees with absolutely no one around. We don’t want to leave.
I once read that almond trees were one of Van Gogh’s favorite subjects to paint. If you’re familiar with the artist, one painting surely should come to mind: Van Gogh’s blossom branches set against a cerulean blue sky. These trees, which bloom to remind of spring’s arrival, are a symbol of new life. I can see why Van Gogh enjoyed painting these blossoms, and why he gave the aforementioned painting as a gift to his newborn nephew. It’s hard not to link this to today’s happenings. As of this writing, Covid-19 cases around the country are, more or less, dropping, and in California, we’re inching closer to more reopenings. On a personal note, just yesterday, my mother received her first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. It felt like a historic moment — and indeed like the start of a new life.