North Bay photographers’ new book captures diversity of native flowers, encourages conservation

April 07, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

By Meg McConahey   THE PRESS DEMOCRAT   January 15, 2021

Field of California Poppies in burn recovery area Pepperwood Preserve Sonoma County CA _DSC0820_x1550Field of California Poppies in burn recovery area Pepperwood Preserve Sonoma County CA _DSC0820_x1550

Field of California Poppies in burn recovery area, Pepperwood Preserve, Sonoma County, California, USA. (Rob Badger)


It was just another shoot for nature photographer Rob Badger as he headed down to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve back in 1992. But when he arrived at the state reserve in northern Los Angeles County, he was gobsmacked by the extravagance of its wildflowers — which is saying something for a veteran shooter accustomed to training his lenses on the earth’s wonders.

The reserve was experiencing a super bloom, when above-average rainfall in areas of desert and chaparral germinate seeds that may have been lying dormant for years in the soil. The result is a riot of wildflowers.

That night, Badger called his life partner, fellow photographer Nita Winter, and gushed about the spectacle he had just witnessed.

“I told her that I had never seen such an expanse of these glowing California poppies, going off into the distance in waves. The wind was blowing them so you could see these waves of color,” he recalled. “It was an amazing sight.”

Badger was so bewitched that he scurried home to Marin County to fetch Nita and bring her back to the poppy reserve to share the wildflower show while it was still blazing. With wildflowers, the bloom can vanish quickly with sudden heat or drying wind.

The handful of days they spent capturing the vision on film ignited a quest to learn more. In the last 28 years they have traveled up and down the state with their camera equipment, documenting native wildflowers in their many forms on public lands, including at Santa Rosa’s Pepperwood Preserve. They’ve documented more than 400 different wildflowers.

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Leopard Lily white background, Mount Tamalpais State Park, Marin County, California. Part of Traveling exhibit and/or coffee table book:Beauty and The Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change by (Rob Badger) and Nita Winter© The Winter Badger Press co-published CNPS California Native Plant SocietyAuthors: Peter Raven, Jose Gonzalez, Wendy Tokuda, Kenna Kuhn, Kitty Connolly, Erin Schrode, Dr. Margaret Leinen, Will Rogers, Gordon Leppig, Susan Tweit, Mary Ellen Hannibal, Genevieve Arnold, Ryan Burnett, Doug Tallamy, Ileene Andersen, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Amber Pairis

Several years ago they collected some of their best photos into a traveling art exhibit. They now have compiled them into a 12-by-12 inch coffee-table book, “Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change.” Copublished with The California Native Plant Society, the 264-page book pairs 190 photos with essays from 16 notable environmental writers, activists and scientists to show the perilous impact of climate change on California’s spectacularly diverse wildflower populations.

It is a visual tour of the state’s biodiverse wildflower habitats, illustrated with everything from delicate close-ups showing the natural artistry of flower forms to colorful panoramas of super blooms. But it also serves as a call to action. Wildflowers are threatened by climate change, development and other environmental forces, including the hoards of people who flock to see the wildflowers, particular during super blooms.

The pair have received numerous awards for their work, including the 2020 Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography, conferred by The Sierra Club.

A diverse climate

Caticularly fertile ground for wildflowers. The golden poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is the official state flower. California’s nickname, the Golden State, was inspired not only by the gold rush of 1849 and the Golden Gate strait, but by the golden poppies that brighten the landscape every summer.

Because of its size and vast diversity of climate and geography, from mountains and deserts to ocean and forests, California has more native plant species than any state in the union. Many of them are found nowhere else on earth, said Dan Gluesenkamp, executive director of the California Native Plant Society, in the book’s introduction. Scientists, he added, say it is one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots.

Because of their captivating charm, the state’s wildflowers can serve as ambassadors of the natural world and call attention to environmental threats of all kinds.

“The whole concept (of the book) was to use images of wildflowers to attract attention (and) have people fall in love with them in a way that would educate and inspire action,” Winter said.

“Rob and I had both been using our photography for advocacy purposes,” she added.

In the tradition of Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange, Winter had focused on telling stories of the Bay Area’s diverse communities, beginning with “Children of the Tenderloin” in the 1980s. But with a degree in biology, she was drawn to nature’s diversity as well.

Badger has excelled as an environmental photographer, creating evocative images for the National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land. In 1998 he was one of three American photographers chosen to document the vast and little-known nature preserves in European Russia and Siberia.

Super blooms

People have come to love the super blooms, so much so that they overrun parks like Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree. These blooms used to be very rare events but now happen once a decade or even more frequently, due to climate change. And those hard rainy seasons have a downside, inviting invasive and other nonnative species that can quickly overtake a wildflower habitat, Badger said.

Badger and Winter aimed to make the book accessible for a wide range of people. Twenty-something Kenna Huhn contributed a piece, “Hope, Joy and Inspiration,” as did octogenarian Peter Raven. The president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Raven also is on the advisory board of Quarryhill Botanical Garden in Glen Ellen.

In the book, vistas of wildflowers appear as broad strokes painted on hillsides and plains and meadows. But the many botanical close-ups celebrate their intricate individuality, like that of the purple owl’s clover (Castilleja exserta) they captured in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in Marin County and the sky lupine and California poppies they photographed in an ecological preserve in Butte County. They also show us Indian pink on Mt. Tamalpais and Franciscan paintbrush in the Golden Gate recreation area.

Badger and Winter want the book to serve as a call to action to help preserve these precious objects of natural beauty. The state is increasingly vulnerable to droughts and wildfires due to climate change. Extreme temperatures stress wildflower populations, leading to lower rates of reproduction, more die-offs, and vulnerability to predators, disease, and invasive species.


Checkerbloom, Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve, Corte Madera, Marin County, California. (Rob Badger and Nita Winter)

For home gardens

Although all of the wildflowers shown in the book were photographed in their natural habitat in public parks and preserves, many of these wildflowers can be grown in home landscapes. Owl’s clover, part of the genus Castillaja that includes Indian paintbrush, attracts bees and butterflies and is a crucial host plant for the threatened Bay checkerspot butterfly.

Helpfully, the book offers a couple of chapters geared to gardeners who might want to do their bit by planting wildflowers in their own yards.

Kitty Connolly, executive director of the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants in the San Fernando Valley, wrote a chapter called “Wildflowers at Home.” The American West, she said, is becoming drier. Half the urban water available is used for landscaping, but home gardeners can cut their water use in half, even up to 70%, by planting native plants. Wildflowers make a ”delightful ephemeral element“ amid the sturdy perennials, she wrote.

“The brilliance of poppies makes them classics, nicely complementing the muted gray-green leaves of buckwheat, sage and sagebrush. For a spectacular show, contrast orange poppies with blue or purple lupines, phacella or baby blue eyes. Sow seeds of tidy tips or goldfields to grow a sea of golden light,” she wrote.

The National Wildlife Federation provided an essay on pollinators as “the unsung heroes of our gardens, fields and farms.” Planting native wildflowers along with native trees and shrubs provides nectar and pollen for the bees, butterflies, birds and insects that fertilize plant life.

Badger and Winter traversed the state to capture the huge diversity of wildflowers. But they took many of the photos in the North Bay, to show wildflowers expressly adapted to the region.

They spent time at the 3,200-acre Pepperwood Preserve, located on the ridge of the Mayacamas Mountains on the north edge of Santa Rosa.

“We wanted to include a section in the book on wildflower recovery, and Pepperwood had just burned in the Tubbs fire,” Winter said.

Some wildflowers, such as fireweed and lupine, thrive on burned-bare ground by using the phosphorus and nitrogen in the ash, wrote Susan J. Tweet, an environmental writer exploring “Phoenix from Ashes” in the book. She wrote about “fire follower” wildflowers, such as those that sprout only after wildfires, and otherwise-hidden wildflowers that are revealed after fires. Some are germinated by the heat. Others, she wrote, are awakened by the “smell” or organic compounds in the smoke. The seeds of golden eardrops, she said, can sprout after only 10 minutes of exposure.

January brings a new year of wildflower blooms. Look closely and you might see baby blue eyes, hound’s tongue and trillium.

“We found flowers blooming every month of the year. We noticed just in Marin, flowers start blooming in January and as weather changes in spring, you get more and different flowers,” Badger said. “We can be photographing wildflower blooms in the mountains as late as September.”

For those who might like to bring the beauty of a wildflower display indoors, the photographic duo also creates installations for healthcare facilities, civic centers, public art displays and private homes. They sell fine art prints of their wildflower and nature photography at The book also can be purchased at

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or [email protected]. OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

Published by: The Press Democrat

"Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change" traveling exhibit which just opened at the Los Altos History Museum Check on the museums restricted hours and make a reservation before visiting the exhibit.  

Our virtual talk: 27 Year Wildflower Journey, hosted by the museum, is scheduled for 5 PM, March 18th, 2020.  It is one of three related talks, including What is Citizen Science? by one of our authors, Mary Ellen Hannibal, at 5 pm on Earth Day, April 22nd.




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