Behind the Scenes of the Biggest Wildflower Show in the Northern Hemisphere

Monterey County is one of the most bio-diverse regions in the nation and is home to the world’s oldest and largest wildflower show in the Northern hemisphere. This year’s show, which the CNPS Monterey Chapter organized and hosted from April 14-16 at the Pacific Grove Natural History Museum, featured 722 plant specimens!

Monterey Wildflower show specimens

Specimens on display at the 2017 Monterey Wildflower Show

“I think we’re pretty close to our record,” said event organizer and long-time CNPS member Brian LeNeve as he looked around the room packed with tables of carefully labeled plant specimens. LeNeve should know. He’s been at the helm of this impressive effort for more than 20 years.

Brian LeNeve and Michael Mitchell at Monterey Wildflower Show

Event organizers Brian LeNeve and Michael Mitchell. LeNeve has led the event for 20 years!

“This is truly an amazing effort from an awful lot of people,” added LeNeve who estimated that 37 volunteers spent approximately 1,300 hours to produce the show.

Setting the Scene

Despite its name, the wildflower show includes far more plant types than flowering plants alone. Walking into the exhibit, the species are organized by plant family, starting with the vascular plants. Working one’s way through the room treats a visitor to a wide sampling of Monterey County flora (and beyond), from conifers to pea family favorites like lupines to buckwheats and coastal grasses. LeNeve points out a few of his favorite specimens this year, including a flowering California peony, an unusual red delphinium, and a massive buckwheat. Choosing “Best in Show” was going to be tough.

Harlequin Lupine

A beautiful harlequin lupine from Monterey County.

Red delphinium

A red delphinium on display at this year’s 2017 Monterey Wildflower Show.

Both professional and amateur plant experts flock to this event, particularly on Friday, which is slightly less crowded and offers a rare chance to compare what are sometimes very similar but unique species variations, explained Ford Ord restoration expert Thor Anderson who has been attending the event for years.

And while the display is incredible, what goes on behind the scenes to collect and identify these specimens is even more remarkable.

A Sprint to the Finish

Here’s a fact:  all species must be gathered within two days of the show. This year, 13 small teams of carefully appointed collectors worked their way across Monterey County and beyond (in the rain!) to gather the best possible specimens. In the days leading up to the show, the volunteer collectors carefully select and wrap the specimens in newspaper and deliver them in large paint buckets of water to the museum. Next, volunteers sorted through the plants, preparing them for identification, where a row of expert botanists are lined up with microscopes and other materials to key out particularly tricky species. Once identified, the plants are prepared for display in a glass bottle while another group of volunteers selects the correct the Plant ID card from the organizers’ file of plant species. Only then can the plants be carried out to the table for display.

“Even though total numbers are now consistently between 700 and 750 species, there can be over 150 plants in the show one year that do not appear the following year or vice versa,” explained co-organizer Michael Mitchell.  “So much depends on the weather.  This year [with the rain] we had more early spring bloomers, last year we had fewer early spring bloomers, but the dry winter and warm spring brought out more early summer bloomers.  All part of the fun!”

Paint buckets for Monterey wildflower show.

How many paint buckets does it take to deliver 722 plants? A lot!

It’s a Wrap

The Monterey Wildflower Show attracted just under 1,150 people at this year’s show. Events like these not only display the incredible beauty we have available to us here in California but also provide a valuable opportunity for experts and amateurs alike to learn about and get close to species they might not otherwise see. And while the event has drawn to a close,  it won’t be long before the dedicated team of volunteers begin the work of planning next year’s show.  (Word is, the team is already collecting lists for 2018!)

For more on the event and the flora of Monterey County:

The Plants of Monterey County

Monterey County Wildflowers, A Field Guide

Live Periscope Video of the Event  (Note: Video starts a little rocky but gets better.)

Upcoming CNPS Wildflower Shows — View the CNPS Calendar of Events to find wildflower shows and other events near you.



One thought on “Behind the Scenes of the Biggest Wildflower Show in the Northern Hemisphere

  1. I’ve been to this show in past years and it is remarkable. The chance to see these all up close and in contrast to their relatives is unique. A learning experience and an aesthetic pleasure.

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