Anza-Borrego’s tough eradication project

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Jim Dice, reserve manager at UC Irvine's Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center, pulls up a Sahara mustard plant. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Jim Dice, reserve manager at UC Irvine’s Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center, pulls up a Sahara mustard plant. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

BORREGO SPRINGS, Calif. — Locals call it “The Miracle of March.” If spring rains and temperatures are just right, the forbidding mountains and parched badlands here are transformed into dazzling panoramas of wildflowers that draw thousands of tourists.

The crowds provide a major boost to Borrego Springs, a community of about 3,500 permanent residents in the heart of 640,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. When blossoms abound — every five to seven years or so — visitors spend freely on gasoline, groceries, souvenirs, sun hats and cold drinks as they seek directions to “flower hot spots.”

Now, a botanical invader is threatening the economic and environmental lifeblood of this northeastern San Diego County community. It is Sahara mustard, a rapidly spreading nonnative menace that is robbing wildflowers and low-lying cacti of water and sunlight with its carrot-like taproots and large leaves.

The invasion has prompted Borrego Springs to downplay its image as a quaint town surrounded by seas of wildflowers rippling in the desert breeze. A new advertising campaign promotes a mecca for golf, art galleries, bird watching, hiking, cycling, star gazing, photography and, in certain intensively weeded patches, enjoying wildflowers.

“We love wildflowers because they are beautiful and part of the landscape we cherish — but they do not define us,” said Linda Haddock, executive director of the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce. “The mustard is forcing us to change to course. We’re repositioning ourselves and diversifying our base.”

For the first time in memory, the Borrego Springs Village Guide, a free brochure handed out to visitors, does not feature images of wildflowers on its cover. Instead, the 2013 edition touts a huge metal sculpture of a dragon, part of a menagerie of life-size creatures created by artist Ricardo Breceda.


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