the desert blooms

Weekend before last I took a trip out to the Tierra Blanca Mountains on the southwestern edge of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park on a trip organized by the San Diego Chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

Bigelow's monkey flower, Mimulus bigelovii var. bigelovii
Twining desert snapdragon, Neogaerrhinum filipes

This was a trip that offered lots of up-close flower viewing. After several months with good rainfall many of us were hoping for carpets of blooming desert flowers spreading out in every direction. But the rains didn’t begin until the end of fall. The floral display was good, with flowers easy to find in all directions, but it wasn’t the gonzo hundred-year bloom that we’d hoped for. Botanist Larry Hendrickson, who led the outing, started out thinking this was close to an average year. But we found the little yellow twining desert snapdragon in several locations, and its sighting made him revise his evaluation of the year to better-than average.

Parish's poppy, Eschscholzia parishii. As with the California poppy, this little poppy comes in orange as well as yellow.
Fishhook cactus, Mammilaria dioica, growing in a crack in the quartz rock
Desert poinsettia, Euphorbia eriantha

Greene's ground cherry, Physalis crassifolia

Ferocactus cylindraceus flower closeup

Ferocactus cylindraceus and Phacelia distans

Twigs with wild heliotrope

The splashiest flower was wild heliotrope, Phacelia distans. If you saw a carpet of purple, it was most likely this plant.

Desert landscape with wild heliotrope

Ocotillo with heliotrope and chuparosa

Closeup of the delicate leaves of the elephant tree

Last post I mentioned my discomfort with certain plant names, including those that begin with the epithet “Indian.” Dunno. Maybe I’m being too sensitive.

Well, one of the canyons we explored was named “Indian Canyon.” Changing plant names and geological formations seems to take about as much time. This canyon is one of the more northern extensions of the elephant tree or torote (Bursera microphylla).

A fern in the desert, always a surprise. I think this is Cheilanthes parryi.

The flowers were mainly small species. Looking up the hillside the impression is mainly of white rock relieved by tall wands of ocotillos.

What’s the best way to bring relief to a day in the desert? Maybe water?

We ended up in a stream that supported a chain of little palm oases of the California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera). These trees had been burned in the past. This was maybe an accident, but in the past the Native Americans were known to burn the fronds to get easier access to the dates. Apparently it doesn’t seriously damage the plant.

Nearby these palms escaped the fire and flaunted long skirts of dried fronds. Living in suburbia people prune the dead fronds off whatever palm species they grow, and you almost never see this gorgeous effect of decades of fronds sheathing the trunk. Maybe they’re afraid that it’ll be habitat for creatures they’d rather not have. Still, it’s a great effect, don’t you think?

14 thoughts on “the desert blooms”

  1. Your pictures are beautiful and remind me why I love living in the desert. We just returned from the Palm Springs area and the roadsides were abloom with Brittlebush, Ocotillo and Chuparosa. Just beautiful!

  2. Thanks for this visual tour…what a great trip that must have been! I hadn’t known about the twining snapdragon, now I’m lusting after seeds as I am mildly addicted to snapdragons and want to collect as many species as I can. Don’t you think you know a plant better when you know its species form(s)?

    I also enjoyed the wild heliotrope and the desert fern, must look that one up, it might work in my area’s dry summers. Shaggy palms are magnificent, like unclipped poodles. It’s a pity the fronds can do so much damage.

  3. I have had to rethink my ideas about the plant life or lack of in a desert setting. I always thought I would not like to live in such a barren area without the green but postings of yours and others have shown me a whole new side of the desert. It has a whole new beauty of its own in plant life and there are many beautiful plants and shrubs to be found.

  4. No doubt critter control is one reason for pruning the dried palm fronds but in the city I think they would be considered a fire hazard, especially near structures.

    I love that park, thanks for the pics.

  5. A lot of cool plants. I hiked a few times in that part of Anza Borrego when I was going to school in San Diego. I remember the ocotillos and palms but not the elephant trees.

  6. oooh, this is so neat! I regret to say I’ve never been to the desert. Love those flowers that bloom on thos horrendously barren looking plants. It’s quite a contrast – and very beautiful. Honestly, I only really see this stuff in planned gardens. It amazes me to know you found these out there in the real world. And the oasis too! awesome.

  7. Noelle, sounds like a great desert trip for you! We saw lots of brittlebush on the way–really spectacular–but none in the upper canyon.

    Pomona, I’m surprised by all the snapdragon relatives we have around here. I think the classic snapdragon is from Europe, but all these cousins all have the family resemblance. I agree that it’s cool to see the wild ancestors of domesticated plants. Sometimes the relationships are clear, other times they almost look like different plants.

    Lona, I know what you mean. The desert’s beauty is a different one than is offered by grasslands or forests, and it took me a while to appreciate it. I was pretty struck by how different the desert plants are from those closer to the coast where I live.

    EE, good question. Our guide thought it might have something to do with the thick, succulent trunks. I don’t have a great photo of them, but I think you might say “elephant” if you saw them.

    George, glad to share the pics. I’m sure dropping fronds would be another reason people would trim their plants. With so many flammable things in our lives I wonder if trimming a palm really makes much difference in the end unless you live in a fire corridor along a canyon.

    Ryan, A-B’s a great park. I never noticed elephant trees until I first read about them in books and went looking for them. Now that you’ve seen them in Baja I’m sure you’d ID them pretty easily.

    Wendy, like you say, the contrast between the green and the dry land can be pretty stunning, especially now when things are blooming. When people talk about plants with architectural features, you can’t do any better than starting with the ones you find in the desert.

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