Tag Archives: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

january anza-borrego desert garden

As far as interpretative visitor’s centers go Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has a pretty awesome one. The area has a rich mix of natural and cultural resources and histories, and the center does a good job of introducing you to some of the highlights. It’s also staffed by knowledgeable staff and volunteers happy to get you started with what to see and do.

ABDSP Visitor center stair leading up to green roof

The building itself is pretty cool in that it has a green roof–if you can call desert plants with white sand in between “green.” It’s painfully hot (and cold) much of the year, so it helps moderate the temperatures inside the visitor’s center.

ABDSP Visitor centor green roof with Agave deserti

ABDSP Visitor centor green roof vent

Up top they’ve done a pretty good job of disguising the fact that there’s a working building underfoot. A few vents tip you off that this might not be a normal desert floor…

Immediately outside the center’s doors there’s an impressive desert garden that’ll get you up to speed on the main plants you’ll find in the area. And it’s a chance to see one of the locally rare specimens of torote, the elephant tree. Among the more common and more charismatic species:

Beavertail cactus Opuntia basilaris var basilaris

Beavertail cactus (Is this plant’s name an oxymoron, at least in the sense that you’d never see a beaver anywhere near cactus habitat?)

Barrel cactus at ABDSP Ferrocactus cylindricus

Barrel cactus…

Ocotillo in January at ABDSP

Ocotillo in January at ABDSP closeup


January greasewood Larrea tridentata at ABDSP

Creosote bush.

Psorothamnus schottii leaf textures Indigo bush at ABDSP

Indigo bush, too early for it to be blooming, but a wonderful vaporous texture.

Jnauary bloomers at ABDSP visitor center

Some things were already (or still) blooming. This is a nice little tableaux of brittlebush, Encelia farinosa with desert agave, Agave deserti in foreground.

Vegetation textues at ABDSP

And this busy tangle features red blooms on chuparosa, Justicia californica. When you encounter it later in the season the plant is leafless, but there was water enough that you could find leaves on many of its branches.

Calliandra eriophylla at ABDSP

The last thing I saw blooming with any umph was this fairy duster, Calliandra eriophylla. It’s flowers are smaller, maybe a couple inches across, than those of the Baja fairy duster, C. californica, that is sold more frequently. Yes, California does have a plant that could easily be mistaken for a bottlebrush from down under.

Pup fish habitat

A pond feature provided habitat for the über-rare desert pup fish. There were plenty in the water, but I guess the critters consider photographers predators and scurried off. Justin Bieber behaves the same way.

New plants at ABDSP visitor center

A few gallon cans lets you know that this, like any other garden, is a work in progress.

Plant grouping at ABDSP Visitor Center

And a final shot, a nice grouping of some of the plants above, arranged to please the eye, though the plants might consider themselves a little too close for comfort. But given a little extra water and grooming, you can get away with it.

When “in the neighborhood,” be sure to check out the center and the garden.

spring in plum canyon

Two weeks ago I joined the local CNPS chapter for a trip out to Anza Borrego Desert State Park with botanical wizard, Larry Hendrickson. Our destination was Plum Canyon, one of the rocky canyons that drains the eastern face of San Diego County’s Laguna Mountains. Spring wildflowers were close to their peak, and Larry knew ’em all, including a sighting of an Arizona plant that hadn’t yet been described in California.

This first plant is the species that gives the canyon its name. Well, you’d guess it’s some sort of plum, but the common name of Prunus fremontii is actually “desert apricot.” Plum, apricot…close enough.

I went a little crazy with the camera, and below are some of that craziness. (I think I got all the IDs correct on these, but if I missed a few, let me know!)

Desert sun is your first impression, but plants were everywhere, blooming and not.

Subtly colored, powerfully scented: Desert lavender, Hyptis emoryi. This common plant is in the mint family–It helps explain its intense aroma whenever you touch the plant.

Near the desert lavender, Trixis californica.

Subtle dark blue-violet flowers of Indigo bush Parry Dalea, Psorothamnus Marina parryi. (Thanks to jimrob and Larry Hendrickson for the correction here!)

A very cool spurge, Chamaesyce polycarpa.

One of the things you notice is that the plants often grow in the company of other plants, separated by expanses of sharp shards of decomposed mountainside. It’s not a look that people generally cultivate in their gardens but it makes sense here. Larger plants help provide shelter to seedlings. I’d also guess that more seeds end up caught up in the low branches of shrubs than they do in the bare earth with rain beating down on them. The effect is a bit of an enthusiastic jumble of plants.

Desert lavender with brittlebush, Encelia farinosa var farinosa
Phacelia distans with Chuparosa, Justicia californica
Chuparosa, phacelia, with Fremont's desert pincussion, Chaenactis fremontii
Even the cactuses get romantic. Here's a young Engelmann's Hedgehog Cactus, Echinocereus engelmannii with California barrel cactus, Ferocactus cylindraceus

This combination of big and tiny yellow flowers I decided was totally garden-worthy: Encelia farinosa with the desert subspecies of deerweed, Lotus scoparius var. brevialatus. Nearer the coast the coast sunflower and deerweed makes a similar combination.

Speaking of garden-worthy plant combinations, I thought this composition of pale and silver-leaved plants and stems was a delicate mix of contrasting scale and textures.

Springtime in the desert means belly flowers galore…

Camissonia pallida
Purple mat, Nama demissum, with Wallace's wooly daisy, Eriophyllum wallacei
And in the category of belly flowers falls the locally rare plant I mentioned earlier. This tiny little thing is Arizona pussypaws, Calyptridium parryi var arizonicum. So far this is the only known California population.

An itty bitty legume. I have Lotus stragosus in my notes, and I'm pretty sure that this is that.

A mile up the canyon, as you gain a ltitle altitude, the California junipers start up.

Many were going crazy with the juniper berries.

And a couple junipers had this bug. I’m really bad with my insects, so I’m just calling this a juniper bug. I’m sure it’s got a real name… Edit (March 28): Thanks to Katie for this bug ID: This critter definitely looks like a west­ern leaf-footed bug.

On the way home, climbing out of the desert, two differently-colored species of ceanothus provided spots of color along the sharp curves of Banner Grade. The lavender one was our fairly widespread C. tomentosus. But what was the white one? My carload of plant people just couldn’t stand not knowing. We had to stop and do a quick ID.

The slightly cupped leaves helped us identify this plant as Ceanothus greggi ssp. var. perplexans. Although known as “desert ceanothus” the plant didn’t get prolific until we started climbing near the 3,000 foot level.

This final photo is the plant in the landscape. How could we not stop for a closer look?

desert agave

A couple weekends ago Agave deserti was looking well-watered from the winter rains. This swirling mass of plants appeared to have nominated one of the cluster to go forth and flower.

Flowering is a big deal for these plants. The stalk will rise up something like ten feet from the plants central growth point. When they start out the stalks take on this gorgeous pink and green coloration, which contrasts against the nearly white rosettes of the main plants.

I couldn’t help myself from getting a little abstract and arty with this extreme cropping of this closeup. It’s really such a neat phenomenon that you can appreciate all sorts of ways.

Once it blooms the main growth point dies. Critters relish the seed, so these don’t always get a chance to reproduce that way. Fortunately they have the fallback of throwing one or more pups from the base of the plant. Once a plant has bloomed and pupped a few times you can get a striking grouping of genetically identical plants called a genet. The first photo of this post is a nice example.

The plants were all over the slopes of Plum Canyon at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. But occasionally you’d see the agaves setting up household in unlikely places, like this rock cleft. It makes for a nice photo though I’m not so sure about what it bodes for a lifetime anchored in this one spot. The plants didn’t appear any too concerned, however.

I leave you with a closeup of a single plant of a larger genet. Wikipedia says that a single individual out of a genet is called a ramet. I learn something new every day.

Although many agaves grow in perfect, implacable rosettes, so that you can almost see a mathematical purity in their patterns, the desert agave seems to celebrate a looser, wilder approach to life. You can almost envision a vortex of desert wind blowing just looking at these leaves.

All in all a gorgeous species!

I’ll have more desert plant photos as I work through the files on my camera…

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?