Tag Archives: desert plants

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?

from the desert to the coast

Sunday I went for a little plant walk out to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It’s been a good year for desert flowers, but it’s not one of those spectacular seasons when the ground pulsates purple with sand verbena or gold with brittlebush. Some of the ocotillo were in bloom, and the desert agaves like this one (Agave deserti) were sending up their pink and green stalks.

Lots else was in bloom. But as I review the photos from the trips I’m finding that I’m staring at a pile of images of plants I don’t know the names of. I’ll share more of the pictures than this first one once I get them a little better organized and the plants matched up with my list of names.

Since it’s Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day I’ll share with you some plants from my garden that I do know the names of. Some of these are old friends that have been blooming for a while, and I’ve been sharing over past Bloom Days. But a lot of these are just coming into bloom for the first time this year.

I thought the blooms on this carpenteria were finished a month ago, but the plant has surprised me with a robust bloom spurt, bigger than the first one.

Unlike the carpenteria, this old friend, the tree coreopsis, won't be blooming again for another nine or ten months.

Many of these plants survive in the garden with minimal added water. The climate in this area is dry in a coastal-influenced sort of way. I might water once or twice a month in the summer, but the frequent morning overcast and occasional fog helps keep the plants hydrated. Additionally the plants in the garden have enjoyed a slighter higher than average rainfall so thoughts of the dry summer ahead aren’t in the minds of these plants. Spring is here.

This Salvia Bee's Bliss has been in the ground for over two years, but only now is it starting to take off.

Black sage, Salvia mellifera.

The local annual chia, Salvia carduaceae, with the exotic Phlomis monocephala in the background. The chia is one of the coastal plants that also can get to be pretty common in parts of the desert.

Here's another combination of plants, the lavender pink of the stinging lupine with the strident gold of the crassula relative behind it. The contrast is pretty strident to my taste, but hey, spring isn't all about subtle plays of one color against another...

Last month I showed this orange mimulus seedling. That time I got it in focus.
From the same parents that lived in this bed comes this other monkeyflower, this one velvety red with almost black detailing.

And here's another velvety red mimulus seedling. You might confuse it for the previous one, but the flowers are subtly different.

Nuttall's milkvetch, looking full and flowery, close to its seasonal peak.

Verbena lilacina looks better for me with a little more added water than some of the plants around it. But it survives even when I forget.

The pale Verbena lilacina 'Paseo Rancho' was just starting to bloom last month. It's starting to wake up for the spring.

Some parts of the garden get treated to more frequent watering.

This California buttercup, Ranunculus california, comes up reliably every year in an area of the garden where lawn meets unwatered gravel.

Blue-eyed grass, Sisyrinchium bellum, appreciates a moister spot as well.

Geum Red Wings, a pretty, informal plant.
Hummingbird sage, Salvia spathacea, is a California plant from moister places than my garden. Even in semi-shade it looks best with water two or three times a month.

And these last two of these go about as far from desert plants as you can get without getting aquatic plants. Both of these grow in my bog gardens, with their feet in standing water most of the year.

Sarracenia flava var. maxima is one one of the first plants in the bog to put out flowers. The common description of the scent is 'cat piss,' but I think that's a little too harsh a description. The flowers are nice, but most people grow these for the pitcher-shaped leaves.

A couple more sarracenias, a different S. flava in the back, and a hybrid of S. flava and S. alata up front.

Head over to Carol’s blog, May Dreams Gardens, to check out all the other bloggers celebrating Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day!

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?

the huntington desert garden

The late-December light was fading when I headed to the wild and wonderful plants that make up the Huntington’s Desert Garden. The garden dates back many decades and features some immense specimens the likes of which you’ll almost never see. But what I love most about the garden is that it incorporates these great plants into landscapes that both honor the plants and use them in striking combinations.

Many aloes were blooming with their dramatic spikes of hot, bright colors. The theatrical lighting helped to make some of the scenes even more dramatic.

(Be sure to click onthe third image to enlarge it. In its unearthly weirdness, it’s got to be one of my favorite garden photos I’ve ever taken.)

One zone of the garden focuses on plants you’d find in California. Here a creosote bush serves as a screen for a radiant gray-white agave.

And this scene employs the coastal and Channel Island buckwheat, Saint Catherine’s lace (Eriogonum giganteum)–a plant that technically doesn’t come from a desert–with other dryland plants. The gray-green foliage on all of them helps to unify this diverse planting.

The Huntington is in a warm subtropical area just east of Los Angeles. That doesn’t mean that it’s warm enough for all of these plants. Patio heaters of the kind that you see outdoors at restaurants keep plants warm at night in one area of the garden. (These are the frigid depths of December, after all.)

Now, as much as I was trying to focus on the overall landscape, I have to share a few photos of individual species that caught my eye.

Looking up at a very large Yucca filifera from Mexico…

(There’s an extremely similar shot of the exact same plant on the Germanatrix’s post on her visit to this same garden at the end of November. Check it out: here.)

Two tall palms with immense tree aloes, Aloe barberae. At the Huntington the species is identified as A. bainesii, but the taxonomists have had a change of heart. I have two of these in my little front yard, the tallest of them still under twenty feet but still impressive at that size. The writeup on this plant says it can hit fifty feet or more. The Huntington specimens are just about there, I’d guess.

A dynamic and lyrical tangle of leaves on several plants of the variegated form of Agave americana… (Homage to somebody… later Willem de Kooning? Franz Kline?) Agaves with their perfect rosettes seem to appeal to the part of our brains that appreciate symmetry and order. This planting subverted the expected into a beautiful mess.

A tall, dense stand of Cleistocactus straussii

As we left the Huntington the light that had made the Desert Garden extra-interesting was coloring up the flanks of Mount Wilson and the the rest of the San Gabriels.

Not far away from the Huntington is Pasadena, the site of the annual New Year’s Rose Parade, which should be getting under way not long after this post hits the web. (Okay, it’s sort of a lame way to try to segue this post to the topic of New Year’s Day, but–hey!–I had to give it a try.)

Happy New Year’s to all of you, and best wishes for a healthy and prosperous year filled with amazing botanical highlights.

a little palm springs hike

Red blooming thing maybe chuparosa

The holiday break begins with a quick trip to visit an old friend who’s vacationing in Palm Springs. I seem to bring warm weather with me: the days are in the upper 70s and the air is desert-dry. The local weather report whines about only “partially sunny” conditions, though the only clouds I see are thin white veils high in the atmosphere. Good hiking weather, I think. My friend is just a little equivocal but he finally caves. “OK, but nothing too strenuous.”

The North Lykken Trail is picked for its easy proximity to where we’re staying and its promise of nice aerial views of the Palm Springs and the rest of the Coachella Valley. The online writeup calls it “moderately strenuous,” as does Philip Ferranti’s 140 Great Hikes in and Near Palm Springs. It seems doable and fun, so off we go.

Blooming chuparosa (Justicia californica, this first image) is everywhere. And where there’s chuparosa, there are hummingbirds and buzzing clouds of bees feeding on its nectar.

Encelia farinosa leafing out in December

Plants of brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) are everywhere too, but most are just leafing out from their long dry summertime coma. Soon they’ll be covered in bright yellow daisies. This plant usually calls dryer areas home but can be found all the way to the coast, and it’s used a lot in landscaping projects.

Cactus with a View

Here’s a barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) with an awesome view of the city.

Maybe we’re distracted by the view or I’m too focused on the plantlife, but by about now we’re scrambling over piles of rocks, in and out of drainages, looking for the trail. If we were deep somewhere in the wilds without a map we might be getting concerned. But how can you say you’re lost when there’s a big city grid down below as a reference point? Okay, we’re not really lost, but some of this is on the strenuous side of “moderately strenous.” But not for too much longer. We find some other hikers off in the distance and get back on the trail.

Rock Formations Over Palm Springs

With the trail securely underfoot it’s easier to take in the great rock formations and enjoy more of the views.

Eriogonum inflatumEriogonum inflatum stem detail

It’s a bit away from peak bloom but there are a few other things to see. This is one of the desert plants I’ve always found pretty interesting, whether it’s in bloom or not. Desert trumpet or pipeweed (Eriogonum inflatum) is an unmistakable buckwheat that usually has flowering stems with a fat trumpeting protuberance below the nodes of its bloom spikes. Often it’s a lot more pronounced than in these two photos.

Sometimes, though, you find a plant that produces stems that are wiry and delicate, with none of the bulging that you see here. Some botanist had some fun naming that one: Eriogonum inflatum var. deflatum.

Larry and Me Hiking

Looking at views and plants is hard work, so we take a number of brief breaks, this one in Chino Canyon. (That’s me to the right, the slavedriver ready to move on to the next ridge.)

Edge of habitation from the ground

This is a hike that makes you hyper-aware of the edges where the desert ends and irrigated human habitation begins. Even though the plants used in this home’s landscaping may say “desert” to you, you can see that the real desert here isn’t one that stays palm-tree-green year-round.

Irrigated succulent garden

Even a collection of dryland plants can require water to keep looking good when they’re planted closer together than you’d find them in nature. Also, some of these plants–particularly the palms–would be only found in more riparian desert habitats, not here where the homeowner wanted them. Check out the drip-irrigation octopus in the lower right corner.

But I suppose it’s hard to resist the temptation to landscape with the plant that’s in your city’s name. Now we’ll just have to work on the “springs” part to make sure all the palms have enough water to survive this challenging piece of desert.

So by now you’ve probably guessed that at least one of us survives the hike. We both do, actually, but are a little sore the next morning. That’s where the artificial springs–the burbling hot tub, in this case, in the semi-shade of the palm trees–comes in handy.

And then my liberal guilt kicks in. As a tourist am I perpetuating a double standard, expecting water and shade be provided me, when I might expect the people living here to make do with less? Okay, if I had to choose, I really could do without the hot tub. But the hike was great.

balboa park's desert garden

January can be an amazing month for succulents and other desert plants. Many aloes and agaves explode into bloom, and plants with ephemeral foliage are green with leaves in ways you don’t often see them.

balboa-park-succulent-bloom-overviewSan Diego’s Balboa Park houses one of the prime local collection of cacti, succulents and other desert dwellers from around the world. The Desert Garden, the larger of its two succulent gardens, was established in 1976, but many of the plants are senior citizens much older than the age of the garden.



Aloes star in its January landscape, with red and orange torches of flowers that double as hummingbird magnets.


And shown here, lurking in the shadows, is one of the local hummingbirds, staking its territory.



Among the big, mature specimens are several dragon trees, Dracaena draco. In this first photo, on the near trunk, you can see a reddish patch where the plant’s red sap has dried. When cut, these plants ooze a fluid that in some European legends was purported to be dragon’s blood, hence the plant’s name (draco = dragon).



This is a public garden, and so it’s subject to funding glitches and battles over civic priorities. I’d consider the garden to be in great condition considering those limitations.

One thing I would have loved to have seen, though, would be more plant labels. I encountered so many interesting species, but very few of them had name tags. I have this thing about needing to know the name of a plant–Call me compulsive. But the lack of labels drove me crazy. I realize, however, that tags don’t come cheap. And in a wide-open public garden, labels can walk away with pieces of succulents in the hands of evil plant addicts.


One of the plants that was labeled was this Natal Bottlebrush, Greyia sutherlandii. A bit scrappy-looking as a plant, but what great flowers!

Also labeled was the Madagascar ocotillo, Alluaudia procera. I loved the spiral patterning of its spines.

Another problem with this being a public garden is that there are quite a few specimens where people’s temptations to carve their initials in the plant life got the better of them. This euphorbia was scarred many times over. But that wasn’t going to stop it from blooming.



After visiting the garden I was surprised by how many shots I’d racked up in the camera. And for some reason, the majority of them were verticals. Is there something about succulents–particularly the upright-growing kinds that mimic the way a human stands–that scream out for photographing them in an upright orientation?


Some yuccas, I think, with spent bloom stems.


Boojum trees, Fouquieria columnaris, native to Baja California. This plant is in the same genus as the California desert’s spectacular ocotillo, which interestingly isn’t related to the Madascar ocotillo, above.


Aloes and kalanchoes in bloom.

balboa-park-succulent-looking-towards-florida-canyonThe main garden is a flat, easy stroll over wide decomposed granite pathways. As part of a recent expansion, the garden now also includes this switchback down into Florida Canyon, also part of Balboa Park. The plants along the descent are still young, but should look spectacular in a decade or so.

Not everyone in the world loves cactus and succulents. They might point to the defensive spines many of the plants have, and they might say the sculptural shapes of the plants don’t look soft and cozy like leafy shrubs or fragrant roses. balboa-park-succulent-spiny-rosesNext to the Desert Garden is Balboa Park’s rose garden. During springtime, thirty seconds of walking would take you from the world of cactus and succulents to a garden manic with flowers and heavy with the aroma of roses. But on this bright January day, the adjacent roses were pruned down to naked stems and piercing thorns. It was the cactus and succulents that looked warm and welcoming.

The Desert Garden is located across Park Boulevard from the Natural History Museum on Balboa Park’s museum row. The garden has no walls, no entry fee, and is open 24/7, 365 days of the year.

If the 2.5 acres of the Desert Garden isn’t enough of a cactus and succulent fix, cross Park Boulevard and take a stroll over to the Balboa Park Club, maybe ten minutes on foot, and take in the parks original 1935 cactus garden, which, according to the park’s website, was established “under the direction of [San Diego gardening legend] Kate Sessions for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition.” There you’ll find “some of the largest cactus and succulent specimens in the Park,” along with a nice collection of proteas.

one perfect juniper

Saturday night I was at a gathering that included Michael Lundgren, a photographer visiting from Arizona where he teaches and works. He’d brought along a portfolio of prints from his Transfigurations series, images that will be included in his upcoming book by the same title to be published at the end of this year by Radius Books.

The photographs in the series work together beautifully, murmuring softly to each other, echoing each other’s forms or textures or moods. With bodies of interrelated work like this it’s almost a shame to isolate a single image. But books being what they are, you generally have space on the front cover for just one, and the one that was picked for Transfigurations is a beauty.

Cover of Michael Lundgren's book

So here we have a single, perfect, amazingly symmetrical juniper tree on a little rise or ledge overlooking an expanse of desert. It feels like the end of the day, that special time when the land seems to glow from within, when the earth seems to gently release its last reserves of the day’s light, like power discharging from a battery, as it prepares for night.

People often think of the desert as a hostile world, but for plants like this juniper that are adapted to what the desert offers and demands, there’s no better home.

To see more images, visit Michael Lundgren’s site.