Desert Plants

A towering cardón cactus at the mouth of Arroyo Huatamote near Laguna Percebu, south of San Felipe.

The undisputed king of the San Felipe desert is the cardón cactus. Reaching heights of 60 to 75 feet and weights of 20 to 40 tons, cardón is the world’s largest cactus. Flowering with the first change of winter soil temperatures, they don an array of white trumpet-shaped flowers along most branches and thereby begin a complicated process of reproduction. The tallest of the species are located along Baja Sur’s Magdalena Plain while our local cardón range to 30, 40 and 50 feet in height. With a lifespan of 300 years, a few of our local giants witnessed the coming of the Spaniards at the close of the 17th century. If cardón is king, Cholla is the knave of the cactus world with more than 100 varieties although considerably less than that have been identified in the San Felipe.

Another important cactus is the Prickly Pear or Nopal, as it is called in Spanish. With large, flat, pad-like stems, nopal are edible and widely used as a food source. The fruit is made into jelly and syrup and the seeds can be used in soups or ground into flour. This plant has medicinal properties and has been used to bind wounds, treat warts, and aid in childbirth. What’s more, it has been scientifically investigated for numerous medical treatments and commercial properties. Another local plant is Senita (garambullo), also known as The Old Man Cactus Their tall thin columns grow to heights of fifteen feet and put on beards of long gray needles. Sprouting new vertical stems when a column falls over, some clusters are over a hundred years old. This spring bloomer has small pink flowers that open at night to accommodate bat pollinators.

There are 125 plant species in Baja California that grow naturally nowhere else in the world. Although not one of the 125, Ironwood was found in abundance here but subsequently eliminated (for its use as firewood). The fruit, a long twisted pod, is edible and tastes like peanuts. The wood is dark, hard (as iron?), and beautiful wood carvings are made from it. The Elephant tree (torote) is a name given to several aromatic members of the Burseraceae family. Getting its nickname from the fact that its branches are proportionally thicker than their length, this low flowering tree is used as an ornamental throughout the southwest. One species, at maturity, develops a beautiful yellow exfoliating bark. The Foothill Palo Verde is by far the most numerous of the trees in the area. This low, densely branched tree has beautiful small yellow blossoms in late spring. It provides much needed shade and shelter for numerous other small plants and animals. There are several varieties of mesquite throughout the local area including those with and without bean pods. One of them, favored by the insect “Tarantula Killer,” literally weeps from upper branches throughout the summer.

Another unusual plant found in the San Felipe is Ocotillo, a woody shrub with many branches sprouting from a circular base. Resembling a cluster of long, spiny broom handles, ocotillos have raceme’s of reddish-orange blossoms. Many of the locals use the stems for fence posts and, if replanted and watered frequently, will re-root and create a living fence. The indigenous make a tea from the plant’s flowers and seeds. Further, the blossoms can be eaten raw. Ocotillo, in human terms, is but a 10,000 year old grandchild of the plant Native Americans called Boojum (idria columnaris) which, in Spanish, is known as Cirio. The desert Lavender produces long slender green leafed branches with tiny purple flowers at the tip. Found in washes, this aromatic shrub is always a pleasure to find. Another shrub/tree found in the washes is the Smoke tree (Palo Triste in Spanish). This prolific plant is generally unattractive until brighted by Spring rains when it literally radiates with a gray-green hue and made the more beautiful with an inundation of tiny purple flowers. The Creosote Bush is the most predominate shrub in the region. Called Gobernadora in Spanish, it is a diffusely branched evergreen with bright yellow flowers in late winter and early spring. Probably the most medicinal of all plants in the area, it has analgesic, diuretic, decongestant, expectorant, antiseptic, antimicrobial, and bactericidal properties. It is used locally to cure everything from stomach aches to stinky feet. The Creosote Bush clones new bushes that form rings spreading outward from the oldest plant. Some of the largest rings of Gobernadora are estimated in excess of 11,000 years of age.

Check our Gardening Tips Archives on the Classic Kat’s Korner.