Mexico / Baja California  / Flora
Friday, August 23, 2019


Wüstenlandschaft bei Punta Prieta
desert landscape near Punta Prieta
Blühender Kaktus Bahía de los Angeles
blooming cactus in Bahía de los Angeles

About 4,000 plant species are known in Baja California, of which some 700 are endemic, i.e., they are present only there.

And there are many other species that still await discovery. Deserts, seas and mountains form many “biologic islands”, where unusual and bizarre plants grow. Botanically, Baja California is part of the Sonoran desert, an extremely harsh landscape for plants of these latitudes:

  • Less than 250 mm of rain a year and low humidity
  • High air and soil temperatures as well as great temperature variations between day and night and in the course of the year
  • Strong wind
  • Low-mineral soils and erosion of the soil by wind and water

Foremost in the cabinet of rarities are the idrias or cirios that are native to the central desert. With the cardones, the giant cacti and the elephant trees (see below), they are the predominant plants in this part of the peninsula. Idrias belong to the Fouqieriaceae, a plant family only present in Mexico and the southwest of the USA. All members of this family stop growing and shed their leaves, when water is scarce. Only after rain has fallen, do the plants develop small round leaves, often sprouting directly from the stem, and blossoms at the end of their branches. More than 60 ft (20 m) high and looking like giant carrots turned upside down, idrias grow extremely slowly and acquire highly individual forms, sometimes branched or in arches and loops. The biggest of them are estimated to be almost 400 years old.

Related to the idrias are ocotillos (also called coachwhips) and Adam‘s trees. While the former is found in the northern Baja California, Adam‘s trees occur south of the Bahía Concepcíon. Either plant can easily be recognized by the thin spiny twigs, which grow from the earth like whips and can be up to 10 ft (3 m) long. In April, their leaves begin to grow as do conspicuously red blossoms – a feast for ummingbirds. Both species were already used by the Indians to grow “living fences” to mark off premises or build huts – it is only necessary to put a series of broken twigs into the earth, and a stable natural fence will develop.

About two dozen agave species are known in Baja (120 in Mexico) such as the coastal agave in the North and the desert agave in the interior. Generally named mescal, agaves have always been important plants for nutritive and other purposes. They are used to obtain, by alcoholic fermentation, mescal and tequila, the national beverage of Mexico. Other species such as the sisal agave provide the wellknown tear-resistant fibers for ropes and nets. Agaves bloom only once in their lives. An inflorescence several meters high grows from the rosette that lies on the earth. The plant then dies, and the young plants take its place. The agaves include the yuccas. They are represented in Baja by the tree yucca or datilillo. It is said to resemble a date palm from a distance; this explains its name.

Palo Verde
Palo Verde

Up to 23 ft (7 m) high and with a stem of about 75 in (190 cm) round, the datilillos, which often form groups, are the characteristic plant of the Vizcaíno desert south of Guerrero Negro. When planted closely side by side, they form living fences, too. Elephant trees are content with particularly poor soil and are always the first plants to grow on the lava ejected by the Tres Virgenes volcanoes near San Ignacio. They are called torotes or copalquines by the locals. The name is applied to several species of different plant families. Their common characteristics are the stocky growth, the height of only some meters (some 20 feet), and the thick stems, which are often whitish and sometimes have their bark coming off. Leaves appear only after rains. Many elephant trees are covered by dodder, a yellowish-brown parasite of the morning-glory family, which derives its sustenance from them. The trees bear berrylike fruits and some contain fragrant aromatic oils. Their wood – just like that of the widespread brittlebush – burns slowly and was formerly used as incense in the churches. Palms are found in Baja only near watering places, in washes and oases. Among them is the indigenous Mexican blue palm, of which beautiful specimens with the characteristic bluish fronds are particularly frequent in Cataviña. Another species is the Mexican fan palm that is also indigenous. Interspersed with imported date palms, it constitutes the stock of trees in the San Ignacio and Mulegé oases. Coconut palms grow only in the southernmost part, the cape region. It is impossible to imagine the scenery of Baja without the trees of the leguminous order, which are characteristic of the Sonoran desert. Whether the blue palo verde, Willard‘s acacia, desert ironwood or mesquite, most of those trees have spines and edible bean-like fruits, and yield hard timber or firewood; some specimens are hundreds of years old.

It is fascinating to see the different ways plants have developed to adapt to the harsh conditions: mesquites, for instance, are evergreen and have taproots that grow up to 100 ft (30 m) downwards to tap the ground water. During the hottest time of the day, they fold their small leaves and close the stomas, so that no photosynthesis occurs. Blue palo verdes, on the other hand, have no deep root system. They shed their leaves in dry periods, and the green bark takes over for photosynthesis. And finally the flowers. Often not visible for years, they survive in the germ stage; only a few raindrops are enough to produce a colorful sea of flowers. The landscape, scorched in other times, is then carpeted by lupines, flowers of the composite family, sand verbena, bindweed and innumerable other color spots. In between you will see the brilliant yellow of flowering mesquites, blue palo verdes and brittlebushes – an intensive dream, but unfortunately too short-lived.