Monday, April 18, 2016

Visiting Baja California—Amazing Plants

hillside, Gulf of California
island: Gulf of California
We set off for the Whales and Wildness cruise in the Gulf of California with Lindblad/National Geographic (link.)
From the moment I stepped out of the airport at San José del Cabo at the tip of the Baja California peninsula, the landscape was exotic:
scenery near San Jose del Cabo
From the van, north of San José del Cabo
The peninsula has a variety of climates, dry to extremely dry, hot to warm, some areas receiving summer rain, some with winter rain, all depending on exactly where you are. I saw only a sampling of it.

If you’ve been to the desert around Phoenix, Arizona, you’ve seen something like it. Deserts in this part of North America are very old. Baja California is in the core of this zone, with the most extreme, oldest desert and consequently with some of the strangest plants.

Strange to look at, well-adapted to heat and drought.

cardon cacti
the cardón cactus
The big conspicuous cactus is not saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) but cardón cactus, also called elephant cactus (Pachycereus pringlei) (cactus family, Cactaceae). (Yes, cardón means thistle, like elephant cactus a name based on likening it to more familiar things). 

The cardón is the tallest and most massive of all cacti.
cardon cacti
More cardón cacti
Baja California hillside
Hillside with cardón cacti
Cardón cacti were so abundant we soon quit noticing them.
And there were other wonderful plants.
Diverse cacti, of course.

A cholla (Cylindropuntia) with big yellow fruits and star-like spines
But also this (below), the coyote melon (Cucurbita cordata, cucumber family Cucurbitaceae), a wild squash with a huge root. Below you see the top of the root sticking out of the ground. I didn’t see live leaves or flowers, only the root waiting to put out leaves when the winter rains come. It is endemic to (found only in) Baja California.

coyote melon root
coyote melon root top (whitish)
And this shrub (below) was relatively common.  It's common name in English is dog poop bush--named for the look of the pods. Scientifically it is Ebenopsus confinis, pea family Fabaceae. It grows only in Baja California and adjacent states in Mexico. 
dog poop bush
dog poop bush
Note the spines. Plants tended to be well-defended with thorns or spines.

In addition to stabbing you, the plants often had very intense odors, which I can't show in a blog post. Presumably those odors were from strong chemicals in the leaves, warning you that a stomach-full would produce severe indigestion.
The dry conditions produced funny-looking landscapes:

hillside, Baja California

The plant below is the giganta elephant tree, Bursera odorata (the torchwood family, Burseraceae, a tropical family of more than 500 species). The genus Bursera has 110 species of which more than 80 species occur in Mexico. Of the Mexican species, 90% are endemic to Mexico. The giganta elephant tree is endemic to Baja California Sur, the Mexican state at the southern end of Baja California.

giganta elephant tree Bursera odorata
giganta elephant tree, Bursera odorata
I think I walked by the giganta elephant tree the first couple times without paying much attention, thinking the plants were sick or injured. But in fact, this is how they grow. They are rarely more than 4’ (1.3 m) high! In another season there will be leaves and flowers.
So you get landscapes like this:

giganta elephant tree and cardon cacti

Scenes like the above photo are common in Baja California, terrifically strange for people who are used to forests of pines or hardwoods (Photos to contrast Florida pine forest, California north of San Franciscoeastern forest Delaware)

I knew odd plants had adapted to the harsh conditions of Baja California but seeing them was a revelation--they were indeed spectacular. 

More in future posts. 

Comments and corrections welcome.

Rebman, J. P. and N.C.Roberts. 2012. Baja California Plant Field Guide. 3rd ed. San Diego Natural History Museum San Diego
Thanks also to Lindblad/National Geographic guide Gretchen Pederson, without whom I couldn’t have identified coyote melon (no leaves, flowers or fruits) and would have been a lot longer looking up some of the other plants.

related post: another American desert plant agave
related posts: about spines about poisonous plants

Kathy Keeler

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