Thursday, May 16, 2013

Baja Natives

To be honest, I am somewhat more fascinated by Baja plants than San Diego plants. I guess it's because I'm so familiar with the landscape of San Diego County, while Baja remains a sort of mystery for me. Also, Baja has some weirdly beautiful species that you just don't find anywhere else. So here are a few Baja natives that I have in my Encinitas garden. The first one is Shaw's agave (Agave shawii), one of my earliest acquisitions. Behind it is Golden-spined Cereus (Bergerocactus emoryi). I love these two in combination, which you often see in the wild in north coastal Baja. The cereus is blooming right now (May). The agave has never bloomed although it is over 20 years old.

Another one of my early acquisitions was Baja Spurge (Euphorbia xanti). Spurge is a common name for plants in the Euphorbia family, which includes many familiar garden plants - Poinsettia, Crown of Thorns, and a number of popular cactus-like succulents. Baja Spurge forms a tall shrub consisting of numerous slender stems.

The flowers of Baja Spurge are tiny but beautiful and long lasting. The entire shrub flowers all at once and stays that way for several months.

Baja Spurge puts up a great many sprouts from the roots, so if you plant this one be prepared to do a lot of hand pulling of the sprouts, or else let it spread as much as it wants to.

Another Euphorbia, but much smaller, is Cliff Spurge (Euphorbia misera). It is found in just a few places on the U.S. side of the border, but it is very commonly seen on coastal bluffs in Baja. Notice the structural similarity between the flowers of E. xanti and E. misera.

Among the most weirdly beautiful plants of Baja are the Elephant Trees and their kin. These plants are from several different families but they share one thing in common - they have disproportionately fat trunks in relation to their height, sometimes referred to as caudiciform. Someone apparently thought these fattened trunks resemble the leg and foot of an elephant, leading to the English common name. The Spanish names for these plants do not make reference to elephants. The photo below shows five of these that I have in containers.

#1 is known as Copalquin or Torote Blanco in Baja (Pachycormus discolor var. pubescens). Perhaps surprisingly, it is in the Cashew family (Anacardiaceae). In the wild it will get to be 30 ft. tall with a trunk nearly 3 ft. thick at the base. The middle three are members of the Torchwood family (Burseraceae). #2 is Bursera Hindsiana. In Baja it is known as Copal or Copal Roja and can get to be 15 ft. tall. You may be able to see in this photo that the trunk is gray but the smaller branches and twigs are reddish. #3 is Bursera Fagaroides, also known as Fragrant Bursera. Note the fattened portion of the trunk in this specimen. #4 is Bursera microphylla, known as Torote or Small-leaf Elephant Tree, which occurs in the Anza-Borrego Desert and Arizona as well as in Baja. It can be either a large shrub or a tree up to 25 ft. in height. #5 is a member of the Fouquieria family - Fouquieria columnaris. It is related to the Ocotillo (F. splendens) which is common to the deserts of California and Arizona. But F. columnaris has a really different look, especially when it becomes large. Below is a photo of one growing in the San Diego Botanic Garden. This one is not particularly large but you can get an idea of the general appearance of the plant.

A nice shrub from Baja is Hind's Nightshade (Solanum hindianum), known as Mariola or Mala Mujer in Mexico. It is in the Nightshade Family (Solanaceae) which also includes peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, petunias, and many other familiar plants. The great thing about S. hindsianum is that it blooms all year long, at least in my garden.

Another really nice shrub is Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica). Like the Baja Spurge it forms a clump of many individual stems, but Fairy Duster doesn't get nearly as tall. The flower is a very showy spray of stamen radiating out from the center.

To wrap up the Baja plants (for now), I will finish with Britton's Liveforever (Dudleya brittonii). This member of the Crassula family is found only in northern Baja near the coast. The succulent foliage forms a low rosette and comes in a green form or a bluish-white form with a white powdery coating on the leaves. Both color variations are available in native plant nurseries. Below are some green form plants that I have had in my garden for many years.

There are some excellent resources for learning more about Baja plants, mostly coming from the SD Museum of Natural History. The museum has a great online Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias that examines all life forms in upper and lower California. You can find it at and there is a ton of great stuff to learn there.  In addition to the online resources, Dr. Jon Rebman, Curator of Botany at the museum, has co-authored (with the late Norman Roberts) the 3rd edition of the Baja California Plant Field Guide, a tremendously valuable reference book for anyone interested in the plants of this region. You can buy the book at a number of places including Amazon. For more info, see

1 comment:

  1. if you'd like to see lots of pics [and help w/ some ids, check out: