Friday, September 26, 2014

Baja Plants

I have written previously that I love Baja plants almost more than California plants. Actually that is a false dichotomy because the California Floristic Province continues well into Baja. According to Rebman and Robert's book, Baja California Plant Field Guide, 3rd edition (Sunbelt Publications 2012), Californian climate and vegetation extend roughly 250 miles south of the border to the El Rosario region, eastward to the mountains, and including the Pacific Islands as far south as Cedros and Natividad. Even the Sonoran Desert portion of Baja is phytogeographically linked to California's deserts of San Diego, Riverside and Imperial Counties. For example, the Anza-Borrego Desert and Palm Springs are northwestern extensions of the Sonoran Desert.

All this verbiage is intended to justify my inclusion of lots of Baja plants in a garden that I refer to as California natives. In fact, a great many species are found on both sides of the border. To mention just a few common examples, Mission Manzanita (Xylococcus bicolor), Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), Chamise (Adenostema fasciculatum), Laurel Sumac (Malosma laurina), Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica), White Sage (Saliva apiana), California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), and Coast Prickly-Pear Cactus (Opuntia littoralis) are found in the chaparral and coastal sage scrub areas of both Baja and Alta California.

In my search for Baja plants for my garden, I have found some good nurseries that have items. rarely seem for sale. I have compiled a list of these to aid others in their search for interesting Baja plants. Below are three nurseries and their web sites. All taxa listed below are native to the California Floristic Province.

Arid Lands Greenhouses, Tucson –
Agave deserti var. deserti
Agave deserti var. pringlei
Agave moranii (west slope San Pedro Martir mountains)
Agave shawii ssp. goldmanniana
Agave turneri (Sierra Cucapa)
Bursera hindsiana
Bursera microphylla
Pachycormus discolor var. veatchiana (Cedros Island)
Lophocereus schottii
Pachycereus pringlei
Ferocactus fordii (coastal dunes)
Ferocactus gracilis ssp. gracilis
Cylindropuntia molesta
Cylindropuntia tesajo
Yucca valida

Mesa Gardens, Belen, NM – – they have both plants and seeds
 Agave shawii
Echinocereus maritimus (coastal bluffs)
E. pacificus (coastal bluffs)
Ferocactus chrysacanthus (endemic to Cedros Island)
F. fordii (coastal dunes)
F. gracilis 
Lophocereus schottii
Mammillaria dioica
M. setispina (reclassified to Cochemia setispina)
M. tetrancistra
Myrtillocactus cochal
Opuntia burrageana (reclassified to Cylindrountia alcahes var burrageana)
Pachycereus pringlei

Grigsby Cactus Gardens – Vista -
Ferocactus chrysacanthus (endemic to Cedros Island)
F. Gracilis 

Dudleya attenuata var. orcuttii
D. candida (endemic to Coronados Islands)

I recently got a large, sturdy but old and beaten up terra cotta container from a neighbor. It had cracks and crevices in it that reminded me of a Baja canyon, and I decided it would be perfect for some Baja succulents. I enlarged the crack to make it look even more canyon-like and made other alterations.

In the upper part of the container I planted a Boojum Tree (Fouquieria columnaris) that I bought from Arid Lands. They ship their plants bare-root which most succulents can handle with no problem. The Boojum was leafed out but the leaves were wilted and soon dropped off, which is typical of Fouquierias. It re-leafed again in about 2 weeks and is looking great. 

In the lower part of the container, stepping down the "canyon" wall, I planted two cacti: Echinocereus brandegei (the taller one in back) and Mammillaria blossfeldiana (the shorter ones in front). These are both native to the Sonoran Desert part of Baja where Boojums live. At the bottom of the V is a Dudleya attenuata var. orcuttii which is from closer to the border and also occurs in San Diego County. I have this container in full sun and watering every 2 weeks during the warm weather. When it cools off I will cut back to monthly watering, or less if we get rain.

Next is a Grusonia invicta (formerly classified as Opuntia) which comes from the Vizcaino Desert of Baja, a much more arid region than the Sonoran. When the Vizcaino gets rain, it is usually only when a Chubasco (hurricane) hits central Baja, such as Odile did this summer. I put my G. invicta in a container where I can more easily control how much water it gets.

One of the notable features of this cactus is its formidable spines which are flattened and quite stout, almost like a stiletto.

I am placing this cactus in a small grouping with two other Baja cacti, a Ferocactus fordii and a F. peninsularis. The former is from the beaches of the Pacific coast in the California climate zone. The latter is from hillsides and plains in the southern portion of the peninsula.

I recommend Baja plants to anyone interested in expanding their palette of California plants, particularly for So Cal gardens. Mine all seem really happy in San Diego County.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


I have previously tried to grow a Passiflora arida (Baja passion flower) from seed, but I was unsuccessful. Aside from wanting the plant itself, I wanted to attract Gulf Fritillary butterflies. They use various species of Passiflora as a host plant, meaning that they lay their eggs on the plant and the caterpillars eat it. Most butterflies will go to any flower for nectar but they will use plants from only a selected family, genus or species as their host. In the absence of a P. arida I decided to just go to the nearest nursery and buy a passion flower. Below is the plant I bought and a good view of the flower. Most passion flowers are vines. I planted this one in a container and started training it up a post.

I don't know what species/variety it is and I don't care. I just wanted something to attract the butterflies. It worked immediately. In the photo above you can see that some of the leaves have already been chewed. The Gulf Fritillary butterflies found it right away and started laying eggs on it. Below is the butterfly in the process of egg laying.

Sometimes there would be several butterflies on the vine at the same time. Soon the eggs hatched and the caterpillars became large enough to be readily visible.

The vine grew rapidly, but the egg laying and caterpillar chewing of the leaves was even more rapid. Soon the caterpillars had entirely stripped the vine of leaves. That's okay with me because I want the butterflies, not the plant. The plant is still alive, though leafless, and dozens of butterflies still come around every day. The plant must put out a chemical signal that attracts them, even the bare stem.

Now the caterpillars have been replaced by cocoons. They are everywhere in the vicinity of the plant. They resemble a dried leaf, which is excellent camouflage. Also, passion flowers contain a chemical which is ingested by the caterpillars and makes the adult butterflies somewhat toxic to birds and other predators. This mechanism is very similar to the relationship between Monarchs and Milkweeds.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


Things are changing fast in the world of Bark Lice. I noticed today (9/6/14) that the patch looked a little different. I investigated to see what might be going on.

Clearly, some of the nymphs have transformed into winged adults. Some have probably already flown away, making the patch appear less dense and less uniform. I had not expected this to happen so soon. I thought it might take a couple of weeks for them to go through this process, but instead it has taken only a few days. Below is a close up.

In the bottom left corner of this shot we see what I believe is the shed carapaces of two nymphs that have just emerged as adults. My guess is that the adults will now mate and the females will lay eggs around or on the tree where they will stay dormant until next Spring or Summer. I don't know how long the adults live, but I would imagine they die when the weather turns chilly, if not sooner. Once again, I feel so privileged to be able to witness this phenomenon in my own front yard.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Bark Lice

I'm a terrible blogger. I haven't posted anything since January, and there was plenty to write about. I just didn't get around to posting any of it. Well, today is different because there is a population explosion of insects on my coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia). From inside the house it looked like a wet spot on the lower trunk of the tree. When I went outside to take a closer look, I saw that it was a mass of tiny insects huddled in a fairly tight cluster. I took a number of pictures, trying to get as much magnification as possible because the insects are very tiny, only about 1-2 mm in length.

I sent the photos around to a couple of different insect experts for identification. The unanimous answer I got from them was that these are called Bark Lice (Order Psocoptera). However, they are not true lice, nor are they bees, despite the superficial resemblances. They are fairly common in and under trees. They are not harmful in any way and may be considered beneficial in the big picture. They eat molds, pollen, and various other kinds of organic matter, so they are part of the large and important group of decomposers who help keep the world from being buried in debris.

These nymphs will grow and go through several molts, eventually emerging as winged adults. For a picture of the adult, see Until now, I was unaware that this group of insects even existed. Now I am delighted to have them living in my yard, and I hope they will become permanent residents. I believe this has occurred due to the combination of native plants and totals absence of pesticides. While a native plant garden can never be considered a truly complete ecosystem, the appearance of species like this brings a level of ecological complexity that is very gratifying.