Monday, February 28, 2011

My succulent haul from the Southland

Yesterday I was teasing you about this mystery plant that I brought home from our trip to the Southern California desert:

Mystery plant in 5-gallon container…

The way it was wrapped it could have been anything, but it is a beautiful specimen of a fishhook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizenii) native to Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Since it’s hardy to at least 15°F, it can spend winters outside in our climate as long as it is protected from the rain.

Check out this site for some beautiful photos of its spines and flowers. As you can see in my photos, the spines lose their cinnamon color as they age and turn to a pinkish gray.

…revealed to be fishhook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizenii)

I realize the spines are pretty nasty looking but since they’re curved, they don’t really prick you unless you touch them from underneath. I do like the heavy armature on this cactus—it has attitude!

This Arizona native has very impressive spines—they are rigid and sharp

Click here to see where the fishhook cactus ended up.

I also brought home some small cacti. The first two are star cacti (genus Astrophytum). I saw one in the ground at Ruth Bancroft Garden last summer and have been wanting one ever since.

Bishop’s cap (Astrophytum myriostigma), 2½” wide in this photo
Monk’s hood (Astrophytum ornatum), 2” wide in this photo

The next one is an agave cactus (Leuchtenbergia principis). Looking at the leaves, it’s easy to see why it’s called agave cactus. It’s supposed to be very slow-growing, to approx. 30 inches over many years. Since it forms a turnip-like tap root, it prefers to be planted in a deep pot. This is different than most cacti whose root systems are shallow.

Agave cactus (Leuchtenbergia principis)

The next three don’t really look like they’re related, but they are. They are not cacti, i.e. they are not members of the New-World Cactaceae family. Instead, they are euphorbias, native to the Old World (in this case Africa).

The genus Euphorbia, part of the Euphorbiaceae family, is enormous, comprising more than 2,000 species. It includes the ever-popular spurges, poinsettia, crown-of-thorns, giant columnar “cacti”, and many others.

Milk barrel (Euphorbia horrida var. striata), 1½” wide in this photo.
Eventually grows into a cylindrical plant up to 3 feet tall.
Hardy to the mid-20s for short periods of time.

Euphorbia aeruginosa, 4” tall in the photo above, eventually to 12” with many tightly packed stems. Flowers in the early spring. Very cheery looking plant. Not cold hardy so it’ll live in a pot and be brought inside on frosty nights.

Pencil milk bush (Euphorbia mauritanica), native to northwest Africa. 12” tall in the photo above, 36” when mature, hardy to the mid-20s

The next one is a silver dollar plant (Crassula arborescens), closely related to the jade plant (Crassula ovata), with the same growth habit and cultivation requirements. I actually like it even better than the jade plant because of its gray leaves with red margins. Since jade plants are marginally hardy in our climate—i.e. they can stay outside but need some protection on the coldest nights—this one will live outside as well.

Silver dollar plant (Crassula arborescens)

I also brought home three prickly pears (opuntias). Since they had completely outgrown their nursery containers, I transplanted them into a larger pots. Check back  on Tuesday for a separate post about that. It was quite an undertaking, with glochids (tiny spines) flying everywhere.

P.S. I’ve been posting a lot about succulents lately, especially cacti. I promise you, I’ll return to less prickly plants very soon, especially as our bamboos begin to shoot.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Teaser: plants I brought home from our SoCal desert trip

After being gone for a week, I had a lot of catching up to do today so I didn’t have time to write a post. But I’ll be back tomorrow with a post about the plants I brought home from our trip to the Southern California desert. Here’s a teaser:


What could possible be in there???

Click here to find out.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Desert trip—day 5: Palm Desert to Davis

Spending the night in the wealthy community of Indian Wells paid off with the best motel breakfast we’d had on this trip. However, it didn’t take long for us to overdose on the endless display of conspicuous consumption evident everywhere: from the country clubs and gated communities to upscale shopping and dining.

What depressed me the most, though, was the unbelievable amount of water wasted on expansive lawns, out-of-place plantings of flowering annuals, and enormous fountains found at the entrance of almost every hotel, country club, and shopping center. Don’t landscape designers realize that this is the desert, with an average annual rainfall of under 5 inches? While we did see great examples of xeric plantings around some commercial buildings, most of them are still stuck in the dark ages as far as climate-appropriate landscaping goes.

Before we left the Palm Springs area, we made one last stop. A few weeks ago I’d come across a Craigslist post from a new succulent nursery in the town of Desert Hot Springs just a few miles off the I-10 and I wanted to check it out. I had expected a small specialty nursery with a modest selection of 4-inch plants. Boy, was I in for a surprise! Mariscal Cactus & Succulents is huge, and while they do have a large stock of 4-inch plants, they have an even larger stock of plants in 5-gallon containers and up, ranging all the way to 8-foot cacti in 24-inch tree boxes. I’d never been to a nursery that offers so many large specimens of succulents.

The Desert Hot Springs location is one of three; Mariscal’s main nursery is in Fallbrook in San Diego county. According to their website, they grow 500 different varieties of succulents.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I ended up buying a few plants—just a few, no more than a generous handful.


For me, one of the most impressive man-made sights in the Palm Springs area is the giant wind farm off I-10. There are 4,000 wind turbines and they generate enough electricity to supply Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley. Apparently they were featured in the movie Mission: Impossible III, which I have yet to see.

Just a few of the 4,000 wind turbines dotting the desert
on either side of I-10

I had such a blast on this trip that it was hard heading home, back to our everyday routine. But at least I have the many photos I took to tide me over until our next trip to the desert, whenever that may be.

Joshua tree right along Highway 395 in the Mojave Desert
Mysterious cloud hovering over the desert. Maybe it’s an alien spacecraft?

All posts about our trip:

Day 1  •   Day 2  •   Day 3  •   Day 4  •   Day 5

Desert trip—day 4: Salton Sea to Palm Desert

This morning we left the small town of Calipatria, our home for the last two days, and headed up the western side of the Salton Sea to Palm Desert, one of the many affluent communities that form the urban sprawl around Palm Springs. Our destination here was the Living Desert. This zoo and botanical garden was founded in 1970 as a nature center to preserve a part of the local desert ecosystem from encroaching development. Since then, it has grown to 1,800 acres, 1,000 of which are in their natural state. In the early 1980s the scope of the organization’s preservation efforts was expanded to include endangered species from Africa.

Agave planting in the Living Desert entrance plaza

Unfortunately, the economic reality is such that it is impossible to attract a sufficient number of visitors to a place like the Living Desert without offering Disneyland-style attractions. I was dreading things like “Village WaTuTu”, an “authentic replica of a village found in northeast Africa” including a marketplace where you can deck out your house and yourself in African goods, and “Gecko Gulch”, an “incredible, interactive outdoor play land”, but I knew that there’d be something special for me waiting at the end of the desert rainbow: the Palo Verde Garden Center, a small nursery selling a wide range of desert plants.

While the verdict on the Living Desert isn’t a glowing thumbs up due to some excruciatingly tacky and out-of-place elements like a huge model train setup and the unappealing and overpriced food ($3.25 for a small fountain drink??? Give me a break!!!), I’m very glad we visited. The animal exhibits are spacious and naturalistic, and even Village WaTuTu wasn’t as bad as I had feared. mainly because of the mature acacias that shaded it. (There were lots of different kinds of acacias in the Africa section.)

What did impress me the most were the plantings. The Africa section only had plants native to Africa; the Americas section, broken down into geographical areas like Mojave Desert, Colorado Desert, and Chihuahuan Desert, was likewise planted in native flora. In that respect, The Living Desert upheld its promise as a botanic garden. However, there was one area that was insufficient: labeling. While many plants were labeled, others weren’t—invariably the ones I wasn’t sure about. Considering how much effort has gone into building this place, it wouldn’t be that much extra work to improve the labeling.

Here are some photos from the various sections. I didn’t take as many photos in the Africa section because African flora isn’t my main interest.

Blooming tree aloe; unlabeled, but possibly Aloe ferox
A very impressive quiver tree (Aloe dichotoma), about 10 ft. tall. In its native habitat in South Africa and Namibia, it can grow to 30 ft.
Unlabeled restio against rock boulder; very nice contrast

In the Americas section I did feel a bit like I’d gone to heaven—so many species of agave, yucca, nolina, dasylirion, not to mention cacti!

Blue agave (Agave tequilana)
Octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana)
Two blooming agaves—very impressive bloom stalks with chartreuse-colored flowers
Interesting planting of golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) and octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana) with a
top dressing of black lava rock in front of the
Palo Verde Garden Center
Nice succulent container arrangement
Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) at the base of a ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata). The designers of the Living Desert must  love ponytail palms as much as I do because I saw quite a few specimens, including a nice potted one in front of the gift shop—almost made me want to step inside!
The barrel cactus garden, one of my favorite spots in the Americas section. I was thrilled seeing so many different barrel cactus in one place.
More golden barrel cactus and adolescent saguaros (Carnegiea gigantea)
Two types of ferocactus
A nice clump of organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi), most impressively represented at Organ Pipe National Monument southwest of Tucson, AZ
My favorite yucca, Yucca rostrata, against the afternoon sky.
I was happy to see several adult specimens.
The Palo Verde Garden Center had a stunning 5-foot specimen
in a 24-inch box for sale for, gasp!, $430.
Blooming ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). I came soooo close to buying a 1-gallon plant in the garden center but since I have no idea whether it would grow in our climate (possibly too much rain in the winter), I decided not to.
I really liked this juxtaposition of agave and cholla. The colors and textures form a very pleasing contrast.

The Palo Verde Garden Center had a great selection of desert and desert-adapted plants. If I had a larger yard, I would have bought several desert shrubs and trees that I never see in our local nurseries. The selection of agaves, yuccas, nolinas and dasylirions was superb, but since we’re running out of space in our yard, I took a deep breath and resisted the siren’s call. All I bought were four small cacti.

Hard to believe that our mini vacation is almost over. Tomorrow we’re heading back to Davis—just in time for a cold spell that is supposed to bring sub-freezing temperatures for three nights in a row. I’ll miss the wonderful early-spring weather of the desert!

All posts about our trip:

Day 1  •   Day 2  •   Day 3  •   Day 4  •   Day 5

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Desert trip—day 3: Salton Sea

Day 3 was spent on and around the Salton Sea. The issues involving the Salton Sea are complex to say the least, so instead of trying to summarize them here, I’ll simply refer you to this site. From there you can click through to a number of other sites if you’re interested.

This is the desert distilled to its essential elements: earth, sky, and water. However, unlike elsewhere in the desert, there is plenty of water, except that it’s saltier than the Pacific Ocean and hence of no use to humans. This bizarre and hostile environment offers little for tourists looking for National Park-type beauty—in fact, its fetid odor drives them away in a hurry. It’s not until you spend a little time here and try to understand the land and the people living here that you start to appreciate this unique place.

North Shore, mid-afternoon
A dream that never materialized—failed subdivision
Motel in Niland

Salvation Mountain has been called a masterpiece of folk art by some, a toxic dump by others. It is a monument to the universal love of God created by Leonard Knight, now 79, who arrived here 25 years ago and began to carve his message into the side of a hill 3 miles east of Niland on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea. Wikipedia has a good article about Salvation Mountain; the official website of Salvation Mountain, maintained by a friend of Leonard Knight’s, has a detailed biography.

While the message of Salvation Mountain is religious in nature and I’m not, I was completely overwhelmed by what Leonard Knight has created in 25 years of back-breaking labor. Salvation Mountain is a testament to what one person can achieve with dedication and perseverance, constantly defying the odds and the obstacles life places in their way. I can’t think of a better teaching moment for our daughters, and I’m so happy they were here to experience this with us.

Leonard Knight still lives at the base of his mountain in the back of a 1939 fire truck—with no electricity, running water, heating, air conditioning, or any of the other modern convenience we take for granted. We had the honor of getting a personal tour from him this morning (we initially were the only visitors) and ended up talking to him for a good hour. He told us that although his body is getting weaker and he cannot do the heavy work anymore, he’s still as committed to his mountain as ever.

In fact, what’s foremost on his mind these days is to preserve what he’s built. In 2002, California senator Barbara Boxer read an entry into the Congressional Record proclaiming Salvation Mountain as a national treasure. Word about Salvation Mountain has spread and he often has more than 100 visitors a day from all over the world. Yet in spite of the growing recognition for what Knight has built, there’s great uncertainty as to what will happen after he passes away. Salvation Mountain is built on public land, and without some sort of official protection, bureaucrats could just as easily have it destroyed.

Welcome to the capital of Joy and Love
Salvation Mountain
One of several intricately painted cars
Salvation Mountain—close-up
Yellow Brick Road
View of the “Museum” from on top Salvation Mountain. The Museum is a complex of domed grottoes supported by “trees” built from truck tires, tree branches, and other materials scavenged from the surrounding desert—as well as adobe (straw and clay) and lots of donated paint.
The Museum—detail
The Museum—exterior
Inside the Museum
Inside the Museum
Inside the Museum
According to Leonard, this photo was sent to him by National Geographic. He was very proud of it and said that it was being turned into a jigsaw puzzle that he would give to visiting kids.
Only some of the many cans and buckets of paint donated to Leonard Knight. This morning, a couple arriving in an RV dropped off at least a dozen cans of paint. I have a feeling he gets more paint these days than he can use.
Leonard Knight talking about the need to preserve Salvation Mountain
Leonard was very happy to have his photo taken

Just beyond Salvation Mountain lies Slab City. It takes its name from the concrete slabs that remain from a World War II-era military base called Camp Dunlap. Slab City could best be described as a haphazard yet intentional community of desert dwellers living outside the mainstream of society, many of them subsisting on small government checks or even less. There is no water, no electricity, and no public services of any kind. In fact, officially, Slab City doesn’t even exist. Yet in spite of that, there are hundreds of permanent residents who have put down roots here in spite of the adverse conditions, especially in the summer. In the winter, their numbers swell to several thousand as snowbirds arrive in their RVs from northern latitudes.

Slab City played a role in the non-fiction book (and Sean Penn-directed movie) Into The Wild; protagonist Chris McCandless spent time here before setting out for Alaska.

This used to be the guardhouse for WWII-era
Camp Dunlap Marine base
Slab City Community Bulletin Board—with cacti and aloe plantings
Slab City Christian Center

Bombay Beach is located about 15 miles north of Niland on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea. This tiny town of a few hundred was founded in 1929 as a private development and quickly became a popular destination for retirees and weekenders wanting to enjoy the desert climate. In 1976 and 1977 tropical storms caused catastrophic flooding that inundated over 500 lots and destroyed a mobile home park. Bombay Beach never recovered. Over the last 30 years, the damaged structures in the flooded areas have been slowly decaying. What is left today looks like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. I’m only posting a few photos because this is not everybody’s cup of tea, but as is so often the case, even this apocalyptic nightmare has its own unique, terrible beauty.


Our last stop of the day was the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge located on the southeastern tip of the Salton Sea halfway between Niland and Calipatria. Founded in 1930 and renamed in 1998 in honor of then congressman Sonny Bono (of Sonny & Cher fame), it is situated along the Pacific Flyway and provides a sanctuary for migratory birds. We took a leisurely walk to Rock Hill, a volcanic promontory providing panoramic views of the Salton Sea, looking at the many birds along the shoreline and collecting pieces of obsidian that is abundant here.

Nesting birds

The Rock Hill area is a hotbed of geothermal activity and several power plants harness the power of the earth to produce electricity. It was a strange sight seeing these steam plumes rise out of nowhere and hearing noise that sounded very much like traffic from a busy freeway.

One of several geothermal plants

That concluded our third day in the desert. One more day left—tomorrow we’re heading to Palm Desert to visit The Living Desert, a botanical garden/zoo dedicated to preserving desert flora and fauna, not only from the Colorado Desert but also from other desert ecosystems.

Road to Nowhere and Everywhere

All posts about our trip:

Day 1  •   Day 2  •   Day 3  •   Day 4  •   Day 5