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


  1. Another fantastic set of photos, thanks for sharing them and thoroughly enjoyed reading the series. Looks like you guys had a fantastic time althroughout too!

    Can't believe you didn't buy that much, there's always space somewhere.

    The Yucca rostrata for $430....that's a bargain compared to how much they cost here...

  2. We DID have a great time. Since the Living Desert is also a zoo, the kids and Heather had plenty to look at while I was busy photographing the plants.

    As for Yucca rostrata, they're almost impossible to find up here (don't know why since they're so cold-hardy and would grow anywhere in Northern California). I couldn't believe how many of them they had for sale in the nursery. 1-gallon plants were $12, that's a great price. But since I have three rostratas already (and one Y. thompsoniana), I passed. Those large specimens sure were impressive, though! How much are they in UK?


Post a Comment