1/1/16: The Living Desert, Palm Desert, CA (1 of 2)

This year it seems I’m forever behind on posts about places I’ve visited. While I’m finally caught on the things we saw during our spring break trip to California’s Central Coast and our three-day trip to Victoria, BC in early April, I still owe you several posts from my desert trip in late December/early January. These aren’t throwaway posts either; they’re about destinations that were among the highlights of my trip.

Today’s post is 1 of 2 about The Living Desert, an intriguing mix of zoo and botanical garden located in Palm Desert, one of the many affluent communities that form the urban sprawl around Palm Springs, California.


Recognize the shrub with what looks like reddish orange leaves? Those are actually branches. This is Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’, which many of us grow in containers. If planted in the ground in the right climate, it can grow to 25 ft.

The Living Desert 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.

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. From a previous visit in 2011, I knew about 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 also knew that by ignoring them I would be able to focus on the natural landscapes. And they are truly beautiful.


Euphorbia ingens

While my verdict on The Living Desert isn’t an unreserved thumbs up due to some out-of-place elements like the huge model train setup and the unappealing and overpriced food, I’m more than happy I visited again. The animal exhibits are spacious and naturalistic, and even Village WaTuTu isn’t as bad as it sounds, mainly because of the mature acacias that shade it.


Paperbark thorn (Acadia sieberiana, now Vachellia sieberiana)


As before, what impressed me the most were the plantings. The Africa section only has plants native to Africa; the Americas section, broken down into geographical areas like Mojave Desert, Colorado Desert, and Chihuahuan Desert, is likewise planted in native flora. The desert location on the edge of town is the perfect backdrop for these dryland plants.

My pet peeve 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, I can’t imagine it would be that much extra work to improve the labeling. On the other hand, I do realize that only very few visitors actually care about plant labeling and, from the organization’s perspective, precious resources are better spent elsewhere.


Since I took so many photos, I’ve broken this post into two parts. This part starts in the Africa section. The species represented are listed here although I’m not sure how complete this listing is.

To get your bearing, look at this map. Africa is at the bottom.

There are aloes all over this area, including stunning specimens of Aloidendron ramosissimum and Aloidendron dichotomum:


Aloidendron ramosissimum


Aloidendron ramosissimum


Aloidendron dichotomum


Aloidendron dichotomum


NOID single-stemmed aloe

Leaving Africa behind, I headed towards the New World in the northern half of the preserve. In the spring, the many palo verde trees (Parkinsonia florida, Parkinsonia aculeata, etc.) are covered with yellow flowers, which must be a sight to see. On New Year’s Day, they were mostly bare—more from the drought than from the cold temperatures—but still striking against the blue sky.


Blue palo verde (Parkinsonia florida)

Even more striking were these mystery trees: white and stark, but possessed of a severe beauty all their own.


I finally found a small metal tag on one of them that identified them as Psorothamnus spinosus. This ID would later be confirmed in the garden shop where they had small plants for sale. The common name is smoke tree (or smoketree). It is native to southern and Baja California and Arizona and has leaves only for very short periods of time (in response to water). The flowers are dark purple to deep blue and very attractive.


Psorothamnus spinosus


Psorothamnus spinosus

Some random shots from the Americas section:


Not all cactus are meant to survive


NOID tree looking great against the winter sky


Yucca rostrata


Yucca rostrata


At the very edge of the man-made exhibits, the planted scenery begins to blend with the desert beyond


Texas ebony (Ebenopsis ebano, formerly Pithecellobium flexicaule)


Texas ebony (Ebenopsis ebano)

I’m not a big wildlife photographer, but I wanted to include this photo of a javelina, or peccary, as a reminder that for many visitors the main attraction of The Living Desert are the animals. According to the 2014 Annual Report, there are more than 680 animals representing 157 different species.



The most frequently seen animal is Homo sapiens, sometimes as brightly colored as a tropical bird:


He made me smile. I wish there were more like him.

But back to the plant life:


Cowtongue prickly pear (Opuntia lindheimeri var. linguiformis)


Picture-perfect agave that for the life of me I cannot identify. Guesses, anybody?

Guess where I headed next?



I liked the interpretative signs. They had just the right amount of information for casual reading.


Mexican fencepost cactus (Pachycereus marginatus) after a pretty severe trimming. The sections on the right are ready to be planted elsewhere.


LEFT: Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum
MIDDLE: Cephalocereus chrysacanthus


Stenocereus kerberi


Agave shawii


Fouquieria diguetii, a relative of the ocotillo

Last stop in part 1 of this post: the Baja Palm Oasis. As you can read on the sign below, it replicates a unique habitat found near the Baja California town of Catavina where three distinctive fan palm species grow next to each other.


If the word “oasis” conjures up images of tropical magic in your mind, then you would love this spot. My photos can’t convey how spectacular these palm trees are. They grow so densely and so tall that the temperature inside the grove appeared to be a good 10-15 degrees lower than outside, creating the perfect refuge even on a not-so-hot winter’s day. I could easily have taken a nap had the benches been a tad more comfortable.



In part 2 I’ll tell you about a chance encounter with a fellow succulent fanatic and show you more photos of cacti, agaves and other good stuff.



  1. These pictures are magnificent!! Looks like an amazing place to visit.

  2. Part I liked best was about the Baja Palm Oasis. Didn't know the three kinds grew together in this spot. What amuses me is that people think (and plant) palms in dry places when, in fact, they are indicators of water as the sign says in those tight little canyons. Very nice photos.

  3. You've been to so many great places no wonder you're behind :) but that just means more treat for us in store! Great looking place! Nevermind the few additions they had to put in to draw more crowds, the plant core and heart is at least still there.

  4. I have been there. They did have some neat plants especially from Madagascar, the Adansonias were healthier than the ones at the Huntington--guess they need a lot of heat. The zoo was more interesting than I thought it would be, though zoos are very depressing. I agree, they need to get the visitors in somehow, a fact of life in our mostly plant-ignoring culture.

  5. Well worth a visit I would think ! It really displays the colors and plant palette of the desert well. I look forward to part 2

  6. Another of those places I would love to visit someday, but there are so many! Looking forward to part 2...


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