Book review: California Desert Plants

Every now and then a book comes along that is a complete game changer. California Desert Plants (ISBN 978-1-941624-14-2) is one of them. Written by Phil Rundel, Robert Gustafson, and Michael Kaufmann and published just a few weeks ago by Backcountry Press, a small independent publisher in Northern California, it covers the tremendous diversity of plants in the three deserts that extend into California: the Great Basin, the Mojave, and the Sonoran (the California portion of the Sonoran is often referred to as the Colorado Desert, after the Colorado River).

Of course there are other books on California desert flora, especially wildflowers. However, they're often organized by flower color (like Introduction to California Desert Wildflowers), which makes it difficult to grasp the bigger picture. California Desert Plants takes a different approach, focusing on desert plants within distinct ecological communities. As a result, plants that live together are described together. “In this way,” the authors say, “the book not only provides a landscape and community perspective, but also remains a useful field guide to important species at any time of the year—regardless of whether they are flowering.”

California Desert Plants opens with an introduction to desert environments worldwide (Chapter 1) before describing California's three desert regions (Chapter 2).

Chapter 3 delves into the strategies desert plants employ to grow, reproduce, and survive. This includes  adapting their root systems for maximum water intake, enhancing photosynthesis through modifying leaf size or shape or using stems for photosynthesis, as well as developing specialized metabolisms, like crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) in succulents. 

Chapters 4 through 9 cover distinct ecological communities, including creosote bush scrub and Joshua tree woodlands; cactus and succulent scrub; wash woodlands and arroyos; desert wetlands like palm oases, riparian woodlands, and marshes; saline habitats like playas, saltbush scrub, and alkali sinks; as well as sand dunes. The text is richly illustrated with photos, maps, and drawings.

There is coverage of my beloved agaves as well, although in reality only two species (Agave deserti and Agave utahensis with two varieties) are native to California's desert regions.

Chapter 10 describes the conditions that need to be met for the desert to erupt into bloom. In a dry year—and there are far more of them than rainy years—the seeds of the annuals and herbaceous perennials that make up the bulk of a mass bloom lie dormant. Rain alone, the authors explain, isn't the only factor that comes into play: 

“While rain is a harbinger for flowering, there is no simple formula for predicting wildflower diversity and abundance. Flowering cycles and abundance are the result of the complex interactions of timing, amount, and frequency of rains through the fall and winter, as well as the occurrence of cold winter temperatures that could kill seedlings.”

Superblooms occur when “[t]he critical mix of rainfall amounts, metered frequencies, warm spring temperatures, and abundant soil seedbanks act together to nurture germination to reproductive maturity.” Given all the factors that have to coincide, it's easy to see how moderate or even poor bloom years are far common.

Chapter 10 then goes on to describe the most common plant families that shine during a superbloom. The list is much longer than you might think: sunflowers (yellow- and white-flowered), desert poppies, herbaceous legumes, desert phacelias, borages, phloxes, herbaceous mints, penstemons, monkeyflowers, broom-rapes, evening primroses, desert mustards, buckwheats, blazing stars, desert milkweeds, geophytes, and summer annuals.

Chapter 11 focuses on the plant communities in the areas of the Great Basin that extend into California: the Inyo and White Mountains north of Death Valley, and northern and northeastern California from the Cascade Range of Siskiyou County eastward to the Modoc Plateau. Most of the Great Basin Desert is outside of California.

Chapter 12 looks at the different facets of land management. The vast majority of the California desert is owned by the Federal government and managed by three main agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the Department of Defense. The areas under the purview of the National Park Service of course have the best protection, while land used for military purposes “include[s] some of the most pristine habitats because of their protection from public access. However, there is typically no formal protection for these quality habitats.”

Threats to desert flora come from many sides, including invasive plants, fire, grazing, mining, urbanization and development, and even industries like solar and wind power development that at face value appear to be a good thing for the environment.

All sample pages from the book shown above, including images, © 2022 by the respective copyright holders

As you can see in the sample pages above, the photography is outstanding throughout the book. While many people have contributed images, including the authors, I want to single out roving botanist Matt Berger (@sheriff_woody_pct on Instagram). Matt has logged an astounding 46,477 observations of 9,052 species on the global citizen-scientist platform iNaturalist and likely has photographed more desert plants, rare or otherwise, than anyone else.

California Desert Plants is so jam-packed with information about natural history, geology, ecology, and of course botany that you want to read it at your leisure in the comfort of your home. However, it's compact enough (8¾ × 5¾ inches) to stick in your pack as you head out for a day in the desert. The cover has a satiny mat finish that resists fingerprints and smudges, and the edges of the book are rounded so carrying it around in the field won't bang it up—extra thoughtful touches on the part of Backcountry Press!

About Backcountry Press

Backcountry Press is a Humboldt County-based independent publisher of books on the natural history, plants, and places of the western U.S. It was started in 2012 by wife-husband team Allison Poklemba and Michael Kauffmann. In addition to books, Backcountry Press also publishes posters and ID guides.

California Desert Plants is available from Amazon. However, to show your support for small publishers, I would urge you to buy the book directly from Backcountry Press so they receive 100% of your purchase.

© Gerhard Bock, 2022. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. Thanks for bringing attrention to what looks like an amazing reference book -- possibly a candidate for gardening book clubs!

  2. I somehow missed this post. I agree with Denise.


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