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Field Guide


Exequiel Ezcurra, Ph.D.
fax: 619.232.0248

Teddy Bear Cholla Beavertail Cactus Ocotillo
Teddy-Bear Cholla
(Cylindropuntia bigelovii)
Beavertail Cactus
(Opuntia basilaris)
(Fouquieria splendens)

Desert in Bloom
Kerri De Rosier

If you’re kicking yourself for missing the desert wildflowers this year, don’t sweat it. There’s still a lot to see in our local deserts–if you know what to look for, and where to look.

California Barrel Cactus
California Barrel Cactus
(Ferocactus cylindraceus)

The fall rains jump-started the season, with blooms showing their spring fashions in late December. By January, the rainfall was already 8.11 inches in Borrego Springs — four inches above the previous year’s overall total of 4.19 inches. With more winter rain and moderate temperatures, the annuals could still be blooming in April.

“It could go into May,” said Jon Rebman, Ph.D., Curator of Botany at the San Diego Natural History Museum and expert on cacti. “If we have continued rains, the wildflowers will stay.”

“You can’t predict the wildflower season,” said Michael Rodriguez, Interpretive Specialist at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. “The botanists laugh at us when we try to.”

With the help of Rebman, Judy Gibson, Curatorial Assistant of the Museum’s Botany department, and Larry Hendrickson, Senior Park Aide at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, let’s get out the crystal ball and try to predict what you might see if you venture out to the Anza-Borrego Desert this month.

First, a brief lesson on wildflowers and the wildflower season. Wildflowers are not limited to annuals like Sand Verbena, Dune Sunflower, Dune Evening Primrose, and Spanish Needles, which spread a carpet of lavender, yellow, white, and pink on the desert floor during what is typically known as “wildflower season.”

Wildflowers also include cacti and shrubs. “I tend to divide the wildflower bloom into annuals and perennials,” said Hendrickson. “The annuals come out after the winter rains and continue on into early spring, depending on the weather. The perennials—shrubs, cactus—often bloom later on.” “If you come out in April, you will most assuredly see cactus—a lot of them,” said Hendrickson.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park covers over 600,000 acres in eastern San Diego County, with portions in Imperial and Riverside Counties. You can access the Park via Highway S22 or Highway 78 from the east or west.

If you want to know for sure what’s blooming, Gibson suggests that the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor’s Center is a great place to start. ”They have a blackboard there listing where the flowers are, and the road conditions,” she said. Before you commit to actually getting into your car, you can also check the “Wildflowers” section of the Park’s web site for a recent report of wildflower sightings.

Bushes and shrubs
“You’ll spot Brittlebush right along the highways leading into the desert,” said Gibson, “and Chuparosa is very reliable.”

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) is a silvery-gray shrub with yellow flowers that look like daisies. When in bloom, the Chuparosa (Justicia californica) has red, bugle-like flowers among its gray-green leaves.

Gibson also predicted that the Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) and Agave (Agave deserti) would be blooming. “They start to bloom around the time the annuals die off,” she said.

The Ocotillo’s red flowers perch on the tips of its long, spiny stems; the Agave’s stalk of yellow flowers shoots up from the base, growing up to 15 feet tall.

The Creosote Bush or Greasewood (Larrea tridentata) is another reliable bloomer and is the most common plant in the area. “It’s everywhere,” said Gibson of the yellow flowering shrub. “You’ll find it on desert flats where there is compacted sand,” said Gibson. “It has long, ropy roots and grows to 6-8 feet high.” She added that during annual season, you can find other flowers around its base, and that it serves as home to many tunneling animals.

In the washes, you may find the Smoke Trees (Psorothamnus spinosus) blooming with dark purple-blue flowers. “Look for the flooding signs to find the washes,” suggested Gibson. Because it has deep roots, it’s well suited for soil that can withstand a lot of moisture.

“If you stay along S-2, you’ll see most of the cacti on the list,” said Rebman, referring to “Cacti of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park,” a checklist he assembled for the Museum.

That list includes:
Engelmann’s Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii), which has multiple, dark pink blooms, according to Rebman. The Hedgehog Cactus has clusters of spiny, round stems, and can be found on gravelly slopes. A good place to look is at Scissors Crossing, where the S-2 crosses Highway 78.

California/Compass Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus var. cylindraceus) and California Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus var. lecontei), barrel-shaped cacti with red or yellow spines and yellow flowers. You can find them on rocky slopes. Rebman says the Compass Barrel is so named because it leans to the southwest.

Fish-hook or Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria dioica), tiny cacti with thick stems and white flowers with pink to red stripes. They are sometimes called “Nipple Cactus” because they have red tubercles that look like nipples or teats, according to Introduction to California Desert Wildflowers by Philip A. Munz.

Beavertail Cactus (Opuntia basilaris), which Rebman called “stunningly beautiful.” True to its name, this cacti has flat, blue-gray pads, but it has vivid pink flowers. Rebman warned against touching the pads. “It will feel like you have fiberglass all over,” he said.

Teddy-Bear or Jumping Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii), Pink Teddy-Bear Cholla (Cylindropuntia xfosbergii), (also called Mason Valley Cholla) and Gander’s Cholla (Cylindropuntia ganderi) can be found at Canebrake, located in the southeast section of the park along Highway S-2. Named for its fuzzy appearance, the Teddy-Bear Cholla sits erect on the desert’s gravelly slopes, its spiny branches blooming with white to greenish flowers.

Gander’s Cholla has bright yellow flowers on the tips of its stems. You can find it on the way to the park at Scissors Crossing, or, if you’re not feeling adventurous, at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor’s Center.

Rebman explained that cholla flowers have “thigmotropic stamens,” which means that they are sensitive to the touch. If you put your finger in a flower, the stamens lean over and touch your finger, much like a sea anemone does when you poke your finger inside. When a bee or other pollinator stops by, the flower leaves its pollen calling card on the bee, ensuring pollination.

You can find Wolf’s Cholla (Cylindropuntia wolfii) and Silver/Golden Cholla (Cylindropuntia echinocarpa) along the southern boundary of the park along S-2. You can also find a large population of Wolf’s Cholla east of the park at Mountain Springs Grade along Interstate 8, according to Rebman.

Wolf's Cholla
(Cylindropuntia wolfii)

“Wolf’s Cholla is a more rare plant that’s unique to San Diego County and into Baja California;” said Rebman, “it’s a very pretty species.” Wolf’s Cholla has stamens with red filaments, and its flowers range from pale yellow to orange, to red. The Silver/Golden Cholla is covered with silvery to golden spines and has pale greenish yellow flowers.

You have until June to see the yellow to salmon flowers of the Diamond Cholla (Cylindropuntia ramosissima), “when no one is around to see it,” according to Hendrickson. The Diamond Cholla has distinct diamond markings, and blooms in late spring to summer, when the temperatures begin to soar.

Rebman predicted that the cactus flowers will be better next year. He said, “In heavy rain years, cacti like to sit back and take in the water. Next year, they’ll get all the pollinators because of the lack of wildflowers (annuals).”

If you’re still bent on seeing annuals in April, you might have some luck in the higher elevations at Culp Valley, just west of Borrego Springs, or Blair Valley, which is south of Highway 78 off of S-2.

If you go early enough, you may be there in time to see the caterpillars. “The arrival of the caterpillars marks the end of the flowering season,” said Gibson. “Last year, the fields were filled with caterpillars,” said Hendrickson, “they munch everything down to nothing.”

Be really prepared for next year! The staff at Anza-Borrego State Park will notify you two weeks before the peak of next year’s bloom if you send a stamped, self-addressed card to: Wildflowers, 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs, CA 92004.

The images for this article are from the Museum’s collection of A.R. Valentien watercolors. In the early 1900s, Valentien was commissioned by Ellen Browning Scripps to paint all of the native plants in California. You can purchase giclée prints of Valentien’s work at the Museum Store.

California Desert Flowers, an introduction to families, genera, and species by Sia Morhardt and Emil Morhardt and published by University of California Press. Organized by plant families.

Organized by color, Introduction to California Desert Wildflowers by Philip A. Munz is for the amateur desert flower enthusiast. Both books are available in the Museum Store.

Web Sites
Judy Gibson’s tips for enjoying desert wildflowers:

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park:

Desert USA, a web site featuring the California Wildflower Update and other desert-related information:

Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association, a good source for tours, lectures, and other activities. They also run the Borrego Desert Nature Center: