Anza-Borrego Desert

3-9-10 A canyon palm oasis

As you read in an earlier post, our desert trip was aborted by unanticipated health problems. We harvested two long days of driving, and three exploring the Colorado Desert in Anza-Borrego State Park. One of those days brought numbing cold and rain; the other two were boisterous and sunny — perfect desert springtime. These pictures are a glimpse of our glimpse, no more, of a rich, exotic environment that is often more Baja Californian than Californian.

We rockhopped our way up two palm canyons in the San Ysidro Mountains, explored another under rainy Ghost Mountain, and camped (besides indulging in the main park campground, steamy showers, and a restaurant in Borrego Springs) in two quite different places: the broad wash and rocky cactus hills around Yaqui Wells, and the chaotic Santa Rosa Badlands.

3-7-10 Barrel Cactus caucus above Yaqui Wells

It had been a winter of early and heavy rains in Anza-Borrego, so we anticipated a spectacular flower show. We were, alas, early for the main flowering, but that’s not the primary reason we aren’t posting pictures of flower-painted plains: the desert has been invaded.

Everywhere, the exotic weed Saharan Mustard has seized the land. On the bajadas, all possibility of mass displays of native flowers has been lost; the valley bottoms are a thatch of mustard, smothering everything. On the alluvial fans, the mountain slopes and the canyons, mustard sprouts under every bush, claiming space from natives. Our pictures show what’s left. This desert is still magnificent, but gravely imperiled.

3-8-10 Bigelow Monkeyflower, a close relative of our familiar yellow monkeyflower, graces the sandy wash in Hellhole Canyon

3-8-10 A bright composite in Palm Canyon

3-8-10 The rare, fragrant Desert Lily erupting from the sand at Arroyo Saluda

My bad. My friend, naturalist Michael Ellis (noted for his terse emails) sent me a note just now, saying, “That looked like african fountain grass a nasty pest!!”

It didn’t just look like it. After a little googling, I realize it is. And this in a pretty remote canyon, far from any direct exposure. Sigh.

Here’s what the Center for Invasive Species Research (CISR) has to say (condensed): African fountain grass, Pennisetum setaceum is invasive outside its native range in Northern Africa and has been damaging native ecosystems in Hawaii. It is now an increasingly problematic weed in California. As a common landscape ornamental, it is widely planted in southwestern states. Fountain grass seeds may disperse readily from existing populations via wind, animals, and automobiles. It is a state-listed noxious weed in Hawaii, and has been listed as a Moderate threat by the California Invasive Plant Council.

In Hawaii it has been shown that fountain grass alters fire cycles and microhabitats. After invasion, due to increased fire and other effects, fountain grass may cause a forest community to be converted into grassland. After fire, it has shown the ability to rapidly colonize burned areas and prevent other plants from establishing. Native communities like coastal sage scrub in southern California have already been impacted extensively by the combined effects of changes in fire cycle as well as invasion by exotic grasses.

3-8-10 Desert Phacelia

Many shrubs were in full bloom, too, often wrapped in particolored skirts of annual flowers growing in the sheltered, enriched soil where rodents have burrowed and fertilized and organic debris has been able to accumulate.

3-7-10 An Ocotillo flower cluster at Yaqui Wells. Later the same day, we got to watch a just-arrived black-and-chrome-yellow Scott's oriole in another ocotillo, singing its loud, brilliant song and sipping the ocotillo's nectar.

3-9-10 Incienso (Brittlebush)

3-9-10 Incienso & the brilliant red Chuparosa, the springtime staple of Costa's hummingbird

3-8-10 Ocotillo coming into bloom by the Hellhole Canyon Trail

3-7-10 Agave blossoms, pollinated in the night by lesser long-nosed bats and long-tongued bats. Yaqui Wells

3-7-10 After a 20 to 40-year gestation, an Agave begins to push up its towering flower stalk

And finally, here are a few pictures that need no rationale or categorization. They’re just intriguing . . . or beautiful.

3-6-10 Bright, ripe Mistletoe berries on an ironwood tree at Yaqui Wells. We watched phainopeplas and mockingbirds battle each other over them.

3-8-10 These inch-and-three-quarter long beetles were abundant on the way up the one peak we climbed. I'm going to have to identify them!

3-8-10 A view of a Desert Lilly from the top. Arroyo Saluda

3-9-10 A Sycamore tree in bloom near the oasis in Borrego Palm Canyon

3-9-10 Mohavea or Ghost Flower

3-9-10 Isn't there a legal requirement to end with a sunset? As it turned out, though, this wasn't the end. Just downcanyon from this palm oasis, we were privileged to spend half an hour watching two full-curl Peninsular Desert Bighorn males just above us on the rocky canyon walls -- two of only some 400 left in existence.



  1. Irene Brady said,

    March 12, 2010 at 10:08 am

    Spectacular! About the mustard, Bill, is there any eradication program going on that you know of? It seems to me that if properly presented in the right places (Audubon meetings, Nature Conservancy, etc.), hordes of eager mustard pluckers could be recruited to help deal with the problem…..

    • billnoble said,

      March 12, 2010 at 10:20 am

      We saw evidence of a lot of consciousness-raising about the Saharan mustard — wilted heaps of the plants everywhere folks had traveled. But I think the problem is waaaay beyond hand pulling. The plant is a superb weed, and a superbly adapted desert plant. In favorable sites it gets huge — great floppy dark-green leaves and branched flower stalks nearly two feet high — but in the stoniest, stingiest soils we found plants with a single tiny leaf and a three-inch stalk with two blossoms, each of which would produce 6-10 seeds. And we found it growing through an elevation range of at least 3000 feet.

      Some sort of biological control is the only real hope, I believe, but there hasn’t been money for years to research biocontrol for any except the most aggressive agricultural pests.

  2. Jan Vail said,

    March 12, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    Ah, Anza-Borrego. We used to visit frequently when I was a little girl, living in San Diego. One of the brilliant bright spots of my childhood. Thank you for bring back the memories.

    As an amateur botanist, I love your flower and plant pictures, and stories. Thank you, Bill!

    • billnoble said,

      March 12, 2010 at 2:26 pm

      It’s a pretty amazing place, isn’t it? One of the palm oases we were planning to visit was *52 miles* from the park headquarters! 52 miles, in a state park. I’m so glad our post played some sweet chords for you! 🙂

  3. Jude Hebert said,

    March 12, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    What compelling reporting. So pleasurable to read and see the natural world you’ve captured and the information you’ve provided in nourishing revelations. Poetic reality. Thank you, thank you.

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