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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Borrego Bonanza, Part I

Anza Borrego View

By Jim Bishop.

As I’m sure you’ve heard this year’s bloom in the Anza Borrego Desert is spectacular. Who knew after the ‘super bloom’ in 2017 that just 2 years later there would be an even better bloom? The desert has been receiving frequent rains beginning last October through February. By the time you read this we will very likely be near the end of the bloom, but a lot depends on the temperatures, wind, additional rain, cloud cover, elevation, and the presence of insects.

We made a visit to Borrego in February and another in March to check out the bloom. The eastern low desert experienced an early and dense bloom in February, attributed to the remnants of a tropical storm that dropped heavy rain there in October. The rain did not reach the western part of the park, but all parts of the park started receiving frequent rain in late December, which continued through mid-February. When we checked online before we left, it appeared that the most easily accessible wildflowers were along County Road S22, the Borrego Salton Seaway, between road markers 30 and 35.

We were not disappointed; there we found, growing in the loose sandy soil, countless tall lilac-colored lupines (Lupinus arisonicus), white primroses (Oenthera deltoides deltoides), sand verbena (Abronia villosa var villosa) and many yellow daisies. On closer inspection, we were able to find many more species just starting to bloom: desert lilies (Hesperocallis unulata which surprisingly is in the agave family), white popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys arizonicus), blooming ocotillos, sunny-yellow Parish’s poppies (Eschscholzaia parishii), purple phacelia (photo at left) with its fiddleneck-like blooms, and bright yellow California dandelion (Malacothrix californica). We were able to drive a considerable way on an unpaved desert road that ran through a dry wash. There we found several other species as well as cactus, growing in more stable soils.

Maidenhair Falls

In early March, we made a second trip. This time our main destination was the palm oasis and Maidenhair Falls in Hellhole Canyon. Trails into Hellhole Canyon start at the bottom of Montezuma Grade (S2). I hadn’t hiked there in over 30 years and was excited to return. The trail to the falls rises gradually across the desert, climbing 1000 feet over three miles. Closer to the falls, a small stream appears and the trail switches from broad and sandy to a narrow winding path over and around granite boulders. Along the way there are numerous crossings of the stream before reaching the palms and small waterfalls. The palms are Washingtonia filifera, the only palm native to California, restricted to desert canyons where there are springs or creeks that provide a source of year-round water. Along the coast, we are more familiar with the palm’s cousin, Washingtonia robusta, the Mexican fan palm. Filifera is generally shorter with a much stouter trunk, larger fans and a slightly grey coloration.

Parish's Poppy, Desert Canterbury Bells, Hellhole Canyon

Desert Canterbury Bells and Granite Boulder

Along the trail we encountered many plant species not seen in the lower desert. The first, and most visible at the lower end of the trail, was heavily blooming Phacelia distans which seems to grow in the partial shade of every bush and cactus. Flat wash areas were covered with two complementary-colored, low-growing flowers that covered open sandy areas: the vibrant hot-pink flowered Fremont monkeyflower (Diplacus fremontii) and the tiny hot-yellow flowered Wallace's woolly daisy (Eriophyllum wallacei var. wallacei). Some people call these ‘belly flowers’ since you need to lay on the ground to get a good look at the very short plants and flowers. Further up the canyon we encountered wild Canterbury bells (Phacelia minor). They seem to have a preference for growing at the base of the large salt-and-pepper granite boulders making them great subjects for photographs. Often nearby were yellow flowered poppies, which could not be a better complementary color choice.

The next day, we got a relatively early start and headed up Coyote Canyon. Details of our flower finds there will appear in Part II.

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