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Baja California Norte - Plant Expedition

By Jim Bishop, for Let's Talk Plants! July 2024.

Boojum trees and Agave shawii in Baja Central Desert.

In April, Scott and I embarked on an unforgettable botanical expedition that took us on a 1000-mile journey from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas to view the rare plant life in Baja, Mexico. Our group was composed of seven guests, a knowledgeable guide, and a driver, all brought together by the passion for exploring the unique flora of the area. This adventwas organizedzed by Guillermo Rivera of Plant Expeditions. Among our fellow travelers were individuals with a deep-rooted love for desert plants, each bringing a unique perspective and expertise. One of our companions was my biking partner from the 1990s and his partner. We were also accompanied by a cactus expert, editor of CactusWorld magazine from thUK, whosee wealth of knowledge added a fascinating layer to our botanical discoveries. Also on the tour a German couple renowned for their exceptional collection of potted cacti, a friend I met on Facebook that has a passion for cactus, and our final member, a plant enthusiast from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Back in the mid-1990s Scott and I had planned to do a self-guided drive down Baja, but I was unable to get time off from work. In 2008 we signed up for a kayaking trip, but the trip was derailed by a bike accident the weekend before the trip and I was unable to go. We have however been on an ecotour cruise in the Gulf of California, a trip to see the gray whales up close in San Ignacio Lagoon, and several other trips to the Cabo area. I’ve visited Rosarito and Ensenada many times in the 80s and 90s. So, we were somewhat familiar with Baja, but this was the first time we had seen it from a mostly plant viewpoint. 

A friend of mine mockingly said, "Are you just going to drive around and look at Cacti in Baja?" Well, that's precisely what we did. Our journey mainly consisted of following the 1000-mile-long Highway 1, making stops at different spots to admire plants. Personally, I had always dreamt of seeing the Boojum tree and Cardon cactus forests, but we also saw many other fascinating plants and discoveries along the route. There were too many to fit into a single blog post. Therefore, this blog will focus solely on Baja Norte, leaving the Baja Sur segment of the trip for another occasion.

Mexico Pedestrian Entrance at San Ysidro.

Coastal Sage Scrub

We walked across the border at San Ysidro and met up with the rest of group at our hotel in Tijuana. The next morning, we headed out with our first plant stop just south of Rosarito. Here the mountains drop into the sea creating a mild and foggy environment known as coastal sage scrub. This unique ecosystem extends into Southern California, offering some of the most temperate climate in the United States, making it a desirable place to live.   Unfortunately, many former coastal sage scrub areas have been replaced by coastal communities, with a few notable exceptions like Torrey Pines State Preserve and Point Loma National Monument. Agricultural activities and the presence of invasive plant species have further contributed to environmental degradation. It is estimated that only 10% of the original coastal sage scrub remains in fragmented patches from El Rosario, Baja to San Francisco. However, in Baja, where steep hills and limited water sources hinder development, a larger portion of this ecosystem remains untouched.

Coastal Sage Scrub plant community just south of Rosarito Red flowers: Galvezia juncea - Baja Bush Snapdragon.

Driving along the highway near the Tijuana-Escondido toll road, we stopped and climbed up a rough rocky hill to observe various plants. Many of the flowering plants were familiar to me from my explorations in wildlands of San Diego and Borrego. However, there were also some distinct plants present. One of them was the Dudleya brittonii, a large white Dudleya popular among home gardeners. Interestingly, this species doesn't naturally grow on our side of the border. It bears a resemblance to the local and common chalk Dudleya pulverulenta, but it is much whiter. Additionally, we found the green variety of D. brittonii here, which lacks the typical white chalk covering.

Mass of Dudleya brittonii growing on ocean-facing cliff.

Left: Green form of Dudleya brittonii with more common white form behind it.

Right: Green form of Dudleya brittonii.

The dominant plant species on the hillside consisted of large clusters of Agave shawii. Nowadays, this plant is mainly found in Baja California Norte. The only significant cluster of A. shawii in the United States was located at Border Fields State Park, but most, if not all, of it was removed to make way for the border wall and subsequent expansions. Agave shawii can also be found in Cabrillo National Monument and Torrey Pines State Preserve. There is some uncertainty regarding whether these occurrences are natural, as unlike in Baja they grow on flat surfaces rather than on cliff faces. Although many people associate Agaves with California, there are only three native species in the state: shawii, deserti, and utahensis. Shawii's relatively small, round shape and distinctive spines have made it a popular choice for home gardens and hybridization.

Guillermo and hillside of Agave shawii, many with old bloom stalks.

Agave shawii with Dudleya brittonii and some heavily grazed lemonade berry.

Agave shawii and coastal shrub with the Pacific Ocean.

The coastal hedgehog cactus, Echinocereus maritimus, and golden-spikes cereus, Bergerocatus emoryi, are among the other regional plants found in the area. While the former can be spotted in various locations on our coast and the local Channel Islands, the latter is more prevalent on the cliffs near Ensenada.

Coastal hedgehog cactus, Echinocereus maritimus.

Golden-spikes cereus, Bergerocatus emoryi.

Bush rue, Cneoridium dumosum, in the foreground.

San Diego County Sunflower, Bahiopsis laciniata. I think the common name should be changed to Baja Norte Sunflower. It was at almost every place we stoped in northern Baja.

We made a couple more stops to observe plants along the road. Our lunch break took place just above the famous tourist attraction known as La Bufadora blowhole.

La Bufadora blowhole, what most tourists see in Ensenada.

What we saw just a few 100 yards from La Bufadora blowhole.

We were located north of it, exploring the plant communities on the cliffs. Initially, the hillside appeared too steep to traverse, but after some careful exploration, we discovered small trails that allowed us to examine the plants up close. Although we encountered many of the same plant species as earlier, the breathtaking view to the north, including mountains, coastline, and small islands was comparable to that of Big Sur. In this area there are remarkable old clusters of Agave shawii, various Dudleya species, as well as numerous other plants.

A spectacular clump of very old Agave shawii.

 Agave shawii. Old blooms lining the cliff just above the ocean in the center of the photo.

The yellow flowers of Coreopsis maritima in a rock pocket on the cliffs about the ocean.

From left to right, top to bottom in grid above:

  • Coast Barrel Cactus, Ferocactus viridescens and Mammillaria dioica

  • Dudleya attenuata

  • Dudleya attenuata and Echinocereus maritimus

  • Echinocereus maritimus

  • Coreopsis maritima - Also common on San Diego ocean cliffs

  • Dudleya ingens, Cneoridium dumosum, and Lichen

  • Dudleya ingens

  • Cliff Spurge, Euphorbia misera

Mammillaria dioica with closeups of the blooms. We would see the Mammillaria frequently on our trip, plus many, many other similar ones.

Later that day and the following day, we came across the Baja Rose, Rosa minutifolia, which is native to the chaparral of Baja California and was previously found in San Diego County, California, where it is now considered extinct.

Our final stop of the day was a bit inland and here we saw a few new plants

Myrtillocactus cochal, the cochal or candelabra cactus and Laurel sumac.

Myrtillocactus cochal closeup and flowers.

Dudleya brittonii.

Sphaeralcea ambigua, apricot desert mallow.

That night we stay at Hotel Mission in San Quintin with its stuck in 1970s vibe.

Circa 1970s resin light fixture in hotel room. We had the same light in our next hotel.

Baja's Central Desert

Me photographing plants.

The next day we continued south and headed inland to the Desierto Central de Baja California. The central desert is home to 100s of species of plants, many found here and nowhere else. 

As we said goodbye to the Pacific coast for a few days we did one last stop to look at these Stenocereus gummosus.

...and of course some more Agave shawii and Dudleyas...but which Dudleya was this? Too many to know them all.

...and a handsome blooming Cylindropuntia with an invasive non-native iceplant.

...and many of our group's favorite Genus Ferocactus, in this case rose-purple-flowered fordii...

...and a cool looking Astragalus...

...and something crawly.

And this beautiful flowered Baja California Nightshade Solanum hindsianum...

...and did you know there is buckeye native to Baja? Aesculus parryi.

Some were still blooming and others going dormant for the summer. I usually think of the Bay Area when I think of buckeyes. I wonder if we could grow it in San Diego?

We soon encountered our first Cardons, Baja Saguaro, Pachycereus pringlei. From here all the way to the southern tip of Baja we would see this species, sometimes as solitary plants but often in large, massive groves.

A solitary Cardon peaking out of the other plants - lupine, SD Sunflower and cholla.

One of the largest Cardons...our group minus the driver/photographer.

A field of Cardons and cholla.

Often growing together with the Cardons were Boojum trees, Fouquieria columnaris. Both plants are Baja icons.

Mixed boojum and cardon forest.

Boojums, Agave shawii and several other species of cactus. Be careful where you step!

More Boojums.

Unlike the similar Saguaros found in the Sonoran Desert, Cardons can be relatively easily cultivated in San Diego and are better suited to our winter rainfall and dry summers.

Cardons, Baja Saguaro, Pachycereus pringlei.


We can also grow Boojum trees in San Diego, but they are terribly slow growing. A 50-year-old plant may be only 5 feet tall while mature ones can be 50 feet tall and 500 years old. Characterized by their thick succulent trunk that narrows towards the top, they are often likened to an upside-down carrot. Boojum trees are closely related to Ocotillo, and we also encountered several other members of the Ocotillo family.

Ocotillo and what plant people do.

  • Ocotillo

  • Cholla

  • Calochortus splendens

  • Ocotillo closeup

  • Hesperoyucca peninsularis

  • Ferocactus

  • Lophocereus schottii

With yellow flowers, appropriately named Cylindropuntia molesta and Echinocereus engelmannii.

As we neared Cataviña in the heart of the desert along the central ridge of Baja, we began to spot elephant trees, known as Pachycormus discolor, another distinctive plant of the region. These stout trees, belonging to the same family as cashews and poison oak, feature a thick trunk and branches with peeling bark, resembling large bonsai trees to me.

Found only on the Baja Peninsula, Pachycormus discolor has a thick trunk with white bark that peels back to reveal greenish patches and spongy wood that stores water for the long dry spells that they face in habitat. Trees are generally up to 20 feet tall and are extraordinarily slow-growing - many photos of individual trees taken 50 or more years ago and compared with more recent photos of the same plants show virtually no change in size, leading to potential age estimates of 1000 years or more.

Cordon view through a Pachycormus discolor.

Pachycormus discolor.

Near Cataviña are several spots with year-round water which feed palm oasis and a different plant community.

Mexican Blue Palms, Brahea armata, are native Baja. These very slow growing blue palms are highly valued for landscaping in Southern California.

Emerging from the sandy soil in the palm oasis was the intriguing Orobanche cooperi, also known as Cooper's broomrape. This plant is indigenous to the arid areas of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. As a parasite, it thrives by attaching itself to the roots of various plants, typically those belonging to the Asteraceae family. Its flowers are the only visible part above ground.

  • Argemone munita , prickly poppy

  • Abronia villosa, desert sand verbena

  • Ferocactus gracilis, barrel cactus

Artwork and native plant garden at the Hotel Misión in Cataviña.

Another day, another beautiful desert view.

More barrel cactus and a Hesperoyucca peninsularis.

I noticed this Melampodium, sometimes called blackfoot daisy in several places. Not sure of the species. I also saw them in central Texas back in April.

Aren't the flowers on this Echinocereus engelmannii, strawberry hedgehog cactus, lovely?

Many of us grow Pedilanthus macrocarpus (Euphorbia lomelii) in our gardens. It grows wild in Baja. We would see it off and on at stops the rest of the trip.

Another incredibly beautiful Ferocactus, this one with very long recurved spines and beautiful red flowers.

  • Blooming Cylindropuntia

  • Stenocereus gummosus

  • Sphaeralcea ambigua, apricot desert mallow

We encountered 3 rattlesnakes on our trip. This unhappy but beautiful fellow is a speckled rattlesnake.

Locally, the San Diego Safari Park has a large collection of all 3 Baja signature plants as well as many other Baja endemic plants.

A parting photo of some of the amazing plants and scenery of Baja California Norte.


Jim Bishop is currently a SDHS board member, the past president and he is the 2019 Horticulturist of the Year. He is also well-known for his exotic garden on a steep hillside.



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Jul 06

Thank you for taking us along on your trip! I am going to find out the name of the spider.


Jul 05

Nice write-up of an awesome trip! Makes me really sorry I was unable to go.


Jul 02

You didn’t mention how rugged the terrain can be and that you all are troopers to embark upon such an adventure. In your photographs, you capture the beauty of the Baja desert that many scoff at as just sand, dirt and prickly cactus. Add in the breath taking sunrises and sunsets with a harmonious small group, sounds like a terrific experience. What was Scott’s role ?

Susan M

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