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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Anza-Borrego Early Flower Show

By Jim Bishop, for Let's Talk Plants! March 2023.

Closeup of Sand Verbena, Abronia villosa.

Visit to June Wash

After hearing and seeing photos online of the Sand Verbena, Abronia villosa, we decided to make a trip to June Wash in the southern part of Anza-Borrego State Park on Sunday, February 18, 2023, to check it out for ourselves. Two weeks earlier, while on a tour in Central America, I'd fallen while cycling in Guatemala and fractured seven ribs. With the help of pain killers, I was able to walk fairly well, but slowly, especially over relatively flat terrain. So, it seemed totally doable and got us out of the house.

Map of June Wash and where some photos were taken.

There were several other places that people had mentioned where the verbena was in bloom, but June Wash seemed to be the most accessible since we could travel Interstate-8 most of the way. We were slowed a bit where portions of I-8 are being repaved through the mountains and down to just one lane of eastbound traffic. As usual, the drive through all of the boulders on the east side of the mountains to the low desert was spectacular.

From the tiny town of Ocotillo, we headed north on S2, passing through the power generation windmills and into the protected and undeveloped lands of Anza-Borrego. The road there follows the Great Southern Overland Stage route which generations ago settlers travelled into Southern California. As we drove, we could see the faint lavender band of verbena blooming as the flat parts of the desert rose into the higher hills.

If you look closely, you can see a faint lavender band just above the dark green of the desert.

Along the road, wildflowers were already in bloom, most notable were the Lupinus arizonicus, Arizona Lupine, which seemed to appreciate the wetter areas created by runoff from the road.

Purple-flowered Lupinus Arizonicus, Arizona Lupine.

Arriving at June Wash, the sand verbena was almost immediately obvious. We parked in the small parking lot and headed up the white sand wash for a closer look.

Most areas looked like this with large mats of verbena punctuated by perennial cactus and agaves.

The significant bloom of the verbena was triggered, not by the early January rains, but by the monsoon rains of late summer and autumn that germinated the seeds. The periodic rains that followed help ensure a good bloom.

I posted this photo of a blooming Agave deserti on Facebook and someone shared an almost identical photo taken of the same plant a couple of days earlier.

A few contrasting blooming desert sunflowers, Geraea canescens, were mixed in with the verbena.

This area of the desert had an abundance of Agave deserti which matched the tone of the verbena flowers.

Surprisingly given the number of cultivars and species of Agaves in San Diego gardens, there are only two species native to San Diego County. One is Agave deserti which is common in our desert areas. The other is Agave shawii which is only found growing in a few places right along the coast in San Diego County. It is much more common just to our south in northern Baja where it grows on slopes facing the Pacific Ocean. There is only one other species of agave native to California, Agave utahensis found along the Nevada border in Inyo and Riverside counties.

A typical view of the verbena spread across sandy areas of the desert.

Occasional flowers of Oenothera deltoides, evening primrose, were mixed in.

A particularly dense mat of flowers.

There is a reason its common name is Sand Verbena.

Only saw one desert lily, Hesperocallis undulata, which is more common in other places in Borrego, but it hadn't opened any flowers yet. Surprisingly, it is in the Agave family of plants.

Most of the Ocotillos were showing their winter dormancy.

A few brown-eyed primrose, Chylismia claviformis, were putting on a show.

Evening Primrose.

A yellow-flowered, Brown-eyed primrose.

Mountain Palm Springs

Locations of where we took photos at Mountain Palms Springs. The dark areas along the wash in the top of the photo are more palms which we did not visit.

The largest grove of palms at Mountain Palm Springs.

On our way back to I-8, we stopped off at nearby Mountain Palm Springs. We had visited there during the COVID shutdown in March of 2020. It was nearly as empty as our last previous visit with only two other people in the groves. Somehow on that trip we missed the largest of the seven groves of native California fan palms, Washingtonia filfera, that grow at the foot of the Tierras Blancas Mountains. We corrected that on this trip.

A grouping of palms with their skirts intact. These provide shelter and shade for desert wildlife.

Another grouping of palms that have burned and much of their former fronds are on the ground below them.

Washingtonia filfera is closely related to the Mexican Fan Palm, Washingtonia robusta. The W. robusta palms have naturalized nearly everywhere along the California coast and are native only to Mexico. W. filfera is the largest of palm species native to the United States and the only palm native to California. The palms are a relic of a wetter and more tropical geologic time when coastal California was located at least 200 miles further south. Earthquakes have moved western California northward and raised mountains that capture most of the moisture, creating deserts in their rain shadows. Over millions of years the palms that at one time covered a large tropical savannah retreated into protected canyons where springs provide year-round water at or near the surface. The springs usually occur near earthquake fault lines where subterranean water is pushed to the surface. There are around seventy-five natural occurring palm oases spanning the edges of the California Desert and into Northern Baja.

The path to several groves of palms is a relatively easy hike from the parking lot. But the largest grove requires a bit of uphill climbing though the trail is not particularly steep. Along the way there is a lot of white granite rock and pockets of several species of cactus and wildflowers.

A tarantula hawk on white granite. It is supposed to have one of the most painful stings of any insect. The female stings and paralyzes tarantulas and drags it underground where it lays a single egg that will hatch into a larva that feeds on the live tarantula.

One of my favorite individual cacti, Mammillaria dioica, growing out of a crack in white granite boulder.

Another photos of the same cactus.

A hillside dotted with California barrel cactus, Ferocactus cylindraceus.

Beavertail cactus, Opuntia basilaris, in bud. The buds will open to beautiful hot pink flowers soon.

A deep purple, common Phacelia distans.

A couple blossoms of the diminutive Diplacus bigelovii, Bigelow's monkey flower.

Scott on the trail approaching the largest palm oasis.

Whispering Bells, Emmenanthe penuliflora, growing in the shade of the palms.

An abandoned wasp nest.

Burned, yet surviving, palms with the view of the low desert.

Older burned palms and a younger, tighter, grove with their skirts still intact.

The only Ocotillo bloom we saw on this visit to the desert.

An unusual clump of seven California barrel cacti (only six visible in the photo).

A somewhat rare and unusual clump of Psathyrotes ramosissima, velvet turtleback.

Leaving the park and returning to the highway for the trip home, the somewhat controversial stand of wind turbines, a key component in California's goal to produce 100% renewable energy.


Past SDHS President, Jim Bishop, gardens and maintains his well known, waterwise, exotic garden at his home in Mission Hill Garden.

He was the 2019-2020 SDHS Horticulturist of the Year.


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