Flora

As John Steinbeck described Baja in his log taken from his travels throughout the Sea of Cortez, “From where we waded there was a fine picture, still reflecting water and the fringing green mangroves against the burnt red-brown of the distant mountains, all like some fantastic Dore´ drawing of a pressed and embattled heaven.”

Baja California forms part of the Sonoran desert and, in following, its terrain is a harsh, arid botanical environment. The Baja California Desert ecoregion ranges over the western side of the peninsula and most of Baja California Sur and Norte. With its mountain ranges and extensive stretches of coastal dunes, Baja California also presents a range in elevation and environments.

The flora of the area contends with low humidity that is hardly shocking as the peninsula receives only 250mm of rain per year on average; the higher temperatures of the area also greatly effect the air and the soil. Strong winds that frequently traverse the landscape also contribute to further erosion of the low-mineral soils.

Despite its more severe environment, Baja California boasts of around 4,000 plant species, 700 of which are endemic. The majority of the botanical life is comprised of xeric scrub which are generally divided into subcategories according to the ecological conditions and elevation they favor. While Baja’s desert landscape may never be lush and green, there’s an indescribable beauty to its brassy exposure, its barbarous creatures that both warn and and flower, and its dry air so easily filled with mirage.

Boojum Tree

BOOJUM TREE

One of the most iconic plant forms of Baja is the boojum tree, otherwise known as the cirio or the Idria columnaris. These trees prefer the rocky hills and alluvial flatlands of the Volcán Tres Vírgenes and the southern portions of the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir.

Botanists consider this imposing plant somewhat of an oddity, and although they grow incredibly slowly, once grown their inflexible, rigid trunk and branches often dominate the landscape. Boojum trees can ultimately reach over 60 feet in height and many compare their appearance to upside-down carrots. Their height is only matched in their age. The largest of the known Boojum trees are thought to be around 400 years old. This prickly plant also has spines and sharp edges, and  so the succulent Boojum tree fits in well with the cacti-laden landscape.

 

Elephant Tree

ELEPHANT TREES

 These large shrubs, or small trees, enjoy the dry, desert regions of Baja California. Their vast trunks are swollen with water for storage, and their trunks and stems even photosynthesize which also helps further their energy conversion and fuel. You can recognize these trees by their wide grayish-white bark that easily peels away to reveal smooth blue-green bark underneath. Their stumpy trunk branches in a wide tangle topped with clusters of dark green, pinnately compound leaves. From May to September, you can find these trees rosy in bloom with their pink and cream flowers.      

There are several common elephant trees in Baja California. One of the most common, Bursera microphylla, can be identified by its sweet fragrance and reddish-brown twigs. It is part of the torchwood family, which includes trees used in the production of frankincense and myrrh. They must have a lot in common with their family members, because elephant trees have often been used as incense.

Elephant trees succeed in poor soil like that found all over Baja. In particular, they can be found growing in lava fields created by the Volcán Tres Vírgenes standing by San Ignacio. Locals refer to these swollen plants as torotes or Copalquíns.

 

Ocotillos

OCOTILLOS

 Ocotillos have many monickers that you might be more familiar with. Familiarly, they are referred to as Coachwhips, Candlewood, Slimwood, Vine cactus, Flaming sword, and Jacob’s staff. These fire-tipped shrubs are easy to spot in Baja’s mesas. A relatively large shrub, Ocotillos can grow to up to 20 feet tall.

Ocotillos form spiny stems that branch like canes from their stumpy trunks. From March through June, rich clusters of bright red, tubular flowers top the stems in an umbrella of color. From afar, it looks like red chile peppers crown the stems. Ocotillos can often be found in rocky, dry habitats and they thrive so well in well-drained soil that they can live between 60-100 years.

While Ocotillos are very similar to the Adam’s tree, or the Mexican Ocotillo Fouquieria diguetii, they can be distinguished from their Mexican counterpart by their taller trunk, thinner branches, and larger flowers.

FUN FACT:

The Ocotillo shrub has historically been used as “fencing” as their stiff, tall spines form a natural and attractive barrier that prevents humans as well as animals from passing through.

Tree Yucca or Datilillo

TREE YUCCA OR DATILILLO

 A common sight in the lower portion of the Baja peninsula, this multi-trunked yucca resembles the Joshua Tree and received its name for its resemblance to the date palm. This yucca can grow 3-7 meters, or 9-21 feet, tall and its trunks are known to occasionally branch into a leafy canopy. While the bark is a greyish brown marked with deep fissures, the rigid yellow-green leaves are toothless. Older leaves linger as a brown skirt that can grow up to two meters tall. White flowers bloom in clusters at the top of the yucca’s branches from March to August.

The Tree Yucca provides for the people of Baja in many ways. You can find fruit on the tree that resembles a bell pepper. When ripe, the fruit turns a forbidding black, even though it’s quite tasty when boiled or roasted. The fruit is harvested as well as the flower buds which can be made into a tea that treats rheumatism and diabetes. The flowers can also be used for less healthy purposes, and they are often cooked and ground to be made into colache, a candy. The flower buds can simply be eaten like bananas.

Agave

AGAVE

Baja plays host to around two dozen species of agave. Coastal agave ranges toward the northern portions of Baja while desert agave spots the peninsula’s interior.

The coastal agave, otherwise known as Agave shawii or mescal, is one of the more ancient plants to be found in Baja. This is a small to medium agave whose bright green ovate leaves form a rosette. From the rosette, a taller point (or inflorescence) grows; this inflorescence can reach 2-4 meters in height. The flower clusters of the inflorescence bloom after 20 or 30 years of growth—an astounding display of bright yellow or reddish flowers that appear only once before the rosettes die. Below the blooms, large purple leaves peal away from the thicker stem.

The desert agave, or pringlei, has thinner leaves forming a wider rosette. These cactus also grow a fruit with a dark, sweet liquid that coats black inner seeds that have been used as a food source during times of drought.

Today, mescal can still be considered a food source. The stocks are edible at the “asparagus stage,” and the mashed stalks create a potent white mescal named Aguamiel. Once Aguamiel is fermented, it becomes Pulque, a beverage found in historic Jesuit accounts. Once Pulque is distilled, you can create tequila. However, distilled blue agave has been found to be superior and was the agave of choice distilled by the Aztecs.