California desert plants: An illustrated guide
This land is anything but barren. The arid biome boasts some of the most unique flora on Earth. For example—did you know that cactuses are only found in North America?
Here’s a guide to 16 plants, some native, some not, that you’re likely to encounter in Southern California’s deserts.
1. Joshua tree
This funky, freeform desert dweller is the elder statesman of the region; it can survive more than 150 years. Only found in a very narrow swath of the Mojave desert where elevation and rainfall are optimal, the Joshua tree is, unsurprisingly, losing its habitat due to climate change.
Like the jazz hands of the desert, Fouquieria splendens reaches heights of up to 20 feet, its spiny stems tipped with stunning red flowers. In wet months, the succulent sprouts delicate green leaves.
The fuzziest-looking cacti of all has charming varietals with cute names such as “teddy bear.” Don’t cuddle them! The spines of cholla are particularly stubborn, and “jumping” in this case is an accurate description—get too close and a cholla will try to hitch a ride on your arm.
It’s likely you’ll smell this scrubby plant, also known as creosote bush, after a desert rain. If the acrid, chemical smell is vaguely familiar, it’s because its oil is similar in smell to the petroleum-based products used to preserve railroad ties and utility poles.
5. Barrel cactus
This squat landscaping staple features a crest of spines that converge at the top to form a bright yellow center. Large specimens are so desirable they’ve been known to get plucked out of medians by cactus poachers (a real thing!).
6. Prickly pear
The prickly pear is notable for being almost entirely edible (provided you remove all the spines first). The pads are used to make nopales, while the fruit is tangy. Look for its distinctive hot pink color as an ingredient in local jams, ice creams, and—of course—margaritas.
7. Palo verde tree
Not many trees can hack it in the desert heat, but the feathery neon green foliage of the palo verde provides adequate dappled shade. The trick to surviving in the dehydrating sun? The tree conducts photosynthesis through its bark as well as its leaves.
8. Aloe vera
The aloe vera known for soothing skin irritations comes from this fleshy, white-flecked succulent. Like your favorite moisturizer, the plump, serrated leaves are especially adept at storing water.
This sharp-leaved native—not to be confused the similar-looking Joshua tree—hosts one of the desert’s most fantastic examples of mutualistic pollination. In spring, gorgeous white plumes of blooms are pollinated by yucca moths, which, in turn, incubate their eggs in the blossoms.
10. Century plant
This is the largest of the agaves—that’s right, the same succulent you can thank for tequila and syrup—and the most dramatic. After growing for decades (although not 100 years as the name suggests), the grayish green plant flowers once, hoisting what looks like a giant spear of asparagus up to 12 feet in the air, then dies.
11. California fan palm
Although plenty of different palms populate the region, this is the only one native to the area. The tree (actually more closely related to grass) is usually carefully pruned in town, but a quick hike to a nearby oasis will reveal the palm’s wilder side, its dried fronds draped around it like a shaggy turtleneck.
12. Ponytail palm
While not native to these California deserts, the quirky plant—a type of agave—is beloved by homeowners. The spray of curly leaves tops a thick trunk that stores water, making it particularly forgiving for negligent gardeners.
The tall, stately cactus dots the hills of the Sonoran desert like rugged statues striking poses. Saguaros can live 200 years or more, but there’s an easy way to guess their age—most only start to grow arms when they’re 75 and older.
14. Red hot poker
This spectacular flowering plant is also known as torch lily for erupting in red, orange, or yellow blossoms that are particularly attractive to insects and hummingbirds.
15. Pencil cactus
The thin green stems of this cactus—actually a succulent, from the Euphorbia family—grows tall with neon orange tips. Inside, a milky sap is extremely corrosive to eyes and dangerous for pets to consume. Admire from afar.
These vividly colored drought-tolerant vines are fast-growing, low-maintenance color bombs, draping over trellises and climbing up walls. The bright “flowers” are actually guard leaves; the blossom itself is a tiny white bud within.
High vs. low
The deserts of Southern California are home to such a wide variety of plants because they’re actually made up of two major ecosystems: the Mojave Desert, which is higher, cooler, and wetter; and the Colorado Desert (a northern arm of the Sonoran desert), which is lower, hotter, and drier. This is why summer temperatures regularly soar to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the Colorado Desert city of Palm Springs, while in Yucca Valley, in the Mojave, it’s not unusual to experience snowfall in the winter.
The demarcation between the two deserts is readily visible as it travels through the center of Joshua Tree National Park, where a “two deserts” trail allows hikers experience both ecosystems in a matter of a few hours. Driving through the park from south to north, watch closely as the saguaro cactuses of the Colorado give way to Joshua trees of the Mojave.
It does rain in the desert, and just how much rain falls in the months of January and February can determine whether the annual springtime blossoming of wildflowers becomes a verified super bloom. Even without record-setting rain, exceptionally stunning yet ephemeral displays are found in locations throughout the region, but the trick is timing your trip right. Here’s where to go and approximately when to visit—there’s always something blooming, but to find out which flowers are peaking, check each site for updates. Or, call the Theodore Payne Foundation Wildflower Hotline for a detailed regional report.
Death Valley National Park
Super blooms here are more rare, but just as stunning. The recently renovated Oasis at Death Valley provides a beautiful jumping-off point. Some parts of the park are still closed due to flooding in 2015.
Peak season: Mid-February to Mid-April
Mojave National Preserve
The high desert’s elevation means there’s still a chance for wildflowers after blooms elsewhere have faded. The Kelso Visitor Center has information and maps.
Peak season: Mid-April to Late May