Charming Colors and Strange Structures of the Southern California Desert Flowers

Ahhh our time in the Mojave desert area is almost coming to a conclusion! Wow time flies! During this two month stay we’ve patiently waited for annuals to pop out of the ground and perennials to start thriving.  It finally happened! Even though the month of February had basically no precipitation around these parts, some fell in March and plants got blooming. But being a non-super-bloom year and on the drier side of normal the hunt for flowers has been a challenge. Thankfully we made connections with locals through iNaturalist and walked many miles in order to find treasure in the form of plant lifers. 

Oh boy did we find some really neat plants! For some the color just smacked you in the face! Dark rich blue and purples, others were super bright and cheery yellows! Some had crazy structures that really gave us a tricky time understanding what’s what! So this week I explored my favorite blooming plants of the past couple of weeks, the bright and beautiful as well as the funky forms.

Charming Colors

Perhaps it’s because of the lack of greenery in the desert, or the deep rich colors of petals, or the effort it takes to reach some of these plants but we’ve found some incredibly colored flowers recently. I chose a selection that really spoke to me, even though this list could be three times as long. I post more flower photos to my instagram if you are still craving more at the end of this post, instagram:

To start of, this is the California Peony. This was the only one we spotted all weekend, which is often the case when searching for rare desert-dwelling plants in a dry year. So glad I spotted it!

When I did find it Trevor was shocked by the size because he was thinking it would have been much smaller. But I guess since I’m somewhat familiar with flowers typically found in a bouquet I knew of peonies duhhhh. 

I was shocked to learn this is one of two native Peonies to North America, all others reside in Eurasia. But if you are lucky you can find this in the wild as under chaparral shrubs as an understory plant. Isn’t the rich maroon just gorgeous!?

This was a lovely roadside botany surprise. A specific corner on the highway through Anza Borrego State park that is both a terrifying tight corner of doom, but also gloriously good because it hosts some really great plants. Desert Globemallow is one inhabitant along with the Beetle Spurge, which I highlighted in my last post. 

Our orange friend here supports bees, butterflies and birds! Oh my! That includes the Painted Lady Butterfly, Gray Hairstreak Butterfly, Common Checkered-Skipper along with many others. Recently we’ve found more and more of this plant, and everytime it’s just as splendid as the first time I laid eyes and hands on this scrumptious sherberty-orange flowering globemallow.

Isn’t this bright but buttery color just so cheerful! LOVE! Unlike other plants in this post that reach shrub height at their tallest, this Bush Poppy can reach tree status (which really just looks like a giant bush). It is easily spotted from far away when in full bloom, like we did near Whitewater, CA when clambering up a canyon.

Four large petals encompass the many stamens that radiate out from the center where the female parts reside. While the bottom photo shows four petals this plant can have four, six or more paired petals (the top left photo has six petals). I wonder what causes this difference, and if the same plant can have different petal quantities. Hmmmm, interesting!

Ahhh another great plant, and while to most it may just look like another ol maidenhair fern this one took some effort to get to. It was a hot day in the desert, and we started the hike mid day. A wide wash steadily narrowed into a canyon with multiple California fan palm oasis. At the very end, or at least our ending spot for the day was a small cave like space with trickling water into a large puddle with a wall covered with this Black Maidenhair Ferns! I have new appreciation for green foliage of any sort after spending about two months in the Southern California deserts. A great end-of-hike prize!

Wow can you believe the crazy color of this little flower friend!? What a wonderful bright azure/cobalt/lapis blue color! We found this stunner at the base of a desert wash in an undisclosed location because this guy is globally vulnerable. But boy oh boy I was pretty stoked when I investigated this puppy close up. Sometimes it’s so easy to spot one plant and not take a second to look a little wider for others close by. That definitely happened here. I was obsessing over one plant when WAH! There were multiple other fully blooming others not more than a few feet away.

Recently we found a whole section of a hillside covered with these guys alongside other plants. This is what we were hoping to find! In a super bloom year that would be more expected, so this hillside showing gave us a little taste, a tease of a “good” year. Stunning!

Strange Structures

In order to attract pollinators, deal with the harsh climate of the desert, or just the result of a long evolutionary history these plants have some funky fun shapes. Once again this section could be much longer, but I choose a few of my favorites that stood out to me and definitely had a “wow” factor upon first meeting them.

Similar other plants in this post we had this plant’s general location pin-pointed down but when we found one bush there was a lot of “oo-ing” and “awww-ing” over one bush, not realizing there were much better blooming bushes nearby! BAH! 

This shrub is quite the looker! The flowers immediately reminded me of Elephant Head Lousewort which grows in alpine meadows along the eastern pacific coast. But this guy is found in the chaparral coastal scrub communities in Southern California and Baja California.

The big loopy doopys up top are the stamens (male parts), which are around 2/2.5 cm long!

Now, what the heck-in-bob is going on with this guy! Quite the botanical architectural marvel! This small shrub is a California ayenia, Ayenia compacta!

Here we have up-curled sepals which are the pointy bottom parts. Sepals are usually green on other plants, and help protect the precious flower. Then on top are the petals that curl downward, narrowing into a claw shape. 

Oooo and the FRUIT! How fun with the prickly bumps! See the top middle photo. Eventually the fruit will compartmentalize into five segments that will split open, dispersing the seeds.

Another roadside botany babe! During our travels around the Mojave and Sonoran desert we’ve spotted this plant multiple times just along the roadside. It’s bright purple or magenta flowers grow in a orb shaped supported by a sticky thin stalk between three to six inches tall. In wetter years this plant can apparently appear to carpet the desert floor! While I feel that I’ve made good friends with this sand verbena like with many other flowering plants it would be wonderful to see in a good bloom year. So like most places we’ve visited, we hope to return to this area one day again soon. Come on El Nino!

This plant isn’t as rare as some others in this post, but it’s unique structure just really fascinated me. The sand fringepod also known as a lacepod can be found along western US from British Columbia to Baja California. What we see above are the fruits, which are flat oval shaped discs that dangle from the main stem. The white edge around the fruit is called the wing and can be in various forms, even with small perforated edges. So Dr. Suess-y!

This lovely pinky penstemon took a bit of effort to reach. We knew of it’s blooming and general location but didn’t know it would require a little bit of rock climbing to reach. During a weekend of camping and botanzing in Anza-Borrego State Park and areas to the south we parked and hiked. . . .I mean scrambled around rocks to a narrow canyon. When this pinky plant was spotted on a perch in the canyon it was quite exciting! On iNat there are only 110 total observations. On Jepson eFlora there is a note that perhaps this subspecies should actually be considered its own species. Overall, just a glorious plant!

Oh these pictures just don’t do this flower JUSTICE! On our first trip to Palm Canyon in Anza- Borrego State Park I spotted this puppy, and it’s the only time we’ve seen it! What’s crazier is that we went back a week later and it was gone! Bah! Well the name is very fitting, as the common name of this flower is the Ghost Flower, scientifically known as Mohavea confertiflora. A true Ghost indeed!

Hopefully no one picked this gorgeous plant, but it was close to the trail in a small wash. While truly stunning, this delicate little creamy dotted gem of a flower is a LIAR! It’s a floral mimic! Humble, innocent, adorable male sweat bees are attracted to the flower but they find ZERO nectar! Rude!

Why would it still visit the flower? The Flower Genus Mohavea, like this stinker has markings that resemble the female sweat bees. Additionally this flower overlaps in range with Mentzelia involucrata which does produce nectar. Therefore the male sweat bee just can’t resist visiting this jokester and in the process pollinating it! Aren’t plants and evolution fascinating?

While 2021 spring didn’t provide the temperatures and precipitation favorable to all plants when you search and search and search there is plenty of beauty out there! Hope you enjoyed reading about some of the beautiful flowering plants of Southern California, if you had a favorite, comment below!

Happy Botanizing!

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