Original date 3 July 1988
Copyright by Bruce F. Barber
PMB 480, P O BOX 9019
Calexico, CA 92232-9019
The Cactus Garden
Bruce F. Barber
The San Felipe Desert is a living museum. Within the confines of this museum are an infinite variety of rocks, sands, lavas, seashells and plants unique to a region like no other. Although a part of the vast Sonora Desert, the “San Felipe” is separately identified because of its distinctly different characteristics.
Surrounded on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by the Sea of Cortez, the San Felipe Desert lies in a pocket of superheated air where rain is as rare as gold. Oh, sure, there’s a little of each, but would you believe one-inch-per-year for the water? Every 10 or 20 years a “Chubasco” (hurricane) churns its maddening way up the Cortez to add to the overall average, but four, six or even eight extra inches over a 100-year span are meaningless in a land where plants long ago learned to absorb the moisture they need from the air.
Driving south from Mexicali, the “San Felipe” is entered through a doorway as distinct as the Laguna Salada and the Sierra Pinta. (The “Salada” is an L-shaped [50 miles long by 20 miles wide] stretch of barren former sea floor; the Sierra Pinta is a volcanic mountain range 20 miles long by 8 miles wide.)
Driving southeasterly from Ensenada, the entrance becomes San Matias Pass as the highway twists and turns its way down (from the 4,000 feet level) to the desert floor alongside a once-violent waterway.
Within the San Felipe, travelers enter an arboretum as unique and as interesting as Nature has created anywhere. The land is dotted with Bursage, Creosote Bush, Mesquite, Ocotillo, Palo Chino (Cats claw), Palo Triste (Smoke tree), Palo Verde and the rapidly disappearing Palo Fierro (Ironwood). A closer look reveals three varieties of Elephant Tree (Torote), several varieties of Cholla, frequent stands of “Candelabra” (Senita Cactus) and, occasionally, a taller cactus.
Often mistaken for the stately Saguaro (which is unique to the states of Sonora and Arizona), Cardón, the world’s tallest cactus plant, grows naturally nowhere else in the world but Baja California. One of the most beautiful stands in existence is found along the Magdalena Plain where they grow to heights of 75-feet while along the San Felipe the tallest are but 50 although even those are hard to find. Until, that is, you enter the “Cactus Garden”.
It’s hidden. It’s out of the way. It is off the beaten track, but it’s there and, according to the plants themselves, it has been there for at least 1,000 years. One day, I was puttering around in the desert, searching for new roads to travel, new things to discover when, suddenly, I rounded a curve and there they stood: 100s of them; the most stately stand I’d ever seen.
I was so struck with their numbers and their presence that I parked my buggy and started off on foot. I wanted to walk among these gentle giants to ascertain their age, their individual beauty, and to decipher the story they might tell me. While most of them ranged to 30-feet in height, I found one old timer at least 45-feet tall and four of them at 50. I found several with trunks three feet in diameter and one with more than 30 branches. I found some dead, some dying and some youngsters no more than one inch tall.
From the living I learned their age. From the dead, their structure. From the dying, a cause of death. Then, as I continued to walk around, I began to realize there was a strangeness to this place. At first, I was awed by its presence and had wanted to get as close to it as I could for I have a thing about being close to Nature. But then, I was awakened by the fact that something was wrong; I soon realized it was the absence of younger plants. Oh, I saw a few, but nothing in comparison to the numbers of adult plants and a number of what I thought were seeds scattered on the ground.
What few youngsters there were, were nearly impossible to see. They were hidden and that, I presume, is what ensures their survival. Each of those younger Cardón cacti was growing within the protection offered by a relatively small bush. Being younger, they were afforded even more protection by their color, which approximated the color of the bush rather than the bright green of their fully-grown parents.
“Where is your nursery,” I shouted as I began walking ever-enlarging circles until my path led me back to my sandrail from where I undertook the search in earnest. To me, the things I was seeing (rather, the things I was not seeing) constituted a mystery and I was going to solve it no matter how long it took. Then, after an hour of driving in circles, I came upon the answer when I found the nursery located a third of a mile northwest of the garden. It was then that I discovered what was happening. These cacti were on the march and that could only mean that they had been on the march from their place of origin, which, I began to realize, was that far-away land of the giants along the Magdalena Plain.
“Mag” Bay is a little more than 450-miles south of San Felipe; the Magdalena Plain is slightly less. If these plants were moving at the rate of ¼-mile every 250 years, I calculated, it would have taken them just under 500,000 years to arrive at this place but that’s not the end of the story. I knew of stands farther north, so, while these in The Garden were not the first of their kind to reach this region, they were the first to tell me what was going on.
As I stood there staring off to the south, I conjured up a vision of other stands I was familiar with and each of them was standing in what appeared to be lines pointing all the way back to the Magdalena Plain. What I saw was no different than a vision of any other group committed to a decision by intelligent choice. These big fellows were desert wanderers who, for one reason or another, had their beginnings on a lonely shelf of land where water is converted from the air and a droplet is seldom if ever seen. Perhaps it was prevailing winds, or perhaps I shall never know, but they seem to have decided upon the north and, having decided, their trek was begun.
With the exception of these “Johnny-come-latelys” in The Garden, their northerly trek ceased before they reached the 32nd parallel for there are no Cardón north of the Sierra Pinta. There are a scattered few near the base of San Matias Pass and a few more in the narrow Arroyo Grande Valley, but beyond these there are no others.
On the one hand, almost nothing grows along the Laguna Salada. On the other, there must be something as identifiable to these magnificent giants as that which enabled geographers to place a boundary around the San Felipe Desert, for it is that northern boundary that halted their northerly trek.
Although not a mystery, there is another interesting plant in the San Felipe that some folks think is the most common of them all. Only about 10,000 years of age, “Ocotillo” is the newest addition to Baja California’s flora. And, little known by most, is the fact that this orange flowering tree has a yellow flowering cousin that is so rare it is protected by law wherever it grows; the San Felipe Desert may be the only place on earth where it is found.
Another interesting plant is the “Elephant Tree” for here in our local desert there are three different varieties. Two of them—the grey-barked “Torote” and the red-barked “Torote colorado”—dwell principally in the northern regions while the blond-barked “Copalquín” enjoys the southern San Felipe.
Maguey is an interesting plant that can be found in profusion along each side of the highway at the northern end of the Santa Clara Valley. Here, in May and June, their 10-foot shoots are topped with brilliant yellow flowers attracting bees and bats and hummingbirds from all over the desert. A mountain variety is harvested after the flower stalk has dried and then sold for household adornment during the fall. The trick to these beauties is to spray the newly harvested stalk with a mixture of cold water and detergent and, when dry, apply a thorough coating of aerosol lacquer or varnish… but wait; did I say “Fall?” You’ll find many of these dried beauties, including the two at my house, decorated with lights for Christmas. At prices ranging to $35 each, you’ll want to protect your purchase for use during another year for it is only through a form of protection that we may be guaranteed we’ll have these treasures forever.
Alas! The San Felipe Desert is filled with treasures more wonderful than we realize. After the runoff from a recent storm subsided, Spanish doubloons were found laying where the cactus march… where you’ll find some of the strangest plants on earth… where a flower one day is a Christmas ornament the next: in a little cactus garden that is a part of the strange and wonderful… San Felipe Desert