The Dry Garden: Meet Hesperoyucca whipplei, those white floral spires rising on hillsides


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This is the time of year when even those hostile to the idea of water rationing in the garden have their heads turned by what nature has created without sprinklers. Rising from the untended hills of Southern California are spires of ethereal white flowers. They’re so big that you can see them from hundreds of feet away. If they’re backlit, double that distance.

There’s no right name for the plant that produces these arresting plumes. Common terms vary from Quixote yucca to Spanish bayonet to even the reverent Our Lord’s Candle.


Science has no straight answer either. As genetic analysis continues to shake up traditional taxonomy, the botanical name is slipping from Yucca whipplei to Hesperoyucca whipplei.

In a season of wonderment, this is just one of the sorts of desert plants now in flower across our region. If the inflorescence is more like a pine tree with yellow flowers, it’s probably the magnificent last gasp of an Agave americana, a.k.a. the century plant.

If the flowers are pink, and fluttering in the breeze from an otherwise still and thorny plant, you might be looking at a beavertail cactus.

If you want to understand these plants better, there few finer sources than photographer and botanist Stephen Ingram and his excellent 2008 book, “Cacti, Agaves, and Yuccas of California and Nevada.’

Ingram is based in the Eastern Sierra between our relatively wet, ocean-facing coast and the dry desert interior of the Great Basin. This vantage point amounts to a geographical aerie with perfect coordinates to study the most stoic flowering plants of our four American deserts: the Great Basin, Mojave, Chihuahuan and Sonoran.

Reading his book, it could not be more refreshing or informative to witness Ingram whittle away the imported plants from as far away as South Africa down to cornerstone specimens of our own desert flora. Collections such as those at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens and the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden ask us to be amazed by their imports -- this aloe from Africa, this cholla from Peru. Ingrams explains the quiet wonders of our own hillsides.

And, lo, among the full and elegantly written botanical treatments, the exquisite drawings and photographs for 62 species, there is Yucca whipplei, the plant that must make more than a few Californians nearly crash every June, flowering just as it has done every year since the Pliocene. -- Emily Green