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Desert plants and the Milky Way


“Only the desert has a fascination ... to ride alone -- away from




“Oh, down in Mexico!”


I’m just crazy about the Milky Way -- not the candy bar (although

I admit a weakness for that chocolate delicacy, as well) -- but that


band of stars best viewed away from city lights. For that reason,

Catharine and I never hesitate to escape the nighttime glare of

Newport and Irvine whenever and wherever the opportunity arises.

One may disappear in Baja not only to appreciate the natural

illumination of the moon, planets and stars, but also to enjoy the

plants of the rugged desert regions. Friends Emma, Mike, Lynn and

James joined our traversal of the Baja peninsula, from the Pacific to

the shimmering Sea of Cortez.


The majority of the trip was spent in desert-like conditions.

Two-thirds of Baja may be classified as desert. Annual rainfall

varies from 4 inches in the higher climes of the central desert

region, to less than 2 inches in the San Felipe Desert subregion on

the gulf side.

Many of the plants that grow in Baja are highly modified by the

aridity. Heavily eroded landscape indicates periods of drought

interrupted by rain and savage storms called chubascos. Desert plants


grow only where they can. Rainfall, elevation and heat dictate which

plants can survive in the rugged terrain. Still, I was amazed by the

diversity of plant life as we headed through the canyons west of


The desert canyons are a small microcosm of the harsh conditions

and geologic isolation of the entire peninsula. They are filled with

unfamiliar and bizarre plants like the giant cardon, boojum tree, and

the elephant tree. Our off-road drive passed through the thickest

forest of agave, palo adan (cousin to the ocotillo), cholla and

datilillo I have ever encountered.

After traveling nearly 500 miles south from the border, we finally

made permanent camp at our remote layover destination just south of

Bahia de Los Angeles. Not a single person stood on the playa before

us, one of the finest beaches in all of Baja.

Our camp was also notable by the absence of plants over 5 feet in

height. Brittlebush, chicurae, cholla, and creosote bush survive the

horrific winds by “huddling” in the rolling hills just beyond the

sand. We had great fun paddling our kayaks to nearby islands and

watching the birds and fish. At night, we were treated to

bioluminescent streaks on the slow swells.

Our final night on the beach ... another beautiful sunset and a

gourmet meal. The Milky Way winked above as I sought Orion’s Belt;

and then a shooting star passed directly over me in the desert night.

I wished every night could be as clear and insightful.

* STEVE KAWARATANI is the owner of Landscapes by Laguna Nursery,

1540 S. Coast Highway in Laguna Beach. He is married to local artist

Catharine Cooper and has three cats. He can be reached at (949)

497-2438 or by e-mail at