BY Donna Parham
Photography by Tammy Spratt
Hiking up the Safari Park’s Garden Trail rewards you with some of the best vistas in the Park. The view of the San Pasqual Valley and the African Plains, the soaring turkey vultures, and the daily dramas unfolding in the nearby bighorn habitat make for a compelling backdrop to the unique landscape representing Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula.
“This is the largest collection of plants from Baja, outside of Baja,” said Cary Sharp, horticulture curator at the Park. “Most of these species don’t grow anywhere except in Baja.” He explained that the specimens in the Park’s collection are particularly valuable from a horticultural perspective, because they were collected in the field. Nursery-grown plants, cared for so tenderly, just aren’t as hardy as those that fight to survive in the wild.
However, a permit is necessary to collect a plant, just as you need a permit to fish. And the Mexican government is no longer granting the necessary collection permits, making this spot at the Park all the more special. In the 1980s, horticulturists from the Safari Park, along with representatives from the San Diego Cactus and Succulent Society, obtained permits to collect boojums, cardóns, barrel cacti, agaves, yuccas, and other Baja California natives, importing them across the border to create the Park’s Baja Garden, which opened to visitors in 1988.
As you might expect, cacti large and small flourish throughout the Baja Garden. You’ll find vigorous specimens of the organ pipe cactus Stenocereus sp. (labeled with its Spanish name, pitaya), prickly pear Opuntia littoralis, and candelabra cactus Myrtillocactus cochal. Barrel cactus Ferocactus gracilus var. coloratus adds a pinkish-to-reddish spot of color.
The world’s largest cactus, the cardón Pachycereus pringlei can rise spectacularly to 60 feet and can live for 200 years. Some people compare cardóns to the iconic saguaro cactus of the old wild West, “but you don’t see saguaro in Baja,” said Cary. He pointed out that the “arms” of a cardón branch off much lower and closer to the ground, and they rise more vertically.
Not all Baja natives are cacti, of course. Despite the lush springtime growth of plants like lomboy Jatropha cinerea and torote blanco Pachycormus discolor, they are adapted to thrive where there is little rain. Many of the 132 species of plants in the Baja Garden have fleshy, water-saving stems or leaves.
Related to the Mexican tequila-producing species, agaves dot the Baja California landscape—and the Baja Garden. They sometimes bloom spectacularly, a thick spire of flowers rising from the center of a rosette. When the flower stalk dies, the parent plant dies, too—but not before sprouting new “pups” around its base. “Agaves are probably my favorite plants in this garden,” said Linda Post, horticulture manager. “Especially Agave cerulata, because of the way the leaves imprint on each other before they unfurl.” A close look at the underside of each agave leaf shows the distinct impression of the toothed leaves that surround it.
Other, much smaller, rosettes are specimens of various Dudleya species, which are also known as “liveforevers” or, in Spanish, siempravivas. Unlike the flower stalk of the much larger agave, a Dudleya stalk emerges from somewhere near the base of the plant, not the center of the rosette. Although California has Dudleya species of its own, the ones in the Park’s garden are unique to Baja.
Garden of Weedin’
Ask Cary or Linda about the Baja Garden, and one of the first things they talk about is their appreciation for the volunteers who maintain it. “We wouldn’t be able to showcase these plants without our volunteers,” said Cary. Linda added, “They do all the trimming, all the weeding—and it gets hot up here in the summer, and cold in the winter.” Garden volunteers also cope with steep slopes and an abundance of sharp spines, spikes, and thorns.
“Garden volunteers are some of the hardest working, most dedicated volunteers in the program,” said Safari Park Volunteer Manager Andy Schucker. “They are here one to two days per week, and they do an amazing job.” Currently, 10 members of the San Diego Cactus and Succulent Society (SDCSS) maintain the Baja Garden and the nearby Old World Succulent Garden, but Andy said that volunteers need not be SDCSS members. “We are always happy to welcome new garden volunteers.“
Seeding the Future
Picture a tall light pole with sparse, short, spiky branches jutting out horizontally. This is the boojum “tree” Fouquieria columnaris. In Mexico, locals call it cirio, the Spanish word for a taper candle, which it resembles when its flame-colored flower stalk bursts into bloom. Although it’s related to the more familiar ocotillo F. splendens, the boojum grows only in the mid-third of the Baja Peninsula, where, like many Baja plants, it is drought-deciduous, meaning it drops its leaves during dry spells.
It was important to Park horticulturists to collect seeds from some of these field-collected plants. Seed bank experts with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research had plenty of experience gathering and banking the seeds of rare and endangered species, but when faced with the boojum, it was much easier said than done. “The flower stalks are at the very tips of the boojum,” Linda explained. “And the boojums grow on steep slopes.
You can’t bring a crane or a bucket truck in here, and you can’t lean a ladder.” She explained how, after puzzling over the problem, researchers from the seed bank, working with Park horticulturists, attached a bag to an extendable pruner. They lopped off the flower stalks, which tumbled—seeds and all—neatly into the bag. Now the seed bank stores seeds of the precious boojums, and the horticulture department has been able to propagate new individuals from seed.
The devastating 2007 wildfires prompted Park horticulturists to place two of their homegrown boojums on loan to the San Diego Botanic Garden—an assurance population, in the event of a disaster that might wipe out the Park specimens. Nursery-propagated boojums are legal to sell, too, and Park horticulturists have been so successful propagating them that small boojums are sometimes offered for sale at the Plant Trader near the Park entrance.
One particularly fascinating boojum that welcomes visitors to the Baja Garden refuses to conform. Instead of growing into a tall spire, the trunk bends gracefully back down toward the earth in a giant loop. Cary explained that something—perhaps a pest or a frost—weakened the plant in one area, but the tip kept growing.
As the massive succulent grew, it began to bend at the weak spot until it nearly doubled over. Defiantly, newer branches off the descending stem grew upward, giving this particular boojum a delightful, “which-way-do-I-go?” appearance. Which way will you go? The Baja Garden holds botanical beauty in every direction.