From desertscapes to palm tree oases, the Baja landscape is rich with unique flora due to the peninsula’s varied geology, topography, and weather. There are over 4,000 plant species and subspecies on the peninsula with over 600 species endemic to Baja. Grab a copy of Baja California Plant Field Guide to enhance your next road trip. Here are a few of our favorite plants that make up some of Baja’s unique flora.
Scientific Name: Pachycereus pringlei
Common Name (English): Elephant Cactus
Common Name (Spanish): Cardón
There are 120 species of cactus in Baja, but the most impressive and quintessential Baja cactus is the Cardón or Elephant Cactus. It’s also the largest cactus on the peninsula and can reach heights of up to 20 meters (65 ft.), and can weigh up to 10 tons. Some of the older species are believed to be over 200 years old. The Cardón is a stem succulent and can use its stored water reserves to withstand years of aridity. The Cardón looks similar to the Saguaro cacti that are found in Arizona and Sonora, but the Saguaro are not found in Baja.
Where to See It:
Cardón cacti can be found all over the peninsula. One of the most popular areas to see the Cardón cacti is the Valle de los Gigantes, south of San Felipe, where visitors can drive around a dirt road to view the giant cacti and can easily get out of the car to take photos with the towering Cardón.
Indigenous peoples would eat the fruits and seeds of the Cardón. The fleshy parts of the stems are used by ranchers on wounds as a disinfectant, pain killer, and other healing properties. The woody ribs from the inside of the stem can be dried and used to make fences, poles, fishing spears, beds, walls, and rafters.
Scientific Name: Fouquieria columnaris
Common Name (English): Boojum Tree
Common Name (Spanish): Cirio
Perhaps the most unique plant on the Baja peninsula is the Cirio or Boojum Tree. Looking like a drawing out of a Dr. Seuss book, the Cirio is a tall plant, that looks like a giant tapered candle (hence it’s name in Spanish, cirio, meaning candle) with spiny branches covering the entire trunk. Mature Cirios may have several wide stems at the top as well. After significant rainfall, the Cirio sprouts green leaves all over. White tubular flowers sprout at the top in July-August as well as after rains. The tallest Cirio ever studied was about 18 meters tall and thought to be 360 years old. The Cirios are almost endemic to Baja California, with just a small number of them found in Sonora, Mexico as well.
Where to See It:
Cirios are plentiful throughout the Central Desert from Sierra de San Pedro Mártir to Volcán Tres Virgenes as well as on Isla Ángel de la Guarda. If driving on Mexico 1, they can be found starting just south of El Rosario.
There are very few uses for Cirios, since they yield no fruit and aren’t suitable for building materials. The trunks are sometimes used to make furniture and as interior décor for buildings.
Scientific Name: Brahea armata
Common Name (English): Blue Hesper Palm
Common Name (Spanish): Palma Azul
While the date palms that were brought over by the Jesuit missionaries are the most ubiquitous palms on the peninsula, it’s the Blue Hesper Palm that’s endemic to Baja California. The distinct color of the silvery/blue fan-shaped leaves differentiate it from any of the other green-leaf palms on the peninsula.
Where to See it:
The blue palms are found between from just south of the U.S. Mexico border down to San Ignacio. A good place to see them is to stop at the parking lot for the Cataviña cave paintings, where the Blue Palms grow in the arroyo.
Leaves are used for roofing, walls, and weaving materials. The trunks are split and used as rails.
Scientific Name: Yucca valida
Common Name (English): Baja California Tree Yucca
Common Name (Spanish): Datilillo
Part of the agave family and yucca genus, the Baja California Tree Yucca grows in clumps with rigid sword-like leaves. Commonly confused with the Joshua Tree, the Baja California Tree Yucca is endemic to Baja.
Where to See It:
The Baja Tree Yucca can be found from the Cape in BCS north to El Rosario. It is the dominant plant in many areas of the Vizcaíno desert.
The buds of the Baja Tree Yucca can be eaten like bananas. The flower buds are used to make a tea that has been used to treat diabetes and rheumatism. Flowers are cooked and then ground to make a candy called colache while the ripened fruits are boiled and roasted and then eaten. The stalks are sometimes shredded for mattress material and root stalk can be used to soap and softening cowhides.
Scientific Name: Pachycormus discolor
Common Name (English): Baja California Elephant Tree
Common Name (Spanish): Torote Blanco
This shrub is endemic to Baja and is characterized by its thick swollen trunk that stores water and looks like an elephant trunk, giving the plant its common name. The trunk is covered in a smooth bark that peels off in papery layers, exposing photosynthetic tissues beneath. The parasitic Veatch Dodder (Witch’s Hair), bright orange in color, can often be seen growing in the canopy of the Elephant Tree, especially near Cataviña and Bahía de los Ángeles. Another Elephant Tree commonly found on the peninsula, Bursera microphylla, is very similar in appearance, but belongs to the torchwood family, whereas Pachycormus discolor belongs to the cashew family. Only the Pachycormus discolor responds to winter rainfall by growing leaves, while the Bursera microphylla is dormant in the winter.
Where to See It:
The Baja California Elephant Tree is most abundant in the Central Desert and Vizcaíno regions, but is found south into the Sierra La Giganta and on some Sea of Cortez and Pacific islands. Near Volcán Tres Virgenes it is the dominant tree.
Indigenous peoples used the sap of the Elephant Tree as a panacea to cure disorders and diseases.
All of these plants and hundreds more can be found in the Baja California Plant Field Guide by Jon Redman and Norman Roberts. Don’t forget it on your next Baja road trip!