Contributor: Leonie Twentyman-Jones
Photographs: Maureen Dunnett
Death Valley in California is one of the lowest, driest and hottest places in North America. One of the hottest temperatures recorded on earth was recorded there – 56.7° C or 134° F – in July 1913. It is a land of extremes – sand dunes, rugged canyons and snow-covered peaks, and yet it has been home to the Timbisha tribe of Native Americans for at least 1,000 years. It was called Death Valley by prospectors trying to cross the valley on their way to the California gold fields in the 1880s. Towns and mining camps have come and gone and it is now a national park. Like Namaqualand, Death Valley is famous for the spectacular spring wildflower displays which occur in some years. Last October heavy rains fell in the area, with the result that this spring has produced the biggest explosion of flowers since 2005. The Death Valley National Park has over 1,000 plant species, including 13 species of cactus and 23 species unique to the area. Most of the ‘showy’ plants are short-lived desert annuals – white, yellow, purple, blue, red and bright magenta. Our cousins are lucky enough to be travelling through the area at the moment and have sent us photos of several of these colourful and intriguing flowers.
The iconic Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia), so named by the Mormon pioneers as it reminded them of the Old Testament prophet waving them on to the Promised Land, has large creamy bell-shaped flowers. Not all these trees flower every year and are only pollinated by the female yucca moth. The trees can live for 150 years and grow incredibly slowly, ca 5-8mm each year.
One of the prettiest desert wildflowers is the pink Desert Five-spot (Eremalche rotundifolia) with its large blooms which close at night and reopen each morning. The Gravel Ghost (Atrichoseris platyphylla) has delicate white flowers with purple-tinged tips supported on tall thin stems. From a distance they seem to be ghostly and floating, and prefer growing in gravel – hence the common name. The purple Notch-leaf phacelia (Phacelia crenulatea) is a member of the borage family, with flowers on top of hairy clusters coiled like a scorpion’s tail – so it is sometimes called the Notch-leaf Scorpion-weed. Many of the desert wildflowers are yellow, for example the Golden Evening Primrose (Camissonia brevipes).
The most common cactus in the park is the prickly pear Beavertail Cactus (Opuntia basilaris), with low spreading grey-green leaves and brilliant red-to-lavender flowers. The Mojave Mound Cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus var. Mojavensis) with its bright orangey flowers forms a large circular mound composed of clusters of cylinder-shaped stems – sometimes as wide as 3m across. The Silver Cholla (Cylindropuntia echinocarpa) has greenish-yellow flowers. The buds are edible when boiled, and are low in calories but high in calcium and iron. They contain complex carbohydrates that help slow sugar digestion and balance blood sugar levels, providing sustained energy and making them ideal for diabetics.
This small selection of desert wildflowers will perhaps whet your appetite to explore this fascinating area someday.