Plant Spotlight

Plant Spotlight: Barrel Cactus

Photos by Susan Gillingham
A native cactus of the Mojave Desert is the barrel cactus, or Ferocactus cylindraceus. The Latin name Ferocactus means fierce or wild cactus. 
The bright pink-red spines of the cactus are particularly apparent after a rain. Older plants form a medium or tall column. Flowers are yellow, appearing in spring and early summer, while the fruits are bright yellow. 
According to, the "Havasupai collected seeds from the fruit and ground them into an edible, porridge mush. These people also warmed the red spines by fire, then bent the spines into finger rings." The fruit itself is described as "not very tasty."

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Plant Spotlight: Ocotillo

ocotillo, blooming
Photo by Chris Hunkeler from Carlsbad, California, USA,  <>, via Wikimedia Commons
Ocotillo is a native plant that creates structure and height in our Morongo Basin landscapes. Ocotillo means "little torch" in Spanish, probably inspired by the orange red flowers at the plant's tips. The plant can grow up to 15 feet tall and wide. It prefers full sun and likes our heat.
Fouquieria splendens, or ocotillo, for much of the year appears to be an arrangement of large spiny dead sticks, although a closer look reveals that the canes are partly green. Either through irrigation or rain, water makes the plant come to life with small green leaves all over the stems.
Tips about growing and irrigating these plants varies widely. Morongo Basin writer Maureen Gilmer notes that getting them started in your yard can be "devilishly difficult." She recommends buying them potted instead of bare root for best growing success.
ocotillo with blooms
Ocotillo in Landers, CA. Photo by Marina Chavez
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Plant Spotlight: Red Yucca

A non-native grass-like plant that does particularly well in the Morongo Basin is red yucca, or Hesperaloe  parviflora. Its grassy evergreen leaves provide interest during all seasons, with plants having a purple cast in the winter cold. 
red yucca plant with flowers
Creative Commons photo by Fritz Hochstätter
As a native of the Mexican Chihuahuan Desert, red yucca can withstand our high temperatures.  The deep rose-pink blooms usually start in June and last for a long time, provided the plant is regularly watered. The bloom spike can reach 5 feet in mature plants. If watered irregularly, it will either not bloom or the blooms will be few. 
This is a low-maintenance plant beloved by hummingbirds!
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Plant Spotlight: California Buckwheat

California Buckwheat with Russian sage in background
California buckwheat with Russian sage in the background. Photo by Stacy Doolittle
An outstanding small shrub for Morongo Basin landscapes is California Buckwheat, a native which is likely to volunteer in your yard. Long-lived creamy white flowers eventually turn into attractive rust-colored seed heads. It is attractive all year long. 
Eriogonum Fasciculatum var. polifolium is the grey-leafed variety we see in the desert, and according to Calscape is sometimes available in nurseries. (See our native plant nurseries for potential sources.) It is also easily grown from seed. 
native buckwheat
Buckwheat at Mojave Desert Land Trust demonstration garden. Photo by Stacy Doolittle.
Virtually pest-free and able to withstand long period of times without water, buckwheat is used for slope stabilization and as low hedges. 
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Plant Spotlight: Apricot Mallow

Photo by Arch McCullough
A favorite springtime native flower of many Morongo Basin residents (and hummingbirds) is the Apricot Mallow. With its upturned, bright orange-cupped flowers, and grey-green foliage, mallow fits into most any landscaping scheme. With any luck, you won't need to plant it as it will volunteer in your water-wise garden! 
Sphaeralcea ambigua is common along our Basin's roadsides in spring, with its flowering dependent upon seasonal rains. Though most mallow flowers are apricot-orange, there are also pink, purple, red, white and shades in between. Prune once a year after blooming to 6"-12" above ground to help eliminate unproductive woody growth and reseeding. Do not try and shear this plant regularly as it will not respond well. Wear gloves when pruning as its leaves can be a skin irritant.
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Plant Spotlight: Mojave Yucca

                                     Photos by Stacy Doolittle
One of our most glorious native plants is the Mojave Yucca (Yucca schidigera). With blooms beginning purple and opening to white or cream-colored blossoms, a yucca in bloom is a desert beacon. It's tree-like structure adds solidity to the landscape.
According to CalScape, "the flower is pollinated by only a single species of Yucca Moth, and many of the flowers go unpollinated."  Although a member of the Agave family, yucca's do not produce pups but instead reproduce by seed. 
yucca bloom close-up
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Plant Spotlight: Beavertail Pricklypear

Photos by Stacy Doolittle
Opuntia basilaris or beavertail pricklypear as it is is commonly known, is native to the Morongo Basin and other areas of the southwest. It is a small to medium sized cactus with the potential for hundreds of pads on one cactus. These pads are usually a blue-green without spines. Instead, beavertail has glochids which are small barbed bristles or thorns. These easily detach so caution is recommended. 
A truly desert-wise plant, the beavertail doesn't need supplemental water except a small amount in the heat of summer. But be careful, overwatering can lead to rot. It does not need any supplemental water the rest of the year, even though it can appear parched. 
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Plant Spotlight: Agave

In the cool winter days of February when nothing much seems to be going on in the landscape, agaves stand out in the garden with their grey-green palette and strong structure.
Quite a few varieties of agave thrive in the Morongo Basin. Due to the differences in altitude, an agave that does well in Twentynine Palms may be too cold sensitive for Pioneertown's chilly winter temps. Experiment and talk to other gardeners about what works for them. Agaves are great "pass along" plants as they often produce offspring or "pups".
Don't rely on the big box stores to have vetted cold hardiness of agave for our area. They may sell plants in the Morongo Basin that cannot take our low temps. (Note: an agave can sometimes recover from cold damage to leaves.) 
Photos by Stacy Doolittle
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Plant Spotlight: Creosote

There is not a more perfect landscaping shrub for our Morongo Basin yards than the ubiquitous creosote bush, Larrea tridentataNative and very common throughout the Basin, creosote is not fussy about soil and can be trimmed into a specimen topiary or into a hedge/windbreak. With regular water it becomes denser. 
Small yellow flowers cover the plant in the spring. 
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Plant Spotlight: Hollyleaf Cherry

Hollyleaf cherry (Prunus Ilicifolia) is a native and drought-tolerant shrub for home landscapes in the Morongo Basin. It is the most widely distributed native subspecies of holly in California.  
flowering hollyleaf cherry bush with white flowers
This shrub can be pruned into a quite tall hedge and should be trimmed to shape twice a year if need be. The red cherries appear in fall and are edible if you get them before the birds do! The plant is evergreen with glossy leaves that smell like almonds when crushed. The leaves and branches are useful for holiday wreathes and arrangements. 
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