As a summer horticulture intern at the Wild Animal Park, one of the places I have become familiar with is the Baja Garden. Comprised of plants collected in Baja California during the 1980s, this garden houses the largest collection of Baja plants outside of Baja. The garden is maintained by volunteers from the San Diego Cactus and Succulent Society. In 2002, a geographic information system (GIS) was created for the garden area, which mapped plants in the collection, assigned them identification numbers, and noted the health of the plant. Now, nearly eight years after the initial mapping, it’s time to work on updating the data; we have returned to the Baja Garden armed with GIS maps and lists of plants to check that they are still healthy and accounted for.
As any visitor can imagine, this has proven to be a very “prickly” job, as the Baja Garden is full of thorny species. Did you know that thorns and spines are plant adaptations developed to ensure that animals cannot eat the succulent flesh in a land where water is a precious commodity? The metal tags containing the plant’s ID number, which some of you may have noticed, are stuck into the ground on the north side of the plants and must be located during the inventory to ensure that the correct specimen is being evaluated. In many cases a flourishing agave plant has overgrown its tag; the map is needed to pinpoint the specimen we are evaluating, and a flag is placed at the site to note that it needs a shiny new metal tag. On the other hand, such as with the Fouquieria columnaris, growth is much slower and the tag is usually easy to locate, providing it has not been moved or buried!
If you have not visited the Park’s Baja Garden, I highly recommend making it one of your first stops in the morning hours. There are amazing specimens of Fouquieria columnaris, commonly known as the boojum tree, which somewhat resembles an upside-down carrot sticking out of the earth. Another noteworthy species is the Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum (hairbrush cactus), a cactus whose scientific name is derived from the Native American use of its fruit as hair combs. Plants are not the only species worth viewing in the Baja Garden; there are an amazing number of hummingbirds that zoom around drinking from brightly colored flowers of the ocotillo Fouquieria splendens and other species.
When you next visit the Park, take time to look beyond the fascinating animals and include in your gaze the beautiful and distinctive plants that adorn the grounds, for without them your journeys away from Southern California and into the other biozones of the world would be far less complete.
Lauren Young is an intern in the Wild Animal Park’s Horticulture Department.
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