Thursday, February 16, 2012

Right as rain!

It's been raining! To those of you in the UK this will hardly be an exceptional experience, but out here in the Californian desert, rain is a rare occurrence. Since I came out here five months ago, I think this is only the third rainy day and now by lunchtime the sun has come out again. When I first spoke of spending the winters out here, some years ago, friends asked if I would miss the seasons. The quick answer was and still is 'I most certainly do not miss the British autumn and winter!' However I do miss seeing some of the brave plants which flower during the toughest time of the year and you can see my post Bloomers on this a couple of weeks ago.

The seasons here don't seem so obvious, at least not in horticultural terms. There are relatively few deciduous plants so autumn (fall) colour really doesn't occur. Herbaceous perennials, apart from some grasses are also not common, so there isn't the familiar cycle of growth and die-back that we know in temperate climates.

Pyrus kawakami - strangely with the common name of evergreen pear!

However cycling to the gym this morning, I was aware that the mountains which surround this area were capped with snow for the first time this winter. The San Jacinto Mountain is the main range to the west of Palm Springs and rises to 8500 feet. An aerial tramway takes visitors to the top and you can go from cacti basking in the winter sunshine to pine trees covered in snow in just 20 minutes. The temperature at the top today is 24F (-4C) whereas down here in the desert it is 65F (18C). So actually in this little spot of California, I can experience winter and summer in the same day!

Winter is up there!
Rain is of course critical for many aspects of plant growth and particularly for wildflowers. As this has been such a dry winter here, it is unlikely that there will be much show of native flowers this spring at all. For this to occur there needs to be sufficient rain in December, to allow seeds to germinate and plants to grow for the spring flowering which is usually around March. Soon after that, temperatures start to rise dramatically, the ground dries out and growth is impossible without irrigation. In a good season every piece of empty land is carpeted with colourful wildflowers.

Typical wasteland in spring - good years!

Bermuda buttercup

Californian poppy

Desert Canterbury bells

Sand verbena

Although many of the desert landscape plants like Bougainvillea and Lantana bloom all year round, there are some that have specific seasons.  Pyrostegia venusta is a beautiful orange climber that is just starting to flower and Russelia equisetiformis a colourful ground cover plant. The latter didn't like my yard and refused to flower  but when its happy its spectacular. Both are looking quite colourful at the moment.
Pyrostegia venusta - fire vine

Russelia equisetiformis - this is a gas (petrol) station
Having to return to the UK each spring means that I do miss the flowering of some seasonal species here. Bauhinia was mentioned recently and two others that I particularly love and nearly always miss, are the blue flowered Jacaranda and lemon yellow Palo verde, both dramatically beautiful trees that flower around April.

Jacaranda mimosaefolia

Palo verde - a Californian native
Although I'm not a great lover of cacti, I would love to see more of the desert cacti flowering in spring and summer. This one is a common landscape plant used in many yards. 
Opuntia basilaris (corrected!)

I have to say I'm not looking forward to returning to the British weather in three weeks and leaving all this behind  but the gardens and all the many plants we can grow in the UK climate do soften the blow!


  1. Am enjoying your blog, including that I've only driven through Palm Springs 1X! The various scenes and plants are amazing, but in the higher desert (like where your mountain's snows sometimes hit), spring is yet to come.

    The last cactus photo looks more like Opuntia basilaris / Beavertail.

    1. David - thanks for the correction - cacti are not my hot spot and I'm not sure why I wrongly labelled that picture - a senior moment!