travelog 17

In Search for Plants - Dudleya

The true reason why we absolutely wanted to visit Baja California are the many interesting plants.

We especially like the Dudleyas (from the familiy of the Crassulaceae = stone crops) that have their main habitat on the Baja California peninsula. Of course we also visit many locations of Agaves (century plants) and enjoy all the flowering cacti and the rest of the flora (and fauna). We become especially enthusiastic about the many different rosettes of the Dudleya plants.

First of all one has to accustom oneself to the landscape and must develop an eye and a nose for the ideal locations of the plants one is seeking. First you do some preliminary hiking and climbing tours. This is admittedly good for your figure but you don't always have success finding plants. You get excited the more when you discover in totally dry and rocky areas the first rosette or when you see the first red blooms in a bush. As the Dudleyas grow mostly on the Pacific side of Baja, we explore there every little track and dead-end road. The plants live and survive here because of the Pacific mist that regularly approaches the coast every morning and sometimes also in the evening. Then the landscape seems to be very desolate and a little bit ghostly. Everything drips and shines from moisture but soon the sun appears and also the first blue patches of sky. Within a short time the landscape seems to be as dry as before.

We have our problems with the correct nomenclature. There are countless descriptions in the botanical literature with different plant names for very probably the same plant that only looks different because of the different locations. We have all the first descriptions of "our" plants with us - efficiently organized of course on a laptop computer. As especially the Dudleyas (as practically all the Crassulaceas) tend to mingle with each other, they produce a lot of natural hybrids. Sometimes you can see from which two "parent" plants they have descended, but many times they are described as a new species. The confusion is great - the more intensively you study these plants, the more confusing the official nomenclature and classification becomes.

Dudleyas grow in different locations: in small and hardened sand dunes, in steep rock faces, under armed Agave leaves, between lava debris, in spiny bushes or on cliffs above the Pacific. Sometimes you can find a population growing only in a few square meters and all around there is not one single plant. Sometimes hundreds of one species grow in a rock face or build up to big colonies. Once we discovered a small group of plants hanging high up in the cliffs of a narrow canyon. On the following risky climbing tour we discovered some paintings of rural scenes in a cave but we couldn't reach the plants. So we tried to park the Unimog as close to the rock wall as possible to at least take some pictures from the roof. Sometimes one of us climbs up a steep cliff and informs the other via walkie-talkie if something interesting is up there. If there is, the other person has to lug all of the camera equipment including tripod and lots of water up the hill. If the non-climber is lucky, he can comfortably read a nice book.

From mid-April onward most of the Dudleyas start to bloom. Then the search gets a little bit easier because you can often see yellow or red flowers between the bushes. Among the most beautiful Dudleyas are the white-farinose ones - but every touch leaves ugly fingerprints! We especially like one location: Dudley brittonii near La Misión (see the first picture in the travel report). Thousands of plants hang here from the cliffs or grow on a totally overgrown hill between Agaves and different cacti. They can produce up to 16 pink flower stalks with countless yellow flowers. We are fascinated about the perfectly-formed rosettes. It's hard to stop taking pictures because each plant seems to be more beautiful than the previous.

The Mexicans don't understand our enthusiasm. They often ask us why we hike and climb voluntarily in between all the spines even if the plants have no medical benefits. But for us it's a new success each time we find a plant, or if we discover a perfect rosette, an interesting hybrid or an especially nice flower.

July 1999

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen