Mohave Desert Scene with Joshua Tree in Foreground
Yesterday I did a search for poems about the desert and came up with a winner. “Desert” was written by Josephine Miles way back in 1934, but it has a contemporary feel. One thing for sure: There are no tree huggers in the desert, what with all the spiny plants. Moreover, the ground itself is unfriendly, full of sharp stones. The only thing Miles leaves out is the wind-blown dust.
When with the skin you do acknowledge drought,
The dry in the voice, the lightness of feet, the fine
Flake of the heat at every level line;
When with the hand you learn to touch without
Surprise the spine for the leaf, the prickled petal,
The stone scorched in the shine, and the wood brittle;
Then where the pipe drips and the fronds sprout
And the foot-square forest of clover blooms in sand,
You will lean and watch, but never touch with your hand.
During my weekend in the desert, my brother and I didn’t get much of a chance to go gallivanting around. I did manage to introduce him to one of my favorite places, which, surprisingly, he had never visited. I am referring to the Moorten Botanical Garden on South Palm Drive in Palm Springs.
The garden was founded by Chester “Cactus Slim” Moorten who had come to California during the silent film era and acted in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops films. By the 1930s, he had received a diagnosis of tuberculosis and was urged by his doctors to check into a sanitarium. Instead, he moved to the Palm Springs area and opened a cactus nursery. The story is told in Garden Collage magazine in a 2016 article by Molly Beauchemin which you can find here.
Acres of Incredible Cacti and Other Succulents
Dan and I enjoyed an hour exploring the paths overgrown with thousands of varieties of the desert foliage. The garden also does a land office business selling potted cacti to visitors.
One of the Most Photogenic Places in the Coachella Valley
Chester Moorten’s son Clark now runs the botanical garden. Plant varieties are carefully labelled with the plants’ scientific and popular names. There is even a greenhouse with hundreds of rare varieties which normally wouldn’t otherwise grow in the Palm Springs area.
Back in the days when there were places to go and when coronavirus was not rampant in the land, Martine and I liked to visit Solvang, about three quarters of an hour north of Santa Barbara. There was a great bookstore (the Book Loft), yummy Danish smorgasbords, Santa Inez Mission, great cookies, and OstrichLand USA.
Ostriches are considered part of the order of Struthioniformes, which includes, in addition to ostriches, kiwis, rheas, emus, and cassowaries. At OstrichLand, there are ostriches and emus.
There is something confrontational about ostriches. One would never consider petting one without risk of being attacked by a sharp beak. You can feed them, but many visitors are afraid to. They’ll take your proffered food, but only while casting a baleful glare at you.
Joshua Trees in the California Desert
Although they are not native to the Southwest, I think of ostriches the way I think of desert cacti: One would no more pet an ostrich than hug a cholla cactus or a Joshua Tree. They’re interesting to look at, but not pleasant to touch.
Ever since I first started spending time in the desert, back in the 1970s, I have loved cacti. Mind you, the beauty of the plant is a little harder to appreciate when the temperature goes into the high nineties and above. At such a time, I tend to avoid the desert: It’s just too damned hot. My first experiences were in Desert Hot Springs (just a few miles north of the Moortens Botanical Garden). I used to stay at one of the motels and go back and forth from the sauna to the cold pool. I even took my parents there, and they enjoyed it as much as I did. Of course, what made their enjoyment peak was a decent Hungarian restaurant in town named, I think, the Budapest.
Opuntia Cactus with Purple Coloration
The Moorten cactus collection was so good that I can see myself visiting it every time I go to see my brother in Palm Desert. Dan has driven by the Garden at various times and even stopped to marvel at it—though from the outside only.
A World of Cactuses
Sometime this spring, I will also re-visit the Huntington Gardens in San Marino. What I like about their cactus collection is that so much of it comes from Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
Cashier and Gift Shop at the Moorten Botanical Garden
Last Friday, I visited three museums and a botanical garden. The first museum was Ruddy’s General Store, followed by the McCallum Adobe (home of the Palm Springs Historical Society) and the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum , which had a display of Cahuilla Indian pottery. Since the latter two did not allow photographs to be taken, I have chosen not to write about them. All three museums are adjacent to one another and can be visited in under two hours.
If I were a botanist, I would regale you here with the names (in Latin and English) of the many varieties on display, but all I know about cacti is that I love them; and I love photographing them. I find the cacti to be astounding, growing as they do under such hostile conditions.
Rare Cactus Species in the Moorten’s “Cactarium”
There is a greenhouse with rare cactus species which the Moorten calls the “Cactarium.” I wish I could regale you with more pictures of what I saw. Wait a sec, I can continue this post tomorrow!
There they were, looking like snowballs Martine and I could pick up and toss at each other. But they were not snowballs, but a kind of cactus from Mexico called Mammillaria geminispina, which is native to the states of Veracruz and Hidalgo. The little red flowers make them look even more innocent and pick-up-able. They join the Cholla family of cacti, especially the notorious “Teddy Bear” Cholla with its fuzzy look and barbed spines.
The Mammillaria at Huntington Gardens in San Marino, California, are just one of thousands of reasons why the cactus garden there is one of the best in the world. Just when you think you know what a cactus should look like, you see specimens from Bolivia or Namibia that take you back to Square One.
According to a sign near the Mammillaria, “It forms large mounds, a strategy which retains moisture beneath the plant and discourages grazing. Its dense white spines reflect heat.” And, if anyone wants to pick them up, they are welcome to do so. The First Aid Station is only a third of a mile away.
It’s hard to believe that Martine and I left for the Anza Borrego Desert two weeks ago today. Thanks to the multiple daily crises of a tax season, it’s almost as if it never happened. Except, the desert does something to me: Somehow I feel better able to tolerate the mess and the tension. Last year, I wanted to leave for a few days to the Owens Valley—another prime desert locale—but we couldn’t find the time.
One of the most beautiful plants in the deserts of California is the cholla cactus. It is also one of the most deadly, because its spines are slightly barbed. They detach easily if one brushes against the plant and can usually be removed safely only with the help of a comb.
There are many different species of the Cylindropuntia genus, including the aptly named teddy bear cholla and the jumping cholla (the latter because the spines seem almost to jump at you).
When backlit, cholla cactus plants are luminescent, as in the picture above.