Palm Springs, Part 1 of 3

This week I got a rare opportunity to leave my house and actually get on an airplane! I’ll confess that before we got there, I expected that I wouldn’t be all that interested in a bunch of southern California plants that I can’t grow.  I was dead wrong about that, as you will see.

The first thing I want to show you is that this really is a desert. The Coachella Valley is where dates are grown, but truth be told the only farms I saw were wind farms. What you’re seeing from the plane here is the incredibly stark difference between the natural landscape and the irrigated golf-resort-type places that are everywhere around Palm Springs.  It reminds me very much of the Phoenix area, where I lived for a few insanity-inducing months in I think 1999.  I couldn’t stand to witness this kind of resource usage.


In this post I’m going to show you some of the plants I found around town in an attempt to show what gardening is like here.


One of the first plants I saw that I freaked about was this Cercis occidentalis.  The flowers and leaves are bigger in real life than pictures online would have one think.  Just beautiful. I’m guessing a particularly mild winter has allowed them to keep their leaves but in a colder winter here, or certainly a colder climate, they’re fully deciduous, and likely bloom a bit later.  This is a crappy zoomed-in iPhone picture, but still.  The largest leaves here are as big as your hand.

Oh.  It was impossibly sunny, of course, the whole time so will just have to contend with that for this tour.

Except these next two plants.  This was just after sundown.  Of course I gravitated toward this silvery thing the minute I saw it but then I realized, it’s everywhere.  People here are probably sick of it.  I love it.

The leaves have a dense, soft indumentum and they’re a little thick.  Encelia farinosa, brittlebush.


Next up is this beauty which I had a rough time photographing.  These are just roadside plants, so far.  I love love love this color scheme.

What is it? I’ll find out eventually.


A morning walk yielded quite a few interesting scenes.  This is the street in front of the condo where we stayed.  What an alien landscape to this Portland native…

I do recognize some plants in the above scene.  Washingtonia robusta, the ubiquitous Mexican fan palm, Parkinsonia (palo verde) on the right, and those poor pollarded things are olives.  They do really crazy things to olive trees here.  This next photo is an extremely common, if horrific, sight.


Given that most of the architecture here is decidedly midcentury, that design aesthetic clearly influences horticulture as well.  The poor olive above sort of looks like one of those 60’s floor lamps .. hold on let me just get you a picture:


Sigh.. moving on.  I really appreciate the use of rock (and NOT grass) in many yards.  And the barrel cacti are so awesome! Also, I noticed that garden/yard lighting is a huge thing here.  Perhaps an indicator of the general economic status of Palm Springs.

Right around the corner from the barrel cacti planting above is this colorful joint. The tall sticks are ocotillo, and the octopus with the hot pink flowers is, I think, some kind of curious Bouganvillea.  Nice to see some non-butchered olives, although these may well have been pollarded at some point (just not recently).


This next garden is much more to my liking. A delightful mess with a broad range of texture.  I love it.

Above, Opuntia microdasys?


Olive trees in natural form are lovely.  This is a very typical plant combination: olives, with underplantings of Opuntia, Yucca, Agave.

This garden is sort of on the edge of an untended area, and sports an ocotillo, saguaros, what looks like yucca, creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and some exceptional fake flowers in the pots, which reportedly have been there for at least a year.


This is part of the same property. In fact, those palms in the distance on the right are the same ones in the photo above.  I really liked this scene and the apparently deliberate use of native plants here.  This is mostly Encelia farinosa (brittlebush) with Agave and Larrea in the foreground.


I’m glad no one cut these Agave inflorescences down.  They look great!


One of the challenges of full-sun photography with an iPhone is that often, you can’t see the screen at all because either there’s glare, or everything else is too bright and it appears black, or whatever.  I didn’t realize this photo ended up with what look like smears, but dangit this plant is way too cool to exclude just because the photo is weird.  Of course I have no idea which Opuntia this is – rufida? A cultivar? Whatever it is, I found it very impressive.

I could have easily taken 53,000 pictures of Bougainvillea because they were absolutely everywhere, but instead I collected a sizeable handful of the hot pink ones and pressed them in a book, and photographed only this stunning orange specimen, a much less common color.

This messed with my head for a second until I realized it’s the same Bougainvillea growing into a Cercis occidentalis.


I could not get closer to this for a better pic, but this thing was stunning and I am pretty sure it’s Bryophyllum daigremontianum.

Bamboo was a surprise! Someone must water this…


This garden was great! Pretty much all cacti, from the street all the way back to the small house which was set back about 50 feet.


This pretty little Asteraceae thing was very common.  I like it a lot in front of this dark wall.  That would be a great color for a house if all your plants are silvery.


Dramatic architectural palms like this really dominate the landscape, much the way conifers do in the Northwest (although of course the palms are much smaller overall).  Lower right is Euphorbia tirucalli, also very common here.

The “other” way of going about it — some folks have rocks and sand as their ground layer, and some actually have lawns.  You saw the airplane photo.  Still, it’s palms with Agave-Yucca-cactus underneath.  Very typical.  That hedge on the right is Nerium.


This Opuntia! I need to grow it.  Or at least some similarly purple one.  “Santa Rita” seems to be a name for this or something like it.


I confess I have no idea what any of this stuff is but I absolutely adore this little vignette.

And these! Callistemon ‘Little John’ was incredibly common!  You cannot walk two blocks without seeing one.  More likely, you’d see about ten of them.  It really is a great plant for zone 9 and up xeriscapes.  It looks good all the time.  These are quite common in Sydney too, by the way, so it doesn’t actually require a low/no water biome.


Parking lot plants … I could do endless posts about parking lot plants, really.  I don’t know why but I find it a fascinating subject.  Just one photo here, of a plant that surprised me.  I don’t even know what it is but I liked everything about this scene (except for my crap photo which was again because I couldn’t see the screen at all).  Just think: it made this flower and no one broke it off, peed on it (I mean probably not), ran into it with a shopping cart or a car door, or fell down drunk onto it.  Good job, Palm Springs.


And finally, what post about garden observations in an unfamiliar place would be complete without an investigation of likely weeds that people probably pull out of their gardens all the time? This roadside Physalis was cute as a button, I thought.  But as a Physalis, I can see it as one of those things that just appears everywhere and probably grows super vigorously and annoys the hell out of people.

And from the same family here’s a big Datura wrightii I nearly tripped over.  What a beauty!


So what did I discover? That gardens here are a mix of native/xeriscape and not-native/non-xeriscape.  But if you take the lawns out of the equation, there are very few drought-intolerant plants. People seem to understand that is IS actually a desert.  Except for the lawns, which are clearly one of the most pervasive and indelible obsessions in the American landscape.

I discovered Opuntia!  I’ve noticed them before, but I’ve never been particularly interested.  Now they have my attention! You’ll see a LOT more of them in upcoming posts.

I realized I no longer hate palm trees.  I had such a bad trip living in Phoenix all those years ago and I associated palms – specifically Washingtonia – with that time and with these places I couldn’t stand to be.  But I’m over that and can certainly recognize that my psychosis isn’t the palms’ fault.  Now I can love them.  They’re like landscape exclamation points.  Or Greek columns.  Or fireworks.  Nah, not fireworks, I hate fireworks.  I never thought I’d say this but I actually wouldn’t mind having a palm or two in the garden.  Chamaerops humilis var. cerifera is on my list.

Overall plant diversity in cultivated landscapes and gardens seems low to me here.  I’m not sure if that’s accurate, or if that’s just the impression I got.  Despite that, this is a very colorful place and I love that aspect of it.

Ok, that’s it for the sidewalk tour.  Stay tuned for Part 2, the weird and wonderful Moorten Botanical Garden, and then Part 3 will be a trip to Joshua Tree National Park.


2 comments on “Palm Springs, Part 1 of 3

  1. Thanks for this blast of desert goodness. Wow…your first photo really shows the craziness of the lawn addicted and all the bizarre little resort/golf course lakes.

    Glad you’re loving Opuntias now, they really are cool plants and we can grow so many of them! We can also grow your parking lot plant, Hesperaloe parviflora — it’s fab and hummingbirds love it. Can’t wait to see your take on Moorten Botanical Garden.

    1. I’m writing that post right now!
      Thanks for the ID on Hesperaloe parviflora! I guess that one better go on the list…

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