Two Cacti, Not Blooming

beavertail cactus
Opuntia basilaris


cotton-top cactus
Echinocactus polycephalus


While exploring the area around the globemallow I came across two different types of cactus plants.  One was well in bud, so I made it a point to go back two days later, right before leaving for the flight home. No luck. Still in bud.


Beavertail looks a lot like the familiar prickly pear cactus (it’s in the same genus), but it lacks spines. There are four varieties; I have no idea which one this is. Here’s a picture of it in flower. [sob]

Cotton-top cactus is distinctive because of its form (polycephalus means “many heads”). You can see from this photo how it got its common name:

By the way, if you’re scrambling up a scree where cotton-top are growing, choose to pass the plants on the downslope. I figured this out just a few steps shy of one of the beasts, where sure enough I lost my footing and went for a bit of a slide. It could have been comic in a Road-Runner sort of way. More likely it would have been really painful.


I Brake for Wildflowers…

…wouldn’t you?

Heading north on Scotty’s Castle Road in not-as-desolate-as-it-appears Death Valley, I spied a big ball of apricot. Apricot?! I’d seen many yellow flowers, and white, and purple and blue and pink, and even some orange dodder looking like balls of Silly String, but this was completely different. Knowing that no cars were behind (good situational awareness), I was able to brake pretty aggressively and have another look before rounding a corner. Half a mile later there was a turnout wide enough to allow a safe u-turn*, then back I went to have a close look at this:


It’s globemallow, aka desert mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua, Malvaceae), a perennial forb that can grow to three feet tall and three feet wide. When winters are wet, it puts forth an exceptional display. It’s found in California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. I’d love to have one in my garden, but the mid-Atlantic is just too wet for a xerophyte like this.

Once stopped at this site, I got my camera bag and water bottles and set off exploring the nearby wash and a mini-butte, where I found plenty of belly flowers and two nifty cacti, neither of which were flowering. More on these another time. This is the only specimen of globemallow I saw on the entire trip.


*those of you who know about my former vocation can imagine how tempted I was to pull a bootleg instead

Two Broads

(right) broad-leaved gilia
Aliciella latifolia ssp. latifolia
(formerly Gilia latifolia)


(below) broad-flowered gilia
Gilia cana ssp. speciformis



Thirty three native species of gilias (some no longer in the genus Gilia) grow in the US; all but two of these can only be found west of the Rockies. Broad-flowered gilia is found only in California and Nevada, while broad-leaved gilia can be found in those states plus Utah and Arizona. Both of these plants are annuals, consisting of a basal rosette of leaves and flowers on wispy stems just a few inches above the ground.  Both species are annuals.



As you can see, broad-leaved gilia really does have broad leaves, and tiny little dark pink flowers. Broad-flowered gilia has much smaller, deeply indented leaves and larger flowers, light purple with blue throats.








penny and thumbnail for scale


Three Phacelias

The bright yellow fields of desert gold and yellowcups are eye-catching, but almost as common is a deep purple color that you almost have to be out of your car to see. Two species are responsible, both closely related: caltha-leaved phacelia and notch-leaved phacelia.

Something on the order of 167 native species of phacelia occur in the US and Canada. A few can be found in the east – including Miami mist and Coville’s; there are also species found in the South, or Mid-West, or north into Canada. But most phacelias seem to be found west of the Rocky Mountains.

According the the National Park Service, about six species are found in Death Valley. During my two and a half day jaunt I saw the two mentioned above, as well as a third: Fremont’s phacelia, which isn’t nearly as common or eye catching, but is wonderful in a belly flower sort of way.


caltha-leaved phacelia (Phacelia calthifolia), right


notch-leaved phacelia (Phacelia crenulata), below

Caltha-leaved phacelia (Phacelia calthifolia) gets its name (presumably) from the genus Caltha (marsh marigolds, among others), which is a name from the ancient Greek meaning “goblet”. The leaves are low to the ground, more-or-less round, and dark green.

The leaves of notch-leaved phacelia (Phacelia crenulata) are also dark green, but elongated and deeply indented:



Although the flowers of both species appear at first glance identical, the anthers of notch-leaved protrude well beyond the petals:






while caltha-leaved has a much tidier appearance:


I never saw these two species growing together. Nearby, maybe 20 yards apart, but not together.

Fremont’s phacelia (Phacelia fremontii), left and below


Fremont’s phacelia’s leaves are deeply notched, but quite different from notch-leaved, and there’s no mistaking the flower: it sits much closer to the ground than the other two species, and the flowers are a pleasing sky blue with yellow throats.

I found this third species at an elevation of about 5000′ above sea level, in the Dante’s View area.

Phacelias are in the Hydrophyllaceae, though some older references will place them in the Boraginaceae.


right: gravel ghost, aka parachute plant
Atrichoseris platyphylla


below: desert chicory, aka plumeseed
Rafinesquia neomexicana

I figure if the various hard-to-tell-apart yellow flowers can be referred to as DYCs, then I can refer to the white ones as DWCs. Here are two of them from Death Valley.


The flowers of gravel ghost stand about 2 feet from the ground on naked stems; the only leaves are gray-green and form a basal rosette.


See how the flowers appear to be floating in mid-air?  You can barely make out the stems.  This is how the plant comes by its common names.

Young inflorescences are really pretty up close: the rays are tipped in purple.

In contrast, desert chicory has leaves on rather weak stems, so that the plant is often seen either somewhat flopped over or growing through another plant for support.



Gravel ghost is found in the deserts of California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Desert chicory can be found in the same states and also New Mexico and Texas. Both plants are annuals.

“DYC” (Two More Yellow Flowers)

Anisocoma acaulis
scale bud





Malacothrix glabrata
desert dandelion


While researching the Aster family, I stumbled across the term “DYC” – “damned yellow composite”, used by Lady Bird Johnson, among others. It’s the floral equivalent of birders’ “LBJ”. Ha! That’s how I was starting to feel trying to identify these two plants, which have very similar inflorescences but quite different leaves.

“Which flower is that?”
“I dunno, another DYC.”

The most obvious difference is the red dot in the center of the dandelion, but that only shows on young flowers.  The better way to distinguish them is by looking at the leaves.


Scale bud’s leaves are a light gray-green and deeply notched – not to confuse things, but they’re shaped somewhat like dandelion leaves.



Desert dandelion has darker leaves with much narrower lobes – they look almost like threads.



The desert dandelion ranges from New Mexico west and north to Oregon and Idaho. Scale bud’s range is limited to Arizona, California, and Nevada. Both plants are annuals.

I found both of these species near Dante’s View, at an elevation of about 5000 feet. If they occurred elsewhere in the park I failed to notice. Maybe because I was getting exhausted.  Or maybe because they’re, you know… DYCs.

The Other Yellow Flower

On my second day in Death Valley, as I drove further north to slightly higher elevations, I noticed that the fields of gold had become fields of yellow.  The flowers looked different, too (as much as I could tell at 50 mph).  So of course I had to pull over and take a closer look.

The vast expanses of desert gold had become less-dense expanses of yellowcups, aka golden evening-primrose, Chylismia brevipes (formerly Camissonia brevipes; Onagraceae). They can stand nearly as tall as desert gold, but are generally shorter and more wispy in appearance. If you look closely you’ll see a tiny red dot at the base of each petal, an identifying characteristic of this species.

Yellowcups are native to the deserts of California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.