Representative Southern Baja Plants
By Alex Navarro
Hello! Welcome to beautiful Baja Sur, a perfect blend of land and sea. This majestic peninsula is a paradise for nature lovers, so I would like to tell you a little bit about some of most representative plants of Baja Sur. Here they are:
Pitaya Dulce (Organ Pipe Cactus) – This very easy to spot cactus is famous for its red, spiny fruits which taste delicious, some say similar to a watermelon. It has many (5-35 aprox.) medium sized branches with about 1 inch spines. The flowers are white tipped with light purple and bloom around June. The fruit ripens at the end of summer, and centuries ago this time of year for the natives was a time of euphoria and no hunger, versus other times of the year that were dificult for these tribes due to little food. Today you can find ice cream and other sweets made from pitaya dulce.
Damiana – This is a legendary shrub that grows in rocky hills and granite ridges of Baja Sur. Its flowers bloom from January to June and are yellow/orange, and its fruit tastes a bit like a fig. It has medicinal and aphrodisiac properties, as a diuretic for diabetes or as a sexual stimulant. It is usually taken in tea form and there is a popular sweet liquor made from Damiana too.
Palma Cocotera (Coconut Palm) – This palm along with the Date Palm are the two most common in Baja Sur. The northern limit where they occur is Mulegé Town and are vast at other spots like the estuaries of San Jose, San Pedrito, La Paz and Loreto. The seeds (coconuts) have rich milk inside them and the shell pulp is also consumed. The leaves are used for construction of roofs called “palapas”. There are many food trucks in Cabo that sell coconuts on the side of the road, where they give you the milk to drink and also the pulp to eat and you can add salt, chile and lime.
Cardón (Elephant Cactus) – This is the large abundant cactus you typically see in the Baja Sur desert. It can reach heights of over 60 feet and be older than 200 years old. Some trunks can be 5 o 6 feet wide. They have a green stem with spines, that cover its woody skeleton, which performs the function of photosynthesis as they have no leaves. From the trunk many lateral branches come out and they have shallow and extensive roots to absorb superficial water from rains. They conserve a lot of water in their stem to survive long periods of time without water. The Cardón’s flowers are white and bloom around May, and its fruit has a succulent pulp which can be green or red, with many black seeds. The Cardón is the home and provider for many animals and insects such as bats, birds, squirrels, iguanas, bees, moths and butterflies. You can sometimes see the holes of woodpeckers and the nests of hawks on them. It is very similar to the Saguaro cactus of Arizona, but it is usually larger, has more branches, and the branches diverge from the lower part of the trunk.
Torote (Elephant Tree) – It can be a 7 foot shrub or an over 25 ft. tall tree. Its resin has a very aromatic smell. There are red and white Torotes and they have very thick trunks and branches. The outer branches are much thinner and the outer layer of bark is peeled off in thin curls of. The small fruits are a favorite of birds, its bark is used for dyeing by locals and the twigs are used for stomach pain tea.
Palo de Arco (Trumpet Bush) – It grows very long branches and twigs with yellow trumpet shaped flowers that bloom after the rain. It is usually found on sandy valleys and dry river beds (arroyos). The branches and twigs are bendable and used to make many things like fences, pergolas, furniture and baskets. They are also grown to make natural barriers like fences or walls. It is one of the most colorful plants of the Baja Sur.
Choya (Cholla Brincadora) – These are very spiny trees and shrubs that have fleshy spineless fruits. They were called brincadora (jumping) because small sections of the branches detach very easy as their method of reproduction. You can often see them stuck in faces and bodies of cows and donkeys. They have green/red flowers that bloom around May. A person from Baja Sur is called a “choyero”.
Biznaga (Barrel Cactus) – These can be some of the biggest cacti in the Baja desert. They dont’t have branches but sometimes grow in bunches and branch off at the base. They have very fierce spines, that is why their genus name is ferocactus. Their flowers can be different colors like red, orange, yellow or purple and the fruit is like a berry with thick skin. They are used to make things like biznaga sweet candy (Dulce de biznaga), and were used by indigenous people to cook by removing the pulp and inserting hot stones inside like a pot or oven, as well as using the spines like needles for tattooing. The stem can be eaten for survival purposes due to its high water content.
Zalate (Desert Rock fig tree/ wild fig tree) – This is one of the most extreme and beautiful tree in Baja Sur. A seed can grow from a tiny crack on the side of a rocky cliff, and its roots visibly wrap the rock surface making it an amazing tree to observe. The trunks can be massive being several yards wide sometimes, and their thick white branches are smooth with scaly bark and beautiful green leaves. The tiny pear shaped fruits (wild figs/higos silvestres) are not very edible to humans, but many birds and mammals eat them.
Thanks a lot for reading Destino Los Cabos and for visiting Cabo. Enjoy your vacation and when you’re out there in nature see which of these plants you can find and observe! *
For more in depth information on Baja’s flora and medicinal plants reach out to my good friend and herbalist Leopoldo Ladron de Guevara at firstname.lastname@example.org