Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Spring Wildflowers at Box Canyon (Mecca Hills), Eastern Riverside County

Back in March, I had read some promising reports of fantastic wildflower displays in the Box Canyon/Mecca Hills area. As our days were getting longer and the mercury slowly but surely rising, we decided to head out to this lesser known gem of the California desert in early April to hopefully catch some blooms before they succumbed to the inevitable effects of heat and diminishing precipitation. Our last visit to Box Canyon was in 2007, so it's been a few years. For those unfamiliar with the Mecca Hills Wilderness, it's about 15 miles east of Indio and accessed from State Hwy. 195 (Box Canyon Rd.) off of I-10 just due south of Joshua Tree National Park. 

4/3/11 En route to Box Canyon, we passed the hard-to-miss wind farm in the San Gorgonio Pass off of I-10 just east of Whitewater. 

Just before the junction with SR 195, we pulled off the freeway to stretch our legs, and I trekked a short distance down to see what was blooming. Well, apparently, quite a lot:

Notch-leaved Phacelia (Phacelia crenulata).

4/3/11 Indigo Bush (Psorothamnus schottii).

 Desert Star (Monoptilon bellioides). One of my favorite desert belly flowers (i.e., so small you have to get down on your belly to see them).

 Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), a very common shrub in our desert regions and other habitats including coastal sage scrub. 

Pencil Cholla (Opuntia ramosissima).

California Barrel Cactus (Ferrocactus cylindraceus).

California Barrel Cactus (Ferrocactus cylindraceus).

California Fagonia (Fagonia laevis).

Bigelow's Monkeyflower (Mimulus bigelovii).

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). A real hummingbird magnet when in bloom. 

Rush Pea (Caesalpinia virgata).

Palo Verde (Cercidium floridum), surrounded by the yellow blooms of Brittlebush and Creosote Bush.

Ghost Flower (Mohavea confertiflora). One of the loveliest of desert flowers. They do seem ghostly because they are practically invisible until you come up on them, and then - wow! 

Pale Face/Rock Hibiscus (Hibiscus denudatus). Looks slightly bedraggled, but I was really happy to get this shot as it was the first time I had run across one of these in the field.

Beavertail Cactus (Opuntia basilaris var. basilaris).

Arizona Lupine (Lupinus arizonicus). Very common in this part of the Colorado Desert. Hmm...Arizona & Colorado, and all here in California.

Sweetbush (Bebbia juncea). 

Chia (not the pet) (Salvia columbariae). An annual that's native to our deserts, coastal sage scrub & chaparral. Smells super minty when you touch or brush against it. Chia seeds are edible.

Next, we headed up Highway 195 to Box Canyon in the Mecca Hills:

Common Phacelia (Phacelia distans). Meccacopia trailhead.

Bearded Cryptantha (Cryptantha barbigera). Meccacopia trailhead.

Whispering Bells (Emmenanthe penduliflora var. penduliflora). Meccacopia trailhead.

Narrow-leaved Cryptantha (Cryptantha angustifolia). Meccacopia trail.

Chuparosa (Justicia californica). Meccacopia trail.

Chuparosa (Justicia californica). Meccacopia trail.

More Ghost Flowers (Mohavea confertiflora). Meccacopia trailhead.

Strigose Lotus (Lotus strigosus). Meccacopia trailhead.

Palo Verde (Cercidium floridum). Meccacopia trailhead.

Hana, daydreaming of Alaska. Meccacopia trailhead.

Bigelow's Monkeyflower (Mimulus bigelovii). Meccacopia trailhead.

Desert Five-Spot (Eremalche rotundifolia). Sandy wash across the road from the Meccacopia trailhead.

Bracted Blazing Star (Mentzelia involucrata). This blazing star bears a superficial resemblance to Ghost Flower, but it lacks the tell-tale maroon spots at the base of the petals, and is in the Stickleaf Family (Loasaceae), not the Figwort Family (Scrophulariaceae). Meccacopia trailhead.

Little Gold or Small-Flowered Poppy (Eschscholzia minutiflora). The name speaks for itself.  Meccacopia trailhead.

Brandegea or Desert Star Vine (Brandegea bigelovii). A member of the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae). Meccacopia trail.

Desert Pincushion (Chaenactis fremontii). Meccacopia trailhead.

Mojave Ragwort (Senecio mohavensis). Meccacopia trailhead.

Desert Lavender (Hyptis emoryi). Sandy wash across the road from the Meccacopia trailhead. I have one of these aromatic shrubs growing in my garden at home. I've heard that it's not very cold tolerant, but it seems to be doing ok so far in our occasionally frosty & damp (for SoCal) winter microclimate.

Desert Dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata). In good years, this wildflower will carpet the desert floor in a spectacular show of yellow. Meccacopia trailhead.

Desert Woolly-Star (Eriastrum eremicum ssp. erimicum). Sandy wash across the road from the Meccacopia trailhead.

Smoke Tree (Psorothamnus spinosus). Wash across the road from the Meccacopia trailhead. From a distance, the gray-green foliage of this small tree resembles a puff of smoke arising from the desert floor.

Parish's Poppy (Eschscholzia parishii). Meccacopia trailhead. The color of this desert poppy is a soft yellow-orange, not the blazing orange of our State flower, the California Poppy (E. californica). Think Meyer Lemon vs. Satsuma Mandarin.

Emory's Rock Daisy (Perityle emoryi), with a few Desert Dandelions peeking through. Meccacopia trailhead.

Heartleaf Sun-cup (Camissonia cardiophylla ssp. cardiophylla). Meccacopia trailhead.

Female Phainopepla/Silky Flycatcher (Phainopepla nitens). Meccacopia trail. 

Desert Mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum). Meccacopia trail. Silky Flycatchers are addicted to their berries.

Imagine that, our common House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus), all the way out here in the desert. Meccacopia trail.

Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa var. torreyana). Shaver's Well.

Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa var. torreyana). Shaver's Well. The seedpods are edible. For centuries, mesquite meal has been a traditional staple food source for the Native American tribes of the desert. 

Marker for Shaver's Well.

Bigelow's Monkeyflower (Mimulus bigelovii). Shaver's Well.

Broad-leaf Gilia (Gilia latifolia). Shaver's Well.

Desert Plantain (Plantago ovata). Shaver's Well.

Little Desert Trumpet (Eriogonum trichopes). Shaver's Well.

Desert Sunflower (Geraea canescens). Shaver's Well.

Desert Iguana (Dipsosaurus dorsalis). At about 8" long, not a small lizard. He scuttled under a Smoke Tree as fast as lightening as I was approaching. I managed to get this slightly out-of-focus shot before he took off again.

Palo Verde (Cercidium floridum). Shaver's Well.

Leaving Shaver's Well, en route to Mecca. Palo Verdes were in full bloom all along Box Canyon Rd.

Here we are, coming up on the Salton Sea. Turnoff to Painted Canyon is on the right - that's a whole 'nother trip unto itself.

And in case you didn't know, the Coachella Valley, smack dab in the middle of desert, is home to acres upon acres upon acres of ag. Believe it or not, their top crop is table grapes. 


POSTSCRIPT: and just for the heck of it, here are a few plants/blooms we encountered in the Mecca Hills back in February of 2005 that we didn't come across this time around (probably too late in the season):

2/6/05 Spanish Needles (Palafoxia arida). Wash across road from Little Box Canyon trailhead.

2/6/05 Desert Tobacco (Nicotiana obtusifolia). Meccacopia trailhead.

2/6/05 Bottlewasher (Camissonia boothii). Meccacopia trailhead.

2/6/05 Gravel Ghost (Atrichoseris platyphylla). Not in bloom, but that basal rosette of leaves is quite striking. Wash across road from Little Box Canyon trailhead. 

2/6/05 Desert Sand Verbena (Abronia villosa). Wash west of Sheep Hole Oasis campground.


  1. That area certainly is an oasis for wildflowers at this time of year. A few plants that really interested me were the ghost flowered one as it's flowers looked so pretty ,that edible globe shaped salvia and the gravel ghost foliage. The scenery must have been stunning and I like that whipsy old tree against the hard landscape of the rocks.

  2. I feel like I was there, and thank you very much for driving. I must see a ghost flower one day. (Your California barrel -- did it have stiff, thick spines? If so, it's also called a Fishhook cactus and native Americans used the spines to catch fish.)

  3. Oh my. This is wonderful. We often visit my wife's sister in Phoenix during the winter and being from the Land of Ten Thousand lake and lots of green, I've not been to impressed. Your wonderful pics make me think I should reasses my opinion of the desert... :)

  4. Looks like you hit the jackpot bloom-wise! The rains seem to have made it a good flower season up there as well. You saw so much that I can toss my desert flower manual and just use this post! In addition to the botany, the landscape there is pretty striking. You can tell that you're practically on top of the San Andreas Fault!

  5. That ghost flower is great. I've never seen or heard of it before. A lot of great flowers we don't see in northern California. I don't know the desert five-spot either. Really nice view into it.

  6. Rosie, our deserts are amazingly floriferous after the winter rains. The blooms are ephemeral, but stunning during their few short weeks in the limelight.

    altadenahiker, I can totally see the spines of the barrel cactus being used as fishhooks. There's no fish action in the Colorado Desert, but I guess they'd just have to trek up to the nearby montane areas to throw in a line. I would.

    troutbirder, in terms of plant life, the desert in the dormant summer and winter seasons is largely nondescript & monochromatic. So if you visit Phoenix in late spring/early summer rather than in the winter, I'll bet you'll be in for a more than a pleasant surprise!

    James, it was an excellent wildflower season for our desert areas. The unique geologic features (steep-walled canyons & folded geologic formations) in the Mecca Hills are a testament to the wild & wacky vicissitudes of the San Andreas fault.

    Ryan, the Ghost Flower is indeed awesome! Wouldn't it be great if it were in cultivation? But, unless you live in the desert, I doubt this beauty would survive in any other garden condition.

  7. I love your blog, you always highlight such beautiful and fascinating plants. I just planted my first Encelia here, Encelia californica. I rather like their cheery flowers, but now I wish I'd bought more! The ghost flower though, what a beauty! They remind me of Bells of Ireland, just prettier. I'm loving Chia too, such a Seuss-like plant. We put some near the beehives, and it's doing great! The Parish's poppies are quite profuse, so many blooms!

  8. This trip through your camera lens was a wonderful treat for me. Thanks a million. The Mohavea is a new one for me and took my breath away. So haunting and lovely.

    Thanks for the adventure,

    Sharon Lovejoy Writes from Sunflower House and a Little Green Island

  9. Brittlebush and black-eyed susan--how much difference? (I'm not much of a plant person. Quite an education here. Thank you.)

  10. Thanks for the virtual trip to the desert. My favorites are ghost flower and desert five-spot.

  11. Sharon, it was very nice to visit your beautiful Central Coast garden via your blog!

    Hi Banjo52 - Brittlebush and black-eyed susans are (and you probably already know this) both in the Sunflower family - hence the similarities in flower form. Difference might be that Brittlebush has thickish, leathery leaves with a woolly coating which allow it to survive the harsh desert heat. Black-eyed Susans? Not so much...

    Hi Katie - hope all is well! Ghost flowers and Five-spots are definitely standouts in the pantheon of desert wildflowers.

  12. what a fun tour, especially the wildflowers. i've seen a lot of them. never the ghost flower or the desert five spot! so beautiful!!

  13. Yes it was, Laguna Dirt! I also very much enjoyed your photos from your trip to JTNP.