Exotic Gardening with Rare and Strange Plants

Plants via travel

Summer is fading & autumn is almost here. We’re on the tail end of one of the sunniest summers on record and now I sit here typing to the sound of raindrops and puddle drips. The seasonal change seems to have happened almost overnight.

A couple weeks ago I embarked on a roadtrip to California with my kid brother in the hopes of expanding his world and seeing some fresh highways. We drove south on the 101 from Port Angeles, took the coast through San Fran and down to L.A to see the Huntington Gardens. From there a quick drive east and then north again on the 395 to visit Big Pine & Bishop in search of the oldest living trees on the planet, the Bristle Cone Pines.

The open road

Some Canadians seems intimidated by the idea of driving through the U.S.A but it’s surely one of my most favorite places to road-trip. Their roads are always long and straight and built for speed, well maintained and placed in some of the most scenic passageways I’ve ever seen. From coastal cliffside to deep forests, mountains and deserts; one can see a lot of different ecosystems in a very short amount of time. Driving north from L.A to reach the starting point of the ancient bristle cone pine forest was a new trip for me and I’m very glad I made the trek.

Upon reaching Big Pine California you take a quick right on the 168 and drive into the mountains to reach this world renowned sanctuary. You start out in an almost tundra-like climate devoid of plant life. Making your way up the narrow mountain road you are transported to a time long before man; the vision is almost mars like in it’s sheer vastness and desolate nature. Quickly gaining altitude a pine tree forest emerges and in a short amount of time you find yourself at the starting point of the hike, The Schulman Memorial Grove & Bristle Cone Research Center. A well priced excursion, make sure you have $3.00 on hand for the parking pass and away you go.

There are a couple hikes to choose from depending on your time and fitness. Having drove nearly 3200km to see this forest we opted for the longer excursion and went on exploring the 4mile hike in and around the Methuselah grove. We arrived at 5:00pm and only had a couple of hours of light left so we made sure we kept some haste in our step. Still the hike was easily achieved in less than two hours; given 4 hours you could take your time quite nicely.

Bristle Cone Pines

These trees are believed to be some of the oldest living beings on earth, the most notable inhabitant being the “Methuselah” dated at over at 4,700 years of age. The trees grow in a harsh arid climate, the oldest being found at the highest elevations at over 10,000-11,000 ft in altitude. With few nutrients in the soil and little moisture to speak of;  the hillside has very little botanical diversity at all. Bristle Cone Pine’s (Pinus longaeva) true strength lie in their ability to grow where little else can. Perhaps it is in this fact that they have lived as long as they have. These trees show no signs of senescence and it seems they can grow indefinitely given they don’t die from disaster or the hands of man.

Bristle Cone Pine

These trees have been of great scientific debate over the years and give scientists a unique look into the past. The tree’s rings tell great tales of drought and flood and do a remarkable job of recording the weather patterns over the millennia.

Bristle Cone Pine Forest

Much like visiting the cathedrals in Europe I was filled with an unsurpassed awe. The air was still and absolute in it’s silence. This land was indeed sacred and walking amongst the gnarled and twisted limbs I felt something bigger than myself, then any of us for that matter. Due to the arid conditions the trees stand indefinitely even after death. Carved wood and twisted grains, it was more of a living and breathing art museum then any other forest I’d ever walked before. To think these trees lived long before the birth of Christ, the pyramids and most civilized society today. I found myself contemplating my existence in a much different light, these elders stood here all along.

Bristle Cone Pine

Bristle Cone Pine

Schulman Memorial Grove

Bristle Cone Pine

Old Bristlecone

bristlecone pine

Bristle Pine

bristle cone pine

Pine frame

Nat & the trees

Gnarled wood

Death Valley

Ancient tree

Very Old Trees

Bristle Cone

Among the pines

Giant Bristle Cone

With the bristle cones

Sunset on the way down.

… Until next time plant people .

I’m home safe and sound from the Baja California and all I’ve got to say is “what a trip”. We sampled local tacos and drank numerous blended drinks, it’s nice to get away once in a while. Coming home I feel refreshed and ready to tackle another season at the nursery. Although a tad colder, there’s no place like home. This is the second time I visited the Cabo area and I couldn’t be more in love. Giant 20+ ft Mexican Cardons and year round warm temperatures, I think I was born in the wrong climate. I love how agaves grow practically everywhere and it’s not a question of if but when you’ll see the next incredible cactus. In the Baja you can forgo winter protection of tropical species as the weather is just perfect for palms, bougainvillea and barrel cactus.

The news might have you believe Mexico is a dangerous place to visit, but from my experience the people couldn’t be friendlier. I feel safer roaming Cabo’s nightime streets than Vancouver. As for the food, there is no such thing as a bad taco, should you like chicken or fish or salsa fresca. Try them all, trust me! All in all my trip went on without any foibles, I come home with a fresh glow of relaxation.

Last time I visited the Baja it hand’t rained in almost 2 years, this season they had a lot of rain in November. What was once a dry desert had transformed into a lush jungle of tall cactus and xeric shrubs. Lots to see for an aspiring botanist and plant geek.

While the main beaches in town are mostly crowded it’s only a short drive away to find pristine and untouched white sand beaches. In January and February humpback whales travel towards the Sea of Cortez and spend much of their time in these waterways. You can’t miss them.

Although considered a threatened species Organ Pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) are still quite prevalent in the south Cape.

I’m used to collecting small specimens in pots, I just love these giant sized cactus in their native habitat.

The baja is home to the tallest cacti in the world. Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum reaches for the sky.

After expressing an interest in cacti a friend of mine brought me out to see this old-growth specimen. Predicted to be many hundreds of years old it went through a stage of cristate mutation, creating these incredible ripples in it’s mid-growth.

It’s quite uncommon for cacti to revert back from cristate growth to regular, but it’s not unheard of. I wouldn’t mind having a couple of these giants planted around my future home.

Speaking of cristate cactus, this Organ Pipe Cactus (stenocereus thurberi) is starting up something strange.

I always pictured the desert as lifeless and still, all to the contrary. There’s all kinds of wildlife running about, here on this hillside we found a small family of chipmunks.

While camping in the Sierra De Laguna Biosphere I wondered off to ‘take a leak’ and stumbled upon this incredible community of snake cactus.

My guide book leads me to believe it’s Morangaya pensilis, any thoughts? It seems it grows tall until it falls down by it own weight and shoot up again, thus slowly creeping along. In this population it had began to climb the tree over 15ft vertically. Impressive.

Todo Santos beachside lagoon.

There were numerous agaves planted in landscapes…

But they almost looked happier out in the wild.

If you had enough money, you could do some truly incredible landscaping.

Mega sized Ferocactus.

I want to print this up on a canvas, look at the incredible textures.

There was no shortage of healthy looking Opuntioids.

The moths loved these purslane.

In the south Baja these bougainvillea are practically ditch weeds. Exotic, prolific, ditch weeds. They love the hot temperatures.

Beautiful sunsets.


Stay tuned for more photos of my Mexican adventure. A hike up through the Sierra De Laguna Biosphere and San Jose cactus gardens Wirikuta.
Thanks for stopping by.

Mr Nat. Gardener, Plant Nerd
Tips and tales about gardening in one of the most mild climates in Canada. Specializing in rare and strange plants from far out destinations, this is the story of an obsessed young gardener in Victoria B.C. Let's create more tropical gardens in the garden city on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.