At the end of a long uphill trek, a fantasy garden erupts from the arid hillside. To a Midwesterner accustomed to touchable cultivars, these plants were alien creatures extending aggressive protuberances with threatening spines. But they’re only displaying their perfect adaptation to the dry, Mediterranean climate – awesome plants in the truest sense of the word. This is a straight-out-of-camera photo — the colors were truly that brilliant.
I am quite ignorant of the correct botanical names for these species — cactus, aloe, and succulent is the extent of my knowledge of here, and even those I’m only guessing. My impression was that the gardens included both native and exotic plants, with many species from South Africa and the coastal Mediterranean region with a similar climate.
Cryptobiotic soil crust in action! At first glance, the soil throughout this garden looks like a sandy wasteland, but a closer examination reveals tiny plants and lichens clinging to a miniature landscape. Tiny black “cliffs” of cyanobacteria filaments form an intricate network on the surface, holding soil in place, fixing nitrogen and carbon for plant uptake, and increasing water absorption during infrequent rains. These vital but delicate parts of the ecosystem are easily damaged by trampling hooves or feet and vehicle traffic. Due to their slow growth rate, damaged crusts may never recover from grazing and recreational uses, leading to lifeless sand dunes. For more see: Cryptobiotic Soils: Holding the Place in Place
I enjoyed Dr. Seuss books as a small child, but never realized that the fanciful illustrations were based on genuine plants until my first visit to San Diego in 2006. I expected to see palm trees and cacti, the standard backdrops of TV and films, but had no idea of the diverse beauty of the chaparral. There is no such thing as “just a desert” in nature — it’s an amazing ecosystem of evolutionary marvels.