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Desert inspiration for an Extreme Garden

If you've visited our Gardens this week, you may have noticed a new display near the Animal WalkExtremes Garden showcases the amazing adaptations plants have made to survive some of the most extreme conditions on earth, with cacti and succulents from exceptionally hot environments.

Wes, Head of Horticulture at the Horniman, has shared some of his American inspiration for creating this new display.

In April this year I travelled to the Mexican peninsular of Baja California with a friend and self-confessed cacti freak. This would be Part 2 of an expedition begun in June 2013 when we travelled through the Sonoran Desert in the South Western States of the USA looking at species of cacti and succulent plants growing in their natural habitat.

  • Wes discovers some extreme plants in Mexico's Sonoran Desert, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

The Sonoran Desert also covers areas of Northern Mexico, and is home to an even broader range of desert plants that we had yet to see, so we felt we had unfinished business and headed back earlier this year.

The plan was to travel the length of the peninsular as far as the town of Loreto, looking at various locations that my travelling companion Andrew Gdaniec, Curator of the Alameda Botanic Garden in Gibraltar had researched and found locations for.

The first highlight was to find the closely guarded location of the hedgehog cactus Echinocereus lindsayi. Andrew had acquired GPS coordinates of this very rare plant, and we had to travel off-road to the foot of rocky outcrop where we spotted flowers from our jeep. In the end we only found 12 or so of these plants so were very lucky.

  • Echinocereus lindsayi in flower, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

Desert landscapes can be quite varied. While most people think of rolling sand dunes, the North American deserts are quite different.

  • Boulder Canyon in the Sonoran Desert, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

  • The Sonoran Desert, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

We also saw some truly monster plants. One that dominated much of the landscape was the Giant Cardón Cactus, Pachycereus pringlei, which is only found in Baja. It is the world’s biggest cactus, growing up to 20m in height and weighing 20-25 tonnes. These are very long lived species and some of the large ones we saw were probably 500 + years old.

  • Giant Cardón Cactus, Pachycereus pringlei, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

Succulents are plants that sometimes look like cacti, and they have similar water saving adaptations, but because of botanical differences (cacti have structures called areoles, which succulents do not) they are not classed as cacti. But they are no less impressive!

  • Succulent, Agave deserti , Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

Along with amazing plants, there is also a lot of animal life to look out for in the desert. Highlights we came across include rattle snakes, big scary looking spiders, lizards, scorpions, vultures and coyotes. Grey whales also overwinter in the lagoons off of the coast.

  • Wes meets a whale during his trip to Mexico, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

This trip and our earlier one proved to be inspiration for the new display that the Gardens team have just finished installing. It is designed to complement the temporary Extremes exhibition in the Museum, and is designed  to show visitors how plants can survive in extreme habitats through some amazing adaptations. We hope you like it!