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Desert Beauty

by Thomas Oberbauer

​​Growing up in San Diego County in Southern California, I was exposed to a wide variety of habitats during weekend drives with my parents. Early on, I began to appreciate the diversity of California’s vegetation, from coastal scrub and chaparral to the forests and deserts. One summer in high school, I took a biology class that had an assignment to create a botany booklet. The booklet had to contain 20 species of plants with photographs and descriptions. Prior to that assignment, I was mostly interested in birds, but that class raised my awareness and started my life-long fascination with plants. From this early Biology class, I continued studying plants. While in college at San Diego State, I took a botany and taxonomy class with Dr. Lee Wedberg that included field trips all around San Diego County. On those trips,we saw many endemic plant species that could only be found in the County, including San Diego mesa mint, Pogogyne abramsii,and Parish’s meadowfoam, Limnanthes alba var. parishii at at Cuyamaca Lake.

In 1975, I joined the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) after working for a summer with CNPS representative Mitch Beauchamp and a number of other biologists on Vandenberg Airforce Base. An early CNPS publication was a report of the rare and endangered plants of California, which listed them by County. My home, San Diego County, is well-known to support a high number of rare and endangered plants.

Inspired by this list, I began to spend my weekends looking for these hard-to-find plants. My brother and I would drive back county roads in my 1971 Porsche 914. It was perfect for plant hunting because it was a very small car with great handling that allowed for quick steering corrections when the driver was preoccupied by an interesting plant growing along the side of the road.

The one plant I wished to find the most on these hunts was the desert beauty, Linanthus bellus. I knew how beautiful its sister-species, the ground-pink Linanthus dianthiflorus, was with its bright pink flowers and tiny scalloped edges. I found old references that told me it was once found it near the community of Boulevard. I drove to Boulevard with my brother in e​arly May during its flowering season. We stopped at every open area that looked suitable: areas with course sandy soil that were transition areas between desert and chaparral. We finally found it on an open slope west of Boulevard.

Desert beauty is one of the most striking wildflowers I have ever seen. It has brilliant rich pink petals with a white throat and dark brown spots near the base and yellow anthers. The flowers are gramophone shaped with 5 petals. When really warm, the petals fold backward making a flattened round face of the flower. The flowers ranged in size from larger than a nickel to smaller than a dime, depending on the soil moisture. The stems and leaves of the plant look like dark threads and create the illusion that the flowers appear to be floating over the grainy coarse sand. For many years, I made the pilgrimage to see the flowers each May. During exceptionally rainy years, desert beauty covered the ground pink. My trips to visit the flowering desert beauty were so well-known that a friend of mine gave me a T shirt emblazoned with a photograph of the flowers. To this day, finding Linanthus bellus was one of my greatest rare plant discoveries. Finding the ephemeral, brightly colored flowers is like finding a treasure.

Thomas Oberbauer is a third generation San Diegan and rare plant enthusiast, and the pictures in this post are his own. He loves the vegetation and plant diversity of Baja California and its adjacent islands. He graduated from high school in 1970 east of El Cajon, California and posts documentaries about the natural wonders of Baja California on You Tube.


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