Harlan’s Ecology and Nature Walk

Squaw hill and Mccallum trail

After a short trek up Squaw Hill, where we overlook the San Andreas Fault and line of palm trees stretching across the waterline and where Harlan points out the spot in the Little San Bernardino Mountains where Keys View is located in Joshua Tree National Park, we head back down to the wetlands area he calls Jurassic Park. We take the boardwalk through this riparian forest of water-loving plants that provide food and cover for desert wildlife.

Leaving the wetlands we encounter a new biome: a desert wash. Arrowweed, inkweed, and alkali goldenbush thrive here.


The Native peoples once living here, the Cahuilla, gathered the roots of young plants to roast and eat. The long, slender, pliable stems were used for constructing roofs and interweaving with stronger materials in the walls of their homes. And, as its name implies, the plant was cut into a shaft, moistened, and placed in the groove of a heated stone to straighten into an arrow. (Bean, Lowell John, et al.  Temalpakh:  Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants = (from the Earth).  Malki Museum,  1972.)

 cal flora.net


This plant thrives in soil containing salt and alkali and where moisture is near the surface. The Cahuilla extracted a black dye from the inkweed for baskets and artwork. (Jaeger, Edmund C.  Desert Wild Flowers.  Stanford University Press, 1941.) 


Alkali Goldenbush

One of the few plants that blooms in the fall, it is a major pollinator buzzing with bees. It thrives in desert drainage areas and salt flats. (en.m.wikipedia.org)

  southwest desert flora.com

Harlan is a gentle, soft-spoken 75-year-old man who taught high school science and literature. He has a wealth of information to share about the animals, birds, and critters of the Colorado Desert as well as the geological features of the San Andreas Fault and the adaptive plant life that thrive in this arid climate. After walking with Harlan you will NEVER look at the desert in the same way again! He will sharpen your senses as you listen, observe, smell, touch, and taste its richness.

(Unfortunately as I took pictures my ears couldn’t catch up. So… I have done my best to explain what I saw supplemented with additional resources.)

Inside the white oblong fluff, circled below, is a desert shrub spider Notice the filmy web draping itself on the bush at the bottom of the photo.

The desert brush spider is a type of coneweb spider. They weave a cone-like central retreat in which they hide and lay eggs. (en.m.wikipedia.org)

This is a picture of the spider, Diguetia canities. (I have not seen one yet.)


Smoke Tree

This tree is only found in a desert wash because its seeds must be roughened up by moving water in order to sprout. It photosynthesizes through its pale green stems.

Cheese Bush

Another plant that grows in and around desert washes, the cheese bush smells like old socks or cheese when you crush its leaves in the palm of your hands. The Cahuilla used this plant as a condiment for their food.


Creosote Bush

Not the source of the tar-like petroleum product, this bright green bush has small waxy leaves that help retain water. The Native Cahuilla made teas from its stems and leaves to treat colds, sore throats, stomachaches. The steam from boiling the tea helped relieve congestion. (Master Gardener Docent Plant Guide)

Tightly cup a handful of its leaves on the branch with your hands. Take a deep breath and exhale into your hands. Now smell your cupped hands… This is what the desert smells like after a rain shower… a bit lemony with a hint of turpentine and pine.


The silvery leaves of this plant are covered with insulating white hairs that deflect the sun and heat in order topreserve water. During dry spells brittlebush will often lose its leaves. The sap or gum from this plant was warmed and used by the Cahuilla and applied to the chest for pain. Toothaches were treated by an application of boiled leaves, flowers, and stems. (Master Gardener Docent Plant Guide)

Simone Pond

Named for the man who purchased 640 acres surrounding this oasis between 1942 and 1945, this is the “must see” attraction of Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve.

This oasis pond is the natural habitat for the desert pupfish, a small fish usually less than 3 inches long, that survives an environment of extreme salinity, pH, and temperature, and low oxygen content. (en.m.wikipedia.org)

But today no pupfish live here.


Unfortunately in the 1950s Boy Scouts, who camped nearby, dumped some red crayfish into the pond so they could fish. Crayfish not only devour pupfish babies, but proliferate beyond control. Then, to make matters worse, a woman released 2 buckets of tropical fish into the pond, as caught on the video webcam.  That’s why orange koi fish and African cichlids, a type of tilapia, live here now.


Washingtonia Filifera

Jeff poses between the palm frond skirts of 2 California Desert Fan Palm Trees.

These are the only indigenous palm trees to California. Lacking a tap root, these palms have tiny straw-like roots that reach down 10-25 feet for water from underground springs and streams in the Colorado Desert. Calculating the age of palm trees is nearly impossible as they are more of a grass, like bamboo, than a tree with cross-section rings to count. The inside of the trunk consists of tiny toothpick-like “straws” that retain water. Mature trees grow to an average of 60 feet tall and can live between 150-200 years. When the palm leaves die they fold under and become a skirt of fronds creating a “high rise condominium” where birds nest, snakes rest, and rodents best hide to escape the summer heat.

That’s Harlan below:

Honey Mesquite

This thorny tree or shrub produces a dry legume-like fruit with pods. When green and ripe the Cahuilla ate them fresh. When past-ripe and yellow they ground the pods into a flour. Harlan just happens to have over-ripe pods in his hiking vest. We bite into them and suck on the sweet honey essence.

Desert Mistletoe

This red parasitic plant is found on catclaw and mesquite. The berries, available from November to April, were ground and mixed with a small amount of ashes and boiled in a pot. This somewhat sweet concoction was eaten by the Cahuilla like a dessert or occasional treat. The leaves were used to dye basket weeds permanently black. (Bean, Lowell John, et al. Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants = (from the Earth). Malki Museum, 1972.)

Bobcat tracks

It only rained a few minutes at the Preserve last night but it was enough to make for a muddy trail in parts.


Harlan points out small round masses attached to creosote bushes. These swelling growths are called galls and are really plant tissue controlled by insects. Galls act as both the habitat and food source for the developing insect larvae.  Creosote gall midges are a species of flies which inhabit the desert bush.

Indigo Bush

Notice the pinkish stems on this bush, a relative of the smoke tree.

Unremarkable in its dormant state, it blooms purple after it rains. The Cahuilla used the stalks to start weaving a basket. The branches were steeped in water to produce a light yellow-brown dye. (Master Gardener Docent Plant Guide)



Although the flower blooms purple, steeping the branches of this plant in boiling water produces a yellowish-brown dye that the Cahuilla used on their baskets. (Master Gardener Docent Plant Guide)

Harlan has us crush the flower between our fingers to see the instant yellowish-orange stain left on our fingers.

Golden Cholla

The living desert…

To our un-attuned eyes the desert can look lifeless and beige. Each pastel green bush looks alike. But a wiseman once shared this with me:

Imagine what the Cahuilla saw when they looked upon the desert landscape… food and resources. (Harlan)

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