‘California Desert Plants’ – Times-Standard

For the past 15 years, Philip Rundel has been developing this book through his long-term relationship and travels in deserts of the Southwestern United States, northern Chile and southern Africa. His vision of him is now a reality.

“California Desert Plants: Ecology and Diversity” is a new book written by Rundel, Robert Gustafson and Michael Kauffmann. Published by Humboldt County’s Backcountry Press, the book explores traits and strategies that allow plants to survive in some of the world’s harshest environments. In addition to describing major desert habitats, the book includes over 400 photographs to complement the text.

The California barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) thrives in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of California. It’s seen here in the Providence Mountains, Mojave National Preserve. (Photo by Michael Kauffmann)

Rundel, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, is a desert ecologist with extensive experience in arid and semi-arid landscapes all around the world. He would be the first to admit that California’s deserts are his favorite — and his new book goes a long way to showing why.

Pictured is the cover of “California Desert Plants.” (Submitted)

There are three distinct desert areas in California—the northwestern portion of the larger Sonoran Desert, the Mojave Desert which extends beyond the state and thewestern margin of the Great Basin. A key feature of the California deserts is the dominance of infrequent rainfall in the cool winter months and general absence of rainfall and associated drought in the summer months when warm temperatures are otherwise favorable for growth.

In contrast, all North American desert regions outside of California have either a dominant summer rainfall regime with dry winters or a bi-seasonal pattern of precipitation with small separate peaks of winter and summer rainfall. Plants in the California’s deserts have evolved unique combinations of traits that allow them to temper the impacts of long-term drought.

“More than any other ecosystem, deserts present unique environmental challenges with no simple best solution of form and function for plant survival. What makes desert so interesting is that there are multiple strategies that allow very different plant growth forms to share ecological success,” said Rundel, the book’s lead author.

Desert-willow (Chilopsis linearis) has a deep root system that allows it to tap groundwater pools along desert washes and at the margins of desert dunes as in the Kelso Dunes.  (Photo by Michael Kauffmann)
Desert-willow (Chilopsis linearis) has a deep root system that allows it to tap groundwater pools along desert washes and at the margins of desert dunes as in the Kelso Dunes. (Photo by Michael Kauffmann)

While other books have explored western deserts or wildflowers, no book has brought together the plant ecology of California’s deserts.

“This book gives the context in which plants make sense, and helps us to see relationships between species, across families and in response to place,” said author and naturalist John Muir Laws.

“What is fascinating to me about these plants,” said Kauffmann a co-author and ecologist in California, “is that they live within one of the most spectacular desert landscapes on Earth. Including Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks, the Mojave National Preserve, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and numerous other national monuments. California’s deserts are well protected, stunningly beautiful and easy to visit.”

“I love photographing plants in California’s deserts because they are both beautiful and among the toughest plants on Earth,” said Matt Berger, one of the lead photographers in the book. “Plants here are capable of withstanding extreme heat, drought, and even snow. In the spring when many plants produce flowers, their beauty is a testament to all they have endured throughout the rest of the year.”

“California Desert Plants” is a celebration of the compelling flora and the patterns they form in California’s deserts. It is available at backcountrypress.com and
from independent bookstores across the region. Kauffmann, a co-author of
the book, will be signing copies at Eureka Books — 426 Second St. — during Arts Alive! on Saturday from 6 to 9 pm

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