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The Baja Desert Lilly

By Greg Joder 

The Desert Lily (Hesperocallis undulata), also known as the Ajo Lily, is one of the most striking of desert wildflowers.  It is a perennial with thin undulating leaves that form a rosette from which the stem and soft white trumpet-shaped flowers emerge.  Its bulb may be two feet or more below the surface thereby protecting it from predators or excessive moisture.  A member of Liliaceae (The Lily Family), it can be found in bloom between April and May but can also bloom earlier in the year under the proper conditions. 

The Desert Lily, Hesperocallis undulata.  ©

The desert lily is found from the Mojave Desert south to the Sonoran Desert, including parts of Baja California.  It prefers sandy soils such as sand dunes and creosote bush flats with lose soil below 5000 feet.  The desert lilies in the accompanying photographs were found in creosote bound sand dunes in Bahia San Luis Gonzaga, Baja California in the month of March.

A Desert Lily in bloom.  ©

The flowers produced by desert lilies are very fragrant with long floral tubes.   They are primarily pollinated by sphinx moths and hummingbirds, both of which have long tongues adapted to feed from this shape of flower.  This type of plant-pollinator interaction is an example of co-evolution and helps assure that pollen is carried from one individual plant to another as the moths or hummingbirds forage through out the flowers range.

A White-lined Sphinx Moth, Hiles lineata, pollinates a Desert Lily.  ©

In Baja California recreational activities or development in coastal areas may degrade or destroy desert lily habitat.  Thoughtful development and recreational activities can preserve fragile coastal dune ecosystems in which desert lilies live and by doing so also protect the associated biodiversity.  So, this spring on your walks through the desert and by the sea, keep an eye out for the desert lily.  And if you find one, hang out and watch as the moths and hummingbirds play the ancient pollination dance – you’ll be amazed!

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