Definitive plant guide brings Baja to life

Published 04 September 12 01:24 PM

Written by
Mike Lee
Sept. 1, 2012 

Every once in a while, a scientist comes along whose passion makes arcane subjects seem endlessly interesting.

For the flora of Baja California, that person is Jon Rebman, curator of botany at the San Diego Natural History Museum and co-author of the newly updated third edition of the definitive field guide to plants of the peninsula. His co-author is Norman Roberts, a veterinarian and businessman who died in 2009 at the age of 88 after several decades of exploring Baja.

Roberts self-published the first edition in 1975 and updated it in 1989. About six years ago, he persuaded Rebman to help modernize the Baja California Plant Field Guide.

Catavina, Baja California

 Catavina, Baja California — Jon Rebman/San Diego Natural History Museum

 “(Roberts) would take you to places in Baja that you had never seen,” Rebman said. “He would get wealthy friends and say, ‘Let’s take your yacht to this island, bring the scientist along.’ He did really wonderful things promoting science in the area.”

Rebman promised his benefactor that he would finish the book. It was a labor of love that added to his already substantial day job that includes documenting the plants of San Diego County.

The result is more than 400 pages about Baja’s natural history, geology, climate and plants, along with hundreds of color photos packaged in a flexible binding designed for carting on road trips. The cover price is $34.95; proceeds fund the museum’s botany programs. (Said Rebman: “I have right now … at least 15 new species for Baja that I haven’t named yet that are sitting in my cabinets.”)

Rebman’s field guide is aimed at lay-readers, but there are enough scientific names and explanations to satisfy all but the most advanced Baja botanists. About half of the plants in the book also live in the San Diego County, making it useful even for naturalists who don’t visit Mexico much.

 “I come from the Midwest, from central Illinois — the land of corn and beans,” Rebman said. “I always say that if a UFO or a black ops helicopter or whatever grabbed and took me from where I grew up and put me in Cataviña, I would think I was on another planet.”

He pointed on a map to Cataviña, about one-third of the way down the Baja peninsula. A photo of a towering elephant cactus from that area graces the field guide’s cover.

 “It’s so bizarre of a landscape with the elephant trees, with these huge upside-down albino carrot-looking things, and succulents of all sorts that are really amazing, and they dominate the landscape,” Rebman said. “I didn’t even realize things like that existed.”

He compares Cataviña favorably to Joshua Tree National Park, a Southern California destination for desert lovers.

 “The meaning of life is sitting on a boulder in Cataviña, watching the sun set with a glass of wine in your hand,” Rebman said. “It’s a really attractive area, and from the standpoint of science in my field, it’s a frontier as well. We are finding tons of new species ... and areas that haven’t been explored or haven’t been explored well enough.”

Catavina, Baja California 

Rebman will discuss (and autograph) his book at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20, providing a photographic tour of Baja at the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park. Preregistration for the free event is required. Sign up at


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