Because the campus is located in the subtropical of the Mojave Desert, UNLV's landscape, grounds, and arboretum department has to be strategic in planting flora that will flourish despite hot temperature and little rainfall. Yet, this August brought heavy rainfalls to the valley, providing UNLV photographer Becca Schwartz an “eerily intriguing” backdrop for a recent project documenting the campus’ unique plant life.
“With such a dark overcast sky, I was able to keep the background almost black, resulting in chiaroscuro [heavily contrasted] lighting,” Schwartz explains. “The result reminded me of the effect Baroque painters of the 17th century used in their works to emphasize their main subjects. In a similar way, the details of the vegetation are able to be foregrounded, which isn’t always as achievable in typical Las Vegas sunshine.
“I hope these photos serve as a map for rediscovering the striking plant life around us. I welcome others in the UNLV community to seek the plants out themselves and take notice of the contrast in these plants under differing weather forecasts.”
Desert Flora Found on Campus
Cylindropuntia bigelovii (Teddy-bear Cholla)
These fuzzy-looking plants typically grow one to five feet tall. The spines of the teddy-bear cholla have microscopic barbs making getting poked by one quite painful!
Pieces of the cholla can easily break off if brushed against or may even hitchhike on an animal or person and become plants once they drop onto the ground. This particular cholla is located in Baepler Xeric Garden.
Agave desmettiana (Agave)
Agave is indigenous to the arid regions of the Americas, some also being native to tropical areas of South America. While the leaves may appear smooth at first sight, they have very sharp marginal teeth and a fibrous interior. These plants are sprinkled throughout campus, this one being next to the Baepler Xeric Garden behind the Marjorie Barrick Museum.
Caesalpinia pulcherrima (Red Bird of Paradise)
These are often incorrectly called Mexican Bird of Paradise. They look like the same plant except the Mexican Bird has yellow flowers instead of red. The Red Bird is the national flower of Barbados and is sometimes called the "Pride of Barbados.” These can be found throughout the UNLV campus; this particular one right is located outside of Lied Library.
Ziziphus jujube (Chinese Date Tree)
Jujube, also known as the red or Chinese date, is native to China. This medium-sized tree can grow up to 40 feet and has glossy green, deciduous leaves with light gray bark. The oval-shaped, single-stoned fruit is green to start with and becomes dark brown over time. We have two species located in the Baepler Xeric Garden by the Barrick Museum. The fruit that comes from the tree is extremely sweet and edible, but only ripe when dark brown or tan.
Encelia farinosa (Brittlebrush)
Brittlebush is a medium-sized rounded shrub. It has long, oval, silver-gray leaves that are somewhat fuzzy. The branches are brittle and woody, and contain a fragrant resin. In the late winter and early spring small yellow flowers form on long stalks well above the leafy stems. You can find this one at the Baepler Xeric Garden.
Pedilanthus macrocarpus (Lady Slipper Plant)
This is an unusual, attractive slow growing succulent plant that remains mostly leafless, or with tiny, inconspicuous leaves. Instead of having leaves, it has erect half-inch thick lime-green stems that grow up to three feet tall, sometimes taller in the shade, arching or bending outwards under their own weight. The stems are tapered like a candle near the tips and covered by a waxy substance known as Candelilla, which means "little candle.”
The plant spreads slowly outward with new stems emerging from below ground to form tight clumps up to three feet wide. From mid-summer into fall (in the desert, folks note it happens in spring, too) the unusual orange-red slipper-shaped flowers, which are also described as bird shaped, appear along the stems and are often followed by reddish fruit. We have roughly 15 species located by the Academic Success Center.
There are so many varieties of Opuntia that UNLV Grounds isn’t sure exactly which this is, but believe it to be Opuntia ellisiana. They do not have large spines or needles, but do have tiny slivers coming from the "dots.” The dot is called a glochid. The slivers are very hard to see, so if they get in your hand or leg, it could be very irritating and hard to remove. They are native to the Southwest, mainly Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. Our prickly pear is located by the EPA buildings.
Carnegiea gigantea (Giant Saguaro Cactus)
The saguaro cactus is one of the defining plants of the Sonoran Desert. These plants are large, tree-like columnar cacti that develop branches (or arms) as they age, although some never grow arms. These arms generally bend upward and can number over 25. Saguaros are covered with protective spines, white flowers in the late spring, and red fruit in summer. Our species by the EPA buildings is approximately 20 feet tall making it just 38 feet shy of the largest Saguaro ever recorded. This is the largest on campus!
Trichocereus hybrid (Flying Saucer Cactus)
Flying Saucer is a handsome, columnar cactus sporting an average of 14 ribs per stem. The flowers they bloom grow up to 10" wide. They’re electric red on the outside with hints of orange, and move from deep pink/light pink until they reach the center. Stamens form a ring of pale yellow. This is the only Flying Saucer cactus at UNLV. Installed by J.T. Davis, JayNette Hayes, Marvin Rodriguez, Delano Varner, and Brian Maley of UNLV Grounds, this beauty is by the physics building.